DONNA SUE (1948-1969)
Chapter One: I Was a Teenie-bopper Wannabe Beatnik
I was born and raised to be a nice Jewish girl – so naturally, I always wanted to be a stripper, and I felt it was my personal responsibility to save the world.
lifelong pre-occupation with striptease began early. In the bosom
of my family, you might say.
It’s 1958. Television has just turned ten, and so have I. As the oldest of three children I am expected to be perky and helpful like the big sister on Father Knows Best. Wrong. I’m a teenie-bopper wannabe beatnik, more Maynard G. Krebs than Betty Anderson. (In fact, I try everything from hand-sewn voodoo dolls to mud-laced crabapple pies to eliminate my little brothers entirely.)
But the program that most closely parallels my inner universe is the
quiz show – I’ve Got a Secret.
Every evening after dinner, I race to be the first one to grab the comic section of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. After dutifully reading “Dagwood and Blondie” and “Li’l Abner,” I carefully fold over the big sheets of newsprint to read the columns and ads on the other side.
And there, every single day of the week, is a match-book sized ad for “Evelyn West and Her $50,000 Treasure Chest, Insured by Lloyds of London. Appearing Nightly at the Grand Theatre on De Balliviere Ave.”
How I lust to see her. How I secretly practice to be her.
Safely snuggled in the suburban cocoon of my Leave it to Beaver neighborhood, I am light-years away from the bump and grime of downtown DeBalliviere Avenue. But with the power of my over-active imagination my bedroom becomes a stage, my desk lamp becomes a spotlight, and my transistor radio becomes an orchestra.
Bath towel draped around my budding body, I pose seductively in front of my full length mirror. I’m trying to imitate the choreography the June Taylor Dancers perform on the Jackie Gleason Show. They do a lot of moves lying on the floor, waving their long legs in the air. When I get down on the itchy pink carpet in a dramatic finale, my dog, Shaggy, thinks I want to play and bounds over to lick my face, slobbering me to the ground with wet kisses.
I’m sure Evelyn West never has to wipe dog drool off her lipstick.
I was born Donna Sue Scissors, and although the kids at school tease me, I know that destiny has given me a great name.
For a stripper.
As Roz Russell belted out in Gypsy – “You gotta have a gimmick.”
The night my Brownie Scout Troup went to the Muny Opera to see the Broadway road show production of Gypsy, was the first time I realized that the name that I had borne as a sort of goofy joke had the potential to be redeemed through art. Or at least show-biz. But it would require long black gloves, and copious amounts of sequins, ribbons, feathered fans and bows.
As the story of Gypsy Rose Lee unfolded beneath the spotlights, my tender heart raced with excitement far beyond the pale of the Brownie Scout Handbook. A busty burlesque beauty belted out, “Once I was a schelppa, Now I’m Mizz Mazeppa, with my revolution in dance; You gotta have a gimmick, If you wanna have a chance!” And I heard Fate call my name.
Now “Sexy Scissors and the Cut-up Cuties” is my fantasy striptease act. Of course it’s a secret. I tell no one of my plan to lead a chorus line of scantily clad beauties in snipping off the straps of our clothes with the patented Scissors’ striptease technique.
I’m a scrawny bookworm with toothpick legs, scabby knees and a mop of frizzy red curls -- the runt of my fifth grade class. But in the privacy of my pink and turquoise bedroom, with only my half-breed poodle for an audience, I am a glorious goddess of burlesque.
I keep my secret for nearly forty-five years. Many shocking words blurt
forth from my big mouth in the course of those years, but “Sexy Scissors
and the Cut-up Cuties” are not among them. When journalists
ask me, “What made you think of doing nude poetry to stop the logging
trucks?” it’s Miss Mazeppa who replies, “You gotta have a gimmick;
If you wanna have a chance!”
Most adults, if faced with the choice of reliving seventh grade or swallowing broken glass, will pause for several long moments of painful internal debate. In seventh grade, the tadpole became a frog in the steamy private swamp inside my underpants. And the caterpillar bust out of its cocoon beneath my lime green cashmere sweater.
Unlike the nature specials on PBS, however, there was no BBC-accented voiceover to explain the mating habits of adolescent featherless bipeds at Brittany Woods Junior High School. I was on my own.
Puberty hit me with all the subtlety of a John Phillip Sousa march on the loudspeaker of my nervous system. And the same thunderous beat was being broadcast throughout the school. And into the most intimate places of personal geography we had never studied.
