Beloved for her iconic role as TV's "Rhoda," Valerie Harper writes of her life and her first brushes with show business in "I, Rhoda." Here's an excerpt.
“Valerie, don’t overdo.” This parental reprimand was the constant refrain of my childhood. One more jump off the diving board when my fingertips were shriveled and my lips blue. One more turn on the swings when my palms were long since shredded by the metal chains as I tried to propel myself higher. One more twirl around the living room to “The Blue Danube,” even though my legs were already covered in rug burns. One more. One more.
I was also always looking for something to eat. When I was two years old, I bit the tail of our neighbors’ yellow Labrador because it looked delicious. I couldn’t help myself—I was drawn to that fluffy golden Twinkie of a tail, and I just had to sink my teeth into it. The dog was not amused; he spun around and bit me right on the lip. (It would be years before I’d overcome my fear of dogs. Though in truth, perhaps they should have feared me . . .)
When I was three years old, while watching my mother get dressed for the evening, I uncorked her beautiful bottle of perfume, Intoxication by d’Orsay. The bottle was so stylish, so alluring. It was in the shape of a cut-glass liquor decanter. How could I resist? I chugged the entire bottle in one gulp. Like the Labrador’s tail, the perfume did not taste as good as it looked and boy, did it burn as it went down! Throughout my life I’ve had no desire to drink anything intoxicating because to me it all tastes like perfume. Talk about aversion therapy!
My mother, Iva Mildred McConnell, was a petite, blue-eyed, blond Canadian. She met my father, the tall, dark, and handsome Howard Donald Harper, through their mutual interest in hockey. Mom played on a women’s team in Canada and spotted Dad at a match where he was playing for a visiting team—the Oakland Sheiks, who were named after Rudolph Valentino’s famed role.
Mary Tyler Moore 'devastated' by Harper illness
My mother had always dreamed of becoming a doctor, but her parents insisted that she go into teaching instead. She first taught eight grades, all together in a one-room schoolhouse out on the Saskatchewan prairie, where each row in her classroom was a different grade. After about two years, when she’d saved up enough money, she put herself through nursing school and became a registered nurse, a job she truly loved. As much as she enjoyed nursing, when she met Dad, she obeyed the edict of the day: “No wife of mine goes to work.” Throughout most of my childhood, Mom stayed at home with my sister, Leah, my brother, Don, and me, though she always rejected the term housewife. “I’m not married to the house, I’m a home executive,” she would say. How true.
My dad was fabulous and charming—a radiantly positive man with a big smile. When his brief professional hockey career came to an end, he became a lighting salesman. One of several companies he worked for did the lighting for New York City’s Holland Tunnel—a fact we were reminded of every time we drove into the city from New Jersey. He also dealt in those unflattering lights that used to be in every ladies’ room, the fluorescent bulbs that make everyone look like the Cryptkeeper.
Because he was a sales manager and trained new salesmen, my father was often on the road. He also received regular promotions, which meant that my family moved every two or three years as Dad moved up the ladder. Most summers we traveled with my father to work, incorporating family visits to my mom’s folks in Vancouver. We had the best times with my Canadian cousins, Michael and Dean—swimming, walking trails, exploring the enormous Stanley Park. Some years we’d go see my dad’s relatives in California, where Don and I learned to ride two-wheelers in Canoga Park. Or we packed our things to move to another town and settle in before the school year began. We spent a lot of hours crammed into the back of our Kaiser-Frazer car, traversing the West Coast. During these trips, my little brother, Don, became obsessed with cars and developed the charming habit of naming each and every make and model approaching from the opposite direction, which didn’t make the time pass any faster. Leah, a perpetual joker, continually pointed out deer along the side of the road, but when I looked, they were always gone—if they were even there in the first place. Three kids in an unair-conditioned vehicle in the height of a California summer must have been a real picnic for my parents.
