Posted Friday morning, January 27, 2017. Originally posted Sunday, July 10, 2011. Somewhat revised.
Not Laura Petrie.
A blogger’s life is like the king’s, according to Alice, terrible hard. In order to write my review of Dick Van Dyke’s memoirs I had to do some intensive research that required me to watch eight or nine episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
You’re feeling bad for me already, I know it and I appreciate your concern.
All the episodes are available to watch online and I put links to a few of the ones I watched in the review. More Easter Eggs. You’ll find them. One of the episodes I watched but didn’t link, though, to is called “October Eve”.
That’s the one about spending twenty-four minutes imaging Mary Tyler Moore naked.
Actually, there were two episodes about that. The other was “Never Bathe On a Saturday”. You remember that one. Laura and Rob are spending a night in a hotel and Laura gets her toe stuck in the bathtub spout and Rob has to help her get it unstuck, except that the bathroom door is locked, so he has to think up all kinds of ways to break in most of which lead to him hurting himself? We never actually see Laura naked in the tub but of course we “see” Laura naked in the tub.
In “October Eve”, a nude painting that Laura posed for when she and Rob were newlyweds and that she’d thought was destroyed, because she’d thrown a pot of black paint at it, resurfaces in a swanky gallery in midtown Manhattan where all the world will see it. Fortunately, Sally sees it first and calls Laura to warn her and eventually the painting is sent to a mountaintop in Brazil before anyone else Rob and Laura know can see it.
Now it’s important that Laura hadn’t actually posed nude for the painting. We learn what happened in a flashback. She’d posed in a new outfit Rob loved. But the artist, played by a surprisingly handsome, young and dashing-looking Carl Reiner---sans toupee, so it must be the beard---insists on his vision. He paints what he sees, he tells her, when, horrified and mortified she finally views the finished painting. And he’s dumbfounded that she expected him to paint anything else. He’s too much of a genius in his own mind to bother painting what’s expected of him, particularly some “peasant’s” housewife in slacks and a sweater. “For that kind of picture,” he informs her, “you take a camera, go down to Central Park, get on a pony, and snap your brains out!”
Laura’s anger and her feelings of having been humiliated and in a real way violated, although played for laughs, are also meant to be taken seriously and they make sense in the moment. She has been betrayed and taken advantage of. She trusted that one thing was going on while the whole time this stranger was up to something very different. She has no more understanding of his attitude than he has of hers. It also makes sense that she didn’t tell Rob about it when she got home. For one thing, she’d have been worried he might rush down to Greenwich Village and get in a fight with the artist. But, more to the point, she’d have been worried that Rob wouldn’t believe that she hadn’t taken her clothes off for another man.
This is projection on her part. Rob is not the type whose jealousy would carry him away to where he thought Laura would lie to him about that, although for a minute or two his imagination might get the better of him and he’d be upset by thinking about how upset he’d be if she really had posed nude. But what Laura is feeling is guilt. She’s blaming herself for having allowed herself to be used like that. She can’t help thinking that she should have known what the artist was doing, what kind of person he was. She can’t help thinking that she should have looked at the work in progress and put a stop to it. This is one of the things that’s done to a victim, blaming. And the blaming can come from within as well as from without.
So it makes sense that when the painting resurfaces that all those feelings of Laura’s would also resurface, that she would again feel humiliated, violated, and guilty. It also makes sense that Rob, finally finding out what happened but also finding out that Laura had been keeping a secret, would have some trouble processing the information. And it makes sense that both Rob and Laura would be embarrassed by the thought that people they know might see the painting. The artist was right about one thing. He had genius. Naturally, we don’t see the painting, which the artist has titled October Eve—Eve as in naked in the Garden of Eden Eve, but also possibly eve as in evening. Since he “saw” Laura naked he could have just as easily have seen her in the twilight as in the light of mid-day in his studio. But we’re convinced that it is beautiful, and its beauty isn’t just due to it’s being of Laura. It’s also apparently erotically charged and incredibly life-like. It doesn’t matter that Laura didn’t actually pose nude. October Eve is so real and so much like her that she might as well have.