Rushing up the stairs to band practice, trying not to be late again, my clarinet clutched in one hand and a heavy armload of books in the other, I pause at the top of the stairs to catch my breath.
Just then someone taps me on the shoulder.
I turn around to see a boy I don’t know. He looks older, eighth or even ninth grade.
“True or false?” he snickers.
Is this some kind of a joke? If it is, I don’t get it. What am I supposed to say? Maybe there’s some stupid rumor going around and he’s asking me if it’s true or false.
“False,” I say, without much conviction.
He cracks up, and so do several other boys who I didn’t realize were watching.
Maybe I’ve given the wrong answer.
“No, I mean, true,” I hasten to correct myself, feeling that same sinking in the pit of my stomach that hits me in those dreams where I suddenly realize that I’m giving my book report naked.
Now they’re laughing even harder, and the tallest one, a ninth grader for sure, is pointing at me.
BRRRRNNNNNGGGG! Saved by the bell. But greasy with un-named shame. And queasy with confusion. And late for band. Again.
Coming out of the band room I keep looking over my shoulder, but the boys aren’t there. I make it to Journalism without incident. Then, on the way to third period History, I feel the tap on my shoulder again.
This time it’s a different boy, Ricky Marmelstein. His brother is in my home room. Ricky’s nickname is “Ricky Dickie Boner.” I’m not supposed to know this, but I do. The knowledge does nothing to put my mind at ease.
“True or false?” he demands, and I can see the laughter sputtering around the corners of his mouth, ready to escape like sinister steam.
“What do you think?” I stammer, and before I can be humiliated again by the crowd of sniggering boys who I’m sure are waiting to materialize out of thin hallway air, I scoot into History. What have I done? Am I in some kind of trouble?
No one bothers me again ‘til seventh period. Then Stevie Goldberg makes it all too clear as I’m coming out of study hall.
“True or falsies?” he giggles, and runs down the hall before I can reply.
O God, please let the earth open wide and swallow me right now. I am so mortified I want to die. Won’t some friendly vortex from The Twilight Zone please intervene and suck me into another dimension? Where’s a parallel universe when you need one?
I sprint into the girls’ bathroom. Thank God it’s empty. My face is as red as my hair. I look in the mirror. The once familiar landscape of my body has turned into an unknown planet. Mountains and valleys have sprung up where a flat pink plain used to be. I’ve grown in every direction but tall.
It’s so unfair! I’m the shortest girl in the seventh grade, standing about as high as a healthy fifth grader, but now I’m “developed” like Annette Funicello.
Last summer, a tattooed carnival worker, while locking me into my seat on the tilt-a-whirl, leaned in and asked, “Anyone ever tell you that you look like Annette?”
I though he said “a nut” and was stunned that a total stranger could be so rude.
Then Lisa Finkelstein squirmed around and studied me. “Annette Funicello? Yeah, you do look a little like her – before she got her nose fixed.”
But right now I don’t feel like a bouncy Mouseketeer. I feel like a freak.
I also feel unjustly accused. Like when that substitute teacher couldn’t believe that I had really written that essay about Marilyn Monroe and accused me of copying it out of the newspaper.
And what if I never get any taller? The doctors told my parents I was definitely not a midget, after they took me to that spooky basement in the hospital and did all those x-rays of my bones. (Plus, my voice isn’t squeaky.)
But what if I just keep getting bigger and bigger on top? I wonder what it was like for Evelyn West when she started developing her “$50,000 Treasure Chest.” (“Insured by Llyods of London.”) On the way to reaching her full 52 inches she must have gotten teased by a few pimply-faced boys. I wonder if it ever made her cry.
I am not gonna blubber over this. Hester Prynne had to wear a big red “A” across her chest in The Scarlet Letter. What do I need to wear to prove I’m not wearing a padded bra? A big red “34 C” across my chest? Yeah, right. Why don’t I just move to Outer Mongolia now, and join a tribe of National Geographic natives, and get it over with. Surely I’ll never be able to face a single boy in this school again.
No way I’m leaving ‘til everyone’s gone. I’ll just stay here in the bathroom ‘til it’s safe to walk home without being seen by anyone.
Damn! Here comes a whole swarm of ninth grade girls barging into the bathroom. I’ll die if anyone sees me. Better just duck into a stall until they leave. Double damn! Why don’t they finish teasing their stupid hair and just go home! How much more eyeliner does Carol Kaputnik need to put on, anyway?
At last they’re gone and I can make my getaway. Good -- the halls are deserted. I have no desire to encounter a single soul.
