SPOTLIGHT: School and Suicide by Joan Hawkins

God and Joe DiMaggio

When Elizabeth Taylor left Eddie Fisher for Richard Burton, Fisher jumpstarted a new career, playing the wronged and aggrieved husband in public. At least that’s what the women in Ruby’s Beauty Salon thought. “He should have some self respect,” they said. “Besides, serves him right for what he did to Debbie Reynolds.” And Fisher was never exactly in Liz’s class anyway. “I mean, he’s not bad-looking,” Ruby said. “But definitely not on her level. Now say what you will, Burton is handsome. And maybe he can give her some of the stability Mike Todd did.” “Now there was a man,” my mother said.

Ruby’s was a working class beauty parlor– all big hair and bright red nails–located in a strip mall just outside San Francisco. The women who went there worked long hours at hard jobs–many of them did manual labor–and Ruby’s was the one luxury they permitted themselves. Getting their hair and nails done once a week, a perm twice a year, and color every three months. My mom talked about the way Ruby’s magic hands on her scalp relaxed her. The way she’d fall into a blissful deep sleep under the big helmet hair dryer. “The best sleep I have all week,” she said. That was the party line. And certainly those women deserved a little luxury in their rough and ready lives. But what they really loved about Ruby’s was the camaraderie. And the gossip.

When Irene Scoma’s husband began having an affair with his bookkeeper, Ruby knew what to do. And when Mrs. Brown showed up with bruises for the third week in a row, saying she’d walked into a door again, the entire beauty parlor mobilized. Women with their hair in rollers, still wearing their little capes, clustered round, looking at the ugly bruises on her face and arms. “What does Father say?” I heard Mrs. Gomez ask, with a quick over the shoulder look at me. “Oh for pity’s sake!” Ruby exclaimed, looking to my mother for backup. “Don’t send her to a priest! What would a priest know? The men should talk to him.” Mom agreed. “I’ll tell Joe,” she said.

There was bawdy humor. And the whispered doctor referrals. The crumpled pieces of paper exchanged (again, that over the shoulder look at me) when a woman who already had 6 children was mysteriously “late.” And again, when another woman had a “procedure” that somehow didn’t work. The recipes when a woman had “the Curse,” or went through “the Change.”

This was all thrilling and frightening stuff to a 9 year old who had just begun watching horror movies. I imagined women’s bodies as a war zone, where mysterious, demonic forces played out. And I would sit back, thumbing through magazines, pretending not to listen.

But I think now that my mother wanted me to listen. That she took me to Ruby’s in part to initiate me into a certain kind of woman’s culture. Hear things that she couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me directly. That a woman’s happiness depended on the labor, mood, and physical restraint of her husband. That life was hard. And that bosses and other women could be treacherous. “When Joe had the bar,” my mom said once, “he used to call sometimes at the end of the night– midnight, one in the morning-and ask me to join him and some friends for a drink. Lee was little then, and I didn’t have a babysitter. My sister always said I shouldn’t go. Shouldn’t leave Lee by himself in the apartment. But if I hadn’t gone, there were plenty of other women who would’ve been happy to have a drink with him.” Ruby and the other ladies were quick to agree.

It was at Ruby’s that I finally got the story of my parents’ one terrible quarrel. My mother’s boss had called my father to ask why Mom wasn’t at work. As far as my dad knew, she was. And that’s what he told him. Claude– Mom’s boss–apparently said something about Mom frequently cutting out, so maybe this was nothing new. But she needed to be careful because Claude had covered for her as much as he could. He didn’t want her to lose her job. “Sorry to bother you,” he said.

Mom worked the graveyard shift as a bakery dispatcher, so the phone call came late at night. Woke me up. I remember getting out of bed and asking Dad if something was wrong. Was Mom okay? He gave me some water and told me to go back to sleep. That everything was fine. But he didn’t look like everything was fine. And when my mother came home early in the morning, I heard them fighting. My mother saying she’d been at work. My father breaking something, and yelling over and over “don’t lie to me Theresa!” My mother sobbing. I’d done everything possible to muffle the sound of my parents’ voices, so I didn’t hear how the quarrel ended. And I wondered how she’d finally convinced him she was telling the truth. “I’m not sure I did,” Mom told the ladies. “I think he just wore himself out. He doesn’t say anything but (quick glance at me) he’s… cold, and the whole thing’s got me jumpy. I’m afraid to go for a drive in the park or get a coffee, in case Joe’s keeping track of my mileage. I feel like a prisoner. I could kill that Claude.”

