LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
In New York's Garment District, in the 1950s at Morgen's Restaurant, you were greeted at the door by a perfectly powdered, beautifully dressed blonde woman who smilingly showed you to your table and handed over a menu. That hostess, Audrey Elaine Morgen Volk, is at the center of her daughter Patricia's new memoir, "Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, And Me."
NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says it's a hilarious and sometimes scary reminder of '50s womanhood and mother-daughter duels and duets.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In "Shocked," Patricia Volk says two vivid women helped her move into adulthood. One was the iconoclastic fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. The other was her mother Audrey Volk - loving, difficult, an icy stunner. Patty Volk's father thought Audrey was the most beautiful woman in the world.
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STAMBERG: Every year on her birthday, he gave his wife the same present, a bottle of perfume called Shocking.
PATRICIA VOLK: Made by Elsa Schiaparelli and he would make the gift wrap himself. Out of as many hundred dollar bills as it took to get the job done.
STAMBERG: Hundred dollar bills, did you say?
VOLK: Hundred dollar bills.
STAMBERG: So the perfume was one connection between Audrey, her daughter Patty, and Italian clothing designer Elsa Schiaparelli - Schiap to her friends, a big fashion star in the 1930s.
Dilys Blum, who curated a Schiap show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says there's at least one other connection. Blum describes Schiap's personality.
DILYS BLUM: Yeah, she knew what she wanted and she knew how to manipulate people.
STAMBERG: Audrey Morgan Volk was like that too. Audrey wanted perfection and she knew how to achieve it.
VOLK: She had a vanity table in her bedroom that was entirely constructed of mirrors; even the drawers and the legs, and the stool that she sat on. And on the top there was a triptych of mirrors. And she could look straight ahead and just see herself head on. Or she could glance side to side and see her profile.
STAMBERG: At that vanity table, little Patty Volk watched her beloved mother pin back her hair, dip three fingers into a jar of cold cream, smear the cream on her cheeks, then...
VOLK: She plucks four Kleenexes...
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VOLK: ...and tissues off the Pond's. Here she sometimes pauses, meets my eyes in the mirror and says: Never let a man see you with cold cream on your face.
STAMBERG: Then on goes the toner, moisturizer, pancake makeup, rouge, powder, blue eye shadow, black mascara, lipstick - Elizabeth Arden's Sky Blue Pink. Perfection achieved, Audrey sailed off into her day.
Designer Elsa Schiaparelli, on the other hand, was short and imperfect. A series of moles scattered like the Big Dipper down one cheek. But Dilys Blum says that didn't stop Schiap.
BLUM: Anything she was self-conscious about she exploited. I think she brought chic to ugly. You know, she made the most of her minuses.
STAMBERG: Beautiful Audrey Volk was fascinated by Schiaparelli and avidly read her 1954 memoir, "Shocking Life." Young Patty Volk devoured the book and found it transformative.
VOLK: I was absolutely riveted because here was a woman who was very much like my mother. She cared about clothes, she was very strict, she was impatient, she was volatile, and yet she did so much more with her life than I felt my mother expected me to do, and then my mother did with her life. My mother could have been anything.
STAMBERG: Audrey was quick, smart. When she skipped two grades, the much older classmates ostracized her. Patty wonders if that cruelty fueled Audrey's perfectionism.
Patty, growing up as perfection's loving child, asked herself: What do you do when you're little and you know you can't be like your mother? Can't be ladylike and seemly and, well, perfect.
VOLK: I knew that I was never going to be the kind of beauty that my mother was. I have the kind of face that if people are lost, they stop me to ask directions.
STAMBERG: That's a wonderful face to have, by the way, because it's a face that you trust and someone that's going to be kind and helpful to you.
VOLK: Well, thank you.
STAMBERG: I don't think I'd stop your mother and ask directions.
VOLK: You would have never stopped my mother. First of all, she walked with her chin up. So in a way it was a way of saying stay away.
STAMBERG: Self-protection, her beauty a shield. It took Patty years to realize that you could be different, help strangers, have flaws and still be all right. Her mother's definition of all right was: Never good enough. Audrey did reach out to others generously to sprinkle them with rules, pointers and tips on self-improvement.
If Audrey were to meet Schiaparelli, what would her advice to her be?
VOLK: Well, I think she would say: Darling, get a good dermatologist. You don't need those moles. And then she would say I know a very, very good orthodontist. He can push those teeth back in months. And those big bags under your eyes, sweetheart, really get a good cover stick - those purple bags aren't doing a thing for you.
STAMBERG: Patricia Volk doesn't know who would win in such an imperious stand-off. But curator Dilys Blum thinks Schiaparelli would have given it right back to Audrey, told her how to dress, or to buzz off.
BLUM: Yeah, I'm sure she would have. Or perhaps even shut up and just ignore her.
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STAMBERG: Patricia Volk's memoir is the portrait of an adored, demanding mother, hemmed in by the norms of the '50s, who resolutely inflicted those norms on her much-loved daughter. Over the years, all grown up, married with children of her own - Peter first, then Polly - Patty recorded her mother for various writing projects, and then just to have her voice here's a bit of one interview taped in Audrey's kitchen in Florida.
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VOLK: Tell me what your reaction was the first time you saw Peter.
AUDREY ELAINE MORGEN VOLK: Most beautiful child I ever saw in my life. I didn't think they made children that beautiful. Couldn't believe it...
VOLK: ...that you would have that kind of luck to have that kind of a child. He was so gorgeous and sweet. Other kids were scrunched up ugly, clutching(ph) their little fists. Not Peter.
STAMBERG: Audrey Volk died in 2005 at age she-never-told. She lives vividly on the pages of her daughter Patricia's book, "Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli and Me."
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: You can see photos of Audrey, Elsa and excerpt from "Shocked" at NPR.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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And I'm Renee Montagne.
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