I was born weeks earlier than expected in Suffern, New York. My parents were on a business trip when my mother went into labor. My father had gone to a tennis match, so my mother lumbered out of the hotel, into a cab, and to the nearest hospital—the Good Samaritan, a fitting name under the circumstances. My mother was so sure she was having a boy, the only name they’d picked was Charles Howard. When my father arrived and learned I was a girl, he was still carrying the program from the tennis tournament. The women’s doubles champions were Valerie Scott and Kay Stammers. So Valerie Kathryn Harper was born—and she would never be very good at playing tennis, despite her namesakes.
I came into the world at four in the morning on August 22, 1939, weighing in at a hefty eight pounds, fourteen ounces. I was the middle child—an average, chunky little brunette with a pronounced lisp that I didn’t lose until the third grade. My older sister, Leah, was a tall, slender, pretty blonde. When discussing my figure, my mother used to lower her voice, as if imparting a disgraceful secret, and say, “Valerie, you’re short-waisted.” It seemed that I was cursed indeed to have a waist that was short. At the time, I wasn’t at all sure what that meant, but I accepted it because Mom said I’d gotten it from her. How bad could it be? I also harbored the hope that, as I grew, my waist would get longer and my pronunciation of S’s would improve.
Despite the difference in our physiques, my mother liked to dress Leah and me in matching outfits. Leah was able to get her clothes in the regular children’s department, whereas my outfits came from the “Chubby” section. Chubby! What a word. It lacked the subterfuge of the boys’ equivalent, “Husky.” Chubby meant fat or, at any rate, not slim. There was no denying it. I used to cringe when my mother would hold up a dress she thought would look cute on Leah and ask the sales clerk if they stocked the same dress in “chubby” for me.
My younger brother, Don, was born two and a half years after I was, when we were living in Northampton, Massachusetts. My first memory of my brother is of him peeing on my hair as my mother changed his diaper. “Take him back to the hospital,” I told my mother. “He pee-peed on my curls.” Despite my protests, Don was there to stay. At least he provided Leah and me with a soft (often damp) baby to dress up like a doll and take turns holding.
Valerie Harper diagnosed with terminal brain cancer
A few years after my brother’s birth, my father was reassigned to the tristate area. We moved from Northampton to South Orange, New Jersey, and our nomadic lifestyle was put on hold. We settled into a house with a huge backyard where Don, Leah, and I frequently played war games, pretending we were the Allies and the Japanese. Leah usually forced me to be a wounded Japanese soldier, which meant I had to lie on the ground while Don and Leah used me as a shield. It wasn’t the most exciting role available in our make-believe battlefield. Luckily, when I enrolled in kindergarten at the Mountain View School, I was first introduced to the stage.
I got my first big break playing a snowflake in a school recital. My mother made me a fluffy white costume, and along with the rest of the girls in my class, I tiptoed onto the stage, fluttered around a bit, and then, to portray accumulation, fell as silently as possible to the floor and froze. I guess all my war games with Leah and Don came in handy after all. The next year, I was given the role of a dove in the manger scene of the Christmas pageant. It was my first speaking role. My mother made me a gray costume with wings and a hood with a protruding beak. Leah, a realist and a fashionista, noted, “You look like a pigeon. Aren’t doves white?”
“Doves can be gray or white,” Mom explained.
I accepted my mom’s explanation, although it did seem that a white dove might have been more elegant. At the pageant, after I said my line, “I am the dove who cooed Him to sleep,” I cooed a little too loudly and got a laugh—my first laugh! Only, instead of seeing it as a good thing, I was worried that I’d done something wrong and decided to stick with dance to save myself from further embarrassment. And since music was such an important part of our household, dancing seemed only natural to me.
My parents were always trying to open our minds and inspire us to express ourselves. They diligently encouraged us to try new things and be open to a wide variety of experiences. At bath time my mother would switch on the radio, often something dynamic like a Sousa march, and give us what she called “air baths,” where we would run, skip, and dance around the house naked until we got in the tub.