More to the point, though, is that anyone who sees the painting won’t be able to look at Laura without thinking of October Eve, that is, they’ll “see” her naked. They won’t be able to look at her in the same way again.
They won’t be able to think of her in the same way either. On some level, they will always wonder.
Which would explain something that didn’t make sense to me when I watched the episode the other night or anytime in the past when I watched it before.
Again, it makes sense that Sally would be embarrassed on behalf of her friend. She’d know how she’d feel if a painting of her like that turned up in a busy and famous gallery in New York City where not just friends but people she works with and has professional relationships with not only could but very likely would see it.
And it makes sense that Sally would wonder. The Laura Petrie she knows wouldn’t pose nude for a painting and might very well not pose for a painting at all. And the artist who is suddenly famous is also suddenly notorious, in that way all artists are notorious even if they haven’t done anything that would make them notorious. Artists are suspect. Sally can’t help wondering how Laura could have hooked up with this guy and, although she wouldn’t have used the phrased, if she hooked up with him. Artists and their models, after all…
What doesn’t make sense to me is Sally’s desperation for an explanation. It’s not simply the case that she’s curious and wants Laura to explain how this odd thing happened. She wants Laura to explain it away.
It’s as if Sally isn’t just thinking of Laura in a different way but thinking of her as a different person, a person she might not like.
I don’t get this. Sally is in show business. She’s a writer. She works on The Alan Brady Show. She lives in New York City. Her circle of acquaintance includes people who work in the movies and in theater. Almost certainly, she knows and is even friends with writers and musicians and actors and dancers and artists and their models, which means that almost certainly she knows other women who have done things more…um…bohemian than what she’s reluctantly suspecting of Laura and who are still her friends.
I suppose it could be that the possibility that Laura has an…er…artistic side cuts so much against what Sally “knows” about Laura that she just can’t accept it. It could be that she has such a high and idealized opinion of Laura that something other women could do without comment or censure would strike her as terribly wrong if Laura did it. The feet of clay or in this case body in oil syndrome.
It could be that Sally is so familiar with Rob and Laura’s shared biography that she knows there’s no way Laura could have “posed” for this artist until after she married Rob.
But all that is the kind of backstory and subtext that would only occur to the most obsessive of fans---like me. Casual viewers were only going to see that Sally is thinking Laura needs to explain it away.
It’s simply a plot device. If Sally of all people is shocked by the painting then of course everybody else Rob and Laura know will be too.
This means that the episode depends on the audience being, if not shocked themselves, understanding of why most other people would be shocked.
And I don’t understand.
This post, you probably won’t be surprised to learn, is really about me. Aren’t they all?
I don’t need the painting’s existence explained. I need to have it explained why it needs to be explained away.
Which is what I’ve been up since the other night, explaining that to myself. And I’m having a hard time. Not explaining it. Accepting the part of the explanation that says there’s anything to find shocking.
My explanation of course begins with reminding myself that it’s not 1964 anymore and hasn’t been for a very long time.
Back then nudity was not at all common in the movies. The only thing close to the mainstreaming of pornography that we now pretty much take for granted was Playboy and there’s something almost innocent to our eyes about the centerfolds from those years. The idea that one of those girls who looked like the girl next door might actually live next door was part of the allure, but if it turned out that you knew that the girl next door actually was one of those girls…? Times were changing---and one sign of that was this episode and the fact that they could get away with a whole episode about Mary Tyler Moore naked and that it could be treated as a joke and not a dirty joke. It was assumed that the audience, although they’d understand why some other people would be shocked at the idea of Laura having posed nude and might even be a little shocked themselves, wouldn’t be too shocked. James Bond movies were about to hit the theaters. Rock and Roll was already here to stay. Never mind “October Eve”, plenty of other episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show were built around the possibility that love---and sex---with a proper stranger could tempt the most loving and devoted husbands and wives, including Rob and Laura. But still…
So you might assume that my inability to grasp the concept is due to the difference between 1961 and 2011. Except, you know, what is the difference? Really? In many ways we are not all that more sophisticated or forgiving. You could find evidence that in many ways we are even less so.
