by Jane Powell
Motion Picture Magazine
July 3, 1955
America–being an American–is something I’ve been taking for granted most of my life. Perhaps that’s one of the secrets of it’s greatness, that we aren’t forced to think consciously of our country first, ourselves second. For it’s the individual who is considered important here; and from healthy, happy, self-reliant individuals, good citizens are formed to create a free, vital nation unique in its optimism, enterprising spirit, and deep faith that tomorrow will be even brighter than today. Fear? How can we even be afraid of the dark when we live in the light of opportunity, and laughter is spontaneous, like music!
But, though I’ve always known this, I did not give it much conscious thought until I saw America through the eyes of others who had to earn the privilege of becoming citizens. I’ve known quite a few people who come here from foreign countries. I’ve watched them wait, attend adult-education classes, worry over passing their citizenship test, and yet wait, wait, wait. I’ve heard them shout with excited happiness, “I’m a citizen! I’m an American!” upon receiving their papers at last–and seeing their excitement has made me realize how important it really is. They were lost until they had those papers giving them the rights that they were born with. And I’ve thought, “It’s like having a baby! All the waiting an anticipation and hardship is forgotten in that big moment of accomplishment and realization.”
I saw what I had through their eyes, and it was like being reborn.
Still, I didn’t realize all that America offered until Pat and I went to Europe last November on our honeymoon. Things we have here are unbelievable–our clothes, our standard of living, our way of thinking.
I loved the Europeans, I think they’re wonderful. And in one way we could learn from them, for they have an appreciation for art and music that was a revelation to me. But I also realized that they are more basic than we, enjoying what life may offer in its natural state, because they don’t have the nice things which we do to otherwise occupy their minds. They haven’t had the comparison, and the comparison proves… That sounds like a cigarette ad!
I know from personal experience, too, that we develop a finer esthetic sense whenever we really want to. Before I married Pat Nerney I know very little about art or good literature, but this gap in my education and sphere of interest was quickly filled. At first I wanted to learn because this was so much a part of my husband’s life, and I wanted to share this with him Now, in less than a year, I find that a good painting brings me great pleasure–and more than sharing Pat’s enthusiasm, I understand it.
Shortly after we were married, Pat brought home a painting by the fine Dutch artist, Vlaminck. He looked so pleased as he presented it to me for my inspection.
I studied it and tried hard not to like it, but its meaning was lost to me. I finally admitted, “I really don’t are for it.”
With characteristic good humor, he wrapped it up and brought it back, exchanging it for a Caffe which appealed to me much more. I was not yet ready for impressionists.
Not long afterwards I found myself visiting the art galleries of Europe–the Prado, the Louvre, the Vatican. One painting in particular struck me as being outstanding and I turned to Pat and said “Isn’t this a wonderful painting?”
He nodded, then said with a wry goring, “But the one I bought and returned was better.”
Yes, it was also a Vlaminck–and how I wished we still had the one which was returned!
So we can learn, and grow as we learn. But we do not have the accompanying poverty and, in many cases, oppression which limits the pleasures of Europeans so drastically.
An understanding of poverty, and caution, is implanted so early in the minds of the young. Where childhood, to us, should be a happy time free of an awareness of responsibility, the European children seem almost to be born old.
I know of one little girl in Sicily who received a 12-inch, yellow-haired doll from a friend in California. The doll had not been intended to be anything special, for it was one which had been repaired and mended, had even a “broken arm.” “Well, I’ll send it anyway,” thought the friend. “The Child may enjoy playing with it.”
But when the doll arrived, it was examined with wonder and delight, patted gingerly–and put away, as being too good to be used as a toy. Only when special company arrives it is brought out of the cupboard. Ribbons are untied carefully, and the little Sicilian girl cries out, “Look! Look what came from America!”…
Yes, I know we have poverty here, but not on such a great scale. We saw so many people scrounging around for food, almost like animals, and it is a pitiful sight–especially the children. I think Pat sums it up well when he says, “If we didn’t have a dime and our children were ill, we could put them in the General Hospital and they’d have the best care. All the odds are with them…” It’s good to know that no matter how hard you might have to struggle, your children will not suffer for lack of nourishment or medical care.
