Does the St. Mark’s Place railroad apartment belonging to Beauregard Houston-Montgomery qualify as a period piece? People in New York don’t live like this any longer, utterly, even vulnerably, themselves amid the accumulated evidence of a lifetime’s fascination with something unconventional—in this case dolls and dollhouses. Beauregard’s particular interest is in more contemporary dolls and, especially their accessories. It occurred to us later, after talking to him, that by charting the changes and the ever-expanding line of accessories belonging to Barbie, Bratz and American Girl, the history of post-war American life can itself be told. A photographer, archivist and writer, he has written a memoir, “Dollhouse Living” (Fotofolio Inc.) accompanied by his own strange and moody photographs of dollhouse interiors, which he bases on old films of the 1950s and 1960s.
Well, we’re going to start …
I went to bed at eight o’clock this morning, so I’ll be pixelated. Mercury is in retrograde and I’ve been tidying. A lot of things are wrapped in plastic a lot of the time because I can’t get to them to dust them all the time and it can get really bad—it can look like Miss Havisham lives here but I was afraid to get on the ladder. [Mercury in retrograde is said to be a period of time when accidents are more likely to happen] Nothing ever falls here but it’s like everything is falling on me.
Hmm … are you sure you’re okay sitting on the floor?
I’m good. I always sit on the floor.
Okay, I guess we have to start at the beginning … the dolls. How did you become the way you are?
Oh God, I was born this way! My poor parents. My parents were very talented and very glamorous people. They should have had a PR firm. They were very image conscious. My father was in the Marines. He was a figure skater who had gone into the Olympics but they had World War II, so he went into the Marines. Thank God he survived. But he never talked about being a figure skater—my mother only told me when she was dying. I was born in Hawaii and then we moved to New Hampshire, in Manchester. I was thinking how weird that place is. I remember this woman very well … I remember her vividly, in fact she was quite a rough piece of trade—Grace Metalious—she wrote Peyton Place. She was writing the book and my mother used to play cards with her all day. They were outcasts and New England was very snobby. They didn’t like Grace because she was out there and my mother was a military wife, so they didn’t like her either. There’s actually a reference to my mother in a book about Grace—they don’t mention her name but they mention her shoes, oddly enough.
So if your parents were very image-conscious, how did that affect you?
I’m sorry, I digress with Grace. Yes, they were very image-conscious and I came out, like, a raving little queen. I’m very androgynous, I always have been. I don’t define myself by any gender. I’m not transgender because I don’t want to cut my penis off … [laughs]. Anyway my parents didn’t know what to think of that and they kind of had me for their image … they were gorgeous looking and we lived down the street from the Royal Hawaiian and they went there every night. But they were very nice to me, my parents. They did the best they could. We had a wonderful maid named Ella who raised me and taught me how to dance to American Bandstand every afternoon.
How did you fare at school?
School was fine until high school and then one day, I just basically stopped going. We moved from New England to Virginia, and then we moved to the mid-West and that was horrible, to Springfield, Missouri. Brad Pitt is from there. We went to the same junior high school. All the boys looked exactly like him—I mean he wasn’t born when I went to junior high school but they all looked like him.
So did your parents allow you to play with dolls—was that what you wanted to do?
All I wanted to do was play with a Structo kitchen set, which was this very elaborate kitchen in the 1950s on Ding Dong School. I really wanted that. It was pink and I think it was about $45, which was a lot of money at the time. My parents were like, “Forget it.” They would give me all these boys’ toys and dress me up, like a cowboy—which I thought was fine. I liked the cowboy thing. Any costume was fine … Zorro! Everyone thought my mother went to far with Zorro and everyone criticized her because there was cape and I was really outrageous in that. You know my poor parents were very perplexed.
They wanted you to be like Brad Pitt?
Yes, exactly. And who I’m not too sure about either … anyway [laughs]. He has a kind of androgyny. He used to have a crush on my dog. He used to talk to him every time he saw him … that was when he was with Gwyneth Paltrow. And she would stand there looking like she’d just smelled shit. This was on Third Avenue …
Yes … Gwyneth. Anyway, can you remember the first doll you wanted—or the first doll you were able to own?
I remember at this toy store in Manchester, I saw this doll and it was Schiaparelli doll. It had blue hair, I think, or green hair. I had to have that doll and I didn’t get that doll. I hated Christmas from an early age because I never got what I wanted. I threw a fit for that doll and my father was so sweet that, he went on Christmas Day, and he bought the doll. It eventually disappeared because my mother would throw everything away.
What did you want to do with the doll once you had it?
I just wanted to look at it, but it was about scale as much as anything. I always liked scale … like dollhouses. I think I was more into the doll accessories than the actual dolls because I do find dolls kind of creepy [laughs].
Why do so many people find dolls creepy? I’ve been reading about this … there’s even a Freudian theory about it, which is that the reason we find them creepy is because we don’t know whether they’re alive or not … we have imbue them with life but we know that they’re not alive. They are lifeless creatures that look as if they might come alive. But children don’t have this problem. It comes as we realize there’s a distinction between fantasy and reality—then we get freaked out.
That’s exactly right. I work with them and they do take on personalities when you photograph them. I prefer to photograph dollhouse rooms without figures in them.
I just prefer empty rooms. [laughs] I always did! I’m really only interested in the dollhouses and the doll furniture. I photograph the furniture and usually after that, I sell it. I base my photographs on old films from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the wide screen films, like Douglas Sirk films or films like that. There’s a wonderful cinematographer who worked with Douglas Sirk a lot and he shot lots of thing through mirrors and reflections. It’s very moody and I like that. Occasionally I’ll put a doll in and it will be Lana Turner or someone.
