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What She Wore

June 2024
2min read

A handful of graduates from my college have gained notoriety, but none, certainly, was more notorious than Sally Rand. In the fall of 1976, early into my senior year at Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri, Sally came back for a visit—and then some.

I was a student of the music department, and all of us in the performing arts had been apprised of her forthcoming participation in an alumni (read that fund-raising) variety show. I was not as prepared for the knock on my dorm-room door by a breathless co-ed saying, “We’re trying to furnish a room for Sally Rand. Can you contribute anything?” The college had made arrangements for Ms. Rand at the finest hotel in town. She had countered by stating emphatically that she wanted to stay in the same dorm she had stayed in as a girl, St. Clair, now the “Nancy-can-we-have-your-bedspread?” dorm. Reportedly Sally had said, “I just want to be one of the girls.”

I must say, building on the unfortunate circumstances of a girl who had only two days before vacated one of the private rooms on our floor, we did a respectable job of making her feel at home. In retrospect I suppose she accomplished most of that on her own.

Her door was open nearly all the week she lived among us, and she would smile and motion us in if we (understandably) looked her way. She had brought a huge trunk of pictures, some of which made us blush, and she told stories as only one who has lived them can. Early in her visit she looked up at my shadowy roots and said, “You’re just the young woman I need to bleach my hair.”

Two nights later she knocked on my door wrapped in a sheet, toga-style, and asked if I was ready. I wasn’t sure. We went down the hall to the large communal bathroom. I sat her in a chair and started applying the solution she provided, trying not to notice the two rows of fine scars around her hairline and ears. After a while she said she was too warm, and threw off the sheet. I briefly tried embarrassedly to cover her, knowing that the boys on the floor below walked by this open door on their way to the ice machine. Then I remembered whom I was dealing with. This was the woman who was once arrested four times in one day at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. It was only fair to play by her rules. So she sat there through the rest of the process gloriously nude from the waist up, wearing a ludicrous crown of purple foam.

The next night I walked into the kitchen for ice and, quite obviously, startled her ironing my bedspread. She mumbled something about having wrinkled it taking a nap.

She spoke to our Psychology of Human Sexuality class and was wonderfully candid, embarrassing and charming us all.

No one talked of much else the week after her fan dance at the variety show. None of us had had any idea of the grace, the acrobatics, the fantasy, the sensuality involved in her heavily bluelighted act. No one in the audience could tell quite what she did or didn’t wear during her dance, and most of us backstage wouldn’t talk at that time. But—since it’s been fifteen years—I feel I can put to rest a question that tormented tens of thousands in its time. The seventy-two-year-old woman mesmerized us all while wearing a pair of flesh-colored fishnet pantyhose. Amen.

A week after she left our school, I was lying on my bed reading and noticed an odd place in my bedspread. Upon further examination I discovered that a burned spot had been covered with an iron-on patch. Sally had, indeed, made herself one of the girls.

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