Gari Hardy triggered a mob on the lawn. She was a seventh grader, one year behind me at the Beverly Vista School. We’d never met. I’d seen her from a distance, walking the halls as if they were runways. She was as blonde as a Hitchcock heroine, she had dark eyes, and on the morning of Thursday, October 6, 1960, she came to school wearing a sundress, a pink full-skirted cotton print with quarter-inch shoulder straps which exposed her arms, shoulders, and calves. Scandalous.
The student body pressed in, vying for a closer look. Our class secretary screamed, every second word a superlative. Brett, a popular boy who played football, pointed and hollered, “It looks great.” Watching from a distance, I felt I should say something, but couldn’t find the words.
A teacher seized one of Gari’s wrists and hauled her away. Minutes later, a car emerged from the parking lot. Gari was inside, weeping. Behind the wheel was Mrs. Sturges, the assistant principal, her aging face pinched and stern. She was taking Gari home to put on a “suitable dress.”
Gari made page one of the Los Angeles Times’ “metropolitan news” section. They spelled her name Gary. The reporter called her a “pretty, blond 12-year-old,” and the cutline writer repeated the word “pretty” under her photo caption. As usual, if something happened to a Beverly Hills child, it became news.
Gari’s mother, Eileen, an adult version of her daughter, displayed the sundress for a Times photographer and said, “It was a hot day and the dress was perfectly proper from a moral or fashion standpoint.” I read on with gusto until hitting this sentence: “Mrs. Hardy, divorced wife of a Bakersfield cattleman, said she has hired Atty. Jack C. Ritter to carry on the battle of the sundress for her and Gary.” Gari and I had something in common, it turned out—divorce.
Beverly Vista’s principal fired back through the press: “There’s no list of rules, but we believe girls should be suitably dressed. What’s all right for a school picnic isn’t suitable for the classroom… The school intends to continue with its present policies.”
Mrs. Hardy replied, “If they want her figure covered up, I’m buying her a muumuu.”
It’s hard to recall just what the article made me think about Gari, a victim of martinets in the school administration. But I’m sure her parents’ divorce tapped into my feelings. That must be why I cut out the article and saved it.
At dinner, I showed the article to my mother and Stan, my stepfather. My mother said, “That’s too bad.” She didn’t comment further about the school’s behavior, or Gari’s. Nor did Stan, who shook his head. “Your mother’s right. Would you pass the spinach?”
“What did you think about the debates?” my mother asked. Earlier that evening, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon had squared off against each other for the second time. Stan said Nixon won. My mother disagreed. I said I didn’t know. Stan and my mother, a Republican and a Democrat, united in holy matrimony, a marriage that would last thirty-seven happy years. Their quick segue into the Election of 1960 didn’t bother me, at least consciously. Now I imagine that the fast change of subject was due to Gari’s broken home. (Back then, no one said “single-parent family.”) Years later, my mother told me that the moment she and Stan married, they decided to bar divorced people from their friendship circle. They preferred to surround their dinner table with happy couples who held hands and laughed a lot. Like me, they shunned the time they’d spent alone. At school I didn’t keep my home life a secret, but unless someone asked, I never described it to my classmates. I wonder if Gari did.
The day after the article ran, my father picked me up, as he did every other Saturday, and took me to breakfast at Du-par’s, a well-known coffee shop. He ordered eggs and burnt bacon, as usual. I had eggs too.
“And coffee while I wait,” he added suavely. When his cup arrived, he said, with a flirty glance at the waitress, “Thank you, darling.” Then he brushed something off the sleeve of his tan jumpsuit and lit another cigarette.
My father mentioned Gari Hardy. He’d read the papers.
I said it was strange that a dress could spark an uproar. I was too young to know otherwise.
My father laughed. “She’s probably too well-developed for a girl her age.” He didn’t know for sure. The Times had only published Gari’s headshot.
I didn’t want to discuss Gari’s body. I poured ketchup on my hash browns and said something about a science assignment. My father and I talked about everything—his acting career, my classes, politics, the Dodgers, the space race, the Cold War, the supernatural, Shakespeare (well, on that last topic, he talked; I listened). But not about girls. That would come in a few more months—once a few more hormones kicked in.
My father was right, it turned out. The Arizona Republic had confirmed Gari Hardy’s 34-21-32 figure—“more mature than most girls her age.” I guess the editors felt Gari’s curves were more newsworthy than the injustice being done to her. Back then, their attitude didn’t upset me. By the eighth grade, I’d probably become tone deaf to this double standard. Deep down, I knew that if I’d done something newsworthy, no reporter would focus on my physique.
After Gari returned to Beverly Vista in the flower-print muumuu her mother bought, the school suspended her. I never saw her again. The Times article floated to the bottom of my desk drawer, there to linger for decades until, in a move from one house to another, it surfaced. I started skimming, wondering if it was worth saving until the sentence hit me again. “Mrs. Hardy, divorced wife of a Bakersfield cattleman…” I felt as if the Los Angeles Times had highlighted the word divorced in italics, all caps, and bold. I’d forgotten that fact about the Hardys, blocked it out, probably. The older me also noticed that the reporter had made sure to point out the ex-husband’s occupation. His only description of Mrs. Hardy was that she was “also a blonde.”
Divorce was rare in 1960. Nobody else in my class had experienced it, at least as far as I knew. During the years my mother and I had lived alone, she stared at her bank book. I stared at the television. She lost her appetite. I ate too much peanut butter, straight from the jar.
My guess is if newspapers published a story like Gari’s today, they wouldn’t highlight the divorce, especially if the people who lived in the house were father and son. But a narrative about two women against the world would still, I’m sure, continue to emphasize their looks and their clothing. That’s still news.