The Daily Heller: Barbie and the Anti-Ken

Posted inThe Daily Heller

On this fourth and final day of the Daily Heller Barbie commemoration, below is an excerpt from my memoir, Growing Up Underground, that describes my teenage love affair with a real life Barbie surrogate—a very successful television commercial actress. The story spans 1960–1966, when, during my metamorphosis from tween to teen, I watched excessive hours of Saturday morning TV with dozens of commercials for dolls, racing cars, assorted popular toys and other gender-targeted consumables, contributing to the Marxist-Capitalist I am today.

This portion of my memoir begins with a recollection of being released from confinement in a nightmarish private prep school into a progressive high school that was my heaven on earth. It segues into a miraculous encounter with a beautiful dream girl who was the embodiment of the transistional Barbie “stereotype”. Although we were total opposites (my shaggy hippie persona was the anti-Ken, while her unblemished pert look was Barbie incarnate), incredibly we were a perfect match.

(I decided not to show the only photograph I have of her from back then for privacy reasons; the photo of me below was taken by her at that time.)

The McBurney reprieve changed my deeply dour teenage life and ended my descent into Dante’s nine rings of high school hell. It was a dream come true. If I still had any doubts about the miracle of redemption, I became an unequivocal believer in a divine power when a second impossible dream came true. I was on a good karma roll.

Many years earlier I had a vicarious crush on a child actress-model who appeared in scores of ubiquitous commercials for the advertisers and sponsors of dozens of Saturday morning network TV kids’ shows. These fantasies were in no way overtly erotic—I simply daydreamed that we were going steady—and like the lyrics of so many pop songs, I imagined that she “wore my ring.” I was realistic enough to know she was an unattainable obsession. Dreaming, wishing or praying was not going to make our relationship real. She was so pretty; she was the quintessential embodiment of blemish-free American Barbie perfection, the talisman on commercials for toys, dolls, games, cereal and more. She was a familiar, welcome presence on all the television shows from when she was 6, 7 or 8 years old until she was, say, around 11 or 12 years old. Then she just disappeared. I reasoned she was the victim of “old age.” I forgot about her.

Until one night. As it happened, I was home alone while my parents were off on one of their long vacations. I was watching Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” when, near the sign-off at around 1 a.m.—the time most networks aired their mandatory pro-bono public service commercials—I saw an oldie that had played a few years earlier. I remembered it vividly. It featured a young boy and girl sitting on a building stoop reciting their lines in a call and response singsong manner: “Mayor Wagner does it,” said the boy, “Mickey Mantle does it,” said the girl. “Willie Mays does it,” and so forth. After a couple more names, together they looked directly at the camera, smiled, and in unison uttered the catch-line: “They all pitch in for a cleaner New York.”

It was the girl!

The very same actress I had such a crush on from those Saturday morning commercials. Since this PSA was produced a few years before, I presumed that she was older and gorgeous too in the well-scrubbed, bright-eyed way that typified an American ideal. She was my ideal. I wondered if she were still an actress. Remembering my vintage memories, I drifted off into a deep sleep.

I can tell you she was, indeed, older and gorgeous. The most beautiful girl ever. How did I know? After all, there was no Google Image search engine in 1966. It was like being in the most remarkable dream anyone could ever hope to have.

The reality, however, goes like this. The very next evening, that girl on TV walked into my parents’ apartment. I wasn’t hallucinating or delusional (I didn’t do any drugs, then or ever). Yes, she was older. Yes, she was a striking redhead, wearing red lipstick with a TV model’s smile. If I hadn’t believed in a merciful God before, this marvel certainly cinched the deal.

As random as this visitation might seem, it was not as divine as walking on water, making fishes into loaves, or curing the blind. I was friends with quite a few kids who were working in show business. (I even tried auditioning, yet gave up after failing to get any parts, even walk-ons.) My friends went to the Professional Children’s School or the Lincoln Square established for professional child actors, musicians, singers, and dancers. One inevitability of growing up in New York’s private schooled, middle-class social circle was being classmates or teammates or party friends or steadies with the children of famous people or befriending kids who were themselves moderately famous in roles on TV soaps or Broadway theater. At McBurney my friends included Chris Roberts, son of Pernell Roberts of Bonanza; Jason Robards III, son of actor Jason Robards Jr.; Keith Kaufman, son of Murray Kaufman (Murray the K), WINS disc jockey and the so-called fifth Beatle; and Richard Thomas, who the year after leaving McBurney School became John Boy, star of the hit show The Waltons on CBS. I hung out for a while with Mia Farrow’s younger sister Tisa and quite a few other kids who then or later became actors and show business personalities.

One such friend, Jan—a 15-year-old aspiring singer-actress and the daughter of a veteran Broadway performer—would occasionally stop by my [parents’] apartment [in Stuyvesant Town]. Jan’s best friend was Virginia (Chicky) Mason, that girl on the Saturday commercials. Her divorced stage mom had left her job as a commercial artist (I had no idea what that was) to manage her daughter’s brief though successful and, I assumed, lucrative career. Jan and I went out from time to time but were not exclusive. We’d make out, mostly. It was a coincidence that on that night, after I’d watched the old PSA, she brought Chicky to my house on the chance we’d make a nice couple. We did.

Coincidence or fate? I don’t believe that it was a coincidence, but I’m skeptical about fate. It was generous of Jan, I’ll say that.

Chicky was the first girl I ever loved and who loved me back. We spent all our free time together. Life seems to go more slowly when you’re that age; in fact, we were together only six or seven months before an argument led to a sad breakup. I still think fondly of those times with her.

[And with the release of Greta Gerwig’s riff on the American myth, I have been thinking a lot of how my few months going steady with a real-life Barbie influenced my circuitous adolescence.]

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