SHE STARTED A HEAT WAVE BY LETTING HER SEAT WAVE.
In 1952, when Marilyn Monroe arrived at the General Brock Hotel in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she was dating Joe DiMaggio and on the brink of becoming a superstar. DiMaggio checked into the Hotel Niagara (on the American side) while, over in Canada, Monroe got to work playing sultry seductress Rose Loomis in Henry Hathaway’s new film Niagara.
Niagara’s plot runs as follows: Rose Loomis is on a Falls vacation with her husband, George, recently released from an army mental hospital. But things aren’t so great between them, what with Rose vamping around town and George flying off into rages about it. She’s up to something, and he knows it. Also staying at their hotel is another couple, Ray and Polly Cutler, a happily married pair who become slowly drawn into the Loomises’ misery. The Cutlers, we learn, are on a delayed honeymoon—presumably because the Korean War intervened. George and Rose honeymooned at Niagara a few years back, before the war, and Rose has brought George back ostensibly to cheer him up. Secretly, however, she is plotting with her hunky lover to kill poor George and throw him into the Niagara River.
Though the picture put a rather hopeless spin on marriage (not to mention the literal death of love), Niagara turned Falls honeymoon fever—one hundred years old in 1952—into an epidemic. It also vaulted Marilyn Monroe into her now-familiar position as an icon of ruthless American femininity. An inordinate amount of attention, both then and since, landed on one particular scene in the movie. Rose’s young lover is supposed to have killed her husband, and Rose has just been shown George’s unclaimed shoes at Table Rock House, where tourists don rain gear and descend to platforms at the foot of the Falls. The police clearly believe he has committed suicide. Rose knows better, but artfully plays the part of the hysterical wife.
“Why is everyone standing around—do something! Look for him! Find him!” she cries. The Cutlers are enlisted to take her home. She’s a picture of nerves as they approach the car. But then Rose hears the bell tower playing her favorite song—the signal from her lover that the murder went off without a hitch—and suddenly she stops.
“You’ve been very kind, but thanks, I’d rather walk,” she says. The baffled Cutlers watch as Rose, in a shiny black pencil skirt, shimmies toward the Falls. The camera lingers on her retreating behind for an astonishing sixteen seconds. This shot subsequently became known as “the longest walk in film history.”
“Many an actress has walked into stardom,” writes Pierre Berton in his popular history of the Falls, Niagara (1997), “but, as has been said, she succeeded by walking away from it.”
Much of the interest in the “Marilyn walk” focused on the question of whether it was real. Marilyn was acting the vamp as Rose. But was she acting as Marilyn, too? A minicontroversy—the kind that perpetually swirled around Marilyn—arose over the seemingly trivial question of how her hip-swinging, eye-catching wriggle of a walk came to be. Natasha Lytess, one of Monroe’s acting coaches, took credit for it. Emmeline Snively, once Monroe’s modeling boss, claimed it was the natural result of weak ankles. Arthur Miller, later her husband, declared the swivel-hipped shimmy was just how she moved. Typically enigmatic, Marilyn would only say, “I learned to walk as a baby and I haven’t had a lesson since.”
The controversy reflected what biographer Sarah Churchwell calls “the central anxiety in Marilyn’s story: Was she natural or manufactured? Scripted or real?” In the ’50s, this was becoming a question for the Falls too. A 1950 treaty with Canada had been signed that allowed more water to be diverted into power plants than ever before. Anticipating the reduced water flow over the brink, Ontario Hydro and the Army Corps of Engineers had scheduled the Falls for a face-lift. In fact, a massive engineering project was in place to carve out the riverbed, reshape the banks, rebuild the viewing points, and artificially raise the water level—all in order to keep up the appearance of natural grandeur. Marilyn’s 116-foot walk strode right to the heart of an issue that was playing out at Niagara and on many fronts in American life. What is real, and what fake? If something is artificial, do we admire its beauty less? How much are we willing to be hoodwinked?
What Marilyn ultimately came to embody, as Churchwell points out, was anxiety about realness as it related to femininity. Even as so-called “natural” gender roles were promoted and valorized by the culture, the nagging possibility arose that they weren’t “natural” at all, but an act. Marilyn was almost always cast as a gold digger, a woman trying to leverage her sexuality to better her status. Rose Loomis, Lorelei Lee, Marilyn herself: all were women on the make—and at the same time icons of the feminine. And the ideal feminine was to be found in the midcentury American wife, devoted to husband, children, and home. She was a force of nature like the Falls. But the Falls, too, were on the make for honeymoon tourist dollars, and sporting a seductive makeover. What if those wifely paragons of selflessness were no more authentic than Rose Loomis, or Niagara? What if selflessness was just a mask for pure, unadulterated self-interest?
MEN GROW COLD AS GIRLS GROW OLD.
I find myself thinking of Marilyn on April 21, 2006. I have just arrived at Niagara, and so has spring. The Falls have been turned up for the tourist season—as per the 1950 treaty, the two nations allow one hundred thousand cubic feet per second to go over the brink between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. from April to October. That’s about half the natural flow. At night and in the winter, they’re dialed down to about a quarter. Tourists don’t see the effects, though, because the Falls face-lift—with ongoing adjustments—is undetectable from the viewing platforms. The dredging reshaped the river, the construction enhanced the landscapes along it, and the International Control Dam just upstream allows precise changes in water flow over the brinks—send more to the American Falls, a little less to the east side of the Canadian Horseshoe—as needed. Like Marilyn sewn into an evening gown, the Falls are girdled and boosted into the shape the audience wants.
