One of the aspects of Hollywood stardom that fascinates me the most is the studio “star machine”–pretty girls go in and goddesses come out. That’s essentially what happened to Arlene Dahl.
She entered that rarified world in the late 40s a nice-looking Scandinavian-type teenager…
…and emerged a hyper-glamorous femme fatale.
Her regrettably brief career as a movie star hit its apogee when post-WWII audiences worshipped the ultra-feminine woman–all girdled curves, swishy chiffon dresses, shellacked airspun coifs, and an unabashedly artificial maquillage. And that’s our gal Arlene to the back teeth; she was perfect for the wasp-waisted 1950s.
When her movie career waned in the 1960s, Arlene became a self-made/appointed beauty/femininity expert, trading on her carefully cultivated flame-haired appeal, her trademark beauty mark, and her rather sparse, mostly Technicolor, resume. (Here, she extols Lustre-Crème shampoo.)
Over the next few decades, she capitalized on her Hollywood legacy by designing a line of boudoir wear…
…writing a thrice-weekly syndicated beauty column; hosting a CBS TV talk show (Arlene Dahl’s Beauty Spot–here she is interviewing Chad Everett!)
And how did she manage all that? By being the amazing one-woman Arlene Dahl Enterprises, Inc.
…it’s her remarkable first book, Always Ask A Man, Arlene Dahl’s Key to Femininity, that’s our target today. Care to join me? Well, extinguish your bra, peel off your bluestockings, and brace yourself.
In this unabashed paean to masculine privilege (penned in 1965, the trembling cusp of the women’s lib movement), Arlene shares how to attract a man so you won’t die a lonely cat lady.
Boiled down, that means you (smart woman that you are) need to study up on how to get what you want using time-honored feminine wiles.
(Never mind that other books outlining the same man-snagging guidelines surface about every decade. “The Rules,” anyone?)
And how did Arlene get these searing insights? Probably from her mother, but to give her book some credence (and publishing oomph) she asked male Hollywood stars to back her up. And they did. In spades.
She supports her predictable arguments with quotes from Hollywood hunks the likes of Kirk Douglas: “The first thing I look for in a woman is warmth–femininity. It’s got nothing to do with a pretty face.” (Tell that to Lana Turner, below)…
David Niven: “Humor is important. The most beautiful woman is a bore without that.” (Witty, pretty co-star Loretta Young passes that test with flying colors.)
and Jose Iturbi: “I value poise and tranquility in a woman.” (I’m not sure his Three Daring Daughters family fills the bill, but he seems happy enough.)
Robert Taylor suggests that “a woman just has to have someone to be beautiful for.” (Hedy Lamarr needs little support in that arena.)
Ray Milland loathes the girl who has wears imitation jewelry, dark lipstick, and has a shrill voice. (He seems to be doing okay with Ginger.) And so on…
She can be any “type”–natural, girlish, elegant, queenly, sporty, giggly–just as long as she’s feminine.
Like Yul Brenner says, “Simple femininity is the most important thing about a woman and it is a quality a great many women are in jeopardy of losing. Women are being emancipated out of their femininity in this modern age.” (No danger of Deborah Kerr making a faux-pas there.)
It galls me to admit it, but my mother told me EXACTLY the same thing, informing me with infuriating serenity and certainty: “Never let a man know you’re smarter than him.” I practically spit in her face, enraged at the notion that I had to keep my intelligence and wit turned down so that the men in my life would like me better. (It still nauseates me.) Mom, as always, was right.
Go on, ask him!
Yul further broke it down for Arlene: a woman should be a good listener, have a personal style, learn to transcend self and be interested in others, cultivate common sense, and have a sense of humor.
Arlene presents these male dictates completely straight-faced; she figures if you want to know what makes a woman attractive, ask a man. They’ll tell you want they want.
These days, it would be social suicide for a man to make statements like the above, but Arlene has a put her finger on something pretty universal, if we’re brave enough to admit it.
Arlene knew her readers were unapologetically husband hunting and never apologizes for the book’s theme. Utterly out-dated, right? No one buys into this kind of gender role-playing nonsense these days, right? Tell that to ABC, whose show The Bachelor, is a ratings hit. Alas, Arlene’s book is still relevant. Biology doesn’t shift around that quickly.
Yes, today’s enlightened men carry babies on their chests and eat quiche, but when you get right down to it, they probably like having an opposite sex, not a competitor in a pair of Jimmy Choos. Arlene drizzles a little kerosene on the fire with these words: “We are accused of competing with men instead of charming them, of forgetting our essential female appeal in our concentration on careers and equal rights,” she avers. Is she right? Could be.
Seduction 101 by the Dahl-y Lama
One of the more fascinating insights in her book involves the idea of kicking against the (male dominated) system. She obliquely acknowledges (barely) that it’s somewhat frustrating to have to kowtow to men to get anywhere in this world. But rather than send her readers out on a fool’s errand, she has them use feminine wiles to get their way.
“Don’t hide your feminine light in the shadows of neglect, resentments, and fears,” she says, anticipating the bitter accusations of how unfair it is that women “have to” doll up and act sweet in order to make headway.