I bang my clarinet into my locker, slam it shut, and slink out the door. Head down, I walk with my pile of books squashed firmly and squarely over my chest. (Not insured by Lloyds of London.)
Fortunately, my feet know the way to the Black Path without any direction from my brain. This has been my route to school from kindergarten to seventh grade – a strip of asphalt black as a Hershey bar that climbs a small wooded hillside and meanders through a meadow lined with honeysuckle and blackberry bushes.
The Black Path is also, unbeknownst to outsiders beyond the kingdom of my imagination, the entrance to my secret world.
At the beginning of the Black Path stands an old wooden wagon wheel, higher than a child, with eight spokes covered in peeling white paint. Every kid who walks to school knows how to spin the wheel and make a wish. We also know how to pull the long stamens out of the white honeysuckle blossoms and lick the fuzzy golden tip for the honey. (Once Donnie Gervitch licked a yellow one, and we were all sure he was going to die. But he hasn’t. Yet.)
Today I trudge past the wheel without stopping. What I’m wishing for will take more than a funky wooden wagon wheel. Not even a ten-wheel-drive Mack Truck can make the U-turn that will take me back to the innocence of childhood and my pre-hormone figure. Or lack of one.
Intent on getting up the hill and into the wooded area at the top, I tromp along the path. Ducking through an opening in the hedge, I come out into a field of green. Slinging my books to the ground, I climb my favorite tree until I can see nothing but green and blue and gold in a patchwork of leaf and sky that covers every inch of space above and around me.
I exhale. I am not gonna cry. I’m gonna lay back on the strong, familiar tree bark and squint my eyes up and watch the rainbow colors that shimmer in the dust motes in the air… and drift far, far away from Brittany Woods Junior High School.
have always depended upon the kindness of nature. Like Blanche
Dubois of the wilderness, I learned early on to rely on the silent strength
of tall trees to prop me up when I am staggering; indeed, to bolster
my sanity on a daily basis. Maybe that’s why I got so pissed
forty years later when I saw whole forests razed to the ground.
Maybe that’s why I felt compelled to put my body on the line in their
defense. Some of my best friends are trees.
When I’m thirteen there’s a big Civil Rights march scheduled for downtown St. Louis. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is to be the leader. Clergymen of all denominations will be joining him with their congregations. I’m the only one who signs up from Temple B’Nai El.
My parents aren’t too happy about this. They have said “NO” every time I’ve asked to go on these marches before. But how can they say “NO” to the Rabbi?
“I’m the only one going from the whole Temple! He’ll be with me the whole time! We’ll be practically hand in hand!”
“Awright, awright, already,” my parents relent.
The march is on a Saturday morning. I dress all in black, feeling extremely grown-up, serious, and daringly beatnik.
Rabbi Klausner and I are walking along DeBalliviere Avenue, wedged into a huge throng of people that stretches across the wide boulevard. My heart starts pounding the minute I see the big marquee in the distance, dominating the street: “Grand Theatre.”
We’re going to march right past the burlesque palace where my secret idol, Evelyn West, unveils her $50,000 Treasure Chest (insured by Lloyds of London) nightly!
Marching alongside the Rabbi, I begin to flush with anticipation. Pre-teen perspiration is staining my turtleneck sweater. Actually, I feel slightly embarrassed for Rabbi Klausner. After all, he’s a man of God. Maybe he shouldn’t be exposed to such things as burlesque houses. Does he know about Evelyn West? But she’s so famous! Everyone in St. Louis knows about Evelyn West.
As we get closer to the theatre, I’m more and more nervous. I’m torn. I don’t know where to look. I’m dying to just run right over, peek in the windows, sneak into the lobby; do anything to catch a glimpse of my idol.
On the other hand, I feel protective of the Rabbi. Should we cross the street? Should we try to avoid having to walk right in front of it? But the crowd is all lined up and marching along peacefully. I can’t just break the rhythm and hustle us away.
Suddenly the Rabbi looks up at the looming marquee and smiles. “There’s the Grand Theatre. Maybe some of the dancers want to take a day off and come march with us. They’re people too, you know.”
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I want to squeeze his hand. I want to whoop and holler. I want to dance right down DeBalliviere Avenue.
I have just been given a secret blessing for my secret calling. It’s as if the Rabbi has just said the “Broucha (Blessing) Over the Burlesque Stage.”
like the old joke about the rabbi who shot the hole in one on Yom Kippur
– who am I gonna tell?
Cousin Billy is a bachelor, and a bit of a bohemian. He’s a writer. Like me. He used to live in New York City with the real beatniks in Greenwich Village, and he even won a prize for a play he wrote about people getting stuck in an elevator.