Poverty was reflected in other ways, too. In France, the heating was so bad. That’s cannot afford to be generous with fuel. When they are cold, they don’t put more wood on the fire, they just put on more clothes. And without central steam heat, they still have chimney sweeps, so the air is filled with soot.
In Venice we were warm simply because there were only five guests in the hotel, and the management placed us in one wing, then funneled all the heat for us.
We were gone just a month, but I was so happy to come home and see little Ga and Sissy. I did not consciously compare them with some of the thin youngsters prowling the streets of Europe in search of sustenance–I was too glad for such thoughts and sadness. But it does give a secure feeling to know that they will grow up here, with all the advantages their parents and America can offer. I wonder how many Europeans visiting America are so eager to return home!
Perhaps I seem to stress our economic blessings too much. I will admit it was a real pleasure to be able to drink running water again, instead of having to insist upon bottled water. There are so many little things which we take for granted until they are taken away momentarily.
But I know so well that being an American is not just a matter of electric appliances and a new car every other year! The wonderful thing is that even though we cannot afford such luxuries or even necessities one year, we are free to work toward them–toward any goal we wish. For America means freedom–the ability to think for ourselves. Of course, there always has to be a leader, no matter what you do–or a coordinator, I should say. But we do have the right to decide whether we want to do something or we don’t.
We are doing all we can to teach Ga and Sissy, and Pat’s little girl Monie, to think for themselves, rather than implant certain rigid beliefs in their young minds. Pat has a cousin who lived for some time in Buenos Aires. His two little girls attended a Perondista school, where the children all did the goose step and thought alike. It’s awful to contemplate.
We have a selection of schools here; if we do not like one, we can choose another. Ga and Sissy will probably attend Catholic school because their father was Catholic and wants this–but it will depend a great deal on the child. If they need co-education, which I think is very important, they’ll go to a co-educational school for a while. It depends entirely upon age and personality–and the wonderful thing is that in America there are schools to suit any need. And when they reach college age, they can make up their own minds as to just what they want to do, not follow a traditional pattern set by their ancestors for generations.
When I asked Pat, after MOTION PICTURE posed this question to me, what American meant to him, he said teasingly, “In America the man has freedom from anything but his wife; in Europe the man has freedom from nothing but his wife!” But he is probably even more serious about this great country of ours than I.
“America means opportunity,” he said soberly, “and I don’t think you have it anywhere else. Of course, if you live on dreams alone you don’t get anywhere. But if you live practically and take advantage of this opportunity, you can get anywhere.”
How different from other countries, where, even if you had to chance to go forward you would probably bog down. All the children born there during or just before the war–that traditional fear will stay with them.
“How wonderful it is to speak my mind with fear of reprisal!” A new-citizen friend exclaimed recently. This constant threat must be terrible. If they are into afraid for themselves, then they fear the consequences of their actions upon others–their families, friends, loved ones. With this comes a feeling of hopelessness and inertis. For history has taught them futility. The young people may take a few strides toward personal advancement; then war and invasion wipes out all progress and desire to begin again. We haven’t been invaded by armies, and faith in our government has kept us going. I think we’re just fortunate.
I know about opportunity and freedom from fear, and I knew why Americans believe so firmly in the future.
When I was a child in Portland we didn’t have anything much, but we were still better off than in Europe. We lived in an apartment which my folks managed For this they got free rent and ten dollars a month. There was a living room, kitchen, one bedroom and bath. I slept on the couch in the living room.
But it didn’t stay this way; it didn’t have to. Somehow, my parents managed to scrape together enough money for dancing lessons when I was three, and singing lessons by the age of seven. And that was the beginning of my future which certainly proves the magic combination of work-plus-opportunity in America.
When I was eleven I had my own radio show over station KOIN, and the next year, when the war began, I was made Portland’s Victory Girl, touring the state on Bond drives. I sensed patriotism then, but was too young to know that it meant more than band music and a sudden lump in my throat without realizing why.
When good fortune brought me to Hollywood and a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract, I did not recognize it as such . I was being taken away from so much–my friends, the surroundings I was used to. In Hollywood, everything was new and strange, and my inherit shyness kept it that way. I was a lonely child and an only child, which made me more lonely. I had no one else to be with–no brothers or sisters, and no one else near my age at the studio school.
