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Lev Raphael

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A Mother Like No Other

Posted: 05/07/11 05:45 PM ET

Mother's Day is a time to appreciate or remember our mothers, but some of us aren't lucky enough to celebrate, and if you think you've had a difficult mother, now's the time to read Mommy Dressing by the late Louis Gould.

An awkward adolescent, Gould was once allowed to borrow a gorgeous silk party dress from her mother, but this wasn't an ordinary dress or a charming mother-daughter moment. Gould's mother Jo Copeland was a famous fashion designer noted for glamorous clothes that put American style on the map in the 1920s and 30s. She was haughty, exacting, beautiful and demanding. "Don't perspire in this dress," she warned. "I never perspire. Why must you?"

Of course Gould did sweat. She also passed out and threw up. The dress was ruined.

Gould's mother inhabited a luxurious world in which her daughter was basically a spectator. If she'd been prettier and more charming, she might have been as decorative as her pliable brother and Cary Grant-ish father. But she was difficult, obstinate, rebellious. She refused to smile, refused to eat, refused to worship her mother.

A mixture of Auntie Mame and Cruela deVil, her mother erected rigid barriers around herself and in her life that seem utterly bizarre. Moving into a new Park Avenue apartment, she instructed her children and the household staff in how to treat the foyer, which had a marble diamond-patterned black-and-white floor. Everyone had to promise "never to set foot on the white diamonds while traversing the foyer to reach our rooms, or when crossing in the opposite direction toward the kitchen. It was understood that we had little or no business in the dining or living rooms except to practice the piano."

What makes this memoir perfect is that Gould is never self-pitying. For all her eagle-eyed perception of her mother's outrageous and even cruel behavior, Jo Copeland comes across as a sympathetic character. You eventually see that she's created an image of herself she's desperate to believe in, one that buries her past under furs, cocktails, and movie star clients.

[She] spent her life seeking refuge from the physical realities of body -- birth, sex, passion, death. There she was, after finding her refuge, creating it, in the act of designing clothes. Such a perfection achieved; such a beautiful cover-up. Fashion as defense weapon, as bright armorial shield, for a body that must otherwise surely betray her. The art of dressing had to become not only life's work, but ruling passion, in order to be her salvation.

Her elegance and self-regard are monumental, leaving little room for messy, awkward children unwilling to be her acolytes.

The novelist in me can't help wondering if Gould would have produced so many fine novels if her mother had been the stuff of a Hallmark Christmas movie. She certainly wouldn't have left us this amazing memoir that offers one of the most chilling mother-daughter portraits ever written.

 
 
 

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