In 1968, when I was nineteen years old, a new bride, and four months pregnant, I
watched Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. The film opens with an aerial shot of the New York’s Dakota apartment building, with its gabled roof and odd chateau-esque architecture. The accompanying soundtrack is a menacing lullaby, a haunting, directionless “la-la- la-la…” sung in the whispery voice of someone slightly unhinged. When the camera brings us down to street level, we watch a young couple walk through the porte chochère into the building’s courtyard. The cues are there for the taking—the young man and woman have walked through a passageway and are entering a dark labyrinth.
At that age, I was as slight in stature and giddy in disposition as Rosemary (Mia Farrow)
as she swoons her way through the New York’s famed Dakota Apartments with Guy, her actor husband (John Cassavetes) who will quickly sell his soul, and her body, for choicer acting roles.
I don’t know what I identified with most—her 1960s sleeveless tent dresses, the Vidal
Sassoon haircut, or her gradually escalating disequilibrium as all the previously trusted
institutions betray her: marriage and family, the medical profession, and finally, motherhood. It was 1968 and the ground beneath me was shifting.
I sat in a darkened theater in Dallas, Texas, with a husband I barely knew, a husband who barely knew himself. I had just gotten over months of a morning sickness so intense that it seemed—at least for the film’s duration—plausible that I, too, had been incubating the devil’s child. I had my first apartment, whose walls, like Rosemary’s, I’d whitewashed and papered; and, like Rosemary, I had an optimism that was circumstantially foolish. My husband, a young art student, would not make a Faustian deal for the promise of career success, but he would grow distant, preoccupied, and appropriately terrified at the prospect of being a twenty-year- old father.
The audience knows from Rosemary’s first day in her Dakota apartment, when she spots
the secretary moved up against a closet door, that some menace is gathering behind that false wall. Rosemary notices warning signs, but is late to heed them. She and Guy hear the ominous chanting behind their bedroom wall and ignore it. After Guy befriends their older, eccentric neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castevet, Rosemary accepts a chalky-tasting mousse from Minnie, although her instinct is to resist it. In the resulting drug-induced dream, a horned, cloven-footed creature ravishes her. The spectacle is witnessed by a naked, aging coven. In spite of the realistic nature of the dream (she actually shouts out, “This is no dream, this is really happening”), Rosemary chooses to ignore it. When pregnant, she accepts the concoctions she is instructed to drink by Minnie and sees the doctor recommended by the Castevets. And so it goes. By the time she decides to act on her suspicions, it is too late.
Two months before sitting in that theater, when I realized I was pregnant, I flew back
from college to my parents’ home in Frankfurt, Germany. I waited three days before I worked up the nerve to tell my mother what I had kept hidden. During that time, my father managed to fix me up with a young lieutenant named Tom Dooley. The date to a beer fest at a small neighboring village was excruciating. It involved drinking a beer that I was unable to keep down and feigning a gaiety appropriate to a festival featuring dancing couples in dirndls and lederhosen. That night, I sat in the living room with my mother, who took the news in the civilized way she took all news. She lit me a cigarette (I was not a smoker) and offered me a phenobarbital—an act that I could liken, without too much of a stretch, to Minnie, Rosemary’s intrusive neighbor, offering her a charm filled with a foul-smelling tannic root.
My mother quickly went to work. By the day after my revelation, she had procured a
doctor’s appointment for me, and after the pregnancy was confirmed, she located a place in Switzerland where young ladies go until their babies are born and presumably adopted. The following night, she hosted a cocktail party (pre-planned but not canceled) where I was to circulate in a dress that resembled Mia Farrow’s and offer drinks, empty ashtrays into the brass silent butler, and generally provide evidence of my breeding and charm. My mother’s coup was having gotten from the Officer Club’s chef an entire smoked eel. I saw it early in the day on the kitchen counter in its entirety. It was a black, rubbery thing. I dreamed about it that night. It slithered through my legs as I struggled in deep water.
During the height of my mother’s party, when ashtrays were overflowing and sweating
glasses were making indelible watermarks on good wood, the phone rang. It was my young
husband-to-be, offering a less-than-enthusiastic marriage proposal. I could hardly make out his words, but accepted quickly. I was on the plane back to the States within a week.
When my plane landed in Dallas, my husband and his parents picked me up. They did all
the talking. Within three days, they had planned a wedding and rented us an apartment. I wore a peach-colored, empire-waist minidress, which I believe Rosemary might have approved of; he wore the suit he had worn for his high school graduation. We had the world’s smallest wedding cake, although it was properly tiered. We received an electric frying pan and a fondue pot from our few guests. We spent our wedding night at an airport Hilton, and I was carried along by the series of events, hardly pausing to think what was happening to me.
