Beauty can be a beast. That’s one message from Shocked, Patricia Volk’s smart, fascinating book about her complex relationship with her beautiful, elegantly attired, hypercritical mother.
Volk’s delightful first memoir, Stuffed, which focused on her eccentric family of New York restaurateurs, was published just a year after the death, in 2000, of her 80-year-old father, Cecil Sussman Volk, longtime proprietor of Morgen’s West Restaurant but also a sculptor, inventor, and motorcycle enthusiast. Although more than six years have passed since Audrey Morgen Volk’s death, her daughter refrains from revealing her mother’s age: “There’s enough in this book that violates her confidence already.”
To facilitate the tricky business of capturing both her mother’s beauty and less lovely side, Volk turns to a surprising foil: Shocking Life, the 1954 memoir by avant-garde couturier Elsa Schiaparelli. This was one of many books young Patty snatched from the pile that commandeered her mother’s attention every afternoon when she returned from hostessing at the family restaurant, Morgen’s. “I want to know what is in those books that is better than spending time with me,” Volk writes. What I want to know is what Audrey Volk got out of the voracious reading that left her daughter feeling neglected — perhaps some mental stimulation otherwise lacking in her life?
Ten-year-old Volk finds a welcome contrast to her mother’s values in Schiaparelli’s story. Shocking Life became for Volk what she calls her all-important “transformative book,” encountered at just the right time, prepuberty. “It armed me to separate. It provided the transformative jolt.”
Beauty is her mother’s defining characteristic. “Everybody tells me my mother is beautiful,” Volk writes. “The butcher tells me. The dentist, the doormen, my teachers, cab drivers gaping at her in the rearview mirror.” What her mother tells her is that “a woman needs a ring and a mink.” She instructs her two daughters to never let a man see you with cold cream on your face; how to select the best fur pelts; the importance of redecorating your home every ten years.
But Volk, born in 1943, has her doubts from an early age: “I can’t be like her. I don’t want to be like her. Much of what she thinks is important, I don’t. There has to be more than one way to be a woman.”
Schiaparelli’s book points to another way. The fearlessly creative designer even had the audacity to echo the constellation of moles on her cheek with a diamond brooch of the Big Dipper. “Schiap planted the idea that imagination trumped beauty, that being different might be a virtue,” Volk writes.
Where Volk’s mother’s style is “crisp” and “edited to the bone, neatest of the neat,” Schiaparelli “blurs the line between fashion and art,” collaborating with her friends Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí to produce transgressive, outré outfits. Her innovations include no-iron panties for women, the now-ubiquitous knit tube hats which she called Mad Caps, and the shocking pink color that became her signature. Her “Shocking” perfume, whose bottle was modeled on Mae West’s mannequin, was Audrey Volk’s annual birthday gift from her adored husband, wrapped in one hundred dollar bills.
Shocked is rich in quirky, affectionate details like that extravagant gift wrap, and amusing family photos and pictures of Schiaparelli’s fantastic surrealist designs, including her Dali-inspired Desk Suit, which featured drawers for pockets. But on a deeper level, Volk’s concern is with the options open to pre-feminist women. “My dazzling mother could have been anything. What stopped her?” she wonders, as she contrasts her mother’s cautious life, “blinkered by convention” and devoted to arduously preserving her looks, with that of daring Schiaparelli. (Though on re-reading Shocking Life as an adult, she notices things she missed at ten: Schiaparelli’s pervasive melancholy and egregious behavior as a mother.)
Of course Volk’s mother would have loathed Shocked— which withholds her age but reveals far worse, including an angry swat to her daughter’s cheek hard enough to necessitate root canal. But it’s fortunate for both Volk and her readers that with the help of Schiaparelli’s iconoclastic example, she found the courage to break rules. “Audrey’s disappointments in me stopped being my disappointments in me,” she writes in this stylish coming-of-age tale.