Authors: Elizabeth Gilbert
“No! I’m not saving it. I just haven’t had the chance.”
They all seemed concerned now. They were all looking at me as if I’d just said that
I’d never learned how to cross a street by myself.
” Celia said.
right?” asked Jennie. “You’ve got to have necked!”
“A little,” I said.
This was an honest answer; my sexual experience up until that point was
little. At a school dance back at Emma Willard—where they’d bused in for the occasion the sorts of boys whom we were expected to someday
marry—I’d let a boy from the Hotchkiss School feel my breasts while we were dancing. (As best as he could
my breasts, anyway, which took some problem solving on his part.) Or maybe it’s too generous to say that I let him feel my breasts. It would be more accurate to say that he just went ahead and
and I didn’t stop him. I didn’t want to be rude, for one thing. For another thing,
I found the experience to be interesting. I would have liked for it to continue, but the dance ended and then the boy was on a bus back to Hotchkiss before we could take it any further.
I’d also been kissed by a man in a bar in Poughkeepsie, on one of those nights when I’d escaped the Vassar hall wardens and ridden my bike into town. He and I had been talking about jazz (which is to say that
had been talking about jazz, and I had been listening to him talk about jazz, because that is how you talk to a man about jazz) and suddenly the next moment—
He had pressed me up against a wall and was rubbing his erection against my hip. He kissed me until my thighs shook with desire. But when he’d reached his hand between my legs I had balked, and slipped from his grasp. I’d ridden my bicycle
back to campus that night with a sense of wobbly unease—both fearing and hoping that he was following me.
I had wanted more, and I had not wanted more.
A familiar old tale, from the lives of girls.
What else did I have on my sexual résumé? My childhood best friend, Betty, and I had practiced with each other some inexpert renditions of what we called “romantic kisses”—but then again we had also
practiced “having babies” by stuffing pillows under our shirts so that we looked pregnant, and the latter experiment was just about as biologically convincing as the former.
I’d once had my vagina examined by my mother’s gynecologist, when my mother grew concerned that I had not yet begun menstruating by the age of fourteen. The man had poked around down there for a bit—while my mother watched—and
then he told me I needed to be eating more liver. It had not been an erotic experience for anyone involved.
Also, between the ages of ten and eighteen, I’d fallen in love about twenty dozen times with some of my brother Walter’s friends. The choice benefit of having a popular and handsome brother was that he was always surrounded by his popular and handsome friends. But Walter’s friends were
always too hypnotized by
—their ringleader, the captain of every team, the most admired boy in town—to pay much attention to anyone else in the room.
I was not totally ignorant. I touched myself now and again, which made me feel both electrified and guilty, but I knew that wasn’t the same thing as sex. (Let’s just say this: my attempts at self-pleasure were something akin to dry swimming lessons.)
And I understood the basics of human sexual function, having taken a required seminar at Vassar called “Hygiene”—a class that taught us about everything without telling us about anything. (In addition to presenting diagrams of ovaries and testicles, the teacher gave us a rather concerning admonition that douching with Lysol was neither a modern nor a safe means of contraception—thus planting
in my head a vision that disturbed me then and still disturbs me now.)
“Well, when will you go the limit, then?” Jennie asked. “You’re not getting any younger!”
“What you don’t want to have happen,” said Gladys, “is that you
meet a fellow now, and you really like him, and then you’ve got to break the bad news to him that you’re a virgin.”
“Yeah, a lot of guys don’t care for that,” Celia said.
“That’s right, they don’t want the responsibility,” said Gladys. “And you don’t want your first time to be with somebody you
“Yeah, what if it goes all wrong?” said Jennie.
“What could go wrong?” I asked.
