Marilyn Monroe was at the top of the list of famous visitors to Niagara Falls, maybe even above the Queen of England. She arrived in Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1952 (two years before my arrival) with a film crew and co-stars Joseph Cotton and Jean Peters, for the shooting of the movie, “Niagara,” directed by Henry Hathaway. It was her first starring role. The movie came out in 1953. The trailer for the movie is a fabulous spin of Niagara Falls and the movie’s dramatic parallels. Promotional titles over raging water film footage and sexy clips of Marilyn read, “Tantalizing Temptress,” with a “Raging Torrent of Emotion,” that “Even Nature Can’t Control.” A story with a “Destructive Whirlpool of Deceit,” and the best yet; “Niagara and Marilyn Monroe – The Two Most Electrifying Sights in the World!” Bravo to the Ad Men who spun those lines. I don’t know how the movie did in the box office but the “Niagara,” movie brought our small-town, world-wonder the stamp of a Hollywood endorsement and a permanent link with Niagara Falls and Marilyn Monroe.
The parallels between Marilyn Monroe and myself are few, and the degree of separation is quite wide, but some are worth mentioning. At various times in our lives, we both posed by the stonewall overlooking the Falls and we both posed by the Maid of the Mist ferry boat. We both sat on a bench at the Niagara Fall’s bus station. Later in life, I was once told I looked like a young Jean Peters (her co-star in Niagara). I also spent 3 months studying at her famous teacher’s acting school; Lee Strasberg’s Acting Studio on Hollywood Blvd., CA. During a voice class at the school, Susan Strasberg (Lee’s daughter) spent a lot of time talking about Marilyn’s singing and acting techniques. It was magical to be sitting in the very room where Marilyn and practiced her scenes and songs; a world away from my Niagara childhood.
Marilyn’s next film after “Niagara,” was “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” with her famous rendition of the song, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” It’s a favorite musical number of mine and I love every glittery moment. I especially love and appreciate Marilyn’s singing.
Diamonds were not on my radar growing up. My mother’s wedding rings were two gold bands, one slightly thicker than the other. She had some costume jewels and rhinestones but true diamonds were not something I contemplated until I went to Princess Elizabeth Junior High in 1965. I was 11 years old, shyly navigating my way through Grade 7.
It was very scary and very exciting. No longer did we sit in one classroom all day long. We were divided into classes that met every morning in our specific homeroom, and each class rotated as a group from classroom to classroom, subject by subject. Timed, travel-bells first alerted our small squads of pimple-faced teens to grab our books and arrange ourselves in a line. Another bell sent us moving. Like ants on a trail, we silently followed single file along the hallway walls, to our next dish on the schooling buffet. No talking, no laughing, no noise. A nod to passing friend was all we could do until lunchtime in the cafeteria.
My sister and I were in separate classes, each on our own to branch out and expand our worlds. She had a lot of friends and was making new ones every day. I was quiet, shy and kept mostly to myself. My sister and her friends met and sat together at lunch. I was invited and I usually sat on the outside edge of the group. I didn’t want to interfere with her new life. One day, I stuck a “16” magazine in my binder so I could hide in the pages of the latest teen idol news during lunch. A corner of the magazine was spotted before homeroom announcements. There was a tap on my shoulder.
“Is that a “16” magazine? Can I see it?” asked the girl sitting behind me. I let her look at it briefly, but class was about to start. “Can I look at it at lunchtime?” she asked. I wasn’t about to give up my “social shield,” to this cute girl who clearly didn’t need any social armour. I responded with, “If you let me eat lunch with you.”
I could tell that wasn’t exactly what she had in mind. My heart pounded while she contemplated my magazine enticement. Bribing someone to eat lunch with you is a very a scary proposition. “Well…I thought maybe I could just borrow it at lunchtime and give it back to you,” she said. I weighed my options, lunch alone again (and possibly forever) while she (and probably all her friends enjoy my 16 magazine) OR go for the big pay off and negotiate a lunch date with my magazine leverage. I went for the pay off.