The beauty salon was deathly quiet when my mother told this story. And this time I didn’t even pretend not to listen. My parents’ quarrel had terrified me. I didn’t recognize either of their voices. And it was comforting to know that the problem was somebody else. This Claude. Who’d told a lie. “What an SOB,” Ruby said, breaking the spell. As a kid I didn’t understand why Mom’s boss would do that. Call my father and tell him she wasn’t there, when he knew she was. Cause trouble between them. Now I think I do. And I think I know why Mom changed jobs so soon after that quarrel. Went back to waitressing. “What are you going to do?” Ruby asked my mother. “I don’t know,” Mom said. “Probably go back to the restaurant. The pay’s better at the bakery. But–you know.”

“Money’s not worth that kind of trouble, Theresa,” Mrs. Sarotto broke in. “Joe working himself into a stew, checking the mileage on your car. You’ve got a kid to raise.”

I didn’t go to Ruby’s every week. Just during vacation, when I wasn’t in school. But I loved going there. Ruby would exclaim how tall I’d gotten, how pretty I was–“just like your mother” she’d say– with a coy, sidelong glance at Mom, one of her better customers. If it was quiet, she’d do my hair or paint my nails for free. But what I liked best about Ruby’s–even better than the stories the women told–were the Gossip Sheets. Kicking off my shoes, I’d curl into one of the big chairs with a coke or a cup of hot cocoa, and read about movie stars for hours.

Movie Mirror, Modern Screen, Inside Story, Movie Stars, Confidential and Photoplay– Ruby got them all. They all led with the same scandal, the same love story, but the way each magazine told the story was vastly different. Photoplay was more tasteful than the others, but it excelled at narrative, turning every boudoir quarrel into a true potboiler. When Liz and Dick inevitably began fighting, for example, Photoplay was there. And (at least to the nine year old reader) it deftly recounted how Burton grabbed Taylor one night, looked deep into her violet eyes, and exclaimed, “My God, you’re beautiful,” before flinging her into a conveniently positioned armchair and slamming out of the house. When the studio forced Sammy Davis Jr to give up Kim Novak and marry Loray White, Confidential and Photoplay both gave pages and pages to the story. Photoplay focused on Kim’s anguish. Confidential honed in on the mob angle– Harry Cohn’s hitmen taking Sammy Davis Jr out to the desert and asking “do you want to lose that other eye?” The Davis/Novak story was old news–1958–but Ruby loved it, so the issues stayed in the stacks, and I received it as though it had happened yesterday. My favorite stars were Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. And luckily for me the Gossip Sheets loved them both. Liz, the most beautiful woman in the world, and Marilyn Monroe– even at 9, I knew she was the most desirable..

The star story that affected me the most, that still gives me a lump in the throat, happened on Aug 5, 1962, a sunny Sunday morning. And I didn’t read it about it at Ruby’s. I read about it in the San Francisco Chronicle, laying on the living room floor in my parents’ house.

Sunday mornings were always special. It was Mom’s day off-so we’d go to early Mass, buy the Sunday papers and come home. Mom would make a fantastic breakfast: eggs, bacon, hash browns, double helpings of toast–and then send me and my Dad out to the living room to read, while she cleaned up and-as she put it– puttered in the kitchen. I still love spreading out the Sunday paper, a habit I developed back then–laying on the floor next to my Dad’s chair. Reading the Comics and going through the Travel and Fashion pages, looking at pictures, while Dad read the Sports section and news. But this particular Sunday morning, a picture on the front page caught my eye. Marilyn Monroe. Dead at 36.

Quick as lightning, while my father read the Sports section, I nabbed the front page from his share of the paper- pile. And I was so engrossed in the story I was reading, that I did not notice him looking at me. Not, in fact, until he had stretched out beside me and, with a gentle tug, pulled the paper away. “What are you reading there, Pumpkin?” he asked. I didn’t answer. It was obvious–splashed in big letters: MARILYN MONROE IS FOUND DEAD. And then in smaller type, “Overdose of Sleeping Pills–Star Leaves No Note.”