Niagara Falls, Ontario, is strutting its stuff as well. The parks are lined with daffodils and the Korean teens that wade in them. Clifton Hill, “Niagara’s street of fun,” is crowded with track-suited families eating ice cream outside Ripley’s Moving Theater. The Hard Rock Cafe is blasting “Burning Down the House” loud enough to drown out any number of waterfalls, and “Samuel Jackson” and “Sarah Jessica Parker” are ready for their close-ups at the entrance to Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks. Souvenir shops are stuffed with hockey tunics, moose cups, edible insects, and Indian figurines in the fringed tunics and feathered headgear of Western tribes who never ventured east of the Mississippi.
Like Marilyn, this town is over the top. And the 920 older women pouring into it are trying to outdo it in campy fun. Dressed in head-to-toe purple, topped with outlandishly decorated red hats, and accessorized for Mardi Gras by way of Kmart, the members of the Red Hat Society swarm through Niagara like killer bees. The viewing platforms at Table Rock are dotted with red. The lines at the Secret Garden Restaurant have a distinctly lavender tone. The Falls are always artificially lit up in the evening, and in honor of the purple posse, on Thursday night, they too glow a luminous, lurid violet.
The occasion for the raid is “Barrels of Fun,” the Red Hat Society’s thirteenth convention and first national-chapter event outside the U.S. I’m standing at the Sheraton on the Falls Starbucks counter, hoping a double-shot latté will stave off a mounting flight impulse. The hotel lobby has become a near-riot of purple outfits donned by fifty-plus women shouting hellos, introducing friends, and bursting spontaneously into song. There is vogueing. There are secret handshakes. Buses keep pulling up and disgorging more of them. A Japanese man in an All Blacks jersey is sitting on the couch, shaking his head with a speechless grin. A pair of older British women on line with me seem vaguely nervous. They keep glancing at the garish Red Hatters.
“Something for us to consider—when we’re older,” one of them says, half joking to the other.
Not me, I stop myself from saying. Never me. I’m struck by the force of my own feeling. Is being an older woman in our culture that bad?
Men age into power, but women age into invisibility. This is a truism by now, and it’s what the Red Hat Society claims to correct: the club slogan is “Red Hatters Matter.” Officially formed to promote “fun and friendship for women after fifty,” the Red Hat Society has built a marketing empire out of a feeling of disenfranchisement among postmenopausal women. Taking its inspiration from a poem by Jenny Joseph declaring that old age will free her to “wear purple with a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me,” the society has grown to more than forty thousand chapters in thirty countries, all of them dedicated to fifty-plus frivolity: lunches, tea parties, sleepovers, and outings. Members call these events “playdates.” The society has built a website and a retail store in Fullerton, California, and has made licensing agreements with thirty-three companies, including deals on travel services, shoes, calendars, books, and a bimonthly magazine called Lifestyle. Metris recently launched a Red Hat Society Platinum MasterCard, billed as the group’s “official sporting equipment.” The two founders have done all of this, if we buy their story, without ever having intended to make a dime.
I’m skeptical. Like most not-yet-facing-fifty women I know, I’m a little creeped out by the Red Hat Society. Playdates? Tea parties? Platinum cards? This doesn’t feel like empowerment to me. It feels like admitting that older women matter to the culture only as consumers. I was prepared to ignore them with unexpressed scorn—but then they showed up on the brink of my Niagara obsession.
The Red Hatters’ choice of the Falls as a meeting destination both makes sense and doesn’t quite. These are women throwing off the chains of age, and what better place to celebrate escaping the rigidity of the “natural” than Niagara Falls—that partly engineered natural wonder, that force of nature that is in fact controlled by humans? Even the attractions that have mushroomed around the Falls seem calculated to celebrate artifice of every kind. In Clifton Hill you can buy a picture of yourself walking a tightrope above the Falls, or riding in a barrel bouncing over the brink. You can visit a wax museum and take a picture of yourself with Ozzy Osbourne or President Bush. You can go to the Criminals Hall of Fame and admire a re-creation of the Lincoln assassination. You can visit any one of the area’s haunted houses to be chased by actors playing ghosts and monsters.
But the thing is, Niagara has traditionally been linked with two female types: the desperate suicide and the blushing bride. The Red Hatters are neither. At an age when suicide rates increase, they are laying claim to joie de vivre. And they’re certainly not blushing brides. But maybe they can be seen as honeymooners. If the honeymoon is a sort of epilogue to the romance plot, which never goes beyond marriage—lit-crit types love saying stories hit deadlock when they reach wedlock—perhaps the Red Hatters can be seen as making space for life’s honeymoon, a fantasy world of fun and frolic that comes after the work of job and family has ended. And where would you have a honeymoon if not Niagara?
IF YOU ROAR LIKE A LION I COULD COO LIKE A DOVE.
Like so many marriage “traditions”—diamond engagement rings, white dresses, rice throwing, Jordan almonds in little net bags—honeymooning is relatively new. In early nineteenth-century England, it became common for newly married upper-class couples to take a “bridal tour,” often with friends or family, to visit far-flung relatives who couldn’t attend the wedding. The point of these Victorian wedding trips wasn’t to “get away from it all” and have a lot of sex. They were social journeys, demonstrations of a couple’s new status.
