Gayle Pemberton

“Do He Have Your Number, Mr. Jeffrey?”

It was in the middle thirties, Los Angeles. My mother’s employers supplied her with a beige uniform with a frilled bib, short puff sleeves, and a narrow, fitted waist. The skirt of the dress was narrow, stopping just below the knee. She wore seamed stockings and low pumps, black. And her job, as far as she could ascertain, was to just be, nothing else. The couple who employed her – the husband wrote screenplays – had no children, and did not require her services to either cook or clean. I suppose they thought that having a maid was a requirement of their social position. So, Mother got the job. She is fair-skinned, and at that time she wore her dark, wavy hair long, in large curls that gathered just below her neck. I’ve seen pictures from those days and see her most enviable figure, an old-fashioned size ten, held up by long legs that, doubtless, were enhanced by seamed stockings and pumps. Her employers were quite proud of her and thought she looked, they said, “just like a little French girl.” When I was very young and filled with important questions, Mother explained to me that she thought it “damned irritating that whites who knew full well who they were hiring and talking to went to such lengths to try to make blacks into something else. If they wanted a little French girl, why didn’t they go out and get one?” Ah, the days before au pairs. Well, I knew the answer to that one, too. . . . Mother assured me that she had not cleaned unimaginable filth, but rather, with nothing else to do, had sat all day long reading novels, memorably Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen, a big best-seller of 1934. My image of Mother became brighter, but in some ways more curious: there she was, imagined as a French maid by her employers, but really a black coed, lolling around a Los Angeles home reading Anthony Adverse. That’s one far cry from Butterfly McQueen as Prissy in Gone with the Wind.

Selected Works

Essays/Memoir
“Luminous social history, at once familiar and transcendent”
Publishers Weekly
Essay
Casual encounters between black and white women reveal deep and vexing cultural issues.
Down and out in Los Angeles, Pemberton reflects on family memories, and the only black character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

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