Cousin Billy has an Underwood typewriter with shiny round keys. His hair gleams black and slick like the keys. When I was in kindergarten and couldn’t even read or write, I would spend Saturday afternoons on a little red stool next to the desk in his study by the kitchen, where the smell of Aunt Lee’s kasha and shells simmering on the stove would make me want to squinch up my nose and stop breathing.
But I didn’t complain about the smell because Cousin Billy would type up my poems, turning my words into smart black letters on sheets of crisp white paper. When he had stacked the pages in a neat pile next to the Underwood, he’d turn to me and wink.
Then he’d shut the door so we couldn’t hear Uncle Joe’s fiddle. (Uncle Joe spent every Saturday afternoon slinging long strands of yearning violin angst against the wall-papered halls of the brick duplex on Dartmouth Avenue. Standing in the living room, short and stout in his tailored vest and round spectacles, he shpritzed the whole neighborhood with mournful sound.)
When Uncle Joe’s fiddling was good and muffled, Cousin Billy would cover up his typewriter, and open up his Victrola. Touching the needle down carefully, he would start the record with the song we both love best. It’s a very wicked song, about a very bad girl, but we don’t care. We sing right along with every word. Our favorite verse goes:
“One day when she had nothing to do; Sing rickety-tickety-tin,
She cut her baby brother in two; And served him up as an Irish stew,
And invited the neighbors in, in; Sing rickety-tickety-tin.”
Cousin Billy and I both know that it’s wrong to cut your baby brother in two, but we like the song anyway. (At least it’s better than Uncle Joe’s screechy violin.)
When I get older and learn how to print, I begin to write out my own poems. But sometimes on Saturday afternoons my Mom and I still go over to Dartmouth Avenue and I get my stories and plays typed up. It’s so much faster than printing. When I’m eleven I get my own typewriter. Underwoods are obsolete. I get a Royal.
I finish my first novel at fourteen, on the Royal. I am so proud of myself I can’t contain it. After dozens of false starts, I have finally completed a hundred page book! The book is about four teenage girls. The first one commits suicide because she is so unpopular; in response, the beatnik intellectual becomes an atheist, the slutty “hood” gets pregnant, and the cheerleader realizes her bubble-headed life is meaningless and becomes as depressed as the first girl.
I give it to my Mom to read. When she gets to the part where Helen, the ‘hood,” says, “Fuck me now!” she stops reading.
“You shouldn’t use language like that!”
I put the novel in a drawer in the bottom of my dresser and no one else ever reads it. Years later it gets thrown out during a massive housecleaning.
I should have given it to Cousin Billy first.
The Royal gave way to a Brother Electronic in the eighties, which was replaced with a second-hand Mac in the nineties, which morphed into a cast-off Toshiba laptop last year, and I’ve just graduated to a rebuilt IBM Thinkpad. Decades’ worth of journals scribbled on recycled paper in teepees and tents, on beaches and riverbanks, atop mountains and mudslides, are finally being brought into the twenty-first century and out into the world.
think Cousin Billy would be proud of me; but there are still some parts
of this book I’m afraid to show my mother.
Recently I was back in St. Louis for a family reunion. At dinner in an elegant Szechuan restaurant, some of my Dad’s relatives were reminiscing about my dapper Uncle Jules, husband of my glamorous Aunt Loretta. And, lo and behold, my father revealed, after all these years, that Uncle Jules himself had an Uncle Izzy, a short little guy who lived in a rooming house, and had a big, busty girlfriend who was a famous Burlesque Queen.
I almost choked on my walnut shrimp. It was Evelyn West herself – living in sin with my very own uncle’s uncle! My family had been harboring a bonafide stripper-shtupper and I never even knew.
Why, I could even have met her, had my Cousin Alan’s wedding been held in St. Louis and not Kansas City. Surely the groom’s father’s uncle would have attended. And when I walked down the aisle in my seafoam-green chiffon junior bridesmaid’s dress, with my heart jumping in excitement beneath my just-ripening twelve-year-old bosom, I could have walked right past the original Striptease Goddess herself.
the reception. She might have danced. I might have learned some
The fifties don’t end for me at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1959. The fifties don’t end until the sixties begin. And the sixties don’t really begin for me until a pivotal event in my junior year of high school in 1965. And then they begin with a bang. A big bang.
