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Why Not Be Beatiful?

[Beauty - Part 1]  [Beauty - Part 2]  [Beauty - Part 3] 

( Originally Published 1963 )



Every truly beautiful creation, natural or man-made has no duplicate. There are no two roses exactly alike, no two snowflakes. There is no replica of a perfect gem, no exact copy of the Mona Lisa, only one Venus de Milo. But for some peculiar reason many women do not feel comfortable unless they think they look like the other women around them. And then they have the nerve to wonder why they're not considered devastating. To me, a woman cannot possibly begin to be a beauty until she has found herself as a person first. Until a woman has discovered what it is that makes her own self separate and distinct she can not possibly establish a person for other people to look at and admire.

The search begins early. As a child I was, like all children, a tremendous imitator. Shirley Temple was my big idol. We were about the same age. I wore Shirley Temple dresses, I had Shirley Temple curls, and I studied tap dancing and dramatics like a fury wherever we happened to be living. (I consider Knoxville, Tennessee, where I was born, my hometown, but my father was a construction engineer who worked on assignment and in any typical year I'd be enrolled in about ten schools.)

Every little girl has a crushing disappointment somewhere along the line when she feels she will never be able to be the magical creature she is secretly set on becoming. At eight I was staggered by the discovery that I had to wear glasses. Till then I hadn't really believed anyone could tell boys from girls at more than ten feet away. Glasses became the great tragedy of my life and I did everything-lose them, drop them, break them--not to have to wear them. (It wasn't till years later that I made glasses a part of my own individuality.)

I became still less beautiful as time went on. At about eleven or twelve I shot up to my full height, five feet six inches. I was gawky. I was big for my age. And my hair which I wore long was so bushy they should have sent me to the Fiji Islands. I'd have slayed them there. It was a difficult period for me in other ways too. We moved so much I never had time to make friends and I was often lonely. I studied hard, got all A's in school, but was frequently hated for it. To top it off I wasn't much interested in things that the other kids were. The only real compensation for my childhood struggle was that I knew I had found my first real dedication. I wanted to be an opera singer and I began to take lessons in classical singing at Earlham College.

Music had always been part of my life. Despite a grandfather who thought singing and dancing the sure road to damnation, I was raised on hillbilly songs and my father's guitar.

I got my first singing job when I was going to Richmond High School. Each week a group of kids performed on a weekly radio program. Everyone wanted me to sing a popular song; I never had before. But when, after the first broadcast the manager of the radio station offered me my own program, the die was castopera was temporarily forgotten.

With this new career there appeared a new me. A rather horrifying one, according to my mother. At fourteen I metamorphosed from childhood to maturity in about two weeks. My radio singing voice was very adult, and I felt I had to dress and act up to it. I bought slinky black crepe dresses. I wore long dangly earrings, lots of make-up, and my hair very long like Veronica Lake who was immensely popular at the time. I even began using a very long cigarette holder (despite the fact that I didn't even smoke).

This terribly "mature" phase continued and got worse for years. At sixteen I managed to make myself look almost ten years older. There was only one break in my sophisticated stage which I always think of as my "sincere period." I went back to singing hillbilly-girl hillbilly singers were much rarer than popular singers, who were flooding the market-and I had a job singing hillbilly songs on a radio show in California. (Tennessee Ernie was on this same show.) I wore my hair long and simple, I used almost no make-up, and my clothes were earthy-to go with my peasant personality.

But peasantry, evidently, was not my element, because they fired me soon after. My hillbilly, they said, was too sexy and the sweet, home-like, peasant Polly did not go with the low husky voice. I went back to singing with bands-back to the sleek black dresses, the long earrings and the cigarette holder.

Which, I wondered, was the real me? The sexy sophisticate, or the simple earthy girl in wide skirts? Neither was, of course, but at the time I could think only in terms of dramatic extremes -a common ailment of the very young.

I had arrived at a point of genuine confusion, not just about my physical personality, which now varied from one day to the next, but about my work. I sang with bands when I could, occasionally I did hillbilly, and I took any other kind of job that came along. Thank goodness I was pretty gutsy as a kid and I had never been afraid of work. My parents believed children should be made responsible and able to make decisions. From the time I was eight I'd cleaned, cooked and had taken care of my kid sister while my parents were working. I'd had jobs as I grew up like selling, typing, and I was a linotype operator with Western Union till they found out I was under age. I liked being independent.

