Sunday, January 15, 2012


My mother was born into gentility, or at least the Los Angeles version of it.

She was fourth-generation (very rare here in the 1940s), social register, coming-out party, Hancock Park mansion -- the whole little-princess,many-maids,engraved-invitation, tennis-anyone world.  No one talked much about the fact that the guy who made all the money, four generations back, did it as the city's biggest plumber.  "Trade" was far behind and forgotten by the time my mother was a troublesome teenager, tiptoeing off to the movie studios to work as an extra and sneaking the first of what would eventually be hundreds of thousands of cigarettes.

My grandparents were worried about her, and they were right to be.  At the age of 21 or 22, spoiled, imperious, and ridiculously beautiful, she married a penniless Irish adventurer from Chicago who had already, in his middle twenties, run away to sea, lived in China, fled the Communists to the Philippines,  and had a vision -- on the deck of a ship in the middle of the China Sea -- that told him he should fly airplanes.  So he came home to risk his neck as a test pilot and stole my mother from her parents on his way to the airfield.

(There's a picture of my mom and dad, boarding a plane for their furtive honeymoon, over on my other blog,

By the time I was nine or ten, my father was a successful aerospace executive and we were living in Washington, D.C. where my mother adorned Republican circles and was frequently photographed with people like Pat Nixon.  (There's a picture of that on the other blog, too.) As a slumming aristocrat, which was how she always saw herself, she decreed that my brothers and I should learn proper social graces, and Miss Courtney entered our lives in a cloud of Parfum Guerlain.

Miss Courtney undoubtedly had A Story but I never got to hear it.  Born to a manor house somewhere well south of the Mason-Dixon line, she had been shipwrecked on the rocks of financial necessity and had, as my mother once put it when she didn't know I was listening, come down in the world.  Still,with a combination of exquisite manners and the iron hand of a Prussian general, she was perfectly qualified to run a Cotillion.

So: the Cotillion.  I believe it ate up most of Saturday afternoon and evening.  Twenty or thirty kids, simmering with resentment at being all dressed up and in the company of the opposite sex on a weekend day, ate a dainty meal with fearsome gentility -- much dabbing of lips with linen napkins -- and then, as if that weren't torment enough, adjourned to some big room with a wooden floor and a record player, where we boys paired up with girls to learn dances that no one had done for 20 years.

And therein lay the rub.  When I was nine, I was short.  Most of the girls were tall.  All of the girls wore vaguely menacing corsages made of fresh gardenias, pinned above the left breast.

Gardenias are not a lightly scented flower.  That blossom-bedecked spot above the left breast was just about level with my nose.  The music would start, we would do a simultaneous bow/curtsy, and I would take the girl of the moment into my arms and spin away with her on a bright swirl of music.  And into a queasy, heavy, reeking cloud of gardenia fumes.

The room in which we danced was tightly closed against drafts.  The heating system was terrifying.  Thirty sweating boys and girls supplied a level of humidity I wouldn't experience again until I went to Bangkok.  And then there were the gardenias.

Generally speaking, I made it to the Fox Trot, the fourth dance of the session.  At the opening bars of the Fox Trot, I wove my way drunkenly between the couples, found my way into the boys' room, and lost my elegant lunch.  Then I'd rinse out my mouth and go back for the next partner, the next dance, and the next nose-full of gardenias.  By the end of the Cotillion, I'd lost all of lunch and part of the dinner I hadn't even eaten yet.  For years afterward, I could smell a single gardenia all the way across a football stadium.

That which does not kill us, however, makes us stronger.  I survived.  I even, after several decades, got over my loathing for gardenias.

I just wish someone would ask me to Fox-Trot.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Tim, I loved this! I've always been intrigued by the social fabric of history. So many books, so little time--it's hard to choose which writer to read in this cluttered marketplace. But this piece has inspired me to find your books.

  2. Homegrown class. I love it. The photos, too, but as an allergy sufferer the photo I really want to see is you negotiating that gardenia foxtrot jungle.

  3. As a teen, I went to an all girls school. We would have dances with our brother all boys school. (Both are co-ed now). Your wonderful, lively article brought it all back-but mostly the smell and atmosphere of those awful awkward times, and we didn't even have gardenias! They taught us to dance, so I have had this lifetime urge to lead. Is there anyone who sailed through adolescence? What a time!

  4. Hi, Charlotte -- So glad you liked it. It's a memory that's pursued me for decades -- in fact, it's the reason I know I sometimes dream smells, because there was a while when I dreamt the fragrance of gardenias. I should probably warn you, though that this isn't really very indicative of my books, which can get pretty hairy at times. I do write them the best I can, though.

    Jeffrey, you have no idea how far away that bathroom seemed. It grew even worse when biology began to have its way with me, and some of the girls in the class began to -- well, stand out, if you know what I mean. It would have been bad to heave in there at all, but to have done it in front of Marcy Roper -- I'd never have gotten over it.

    Ah, Lil, I know all about it. We were occasionally drafted as partners for an all-girl school in the D.C. area, and "awkward" doesn't begin to describe it. And, of course, there was the absolute conviction -- for boys who didn't have sisters, at any rate -- that girls were so different from us that the dances qualified as interspecies events. Took me YEARS to get past that.

  5. I suffered through "charm school." Shades of the same, only all girls, until 8th grade "dance" lessons in school. Pure torture. No gardenias, though. TG. ;-D

  6. Hi, Meg -- The experience, while no way to spend a Saturday, would have been much more endurable without the gardenias. The boys in my class were occasionally drafted into partner duty at an all-girls' school, although never a "charm school." Did you pick up any skills at all that have served you well over the years? I learned in what order forks should be used, but then moved to a country where it's mostly chopsticks and spoons.