Interesting Times: Beauty





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This is a subject I know something about.

Although my mother often said that at birth I looked like an “ugly old Chinaman,” from an early age everyone around me praised my beauty. Whatever it was, determined by biology or society, I had it. Even into my seventies, many people, mostly women and sometimes almost strangers, felt they had to come up to me and tell me how beautiful I was. (Sometimes they came up to my husband to tell him how beautiful his wife, sitting next to him, was.) Beauty was something strangely impersonal. Somehow, it wasn’t me and didn’t have anything to do with me. Yet, it was me and was an advantage I seem to have been born with over others.

Beauty is considered to be a great gift—like having a great voice—and the appropriate answer to compliments was always, “Thank you.” But, like a crippled body, it was something impossible to hide and in some ways a burden, though everyone seemed to think it was a great good fortune. If I did not acknowledge that, I would have been judged an ingrate. After answering “thank you” to the compliment, sometimes I felt compelled to add something of a disclaimer such as, “Beauty is only skin deep,” or the most effective, “I am not responsible for it—God is,” and point in the direction of “heaven.” Eventually, of course, age takes care of the burden part, and one becomes, with luck, only the “formerly beautiful.”

My mother wanted me to find fame and fortune through my looks. She herself had been beautiful, and she wanted me to follow her brief career as a model and an actress in the theater and go beyond her in film. She would have also been happy if my face had been plastered in news photographs as the wife of a wealthy and maybe politically powerful man. Possibly BOTH actress and wife. I considered such a future in my twenties and tried out for modeling and located a theatrical agent very briefly and unsuccessfully. (My mother also told me about the dangers of the “casting couch,” which may have had something to do with my less-than-serious attempt.)

She probably had in mind the Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr, whom she thought I looked like, anyway, as a role model. Hedy Lamarr had a tragic history. Indeed very beautiful, she had a career in movies, in Europe as well as in Hollywood, during the war years and early fifties. She was also very intelligent, and following her father who was an inventor, she experimented. Her approach to science was serious, and she had a number of patents. Among them was one eventually crucial as a system of communications in the military. She never received the proper credit for this, including fame and fortune. This may have been partly due to the fact that she was not part of an institute, a scientific society, or part of a technical group that could have backed her up. She was pretty much a lone amateur. Her story was the subject of a recent documentary, Bombshell, which was meant to be a saga for feminism. Hedy had both beauty and brilliance of mind, and in the film the world is accused of valuing only her beauty. Alas, so did she.

Hedy Lamarr’s story was sad in other ways, as well. She seems to have felt that her beauty was her most important feature, and as she aged, she turned to cosmetic surgery to try to keep it. Eventually, many unsuccessful surgeries made her look like such a fright that she did not want to leave her home and go among people at all. Perhaps worst of all, even in her best days, she never starred in a great film (except maybe in a young, nude, avant-garde experiment entitled, Ecstasy). Most of the films she was in were forgettable grade B efforts, even including the ones she produced herself. Sad, indeed.

My mother often scolded me for sitting too much in the library, as I chose to go to graduate school. Not knowing Hedy Lamarr’s story and not knowing all that much about myself, in retrospect I made a great choice in sitting in the library. The library is a great hiding place. Somewhere along the line, though tempted by beauty, I chose to live by brains. Even so, good looks were a double-edged sword: sometimes they did get you in the door almost anywhere in the world, when your brains were not taken all that seriously because you were a pretty woman. Sometimes that worked to my advantage: pretty, young, and therefore nonthreatening, I had access to many museum storerooms, here and abroad, for my research. Older and established as a scholar and professor, I was often denied permission for access, probably out of professional jealousy, finally taken more seriously than my still-pretty-good middle-aged looks.

One has to be thankful for beauty and at the same time regard it as a distraction.

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