In Hollywood I worked at just about anything, to pay the rent. I was knocking on Hollywood's door and I was willing to live out of soup cans (which I sometimes did) as long as I felt there was the faintest chance that that door might open for me.

Curiously enough, what finally attracted Hollywood's attention was the two me's. I'd had a chance to cut a record of a hillbilly song for a small record company. The song had yodels and growls and all kinds of funny sounds and it was called "Honky Tonkin." The company sent a picture of me, the glamorous me, to go with the record, and the combination was so incongruous that it got shunted from office to office until I finally got a call from Hal Wallis and an appointment for a screen test.

I'd never acted. I'd only sung solo twice in my life. But I found myself with a three-year contract and a starting salary of $45 a week. In my first film, a big Western, I played the girl with the quivering lower lip waiting for her boyfriend to finish capturing the Indians. After this I was cast in three Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis pictures. These boys were the biggest thing in show business then, they knew exactly what they wanted to do and they directed themselves. I was nowhere-I'd had no experience. The only direction I ever got was "Roll 'em" and "Cut," and frankly, I was awful. The studio considered me a pretty prop and as soon as they were sure my make-up was o.k. for the lights, the director was satisfied.

I, however, was not at all satisfied. I knew something was very, very wrong. But I had no idea exactly what it was. For one thing, I hadn't even begun to find my face, and the me that audiences saw in these movies is nothing like the Polly Bergen they see today on television. In my first films I was typed as the average all-American cutesy type girl. That's how I was made up, and that's how I tried to be. But I was nothing you walked away from remembering.

It wasn't till I'd left Hollywood (after making three more movies), convinced I'd never try acting again, that I began to really seek out and present my true physical identity while doing TV and club dates in New York City. In New York I was completely on my own for the first time and away from the studio, from my manager, from agents-from all interested or overinterested parties. I had a chance to sit back and see myself, and to experiment. Amazingly enough, till then I had never used a lipstick brush or an eyebrow pencil. The studio make-up men had taken care of all that for me. I began to study my features carefully. An expert TV make-up man who was very creative sat down with me before a mirror in one of the studios and we proceeded together to look for what there was about my face that could be emphasized. We decided that my eyes, though not excessively large, were my best feature, highly expressive and the most "me." From that day on I played up my eyes, subdued the rest of my make-up and knew that this face was much closer to the real Polly Bergen-to the way I felt inside. When I finished putting on my make-up, I recognized myself in the mirror. And when I went back to Hollywood (while singing in Reno and Las Vegas), everyone raved about how wonderful I looked. But it was the same face. I had just stopped using Janet Leigh's eyebrows, Joan Crawford's mouth, Lana Turner's hairdo, Eleanor Parker's hair color and anybody's clothing that happened to fit me from their latest picture.

Every young starlet in Hollywood is automatically the victim of the last successful mold turned out. Just before I left Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe was the thing. Unless you were blonde, blue-eyed and very busty and arrived for an audition wearing a tight sweater, you were out of luck. Three weeks after I left Hollywood to come to New York, Grace Kelly was the rage and every little actress waiting outside "Casting" wore white gloves and pearls. At the same time, by contrast, every big star Hollywood has ever turned out has been very much an individual in personality and in looks, and only the little starlet who fought back or found some way to keep her own little spark of what made her herself, ever succeeded in not being drowned by the West Coast wave of conformity.

All this applies, I think, not only to the starlets, or to Hollywood, or to TV, or to me, but to you. This pressure to conform exists everywhere, and it is your enemy; it can haunt and limit a woman throughout her life. And it begins early. Unless my daughter wears exactly the same color socks as the other girls in her class it's a disaster. I'm hopefully waiting for that day when she wants to buy something because it's different from what the other girls are wearing, because that's the day she'll be on her way to becoming a real woman. That's the day I'll know that she has taken her first important step towards becoming beautiful. Because I profoundly believe that every woman can be beautiful, i f she will take the trouble to become beautiful in her own way-if she will only dare to break out of the mold.

