Authors: Elizabeth Gilbert
“We wouldn’t want Mrs. Kellogg seeing a stain,” he said. “I forgot myself, I’m afraid. I’m
generally more careful. That suggests a certain lack of foresight on my part, which is not typically my way.”
“Oh,” I said, reaching for my handbag, grateful to have something to do. “I’ve brought a towel!”
But there was no stain. There was no blood at all. (All those horseback rides in childhood, I suppose, had already done the puncturing job for me. Thanks, Mother!) To my great relief, I didn’t
even feel much pain.
“Now, Vivian,” he instructed, “you will want to avoid taking a bath for the next two days, as it could create infection. It’s quite all right for you to clean yourself, but just splash about—do not soak. If you find that you have any discharge or discomfort, Gladys or Celia can recommend a vinegar douche for you. But you’re a big strong healthy girl, and I don’t expect you
to run into any difficulties. You did well here today. I’m proud of you.”
I half expected him to give me a lollipop.
As we dressed, Dr. Kellogg chatted away about the fine weather. Had I taken notice last month of the peonies in bloom in Gramercy Park? No, I told him, I hadn’t even been living in New York City as of last month. Well, he instructed, I
take notice of the peonies next year,
for they are in bloom such a short while, you know, and then they are gone. (Maybe this seems like too obvious a commentary on my own “short-lasting bloom”—but let’s not give Dr. Kellogg that much credit for poetry or pathos. I think he just really liked peonies.)
“Let me show you out, my little duckling,” he said, walking me back down the stairs, and through the doily-strewn living room, toward
the servants’ entrance. As we passed by the kitchen, he took an envelope off the table and handed it to me.
“A token of my appreciation,” he said.
I knew it was money, and I couldn’t bear it.
“Oh, no, I couldn’t, Harold,” I said.
“Oh, but you must.”
“No, I couldn’t,” I said. “I couldn’t
“Oh, but I
“Oh, but I
My objection, I have to tell you, was not that I
didn’t want to be regarded as a prostitute. (Don’t think so highly of me as all that!) It was more a matter of deeply ingrained social politeness. My parents provided an allowance for me every week, you see, which Aunt Peg gave to me on Wednesdays, so I truly did not need Dr. Kellogg’s money. Also, some puritanical voice within me told me that I had not quite earned this money. I didn’t know much
about sex, but I couldn’t imagine that I’d shown this man much of a good time. A girl who lies down on her back with her arms straight at her sides, not moving whatsoever other than to attack you with her mouth every time you speak—she can’t be much fun in the sack, right? If I were going to be paid for sex, I’d want to have done something worth paying for.
“Vivian, I demand that you take this,”
“Harold, I refuse.”
“Vivian, I really must insist that you do not make a scene,” he said, frowning slightly, and pushing the envelope toward me with force—this moment constituting the closest I’d come to danger or excitement at the hands of Dr. Harold Kellogg.
“Very well,” I said, and I took the money.
(And how do you like
my fancy ancestors? Cash for sex, and on the first run
out of the gate, no less!)
“You are a lovely young girl,” he said. “And please don’t be concerned: there is still plenty of time for your breasts to fill out.”
“Thank you, Harold,” I said.
“If you drink eight ounces of buttermilk a day, it should help them to grow.”
“Thank you, I will do that,” I said, with no intention whatsoever of drinking eight ounces of buttermilk a day.
I was about
to step out the door, but then I suddenly had to know.
“Harold,” I said, “may I ask what kind of doctor you are?”
It was my supposition that he was either a gynecologist or a pediatrician. I was leaning toward pediatrician. I just wanted to settle the bet in my own head.
“I’m a veterinarian, my dear girl,” he said. “Now, please send my warmest regards to Gladys and Celia, and do not forget
to observe the peonies next spring!”
I flew down the street, absolutely howling with laughter.
I ran back into the diner where the girls were all waiting for me, and before they could even speak, I shrieked, “A
? You sent me to a
“How was it?” asked Gladys. “Did it hurt?”
? You said he was a
a doctor!” said Jennie. “It
says so right in his name.”