“No, I can’t do that. I have to stay with my magazine,” I said. If she wants to enjoy Herman’s Hermits, the Beatles, David McCallum, Sonny and Cher and whoever else peppered my precious magazine’s pages, she’ll have to enjoy it with it’s 4-eyed, frizzy haired owner. That’s the deal. “I usually have lunch with my friend, Meg,” she hesitated. “That’s ok,” I answered, “she can look at it too.” Now, I was extorting my way into an innocent bystander’s lunch too. Desperate times require desperate measures. I had no shame.
I waited while she continued to contemplate whether eating lunch with me was worth finding out about the Beach Boys “Hates and Loves,” or if the Beatles were “Devils or Darlings,” or how to win one of the 80 signed pix from Paul McCartney. It seemed like forever. Then she smiled and said, “Ok, we’ll meet at the lockers and then find Meg. And bring the magazine.” “OK, great,” I said. “What’s your name?” “Shelly,” she answered. “I’m Laura,” I said.
Class was starting. We stood and listened to a scratchy rendition of “God Save the Queen.” In grade school, we had to sing it, but in Junior High we just listened to the music. Then, we bowed our heads for the Lord’s Prayer. My prayer took a selfish turn that day.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name (and the names of Herman’s Hermits, John, Paul, George and Ringo, Chad and Jeremy and Illya Kuryakan, who are on the cover of my magazine.)
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in the lunchroom.
Give us this day our daily friend. And forgive us our bribes, as we forgive those who resist our desperate bribe.
And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from eating alone.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
I sat with a happy heart to listen to the daily announcements. The morning classes flew by and the lunchtime bell rang. Shelly and I grabbed our lunches from our lockers, and with coveted magazine in hand, we walked over to a cute, blonde girl who was getting her lunch from her locker. “Meg, this is Laura. She’s has a “16” magazine we can look at during lunch. Do you want to?” Shelly asked.
It was another nerve-racking, magazine-bribing hoop to jump. Meg quickly assessed the situation and said, “Sure,” with a little smile. We headed to the cafeteria and found 3 chairs in the area unofficially designated for the newbies at school. I sent a happy, “I found some friends!” wave to my sister. I self-consciously sat with my magazine hostages, and giggled nervously as Shelly took command of the magazine, flipping the pages and making comments. I was thrilled beyond belief to be sitting with these two girls. They were older by a year at least, and so pretty, so straight-haired; each dressed in the latest, Niagara department store offering for the modern, junior high school teen. Meg had shoulder-length, wispy blond hair and big blue eyes that were magnified when she put on her reading glasses. She lived in Cherrywood Acres, a new subdivision in the Falls that replaced acres of Niagara’s cherry orchard farmland. Her family was from England, but she’d lived in Canada since third grade. Her dad’s work required them to relocate. I think he sold jewels or diamonds. She had even lived in Africa for a while. Her life sounded rich and new, shiny and glamourous.
Shelly lived on Montrose Road, which was close to Cherrywood acres, but may as well have been Africa as far as I was concerned. She was blue-eyed with a confident, dimpled smile that exposed a little chip on her center corner of her right, front tooth. She had bangs and a chin length bob that hung in perfection, and could rival any magazine model’s coif. She was funny and self assured, and clearly a leader. When the “end of lunch” bell rang, my hostage’s were free to return to a world free of their frizzy haired captor. As we walked to our lockers, Shelly asked, “Can you bring another magazine tomorrow?” “Sure,” I answered, thrilled at the promise of another chance at friendship.
We all lunched again, and our friendship slowly bloomed over wax-paper wrapped sandwiches, cool milk cartons and teen magazines. Shelly and I shared classes and classroom antics together. Meg met us at lunchtime and we all shared after-school and weekend hours looking for our version of small town fun. We stood together at school dances, dressed in our finest neon mini-skirts, hoping someone would ask us to dance. Nobody did. We combed peroxide in our hair in the school bathroom (something I wouldn’t recommend to people with curly, brown hair), and applied the makeup we weren’t allowed to apply at home. The make-up easily washed off, but the peroxide was permanent. I was petrified to return home with the orange, scarecrow mess I had willingly created in the school bathroom. I was pretty sure there would be “hell to pay,” when my mom saw my hair, but she must have thought the result was hell enough. She took one look and simply said, “Well, I guess you’re going to have to live with that.”
