Adventures with my bad-girl friend
In her posthumous memoir, Janet Malcolm recalls being pulled into the orbit of a charismatic rebel
From ‘Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory’ by Janet Malcolm (Faber, £16.99), published on Feb 2
There was a girl in junior high school named Connie Munez who was like the heroine of a fairy tale: preternaturally beautiful, extraordinarily kind, and without much character. The rest of us – this was a girls’ junior high school – paid court to her, flocked around her, vied for her attention, which she dispensed generously and indiscriminately. She had pale skin and black hair, rosy cheeks and a lovely smile. It was a long time before I realised how bland she was. I’m not sure why her image and my idea of her as uninteresting have stayed in my memory. My bad-girl friend Francine Reese has a stronger grip on my retrospective imagination. We became best friends against my parents’ wishes. Somehow they knew of her reputation, and there may have been something they knew and didn’t like about her parents. We would walk home from school together, sometimes stopping off at a candy store on York Avenue to share a malted milkshake and a pretzel. Candy stores in those days were cramped dark places, like shoerepair stores, where penny candy, newspapers and odd items called “sundries” were sold, and icecream sodas and milkshakes were prepared by the testy but goodhearted owner. The man who made our milkshake would unerringly dispense exactly the right amount of milk, vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup and malt to fill two glasses to the brim after the machine had performed its noisy tour de force. I have a memory of Francine looking up from her glass, as if emerging from an altered state, and saying, “It tastes so good.” That these unremarkable words should have stayed in my mind while more significant utterances have disappeared is another instance of memory’s perversity. Francine was always in trouble at school. She had in her the spirit of defiance and rebelliousness. I no longer know, if I ever did, what she got into trouble about. But I had one indelible experience of being pulled into her orbit of rule-breaking chaos. I myself was a “good” girl, though not an especially good student, and in my attempt to please my parents without going to the trouble of serious academic effort, I went in for worthy-sounding extracurricular activities. One of these (it may have been an appearance on a radio programme of students inanely holding forth on “current events”) led to an invitation, extended through the school, to join an idealistic organisation called the World Friendship Council of the Future and to attend an upcoming reception. I naturally accepted the invitation, but had the terrible idea of bringing Francine with me to the reception. It was held at a fancy Park Avenue apartment, and the scene, as I remember it, was the apotheosis of Park Avenue wealth and stuffiness: elegantly dressed people sitting on antique sofas and chairs; maids in uniform passing delicious-looking canapés; the hum of low, cultivated voices. For Francine, of course, this decorum was only another opportunity for disruptive mischief. She ran about, laughing, upsetting things, poking into places not for guests to poke into. But she didn’t run alone; she took me with her as a helpless accomplice. I have a geographic memory of the occasion – a room with guests and maids and canapés clustered at one end and an unoccupied area at the other that Francine, with me in tow, had appropriated for her fun and games. I would have preferred sitting on a velvet sofa at the party proper, sucking up to the rich grown-ups, and eating the delicious canapés. But I had brought Francine and there was no question of abandoning her. I was like the refined young man who inadvertently finds himself in good society with his coarse mistress but refuses to pretend he doesn’t know her. I knew I had made a blunder, but didn’t regret my loyalty to my friend; my chief regret was having to forgo the canapés. Some weeks later a letter came to me at school. It surfaced a few years ago in a box of family papers, and I have it before me now. It is typewritten on the stationery of an organisation called World Festivals for Friendship, Inc, and bears the signature of its executive director, a woman named Gerda Schairer, and the initials of the person to whom it was dictated. The date is April 10, 1947. On the left side of the stationery there is a long list of “World Friendship Sponsors” among them Fiorello La Guardia, Rockwell Kent, Lily Pons, Fannie Hurst, and Thomas Mann. The letter reads: Dear Friend, As I asked Dr. Turner to choose a few new members for the World Friendship Council of the Future to substitute for the members who had left town, I guess he misunderstood me and chose some children, who we feel are too young to take part at such meetings as are held by the World Council of the Future. You were kind enough to be present at two meetings, but we feel that it may be better if you would discontinue your visits in the future and perhaps later on in two or three years’ time you may get more pleasure in joining such a group. You and your friends are most welcome to attend the celebration of The World Friendship Day on May 8 as a member of the audience. Please let us know if you and your friends intend to be present and we will be glad to send you invitations. I can imagine the mortification this letter brought me. I feel for the girl who had to read its cruel, punishing words. At the same time, I have to smile at the ghost of Francine that emerges from the angry text and has a kind of last laugh. To get so deeply under the skin of a grown woman as to make her forget her grown-upness and reduce her to a spiteful child lashing out at another is no small feat. I am struck by a phrase in the letter – “you were kind enough to be present at two meetings”. So it appears I had been to the ritzy apartment once before the disastrous visit. Pre-Francine, I had done it right; I had ingratiated myself with the illustrious guests and tasted the delicious canapés. A second invitation had followed and, had I not brought Francine, there would have been a third and a fourth. Who knows, I might still be going to meetings of the World Friendship Council of the Future. Francine and I went to different high schools, and the friendship came to a natural end. Over the years, other bad girls entered my life. I was attracted to them for their rebelliousness, and I suppose they were attracted to me the way certain gay men are attracted to straight men in whom they sense – with or utterly without reason – a glimmer of hope of conversion. I never became genuinely bad, but while in the subversive company of these girls I was able to surmount some of my native goody-goodyness. (Wartime America had provided particularly fertile soil for it.) Francine’s interest in me may have held an element of wistfulness as well, perhaps even of envy. I lived in one of the new apartment buildings on the block, while she lived in a tenement; her father was working class, mine was a doctor. There was something tormented and driven in her manic behaviour; she may have suffered abuse at home. I don’t know what became of her, or of Connie. Francine may remember me. I doubt that Connie does.