“I feel as though you sent me to get
I dove into the booth next to Celia, crashing against her warm body with relief. My own body was in a storm of hilarity. I was all trembling now, from head to toe. I felt wild and unhinged. I felt that my life had just exploded. I was overcome with excitement and arousal and revulsion and embarrassment and pride, and it
was all so disorienting, but also fantastic. The aftereffect was so much more striking than the act itself had been. I could not
what I had just done. My boldness that morning—sex with a strange man!—seemed to have sprung from someone else, but I also felt more authentic to myself than ever.
Moreover, looking around the table at the showgirls, I felt a sense
of gratitude so rich that
tears almost overtook me. It was so
to have the girls there. My friends! My oldest friends in the world! My oldest friends in the world whom I’d met only two weeks ago—except for Jennie, whom I’d just met two days before! I loved them all so much! They had waited for me! They cared!
it?” said Gladys.
“It was fine. It was
There was a stack of cold and half-eaten
pancakes in front of me from earlier that morning, and now I tore into those pancakes with a hunger that was close to violence. My hands were shaking. Dear God, I had never been so famished. My hunger had no bottom to it. I drenched the pancakes in even more syrup and shoveled more of them into my mouth.
“He never stops croaking on about his wife, though!” I said, between forkfuls.
said Jennie. “He’s the worst for that!”
“He’s a drip,” said Gladys. “But he’s not a mean man, and that’s what matters.”
“But did it
?” asked Celia.
“You know something, it didn’t,” I said. “And I didn’t even need the towel!”
“You’re lucky,” said Celia. “You’re
“I can’t say it was fun,” I said. “But I can’t say it wasn’t fun, either. I’m just glad it’s over. I suppose there
are worse ways to lose your virginity.”
“All the other ways are worse,” Jennie said. “Believe me. I’ve tried them all.”
“I’m so proud of you, Vivvie,” said Gladys. “Today you’re a woman.”
She raised her coffee cup to me in a toast, and I clinked it with my water glass. Never did an initiation ceremony feel so complete and satisfying as that moment when I was toasted by Gladys the dance captain.
“How much did he give you?” asked Jennie.
“Oh!” I said. “I’d almost forgotten!”
I reached into my purse and pulled out the envelope.
“You open it,” I said, handing it with shaky hands to Celia, who tore it right open, thumbed through the cash expertly, and announced: “Fifty dollars!”
” shrieked Jennie. “He’s usually twenty!”
“What should we spend it on?” Gladys asked.
got to do something special with it,” said Jennie—and I felt a rush of relief that the girls considered the money
not mine. It spread around the taint of misdoing, if that makes sense. It also added to the feeling of camaraderie.
“I want to go to Coney Island,” said Celia.
“We don’t have time,” said Gladys. “We need to be back at the Lily by four.”
“We’ve got time,” Celia said. “We’ll
be quick. We’ll get hot dogs and look at the beach and come straight home. We’ll hire a taxi. We have money now, don’t we?”
So we drove out to Coney Island with the windows down, smoking and laughing and gossiping. It was the warmest day of summer so far. The sky was thrillingly bright. I was wedged in the backseat between Celia and Gladys, while Jennie chatted away with the driver up front—a
driver who could not believe his luck at the assemblage of beauty that had just tumbled into his cab.
“What a bunch of figures on you gals!” he said, and Jennie said, “Now, don’t you get fresh, mister,” but I could tell that she liked it.
“Do you ever feel bad about Mrs. Kellogg?” I asked Gladys, feeling a small pang of concern about my deed that day. “I mean, for sleeping with her husband?
I feel bad about it?”
“Well, you can’t have
much conscience about things!” said Gladys. “Or else you’ll never stop worrying!”
And that, I’m afraid, was the extent of our moral agonies. Subject closed.
“Next time I want it to be with someone else,” I said. “Do you think I could find somebody else?”
“Piece of cake,” said Celia.
Coney Island was all shiny and gaudy and fun. The boardwalk
was overrun with loud families, and young couples, and sticky children who acted just as delirious as I felt. We looked at the signs for the freak shows. We ran down to the shore and put our feet in the water. We ate candied apples and lemon ices. We got our picture taken with a strongman. We bought stuffed animals and picture postcards and souvenir cosmetic mirrors. I bought Celia a cute little
rattan handbag with seashells sewn on it, and I got sunglasses for the other girls,
I paid for a taxi ride all the way back to midtown—and there was still nine dollars left of Dr. Kellogg’s money.
