09/24/2013 04:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Model Life

Babette Hughes

Although I've been writing and publishing for fifty years, I'm always thrilled when a new book is launched. THE RED SCARF, published just this month, is the sequel to THE HAT.

And its sequel, THE NECKLACE, is in process on my computer, and should be finished soon. The three novels follow Kate Brady from the age of eighteen to eighty and reflect my keen interest in the lives of women.

We are wives, widows, daughters, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts; we run houses and businesses; we nurture babies and organize neighborhoods; we take care of parents; we garden and run for Congress; we listen and console. Writing has revealed these fulfilling, frustrating, satisfying roles to me as I've tried to understand and celebrate the gloriously complicated lives of women for my own and my readers' discovery.

So when I'm asked at readings where I get my ideas, my answer is always the same--namely, from my conscious and unconscious life as a woman. ___________________________________________________________________________________

When I read these days about the so-called glamorous lives of famous models, I wonder if they had mothers like mine, who took me out of 12th grade to launch me on a modeling career and, like a stage mother, was a constant presence behind the scenes.

She had made a list of likely department stores and shops and photographers and we made the rounds. To my surprise, I was hired by Halle's to model in its tearoom at lunchtime, by Higbee's and May's for their fashion shows, photographer Harry Cole for his fashion shoots and catalogues, and by Quinn-Maas, an exclusive specialty shop. I strutted on runways, stretched my legs and pointed my toes for the photographer, and (in fashion's convoluted calendar) posed in fur coats and rivers of sweat in July, and bathing suits and goose bumps in January. I demonstrated vacuum cleaners at conventions, sprayed cologne at ladies in department stores, paced runways in my new hip-swinging stride, all the while feeling an immense sorrow. I had become my mother's creation, her idea of me, a no-brainer not even fit to finish high school, a moving speaking, walking size 8, her windup girl-toy, a Barbie pushed down the road by her vicarious fantasies. With no idea of who I was or wanted to be, I went along, riveted by her will as she sat in the dark corner of the photographer's studio, the front row of the style shows, the table in the tearoom.

Backstage, I changed my outfits in 45 seconds. Or rather the two dressers did, one of them stripping the clothes off my back while the other pulled the next outfit over my head. They grabbed the shoes from my feet, thrusting my toes into another pair (you hold onto the dresser's back for balance), hung my neck with jewelry, patted down my hair and there I was, out on the runway again. 45 seconds flat. If it was a swimsuit show you were stripped naked but no one looked at you. Not even the male buyers and merchandisers who were milling around backstage. They'd watch the audience through a part in the curtain, or appraise the clothes hanging on racks, or ask someone why numbers 26, 14, and 43 weren't in the show. Sometimes I'd catch a stock boy sneaking a look, but I didn't care. I wasn't a real live woman.

Every day from twelve to two I modeled in Halle's tearoom. In the dressing room, staring at my reflection, the stranger in the mirror looking back at me with the breasts and shimmering silver gown and silver sandals seemed to have emerged overnight, willed into being by my mother. Modeling among the tables the lunching ladies and I eyed each other with envy--they for my so-called glamorous job, me for their different destinies. And the chic clothes on their backs that didn't belong to the Halle Bros. Company. And the delicious-looking chicken pot pies and seafood crepes and chocolate mousses on their plates that made my stomach growl. I envied them because they were sitting down and their feet didn't hurt. But mostly I envied them for their mothers, nicely lunching with them or at home minding their own business.

My mother watched me from her usual corner table. She came every day on her lunch hour from her stenographer's job and ordered the Welsh rarebit, or a tuna sandwich. Sometimes she had a fresh fruit plate and if it was a cool day, the beef stew. She always had butter pecan ice cream for dessert and she always complained that they served it in a warm dish, making it melt. After her lunch she paid her check using my employee's discount. Then she went into the Ladies and emerged with fresh lipstick, her hair combed and her hat just so. She looked good.

When I turned nineteen I escaped into marriage. But... that's another blog.