Both my parents loved music and turned us on to all kinds of songs. My mother was a self-taught pianist. She played everything—ragtime, honky-tonk, pop standards—everything but classical music, which she appreciated but said made her sad. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of singing around the piano with my parents, sister, and brother, or listening to my father’s smooth baritone as he belted out “Stardust,” “Deep Purple,” and other hits from the 1940s.
It was during this period in South Orange that my parents took me to the ballet for the first time. I was enthralled by the opening ballet—Interplay, choreographed by Jerome Robbins and starring Michael Kidd and Ruth Ann Koesun as a stagehand and a ballerina. Except for a ladder and a work light, the stage was hauntingly empty. The ballerina, in her pink tights and rehearsal leotard, and the stagehand, in his overalls, danced a beautiful pas de deux. I was entranced and inspired. On the way home from the theater, I told my parents that I was going to be a dancer.
This probably didn’t come as a surprise to them. Even at six years old, I knew I wanted to be a performer. I just wasn’t sure what my outlet would be—dance, ice-skating, roller-skating, gymnastics. I even considered becoming an aerialist. After my parents took me to the circus, I tried to re-create one of the acrobats’ feats by racing my tricycle across our cement basement floor, then standing up on the handlebars. It was harder than it looked; I wound up cross-eyed with a concussion.
To their credit, my parents took my declaration that I was going to be a dancer quite seriously. (They were probably relieved that I’d given up on the circus.) Although we were middle-class, Dad always found the money for my lessons at whichever local dance school Mom had discovered.
When first grade finished, Dad was dispatched to the West Coast, moving us to Altadena, then to Pasadena, California, where I instantly embraced my surroundings; the towering palm trees were like nothing grown in New Jersey. We lived on Orange Grove Boulevard, which meant the Rose Bowl Parade went right by our house. Every year Dad made money hand over fist by charging parade-goers to park their cars in our backyard.
Because we moved around a lot, we three kids were adept at making friends quickly, and we even managed to keep in touch with people we’d left behind. To an outgoing and energetic seven-year-old like me, moving to a new city and starting a new school was more exciting than scary. In Altadena, Mom enrolled us at Thomas Edison Grammar, where I made friends quickly and settled into our new West Coast environs with ease.
In Pasadena, I became serious about ballet. My teacher was Pamela Andre, a calm, soft-spoken former professional dancer. She had a studio downtown where I took lessons twice a week. This was the big time. Before, Mom had found me whatever local dance school was convenient, and there I bounced around with my classmates pretending to be butterflies, not exactly preparing for the Bolshoi.
Whenever we moved during the school year, my mother had to find public schools that would take us midterm. When we relocated to Pasadena, the only place that had room for me was St. Andrews, a Catholic school. Before coming out west, we had attended Sunday school at the nearest Protestant church. But once my mother saw how rigorous my education was compared to that of Leah, who was still in public school, she decided that all three of us would attend Catholic school whenever possible.
When the next school year rolled around, my mother put us into a Catholic boarding school in Pomona so that our educations would not be affected by my father’s travel schedule. This allowed her to accompany Dad on his longer road trips. The Academy of the Holy Names was a beautiful Mission-style school located next to an orange grove. It was an idyllic setting, apart from the fact that they used to burn smudge pots in the fields to prevent frost from ruining the orange crop over the winter. When we woke up in the morning, we had little black Charlie Chaplin mustaches on our upper lips from breathing in the smoke. Clearly, this was before there was an EPA.
We spent only one year at the Academy of the Holy Names before moving to Monroe, Michigan, where Leah and I were enrolled in St. Mary’s Academy, another boarding school. (Don attended the boys’ school, Hall of the Divine Child.) I was ten years old when we moved to Michigan, old enough to sense that there was tension between my parents—arguments, sharp words. There was a girl in my class whose parents were divorced, something that was still scandalous back in the 1940s. I had a suspicion that this was where my folks were headed, and I wanted to prevent it. So, one Sunday when my parents were visiting us, I tried out my powers of manipulation on them. “Poor Marlene,” I said, “her mom and dad are divorced. I’m so glad that’s not you two.” (I could be a devious, self-preserving little devil sometimes.) I saw my parents exchange a knowing glance. I felt I had guilted them into staying together, at least for the time being. Mission accomplished.
