Penthouse Retrospective

by Studs Terkel Originally Published: October, 1980

The American Dream | 40 Years Ago This Month

The idea of the movie star, the perfectlooking woman or man, who has breakfast at a glass table on a terrace where there are no mosquitoes. No one ever went to the bathroom in movies. I grew up assuming that movie stars did not. I thought it was terrible to be a regular human being. Movie stars did not look awful ever. They never threw up. They never got really sick, except in a wonderful way where they’d get a little sweaty, get sort of a gloss on the face, and then die. They didn’t shrivel or shrink away. They didn’t have acne. The women didn’t have menstrual cramps. Sex, when I ran across it, in no way resembled anything I had ever seen in the movies. I didn’t know how to respond.

I think the reason we’re so crazy sexually in America is that all our responses are acting. We don’t know how to feel. We know how it looked in the movies.

I hated the idea that I was bright. There was a collision between bright and pretty and seductive. I wanted to be one of those girls the guys just wanted to do one thing to. I wanted to be one of those blonde jobs. That’s what they used to call them — jobs. A tall job. A slim job. Somebody you could work on.

I wanted to be Rhonda Fleming or Lana Turner. I refused to see what the inside of their lives was like. They didn’t see it either. It was carefully kept from them. My God, look at the life. Getting up at 5:30 in the morning before your brain has begun to function, getting rolled out in a limousine and having people work on your body and your face. Remember, they were very young people when they came out here. Imagine having all your waking life arranged all the time. They became machines. No wonder the sensitive ones went insane or killed themselves.

The studio had the power. The studio would hire the fan club. The head of the club was on the star’s payroll. The star was usually not even aware of where the money was going, to whom, tor what. The whole thing was manufactured. Fame is manufactured. Stardom is manufactured. After all these years, it always comes as a surprise to me.

The thing that affected me most doesn’t exist anymore. It’s easy to forget how gorgeous and unreal that land was. Oz was not designed by art directors. Oz was just a copy of how it looked when you came from the East and first saw California. If you compare Dorothy’s first vision of Oz, when she walks out that morning, it was exactly how I feel whenever I come home to California after I’ve been out East. There’s nothing like the color. Can you imagine what it must have been tor those people coming out there? Technicolor is a copy of what was actually California.

I remember lying in my bed in this beautiful castle house in the hills. All through the windows were these bowers of jacaranda trees with purple flowers, and the sun was shining. My husband called and said President Kennedy had been shot and killed. My image came from A Tale of Two Cities. I thought: “They’re gonna tear the place apart.”

They, the country, the people. The people I saw in newsreels, March of Time movies, where there’d be crowd scenes. I never thought of people as individuals, but just those crowd scenes. The extras. They’re gonna get goddamn mad, the extras, and they’re gonna tear the fucking place apart. It was all movies.

Out of the corner of my eye, I knew there were people watching who seemed smarter than we were. These would be the writers, who were cynical. They didn’t believe it was all gonna work out all right. They didn’t believe all movies were wonderful. I sensed this coming. I think the snake in the Garden of Eden was my growing awareness. The reality was always there. I chose not to see it. The thing that terrified me most was my own intelligence and power of observation. The more I saw, the more I tried not to see. So I drank too much and took as many drugs as I could so as not to see.

Couldn’t bear it, the reality. Couldn’t bear to feel my father was wrong. Couldn’t bear the idea that it was not the best of all possible worlds. Couldn’t bear the idea that there was a living to be made. That punishment does not always come to those that deserve it. That good people die in the end.

I think we’re all skidding away; we’re destroying. California is just a little bit of it. The more bleak I become, the more — l live in Connecticut, okay? I read somewhere Connecticut has the highest incidence of intestinal cancer in the world. I think that’s because we eat ourselves alive there. We’re filled with despair, and it just rots us away, Where I live looks exactly like the MGM back lot idea of a small New England town. There’s no pressure in Connecticut; it’s all okay. Nobody is working much, there aren’t many jobs, a lot of businesses are failing. But it looks so sweet. It looks endearing. During the blizzard you would have thought that Currier and Ives came in there. That several people I know lost everything they own in that goddamn endearing blizzard, nobody really thinks about that. It looks like the American Dream.

Coleman Young

The mayor of Detroit.

We came to Detroit from Alabama in December of ’23. We lived on the Lower East Side, which was the major ghetto at the time.

I was a good student and arrogant. At St. Mary’s I became scout troop leader. We went on an excursion, but I was turned back from the island because I was black. This was the first conscious anger I felt. After that, I became more alert. That’s probably part of my history in becoming a radical. I had so many rebuffs along the way.

Either the American Dream has changed a lot since we first learned about it, or some people have some truly crazy dreams these days.

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