In Europe, bridal tours followed the itinerary of the famous “Grand Tour,” the greatest-hits-of-Europe program codified by eighteenth-century travelogues. Early American bridal tourists also went to Europe: travel in the new nation was difficult and dangerous. But not for long. The Erie Canal was completed in 1825, and its 363-mile-long route from the Hudson River in Albany ended up at Tonawanda, 8 miles upstream of Niagara. Suddenly, travelers could hop on a slow but easy canal boat and make their way—affordably—to the Falls. Canal travel was soon supplemented by railroads. Roads, too, were being improved.
As travel got easier, a homegrown version of the Grand Tour emerged: the Northern Tour. Mapped out and footnoted by guides such as The Northern Traveller (1825), the Northern Tour hit the highlights—both natural and man-made—of America’s northeastern states and nearby Canadian spots. Niagara Falls quickly became the culmination of the tour—and, by extension, of the wedding journey. By 1841, newlyweds were so common there, a popular song called “Niagara Falls” could gently mock them:
To see the Falls they took a ride
On the steamship ‘Maid o’ the Mist;’
She forgot the Falls she was so busy
Being hugged and kissed.
After the Civil War, American tourism increased, becoming a patriotic demonstration as well as a pleasure. “Seeing America” demonstrated your dedication to the recently reunited nation, and newlyweds at Niagara were seen as a comforting sign that the U.S. really did have a unified national culture. Popular periodicals such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly ran pictures of honeymooning couples at the Falls throughout the 1870s and 1880s.
The Niagara honeymoon in the nineteenth century was thus a social trip, even though it was subtly acknowledged to have more private implications. Being a honeymooner meant taking part in what the era called “married love.” Isabel March, the new bride in William Dean Howells’s 1871 novel Their Wedding Journey, is determined not to hold her husband’s hand in public or rest her head on his shoulder, because she will be embarrassed to be recognized as a newlywed. “My one horror in life,” she declares, “is an evident bride.”
But Isabel is not simply ashamed to be newly married. She’s also keenly aware that her husband has “been there before” as they visit the sites. In the nineteenth century, single men traveled; single women did not. Introducing the bride to the landscape was simply the more public of the husband’s postwedding introductions. Isabel insists on approaching Niagara through Buffalo, because that’s how her new husband had arrived there the first time he went.
The journey to the Falls thus came to represent something that could only be talked about in metaphor. Oscar Wilde took advantage of the double language to make what is one of the most quoted—and misquoted—quips about the Falls. “Every American bride is taken there,” he wrote upon returning from his own visit to Niagara, “and the sight of the stupendous waterfall must certainly be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life.”
A KISS MAY BE GRAND BUT IT WON’T PAY THE RENTAL.
As I’m trying to find the third-floor registration area, I notice that some of the Red Hatters—in what gives me scary flashbacks to cheerleading camp—have decorated their doors. I’m still processing this when I come upon a sort of shrine, a huge flat-screen monitor hanging on a purple-velvet-draped stand and lit by two theatrical spotlights. A video is playing footage of other Red Hat conventions—they’ve met before in New Orleans, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Disneyland, among other places—intercut with snippets of Mike Harline—the society’s official “Troubador”—in black Western gear and a purple shirt, strumming a guitar and singing.
At the registration area, I collect my press pass and meet the Red Hatters’ director of marketing, Carol Castelli. She’s wearing a name tag that reads “Baroness of the Brand.” Everyone in Hatquarters, the organization’s office, has a faux-royal title, as do members. Chapter heads call themselves Queen Mothers. The group’s founder, Sue Ellen Cooper, is known as the Exalted Queen Mother. Her best friend and cofounder, Linda Murphy, is Esteemed Vice Mother.
Baroness Carol is a petite, smiley woman with perfectly layered and highlighted blond hair. She’s wearing the regalia required of women under fifty: lavender outfit and pink hat.
“This started out as grassroots—it was never meant to be a business,” Carol tells me right off, sounding a theme I will hear often in the coming three days. Then, with no trace of irony, she takes me to see the Red Hat store. Set up in four adjoining conference rooms on the fifth floor—eight thousand square feet according to the convention press release—the store is a potpourri of Red Hat merchandise: purple dresses, sweatshirts, T-shirts, pajamas, gloves, Red Hat jewelry, tea sets, bears, license plate holders, stationery, and, of course, hats—red, pink, and even purple—because in their birthday month, Red Hatters are “authorized” to reverse their colors.
“These hats are all customizable,” Carol tells me. “They get them like this but then they decorate them. You won’t see two that are alike.” She holds up a wide-brimmed, bright red sun hat and I think, Someone’s been doing her market research. Anyone who reads trend analysis—or the “Consumed” column in the New York Times—knows that customizability is highly valued by today’s consumer market.
Not far from the hats, a life-size cardboard effigy of Mike Harline is flashing a come-hither look next to a stack of CDs titled I’m in Love with a Red Hat Girl.
Carol has to get back to overseeing registration, so she lets me wander around on my own for a while. The store is already filled with ladies in vibrant purple and red outfits. Some of their hats are indeed outrageously decorated. After a few minutes, I realize everyone is glancing at me: in my tan corduroy jacket and jeans, I look like a Padres fan at a Cardinals home game.
I drift into the room featuring tea and tea sets. On the windowsill there’s a poster for a new RHS book, Designer Scrapbooks the Red Hat Society Way. Behind it, in the spring sunlight, I am almost surprised to see the Falls, thundering down in a froth of white. They seem so understated.
