Why Is Susan Kohner Happy?
Susan Kohner’s classmates at the Westlake School for Girls in Beverly Hills took her under their sisterly—and conspiratorial—wing. Another girl in Susan’s predicament might have earned her classmates’ jeers, they might have laughed at her because while they all enjoyed independence, Susan was scarcely permitted out of her parents’ sight.
But there was something about Susan that wouldn’t let the other girls make sport of her. They liked her and felt sorry for her. She was shy and gentle, and they enjoyed her company. They wanted for her all the good things they had for themselves. Things like being able to go out on a date without being treated like a Cinderella doomed to perdition if she didn’t get home at the stroke of midnight.
Perhaps they regarded Susan as a symbol. Perhaps they thought by helping her they were striking a blow for enslaved teenagers everywhere. In any case, the girls concocted a plot to help Susan outwit her ever-vigilant mother and father. The plan was bold and simple.
“You just say you’re coming to my house for dinner, and that you’re going to stay overnight,” a classmate said. “The boys will meet us here. We’ll go out, and then go back to my house. Your parents won’t suspect a thing.’’
It was with enormous trepidation that Susan agreed to the deception. Defiance did not come easily to her. But the girls finally convinced her that it was all perfectly harmless. Susan told her folks the agreed-upon story, and the moment of liberation came.
But, alas, it didn’t turn out to be quite the escapade Susan and her friends had envisioned.
“We went to a movie,” Susan recalls ruefully, “and the whole time I worried that my parents might show up at the same theater. It was very improbable, but the fear was so terrible it ruined everything. It was pure torture, and I had such a guilty conscience, I could never do it again.”
Astrict curfew was only one of many restrictions on Susan’s social life during her teens. While she shrank from open rebellion and further trickery, Susan, nonetheless, was mortified by the parental restraints that set her apart from her teen-age friends.
“I guess my friends thought I was an odd duck,” she smiles. “They would try to think of ways to get around my parents—but except for that one time, I never got up enough courage to go against my parents.”
From her earliest teens, extraordinary cautions were taken in Susan’s behalf—cautions that puzzled and alienated her boy friends. When she went to a party, she and her date were under the protective custody of her father, agent Paul Kohner. Susan was not allowed to go in a car alone with a boy.
“My date would have to leave his car at our house, and my father would drive us to the party, and pick us up again. Needless to say, it was embarrassing. On the way back home the boy and I didn’t say a word to each other. You know, with your father there, what could you say? My father had a way of sort of looking through a boy, and it scared my date half to death. He’d be afraid to make conversation. So we just sat there in deadly silence the whole time.”
One of Susan’s dates was the cousin of her classmate. The day after the date, the flabbergasted youngster told his cousin of his experience.
“What’s the matter with this girl?” he asked incredulously. “Why do her parents keep her in a box?”
Sometimes a date would bluntly ask Susan. Her reply would be one of resigned acceptance.
“That’s just the way they are,” she would say, as if one might just as well argue with the sun and the stars.
“Sure I felt resentment,” Susan acknowledges. “I pleaded and cajoled, and maybe cried sometimes, but that was it. They laid down the law. I guess I really wasn’t much of a rebel—maybe because in other matters I usually got things I wanted just by asking. But my social life was different. I was unhappy, but I couldn’t go against them. Sure I felt like it, but I never did.”
Sometimes, overcome with emotion about her plight, tears would well up in her eyes and Susan would blurt out, “Other parents trust their children. Why don’t you trust me?”
No matter how dramatic Susan got, she couldn’t budge them. “It’s just the way they were brought up—I guess. My mother was raised in Mexico, and my father is from Europe. They kept insisting that it was all for my own good. They said that I had to be patient, that everything would come slowly. They said they weren’t trying to hold me back or anything, but they felt everything should come in its own time.”
Their reasoning, however sound, was lost on Susan. For her the time was then—not in the future. She felt as if life was passing her by.
“I was always a step behind everybody else,” she explains, thinking back to the years of her agonizing social lag.
While her friends were permitted to double date, Susan was allowed to attend well-chaperoned parties under her father’s escort. When her friends were dating solo and going car-riding with their beaus, Susan was going out on double dates—and then only after a date got the careful parental once-over.
“My father always met the boy,” Susan recalls, “and he’d always say, ‘Be careful driving,’ and tell him what time to have me home, things like that. I was around 15 at the time, and most of my friends were already going on single dates.
“When I’d tell my father that the other girls at school went out on dates alone with a boy, he would say, ‘Well, you’re not all the other girls. This is the way it’s going to be. We have your best interests at heart, and you’re going to have to trust our judgment.’ ”
When her dates called for her, her father invariably would be on hand to greet and interrogate them. That way Mr. Kohner could assure himself that Susan would be in trustworthy hands. At the same time, he’d subtly assure the boy that no shenanigans would be countenanced.
“It was sort of uncomfortable,” Susan admits with gracious understatement. “I couldn’t just say, ‘Well, we have to go,’ or if I did say it, it didn’t work. My father would just keep talking, and there was nothing I could do but drag the boy out of the room.”
Fortunately, Susan discovered she could avoid that ordeal by managing not to be ready when her dates arrived. A date would assume that she was merely exercising a girl’s prerogative to be late. This way, she was not present when the grand inquisition took place.