“Everything!” said Gladys. “You won’t know what you’re doing, and you could look like a dummy! And if it hurts, you don’t want to find yourself blubbering in the arms of some guy you
Now, this was the direct opposite of everything I’d been taught about sex thus far in life. My school friends and I had always been given to understand that a man would prefer it if we were virgins. We had also been instructed to save the flower of our girlhood for somebody whom we not only liked, but
. The ideal scenario—the aspiration which we’d all been raised to embrace—was that
you were supposed to have sex with only one person in your entire life, and that person should be your husband, whom you met at an Emma Willard school prom.
But I had been misinformed! These girls thought otherwise, and they
things. Moreover, I now felt a sudden sting of anxiety about how old I was! For heaven’s sake, I was nineteen already; what had I been doing with my time? And I’d been
in New York already for two entire weeks. What was I waiting for?
“Is that hard to do?” I asked. “I mean, for the first time?”
“Oh, God no, Vivvie, don’t be dense,” said Gladys. “It’s the easiest thing there ever was. In fact, you don’t have to do anything. The man will do it for you. But you must get started, at least.”
“Yes, she must get started,” said Jennie definitively.
But Celia was
looking at me with an expression of concern.
to stay a virgin, Vivvie?” she asked, fixing me with
that unsettlingly beautiful gaze of hers. And while she might as well have been asking, “Do you
to stay an ignorant child, seen as pitiable by this gathering of mature and worldly women?” the intention behind the question was sweet. I think she was looking out for me—making sure
I wasn’t being pushed.
But the truth was, quite suddenly I did not want to be a virgin anymore. Not even for another day.
“No,” I said. “I want to get started.”
“We’d be only too glad to help, dear,” said Jennie.
“Are you on your monthlies right now? Gladys asked.
“No,” I said.
“Then we can get started right away. Who do we
. . . ?” Gladys pondered.
“It needs to be someone nice,” said
“A real gentleman,” said Gladys.
“Not some lunkhead,” said Jennie.
“Someone who’ll take precautions,” Gladys said.
“Not someone who’ll get rough with her,” said Jennie.
Celia said, “I know who.”
And that’s how their plan took shape.
Dr. Harold Kellogg lived in an elegant town house just off Gramercy Park. His wife was out of town, because it was a Saturday.
(Mrs. Kellogg took the train to Danbury every Saturday, to visit her mother in the country.) And so the appointment for my deflowering was set at the exceedingly unromantic hour of ten o’clock on a Saturday morning.
Dr. and Mrs. Kellogg were respected members of the community. They were the sorts of people my parents knew. This is part of the reason Celia thought he might be good for me—because
we came from the same social class. The Kelloggs had two sons at Columbia University
who were both studying medicine. Dr. Kellogg was a member of the Metropolitan Club. In his free time, he enjoyed bird-watching, collecting stamps, and having sex with showgirls.
But Dr. Kellogg was discreet about his liaisons. A man of his reputation could not afford to be seen about town with a young woman whose
physical composition made her look like the figurehead of a sailing ship (it would be
), so the showgirls visited him at his town house—and always on Saturday mornings, when his wife was gone. He would let them in through the service entrance, offer them champagne, and entertain them in the privacy of his guest room. Dr. Kellogg gave the girls money for their time and trouble, and then
sent them on their way. It all had to be over by lunchtime, because he saw patients in the afternoon.
All the showgirls at the Lily knew Dr. Kellogg. They rotated visits to him, depending on who was least hungover on a Saturday morning, or who was “down to buttons” and needed a bit of pocket money for the week.
When the girls told me the financial details of this arrangement, I said in shock,
“Do you mean to tell me that Dr. Kellogg
Gladys looked at me with disbelief: “Well, what’d you think, Vivvie? That we pay
Now, Angela, listen: I understand that there is a word for women who offer sexual favors to gentlemen in exchange for money. In fact, there are
words for this. But none of the showgirls with whom I associated in New York City in 1940 described
themselves in that manner—not even as they were actively taking money from gentlemen in exchange for sexual favors. They couldn’t possibly be prostitutes; they were
. They had quite a lot of pride in that designation, having worked hard to achieve it, and it’s the only title they would
answer to. But the situation was simply this: showgirls did not earn a great deal of money, you see,
and everyone has to get by in this world somehow (shoes are expensive!), and so these girls had developed a system of
for earning a bit of extra cash on the side. The Dr. Kelloggs of the world were part of that system.
