I grew up in New Jersey. Our suburban house had a detached double garage with a small office built into one corner where my father wrote his books. On the wall in his office were a pair of photographs, side by side, in a single frame. One was of a naked woman immersed in water to her cleavage, the other was of a monkey also immersed in water to the middle of his chest. My father worked in that office in the garage from 1964 to 1969–from the time I was two years old until I was seven. During that period, many thoughts occurred to me about those photographs. Early on, I believed the woman was my mother. I was sorry for her because someone had stolen her bathing suit and she couldn’t get out of the water. She even looked frightened and a little angry.
The photograph of the monkey confused me. The monkey was ugly and old and had nothing to do with my mother. By putting those two photographs together, I decided my father was making fun of my mother which I thought was mean, but which also secretly pleased me. Later, I realized that the woman was not my mother. She was someone I had never met. I wanted to ask my father who she was, but didn’t. I was jealous of her because my father looked at her much more during the day than he looked at me. Still, my father had put her picture next to a monkey’s so he couldn’t be all that fond of her.
My parents got divorced and my father moved to a “pad” in town with a view of Firestone Library where he hung the curious duo on the wall above his typewriter.
I have four sisters. For better or for worse, I do not know where they begin and I end especially from my position so squarely in the middle. Without them, beginning, middle, and end would be entirely meaningless to me.
If I were to locate where I grew up from the time I was seven to seventeen, I would not say a pseudo-commune in Ringoes, New Jersey in the 1970s but Hollywood in the 1940s. Day after day, from the time I got home from school until late into the night I watched old movies on television—Million Dollar Movie, The Late Movie, The Late, Late Movie, The Friday Night Movie, the Sunday Night Movie.
For me the ideal woman was a fast-talking dame—Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Veronica Lake, Gene Tierney, Marlene Dietrich, Ida Lupino, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and so many more.
The ideal man was a slick, savvy, tortured soul such as Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell, Clark Gable, Victor Mature, John Garfield, Joseph Cotten. Elegance, glamour, razor-sharp language, dark humor, moral ambiguity, disconcerting perspectives, the unpredictable corners of existence–these were the places I lived and where I was happiest.
When I was in Florence for a year during college, a man I loved, who would two years later introduce me to the man I would marry, took me to a cinema club in a communist community center where we watched Vittorio Gasman in Dino Risi’s 1962 film Il Sorpasso and my torrid love affair with Italy began.
Eventually, I called my father to ask him about those photographs on his office wall. Before moving to New Jersey, my father had worked for TIME magazine which shared offices and an art department with LIFE magazine, since they were owned by the same company. The monkey, my father told me, was one of a shipload of rhesus monkeys brought to a tiny Puerto Rican island in 1939 where a free-ranging monkey colony was to be established for long-term study purposes. After the monkeys disembarked, they immediately went crazy–fighting, screeching, swinging from trees, copulating. One elderly monkey took a look at the frenzied scene around him, walked out into the water up to his chest, and watched. He refused to return to shore for hours. The LIFE photographer who was covering the monkey-colony story took a snap. The photograph became one of the most reproduced images in the history of LIFE Magazine and was something of a legend in the offices where my father worked. In April of 1960, the photograph of the Italian film star Silvana Mangano was published on the cover of LIFE.
The setting and her body position were nearly identical to the monkey’s, her expression as defiant and disdainful as his, so my father went upstairs to the art department and asked for copies of both photos. He had them mounted together and framed and then hung them above his desk. “I liked the juxtaposition,” he said.
Not long ago, my mother found in our basement the remains of some old stories I had written when very young on yellow legal paper about sisters, one dark, one blonde who ride on pink and blue flying elephants to Firestone Library where they dismount and get into an elevator which will take them to the planet of their choice by pushing the right button. Even though my writing has become more realistic, I am still lured by my own dreamland.
In college, when immersed in the metaphysical poets, and above all John Donne, I came across Samuel Johnson’s famous criticism of their poetry. He said that in their work, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”
It is precisely this yoking together of images, concepts, and emotions followed by the surprise, delight, and even shock of what can happen that thrills me in a piece of a writing and makes me want to keep picking up a pen.