Merv Griffin was a talk-show host before the Jimmies, before Craig or Seth or Jon or Conan or Leno or Letterman. Merv was a star-struck man who asked his guests safe questions:
“Do you like to cook?”
Due to the magic of reruns, I slipped back in time to November 23, 1973, when he interviewed the glamorous wives of famous men like Robert Stack and Johnny Carson and Dean Martin and Aaron Spelling and Sammy Davis, Jr.
“Oh, yes,” said one of the wives. “I’m a good cook.”
“Do you go grocery shopping?” Merv’s voice was soft, eager.
Spelling’s wife giggled. “Sometimes,” she said.
Silly questions, predictable answers.
Were any of the wives involved in important causes? Would Merv ask Michelle Obama if she cooked and shopped?
Well, evidently I do.
For some unfathomable reason, I was riveted. Maybe it was the memories that tugged at me. My junior high school graduation, when I wore my hair curled, and piled high on my head. The days when I wore lace and white sandals and Lauren cologne.
Two by two, they came out as Merv ran a commentary: “Mrs. Martin is wearing a designer gown by Oscar de la Renta…” She pivoted and posed, then took a seat. “And Mrs. Stack is wearing a knock-off, one the home sewer can create from a Vogue pattern for thirty-eight dollars.” Pivot, pose, sit.
“Would you buy these outfits?” Merv asked each woman.
The one in the knockoff said, “Well. No.” Gently.
I was captivated by their grace and charm.
There were a dozen women, sitting with their legs tucked to one side. They spoke in tones reserved for libraries or Presidential visits. Their nails shone, their hair tumbled to their shoulders in light waves, their teeth flashed Pepsodent smiles. But what struck me most about the wives was their femininity.
No galumphing around in old jeans and scuffed running shoes.
“Do you dress like this at home?” Merv asked.
One of them said she wore slacks. Not pants. Slacks.
“Do you remember your husband’s proposal?” Merv asked Dean Martin’s wife.
“Which one? He kept forgetting that he’d already asked me four times.”
Dolly, the wife of Dick Martin from Laugh-In fame, admitted that her hair color came from a bottle. “Oh, yes,” she said, pointing to her red tresses cut in a stylish shag. “I’m getting old.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m 29!” she said.
Merv almost choked.
“My husband is 59!” she said, and covered her mouth, laughing. “But he looks great, doesn’t he? That’s because of me.”
They claimed their successes.
“The most important thing to my husband is work, after me!” Sammy’s wife said.
They didn’t waste time with humility.
Too soon, the program was over. And I was left with one burning question of my own:
What would the wives do in my situation?
If Mrs. Carson, before she became Mrs. Carson, lived in my playhouse, would she paint the coffee-colored walls a pristine adobe white? Would she take down the dance posters, the Chinese lantern on a hook in a corner collecting dust, the plastic files screwed to a plank, and hang something tasteful—a Van Gogh, perhaps? Would she buy pale pink roses every week and display them on the dresser in a cut-glass vase, next to a silver tray holding her perfume bottles? Most definitely she would eliminate the clutter of books. The desk would hold a sleek laptop and a table lamp. The sheets would be silk, the pillowcases edged in lace. The ironing board would be hauled to the garage and replaced by a comfortable chair to curl up in with a book. Valley of the Dolls, perhaps.
The wives were all class and grace. I can develop those manners, that soft voice, that proud posture. I can spend hours giving myself facials and manicures, and soaking in fragrant bubble baths, followed by a dusting of talc or a spritz of perfume. I can save my pennies to buy only the finest in fashions, a few select pieces that I handle with care and hang on padded hangers. I can eat meals on good china, with heavy silverware, cutting my lean meat into bite-sized pieces, the fork tine-side down as I bring it delicately to my mouth. I can aspire to be like these paragons of femininity, asking myself in tough situations, “What would the wives do?”
Instead, I yank on the old jeans, the Gap t-shirt, the running shoes. I pile books onto my dresser, papers on my desk, mail and notebooks and magazines in my hanging files. My sheets come out of the dryer wrinkled, and undone projects lie about on every available surface: a book cracked open at the spine, the Panasonic phone manual to read, the file of bills to pay.
I do my own grocery shopping.
And I cook, but I’m lousy at it.
What would the wives do if their paycheck barely stretched through the month? Would they set their sights on a better paying job, or a husband? I can’t imagine they’d stay stuck. A woman wallowing in a rut wouldn’t attract the attention of the Carsons and Spellings and Martins.