LET’S MAKE LOVE.
In the Jazz Age, sex came out of the closet. Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality had made the rounds. Havelock Ellis, the English sexologist, had published six of his seven Studies in the Psychology of Sex (“Sex lies at the root of life”), Victorian prudery disappeared, and everyone, it seemed, had a one-track mind. Nowhere was this more evident than at Niagara. The Falls, formerly the metaphor for awkward devirginization, became a code word for sex marathon. Popular depictions of the Niagara honeymoon focused on the new, sexier meaning of the trip by depicting the bride as a flapper.
The flapper was recognized by her signature look: short, baggy dress, chunky dancing shoes, turban hat, bobbed hair. But she was more than just a style. Empowered by the vote, disillusioned by the Great War, and mobilized by the ascendancy of the automobile, the flapper embodied modernity. As a flapper named Jane explained to a New Republic writer: “Women have come down off the pedestal lately. They are tired of this mysterious-feminine-charm stuff. Maybe it goes with independence, earning your own living and voting and all that.”
A 1927 article in the Niagara Falls Gazette relates the story of a couple found sleeping on Goat Island. When questioned, they tell the reporter they have just eloped. The groom’s father, they explain, wanted him to marry an old-fashioned “Gibson Girl… who wore trailing skirts.” But young James “preferred the flapper type, with rolled stockings, bobbed hair, and whatnot.” He apparently found it in Edith, who, according to the reporter, wore a two-piece suit, a turban, two rings, and a “boyish bob.”
The following year, the same paper ran a “then and now” feature on honeymoons with a picture of newlyweds from the 1890s looking solidly respectable, perched in a horse-drawn carriage. Next to it, a modern couple poses happily, the bride in a short skirt, short overcoat, and flapper’s turban hat.
Things had changed—even the institution of marriage. In 1926, reporter Allan Harding visited Niagara to explore how. In his American Magazine article “The Honeymoon Trail Still Leads to Niagara Falls,” Harding describes several days spent hanging around the Falls, observing flapper-brides and their grooms and talking to tourist-industry experts like the head porter at the Cataract House. They tell him how honeymooning at Niagara has changed—it’s not such an upscale affair anymore and the honeymooners don’t stay as long. More important, as one guide puts it, “young people today ain’t ashamed of being married!” In other words, they aren’t so embarrassed about sex. They’re happy to discuss their newlywed status, and unembarrassed in their new role as lovers.
In fact, they’re even willing to study up for it. In King Vidor’s 1928 film The Crowd, we see a typical young American man named John Sims on the train to his Niagara honeymoon. He’s preparing for bed in the dressing room when he leans over and a book falls out of his pocket: What a Young Husband Ought to Know by Sylvanus Stall. Two older men watching through the open door laughingly return it.
Karen Dubinsky, in her history of Niagara honeymoons, points out that the first few decades of the twentieth century saw an explosion of newly detailed “marriage manuals” teaching couples how to succeed in bed. Influenced by the new science of sex, these guides were still prim in their explanations of “normal” sexuality, but they were an improvement on the previous century’s repressive mode: they even acknowledged the existence of the female orgasm, and gave explicit tips for achieving it. Unlike their Victorian predecessors, who might be happy to lie back and think of England—or Massachusetts—modern women had come to expect that “erotic fulfillment was an integral part of a successful alliance.”
You might say that a market need had been established for sexual fulfillment. But how do you sell that? Selling sex manuals was one way. Selling honeymoons would quickly become another.
THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC
At the first night’s dinner, the effort of feeding 920 women has the Sheraton staff frazzled. Carol is answering nonstop questions. The turbulent sea of purple is punctuated by bursts of camera flash. Troubador Mike jams away on the flat screen. Waitresses swivel through the crowd holding cakes aloft. The hats have gotten crazier—fake fur, explosions of feathers, tulle, ostrich plumes, sequins. No one is out of uniform—the women stick to the dress code with the avidity of junior-high-school girls wearing the right jeans. It’s the kind of mass trend adoption that makes VPs of sales and marketing hyperventilate at PowerPoint presentations.
I try to imagine the scene with 920 men. It’s hard, because first of all, I can’t imagine men standing in a buffet line. Somehow it just seems obvious that 920 men would be served sitting down. Then there’s the silliness. You can’t imagine large numbers of men donning goofy getups unless perhaps they were sports fans of some sort. I envision 920 men in All Blacks jerseys and face paint, spontaneously breaking into a haka. All I can think is that if I encountered such a scene, I would be inclined to go to my room and bolt the door.
The problem is, I can’t imagine men wanting to hang out together just by virtue of being men, or even men of a certain age. Sure, there are secret societies and power men’s groups like Bohemian Grove, where the Manhattan Project purportedly got its start, but they’re covert clubs that shun spectators and have no need to advertise. Is it a function of powerlessness, this urge to band together in a public way? Something about the women in their bright colors and sparkly fake jewelry makes me think of vibrant tropical fish, surviving in rainbow-hued glory in part because they’ve evolved the protective mechanism of schooling together.