I loved the year I spent at beautiful, pastoral St. Mary’s. We ice-skated on a lake and picked apples from an orchard on campus. My teachers, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, were fabulous—strict but devoted to their students. I made a wonderful friend, Bonnie MacKinaw, a tall girl with a terrific laugh, and from my classmates, I learned all sorts of skills, including embroidery and card games. Mom was shocked that I came home from Catholic school a gambler! I was also jacks champion of the fifth grade. Although I wasn’t surprised when my parents told me that we were moving again, I was sad to leave this remarkable place and Bonnie.
In 1951, propelled by the fear of the atom bomb (a common preoccupation in the 1950s), Dad moved us to Ashland, Oregon, a small, picturesque mountain town, where we stayed for three years. Ashland seemed remote compared to where we’d lived in New Jersey and California, but that was the point. It was much less of a target for the Russians!
In Ashland, I started junior high and enrolled in the Colleen Hope School of Dance. For the first time, I was moving away from ballet and into other styles, such as tap and tumbling. My mother continued to make the costumes that I performed in at recitals and benefits, painstakingly sewing each outfit by hand, as she had done ever since my snowflake debut. For a routine set to “In a Persian Market,” she made me a two-piece fake-leopard-skin number, complete with a matching cap that had huge hoop earrings attached to it, and a floor-length fuchsia chiffon scarf edged in gold trim that trailed off of the cap and attached to my wrists. I had the potent theatrical realization that one’s costume was exceedingly important. My outfit made me feel both dramatic and free and inspired me to whirl about the stage clinking my finger cymbals with abandon.
Despite the elaborate costume, I wasn’t exactly glamorous. I had no breasts yet, and my waist was still short, so my widest point was my midriff. I might have looked like an egg with legs, but I felt like Isadora Duncan. “In a Persian Market” was in such demand in every Lions Hall and Rotary Club in southern Oregon that I didn’t have time to feel bad about my physique.
In addition to giving me dance lessons at a new place called Miss Pat’s, Mom took Don and me to the Ashland roller rink several times a week. In the beginning, I skated around the rink, holding Don up until my arm ached. In a matter of months, he was speeding past me like a bullet. Don was as addicted to racing as I was to performing. As devoted as I was to dancing, part of me thought I might become a professional roller skater, if there even was such a thing. I learned to roller-dance with a partner and participated in roller shows in towns all over the Rogue River Valley.
Billie Graham, whose husband owned the rink and had lived in Hawaii, gave hula classes, which, naturally, I had to take. Again, my mother made my costumes—an iridescent hula skirt with colorful tulle and a skirt and lei made out of oilcloth so I could do a hula number in the pool at a swim show. Whenever my mother suggested fun activities, I turned them into performance opportunities.
During those years in Oregon, Dad was gone on more frequent and more lengthy road trips. As a result, Mom was alone a lot, so much that she was virtually a single parent. Since Don, Leah, and I were too young to drive, Mom had to chauffeur us wherever we needed to go, which left her little time to herself. One day I saw her trying to conceal tears while washing dishes, and I offered to stay home from the movies and keep her company.
“You are my darling twelve-year-old, and I love you, but sometimes I really need adult company. Now, you go and have fun.”
I didn’t want to leave, and I felt bad that there was nothing I could do to make her feel better. I know now that she would have been much happier going back to nursing—something she did several years later.
When my father was home, the discord between my parents became more pronounced. There was a low-grade but palpable tension in the house. As much as I loved Dad, things were easier in the house when he was away.