Put it another way (I heard this line in a June Allyson movie and it’s stuck like a burr): “If you’ve got a chip on your shoulder, don’t put a halo around it.” In other words, yes, you’re ticked off about how you, as a woman, get paid less for equal work, are overlooked for promotions, are considered more decorative than effective, etc. but if you make it into a cause, you’ll only wind up alone and crabbier than ever. Loose translation.
“Men have a sixth sense about women,” Arlene claims. “They respond to us in exactly the same degree that we respond to them.” To that end, she rallies all she learned from the studio beauty experts to gild the illusion of a pliant, sweet, feminine woman.
Alongside her helpful male advisory counsel, Arlene tags Louis B Mayer as the granddaddy of developing and maintaining star power. She says Mayer told her that it was not only important to play the role of star on screen and on the lot (in case you ran into another director or producer on the hunt for an attractive actress), but that she should “cultivate an attractive presentation, a ‘star image’ at all times…every type of audience counts.”
They mean individual acceptance of responsibility; personal pride in maintaining the top standards of performance and professional deportment.”
Arlene says that translates into all aspects of a woman’s life, no matter if she’s a housewife or an executive, quoting Madame Helene Rochas (that’s her, below, when she was head of Parfums Marcel Rochas in Paris): “Femininity has a place in business and science, as well as in the arts and the home. It should be applied, not sacrificed, in all that we do. A trained woman can not only do as good a job as a man, but can bring that extra something to it–her femininity.”
And just how does an ambitious, determined, career-minded gal manage that? Well, that’s Arlene’s happy challenge–to share with her readers how you can play the game to win.
If you’re smart, Arlene says, here’s what you’ll do. (It’s interesting to note that 99% of her advice appears in a very popular work lionized by this generation: The 48 Laws of Power. It’s like that, only with perfume and a good foundation garment.)
Warning: What you are about to read goes over with almost any modern woman like a piano to the forehead. But if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that it works like a charm–whether we want to believe it does or not. You can’t fight City Hall, so why not try some tried-and-true tricks from Arlene?
If this really bugs you, just substitute the word “your boss” for “a man” and use her tricks to get a raise or a corner office. Shhhhhhhhh…no one needs to know where you got this wisdom!
To win (or win over) a man:
1. Stop arguing with him, even if (and maybe especially if) you’re right. More rewards, less hassles.
2. NEVER upstage a man. In The 48 Laws of Power, this principle is called “Never outshine the master.” Don’t top his joke; be content with adding footnotes rather than launching your opinions.
3. Give a man a flattering image of himself. Let him do the ordering, open doors, etc. Arlene claims men have a “naturally protective attitude” about women and urges women to stop trying to be so doggone self-sufficient. Once we do, boom, men get very, very cooperative, apparently.
You look dahl-velous!
Naturally, all the submission and sweetness in the world won’t help if you look (and smell) like yesterday’s laundry, so Arlene’s book simply teems with beauty tips about scenting, dressing, grooming and adorning oneself.
She put her powers to the test six times, snagging a string of hunky hubbies, including Tarzan Lex Barker (a one-year starter marriage) and Fernando Lamas, who graduated to Esther Williams.
According to Arlene, “your appearance is a yardstick by which others can measure your self-respect.” But it’s only one yardstick. The others, per Arlene, are your attitude, your spirituality, your vital interests in life.
Does it surprise you that she uses the geisha as a model woman? She’s beautiful, serene, intelligent, and skillful in all sorts of ways. “It’s not difficult,” summarizes Arlene, “to understand why men find her irresistible.”
If you, like me, find this advice pretty hard to swallow, it’s probably because you (like me) don’t want to think it’s still true. There’s not a lot of admiration in today’s world for a woman like Arlene who takes a stand for such ossified and old-fashioned gender roles.
But I must admit, when I read this book and gingerly tried a few of its less obnoxious suggestions, I found that they almost always worked. Seriously!
The spell of Chanel
For example, there was the time I went shopping for a new post-divorce perfume. (Kay tip: Ditch any and all perfumes you wore during unhappy-ending relationships. Fragrance is a memory trigger and catching a whiff of a failed marriage or romance can only lead to tears.).
I took along a dear male friend of mine, asking him for his opinion as I spritzed on two or three likely candidates. Nothing clicked until I whooshed on Chanel No. 5. I held the crook of my arm to his nose. He closed his eyes, inhaled, and made a noise that was a sort of hybrid between a groan and a growl. When he opened his eyes, he looked at me as if I were a stranger. I blinked, withdrew the arm he was still nuzzling, and paid the lady for the perfume. I’ve worn No. 5 for 2 decades now and it routinely elicits the same delightfully caveman reaction from men if I let them get close enough.
Eyes on the prize
Arlene’s book is loaded with goodies about building an affordable wardrobe, concocting skincare products from produce, discerning true chic, and developing elegance, but it’s the assumed motivation that fascinates and appalls me in equal measures. Arlene knows you’re doing all this for “him”– the him you have or the him you’re hunting for. From the colors you wear to your new signature scent, it’s simple. Always ask a man.
(All quotes and information shared here hails from Arlene’s utterly wonderful book, Always Ask a Man–Arlene Dahl’s Key to Femininity. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Copyright 1965. If you have fears of a cat-centric future, you might want to give it a look-see.)