When The Saturday Evening Post arrives each week I am the first to pounce on its glossy Norman Rockwell cover and devour its contents. Of all the magazines that come to our house, this is my favorite. I like it even better than The Flying Saucer Newsletter my dad subscribes to (fascinating, but hardly any pictures,) and lately I even like it better than my beloved Mad Magazine, which I fear I am beginning to outgrow.
Sitting at the kitchen table after school, eating some ice milk (less calories) right out of the carton while no one else is home, I eagerly leaf through this week’s issue. A charismatic face smiles up at me from the lead article. A handsome Irish face like my favorite movie star, Gene Kelly. Only this is no dancer. This is a Harvard professor who is doing some very unusual research into the human mind and its staggering potential.
“Human beings use only one tenth of one percent of their total brain cells,” Professor Timothy Leary is quoted as saying. And he thinks he’s found the key to unlock the rest.
As soon as I finish the article I call my boyfriend Melvin to tell him about this new mind-expanding discovery. Melvin claims to be from Mars, and in the science lab he has concocted in a corner of his parents’ knotty-pine paneled rathskellar, we’ve been practicing mental telepathy experiments using flashcards from Dr. J.B. Rhine of Duke University. But Professor Leary offers something even more interesting.
A week later when The St. Louis Jewish Light advertises a lecture at the downtown Y.M.H.A. by Dr. Timothy Leary and his associate, Dr. Richard Alpert, Mel and I are united. We’re going.
“But it costs $5.00! How will we pay for tickets?” I worry.
“We can sneak in the back way,” my gallant beau replies. “Remember when we went backstage after Our Town?”
Melvin always has a plan. The night of the lecture we tell our parents we’re going to see a James Bond movie at the Tivoli, then we cruise in Melvin’s Pontiac down to Union Avenue and park in back of the Y. At 7:30 there’s not much going on yet before the 8:00 lecture, and we casually slip in the stage door like we’re going to a play rehearsal. Holding hands, we skirt the edges of the stage, pop out of the curtain, step down the three steps and find seats in the front row. So far so good.
As the hall begins to fill up we realize we’re the only teenagers here. Everyone else is either a beatnik with a beard or some kind of tweedy professor or doctor. I feel out of place in my pleated plaid Villager skirt and matching cardigan. Thank God I’m not also wearing my white Peter Pan collar blouse.
I had felt so daring and sophisticated when I got dressed in only the sweater, buttoning it up over just my bra and slip. For a moment I had even considered wearing it with the buttons in the back, like the “hoods” do. But I knew my mom would never let me out of the house like that. At least my flip isn’t teased and sprayed.
Leary is mesmerizing. He speaks for two solid hours with all the charm of his Irish blarney story-telling heritage. The other guy, Alpert, is a real nerd. He just sits there in his horn-rimmed glasses and rumpled suit and fingers his skinny tie. He hardly says a word.
After the lecture Leary holds court in the lobby. Beatnik women with long black hair down to their waists are surrounding him. Psychiatrists in leather-elbowed sweaters are besieging him with questions. His smile just gets bigger, his twinkly eyes more sincere. He answers everyone at length. I wait my turn.
Melvin is busy gathering all the free leaflets and brochures offered and signing up to be on Leary’s mailing list. I sign up too and stuff some of the pamphlets into my purse. Finally I see an opening next to Leary and dart in. I’m not sure what question to ask; I just want to talk to him up close. Look in his eyes. Feel the heat of that smile focused on me.
“Um, have you tried to find a way to write down any of your experiences on LSD?” the writer in me manages to stammer out.
Leary expounds, “Oh yes, we’re developing a kind of psychic typewriter. It’s in the very early stages of development. It’s difficult, but we’re working on a kind of machine…”
Someone grabs his arm and pulls him into another conversation. But I don’t mind. I’ve met his eyes. I’ve melted into the promise of that smile.
From then on, my favorite periodical is no longer The Saturday Evening Post. It’s the newsletter from IFIF, Leary’s International Foundation for Internal Freedom. I begin to write an experimental novel based on the ideas in this bizarre little journal. Some of my beatnik friends actually drop acid. I don’t. Not yet. But the sixties have definitely begun.
And forty years later, in the time zones where I travel, they haven’t ended yet. I live in a cabin in the woods in a little hippie town called Fairfax where all the clothing stores sell tie-dye from Tibet, and where Richard Alpert, our beloved Ram Dass, can be seen tooling out of a Thai restaurant in his wheelchair, no longer a nerd, tripping on a stroke of genius that has zonked him to a land so far out he can barely reach back here to speak of it. Too bad Leary never got around to making that machine to communicate from altered states. My rebuilt Thinkpad will have to do.