Now that I think about it, I’m not even sure that Dr. Kellogg himself regarded these young women as prostitutes. He more likely called them his “girlfriends”—an
aspirational, if somewhat delusional, designation which surely would have made him feel better about himself, too.
In other words, despite all evidence that sex was being exchanged for money (and sex was being exchanged for money, make no mistake about it) nobody here was engaging in
. This was merely an
that suited everyone involved. You know: from each according
to their abilities; to each according to their needs.
I’m so glad we were able to clear that up, Angela.
I certainly wouldn’t want there to be any misunderstandings.
“Now, Vivvie, what you have to understand is that he’s boring,” said Jennie. “If you get bored, don’t go thinking this is always how it feels to fool around.”
“But he’s a doctor,” said Celia. “He’ll do right for our Vivvie. That’s
what matters this time.”
Were there ever more heartwarming words? I was
It was now Saturday morning, and the four of us were sitting at a cheap diner on Third Avenue and Eighteenth Street, beneath the shadow of the el, waiting for it to be ten o’clock. The girls had already showed me Dr. Kellogg’s town house and the back entrance I was to use, which was just around
the corner. Now we were drinking coffee and eating pancakes while the girls gave me excited last-minute instructions. It was
awfully early in the day—on a weekend, no less—for three showgirls to be wide awake and lively, but none of them had wanted to miss
“He’s going to use a safety, Vivvie,” Gladys said. “He always does, so you don’t need to worry.”
“It doesn’t feel as good with a safety,”
Jennie said, “but you’ll need it.”
I’d never heard the term “safety” before, but I guessed from context that it was probably a sheath, or a rubber—a device I’d learned about in my Hygiene seminar at Vassar. (I’d even handled one, which had been passed from girl to girl like a limp, dissected toad.) If it meant something else, I supposed I would find out soon enough, but I wasn’t about to ask.
“We’ll get you a pessary later,” said Gladys. “All us girls have pessaries.”
(I didn’t know what that was, either, till I figured out later it’s what my Hygiene professor called a “diaphragm.”)
“I don’t have a pessary anymore!” said Jennie. “My grandmother found mine! When she asked me what it was, I told her it was for cleaning fine jewelry. She took it.”
“Well, I had to say
“But I don’t understand how you could even
a pessary for cleaning fine jewelry,” Gladys pushed.
“I dunno! Ask my grandma, that’s what she’s using it for now!”
“Well, then what are you using now?” said Gladys. “For precaution?”
“Well, gee, nothing right now . . . because my grandmother has my pessary in her jewelry box.”
Celia and Gladys at the same time.
“I know, I know. But I’m careful.”
“No, you’re not!” said Gladys. “You’re never careful! Vivian, don’t be a dumb kid like Jennie. You’ve got to think about these things!”
Celia reached into her purse and handed me something wrapped in
brown paper. I opened it up and found a small, white terry-cloth hand towel, folded neatly, never used. It still had a store
price tag on it.
“I got you this,” said Celia. “It’s a towel. It’s for in case you bleed.”
“Thank you, Celia.”
She shrugged, looked away, and—to my shock—blushed. “Sometimes people bleed. You’ll want to be able to clean yourself up.”
“Yeah, and you don’t want to use Mrs. Kellogg’s good towels,” said Gladys.
“Yeah, don’t touch
that belongs to Mrs. Kellogg!” said Jennie.
husband!” shrieked Gladys, and all the girls laughed again.
“Ooh! It’s after ten, Vivvie,” said Celia. “You should get moving.”
I made an effort to stand up, but suddenly felt dizzy. I sat back down in the dinette booth again, hard. My legs had almost gone out from under me. I hadn’t
I was nervous, but my body seemed to have a different opinion.