Going to New York City, and breaking out of the mold of Miss-Anybody that Hollywood had cast me in, was the best thing I ever did in my life.

In New York City I was given a chance to act a part from beginning to end for the first time in my life, instead of doing it backwards and piecemeal the way movies are made on the Coast. This opportunity (an hour-long, straight dramatic TV show for Schlitz Playhouse) to actually create and perform a character live, from start to finish, opened a whole new world for me and restored some of my lost self-confidence. Now I was in demand for all sorts of TV shows-musicals, panel shows, straight drama.

This period of self-discovery and self-assertion reached its climax when, after three years of planning and negotiations, I performed in "The Helen Morgan Story" on Playhouse 90. I had always wanted to play Helen Morgan, an immensely talented singer who had a great heart and led one of the most dramatic lives of our time. I had discovered that no one had ever done her story on TV, and that nobody owned the rights to it. It took almost three years before I was actually able to get the show on the TV screen, but playing Helen Morgan gave me a chance to prove that I could sing and act-that I was not just a singing personality. I had opened a new door. I had taken a long and arduous gamble on myself because I was beginning to know what was right for me and what was not, who I was and what I could do. I knew my face now; I had helped to discover and to create it. I was learning the kind of clothes to wear that flattered my body and at the same time most expressed Polly Bergen. I no longer wanted to be or look like anybody else but me.

Many of the extreme hairstyles, make-ups and clothes you see, are not for the average woman. Most women are like me. If I try to look like countess so-and-so, I will most probably end up just looking ridiculous. Doe-eyes? Yes, if they're for you. Exaggerated shoulders? On some people they look horrible, no matter how fashionable they are this year. Don't buy label; buy what's for you. When the salesgirl comes up to me and says, "But everybody's wearing it!", I'm positive that I'm not going to.

The key is to learn how to turn your defects to assets. Are you terribly tall? Make that work for you, not against you. I chose the height problem to begin with, because I know it so well. When I was eleven I was already my full height, five feet six inches. I was a head taller than anyone in my class or in the two classes above me. I walked with a stoop and I was in a constant battle with my parents. My father was six feet six, my mother was six feet. But they were both proud of their height and they walked erect. For me it was agony, and I was terribly self-conscious. Until I was eighteen, if I did manage to find a boy to dance with me, I had to lead.

I have a friend who has a young daughter who is petite; she's fourteen and under five feet tall. She is a perfectly beautiful girl with huge hazel eyes, lashes so long it's a crime, but all she can think about is her height and the fact that she's not as tall as the other girls in her class. She'll probably go on suffering until the day some fine young man makes her realize how utterly delightful and feminine her smallness is to him. But wouldn't it be nicer if she could find the courage to enjoy this special quality of hers right now instead of later?

Movies and the theater abound with examples of women who made what were commonly considered handicaps or drawbacks to being beautiful, theatrical bonanzas. Each one of them redefined beauty in her own image. Gene Tierney has buck teeth; she made buck teeth attractive. I don't know how she did it, but for some reason her teeth set the whole feeling of her face and the result ends up being fascinating and you don't know why. Marilyn Nlonroe made having a big bosom a very definite asset at about the same time that Audrey Hepburn was demonstrating the charm of flat-chestedness. Doris Day has a million freckles but because she has a personality that goes with it you couldn't care less. Ethel Merman has a hairdo that would look unattractive on almost every other woman in the world, but it's perfect for her personality. Greta Garbo worried about the size of her feet all her life, but no one else did. She wore a size 7 1/2, which we consider about average today, but she felt she had the biggest feet that ever existed. Despite her concern, the feet became part of the Garbo legend. They only added to her glamour.

So why fight it? You were born you-unique, unduplicatable, individual. Then be individual. Look for all the ways you can be even more you than you are now. Try and find how you can best show this you to everybody else. There are ways to help you do this. Use them as guideposts. Some of them take work or thought or imagination, and sometimes a combination of all three. In this book I'll try to tell you about some of the beauty and fashion habits that have worked for me or that I've seen work for others, and, even more important, I'll talk about those things I think are the real foundations of beauty. But before we start, you have to accept my first challenge. Will you dare to be beautiful and be yourself? After all, as Gertrude Stein would have said-a copy is a copy is a copy. . . .