The Hatters have sorted themselves out and found places to sit with their buffet spoils when Sue Ellen and Linda make their entrance. Lights low, they proceed in to the tune of “Roll Out the Barrel,” escorted by a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Mountie, a strapping Ken-doll of a man, wields the Maple Leaf with taut formality as they make their way to the stage. There, standing in front of a projected image of Niagara Falls bedecked with the American and Canadian flags, Sue Ellen and Linda welcome everyone to “our first truly international conference.” They go through a long process of recognizing the thirty-three states and several provinces that have sent attendees. Four large video monitors display maps of the U.S. and Canada. Special visitors are called out—“Gutsy Gals” who come alone, mother/daughter combinations, ladies with April birthdays, the person from farthest away, and a group of seven sisters who reunited here. They lead the crowd in a special pledge—Oh, Canada! I am ready to roll and have barrels of fun—and then, as they are getting down to the duller business of telling everyone to wear their lanyards, the video monitor camera zooms in on the Mountie, standing stiff at attention, and the room erupts in rowdy catcalls.
WHEN LOVE GOES WRONG, NOTHING GOES RIGHT.
Eliminate one pen stroke and one letter from Niagara and you get Viagra, the pharmaceutical miracle by which older men are reclaiming their youthful mojo. In the few short years it’s been around, Viagra has opened the tap on a veritable cataract of sales: impotence drugs are now a $2.5 billion market. The pill’s Niagara association is no mistake: as a symbol for potency—size, power, force—the Falls are unsurpassed, even before you throw in the honeymooners. When Cary Grant tells Grace Kelly in 1955’s To Catch a Thief that what she needs is “two weeks with a good man at Niagara Falls,” no one thinks he’s talking about boat rides.
Throughout the ’30s and ’40s, the Falls were sex’s Hollywood stand-in. The absurd idea of two people taking a “just friends” trip there is the premise of 1940’s Lucky Partners, starring Ginger Rogers, and in the same year, prosecuting attorney Fred MacMurray overcomes his reluctance to declare love for shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck as they pass through the Falls in Preston Sturges’s Remember the Night. Two strangers who dislike each other are locked in a Niagara hotel room in 1941’s Niagara Falls, directed by Gordon Douglas, with the predictable result that they are married by breakfast. That’s the power of the waterfall. But it’s also the power of advertising.
Hollywood’s product placement was just one angle. In 1928, New York’s Scenic Trails Association and the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce began packaging the honeymoon, renaming the highway from Rochester to Niagara “The Honeymoon Trail.” Ten fifty-foot billboards were erected, each bearing the Honeymoon Trail logo: two hearts, pierced by an arrow.
In 1934, Bride’s magazine was launched. The commodification of the American wedding—and the honeymoon that followed—was under way. And it was getting more sophisticated. Admen realized they had to do better than just bring sexy back. They went a step further, implying that in buying a sexually gratifying honeymoon, you were buying long-term marital bliss.
In 1941, the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce organized the Niagara Falls Honeymoon Club for alumni honeymooners. Newspapers across the country announced that the longest-married couple joining the club would receive an all-expenses-paid return visit. Mr. and Mrs. Albert B. Praul of Philadelphia won the prize, having honeymooned at the Falls sixty-five years earlier. Their media-friendly return to the Falls included stays at the Cataract House in Canada and the Hotel Niagara in New York, a show of “old-time Niagara” lantern slides, a dance, a retreat ceremony at Old Fort Niagara, and a ride in the carriage President McKinley took to his fateful date with assassination at the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition. The trip ended with a gala premiere of the Gordon Douglas film Niagara Falls. Quite a whirlwind schedule for a couple aged eighty-nine and eighty-seven.
In seizing on senior marrieds to promote the Falls honeymoon, the tourism promoters hit the jackpot. They equated sex with long-term married love. Now, in buying a honeymoon, you no longer got something to do. You got something to be.
SOME LIKE IT HOT.
The Prauls would probably have enjoyed the opening night festivities at “Barrels of Fun.” Like them, the Hatters seem ready to party. Music blares, and the conventioneers get to their feet. Near me, a woman who must be eighty grabs one of the few men around, a twentysomething Hatquarters employee, and shows him her hips don’t lie. The poor Mountie is still standing at attention onstage under sweltering Klieg lights: Sue Ellen has announced his availability for photo ops, and the line to get a snapshot at his side goes halfway across the thousand-seat room. Carol, at my side in her fuzzy lavender hat, keeps me informed of the party’s progress: “They’re starting the conga line.” “We got one taking off her clothes.” After a few jazzy songs, “I Love the Nightlife” by Alicia Bridges comes on and everyone dances and sings along.
One of the things you might hope for from a powerful coalition of fun-loving older women is that they might wrench sexuality from the hot little hands of youth. Can the Red Hats take a cue from Rene Russo and Susan Sarandon and make being over fifty sexy, even for women without personal trainers and great bone structure? That’s what I want to see on opening night, but somehow it’s not what seems to be going on here. What’s happening here looks like license. The women are in a big group, and it gives them freedom to misbehave—which is what acting sexual is for women who aren’t young. In fact, the older the woman, the more willing she seems to act out. I expect at any moment to see a granny hook a waiter with her cane, or the Mountie emerge bedraggled from a scrum of purple velour and feather boas. Like the dressing up, it’s over the top, and in that way, it feels compensatory. It’s like the names the Red Hat chapters give themselves: Ravishing Redhats, Beautiful Outstanding Babes, Red Hat Gang of Purple Persuasion, Babes of Joyland. It feels like an act.
