ONE OF THE REASONS CAPPY BERGEN'S DAYS AT PENN WEREN'T ALL HER FAMOUS FATHER PROMISED MAY HAVE BEEN THAT HER MIND WAS ELSEWHERE, ANOTHER WAS THAT SHE LEFT AT THE END OF HER SOPHOMORE YEAR.
BY CANDICE BERGEN
“Your college years," my father said solemnly and often, "are the best years of your life, Candy; they were for me. Now you have your happiest years before you." My father was deeply nostalgic for his cherished college days: glee clubs and football games, fraternities and fellowship. His sentimentality was contagious, and I, too, was carried away by his fond recollections of college camaraderie. Of course, underneath all of that, I sensed, was a long‑held expectation that eventually I'd enter the family firm.
After a childhood under palm trees and 12 years of girls' schools, one of the things I looked for in a college was tradition: an ivy‑covered campus, trees that turned to flame, wearing a striped school muffler to fall football games, and men. I had no idea yet what I wanted to study‑only that I didn't want to study it in California. College should look like it did in the movies: brick bell towers and things called "quads." It should not have palm trees.
In a layout in Holiday magazine on Ivy League universities, I found what I was looking for. At the old and distinguished University of Pennsylvania, three‑quarters of the student body were men and one-quarter were women. Students were shown picnicking in boaters and blazers on checkered tablecloths on the grassy banks of the Schuylkill; preppy young men and women in madras passed through the school quad‑built of brick in the nineteenth century‑and ivy was everywhere.
My college wardrobe was impeccably Ivy League: buttondown shirts, Shetland crew necks, kilted skirts, pea coat, knee socks, and penny loafers. A textbook preppie. In contrast, what we wore in California looked like gaudy resort wear; the tell‑tale pink polka dots and checkered lemon‑yellow stayed in the closet at home.
My first semester, I was elected Homecoming Queen and escorted onto the football field at half time during the Penn‑Princeton game while the band blasted out "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody' ' and someone danced around in a tiger suit. In an imitation Chanel suit sashed in red, with matching bouquet of roses, I stood, smiling vacantly, topped with a rhinestone tiara. The following day, ThePhiladelphia Inquirer ran a photograph captioned "CHARLIE'S SISTER HOMECOMING QUEEN‑No Dummy She."
In the early Sixties, college campuses were not yet hotbeds of political activity but raucous last gasps of irresponsibility. Berkeley led the political pack, as always, but if the answer, my friend, was blowin' in the wind, it had bypassed Penn. It was a passive, conservative campus; the students of its famous school of business were more concerned with mastering capitalism than with overthrowing it.
The closest I came to political involvement was when Susan Scranton, as president of the Young Republicans (and daughter of the Governor of Pennsylvania), and I, as Miss University, were asked to escort Senator Barry Goldwater on stage for a Presidential‑campaign speech on campus.
The sole student protest that year was against the proposed felling of trees to clear space for new campus construction. Along with others, I took my turn carrying a sign that read, simply, "S.O.S.” (Save Open Space), marching all afternoon around the giant elms.
As a college freshman, my thoughts inevitably turned to the future. What did I want to do with it?
As a child, what I had wanted to be was Brenda Starr‑crack reporter in high-fashion clothes on dangerous assignments and on the odd jungle expedition to find her Mystery Man, Basil St. John. The elusive Basil‑tall, dark, and dashing, with a patch over one eye‑was always disappearing somewhere up the Amazon, from where he sent a sparkly‑eyed Brenda black orchids.
Brenda Starr was not on the syllabus in college. This was the East, where people read Camus, not comics. Movies were something you paid to see, not live in, and were hard besides, like homework-black‑and‑white and boring and in French. "Art Films' they called them. New Wave, Cinema Vérité. The whole point of movies, it seemed to me, was that they weren't vérité, but fantaisie. Still, try telling that to Eastern intellectuals, who thought that not only Hollywood was ridiculous, but all of California as well. It would be years before I saw another "film" in English and in color.
If, as a child in the West, I dreamed of being Brenda Starr, as a college woman in the East, I discovered Margaret Bourke‑White. Photojournalism, at its peak in the Forties and Fifties, was still flourishing in the Sixties, showcased in lush magazines like Look and Life.
I studied the work of some of its masters: Bresson, Capa, Eisenstaedt; but it was Bourke‑White, then struggling with Parkinson's disease, who interested me especially‑the quality of her work, her courage, her life. The only woman among Life's first staff photographers, she was skilled, fearless, and driven, excelling in what had been until then a male province, moving with brilliance and fierce independence alone in a man's world.
Poring over photography books in the library, I decided that that was what I wanted to do: explore other people's lives as a photojournalist. I bought an old Pentax and wandered Philadelphia, carrying it with me and shooting anything that moved.
There was a woman I passed often on campus who caught my attention as much for her striking dark looks as for the fact that she wore a Leica around her neck as constantly as other coeds wore circle pins. She was Mary Ellen Mark, '62 FA, '64ASC, then taking a graduate course in photography and now considered by many to be this generation's Bourke‑White.
