Sorority on E. 63rd St.

by longformphilly

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Michael Callahan | Vanity Fair | April 2010

She sat by the window, watching the world rumble by as the train barreled toward New York City. In her purse was $60 from her father, a man of stiff Iowa breeding who worked at the family lumber company back in Des Moines. The money was intended to buy three days in Manhattan, three days that would begin shortly after her arrival at Grand Central, where she would gently disembark in her chartreuse-and-black dress with its tightly fitted houndstooth jacket, accented by a jaunty black sailor hat.

Cloris Leachman was 20 years old in 1946, and like thousands of girls before and after her, she had come to New York to find something far bigger than a holiday. She had backed into the Miss America Pageant as Miss Chicago, at one point spending hours practicing how to walk in figure eights to impress the judges. She didn’t win, but it didn’t matter, because what she was looking for couldn’t be found amid the honky-tonk of the Atlantic City Boardwalk. What she was looking for was stardom.

On a chilly December day three months later—25 years before she would float onto the stage at the Oscars (winning best supporting actress for The Last Picture Show) and declare, “I’m having an amazing life, and it isn’t over yet”—Cloris Leachman swept through the tony aisles of Bergdorf Goodman in a full-length beaver coat that covered a tailored green wool suit, with matching suede heels. Stepping out onto the sidewalk in front of the Christmas windows of the department store, she looked over at the twinkling lights of the Plaza hotel, smiled, and sighed. She was an understudy in two different Broadway plays. She was dating a worldly, handsome man. And, best of all, she was living at the most glamorous address a girl could have if she dreamed of becoming a star: the Barbizon Hotel for Women, at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street.

Standing there in the night air, with Manhattan laid out like a magic carpet in front of her, was, 83-year-old Leachman says today, “the most exciting moment of my life.”

Writer bio: Michael Callahan, a native of Northeast Philadelphia and graduate of Temple University, served as executive editor of Philadelphia Magazine for three years before leaving for Vanity Fair, where he serves as a contributing editor. This story about the Barbizon Hotel was the impetus behind his first novel, “Searching for Grace Kelly,” which published in January.

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