50 Stories, Week 38: The Artist Path

Today I figured out my six degrees of separation from Taylor Swift. Like all good retrospectives, it took a long time to develop.

In the fall of 1993, I was living with Richard’s brother and sister-in-law in Redlands, CA, and nannying for their two young sons. It was an arrangement that sounded good initially, free rent in exchange for childcare, until I realized how exhausting little boys could be. Not to mention the awkwardness of living with your non-relatives for months, waiting for your sometimes-boyfriend to return from his extended summer motorcycle trip up the west coast (where he was sowing his oats and falling in lust with someone else.) But I was biding my time until moving to San Francisco in January to start school full-time and finally finish my degree.

One weekend in October, my friend Adriana called to see if I wanted to spend the weekend in Beverly Hills. Turned out that a friend of hers went to boarding school with another young woman, Liz, whose parents had offered up their pool house to Liz’s friends for the weekend – as you do, when you are the generous owners of a mansion in L.A. (I have learned through my many life experiences both as a young and older woman not to be surprised by things that seem surreal and outlandish but to smile, nod and say “Yes, ok, thank you.”)

So I borrowed my pseudo-in-law’s rusty old Volvo station wagon and we headed for the hills. Liz wasn’t actually home that weekend, but her parents were and they welcomed us when we arrived. I can’t say I’d ever been in a proper mansion before but I knew after seeing actual works of Picasso and Matisse on the walls that this was no ordinary home. (Yes, even at 23, I knew my important artists. I had to stop myself from touching the canvases, to feel their work. I think above all back then, I wanted to be a Renaissance Woman.) 

We had a tour of Liz’s room, which felt invasive to me because I didn’t know her. Years later, though, I remember thinking that Regina George’s bedroom in Mean Girls was quite similar. At some point, Liz’s Mom Peggy showed me her study where she was working on a documentary for Planned Parenthood. The more we spoke, the more I fell in love with Ms. Peggy Elliott. Smart, feminist, kind, interested and interesting. I told her that I’d volunteered for PP in San Diego, teaching sex ed to high school students, and her support was easily more than I’d received from any other adults in my life. 

While looking at some old framed black and white photos during our little tour, I did a quick backpedal in my brain – what did Adriana say Liz’s last name was… Gold… Golding… no, Goldwyn. As in her father was Samuel Goldwyn Jr., film producer and son of Hollywood’s most successful independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn. Now, if I hadn’t been such a massive fan of film and screen, maybe this wouldn’t have mattered as much. But I was and it did. My parent’s lack of higher education and worldliness was no match for their love of old movies. All the weekend afternoons with my father in particular were spent watching old movies, so yes, I had a mini-scream-inside-your-heart moment when I connected the dots. I attempted to keep my cool.

While we were down at the pool house (which, btw, was next to the estate that the Bodyguard was filmed at,) the housekeeper came down to tell us that the Goldwyns had invited us to dinner and asked if we had any dietary preferences. It was here that I had my first blunder and said that I was a vegetarian. She gave me a funny look so I went on to animatedly explain that I didn’t eat any animals and why. When we sat down to dinner, everyone was served these wonderful appetizers and side dishes but I was told the cook was making me something special. What arrived as my entree was a large salad bowl full of kidney beans and blue cheese. Make no mistake, the early 90’s weren’t friendly to vegetarians, even in southern California. 

After dinner, we retired to the den and Mr. Goldwyn offered us something to drink. I assumed that meant booze, and since I was of age, I said ok. He went to the bar refrigerator in the corner of the room but discovered it was broken so he said he had to get them from a different refrigerator in another room, so I followed him to help. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell some cagey story about his deviant behavior. No, this wasn’t that kind of shaming.) In den number two, there was a bar alcove complete with mini-fridge and sink. He pulled out a soda and when he opened the can, it exploded all over my pants. While he was finding a napkin for me, we started chatting. He wanted to know what I was studying in graduate school. I began to tell him about my situation, that I was a nanny and… but before I could explain anything further, he told me that being a nanny isn’t the same as being in college because I’ll never get anywhere being a nanny, without an education, without a plan. He went on and on, just to hear himself speak, I think. If I wasn’t intimidated, I could have explained that I didn’t have the funds or family to help but that I’d gone to community college. And that I was going to go back to school soon but when I began to speak in my own defense, he waved me away and went back to den number one where he began asking Adriana how college was going.

Now, I was a sensitive kid, something I used to be embarrassed by – before I understood that intuition and vulnerability were my superpowers. Clearly, I was young and impressed by these successful adults and fancy home. Part of me even knows why he said what he did – perhaps not with malintent – more like, hey, get your shit together so you have a chance at a future. They were kind hosts and we were in their house, so he could say whatever he wanted. But clearly there was also a class distinction. I remember thinking he showed a lack of patience and curiosity toward me. I was already struggling to prove to myself and my family that it meant something, for me to have moved across the country and live in California, for me to be the first to graduate from college, and here was this successful person in an industry I worshipped trying to tell me that what I was doing wasn’t good enough. 

I remember that conversation hanging on me, leaving me feeling like an outsider. Like some loser who wasn’t in college and was a glorified babysitter, someone who didn’t actually pursue her dream of moving to L.A. and making movies. Someone who, back then, didn’t understand that the non-traditional path would prove to be a fortuitous one. How lucky am I to have had that conversation to remind me that I’m good enough, that I didn’t make any life-altering mistakes, that it was all meant to be? That even though I didn’t become an actor (thanks crippling self-doubt,) I still studied and paid for something I love, a degree in theatre – and how even now, at 50, I am writing, getting my MFA, telling stories, and entertaining – myself at least. Maybe I have always been a late bloomer. I can still write the great american novel or memoir, and it can still become an award winning film. There is enough time, for me, and my path will not be a straight one.

Mr. Goldwyn passed away five years ago. Shortly after, his impressive art collection was auctioned off, including the original pieces I saw in his home that weekend. I was in the presence of truly great work then, and I knew it. When I looked for images to accompany this piece, I came across a story about the ultimate sale of the Goldwyn estate. It had been built in 1934 and both Samuels had raised their families there. It hosted fabulous social affairs with countless stars. But even a mansion needs a new life, so it went on the market and sold in 2017 to a Ms. Taylor Swift. She went on to restore it to its original glory, making it a historical landmark. And according to Wikipedia, “Swift’s 2020 album, Folklore, was partially recorded in a home studio built on the estate as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.” We shared the same space along our journey – me, Taylor, and numerous artists in between. Our non-traditional paths crossed, perhaps tied by an invisible string.

California Writing

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