Over time, we morphed into copy-cat versions of each other, talking alike, walking alike, and trying our best to look alike with the latest fashion-forward image we could manage. Considering the limited funds and limited shopping options in Niagara Falls at the time, we had to get pretty creative in our quest to be trendy. We made the best of Woolworth’s accessory and make-up counter, flush with Madras mini purses and the latest pink or white frosted lipsticks. Basic items from the bargain basement at Rosberg’s department store helped us round out the our “look,” be it the latest trend in pleated or A-line skirts, flower print blouses, and plain or patterned knee-socks. Girls were not allowed to wear pants at school but for after school and weekends, we searched high and low for the au courant flowered, colored or beige wrangler jeans.
Shelly and Meg had no problem wearing a professionally styled “Twiggy’” or “Slicker Girl” hair cuts, perfect for anyone with straight hair. I got the home version of the Twiggy cut. “Curl Free,” the boxed hair straightener wasn’t on the market yet (not that I’d be allowed to sabotage my natural curls with chemicals), so I had to devise a straightening program to pull off the look. My ingenious program involved plastering my wet hair flat with “Dippity Do” hair gel, tracks of metal hair clips to stop any curling, and capping my metallic head with a tight nylon stocking I designed to hold down my hair project. After a head-denting sleep, I would awake to a stiff, somewhat crimped but almost straight hairdo. I must confess, it was not the best look for me, but it was the look of the day and I did my best to carry it off. Unfortunately, any moisture, (and there was plenty in Niagara Falls), would quickly cause a frizzed out hairdo backslide. Luckily for me, Canadian’s are polite and humiliation was kept to a minimum.
At some point between 7th and 8th grade, our heel-crushed, penniless penny-loafers worn with knee-socks became shiny, Beatle Boots worn with nylons or fishnet stockings. In the winter, we often replaced our snow covered Mukluk boots with the knee high leather boots that we stored in our lockers for indoor wear. Whatever we wore, we were sure to scuff our feet and drag our heels down the middle school halls, so we were heard and hopefully seen by whoever we thought counted. Teachers were constantly admonishing us to “pick up our feet,” an impossible option for our version of “cool.” Even threats of a trip to the Vice Principal’s office could not silence our scuffling. Eventually, a new version of “cool,” would take hold and the scuffing would be replaced with funny walk or wiggle.
The famous artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, who is known for her up close and personal paintings of flowers, famously said, “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.” And we three; Shelly, Meg and I, took our time and we became lifelong friends. We’ve popped in and out of our lives, from then until now; moving around, staying close, taking breaks, losing touch, and getting it back. We’ve all had joys and we’ve all had sorrows, sometimes helping each other through them. One of us bravely battles an illness that makes curly or straight hair obsolete, another one worries if she’ll remember her family, her friends, her memories; or if will she’ll succumb to a disease that made her a stranger to her dear mother. Another, has felt the constriction and pain of a heart that’s trying to squeeze through the odds of it’s genetic history, and takes preventative measures, hoping to keep the genetics at bay.
I have a small, brown autograph book that I asked school friends and teachers to write in at the end of the school year. My 7th grade English teacher, who taught us Haiku and made us memorize and recite every stanza of Robert Frost’s “A Road Not Taken,” wrote a little poem in my book in 1965; the year I negotiated my way into the lives of my two friends. It read,
True Friends are like Diamonds,
Precious and Rare,
False ones like autumn leaves,
The wisdom of that little poem has lived in my heart and mind every bit as much as the wisdom found on the travels of Robert Frost’s “Two roads diverged in the yellow wood.” SLOWLY I LEARNED that some friendships bring color and fun and passions that last a season or even a few years, then somehow like autumn leaves, the friendship falls away. Sometimes it hurts and you miss the beauty and the color, and you can only hope their ride on the wind was a good one. I’m grateful for the autumn leaves that blew in my life, adding to my rainbow of memories. And the diamonds, the friendships that live forever and sparkle through time; these are the friendships I cherish. They are precious and they are rare. I hope that Marilyn found a diamond or two among the autumn leaves in her life. The diamonds that truly are “a girl’s best friend.”
 Junior high in Canada was 2 years, consisting of Grade 7 and 8. High school was 5 years, from Grade 9 to Grade 13. Grade 13 was considered a College Prep Class.