Men take Viagra so they can continue to have sex. The Red Hatters’ game of dress-up feels almost calculated to avoid it. The Red Hat Society store features lots of paraphernalia with the group’s cartoon mascot, Ruby Red Hat—she appears on the society website from the back, animated with a Marilyn-like shake of the behind. One item you can buy is a bumper sticker with Ruby, kicking back in a chair. Below her it says, “Just don’t do it.”
All in all, it’s giving me an overwhelming urge to make time with the bartender. I find him in the corner of the giant room. He has shiny dark eyes, brown hair that curls at the ends, and a tentative demeanor. His name is Gary. Gary grew up in St. Catharines, nearby, and he thinks the ladies are “fun.” I down a glass of wine and press Gary on his comment, asking if he can imagine such a group for men.
“There is a group of older men who have their convention here,” he says. “They’re called the Jesters. They’re all millionaires and it’s supposed to be a big debauchery. They take a whole floor and drink expensive booze and have lots of single women walking around like a men’s club.”
“That’s just my point!” I say, but Gary is taking one of the purple tickets the ladies must exchange for glasses of cheap pinot grigio and doesn’t hear me.
The Queen Mother of a Pennsylvania chapter approaches in elbow-length red lace gloves. “Aren’t they floozy?” she says with delight when I admire them. The bar, it turns out, is a good place to chat with Hatters. Charming Gary seems willing to overlook my lack of purple tickets, so I’m still there drinking about two hours later, when the Mountie is finally released from photographic servitude. I see him striding my way, flag aloft, and trot out to intercept him. He’s hot and sweaty and seems almost frightened when I show him my “press” ID and ask him how he feels after his ordeal.
“Well, I do this for a living,” he manages to say. “I am a constable.” Before he can elaborate (a constable?) a pair of ladies materializes to drag him off for a belated photo. I figure that’s the end of him and return to my post as Gary’s chief barfly, but a few minutes later I see him steaming toward me in a determined beeline.
“People don’t usually have contact with the police unless something has gone wrong,” he begins, and then launches into a high-speed, full-sentence articulation of the importance of public relations for law enforcement even if it requires him to spend three hours under hot lights in full dress uniform with his arms around an endless stream of garish grannies. When he’s done, he hands me his card and, in a move that stops every conversation within forty feet, strips down to his T-shirt and jodhpurs.
No one goes near him after that. Sans the getup, he’s a living, breathing man.
SHE ACTS LIKE A WOMAN SHOULD.
After World War II, Niagara’s honeymoon promoters aimed to leverage the postwar travel boom. Magazines dedicated to tourism sprang up, like Holiday, which declared in June 1946 that “Niagara Falls is still America’s honeymoon capital.” The Niagara Falls, Ontario Chamber of Commerce began issuing “honeymoon certificates” in 1949, handing out more than forty-two thousand of them in ten years. The auto industry was on board as co-marketer. A magazine called Friends, published by General Motors and handed out by Chevrolet dealers, ran an article in June 1950 titled “Here’s Why They Honeymoon at Niagara.” In it, a variety of couples give their reasons for choosing the Falls. Andrew and Mary DiCicco of Detroit, for instance, chose the Falls “partly because of its romance and partly because it was conveniently close to Detroit—motorists can drive from there to Niagara Falls in less than six hours.”
The postwar Niagara honeymoon was now promoted as an American tradition: a slew of stories about Falls honeymoon history appeared. Honeymooning at the Falls was an American rite of passage. The Niagara Falls Gazette ran a 1946 feature titled “Lore and Sentiment behind Niagara’s Fame as Nation’s Honeymoon Capital.” Referring to the waterfall as “sentiment in liquid form,” they recounted the results of an informal survey asking visiting couples why they came to Niagara. “Eleven couples queried in succession,” the paper reports, said, “‘Our parents came here. We could have gone anywhere, but somehow, this just seemed right.’” And why not? The Falls were an American icon, the Canadians our allies, and a trip to Niagara a way to touch the national past. Returning soldiers, many articles declared, had seen enough of Europe. They’d rather enjoy the sights of their own nation now.
A visit to Niagara was, like much of postwar culture, a reassuring encounter with what the nation had just been fighting for: the American way of life. What did that mean? It went beyond democracy and freedom to embrace a host of lifestyle ideals valorized as the way it should be: the wholesome family life of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, the small-town community values of Norman Rockwell and Life magazine, the modernity and progress represented by the torrent of household consumer goods Americans adopted en masse—refrigerators, televisions, Tupperware. And of course, the “traditional” gender roles of I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Marjorie Morningstar, and the era’s fashions: tiny waists, full feminine skirts, and high heels for women, gray flannel suits for men. The marriage manuals of the era affirmed this natural order: the man was to dominate and the woman was to let him.
Marilyn’s star turn as Rose Loomis turned this stereotype over and examined its seamy underside. She was a wife gone bad—like the Falls, a feminine force, with the emphasis shifted from beauty to power. The movie publicity made the connection explicit: “Marilyn Monroe and Niagara,” crowed the poster, “a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!”
But that too was all an act. Nature may not have been able to control the Falls, but man now could. Having been harnessed for half a century, the post-treaty Falls were completely taken in hand. So too, Rose Loomis, for all her sultry attempts at running wild, ends up strangled and left sprawled on the floor of a church. She may be a raging torrent, but only until the man decides to stop her for good.