Except for the strained atmosphere at home, living in Ashland was wonderful—a small-town American idyll complete with a stately old library and a party line on the telephone; I was even a baton twirler on the school drill team. As usual, I made friends easily. Phyllis Knapp and her younger brother, Don, were very tight with me and my younger brother, Don. The boys were absolutely fascinated by cars and anything with an engine—a passion that my little brother would carry into adulthood. Phyllis, who dreamed of being a singer, and I shared intense show business aspirations. Mom accompanied Phyllis on the piano at a talent show in Grants Pass where I also performed the hula. I came in second. Sadly, Phyllis with her sweet soprano voice didn’t place. It was a somber ride home through the mountains. But real girlfriends abide and we became even closer after this experience.
Meanwhile, Leah had grown wilder and more independent—and just a little bit boy-crazy. She often sneaked back into our bedroom late at night smelling of alcohol and cigarettes. Long gone were the days of wearing matching outfits and singing around the piano. She had begun hanging out with a fast crowd, and her older friends seemed scary and dangerous to me. When she was only fifteen, Leah ran away to Reno, intending to marry a great-looking blond sailor—an impetuous move that was swiftly shut down by my parents.
While Leah was confident around boys—clearly too confident—I was a complete prude. I was acutely afraid of the romantic side of dealings with the opposite sex. Friends, buddies, pals? Great! Boyfriends? No. It didn’t help that my mother had several medical textbooks filled with graphic imagery of venereal diseases. That’ll scare you into celibacy if nothing else will. When I heard that a boy in junior high had a crush on me, I avoided him at all costs. I did, however, experience my first kiss during my time in Ashland. It wasn’t terribly exciting or romantic. I was helping my neighbor Kenny do some yard chores. His parents had asked us to carry a bucket of slop out to the pigs in their yard. (Ashland was that kind of town.) On our way to the pen, Kenny stopped dead in his tracks with the slop in one hand, turned, and pressed his closed lips against mine. I pulled away, startled, and ran home. It was a decidedly unglamorous kiss, but you always remember your first!
When the lighting company offered Dad a promotion back east, my parents jumped at the chance—they were eager to get Leah away from the kids she’d fallen in with since moving to Ashland. Odd as it might seem, they figured she’d be safer in a city where she’d be less likely to succumb to boredom and run off to Reno to get married, which was what many of her classmates were doing.
Even though it was October, Dad, Leah, and I (maybe my parents believed I’d be a good influence on my sister) got on a plane to New Jersey as soon as we could. Mom stayed behind to close up the house and let Don finish the semester. When we arrived in New Jersey, it was too late to enroll in school, so Leah and I had to wait until January to start the semester. This was terrific. We went on business trips with Dad to New England, and when Dad was working, Leah and I took the train or the bus to Manhattan. We headed straight for the movie theaters in Times Square—some of which were a little scuzzy, though more run-down than disreputable. Still, I felt like quite the adventurer, setting off for the city to catch a double feature before riding the bus back home.
Mom and Don joined us before Christmas, and after the New Year I started P.S. 11 in Jersey City. Before the move to Jersey City, switching schools had never bothered me. I’d come in like gangbusters, make friends, and adjust. But attending P.S. 11 was a huge culture shock for me, so different from Ashland. I was surrounded by all these streetwise, big-city kids with tough-sounding accents. Mistaking my accent for Southern, Gerald (Bubbie) Salerno nicknamed me “Florida.” All through grammar school, back when Valerie was still an unusual name, classmates called me “Celery,” “Calorie,” and the real stretch, “Malaria.” Thankfully, some new Jersey City girlfriends came to the rescue: Dottie Norton, a dead ringer for Rosie O’Donnell, Carol Newton, whom we called “Fig,” Maureen McGowan, a fabulous volleyball player, Lucille Acovelli, cut-up extraordinaire, and the sweet Carbanaro sisters, Suzanne and Stephanie. These new pals introduced me to pizza, egg creams, the great joy of hanging out at a corner luncheonette, and that famous city pastime, loitering on street corners. My parents threw a graduation party for the whole class at the end of eighth grade. I’d finally begun to take an interest in boys, and I remember them vividly—mostly Italian American, each one more dark and handsome and exciting than the next. We played spin the bottle (yoicks!), and that was about as racy as things ever got for me.