“You got enough left over to buy yourself a steak dinner!” said Jennie.
We got back to the Lily Playhouse with barely enough time to make the early show. Olive was frantic with concern that the
showgirls would miss the curtain, and she clucked about in circles, scolding everyone for their lack of
But the girls dove into their dressing rooms and came out only moments later, it seemed, simply
sequins and ostrich plumes and glamour.
My Aunt Peg was there, too, of course, and she asked me, somewhat distractedly, if I’d had a fun day.
“I sure did!” I said.
she said. “You should have fun, you’re young.”
Celia gave my hand a squeeze just as she was about to go onstage. I grabbed her by the arm and leaned in closer toward her beauty.
“Celia!” I whispered, “I still can’t believe I lost my virginity today!”
“You’ll never miss it,” she said.
And do you know something?
She was absolutely right.
And so it began.
Now that I’d been initiated, I wanted to be around sex constantly—and everything about New York felt like sex to me. I had a lot of time to make up for, was how I saw it. I’d wasted
all those years
being bored and boring, and now I refused to be bored or boring ever again, not even for an hour!
And I had so much to learn! I wanted Celia to teach me everything she knew—about
men, about sex, about New York, about
and she happily obliged. From that point forward, I was no longer the handmaiden of Celia (or at least not merely her handmaiden); I was her accomplice. It was no longer Celia coming home drunk in the middle of the night after a wild spree on the town; it was both of us coming home drunk in the middle of the night after a wild spree on the town.
two of us went digging for trouble with a shovel and a pickax that summer, and we never had the slightest trouble finding it. If you are a pretty young woman looking for trouble in a big city, it’s not difficult to find. But if you are
pretty young women looking for
trouble, then trouble will tackle you on every corner—which is just how we wanted it. Celia and I cultivated an almost hysterical
commitment to having a good time. Our appetites were gluttonous—not only for boys and men, but also for food, and cocktails, and anarchic dancing, and the kind of live music that makes you want to smoke too many cigarettes and laugh with your head thrown back.
Sometimes the other dancers or showgirls started off the night with us, but they could rarely keep up with me and Celia. If one of us
lagged, the other would pick up the pace. Sometimes I got the feeling we were watching each other to see what we would do next, because we usually had no
what we were going to do next, except that we always wanted another thrill. More than anything, I believe, we were motivated by our mutual fear of boredom. Every day had a hundred hours in it, and we needed to fill them all, or we would
perish of tedium.
Essentially, our chosen line of work that summer was
romping and rampaging
—and we did it with a tirelessness that staggers my imagination even to this day.
When I think about the summer of 1940, Angela, I picture Celia Ray and I as two inky, dark points of lust sailing through the neon and shadows of New York City, in a nonstop search for action. And when I try to recall it
in detail now, it all seems to run into one long, hot, sweaty night.
The moment the show was over, Celia and I would change into the thinnest little stalks of evening gowns, and we would absolutely fling ourselves at the city—running full tilt into the impatient streets, already certain that we were missing something vital and lively:
How could they start without us?
We’d always begin our evening
at Toots Shor’s, or El Morocco, or the Stork Club—but there was no telling where we would end up by
the wee hours. If midtown got too dull and familiar, Celia and I might head up to Harlem on the A train to hear Count Basie play, or to drink at the Red Rooster. Or we could just as easily find ourselves clowning around with a bunch of Yale boys at the Ritz, or dancing with some socialists downtown
at Webster Hall. The rule seemed to be: dance until you collapse, and then keep dancing for a little bit longer after that.
We moved with such speed! Sometimes it felt like I was being dragged behind the city itself—sucked into this wild urban river of music and lights and revelry. Other times, it felt like we were the ones dragging the city behind
because everywhere we went, we were followed.
In the course of these heady evenings, we would either meet up with some men whom Celia already knew, or we would pick up some new men along the way. Or both. I would either kiss three handsome men in a row, or the same handsome man three times—sometimes it was hard to keep track.
Never was it difficult to find men.
It helped that Celia Ray could walk into a joint like nobody I’ve ever seen.