She would become one of my best and oldest friends, but when we met, I was awed by her single‑mindedness‑that she spent summers on scholarship in Turkey photographing rather than on a beach or beside a pool. She became my mentor, encouraging and supporting me and even procuring for me a key to the school's photo lab, where she taught me to process and print my own film.
Working in the silence and soft darkness, I swirled the paper in the trays of hypo, rubbing it gently with my fingers as the images gradually appeared. Printing fascinated me as much as photography; spellbound, I closeted myself dreamily in the darkroom, often emerging 8 to 10 hours later, shocked to find it was night.
Could I make a career as a photojournalist? Would I know how? Was that what I really wanted? Watching Mary Ellen working day and night, heart and soul-living, breathing photography‑it quickly became clear to me that I did not have her courage, her commitment.
The work I did that summer did little to develop it. During the year, I'd had offers to work as a model, and at the end of the spring term, I went to New York and signed with Eileen Ford, who started me at the top hourly rate of $60. It was flattering to my vanity, if not constructive to my character, and I justified the frivolousness of it by the prospect of financial independence, reasoning that it would enable me to buy new cameras. The part of me that knew better kept quiet; it had not had much practice speaking up.
Many models I met that summer felt called upon to rationalize their highly profitable participation in the profession that was ultimately degrading and self-denying.
Exotic, long‑limbed girls would defend their intelligence defiantly, trying desperately to climb out of the morass of "mindless models." Arriving for bookings at photographers' studios that vibrated with rock music and popped with strobes, they would produce from their bulging models' bags the entire Alexandria Quartet, the complete works of Dostoevski in paperback, a volume of Kierkegaard. The counters were covered with them as the models began the chilling process of transforming themselves from fresh, young, uncertain girls into sleek, shellacked creatures, dazzling birds of prey.
These tricks of the trade were acquired with time and endless self‑dedication. One photographer cast down his camera and threw up his hands despairingly, declaring that, unless I had my teeth filled and my eyebrows plucked, I could never hope to model. A hairdresser suggested electrolysis to improve my low hairline and a Vogue beauty editor complained loudly that I was "much too healthy' squeezing my shoulders and arms distastefully and asking accusingly, "Are you a swimmer?"
PENN DID NOT MAKE EXCEPTIONS OF PRETTY GIRLS WITH FAMOUS FATHERS,' SAYS BERGEN.
I ignored the rest and went to work on the make‑up; it took me time to get the hang of it. For weeks, I walked around eyes glued half‑shut with the surgical adhesive for my false lashes, cheeks black and bruised from excessive shading, mouth pale and parched with layers of lip gloss and Erace‑looking not so much like a fashion model as a victim of assault and battery.
But time improved these minor skills and, in spite of a low hairline, uneven teeth, thick eyebrows, and healthy flesh, I did quite well that summer, working steadily and receiving top pay.
Back at college in the fall, ads I posed for in the summer began running in magazines, appearing on posters. It was the "Tawny" ad in particular that did me in. A Revlon campaign for a new line of cosmetics called Tawny showed me, head coyly cocked, lying on my stomach, barebacked, hugging a leopard‑skin pillow to my beaded breast, my fingers flashing false red nails.
It ran in major magazines and turned up in the window of every drugstore on campus (there were only two). Girls would smirk and snicker as they passed, "Hi, Tawny," and, as fraternity‑pledge pranks, boys were assigned to call me for coffee dates. I had certainly asked for it.
With the tarnished Tawny money, I bought two new Nikons and became photo editor of a school magazine. I chose art history, painting, journalism, and creative writing as my elective courses, figuring the first two would help me with color and composition in photography and the second two with written reportage.
Joining the Penn Players in the unlikely role of Alma in Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke, I received the school's awards for Best Actress and Most Creative Student. Still, I was ashamed of my half‑baked campus notoriety and felt like a fallen woman, ridiculed and lampooned. Obviously, I exaggerated much of it; nevertheless, I scurried along self-consciously to class‑head down, shoulders hunched, eyes averted‑avoiding even the most casual glance.
School grew uncomfortable, and in the spring, with my modeling money, 1 took a lease on a New York apartment and began spending more time there and less in Philadelphia. The laxness of my attitude did not go unnoticed by the faculty. One day, the dean of women called me to her office to comment on my increasing absences and to caution me about my future. When she asked, "Tell me, Candice, what will you be in 10 years without your B.A.?" it was to me the Voice of Doom. I blinked and swallowed hard, trying to contemplate life without my Bachelor of Arts degree. It was a dark and depressing thought, a doomed life sentence: branded as another pretty blonde and banished to California. Though I'd made it into a punch line by dinnertime, the question cut clean to the core.
Core? What core? The point was, I had no core; that had always come from others. From birth, I'd been suckled on the approval of others, lightheaded from the rush of fame. What would happen if I went without? Would I go into withdrawal? Fade into the Great Unknown? Anonymous Anonymous?
It served as the only sense of self-definition‑this lifelong feedback, this indirect acclaim‑for someone who hadn't had a chance to find out who she was. I'd come to rely on others to tell me.
