On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Saturday, July 15, 2017

I Was a Model for King Features "Why Grow Old" Column

(This account is an accurate depiction of my time spent modeling for a King Features Syndicate column with only some names changed to protect the privacy of individuals.)
            The studio was not glamorous, consisting of a large room, empty except for photographic paraphernalia concentrated in an area with different flooring and a plain backdrop.  I was told to change my clothes in what had obviously been designed as an office—without windows, also empty except for a chair and a distorting full-length mirror.
            It was my first “shoot” for a syndicated column at the Des Moines Register and Tribune where I was working in Advertising. (see previous post, "The Newspaper Game").  I had graduated from high school in January 1955 and needed a job until I would start college that fall.  Working at a newspaper for someone planning on being an English major was a boon I’d never expected, even a lowly job as a classified advertising clerk.  Then out of the blue I had been offered an extra job as a model by a young man who worked in Features and Promotions.  I’ll call him Howard Last.  In our initial conversation, which was in the elevator as I was returning from running an errand to Editorial for my boss, he suddenly addressed me with the offer.  I’d seen him before, staring fixedly at me, and was quite put off by his presence.
“I’ve noticed you around here.  It struck me that you might be interested in modeling for pictures that illustrate a nationwide syndicated health and beauty aids column.  My last model didn’t work out, and I need someone with your looks.”
I was taken aback by his words, but didn’t completely lose my cool, asking him questions as we briefly discussed the work.        
“Well, it’s a longstanding column called ‘Why Grow Old’ by Josephine Lowman.”  He grinned suddenly, looking less intimidating.  “I have a feeling there’s no such person anymore.  Just other people writing the column to keep the name alive.”
            “How could I pose for you?” I asked, still not sure.  “I can’t take time away from my job.”  We had gotten off the elevator and were standing in the main lobby adjacent the Advertising Department doors.
            “We could set up weekly shots either after work or on Saturday.  Most would take place at Younkers Store for Homes since the copy has to do with housewife stuff.”
            Well, that was reassuring—naming the foremost department store in Des Moines and its seventh-floor simulated apartment, which consisted of living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom, all furnished with lovely furnishings supplied by the store.  I’d been there on numerous occasions with my mother and friends.
            Since I hadn’t immediately agreed, Howard went on, “This modeling pays three dollars an hour.”
            Gosh!  I was bowled over.  That was nearly three times what I was currently making.  I immediately agreed.  This would help the college fund immeasurably.
            “Good.  I’ll call you before you leave work tonight and we’ll set up a time.”
            I sailed back to my work area, heady with delight and near disbelief as well.  I said nothing to my co-workers that day, especially to my wise-cracking supervisor, Shirley Shaw, even though I knew her to be a kind and sympathetic person.  I seemed to have an embarrassment of riches and didn’t want anyone to think I was conceited about the modeling; still, Howard’s comment about the work being “housewife stuff” assured me it would not be glamorous duty.
            That evening at home I told my mother about the new job, and I got the expected reaction.  “This won’t take away from your regular work, will it?”  Mother was always slow to congratulate me or even give a compliment, always fearful I’d get a swelled head.  She also laughed at the idea of me, an eighteen-year-old, acting the part of a housewife.  "You don't exactly look the part."
            My best friend, Bette, was thrilled for me, however, making me promise to tell her all about it.  “What an adventure!” she exclaimed.
            “I don’t know about that, but it will be interesting.  The first shoot will be Saturday afternoon, and I’m to wear something that looks like a house dress.”
            We discussed which of my more simple cotton dresses would fit the bill, and I hung up the phone, feeling some satisfaction in getting approval for the unexpected stint.
            Thus I began my work by changing my clothes that Saturday in the makeshift dressing room at the newspaper.  Howard had already set up his equipment at Younkers, waiting for me in the fifth-floor studio to drive me over to the store.  We went to the parking garage and into a company car, saying very little.  I remember thinking how gauche I felt and how un-smooth was Howard’s style.  He was the epitome of a man with a camera, operating alone and rather silently with his face hidden from view.  But I didn’t care, only hoping I would not spoil the shot somehow, as we entered the Store for Homes and I took up my position in the ersatz living room.  Howard gave me a dust cloth, telling me to look disgusted with the housework before me.  That was not hard to do as I hated housework myself as my mother could attest.  Come to find out, my expression was supposed to be that of a housewife doomed to frustration because of her insistence on perfection.  Relax—was the message!
            I would never have remembered the point of my pose since neither I nor my mother cut out the articles with my picture; however, my sister saw it in the Pittsburgh paper and sent me the clipping.  Later on, my aunt, who lived in Rockford, Illinois, also sent me a clipping of another article I posed for.  Howard had been correct in telling me it was a nationwide syndicate, and I felt rather humble representing a venerable, wide-spread column.
            I don’t know for sure how many columns I posed for, but Howard gave me most of the glossies.  I was happy he did so, since I knew it would be the only proof I’d ever have of my one really fun job.  
            Oddly enough, the following summer, needing a summer job, I reapplied at the newspaper and got my old clerking position back.  Howard spotted me walking through the lobby midway through the summer, and he repeated his modeling offer for the remaining weeks.  Again, he was short of a model, he said, and would like to put me to work.  Always eager to earn money as I was paying my own way through college, I was please to accept.  Midway through the summer, Howard surprised me again by asking if I’d do a swimming suit spread for the Sunday Register’s Women's section.  In that day and time, swimming suits were extremely modest and completely covered the feminine torso, and I had no qualms about accepting the work.  I wore four different suits, posing in the studio with props like a beach ball and hat supplied by Howard.
            Despite all my modeling, it didn’t turn my head, as my mother probably imagined it would, and I went off to college again without a backward glance, never again to do photographic modeling but in short order to be the ordinary housewife I was supposed to depict.

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