Once we’d settled into an eight-room apartment on Kensington Avenue, I began to focus on dance again. I would move all of the furniture against the walls of the living room so I could practice dance steps until I was exhausted. Mom knew that New York City was the place for me to study. She found a top-rated school called Ballet Arts, which was in Carnegie Hall. One of the major perks of studying at Carnegie Hall in those days was the chance of spotting Marlon Brando, who lived in the building, which I did once or twice. Studying ballet in the heart of Manhattan in one of the most renowned buildings in town with teachers from famous dance companies filled my teenage heart with hope. Maybe I really could become a dancer.
By the time I was in high school, I was commuting into the city four times a week to dance. I was living two separate lives but equally enjoyable ones. Lincoln High was a great adventure—football, homeroom, cute guys, and a group of great girlfriends: Barbara Zimmerman, Gilda “Cookie” Glaser, Lois Mischel, Ellen Rotkin, and Arlene Kahn, all Jewish girls who would have been Rhoda’s high school gang, too.
In the city, I had a circle of friends from ballet: pretty little Barbara Monte; graceful Pat Hayes, who married our teacher, the spectacular Vladimir Dokoudovsky; and exotic Toriana Santiago from the Bronx, who studied Spanish dance as well as ballet.
When I wasn’t at Ballet Arts or hanging out with my friends from Lincoln, I was going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Kathy Dugan, one of my best friends and an Egyptology buff, roller-skating at the rink in Bayonne, or staging backyard performances for our parents with my neighbor pal, Elaine Gray, who was hilarious. Our big musical number was “Side by Side.”
During my second year at Ballet Arts, a new teacher named John Gregory came to teach a class in jazz dance. It was like nothing I’d ever seen taught before—exciting, distinctive, and, well, jazzy. I was still a ballet purist, and I was scared to try something so wild and sexy. Along with a group of curious ballet girls, I watched Gregory’s class for two weeks until I worked up the courage to try it. And I loved it. Ballet training enabled me to learn the steps, but the music—with songs like “Night Train”—helped me find the sensual style of jazz. Eventually, I enrolled at the famed Luigi Jazz Center, where I take classes to this day.
Despite my interest in jazz, ballet was still my first and best love. I worked hard to improve my technique, determined to achieve my dream of joining a ballet company one day. When my parents saw the depth of my commitment, they pushed me harder. “If you’re going to be taking class four days a week, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be dancing full-time,” they reasoned. When it came to encouragement and support, my parents were world-class. They never wavered in affording us every opportunity to study, work hard, and find success. A lot of little girls wanted to be ballerinas. How many had parents like mine?
Through a classmate at Ballet Arts, I learned about a fully accredited school in Manhattan called Quintano’s School for Young Professionals. It was a private school for kids in show business, run by a stylish gentleman named Mr. Quintano out of a dance studio on West Fifty-sixth Street, right behind Carnegie Hall. So I left Lincoln High and enrolled at this new school, where the flexible class schedule allowed me to spend the majority of my time at Ballet Arts while still finishing high school.
Quintano’s was a tiny and eclectic school with eclectic students, including Sal Mineo, Carol Lynley, and Tuesday Weld. Our classes—English, German, history, and math—were held at various card tables in different corners of the studio.
My best friend from Ballet Arts, Barbara Monte, enrolled at Quintano’s, and we stayed pretty much joined at the hip. Barbara and I were good pals with Mike Mineo, Sal’s older brother, and he got us into our first movie premiere—Crime in the Streets, starring Sal and John Cassavetes. Like the other girls at the theater, we screamed for Sal even though he was our classmate.