It’s a good bet the wives wouldn’t be in Target buying socks.
Okay, maybe they were blessed with perfect genes, and a wealthy upbringing, and braces. Maybe they had a pampered existence their whole life.
But I wonder, can making those small changes—fresh flowers, smooth sheets, expensive perfume, tailored outfits—affect the results in my life? I believe so. I believe, by surrounding oneself in class, in beauty, it affects the soul, it changes the posture, it rewires the brain, it prompts a brighter outlook. Treating oneself as worthy of finery, with dignity and respect, dictates what you’ll allow in your life.
None of those wives settled. Not even for a knock-off.
What do you think?
I wouldn’t trade places with those women ever. The rules were pretty harsh back then. Playing second fiddle to a man or having tons of money rarely makes one happy. We have so many more choices now, I think it is easier to make our own way, living life as we want to be.
I agree. I couldn’t live like the wives, which is why I don’t. What dazzled me was their grace, their bearing, their girly-ness, which is something that I’ve…what, outgrown? Left behind? I happen to like those things: lace, perfume, etc. And there’s something to be said for setting your sights on what you want and going for it. Whether that be a spouse, a career, a dream, whatever.
I have a hard time believing in how women presented themselves in that era…Yes, they were graceful in public but I believe the majority of women felt trapped and probably did not FEEL the way they acted. I have the sense many of them put on an act…that brings to mind the saying, “act how you ‘should’ and the feelings will follow”. So, who knows?
I follow what you are wondering in regards to questioning-‘do we outgrow these things or leave them behind’. As for myself, I think sometimes I’m so exhausted and have so much on my plate that I just opt for comfort and what I want in the moment. I’m getting old. LOL
It would have been interesting if Merv had dug deeper, to see if they did anything beyond cooking and shopping.
I’m with you…I opt for comfort. I can’t even wear heels; I fall off them.
Feminine and poised is all very well, but I keep going back to TS Eliot’s “Prufrock”: “There will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” And it makes me a little sad to wonder how many of the wives were never able to be anything other than beautiful trophies. You’re real and that’s your blessing (and the joy of your readers).
I left out the part where one of the wives said that her husband picks out all of her clothes. Yikes! I winced at that.
I had the sense most of these women had a lot more going for them. If they had been interviewed by a woman, I wonder if the questions would have been more meaningful.
Oh boy. You asked:). I think those wives painted entirely deceptive pictures of lives they didn’t lead. I think they were not real. They didn’t talk about the cheating, the facelifts, the debt. And I’ll take real over that any day . . .
Actually, they did talk about facelifts. Maybe the cheating is being saved for the tell-all book deal. Ha!
It’s interesting, how we’re all making assumptions about the wives. Where does the truth lie? And does truth lie? I digress.
Thanks for the comment! This post is definitely bringing them out.
I remember your girly girl ruffles and lace and hair piled high days…you did it well… but I love your current style just as much ( much more, actually.) You are more real…we change with the times.You can be any you you want to be. Every version of you is the best. But I get what you’re saying., The way we treat ourselves, present ourselves, see ourselves, etc could surely affect our outcome.I really enjoyed this post.
Yes, that’s it exactly. Thanks, Joan. The girly girl is still inside, as real as the outer me. She’s the one who liked to dress up as a “fancy lady” for Halloween. I’ve since ditched the heels, but I still have pearl earrings. Well, except for the one I lost down the shower drain. Sigh.
This was an interesting post, Diane. I think, reading the points made by the other commenters, perhaps life is rather easier for women nowadays. I’m remember looking at some advertisements from the late 1960s / early 1970s on someone’s blog fairly recently and being shocked at the quite stunning sexism of them. Presumably there were some things that were good about those days too, of course, but I was only 6 in 1973, so I can’t remember what it was like very clearly. I guess it’s a pity we can’t take the best of both periods and stick them together somehow. 🙂
Ah, a male viewpoint! Brave soul, venturing in these waters. Well said.
Ah. I see what you mean. Well, it’s a good post, though. And I absolutely love this: “Would Merv ask Michelle Obama if she cooked and shopped?” I have a follow up question, if you don’t mind. “What would Michelle Obama do to someone who asked her this stuff?” 😉
Maybe she’d turn it around, ask him if he cooked and shopped.
I believe you are correct.