But you are interested in fashion dolls … why?
Oh, their clothes!
What is your take on Barbie and the phenomenon of Barbie? She’s got this iconic place in American culture.
Well not anymore. Barbie is in the toilet. The history of Barbie is very fascinating. Barbie was based on an erotic figure called Bild Lilli – she was a German comic strip character, like Lolita. [The doll] came on a swing and truck drivers would put her on their mirrors, so it was very perverse—and she looked very dominatrix-y. So Ruth Handler who was the owner of Mattel, along with her husband—an odd couple—I was acquainted with them. They had the company taken away from them because of double bookkeeping. I don’t really use Barbie in my work because they’ll sue you. The reason she was such a big hit was because Ruth Handler had them re-designed to look like Sandra Dee. But they still looked like dominatrixes. Then her husband found this woman, Charlotte Johnson, who designed the clothes … and they were all [based on] French couture, Yves St. Laurent and Givenchy and sometimes Balenciaga. She had these ladies in Japan make the clothes by hand, basically in their homes, so they were like little couture outfits, and then they were mass produced later. But initially these clothes weren’t the prototypes—they were each made individually, each one! That’s why they’re so collectible. But Charlotte Johnson was a genius. It was her clothes that made the doll look so chic. Every little gay boy wanted those dolls!
But they’re so sexualized. In Britain we had a Cindy doll with a much flatter chest—she looked like a chic journalist or something.
Yes, but Charlotte Johnson re-designed the body of Barbie because the body is not meant to look like a woman’s body. It’s meant to look like the clothes fit—it was that silhouette that St. Laurent did, very long legs and that bullet bra and breasts. The body has nothing to do with a woman—it has to do with a mannequin. Then this guy called Jack Ryan came along and he designed the Barbie doll to move, you know the legs and that … and he liked showgirls …
Ooh, is everyone involved with dolls a bit pervy?
I have no sexual attraction to dolls, by the way! I don’t get a sex kick out of them but to each their own. I’m not criticizing [Jack Ryan] at all—he was a very colorful man but he did not get along with the Handlers at all. He was a genius—he was a scientist. The Barbie doll who could move was called the New Living Barbie. And he’s the one that did Growing Up Skipper. I sold mine for a lot of money—got rid of her. With that one, you twisted her arm and breasts grew!
Yes! You twisted her arm around and her breasts popped out. And she got taller as well.
I was very fascinated as a little girl by the sexuality of Barbie, the big boobs and so on.
Because you didn’t have any! Parents hated Barbie—you have to remember that before that dolls looked like little girls. But little girls didn’t want that. They wanted an adult-lookng doll. But of course the doll sends mixed messages—the girls think, “Why don’t I look like that?” and the answer is “Because you’re not supposed to.” But then they had those dolls that came out that look normal—and nobody wanted those. To me, though, it was about the clothes.
I definitely played sex games with Barbie and Ken, or perhaps G.I Joe.
G.I. Joe was gay, I think … and Ken maybe.
And then Bratz dolls came along …
And the guy who did Bratz dolls actually went to my junior high school, the same one that Brad Pitt went to—can you imagine?!! In Springfield, Missouri! The Bratz dolls were based on ethnicity—and there were no kids [of different ethnicities] in Springfield!
And your first Barbie doll?
Ok, this is a really bizarre story but it is true. President Kennedy gave me $5 to buy my first Barbie doll. I bought Midge.
How did that happen?
He was planning the Bay of Pigs and we lived on the naval weapons station in Virginia and my father was the sergeant major on the base in charge of personnel. It was like that movie “Reflections in a Golden Eye” — that was exactly like where we lived. My father’s office was with the commander and I just wandered in. I was half-naked, because it was the summer … I was about eight or nine … I looked even younger. I was a cute little thing. I had saved up enough to get a Barbie. But I had to do it secretly, of course, because I wasn’t allowed. I had bought a Madame Alexandra the year before — $38 it cost me! I saved that up somehow! And she disappeared — I was so furious about that. Barbie was cheap compared to Madame Alexandra.
Anyway, I marched in to my father’s office to get my allowance because I would have just enough to go and get this doll at the drugstore — down the highway where I walked … my parents were very careless about me. So anyway, I walked in and there were these men in suits by the commander’s door and I just stormed right in. There were never men in suits [in that office] — I was like, “Ooh, I like suits” — I took the uniforms for granted. The minute I got in, I knew I shouldn’t have done it. There was the commander and the general and there was this man in a really nice suit sitting at the desk. And he started laughing. He said, “Who are you?” My father was like … I mean I was an embarrassment anyway!
[The man at the desk] was President Kennedy and I said I was sorry for disturbing them or something and he said, “We’re glad you did because we’re not having a good time anyway. I kind of sat on his knee, which was weird because I was a little old for that. I told them that I had come for my allowance; he died laughing and gave me $5. Everyone laughed — when he laughed, everyone else laughed. I didn’t recognize him at all. I didn’t know about it for years because it was all top secret. So that’s my President Kennedy Barbie story.
So what is it about the dolls houses — this idea of a miniature life, imagined in a miniature space? Is there something comforting about it for you?
You know I’m a control freak first of all. And I’m also a megalomaniac. If I was a billionaire, I’d be buying these as real houses! And I think that’s ridiculous. This is the Hollywood Hills – all around me! [gestures to the display of Barbie dollhouses arranged against his bedroom wall.]