Joan Crawford Hulton Archive/General Photographic Agency
By Amy Phillips Penn

VINTAGE GOSSIP is alive and well in the elegant hands of Amy Phillips Penn, former society columnist for the New York Post. Every Thursday, Amy pens her posts with that same touch of class, making the legends and lore of a bygone era as relevant today as they were when Jackie O was queen of New York.


Mildred: “Yes, I’m waiting tables in a downtown restaurant.”
Veda [contemptuously]: “My mother — a waitress.”


Our world of images is often sharp and deceitfully seismic. Mildred Pierce is the wife of a wealthy man gone bust who abandoned her. She is now a “grass widow.”

A what?

Grass Widow
1. A woman who is divorced or separated from her husband. 2. A woman whose husband is temporarily absent. 3. An abandoned mistress. 4. The mother of a child.

Where’s the grass?

The book sashayed into Academy Award red carpet turf, with Joan Crawford winning for her immortal portrayal of Mildred Pierce. Enter censorship, as the book goes Hollywood: the ironic companion to the blistering pain of walking a waitress’s walk in institutional shoes paid for with borrowed money — a cocktail of fear, shame, and implicit defeat.

The Motion Picture Production Code nixed the images of a sexual relationship (not to “violate” incest and infidelity) and morphed it into a more palatable subject: murder.

Images shout.

Mildred Pierce doesn’t imbibe; she makes a half-empty glass in Glendale into a succes fou of a California restaurant empire. The perfect veneer of Don Draper melts into suicidal demise when his identity is threatened…then there are our mother’s images.

When my mother was pregnant in her late 30s, she was shaky in her expanding physical shapelessness. She considered herself ancient to be in this condition. She rocked my world and I let her know it.

When she attended a mother’s tea at my school, the other mothers and my classmates cheered her on. One woman gave her a stalactite of a stare, which penetrated her being into a shiver, a familiar quake to those who are envied.

When Women’s Wear Daily photographed her after my sister’s arrival, with the caption, “young mother out for a stroll,” she was over the moon and the Big Dipper. Being in WWD was icing, but being called young was caviar.

Riding the wave of grass widowhood or social status does not come with a manual. Not every woman can waltz into that storm and kick off their Guccis. Chapters of our mothers other lives are often unveiled — the snake in the drawer that slithers into uninvited turf.

One of my former classmates revealed that her mother had taken in boarders, while her daughter was consigned to the living room couch. Her mother was Auntie Mame-ish, so the go-with-the-flow gig made for a colorful chapter in hindsight. How it would have been received with the more conventional mothers of our times was “something else.”

A top-of-the-Southampton-A-list wife of an American aristocrat found herself behind the sweater counter at Saks in between marriages. It was a surreal experience that she was grateful not to re-live.

In Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of a wealthy socialite gone broke, crashes into a not-so-grand finale, with her crumbled on a park bench, muttering jet-setting phrases; she evokes the cringe in all of us.

[mumbling to herself]: “They gossip, you know, they talk. I saw Danny. Yes, did I tell you? He’s getting married. A weekend in Palm Beach means I can wear… what could I wear? I can wear the Dior dress I bought in Paris. Yes, my black dress. Well, Hal always used to surprise me with jewelry. Extravagant pieces. I think he used to buy them at auction. It’s so obvious what you’re doing. You think I don’t know. French au pair. [“Blue Moon” begins playing.] This was playing on the Vineyard. “Blue Moon.” I used to know the words. I used to know the words. Now they’re all a jumble.”

The Ms. of all Ms.’s, Gloria Steinem, confesses to a terror of living as a bag lady.

Fate had a different plan.

Welcome to a more adventurous world, where anything goes if you wear it with flair. With a little attitude coupled with “act as if,” we can walk in just about anyone’s shoes, at least for a step or two, and ride on to the winner’s circle.

For more VINTAGE GOSSIP, click here.