F is for Florida
The life I’m now living began in Southern Florida on a sweltering summer day, when the air was thick with humidity and my skin prickled with restlessness. It was June 2, 1958; two days after I’d strutted across the stage, a finalist in the New Smyrna Beach Beauty Pageant, and three days before I’d planned to wear the new prom gown hanging in the closet. I was seventeen , the age when sitting still is impossible, boredom worse than death, and a new adventure lurking around every corner. After spending over a year in New York, I’d returned to Daytona searching for something—freedom perhaps, or that magical stimulus that would quicken my heartbeat and send challenge pulsing through my veins.
At the age of fifteen, I had been allowed to go to Manhattan to attend the Semple Finishing School for Girls; but after a month of rather ridiculous curfew restrictions and listening to the same etiquette lessons Mother had preached from the time I was born , I moved out. My first thought was the Barbizon Plaza, an exclusive hotel for women . For a while it looked as though I might be accepted, but once they discovered I was not yet sixteen, I received a polite no. It was the same story with several other women’s hotels; apparently a fifteen year old girl was something no one wanted as their responsibility. In desperation, I turned to my brother Scott, who was married to a Jewish woman. She pulled a few strings and got me into a Jewish Women’s Hotel. If I were to stay in New York, it seemed to be my only option.
After being told repeatedly that I should work as a model, and equipped with few marketable talents other than my good looks, I decided to give modeling a shot. It was at a casting call that I met the three gay men, also models, who would ultimately become my best friends and protectors. We struck up a conversation and when they learned my age, Sam said, “Fifteen! What’s a girl your age doing in New York alone? Do
you even realize the dangers of this business? Some agencies issue a call for models , but they’re not really looking for models! Get involved in something like that, and you could end up in serious trouble.” The other two agreed. “We’ve got a spare room,” Robert said , “You can move in with us and we’ll get you to the legitimate agencies.” Within the week, I left the hotel and moved in with my new friends.
True to their word, they guided me to the right places, recommended me to the agencies they knew, convinced me to ‘fudge’ my age and helped me find a reasonably steady stream of work which I supplemented with a job at a Greenwich Village coffee house. Day after day I slid my body into the latest fashions and smiled at the camera, a picture of serenity on the outside, but inside the seed of restlessness was starting to sprout. I smoked, I drank, I dated young men who were sometimes older than was appropriate, and I partied, all while my gay friends watched over me like mother hens. New York was fun, but it was a city— the streets crowded with people, remnants of trash tossed about, the only trees brass-potted saplings struggling for survival in front of luxury hotels. Dogs that should have been free to race across endless stretches of grass were forced to pee in the gutter. The handful of horses that clip-clopped through Central Park seemed weary of both tourists and traffic. On days when I wasn’t working, I’d be lying in the grass in Central Park, looking up at the clouds and wishing I was back in the Tomoka Game Reserve. I knew New York wasn’t the place I wanted to spend my forever. Modeling for the Macy’s Catalog and for a wholesale furrier was not the glamorous life I had anticipated. Somewhere there was a real life waiting for me, a life with an exciting career and freedom poking out of its pockets. It was out there and my name was written on it, but it was going to be up to me to find it.