Reading List January/February 2006

Mommies Dearest

Top literary reasons why it sucks to have chic parents

1. They resent your glamour … and so, if they are named Ryan O'Neal, they boycott the Oscars on the night of your historic win, sleep with your older best friend on a family vacation, and practice their boxing moves on you. Tatum O'Neal's A Paper Life is a ridiculously convincing indictment of her parents (O'Neal and joanna moore) and her father's girlfriend (Farrah Fawcett) as the people least equipped to raise children ever, even by Hollywood's limbo-bar standars. Until, perhaps, the disastrous Tatum herself, who shoots up wtih the little McEnroes in the house.

2. They skip your birthday party … and, indeed, every other significant event of your girlhood (see O'Neal, Tatum, 1974 Oscars) if, like Lois Gould's mother, Jo Copeland, they are too busy making frocks for other fabulous New Yorkers. Gould's detailed account of her mother's rise to prominence on Seventh Avenue—Mommy Dressing: A Love Story, After a Fashion—is peppered with lethal mother-daughter moments, sixty years on: "'Don't perspire in this dress,' she warned me. 'I never perspire. Why must you?'"

3. They force you to model in mother-daughter fashion shows … even if you, aged seven or eight and named Virginia Ironside, feel "resentful and miserable and as suitably dressed as a chimpanzee at a tea party." Janey and Me: Growing Up With My Mother is a deliciously vicious account of being raised in a bohemian London family in the postwar era. Virginia's mother, Janey Ironside, was a professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art who championed a new generation of British talent (including Bill Gibb, Ossie Clark, and Sally Tuffin) that provided the look for Carnaby Street and much of the musical grooviness that followed. But Mom was also drunk, unfaithful to Dad, and prone to making her daughter wear pathbreaking sack dresses to school in 1957, when everyone else was in pinafores. We learn from this book the lesson that fashion directionality is, perhaps, the worst parental offense.

4. They make you summer in Beverly Hills, winter in New York … and hope that, aged fourteen, you don't get lost switching trains and stations in Chicago. In Coast to Coast: A Family Romance, Nora Johnson, child of the Hollywood great Nunnally Johnson and the New York social diva Marion Johnson, describes a life spent shuttling between extremes (of wealth, privilege, residential space, attentiveness) and counts the psychic costs of perpetual motion. Johnson is the author of The World of Henry Orient; for fans of that book and film, this is Val's story.

5. They are more fabulous than you could ever be … Francine du Plessix Gray's mother, Tatiana, and her stepfather, Alexander Liberman, were simply the most visually gifted, stylish, and (almost justifiably, given their talents) self-absorbed parents in the universe. Their daughter's memoir, Them: A Memoir of Parents (has there ever been a more sinister title?), captures the peculiar doom of being supplanted in the parental heart by magazines and fashions and everything that glitters. Although children may be gold, they do not always shine (unless they win an Oscar: see O'Neal, Tatum).

Next month, reasons 6 through 10 …

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