My rating: 5/10
Query: If I bought this frothy vintage memoir/feminine advice manual on a whim, does that automatically make it whimsical?
The hardcover books at one of my occasional used book sources – for you locals, Quesnel’s Family Thrift Shop, on Front Street right across from the walking bridge and beside the old Hudson’s Bay building – were on sale at a lovely 75% off, so I naturally indulged myself and collected a small stack of them, including this fluffy thing. I’d browsed it before, but always put it back; I am a bit sorry to say that that instinct was right on target. It was a pleasant diversion, but not one I wold have missed if I had missed it, if you know what I mean.
I originally rated this book at a conservative 4. On second thoughts, I’m upping it to 5. It had its moments, and those were very good. Some genuine gems among the lavish stage jewelry here. Enough so that I will be keeping an eye open for Miss Burke’s 1949 memoir, With a Feather on My Nose. (But I’m not going to a whole lot of trouble to track it down. If it shows up for a few dollars, I will happily snag it. But not going to mortgage the farm to finance it. I haven’t even checked it out on ABE; for all I know it may be cheap and abundant, or, conversely, rare and expensive.)
I must confess that I had no idea who Billie Burke was before I read the flyleaf, where I discovered that she was (in 1959) an elderly actress, and also the widow of the flamboyant Florenz Ziegfeld of, of course, Ziegfeld Follies fame. After finishing the book, I did my usual and put a query into Google, whence I immediately discovered that Miss Burke is very well known indeed, having played Glinda the Good alongside Judy Garland’s Dorothy in MGM’s stunningly successful 1939 musical, The Wizard of Oz.
Born in 1884 (according to Wikipedia; the memoir claims 1886) to American parents then living in England, Billie Burke followed in her comedic-actor (more accurately, a “singing clown with Barnum & Bailey and in Europe”) father’s footsteps and starred in her first Broadway play in 1907, and her first silent movie in 1916. Cast as a fluffy-headed romantic type (“spoony ladies with bird-foolish voices; skitter-wits!”) throughout most of her exceedingly long career (which ended in 1960), Miss Burke had a tremendously faithful following, and indeed worked closely with many of the theatrical and literary greats of her era, including, among numerous others, Will Rogers, Eddy Cantor, and Somerset Maugham (whom Miss Burke confesses she cherished a long-lasting though unspoken romantic crush on). The memoir is stuffed full of famous names, and quite understandably so, considering Miss Burke’s stellar career. (I am quite embarrassed that I’ve never knowingly heard of her; but as Hollywood and Broadway are not my natural forté, all I can say is that I shall meekly continue to live and learn.)
So, the book. It’s memoir-ish, but mostly it’s an advice manual. Billie Burke, a matronly seventy-five at the time of its publishing, had LOTS of advice to share. Her co-writer, Cameron Shipp, accomplished ghost and co writer to various other celebrities, claims in the last chapter (How to Write a Book with Billie Burke) that he merely assembled Miss Burke’s copious notes and transcribed her enthusiastic monologues. He states that much more was left out than included in With Powder on My Nose; one can well believe it, and I wondered if a third memoir was perhaps being hinted at, though one never materialized.
The chapter titles give a hint of the broad range of topics discussed with fervent opinionism by Miss Burke.
With Powder on My Nose – a brief overview of Billie Burke’s career, with some reference to her happy-but-complex marriage to showgirl-surrounded Florenz Ziegfeld.
The Trouble with Women – Billie Burke takes issue with the way women are negatively portrayed in the popular press, and then takes a few feeble swings at the budding feminists she has come across. The trouble referred to is the way that women are trying to – in the author’s opinion – step into men’s shoes. In her opinion, the same can be accomplished by using one’s natural femininity to get one’s way. In her personal experience, and all.
I always said the right things about love and marriage when I was on the stage. That was because I said what good playwrights wrote for me to say. I often said the wrong things to my husband…
Kitchen, Bedroom and Bath – Men love good food, but they love sex more. Always get up early and put your makeup on and do your hair. If he strays, really consider the implications before setting out ultimatums. Forgiveness without reproach can save your marriage. (One suspects that Billie frequently put this into practice herself; Ziegfeld was surrounded by luscious feminine temptation in the shape – pun intended – of the Ziegfeld showgirls, and by all reports continually indulged.) Bathing, preferably with lavish oils and soul-soothing bubbles is one of the secrets of staying attractive – lots and often is the rule here. (I like that last one!)