She would throw her resplendence into a room ahead of her, the way a soldier might toss a grenade into a machine gunner’s nest, and then she’d follow her beauty right on in and assess the carnage. All she had to do was show up, and every bit of sexual energy in the place would magnetize around her. Then she’d stroll around looking bored as can be—sopping up everyone’s boyfriends and husbands in the
process—without exerting the slightest bit of effort in her conquests.
Men looked at Celia Ray like she was a box of Cracker Jack and they couldn’t wait to start digging for the toy.
In return, she looked at them like they were the wooden paneling on the wall.
Which only made them crazier for her.
“Show me you can smile, baby,” a brave man once called out to her across the dance floor.
me you got a yacht,” Celia said under her breath, and turned away to be bored in another direction.
Since I was by her side, and since I looked enough like her now (in low light, anyhow—since I was not only the same height and coloring as Celia, but now wore tight dresses like hers, and styled my hair like hers, and modeled my walk after hers, and padded my bosom to slightly resemble hers), it
only doubled the effect.
I don’t like to boast, Angela, but we were a pretty unstoppable duo.
Actually, I do like to boast, so let an old woman have her glory: we were
. We could give whole tables of men a pretty decent case of whiplash, just by walking past.
“Fetch us a refresher,” Celia would say at the bar, to nobody in particular, and in the next moment, five men would be handing
us cocktails—three for her, and two for me. And in the next ten minutes, those drinks would be gone.
Where did we get all that
Oh, yes, I remember: we got it from youth itself. We were turbines of energy. Mornings were always difficult, of course. The hangovers could be quite unsparingly cruel. But if I needed a nap later in the day, I could always do it in the back of the theater,
during a rehearsal or a show, collapsed on a pile of old curtains. A ten-minute doze, and I’d be restored, ready to take on the city once more, as soon as the applause died down.
You can live this way when you’re nineteen (or pretending to be nineteen, in Celia’s case).
“Those girls are on the road to trouble,” I heard an older woman say about us one night, as we were staggering down the street
drunk—and that woman was absolutely right. What she didn’t understand, though, is that trouble is what we
Oh, our youthful needs!
Oh, the deliciously blinding yearnings of the young—which
inevitably take us right to the edges of cliffs, or trap us in cul-de-sacs of our design.
I can’t say that I got good at sex during the summer of 1940, although I will say that I grew awfully familiar
But, no, I didn’t get good at it.
To get “good” at sex—which, for a woman, means learning how to enjoy and even orchestrate the act, to the point of her own climax—one needs time, patience, and an attentive lover. It would be awhile before I had access to anything as sophisticated as all that. For now, it was just a game of wild numbers, executed with a considerable amount of speed.
(Celia and I didn’t like to hover too long in one location, or with one man, in case we were missing something better that might be happening on the other side of town.)
My longing for excitement and my curiosity about sex made me not only insatiable that summer, but also
. That’s how I see myself, when I look back on it now. I was susceptible to everything that had even the vaguest
suggestion of the erotic or the illicit. I was susceptible to neon lights in the darkness of a midtown side street. I was susceptible to drinking cocktails out of coconut shells in the Hawaiian Room of the Hotel Lexington. I was susceptible to being offered ringside tickets, or backstage entrances to nightclubs that did not have names. I was susceptible to anybody who could play a musical instrument,
or dance with a fair amount of panache. I was susceptible to getting into cars with just about anyone who owned a car. I was susceptible to men who would approach me at the bar with two highballs, saying, “I seem to have found myself with an extra drink. Perhaps you could help me out with this, miss?”
Why, yes, I would be delighted to help you out with that, sir.
I was so good at being helpful
in that regard!
In our defense, Celia and I didn’t have sex with
the men we met that summer.
But we did have sex with most of them.
The question with me and Celia was never so much “Who should we have sex with?”—it didn’t really seem to matter—but only “
shall we have sex?”
The answer was: Wherever we could find a spot.
We had sex in fancy hotel suites, paid for by out-of-town businessmen.