Nunnally Johnson, who wrote How to Marry a Millionaire, called Marilyn “a phenomenon of nature… like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.” Billy Wilder, who directed her in Some Like It Hot, called her a “DuPont product.” They were both right. Marilyn was Niagara: natural and artificial, her beauty belying a toxic underside. She was an icon, a victim, a marvel. All of her films include moments where onlookers are struck speechless at the sight of her, just as every guidebook assures you words fail in trying to describe the Falls.
Marilyn, on location for Niagara, toured several of Niagara’s local factories. She had the body. She had the act. And she knew how much machinery was behind it all.
WE’RE JUST TWO LITTLE GIRLS FROM LITTLE ROCK.
“This is recess,” Sue Ellen Cooper tells me. We’re in her corner suite on the Sheraton’s twentieth floor on Saturday afternoon. She’s lying on the bed fully dressed when I arrive. I like her instantly. She and Linda are taking turns having their makeup done by a young goth girl. Framed in the picture window is a perfect view of the Falls.
Sue Ellen has had one of those colorful, fits-and-starts careers not unusual among upper-middle-class wives and mothers—part-time graphic artist, painter of murals, writer of cute books, inventor of “That Earring Thing,” an earring-holder marketed to teens, and now, driving force behind a woman’s social group. She has an edge I didn’t expect, a vaguely sarcastic yet down-to-earth canniness. She doesn’t smile as easily as Linda. When I ask her questions, her sharp eyes rest on me for a moment, and then she answers, unguardedly but thoughtfully. “We really didn’t know where we were going with this,” she tells me at several points, in a voice that betrays a suspicion I won’t believe her. She returns regularly—like any good CEO—to the core message of her brand: that Hatters are women who have earned a well-deserved break for fun.
In its communications, the society always foregrounds this idea: “Now it’s time for us.” But women who turned fifty in the last five years were born between 1950 and 1955. They belong to the Baby Boomer cohort: raised during the ’60s, they came of age in the years between the Summer of Love and the end of Vietnam. A cynic might claim it’s no surprise that the “Me Generation” would turn menopause into a festival of self-celebration. Following a rash of cultural critics, starting with David Brooks, who have derided Boomers as materialistic revolutionary sellouts, a cynic might see the Red Hatters as yet another example of how Boomer idealism has been evacuated by corporate culture. The kids who were going to remake the world—end the war, liberate women, revolutionize sex, and save the planet—have instead become a marketer’s wet dream—an army of affluent, educated luxury-lovers enamored of their own pop-cultural past. The Red Hat website declares their goal is “world domination,” but they’re about as countercultural as a three-hundred dollar ticket to a Rolling Stones concert. It’s just another instance of wielding the language of revolution in the cause of fun—hanging out, dressing up, listening to ’70s music. And shopping. Newsweek called the Hatters a “red and purple buying machine.”
All this has gone through my head. In fact, I arrived at Sue Ellen’s room imagining myself as Joan Didion, intending to ask the hard questions. But Sue Ellen’s unabashed openness takes me by surprise. It’s clear that she believes in what she’s doing. She tells me how celebrities refuse to be associated with the society, and how a company came to her wanting to market Red Hat coffins. She turned them down. “We’re not going just anywhere with this,” she declares, looking as fierce as a woman in purple sequins can look, which is pretty fierce. “People could just ruin it.” I raise the topic of the society’s purpose, and she returns to her core message.
“We all kind of know that we have been expected to take care of everybody, and that’s OK,” she says “but that’s not what this is about.”
I think of another slogan you can buy in the Red Hat store: “It’s all about me.”
But I wimp out. Soft-pedaling, I ask Sue Ellen about the Baby Boomers who would be joining up now, pointing out that they are not a cohort particularly known for self-sacrifice. She gets it immediately.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” she says, shrugging. “Maybe they won’t need us as much.”
That, I can’t help thinking, was exactly the right thing to say.
I walk with Sue Ellen and Linda to the next event, the “Royal Canadian MounTEA Party.” Hatters stop us all the way, asking for pictures or just ogling the women with starstruck glee. The queens extract themselves kindly and head for the stage. Carol finds me a seat next to two ladies from Ohio. They have a bear named Lucille that sings “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” Whenever they feel ignored, they make the bear sing.
CHANGEABLE, YOU’VE GOT A CHANGEABLE NATURE.
Over the course of the twentieth century, weddings—and honeymoons—evolved from practical, family-based events into commodified products for the mass market. Everyone went to the same places and did the same things. You might expect a revolt against this sameness, and indeed there was one. But instead of taking back the right to live—rather than buy—life experiences, consumers turned weddings and honeymoons into the lavish orgies of conspicuous consumption that now drive the multibillion-dollar wedding industry. Today, you can distinguish your wedding by how much you spend on it, and your honeymoon by how exotic and distant your destination. And it’s important to do so, because your honeymoon tells the world—and maybe you—who you are. Honeymoons are not even talked about in terms of “getting to know” each other or spending time together; they are, in the words of one popular contemporary guide, “a well-deserved break from the stresses of getting married.” Having just spent an entire book telling you how to assemble a huge, overblown affair, the authors tell you with no irony that another expensive purchase is required to help you recover from it.