I was in a liminal space between the promises and limitations that a fifties childhood
dictated and the late 1960s dismantling of those familiar structures. There was a false wall, much like Rosemary’s closet wall, between my two worlds. Like Rosemary, things were happening to me without my full participation. Like Rosemary, the ground was rearranging itself beneath me like sliding tectonic plates.
* * *
I suppose Rosemary and I had less in common than it seemed to me then. My world fell
apart much more slowly and less dramatically than hers. The birth of my son was normal, if you call “normal” being knocked out by a hypodermic needle filled with Demerol one moment, and in what seemed the next, being handed a ten-pound baby boy. Not a memory of the labor or birth to be had, just the wonder of his appearance, seemingly without any participation from me.
My young husband brought me yellow plastic roses because the florist had convinced
him they would last longer. My roommate’s husband had brought her three dozen real white roses, which scented our room. She allowed me to keep a vase of a dozen on my windowsill. She was twenty-six, and had pretty much done everything by the book. She had completed the requisite four years at Southern Methodist University, where she had met her husband at a fraternity party. She had a house in University Park—this I know because she carried its picture in her wallet as one might carry the picture of a child. I was pretty sure that our children were not going to go to wind up in the same school or ever play together. She was firmly cushioned by an upbringing that made and kept promises providing rules were honored. She was of the fifties—I was somewhere in between the decades. I had not followed the rules. Like many of my generation, I was feeling first rumblings of seismic activity. I was a frightened nineteen-year- old, shaken by the consequences of the freedoms I had allowed myself, and barely aware of the larger changes that had precipitated those. Polanski’s film has those changes written all over it.
Outside that Dallas movie theater, as the film played over and over again, it was 1968,
and Robin Morgan and a group of second-wave feminists were protesting the Miss America contest. Antiwar protesters clashed with the police. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April, and Bobby Kennedy in June. I awakened slowly and moved through my liminal space into the turbulence of the next decade. Rosemary Woodhouse remained on the screen, unable to benefit from the social and political transformations taking place outside the theater. On film, for every viewer, she awakens again from a drugged labor, a victim of the authority of her husband, doctor, and neighbors. She is told, but refuses to believe, that her baby is dead, and as the film continues to loop, Rosemary discovers and rediscovers her child alive in a black-curtained cradle with an inverted cross above him. Still, she moves toward him over and over again. On her face is that smile that critics have never known quite what to make of. What is she doing? Is she blindly pulled by motherly instinct—responding as she has been conditioned to respond—or does she have something else in mind?
* * *
Rosemary’s smile is as enigmatic as the most examined female smile of all. In Walter
Pater’s The Renaissance, he wonders about the relationship of Leonardo Da Vinci, “a living Florentine” to “this creature of his thought” (his Mona Lisa). Is it possible to determine what Polanski’s “creature of his thought” signifies? Or is she unreadable? Did Polanski even dictate that smile? Was it Mia Farrow’s addition, like the haunting “la-la- la” in the film’s opening? At film’s end, we feel the same uneasiness as we did in the film’s first aerial shot. As uneasy as I found myself in 1968, in a hospital room with plastic roses bought because they were designed to last.
* * *
Whether I can unlock the meaning of the smile or not, Rosemary has the film’s last word. I didn’t get my last word until 1972, when my husband came home from a four-month
fellowship at the Whitney Museum. There he had been given a small studio and earned extra money for housing by sanding the floors in the artist Red Groom’s studio. My husband returned with a large suitcase, a stuffed portfolio, and a small, sealed cardboard box. He left early the next morning without explanation and without seeing his son. By the time he had returned late that evening, I had opened the box. On top of a nest of art supplies were two large bundles of letters, each tied with ivory satin ribbon. I spent the day reading. They were from a woman whose name I did not know, a woman whose letters were illustrated with clever drawings, a woman he had flown to New York for, by her report, a very romantic week. When I told my young husband that I was taking our three-year- old and leaving, he drew himself a hot bath. For an hour, he sat in cooling bathwater crying, accusing me, between sobs, of not being sensitive to the pain of loving
* * *
A week later, I loaded the Volkswagen Beetle with my son and his yellow toy chest filled with our belongings. I drove west, down Interstate 10, the highway that splits the desert landscape in two to accommodate itself, toward a city nestled between two mountains. At some unmarked point in that twelve-hour journey, I drove out of the liminal space I had inhabited and into a world as enigmatic as Rosemary’s smile.