December 11, 2018

The most beautiful women in the world

On my mother’s vanity table, all smooth mahogany and beveled mirrors, the pancake powder smelled like ball gowns and midnight music. The lipstick, crimson velvet in a lacquered tube, left a telltale stain on my hands no matter how many times I washed them before my parents came home. The top drawer was filled with wire rollers and hairpins, bottles of Clinique skin cream and cases of Max Factor eye shadow. The middle drawer was stuffed with faded paperbacks and blue airmail envelopes that carried letters from my mother’s older sister in New York. In the bottom drawer there was only a booklet of 5-by-7 postcards, attached at the edges so that they folded into a 3-inch pile or fanned out accordion-like, and that bore pictures of what my mother called, almost reverently, “The Most Beautiful Women in the World.” 

Rita Hayworth. Lauren Bacall. Grace Kelly. Elizabeth Taylor. I learned their names years before I was allowed to see any of the films they starred in. Not every face on those postcards looked especially beautiful to me, but they all exuded a kind of strength, some of which, no doubt, I projected onto them, that seemed eternally beyond the reach of any wives or mothers I’d ever know. It wasn’t the movies that interested me so much, or the characters these actresses played. To this day, I think I’ve seen but a fraction any of these actors’ work. 

It was their stories that enchanted me — the fact that they were famous in their own right, not for being someone’s wife or mother; that they made and spent their own money; that they married any man they wanted, as often as they wanted. A prince in exile, a sitting king. A man who picked a teenage girl out of an Italian slum, another who gave his wife a diamond known as the Taj Mahal. Powerful men who wielded authority over so many others but who became, in the write up of these movie stars’ lives, not much more than a footnote. In the world I knew, even the queen, Farah Diba, whose husband at one point bestowed upon her the title “Empress,” didn’t have any of the latitude or independence I imagined in those movie stars. 

Then I grew up, and the “pictures,” in the immortal words of Norma Desmond, “got small.” 

In Los Angeles, I would see a whole new generation of movie stars up close. By then I knew enough to separate the myth of those early movie stars from their reality. I realized that the new crop wielded much greater control over their own fates than the studio creations of old could have dreamed of; that many of these younger stars were more skilled and talented than their predecessors; that they managed to do more personally and professionally. Any one of them was more “real,” less of an image constructed by a few old, cigar-chomping men, than a dozen “most beautiful women” put together. And yet.

Anjelica Huston having lunch at a Bel Air restaurant. Meryl Streep picking up her children from a Santa Monica preschool. “Hanoi” Jane Fonda having her nails painted in a Beverly Hills salon by a recent immigrant from Vietnam, a girl named Iris. I’d see them in the flesh and watch them on the small and large screen and wonder what it was that they lacked, why neither their face nor their name ever evoked the millisecond of awe and envy I had experienced every time that old paper accordion fell open in my parents’ Tehran bedroom. 

The same thing happened, I realized soon enough, with woman practitioners of other arts. A dozen perennially brilliant writers, no matter how refined their work, didn’t hold a candle to one lesser-known Marguerite Duras. All the Madonnas and Lady Gagas of the world didn’t measure up to one Billie Holiday. It was more than a factor of the democratization of the field, the relative ease of access to that once miraculous quality called stardom. It was more, too, than familiarity piercing fantasy. 

The day of the South Carolina primaries last week, I was having lunch with my three best friends from college. We all started out as die-hard Hillary Clinton supporters in 2008. One of us is now a Bernie Sanders voter, another is undecided. I and the other holdout love everything we hear from Sanders, believe he’s well-meaning and honest, not nearly as compromised by divided loyalties and backroom deal-making as Clinton. We agree that Clinton is no Snow White, would probably not win any Grandma of the Year, Best-Dressed or Sexy at 60 awards. But to us, she’s still a rock star, which sounds funny, I know, and utterly incomprehensible to her many detractors, even some Democrats. 

I thought about this all weekend — why a person like Hillary, Goldman Sachs speeches and other warts and all, holds a rank for me I doubt any other female politician will ever reach. I thought about it Sunday night as I watched the Oscars. I’ve never been a film buff — I watch the show for the gowns and speeches. Afterward, I went online and looked for footage of “The Most Beautiful Women in the World” making their speeches in their gowns. The younger actors have done more, I thought, and have fewer warts and scars to show for it. And yet. 

And yet, I finally realized late Sunday night after the screen went dark on the election coverage and the Oscars telecast, it’s that quality of being an early pathfinder, the courage it takes to invent the wheel instead of improving its performance, that subsequent generations will inevitably lack. It’s the scars and warts — the failed marriages, the substance abuse, the children who write “Mommy Dearest” memoirs when they’re finally able to speak for themselves, the dying with 70 cents in the bank — that make their battles epic. It’s being the betrayed wife, the despised-by-half-the-country former first lady, the carpet-bagging to New York, the loss of the nomination once, maybe twice, that makes Hillary a rock star. It’s that she dared, and is good enough to be a serious contender, in a field in which a woman can’t have it all — at this time or probably ever — that she realized she was going to pay the price and did so willingly and through hard work. 

That scent of pancake powder and Givenchy’s L’Interdit around my mother’s table, those stories of found and lost fame and fortune, staged-to-hide-the-bruises-and-black-eye close-ups, fairy-tale beginnings and mostly tragic ends — they’re what made those women, and Hillary Clinton, stars.

Gina Nahai’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”