Now, at that time in my life, I was a devout Catholic. And at that time, Catholic teaching said there was one–only one–unforgivable sin. Suicide. Anything else–murder, torture, any number of horrible things–could be atoned for. If the sinner truly repented, not because he was dying, not because he was afraid of hell, but because he was truly sorry, he could be saved. He would spend years and years burning out his sin in Purgatory, but eventually he would see the face of God. Only suicides, the Church taught, had no salvation, no “get out of jail free” card; only suicides were unrelentingly damned. Pontius Pilate, the man who had condemned Christ, could be saved if he were baptized and repented, the Church taught. If she had committed suicide, pretty sweet Marilyn Monroe could not.

My father was a staunch Catholic, and he knew it would be hard to continue selling me on the notion of an all-loving, all-merciful God if I thought Marilyn Monroe had been sent to hell just because she was unhappy. I was, as my parents frequently noted, tender hearted. In such a liturgical smack-down, my sympathies would be with Marilyn, not with an unforgiving God. Not for the first time, my father feared I could easily lose my faith before I understood what it was.

Dad had been inspired by John Kennedy to learn speed reading. And he was speed-reading now. “The paper says apparent suicide,” he said pointing to a mid-paragraph line. “Do you know what that means?”

Well no, not exactly. I knew what suicide meant. And I was an avid reader, so I had some idea about “apparent,” but I didn’t know what it meant if you put those two words together. “It means they don’t really know,” Dad said. “She took too many pills. So they’re saying it’s suicide. But they don’t really know. She didn’t leave a note and they can’t see into her heart.” Sitting up–but still on the floor–Dad reached for an ashtray and lit a cigarette–playing for time, I think now. Maybe asking his patron saint, St. Joseph, for guidance, because St. Joe knew all about difficult conversations with girls. “Now what I think happened,” he said blowing smoke and raising his voice just loud enough for my mother to hear, “what I think happened is that she took some pills so she could fall asleep. Then had a drink and just forgot how many pills she’d taken. I think it was an accident.”

“You really think so,” I said, sitting up.

“Yes,” he said. “Definitely. People get forgetful when they drink. They have accidents.” Tamping out his cigarette, he stood up and walked over to the living room window. I expected him to put on some Mario Lanza records. He always liked listening to opera on Sunday mornings. But instead he tapped his fingers on the window pane for awhile and then turned around. “You know what I feel like having for dinner tonight?” he asked, looking at me. “Some seafood. Sal’s fish stand is closed for Sunday. But I’ll be he has some crabs left over from yesterday. We could go out to his house and see if we can buy a couple. Maybe drive by the beach.” This was a treat. I loved the ocean and the beach. And when we went to Sal’s we always drove by my favorite ice cream place, so maybe I could get a cone. And play with Sal’s dog. I was suddenly very interested in this crab dinner my father was planning. “It’s always chilly out at Sal’s,” he said. “You better get a wrap.”

While I went to get my jacket, Dad walked into the kitchen. To tell Mom we were going to Sal’s, I thought. They were having a serious conversation when I joined them. Standing close together. My dad’s voice low. I heard him say “she’s starting to notice things.” “Notice what?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, moving a little away from Mom. “I was just telling your mother that the new waitress is getting better. She’s starting to remember what the customers like; she’s starting to notice things. You ready to go?” Grabbing his car keys, he looked back at Mom. “Just think about it, Treese,” he said.

It was a glorious day. Even though I was tall for my age, in that pre-seatbelt era, I knelt on the front seat, so I could get a better view of the waves. Dad listened to the radio. The San Francisco Giants were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he had some money riding on the game. So I was surprised when he turned down the volume. “You know, Honey,” he said slowly. “You can have everything in the world. Looks, money, everything. But you can still be unhappy. There are lots of ups and downs in life, and it’s easy to lose hope if you don’t have faith, if you’re not following the Church.” I had heard this line many times. My Dad had had a rough life. Had even been in jail for awhile. And he always said it was God, the Church, and my mother who turned him around. Gave him back his purpose. “Just like Johnny Cash,” he used to laugh. “I know, Daddy,” I answered, straining to see the seals on Seal Rock. He switched gears then– depressed the clutch and shifted tone. “Hey,” he said. “Isn’t there an ice cream place around here that some little girl likes? We could swing by. See if they’re open on Sunday. Get a cone.” Reaching out, he tucked some hair behind my ear. “Maybe chocolate,” he said softly.