Niagara Falls fell out of fashion in this world. It’s no longer exclusive enough or expensive enough to make a splash in what one critic calls the “wedding-industrial complex.” Canadian Niagara is a family fun park, packed to the gills with franchise restaurants and kid-friendly attractions. The Brock Plaza, where Marilyn stayed during the filming of Niagara, now features indoor connections to the Falls View Waterpark, Marvel Superheroes Adventure City, the Rainforest Cafe, and the MGM Plaza. As for American Niagara, it’s shabby and decrepit. Joe DiMaggio’s glamorous Hotel Niagara is now a grubby, unrenovated Ramada Inn with a nightly eleven-dollar all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. I’ve eaten it, and it’s surprisingly tasty, but still. You can’t imagine today’s newlyweds, having just spent twenty-three thousand dollars—the average cost of an American wedding—on nuptials, taking their “well-deserved break” with some romantic Spider-Man trivia, followed by eleven dollars’ worth of lukewarm curry on a Styrofoam plate.
Still, Niagara’s honeymoon industry is continually reinventing itself. Today, gay marriage might rewrite the honeymoon script. Responding to Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien’s June 2003 announcement that Canada would legalize same-sex marriage, CNN columnist Bill Schneider announced, “Niagara Falls, the honeymoon destination that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border, has taken on a whole new meaning.” And so it had. Niagara, master of self-reinvention, lost no time in queering itself. Ontario hotels quickly added a “Same-Sex Weddings” section to their websites. Sheraton declared itself “proud to host many same-sex marriage ceremonies, receptions and honeymoons.” People seemed to love the image of gay couples zooming toward the Falls. The Village Voice began an article on Canada’s new marriage laws with the story of two men so eager to wed they leaped into their car and headed for Niagara, only calling Lambda Legal for advice from the road.
Conservative gay-marriage-haters also frequently invoke Niagara Falls. A writer in the National Review envisioned a “stream of American same-sex couples shuffling off to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls for their marriage licenses.” With Massachusetts’s legalization of gay marriage, other antis raised the specter of a certain town in the state becoming a “gay Niagara Falls.” Provincetown’s tourism director joyfully took up the banner.
The fear of gay hoards descending on Niagara evinces an odd protectiveness toward the Falls. But why? Ken Connor of the Family Research Council summed it up for CNN. “Same-sex marriage devalues the real thing,” huffed Mr. Connor, “in the same way that counterfeits devalue the authentic.”
The artificial rears its head again. Postmodern theorists love to talk about how the things we consider “natural” are in fact constructed: gender, sexuality, so-called “normative” behavior. Marilyn Monroe provoked the anxiety that femininity might be an act in the 1950s; by the 1980s, the age of Madonna, Prince, and RuPaul, the “performativity of gender” was being celebrated, at least by literary theorists and self-proclaimed gender outlaws. Femininity—and masculinity, too—was now understood as performance, a shaping of behavior to fit made-up codes established less by nature than culture.
After all, if there’s a unifying theme among the Niagara Falls attractions—wax museums, miniature towns, water parks—it’s that the world can be endlessly remade. Maybe post-camp appropriation of the commodified Niagara honeymoon will wrench it back from the hands of corporate culture. Gay couples taking part in Niagara honeymoons are rewriting the tradition, opening it to new kinds of lived experience.
I DON’T MEAN RHINESTONES.
And what of the Red Hat ladies? Are they too getting inside a tradition and busting it open, making more possibilities for life lived outside the narrow strictures of manufactured market needs? Or are they buying into yet another one of late capitalism’s cheap tricks—the marketing of life experiences—and putting it on their Red Hat platinum cards? This is the question I keep asking myself at “Barrels of Fun.”
The last convention event is the Sunday breakfast talent show. The tables outside the Great Room are stocked with brochures about an upcoming cruise. Sue Ellen and Linda introduce the show with sales pitches: a Chicago convention, a new cookbook, an in-the-works traveling musical called Hats. Carol gives me a press packet, an impressively sophisticated folder full of press releases, clippings, newsletters, a copy of Lifestyle, and a four-color summary of the society’s history and mission. There’s no doubt that this organization is a marketing juggernaut. And its market is growing fast.
And then the talent show begins. I’m standing at the side of the room, toward the front, so I can get a good view. There’s Flaming Agnes, a former dancer who shimmies fabulously through moves last seen in pre-Castro Cuba. There’s Bertha Rose Parks, a gray-haired lady in a purple cowgirl dress who tap dances her heart out to “Grandma’s Feather Bed.” There’s Karen Oke—Carol calls her a “shy church secretary”—who wears a ruffled dress and fishnets and sings a song she wrote herself. There are the Red Happy Tappers, a group of eight ladies in red cowgirl minidresses, who shuffle off to Buffalo to the tune of “It Don’t Get Any Countrier Than This.” And there’s the Steppin’ Out Red Hatters, a group of five ladies dressed as Marilyn—white low-cut dresses, blond wigs, elbow-length gloves, heels, and a rainbow of feather boas—lip-synching “I Wanna Be Loved by You” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
The Marilyns are of assorted heights. Their makeup is a little garish. Some of them look perfectly at home in their dresses and vamp it up with their boas; others clutch at the mass of feathers as if it were a fluffy security blanket. The choreographed dance moves the group follows are simple, and sometimes the Marilyns are in sync, sometimes not. A couple of them watch the others, like nervous kindergarteners in the school play. But nobody cares. By the time they’re through, the crowd is on its feet cheering and so, remarkably, am I.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had at my breakfast table the previous morning. When I asked the ladies whether they were enjoying the convention’s Niagara locale, they all nodded eagerly. Their hats—made out of red bras—bobbed up and down.
“It’s a good place for dreaming,” one of them said.