Thanks first to Polaroid and now to digital cameras there are many contemporary Laura Petries with nude photos in their pasts. Photos? Videos. You don’t have to do a thought experiment. We know what happens when one of these gets seen by strangers. Even people who pride themselves on their sophistication and tolerance find themselves going “Ewww” when they learn about them, although I’d guess the more usual still somewhat prudish and judgmental reaction is “What was she (or he) thinking?”
Even actors and actresses who have appeared naked on camera, professionally, will be embarrassed when something they did privately becomes public. And that’s the crucial matter. It’s a violation of their privacy. It was the same for Laura. That artist violated her privacy twice, the first time when he painted her in a way she hadn’t consented to be painted and the second time when he put the painting on public display.
So that part of it I understand or I would understand or understand better if “October Eve” had been a photograph.
The fact is that the reason there’s a part of me that said, “I don’t get it” when I was watching is that October Eve is a painting.
Now here’s the other thing.
I’ve never been able to grasp the concept and that’s always been because it’s a painting.
I wasn’t old enough to stay up to watch The Dick Van Dyke Show when it was on in prime time. Since I was a little kid, I’ve watched it in re-runs and I’ve been doing that so much and for so long that I’ve completely lost track of when I first---and last---saw particular episodes. I can’t tell you, then, what I thought the first time I saw them. You don’t remember anything anyway. You remember the last time you remembered it. I’m sure that things I now take for granted went right over my head the first time I saw them and so although I can’t tell you what I did think the first time I can make some pretty good guesses about what I didn’t think. Sometimes, even still, I’ll come across an episode I hadn’t seen in a long while and I will be surprised. I’ll say to myself, “I can’t believe they got away with that!” and then I’ll know that I must have been fairly young when I last saw that episode because one of the reasons they got away with it is they could count on kids like me not getting it.
Still, there are a few episodes I do remember watching for the first time. It’s not that I remember when or where or under what circumstances I saw them. It’s that I remember them vividly. I mean the stories scene by scene, the dialog line for line, the images practically shot by shot---they fixed themselves immediately and permanently in my imagination. With most of them it happened because they were so darn funny.
But there are a couple that stuck for other reasons. One of those reasons is my reaction to a particular episode. And one of those episodes is “October Eve”.
Because I watched the show only in reruns, which meant that I watched it on rainy days after school or mornings when I was home sick or very late at night when I was the only one in the house left awake, it was a long time before I had watched almost every episode. I’ve learned since it’s become available on the web that there are still some episodes I haven’t seen or haven’t seen since I was so young I can’t remember having seen them. But this also means that there are episodes I saw for the first time when I wasn’t a kid anymore and if “October Eve” was one of those, that might explain my reaction, which was: “So what if she posed nude for a painting?”
But if I wasn’t a kid, I wasn’t an adult either. Probably not even college age.
I had several friends in college who picked up extra money posing for art classes. I didn’t think anything of it except maybe I should register for some art classes. My friends were actresses (and an actor) and dancers, one of them was an artist herself, so there was something almost expected about their modeling. We were all young bohemians together. This is an important distinction, though. They weren’t posing. They were modeling. There was a professional relationship between them and the artists and art students they modeled for, even if, as it was in a few cases, they were having affairs with those artists. But that’s how I know I saw “October Eve” before I got to college. By that time I was old enough---or enlightened enough---or had been wised up enough by women who were my friends---to understand the importance of consent.
I have no way of knowing since I’ve long lost contact with most of them, but I’d bet that few if any of my friends would mind or mind that much if one of the paintings or sketches they modeled for suddenly appeared in a gallery near where they lived. They would, however, probably be mortified if something else was at issue.