Between being around show business kids and going into the city every day for classes, I felt part of a new, scintillating world. It was probably a good thing that I was out of the house most of the day, as my parents’ marriage was disintegrating quickly. Family dinners were particularly tense. There was a lot of drama, a lot of jumping up from the table and storming out, and plenty of sour looks and bitter words.
One particularly strained Thanksgiving dinner was punctuated by Mom slamming pots around in the kitchen while Dad sat at the head of the table, clenching his jaw and kneading his napkin in anger. To break the tension, my very funny but sarcastic sister said in an announcer voice, “And now we bring you The Emotional Hour.” Don and I burst into laughter. Poor Dad headed for his office. Poor Mom headed for the bedroom. The three of us shrugged and ate more dressing.
My parents tried to stay together for the sake of their children because that was what people did, but we all could see that they might be happier without each other. They were both remarkable people, but they didn’t work well together. There was nothing clichéd about my parents’ eventual separation—no violence, no cheating, no drinking or gambling, just deep incompatibility.
My father still traveled a lot for work, which relieved the tension in the house. But we sensed that these absences were only a temporary solution. My mother and my brother weren’t happy in New Jersey. Don missed his friends and the quieter small-town life in Ashland, and Mom wanted to get out of the marriage and back to working as a nurse. Leah had just graduated from high school and broken up with a long-term boyfriend and needed a change. When Mom told me that she, Don, and Leah were moving back to the house we still owned in Ashland, I wanted to go, too.
But Mom wouldn’t hear of me returning to Oregon. “Val, honey, you’re really getting to be a good dancer. I don’t want you to come back to Ashland with me and ruin your chance for a real career. It’s a young person’s profession, and you need to take advantage of it while you can. You’ve already invested so much in it.”
Again, Mother knew best. If I moved to Ashland, I would lose two years of first-rate training while I finished high school and consequently might never get into a ballet company. It was painful for me to see them go, but Mom convinced me that staying was the best thing for my future. Close as she and I had always been, it couldn’t have been easy for her to come to this decision. But Mom had boundless faith in us and always put her kids’ best interests first, no matter the cost to her. She assured me that if it didn’t work out for me, I could always join them later. Like she always said about new foods when we were little, “You don’t have to eat it, but you must taste it.” Mom wanted me to give living on my own a chance.
Since my dad would be traveling for work a considerable amount, Mom had to figure out a way for me to stay on the East Coast and be looked after. She soon discovered the Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls in Manhattan (obviously not the Pretty Woman type of working girl). The perfect solution—she was confident that I would be safe there, and I could attend Quintano’s and Ballet Arts during the week and return to the apartment in Jersey City with Dad on the weekends. My father’s office was in the Empire State Building, so if I needed anything, I could contact him or ask his secretary, a marvelous, warmhearted young woman named Angela.
I loved living at the Clara de Hirsch Home. It was a grand mansion on Sixty-third Street between Second and Third avenues. It had a gorgeous foyer and a reception room for entertaining male visitors, who obviously were forbidden to go upstairs. There was a communal kitchen where each resident kept a little basket in the massive refrigerator with her own food in it.
Living in the city on my own was exciting. Even though my father kept close tabs on me, I felt like a big deal. I was on course. I was determined to finish high school in case I decided to go to college, but I was more focused than ever and doing my best to become a working professional dancer.
Despite my independence, I was an inveterate prude. I didn’t mind that the boys from the trade school near the Clara de Hirsch Home whistled at me, but I wouldn’t dare talk to them. I dressed conservatively in sensible pumps, maybe a black-watch-plaid sheath dress, and always crocheted white gloves, even on the grimy subway in the height of summer! It was a 1940s holdover from my mom, who would say, “A lady never goes out without gloves!” A true child of the 1950s, I idolized sweet, demure stars like Natalie Wood, Doris Day, and Debbie Reynolds. The overt sexuality of Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell embarrassed me. I was convinced that if I had sex, I’d immediately get a venereal disease, get pregnant, or both. I also knew that sex meant losing the respect of the man you’d “given in to.” Although, I still think a little savvy self-preservation is an asset for any female.