“Dad would talk with them while they were waiting for me,” she smiles. “I was never in on the conversation. I didn’t want to be. I’d have gone right through the floor, I’m sure. I’m usually ready ahead of time, but I found it much better this way.”
Even when Susan was allowed to date alone, she still had to adhere to a be-home-by-midnight edict.
“My dates would complain when I said I had to be home then,” she relates. “They would argue back and forth, and tell me how ridiculous and square I was being. But usually I made it back by curfew time. I knew my father or mother wouldn’t go to bed until I turned off the lights.”
Naturally, Susan tried to talk her father out of the curfew. “If you trust me until midnight, what’s the difference after midnight?” she would ask.
The closest she came to victory was to gain a few minutes leeway. She accomplished this by imploring, “What if the movie gets out late, and we want to have a Coke afterwards?”
Susan’s appearance was also closely supervised. Her mother chose her clothes, her father supervised her make-up.
“I remember that sometimes I would go to my mother’s closet and find something I thought would be just divine to wear— sheath dresses and things like that. But she would say it was much too old for me-so back in the closet it would go.”
Similarly, Susan’s father gently but firmly suggested that Susan not use a lot of make-up when she was dressing for a date.
“When I wen t out, I used to love piling on the mascara,” Susan chuckles. “We weren’t allowed to wear make-up at school, so the first thing we all did when the dismissal bell rang at 4:00 was put on lipstick. My father would pick me up at school. He’d see my red mouth, and automatically hand me his handkerchief. At least he allowed me the dignity of wiping it off myself.
“Strangely enough,” Susan offers musingly, through all of this, “I never got any lectures on my virtue. I think in Mexico things having to do with sex aren’t talked about too much. Maybe that’s why it was never brought up to me.
“I guess my parents have an old-world feeling toward these things. It would have been much easier if they had talked to me about it, but no, I never had any heart-to-heart father-daughter or mother-daughter talks about it.”
Now that Susan looks back on her teens. there is no bitterness toward her parents. She is thankful her teens were unspent rather than misspent.
“I’m glad my parents didn’t trust me! I’m glad they were so strict!” she says today. “Father did know best!”
“At the time,” Susan says frankly, “I probably didn’t realize the long-range value of the supervision I got, or how much my mother and father were thinking of my own good. I do now.”
This pleasant suspicion began to grow on Susan shortly after she first started to experience the thrill of going from double dating to single dating. The other girls were so far ahead of her that many already had rushed into teen-age marriage. They said a hurried farewell to the carefree youth they thoughtlessly squandered while Susan waited, albeit impatiently, in the wings.
“As soon as they got out of high school the most important thing was to get a man and get married,” Susan observes soberly. “When they were ready—or thought they were—for marriage, I was just ready for dating. So many of the girls who graduated with me are divorced or unhappily married. Just the other day a girl friend of mine came into town. She’s now getting a divorce and she has two little girls. That’s awfully sad. Yet she was so anxious to get married, in such a hurry.”
Where once her classmates commiserated with Susan, now it is the other way around. Now Susan dispenses the soothing syrup.
“You know,” she says thoughtfully, “it’s a big responsibility to be married and not have had any time for fun. They’re housewives now, and they have homes to look after, and children. You know, they wish they could get out of the kitchen, and they sort of envy me in a way. It’s a pity when they’re so young and very attractive, and yet what have they got to look forward to?
“I haven’t been through the mill. My life hasn’t already been lived. It’s ahead of me, not behind me. I’m so fortunate my parents paced my life the way they did.
“I know now I really didn’t miss too much,” she says, “because what didn’t come then came later. I felt a little sorry for myself, but looking back I’m sure the boys who dated me under such difficult circumstances thought more of me—not less of me—because of it. I think they even respected me in a way. It made me different from the other girls. Something more difficult to get is always more attractive. I didn’t think so at the time, but I’m convinced now I was valued more because of it.”
Susan is certain, too, that her rigidly-policed teens have a lot to do with the rapport she has with young-but-worldly George Hamilton. There is little doubt that George treasures her all the more because she is unspoiled and bubbling with enthusiasms.
“George went to the other extreme,” she reveals. “He dated early in life. He went to so many schools. He dated and went to night clubs while I was relatively cloistered. He had quite an active social life, and I didn’t. It makes a good contrast when people are opposites like we are.
“I’m sure he went out with girls who were different from me,” she agrees.
“Going to parties the way he did, he ran into so many girls who were worldly and pseudo-sophisticated. Girls who were bored with it all. There’s nothing about life that bores me. I love to go dancing. I love to go to parties. I don’t have the feeling, ‘Oh no, not another one!’ It’s all relatively new and exciting to me. And it wouldn’t be if my parents had been as lenient with me as I wished they had been.
“For the very reason that I wasn’t allowed to do everything and go every place,” she says appreciatively, “things that are old hat to other girls are new to me. I still haven’t been every place, seen everything and done everything like a lot of girls my age have. They’re bored and unhappy. I’m not. They’re so tired of it all. And I’m just starting—and it’s wonderful!”
—BY WILLIAM TUSHER
It is a quote. MOTION PICTURE MAGAZINE JUNE 1961