Al Altman and Joan Crawford

Diana AltmanAl Altman & Joan CrawfordI grew up on New Rochelle, New York, in a house on Avon Road that had black shutters and a roof that hung down over its face like bangs. In the front yard was an apple tree and all around the house were luxuriant gardens tended by my mother. I was allowed to pick bouquets of roses to bring to my grammar school teachers which I did even though I didn’t like most of them. I spent a lot of time in the hall because I talked when I was supposed to be quiet. To this day I think being bored and in a position of no escape is almost unbearable. I have come to believe that impatience is genetic.

The belief that our personality traits are built in comes from years of writing about horses. I was a contributing editor for Northeast Horseman, and a freelance journalist for The Chronicle of the Horse and Saddlebred Report. Horse breeders understand that stubbornness is inherited and so is a quality they describe as “a willingness to please.” And so is “go forward.” In humans we call that ambition. Praise for a horse is, “he has a lot of go forward.”

Strange how you can’t breed for beauty. My father used to say that a beautiful woman is a freak. He meant you seldom see one. He saw a lot of pretty girls in his career as a talent scout for MGM. He discovered Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, Jimmy Stewart, Celeste Holm, Robert Walker, and dozens of other unknown actors who became stars. He said that Ava Gardner was the most beautiful woman he ever saw. I inherited her screen test which I’ve shown when I lecture about the film industry. Ava Gardner, age 17, walks toward the camera, then away, then shows both profiles. Her southern accent was so strong you couldn’t understand a word she said so my father took the sound out of the screen test footage. Louis B. Mayer phoned him to say, “She can’t talk, she can’t act, she’s terrific!”

Theda Bara

I graduated from Scarsdale High, then went to Connecticut College, then to Harvard for graduate school. I was the first married woman in Massachusetts to keep her maiden name after marriage without going to probate court. A Married Name Without the Hyphen is a piece for Forbes about the fight to keep my maiden name in 1971. I was also instrumental in making it legal for midwives to practice in Massachusetts. Hard to believe that in 1973 midwives were illegal in Boston. Both my daughters were born at home.

I’ve traveled all over the world and still have arrowheads I found in the grass on Easter Island, and textiles woven by women in Bolivia who thought cameras pointed at them would steal their souls. My home is New York City and I can’t think of a better place to live. It is very important to live in a place that you love. Being unhappy with where you live is not a trivial matter. During the summer, my husband and I live in Maine and kayak on Lake Sebago, another place that I love.


Diana Altman


© 2010 Diana Altman. All rights reserved.