With my children, it would be different if they chose a motion picture career. They wouldn’t have to move away and things would still be the same, they would have their friends. To them, it would be a job; but to me it was a job and being taken away from everything I was used to doing or thinking.
They say it’s not hard for children to adjust, but it is–particularly if you’re a sensitive child, which I was. It was a jolt and it stayed that way for five years. I went to school and took lessons, and that’s all I did.
I tried going to church, as a matter of fact, though not for church itself. In fact, to this day I am not a church-goer, though I believe in God and religion. I know quite a big [sic] about all churches and they say pretty much the same thing–live by the Golden Rule, which you must have before you and not forget. That’s the hardest thing to do, but it’s what I try to live by. To me, going to church is being kept aware of this, as you are constantly reminded of your lessons in school. I know I should go to church, and there probably will come a time when I will.
But when I was fifteen, I was thinking of the friends I might make in church, and I did meet quite a few people that way. But I was very young for my age, and somehow their ideas were too advanced for me and I felt more alone than ever.
I cannot help thinking how so many hungry Europeans would wonder that a handful of friends could mean more than a growing bank account and all that money can bring. I realize today how fortunate I was–and am–but at 15 I felt I had nothing but loneliness for a companion.
And the time came when I was even afraid, or thought so. All my roles in pictures had been singing parts.Then came ROYAL WEDDING, and with it the opportunity to dance with Fred Astaire. I couldn’t sleep at night, worrying about it–for to me, he was the greatest dancer in the world. How could I appear on the same screen with him! I was terrified at the prospect, but it was either do it or not make the picture. When I finally told Mr. Astaire how I felt, he laughed. He couldn’t understand my fear. “I’m not that great!” he said. “Come on, there’s nothing to worry about.”
With his help and the kindness of others, I lost of my fear.
I called it fear then. But after many conversations with friends from across the sea, I discovered there is no place for the word in America. What I felt was lack of confidence. Once we gain self-assurance, we need never be afraid in the true sense of the word.
My real test came in 1951, when, after my ingenue parts, I felt I had to prove to myself and the studio that I was grown up. I accepted my first nightclub engagement–at the Copa in Florida–and worried with the challenge. It was a new phase for me: theater-going people are different from nightclub people, who do not see many pictures. It was the biggest worry to me because they didn’t know who I was–even the owner of the nightclub didn’t know what I did!
On opening night I faced the audience as one stranger to another, took a deep breath and started with “Most Unusual Day.” Not until afterwards did I know I had been well received, and not until then did I relax. But this success gave me a new assurance, and I could almost feel myself grow up. With the added “accessories” of a new hairstyle an different dresses, I felt I had turned a corner in my career, and in myself. And I proved finally that we have the power within ourselves to do what we will; no one blocks us for long but our own self-doubts or lack of effort. Can this be said of other countries besides ours?
if I sound both grateful and happy–well, it’s because I am! With both a satisfying career and a wonderfully considerate husband who not only understands about the demands of my work but even loves to hear me sing!, there is nothing more I could ask for.
Someone told me I was a living example of difference between European women and American women. Though I respect the wishes and beliefs of my husband, I don’t have to agree with them–and can let him know. Though I love my home and my family and would be contented to spend all my time with them, I am not forced to. As so many others do today, I can combine career with a home without neglecting either–giving more, in fact, because such activity keeps me actively interested and alert.
When I go home and cook a meal for Pat and the children–which I love to do–I can look out the window at Ga and Sissy playing safely in the yard and know that their occasional cries are over little hurts and their tears are but childish ones.
And after dinner, when they are tucked into bed and Pat and I talk, I know that this, most of all, represents what America means to me–the home, and the peace within. No sound of tramping feet outside, no dread of a sudden loud knock at the door. Our walls are built not to keep out fear, but to surround love an laughter and confident planning ahead.
Though we cannot plan too definitely for Ga or Sissy or Monie. We can only help them to grow self-reliant, and speculate with interest on what they will choose to become. For the choice will be their own, as it must be and can only be–in America.