The following Saturday, I went to Ruby’s with my Mom. Saturday was not her usual day, so I was surprised when she said she was going and invited me to come. “After I get my hair done, we can get you some new shoes for school,” she said.

I remember the Salon was crowded that day–there was even an extra girl doing hair, and it was hard to find a spot where I wouldn’t be in the way. But crowded as it was, everyone was talking about one thing: Marilyn Monroe’s suicide. The women at Ruby’s didn’t buy my Dad’s accident theory. Now as I said earlier, Ruby’s was a working class beauty parlor, and the women who went there had little patience for the emotional problems of the rich and famous. Wealthy women feeling sorry for themselves got no sympathy from Ruby or her clients.

But Marilyn Monroe was a working class girl–Norma Jean Baker–who’d made it, so they thought. She’d done everything the women at Ruby’s thought you were supposed to do. She’d capitalized on her looks, worked hard, done what she was told, and she’d hitched her wagon to the brightest Alpha Male stars. And now she was dead. 36 years old. Eleven years younger than my mother. Twelve years younger than Ruby. The conversation kept bottoming out around that one brutal fact. Her death and some of the details buried deep in the newspaper article my father had thrown away. Ruby and her clients felt sorry for Marilyn. They just didn’t know how to talk about it.

“You know,” Ruby said, finally. “I read that Joe DiMaggio was trying to get her back. It’s a pity she couldn’t have stuck it out just a little longer. Gotten back together with Joe. DiMaggio.”

The ladies all agreed. It was a shame she couldn’t have waited just a little longer–waited for Joe to make his move. Too bad she couldn’t have gotten back together with Joe DiMaggio.

“Yeah,” my Mom said. ” Joe DiMaggio. Now there’s a man.”

On our way out to the car, Mom cleared her throat and said it would be better if I didn’t tell Dad I had gone to Ruby’s. “What if he asks?” I said. She shrugged. She wouldn’t tell me outright to lie to my father. But–what?

Not telling him was going to be tricky enough. I was a magpie child. Told him everything. My silence would raise suspicion. “You’re awfully quiet,” I could hear him say. “What did you do today besides get new shoes?” My stomach was already churning and I hadn’t even gotten home yet, hadn’t kissed my Dad’s scratchy cheek, or tried to avoid my mother’s “remember what I told you” eyes.

And then in the car, she didn’t turn on the ignition. Just lit a cigarette and sat for awhile. “When I was your age, I wanted to be a nurse,” she told me. “For the longest time that’s what I wanted. I even took science and Latin in high school, so I could go to nursing school.”

She’d never told me this. “What happened?” I asked.

Her mother died, she said. She had to quit school to help her father run the farm. Raise the youngest kids.

“How old were you when your mom died?”


This was worse than Marilyn dying at age 36.

“How’d you get to California?” I knew she’d married Dad in San Francisco, but she’d never told me how exactly she’d gotten from South Dakota all the way to the West Coast. And she didn’t really tell me now.

“I met your Dad,” she said. “Everything was fine and then…” Her voice trailed off. She didn’t have to finish because I knew the rest of that story. My father had a heart attack shortly after I was born. He had to cut back his work hours. And my Mom started doing hard manual labor jobs to support the family.

“That’s why I want you to get an education,” Mom continued. “So you don’t have to work as hard as I do.”

I nodded. This line, too, I’d heard many times. While my friends were encouraged to look at TV moms like June Cleaver for aspiration, I had a mom who admired Perry Mason’s legal secretary, Della Street. “A working girl, whose boss is crazy about her, but she definitely has ideas of her own,” was how Mom put it.

Reaching out now, she tucked some hair behind my ear. “You know, Cookie, I don’t really think Joe DiMaggio could have saved Marilyn Monroe.”

This was news to me. She’d sounded so certain at Ruby’s. “You don’t?”

“No,” she shook her head and turned on the ignition. “I don’t really believe in Joe DiMaggio.”

Backing out of the parking space, she started humming along to KYA, the pop radio station she always listened to. “I feel like some ice cream,” she said finally. “Want to drive by the ocean and get a cone before we go to the shoe store?”

The fog was already rolling in across the Bay and it was chilly in the car, but I nodded.

“Maybe chocolate,” I said.


1 thought on “SPOTLIGHT: School and Suicide by Joan Hawkins”

  1. Beautiful story Joan, brought back a lot of memories for me, as my mother and my friends moms were all a part of that beauty shop culture in those same years. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

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