With a Possum on My Head – Mothers-in-law – how to get along with them; how to be one. Some rather good advice here, mostly along the lines of “Shut up and smile” and “A marriage concerns two people only – don’t butt in”.
Why I Never Married Again – Widowhood. A strong recommendation to remarry if possible; a poignant defense of why she herself didn’t. One of the more serious chapters; authentically heartfelt.
If You Want to Be an Actress… – Advice to those contemplating a similar career. Work and study hard; have a fall-back plan; don’t go to Hollywood. Some very good advice in this chapter, reading from my perspective as a performing arts parent, and perfectly applicable today.
Let’s Face It – Advice on hair and make-up. Take care of yourself, girls, and look at those wrinkles in a strong light, and above all accept your age. (But don’t give in to it!) Don’t dye your hair. The stage is one thing, real life another. Use moisturizer. Don’t plaster your foundation on. Etcetera. Billie Burke looks pretty darned good in all the pictures I’ve seen, not noticeably face-lifted as far as I can tell, so if this (make-up) is your thing, probably worth reading. Over my head, I confess!
How to Steal Up to Ten Dollars and Other Good Advice – Men like to view women as disorganized in general and careless about money in particular. Take advantage of this and pick his pockets and feel free to lie about expenditures. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Etcetera. And other hints on husband taming. The battle between the sexes explained at its vintage best! A bit dated, this chapter. <ahem>
Clothes – and the Shape You’re In – Dressing to accentuate/hide your figure. Dress for your lifestyle; have fun with it; always wear comfortable shoes. There’s no excuse for being flabby, even if you’re not the gal you used to be. Eat a healthy diet. Don’t skip breakfast. Avoid alcohol, or indulge in moderation only. Don’t smoke. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF!!! Etcetera. (This harks back slightly to the “put your make-up on before your spouse wakes” up advice, but is actually very applicable to everyone, male or female, in any era.)
My Best Advice – a very short chapter, which advises avoiding going to friends and family in a dilemma, as they will tell you what you want to hear. Go to an expert, and then FOLLOW that advice.
Easy Exercise – How to exercise without effort. (Hmmm…) Detailed advice on specific routines. Stand up STRAIGHT, ladies. The importance of posture and presentation.
They – Men, of course. This chapter could be easily expanded into a modern-day bestseller on how to keep “him” happy, in line with other such retro advice manuals. A revealing peek inside Miss Burke’s very feminine mind.
Something Good to Eat – Recipes. From the mouth-watering (“Stuffed Eggplant”) to the sybaritic (“Shrimp Newburg”) to the prosaic (“Whole Wheat Bread”). An enthusiastic promotion of organically grown vegetables; a definite fixation on organ meats (brains, sweetbreads, kidneys, heart, liver), plus a recommendation for gelatin drinks (?).
Going Steady – A bemused chapter on the present day (1959) predilection of the young for “going steady”. Billie Burke thinks they’re missing out on a whole lot of fun…
Dear Mrs. Post: Is It All Right to Be Polite to a Child? – How to talk (politely) to children. Some marvelous advice in this chapter, absolutely timeless.
Un-Birthdays – It’s perfectly fine to lie about your age! (Says Billie.)
When To Tell Your Age – Except, of course, when applying for your Social Security benefits. Billie encourages you to get out there and take advantage of the program. An interesting vignette of a time when such income insurance programs were just coming into their own.
Out of My Head – A short compilation of Billie’s snippets of advice and observation. Examples:
Go to church. You may believe nothing. But at least once a week you can join, if only in silent communication, a lot of hopeful people trying to learn good will.
There’s a lot of nonsense written about how money won’t buy happiness. Well, I’ve had a lot of money and a lot of unhappiness at the same time. And I’ve been poor and happy. But the most fun of all was being happy and having money.
So there you have it. A mildly diverting trip down a career film star’s memory lane. Absolutely dated, so read on with a forgiving smile.
Curious? Here’s an interesting link which will tell you more about the author: