Today was a pretty major birthday for three of the most major influential women in my life:
In 1930, Nancy Drew was “born,” with the release of The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, and The Bungalow Mystery. Fifty years later I was at Robin Noble’s house for a sleepover and saw that she had a book that looked interesting, The Mystery at Lilac Inn, on her bookshelf. The cover captivated me: two ghostly girls with white dresses and glowing bracelets, one blonde, one brunette. I opened it and began to read, and started my life long love and obsession, really, with the intrepid titian-haired teen detective. Nancy was smart, capable, modest, and kind, and when I found out that “titian” meant pretty much red-headed, I felt validated for my own maligned haircolor. That book took me to a whole different world — much more than the Narnia books ever did — and I wanted so badly to be a part of it and to own each and every one. (I do, in several different editions. I guess it opened up the world of collecting, too.) And I think I can trace back my love of vintage clothes and aesthetics to Nancy — after all, I loved those books and covers and illustrations so much, and wanted to drive a roadster and eat in smart tea-rooms and wear pretty frocks. I learned more from her than anyone else, and feminist theorists can write whatever they want about her, but I don’t care. I will always love her and she will always be my best friend, and I will always admire her unwavering sense of justice, and carry an emergency $5 in my pocketbook and avoid getting drugged with chloroform, all thanks to her.
Nelle Harper Lee was born a few years before Nancy, but like the fictional heroine, her father was a lawyer and she was smart and feisty, too, and probably the literary queen of social justice (whether she likes that or not). And like the Nancy Drew books I gobbled up a few years before I was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird in ninth grade, Harper Lee opened another world and obsession for me: Southern literature. When my English class was reading it, I had to go to Chicago with my parents, so I had to read it on the airplane and do little synopses on every chapter to prove that I was following along. And boy, did I. I loved that book so much that I didn’t just do little summaries — I did an entire journal, writing the things that I would never have the nerve to say in class. I poured my heart out to my teacher, Mrs. Pellom, about how much it affected me, and how much it made me cry, and how unfair the world was. It made me realize that times may have changed in the twenty years since the book was written and since the setting of the 1930s, but things were still far from okay –I suppose it was my first political and sociological awakening. But I also discovered what a perfectly written book was. To this day it is still my absolute favorite, and I still cry, and I still thank Mrs. Pellom for assigning it to us in Freshman English.
And now for someone completely different: Ann-Margret. Well, I first knew her as Ann Margrock on The Flintstones, of course, and then as Kim in Bye Bye Birdie, which I thought was so colorful and glamorous and weird and wonderful. (Again with the whole early 1960s thing…) And then, my God, with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas, aka most epic first date of ALL TIME. They do more stuff on that date (except, you know, it) than I do in a year. They do couple song and dance numbers, water ski, ride mopeds, take a helicopter over the Hoover Dam, go to a nightclub… It makes me tired just thinking about it. And Kitten with a Whip which I just found slightly confusing and bizarre when I was young, but melodramatically silly and great, too. I loved her and wanted to be her — sexy but sweet, multi-talented but charming, nice but kind of, well, odd. (Hello, Tommy and all the crazy ’70s and ’80s stuff.) A good and bad girl. I was never really any of those things, but there were two things in common we did share — red hair and being Swedish. She was my ideal, and I still wish I could be as fabulous as she is. (I tried. It didn’t really work so well.)
So it’s pretty crazy that three strong women influences share the same birthday — all that are missing are Dorothy Parker, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Judy Blume, and Neely O’Hara. But thinking about it… If these are the women I put on a pedestal and have tried to emulate nearly my whole life, that kind of does explain a lot. Huh.
Anyway, Happy Birthday, Nancy, Nelle, and Ann-Margret! I’m so glad you were born! All three of you have made this world a much better place.