Was the dean sounding a warning? If I continued as a "semicelebrity' what would I be like in 10 years' time? Without something of substance to ground me? Why wouldn't I sacrifice life as "Charlie's sister" for the chance at a real life of serious pursuits? Wasn't I prepared, for once, to pursue a profession, a higher interest, in relative obscurity? Wasn't I even willing to try?
All around me, other women were: Mary Ellen; my roommate, Marcia Weiss, '67 CW, who had decided to go for her Ph.D. in psychology; my roommate‑to‑be, Rusty Unger, '64 CW who aspired to become a writer. Women who wanted to be architects, scientists, painters, lawyers and pretty women, too, who didn't trade on their looks; women not defined by their beauty but by who they were; women who wanted to make something more of their lives.
I contrasted these young women with the woman I could so easily become: one of many movie actresses whose looks were paramount in a profession that didn't permit them to age, whose personae were invented by their publicists, and whose self‑esteem depended on the size of their billing.
As my friends and I discussed our futures and I mentioned the offers I'd had over the years to test for films, my friends looked bewildered. Why, they wondered, would I want to do that? Hollywood was not real, movie stars were not serious. I had to agree. But how could I explain to them that Hollywood was also home, and that making movies had always been expected of me?
Mary Ellen Mark, who was to become one of Candice Bergen's 'best and oldest friends,' took this picture of Bergen for a 1964 'Gazette.
Though I did well in courses that came easily to me at Penn, classes I enjoyed- creative writing, art history, journalism‑I made no effort at subjects I did not: political theory, opera, physics. I had no idea how to make an effort; most things had always come so easily for me that I had developed no discipline or patience for those which did not.
When I received three A’s in the courses in which I was able and two F's and an Incomplete in those in which I was not, I think I was stunned that the teachers had not discreetly closed an eye to my shortcomings but had reported them instead. Habit had taught me to rely on the celebrity status that had always seen me through, but here it was that very "celebrity" (and my attitude) that professors resented and, in some cases, were trying, admirably, to counteract.
I had managed to flunk two guaranteed "guts'‑painting and opera‑and not to finish a third. Painting, lasting two periods, was my earliest course, and inevitably I arrived late. The last class was nude drawing, and the only seat left by the time I got there was the one in back of the model's. After handing in bare‑assed sketches for an entire semester, I was, understandably, given an F. I missed my opera final because of measles, but wouldn't have passed it anyway.
To my knowledge, it was the first time anyone had ever received a failing grade in music and painting; my schoolmates were astonished, some even impressed.
The administration wasn't. If I'd planned to turn over a new scholastic leaf in the fall, the college had other ideas. The letter read:
DEAR MR. BERGEN:
The Executive Committee of the College for Women at its recent meeting reviewed the record of your daughter, Candice, and found that she had an "F" in Art 218, an "F" in Music 30, and an "Incomplete" in Art 140. The Committee therefore decided to drop Candice from the rolls at this time. In addition, Candice has not been accepted by a major department and in view of her total academic record major acceptance would be most difficult.
It is hoped that Candice will find success and happiness in some other field.
What possible success and happiness could I every hope to find now, facing an ominous future without my B.A.? Ashamed and miserable, I bought a stack of "Love comics" and boarded the train to New York. What was going to become of me?
Though I was indignant and flippant on the surface, the letter's impact on me was dramatic. I read my copy over and over in disbelief. Such a thing had never happened to me before‑this flat statement of failure and rejection. For the first time in my life, I had not been made an exception to the rules. I, to whom rules did not apply. I, who casually manipulated or ignored them, counting on people's willingness to waive them in my case. My special case.
At Penn, though they gave me every encouragement, they did not have time for students who were unserious, who weren't willing to make the grade. The University did not make exceptions of pretty girls with famous fathers. And I always respected them for that.
Success and happiness in some other field. As it happened, I did not have to face my academic failure for long. Sidney Lumet had contacted me before I left college. He was going to direct a film of Mary McCarthy's bestseller, The Group. He'd seen a photograph of me hugging a leopard‑skin pillow (or a leopard), he said, and was interested in me for the part of Lakey.
We met in New York. At first I was reluctant. But he explained it was going to be a "little film," a "New York film," in black‑and‑white, with unknown actresses. Was I interested? Maybe life without a BA wouldn't be so bleak after all. Of course, I was interested. It was only for the summer; it wasn't a commercial film; I could go back to photography later. I called my parents to tell them.
They were surprised but pleased. "What kind of part is it?" my mother asked. "The part of Lakey," I explained. "A small but pivotal part. She's described in the book as 'mysterious‑the Mona Lisa of the Smoking Room.' She leaves early in the film and returns at the end as a lesbian."
A pause. My parents, in unison: "A lesbian? Candy, you're just 19 and the first part you want to play in a film is a lesbian? Why can't you start by playing an ingenue? What's wrong with that?"
"This is an art film," I explained patronizingly, "not a Ross Hunter production‑"
"What's wrong with Ross Hunter? He's very successful. You used to love Sandra Dee."
"The reason I want to do this film," I sighed, "is because it isn't a commercial Hollywood production but a movie by New York filmmakers who are serious about their art."
If I was following in my father's footsteps, I was certainly going to rebel a little along the way.