Since moving to the city, I had much more time and freedom to take performing arts classes outside my comfort zone of ballet. A classmate at Quintano’s suggested that I sign up for an acting class at John Cassavetes’s studio. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I went for it.
I was nervous—no, terrified—before my first acting class. I dressed in what I thought was appropriate: a pink and aqua tweed skirt, a pink angora sweater with a Peter Pan collar poking out, and high-heeled pumps with seamed stockings. I arrived early to my first class, pencil and steno pad in hand, ready to take down every word Mr. Cassavetes said. Soon the rest of the class began to slink in, shabby, glowering beatnik guys, all of whom were dressed in black and oozing attitude and acute self-importance. I must have looked like a sight gag.
I lasted only a couple of weeks. While I loved hearing Cassavetes, I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Since I was the new girl and something of a refined novelty, a few of the men in the class asked me out. I lied and told them I lived in New Jersey—quite an effective deterrent. I couldn’t admit that I lived in the Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls. That would have seemed like an open invitation. As my sister once warned me, “With men, if you don’t want to do something, don’t do it.”
“Okay, Leah,” I said. “Do you hold back?”
“No! Because I want to do it,” she said, and giggled.
Acting class and sexual activity both could wait. Dance was infinitely more important. While attending Quintano’s, I auditioned all over town, hoping to get into a ballet company. But I had no such luck. I was so jealous of my pal Pat Hayes, who had gotten into the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company. In 1956 I finally landed my first paying job as a replacement dancer in the Corps de Ballet at Radio City Music Hall. It was only a six-week run, but I was elated. The Radio City Corps de Ballet might not have had the prestige of Ballet Theatre or Balanchine’s company, but to a sixteen-year-old, it was a gigantic deal.
This was in the glory days of Radio City, back when it was a premier movie palace. Following a movie, there was a complete stage show including a full orchestra, a dog act, a magician, an acrobat, singers, the world-famous Radio City Music Hall organ, and us, the thirty-six dancers known as “Ballet Girls” who comprised the Corps de Ballet. The stars of this extravaganza were the much lauded Rockettes. At one show, these poor girls had to do their precision kicking with some perverted fool in the front row watching them through binoculars. Four of these shows were staged per day, which meant a lot of performances. Every time the movie changed, so did the stage show, and we had to learn entirely new numbers.
Backstage was like an actual city. It would have been possible to live there without ever leaving the building. The rehearsal halls were enormous, with a dormitory that had assigned beds where you could sleep between shows, as well as a massive cafeteria and a huge dressing room with many showers. There was a screening room to watch movies between the stage performances. And you could stay there all day, or you could go out and return in time for your performance.
On the first day of rehearsal, I was terribly sick to my stomach, but I was so excited to be working that I made it through the day. I had to work hard to keep up with the strong, seasoned professional dancers who made up the thirty-six members of the Corps de Ballet. The numbers tended to be sweeping, colorful, and dynamic to fill the gigantic stage. In a number set in a gold mine, we rose from beneath the stage on a huge elevator, shimmering gold nuggets in toe shoes. In another number we were spring flowers twirling parasols and waltzing to Gershwin.
It was grueling work, but what could be better? I was a working performer (on my toes!)—dancing, no less, in one of the most legendary theaters in New York City, where my parents had taken me when I was little. There I was, sixteen years old with working papers in hand. (A young person’s profession, indeed.) I was now a member of AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists), the union that covered Radio City Music Hall, nightclubs, and, I think, the circus (handy, should I ever decide to reprise my tricycle balancing act). Now that I had my first real taste of the business they call show, I couldn’t get enough of it. I was ready for more.
From I, RHODA by Valerie Harper. Reprinted by arrangement of Gallery Books, a member of Simon & Schuster. Copyright (c) 2013 by Valerie Harper.