This is something that happened to two friends of mine who weren’t part-time models. Each one posed for some photographs by the same student photographer who managed to talk both of them (separately) into posing nude for him after he had taken a number of shots of them clothed for a portraiture class he was taking. I still don’t know how he did it. Neither of my friends was all that uninhibited. Neither of them, like I said, was among the friends who modeled for art classes. And the guy himself wasn’t someone you’d guess many women would choose as a guy they’d want to see them naked under other circumstances. I guess there’s just something very persuasive about a camera. At any rate, the photos of them clothed were for his class so of course the guy’s teacher and classmates got to see them. The nudes, as far as anybody knows, remained in his portfolio. Still my friends were embarrassed by their existence and terrified for a long time that the photos would escape his almost certainly less than careful keep. This guy was not to be trusted in anything, which makes it all the more inexplicable to me that they took their clothes off for him.
By the way, I know this because my friends confided in me. For some reason, people have always told me stuff they probably have shouldn’t. Maybe in a former life I was a priest.
The point is that I understood the violation that would have occurred if those pictures had turned up on the walls of the campus art gallery one day and I know I didn’t think about that the first time I saw “October Eve.”
All I understood when I saw it the first time was Laura’s embarrassment. Of course she was embarrassed. Who wouldn’t be embarrassed to be caught naked in public? Her mortification and her self-recrimination and her fear went right past me. So, like I said, I know I didn’t see it for the first time in college. I saw it when I was younger. Much younger. But not when I was a little kid. Possibly when I was around 12 or 13. More likely when I was 16 or 17.
How do I know that?
Because what fixed the episode in my memory was the idea of Mary Tyler Moore nude.
Not the idea. The image.
I had to have been just old enough to draw in my head what she looked like without her clothes and have the image boggle my mind---so, at least junior high---but still too young---too stupid and immature---to consider what, besides its being a little embarrassing, it meant to Laura that some stranger was “seeing” her naked.
It’s my other reaction, “So what if she posed naked for a painting?” that tells me I was probably well along in high school.
It’s not that I was a typically callous and dirty-minded adolescent male. It was that I was becoming more artistically minded.
I thought that if anybody the Petries knew saw the painting that instead of being ashamed and trying to explain it away all Laura ought to have had to say was, The painting’s beautiful and the man’s a genius, the rest is none of your business.
(Maybe I was beginning to understand the privacy issue too.)
This makes me a little impressed with my young self. It means that I understood the difference between Botticelli’s Venus and a centerfold. It means that by the time I was in seventh or eighth grade I was already corrupted. I was already making exceptions for artists. I already believed that works of art and art were special.
It means that I was already setting myself up for a life that was disappointing, maddening, frustratingly full of failure, and very, very interesting.
“October Eve” was written by Bill Persky and Sam Denoff who Ken Levine will tell you made one of the best comedy writing teams in the business. They apparently made exceptions for artists too. They let the painter off the hook in the end. Both Rob and Laura get over their shock and embarrassment and Laura forgives him for taking advantage of her. And the Petries are sophisticated people. They recognize the painting’s beauty---its own beauty as a work of art apart from its being a beautiful picture of Laura. It turns out they own the painting. Laura paid fifty dollars for it in advance. They could demand he destroy it, but they don’t. They could demand he give it to them. They don’t do that. They could ask for part or all of the thousands of dollars he’s to make when the painting sells (again). They don’t do that either. All they ask is that it be sold to someone who will display it far, far away where no one they know is ever likely to see it, which is how it ends up on that mountaintop in Brazil.
The fact that at the end the Petries and the artist have become friends strikes me as more a sign of the times than anything else. Our times and their times. I can’t imagine that that character in a TV show today would get away with it like that or that we’d wind up liking him. Unless the show was Bored to Death.
But think how this would have been handled on Mad Men in an episode where an October Eve of Betty turned up. Right off, we’d know that everything Sally wonders about Laura would be true about Betty. The fun part would be watching the different ways first Henry then Don tried to deal with the painter.
At any rate, if you want to judge for yourself, here’s the link to the episode at Hulu. The Dick Van Dyke Show episode not the Mad Men episode. Matthew Weiner hasn’t gotten back to me on the script I sent him on spec yet.