But also in the kitchen (closed for the evening) of a small East Side nightclub. Or on a ferry boat where we’d somehow ended up late at night—the lights on the water all runny and blurry around us. In the backs of taxicabs. (I know it sounds uncomfortable, and believe me it was uncomfortable, but it could be accomplished.) In a movie theater. In a dressing room in the basement of the Lily
Playhouse. In a dressing room in the basement of the Diamond Horseshoe. In a dressing room in the basement of Madison Square Garden. In Bryant Park, with the threat of rats at our feet. In dark and sweltering alleyways just off the taxi-haunted corners of midtown. On the rooftop of the Puck Building. In an office suite on Wall Street, where only the nighttime janitors might hear us.
briny-blooded, brainless, weightless—Celia and I spun through New York City that summer on currents of pure electricity. Instead of walking, we rocketed. There was no focus; there was just a constant search for the
. We missed nothing, but we also missed everything. We watched Joe Louis train with his sparring partner, for instance, and we heard Billie Holiday sing—but I can’t remember the
details of either occasion. We were too distracted by our own story to pay much attention to all the wonders that were laid before us. (For instance: the night that I saw Billie Holiday sing, I had my period
and I was in a sulky mood because a boy I liked had just left with another girl. There’s my review of Billie Holiday’s performance.)
Celia and I would have too much to drink, and then we
would run into crowds of young men who’d also had too much to drink—and the whole lot of us would crash together and behave exactly the way you might expect us to behave. We would go into bars with boys whom we’d met in
bars, but then flirt with the boys we discovered in the
bar. We caused fights to break out, and somebody would take a wicked shellacking, but then Celia would choose
among the survivors for who would take us to the
bar, where the uproar would begin all over again. We would bounce from one stag party to the next—from one man’s arms to another man’s arms. We even traded dates once, right in the middle of dinner.
“You take him,” Celia said to me that night, right in front of the man who was already boring her. “I’m going to the ladies’ room. You keep this
guy!” I said, as the man reached for me, most obligingly. “And you’re my friend!”
“Oh, Vivvie,” she said to me, in a fond and pitying tone. “You can’t lose a friend like me just by taking her guy!”
I had precious little contact with my family back home that summer.
The last thing I wanted was for them to know anything about what I was doing.
My mother sent me a note
every week, along with my allowance, filling me in on the most basic news. My father had hurt his shoulder playing golf. My brother was threatening to quit Princeton next semester and join the Navy, because he wanted to serve his country. My mother had defeated this-or-that woman in this-or-that tennis tournament. In return, I sent my parents a card every week telling them the
same stale and uninformative
sort of news—that I was well, that I was working hard at the theater, that New York City was very nice, and thank you for the allowance. Every once in a while I’d toss in a bit of innocuous detail, such as, “Just the other day I had a charming lunch at the Knickerbocker with Aunt Peg.”
Naturally, I did not mention to my parents that I’d recently gone to a doctor with my friend Celia the showgirl,
in order to get myself illegally fitted for a pessary. (Illegal, because it was not permitted back then for a doctor to outfit an unmarried woman with a birth control device—but this is why it’s so good to have friends who know people! Celia’s doctor was a laconic Russian woman who didn’t ask questions. She suited me right up without batting an eye.)
Nor did I mention to my parents that I’d had
a gonorrhea scare (which had turned out to be nothing more than a mild pelvic infection, thank goodness—though it had been a painful and frightening week until it all cleared up). Nor did I mention that I’d had a pregnancy scare (which had also cleared up on its own accord, thank God). Nor did I mention that I was now fairly regularly sleeping with a man named Kevin “Ribsy” O’Sullivan, who ran
numbers around the corner in Hell’s Kitchen. (I was dallying about with some other men, too, of course—all equally unsavory, but none with such a good name as “Ribsy.”)
Nor did I mention that I now
carried prophylactics in my pocketbook—on account of the fact that I didn’t want any further gonorrhea scares, and a girl can’t be too careful. I also didn’t tell my parents that my boyfriends
regularly secured these prophylactics for me as a kind favor. (Because you see, Mother, only men are allowed to purchase prophylactics in New York City!)
No, I didn’t tell her any of this.
I did, however, pass along the news that the lemon sole at the Knickerbocker was
Which is true. It really was.
Meanwhile, Celia and I just went right on spinning—night after night—getting ourselves
into all manner of trouble, big and small.