Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Julie Nixon Chronicles, Part Three: Digression—Mrs. Nicely and other Niceties of Smith College

As I began writing this installment, I realized I couldn't describe my experiences with Julie at Smith without first setting the scene. Hence, the digression which follows.

By the time I left for Smith in late September, 1967, I was a nervous wreck. I anticipated entering a rarified world of cultured young women, many of them debutantes, who would be far better prepared for the rigors of college life than I, and probably far better dressed.

To make matters worse, the morning of my departure from Rockville Centre my father threw his back out heaving one of my over-laden suitcases into the car trunk, adding a dollop of guilt to my anxiety—knowing he had a bad back, I should never have let him lift that bag! He was forced to remain at home while my mother and I drove the three hours to Northampton, Massachusetts.

Baldwin House was an ivy-covered, four-story brick building dating from the turn of the twentieth century. It housed 77 students, freshmen through seniors. On arrival, I found myself relegated to the smallest double in the place. I was told by a helpful upperclasswoman that my room had been a maid's room in the days when students brought their maids along with them to school.

Great. I'd been assigned to the maid's quarters. As compensation, however, my roommate, Gloria, and I had a private adjoining bathroom almost as big as our room itself. The other students on our floor shared a communal bathroom at the end of the hall, no doubt one of the leaking facilities alluded to by Dick Nixon.

Gloria was not at all what I'd expected in a Smith roommate. From Castle Rock, Colorado, she was the first high school graduate ever to come east to attend college. I was hardly reassured when, out of earshot of my mother, she informed me that she'd hidden the LSD carefully, so it wouldn't be found and get us into trouble. LSD? I'd yet to try marijuana.

She also informed me that she liked to do barbell exercises on the floor, in the nude, (while slathered with body lotion, I later discovered). She instantly adored my prized possession, a small llama throw rug my father had bought during a business trip to Peru. She pronounced it the perfect spot for her naked barbell exercises.

As we unpacked, Gloria proudly displayed her latest fashion acquisition, a paper dress. (The concept of disposable clothing was short-lived, even for Gloria. Hers wound up on the wall of an Amherst freshman, Rob Cohen, for whom, I assume, she'd taken it off. Famosity requires me to divulge that Rob went on to become a filmmaker, directing such blockbusters as The Fast and the Furious.) Gloria also raved about the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading technique she'd mastered (and which she later convinced me to try, much to the detriment of my comprehension of Plato's Republic).

Despite her oddities, Gloria seemed genial and at least I didn't find her intimidating. My other classmates, however, were a different matter. Though I later learned that my entering class was an anomaly at Smith—the first class in which a majority of students (67%) had graduated from public high schools—at Baldwin House many of the freshman and still more of the sophomores, juniors, and seniors were products of elite private schools.

My anxiety about how I'd measure up induced an acute attack of self-consciousness. In particular, I became excruciatingly aware of the way I spoke—I'd always prided myself on not having a New York accent, but suddenly my vowels were nowhere near proper enough. And the teenage slouch that had always been good enough for Southside Senior High School seemed totally declasse among my fellow Smithees, who, in my idealized view, all stood ramrod straight.

No description of my arrival at Smith College would be complete without mention of Baldwin's housemother, Mrs. Nicely, whose name apparently predestined her for her role as enforcer of genteel comportment. With her white hair and pleasingly plump figure, she was the very picture of a mother in my eyes. I immediately decided that the rebelliousness which had characterized my teenage years and made my actual mother's life miserable could never be allowed to surface with Mrs. Nicely. A mere whiff of her disapproval, I imagined, would send me into paroxysms of shame.

Mrs. Nicely lived in an apartment on the first floor of Baldwin House and presided over dinner every evening and tea on Friday afternoon. In those waning days of parietals, men weren't allowed upstairs and Baldwin House residents were still required to sign out for the evening with Mrs. Nicely and return by 1 a.m. (11 p.m. on weeknights). Such decorum now sounds quaint, even ridiculous. But at the time, I aspired only to master the intricacies of what was known at Smith as "gracious living," which included wearing a skirt to dinner and properly folding one's cloth napkin after meals and returning it to its allotted cubby.

Among my freshman classmates were some who seemed to embody the cultured upbringing I lacked—Kathy, daughter of a Ford executive and graduate of Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, whose family lived in the exclusive enclave of Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan; Pril, who traced her lineage back to the American Revolution and had attended the Emma Willard School; and Liz, fresh from the Madeira School in McLean, Virginia. They were all lovely young women who became my friends, but initially I was convinced that their impeccable credentials made them superior to me.

In truth, several of the sixteen freshmen in Baldwin House were much like me—nice girls from good suburban high schools. We arrived with our Weejuns, our Villager outfits, and our liberal views. And there were also a number of scholarship students who'd had far fewer advantages than me growing up. I eventually realized that we were a diverse group and that I could succeed just by being myself. But during those first anxious days at Smith, I strained to achieve perfect etiquette.

We freshmen had moved in early, along with a few upperclasswomen who helped with orientation, so I didn't see Julie right away. By the time she arrived, I greeted her as a welcome familiar face. We were delighted to discover that we were both taking Geology 101 to fulfill the science requirement. And we found that we had another thing in common—boyfriends at Amherst College. More on that in my next installment.

Next Installment: The Squash Connection (really!)


Anonymous said...

Serial installments aside, the introduction of a character named "Mrs. Nicely" has officially turned this true-life story into something Dickensian. When do we meet the coal miner's son with the twisted past?

Anonymous said...

This is getting to be like a hard to put down book! Send more quickly please--I can't wait for the next installment....

Anonymous said...

Well I'm feeling anxious to hear more about the Nixons so found myself wanting to get rid of Mrs. Nicely so we could get back to the Nixons'. Dying to know your thoughts about the inner workings of Dick.....and if your first impressions the girls and Pat are going to remain. And wondering if you are still in touch with the family. Are you?