Friday, March 27, 2009

Eve Pell's "We Used to Own the Bronx"

Eve Pell served as reporter and associate producer for three PBS documentaries: The Best Campaign Money Can Buy, which won a Columbia-DuPont award in 1992, Heartbeat of America, which won a Cine Golden Apple a year later, and The Battle Over School Choice. Her books include The Big Chill about the Reagan administration and Maximum Security on conditions in California prisons.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante, and reported the following:
On page 99 of We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante, I am dancing at the Plaza Hotel in New York City hotel wearing a long tulle evening dress. It's 1952, I am 15 years old, and I am learning the skills to be a social success in the WASP upper crust of which I am a junior member by virtue of having been born into an old, aristocratic family. There are more than a hundred teenagers there, all in formal dress, most of whom I do not know. We all--almost all--attend private day or boarding schools where we have no contact at all with the opposite sex, so we are fascinated and ignorant. At these events, girls are at the mercy of boys--they can choose partners but we can't. The women's movement doesn't exist; girls like me are trained to be pretty chameleons, pleasing to boys--with the ultimate goal, a few years down the road, of making a "good" marriage to a suitably rich and prominent gentleman.

...we were truly in the arena, a vast, high-ceilinged ballroom in the center of which stood a cluster of black-clad boys like a flock of penguins. Couples danced around the cluster, fox-trotting in the old-fashioned way....The challenge for girls was to get danced with by as many boys as possible; the goal was to be so entertaining that many boys would cut in on you several times a night. You could be discussing the poetry of T. S. Eliot with a studious one, then smile gracefully over his shoulder at the approach of another as he raised his hand to cut in. As the poetry student released you, you moved into the arms of the other boy--with whom you had previously been chatting about the Rangers' star hockey player....On a good night, I carried on a dozen interrupted conversations that way, several of them with boys I had never met before as I smiled, adjusting my brain and body to each new partner's style without missing a beat.

Fifteen years later, as a socialite housewife in San Francisco at the height of the 1960s, I couldn't bear that life any longer. Through a series of unexpected events, I jumped off the tracks and, leaving the life I had been brought up for, plunged into radical politics and more adventures than I could possibly have foreseen.

The Ghost Word blog gives a good account of the book.
Read an excerpt from We Used to Own the Bronx, and learn more about the book and author at Eve Pell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue