By Jennie Ver Steeg
“Everything we have said about Des Moines has been found to be exactly true.”— “Des Moines the City of Certainties has Made Good.” In: The World’s Work, vol. 23, 1911.
Image to the right: “Krug’s Woe is a Tabloid Wow.” Life, August 4, 1947, pp. 26-28. Caption: “THE WHAM GIRL, Judy Cook, was employed at Lockheed Factory as a riveter during the war but also helped entertain Hughes’ guests. Company newspaper said she made ‘wham by day and trouble for the Japs by night.’
My Uncle Spike told me a joke from his college days when I was 13 years old.
There was a newlywed couple who went on an ocean cruise for their honeymoon, and the virginal bride was taking quite a conjugal pounding as they crossed the ocean. One night the groom actually left the cabin to get something to eat, and while he was on deck he discovered that Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra were the on-board entertainment. He hurried back to the room and said to his bride “Honey! Would you like to see the King of Jazz?” She rolled over wearily and said “If you pull that thing out one more time….”
My aunt Frances said “Jennie, are you old enough to know why that is funny? Louis, Jennie might be too young and hip for that joke.”
I wasn’t. I explained that the first thing I did when I got a thesaurus for my birthday was to read (and highlight) all the synonyms for sexual intercourse. And I was a librarian at heart even then, and had actually heard of Paul Whiteman. This earned me a toast and an approving ”Good baby.”
My mother lost her virginity at 15 to the janitor at her high school (She described him as beautiful but slow, and if I know my mother, he was a wiry, swarthy, heavy lidded thing) on a picnic table, on her lunch hour, at a park near the school. I am not betraying her trust or besmirching her name, as she happily betrays and besmirches herself: she views her own sexual history as the very best sort of cosmic joke, and she has never had secrets, even when I was a girl and wished with all my heart that she might. (She waited up for me after my first date already laughing at me behind the door before I made it across the threshold:
“Did he kiss you good night?”
“Did it make your heart go pitty pat?”
Was it supposed to?
My mother falling on my father’s neck, helpless with laughter, his face etched with the misery of a father whose girl now may be kissed.)
While I can’t guarantee anything about the picnic table itself, we went to the same school, it was the same park, and the impulse was achingly the same for me, brushing off the back of my coat and looking for splinters in my knees, birdsong sluicing through the shafts of sunlight. Save a few details, the park, the table, the God forsaken boy all happened again and again through the years, a family history writ large and repeatedly. My mother was fond of saying “The Cooks are a rather sexy bunch, God help us.”
The first clue you have that the Cooks are a sexy bunch, or to correct my mother’s jazz era grasp of the language, more interested in their own sexuality than a control group , is the fact of our continued existence. My mother’s family, the Cooks, have been roaming the new world since 1630, which you can read about here.
In 1922, my grandfather’s cousin, a missionary, self-published the genealogy of the Cooks. My mother was not included, being born in 1928, and my uncle George’s middle name is incorrect, but all in all, I want to fly across years and press the hand of one Carrie Cook Doe and praise her research skills, even if some details are wrong, the fact of our continued insistence to exist, and exist, and exist, is well documented. These are families who lived in town, who learned a trade, but still had large broods of children, not to work the farm, as was true, or more likely true, with the Ver Steegs, but simply because they just kept fucking.
When I was 15, on another trip to see Spike, we went into his office at the Detroit Free Press, where he was by that point, kicked thoroughly upstairs and was an executive editor. He took a few phone calls and then got on the teletype and wrote “Meet Jennie Ver Steeg, the teenage terror of Des Moines, driving the boys mad with desire, as is her birthright.” Unspooled from the tractor feed, he handed it to me with a flourish: “You’re famous baby.”
This nearly absurd delight with one’s own sexual prowess, and the adventures this affords a girl as she wends her way, to me is another of the certainties of Des Moines. The earliest mention of this term, certainty, attached to Des Moines that I can find is from 1910, and it appears to have been used to describe Des Moines into the early thirties, until soup lines and the Hooverville on the State Capitol made the sentiment quaint, enraging. The body who promoted it was the Greater Des Moines Committee, formed in 1907 and still existing today, who advertised a pamphlet for which young entrepreneurs could send away explaining why one would want to cast one’s lot on the prairie, settling in the crook of the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, sluggish, humid, promising.
My mother’s parents came to Des Moines in 1915 from Council Bluffs, which is just across the Missouri River from Omaha. They left the Loess Hills to cast their lots, both being young, bright, and ambitious. My grandfather was blessed, or with sheer force of will blessed himself, with self-confidence bordering on mania. I have no doubt that he was brilliant, and it certainly seems that his children thought so. In a letter in 1978 Spike noted “Your grandfather was a genius, but no hard worker. Your grandmother was no genius, but a hard worker.” Forgetting for a moment the likely sexism of this statement, looking at the high school yearbooks of my grandparents seems to bear this out: the class of ‘08, prophesying that Louis would be president, Louis winning esoteric speech contests, staring out like the rube in a bad movie, jug eared, while my grandmother looking like a Gibson Girl in a poet’s dream, did nearly as much, only slightly less, Latin, but no Greek, oratory, but no office.
My mother claims that her own mother, who had six children in 13 years, claimed not to know how they were made or exactly how to prevent them until her third child was born, and there is a heartbreaking story involving her discovery of condoms in her husband’s valise and not knowing what they were, being told they were something they were not, willing herself to believe it, a woman who had borne children and could figure it out herself. After my grandmother died, a few years later my grandfather showed up in his flannel suit, literally looming at the doorstep, with a darkly beautiful woman from Texas who he installed as stepmother, even though she was mad, and nearly illiterate, and one can only conclude that the curse of the Cooks and the certainty of Des Moines held sway there as well. He just could not help himself.
We gain on the story. While Des Moines has its own geography, its own mythology, I’m inclined to say “but wait… there’s more.” I grew up on the south side of Des Moines, which in the spring was in the flight path for planes landing at the airport, and in the summer often was upwind of the packing plants, and like all towns in Iowa, very few miles stretched between the city and the nearest farm or feedlot. My mother had become a southside native in 1945, after she refused to live with her father anymore, and found “a situation” living with a family there in exchange for child care so she could finish high school.
The southside was more ethnic, much less wealthy; the southeast corner started as a coal mining town named Sevastopol. In the summer, sunrises howled bright with farm chemicals, garish wrestling poster colors, and during detassling season I awoke to the smell of futility as nearly every teenager in Des Moines rolled sleepily into trucks and were driven out of town to prevent the corn from fucking itself, while the smell of pollination filled the air, banged against windows, woke the dead, fighting with the smell of the rendering plant, a smell slightly south of that of shit and grain processing. The air was full of jet fuel, vapor trails, screams of airplanes. It was home to a girl who wanted desperately to live her legacy, looking, I must admit, for my own heavy lidded janitor, splinters be damned.
And we will meet that girl again in time. First though, her worthy predecessor. My own youth made me wonder, and my middle age makes me feel protective, of my Aunt Judy. Judy was the second girl of three in my mother’s family, and it was she at age 15 who found her mother dead on the chaise that day in November 1934. Closest to her mother, she was the least bookish of her family, and the only athlete, a swimmer, specifically a back stroke champion, small framed, genuinely the least pretty of the girls, but as all Cooks, quivering from an early age with overt, athletic, cheerful sexuality.
My mother, at 82 now, last saw Judy when she was 13 years old. Judy’s high school yearbook reveals a small-framed, rabbit-toothed, hook-nosed girl entirely unremarkable, and unlike her siblings, lacking the long list of achievements and affiliations. No Latin Club, no newspaper editor, no Theodian Club, no Baccalaureate. Her story is a cautionary tale for those with ovaries and ambition, so amazing that it would make terrible fiction, too specific, unlikely. Knowing, however, what I know about the certainties of Des Moines, the inevitable sexuality of the Cooks, Judy was the great inevitability.
In the space of three summers, between 1931 and 1934, my grandparents’ house saw my uncle Spike deflowered by their maid Marie and my aunt Judy relentlessly pursuing the boy who delivered the ice, carrying it “right on his back” as my Aunt Maggie told me. “And didn’t that just do it for Judy, for heaven’s sake,” she said, sucked her bottom teeth, rolling her eyes. A boy carrying ice was enough, more than enough, and the summer was a happy one, the ice melted, the boy returned. I was surprised when I first heard these stories, believing, as one tends to, that sex just didn’t happen that way “back then” but even letters from Spike to my Aunt Maggie when she was in college reveals differently. Maggie had apparently written about a boy she fancied, or who fancied her. Spike wrote back, saying “You are a big girl and you know what you want. The rest is no one’s business.” (When my mother, unmarried, pregnant and old enough to know better, said she was born under an unlucky star, my uncle George gloomily noted “The stars had nothing to do with this.” Then took a drink, and “Well, maybe indirectly.”)
Judy first went to Chicago, or perhaps Minneapolis: the details are hazy, but the effect was the same – she began making the papers as “backstroke champ Judy Cook.” Backstroke Judy Cook appears in a blackout number at the Aqua Follies. Her one-woman Aquacade stunt performance. Backstroke champ Judy Cook testing at Warner’s. Backstroke champ Judy Cook, the Wham Girl. One letter she wrote home survives, from 1943, when she was living at the Mission Hotel on Cahuenga Boulevard, in Los Angeles. She asks for her birth certificate so she can apply at the Vega Aircraft plant and asks
What’s cooking with the Cooks? Do you miss me? Check the gossip columns! I get in them quite often!
And she did: novelty photos of her sunbathing, working out “like a prizefighter preparing for a fight,” swimming toward something nameless. In 1943, the Los Angeles Times reported that she was slated to star in a poverty row picture called Man from Monterrey, but when it came out, she was not in it. She did a USO tour with the Ritz Brothers, and in our only actual conversation, she trilled “We were all drunk as hooey on that plane!” During 1943, 1944, 1945, she was in Hollywood, swimming and riveting. Her longest screen appearance was a part with no lines in the opening scene of the 1947 The Private Affairs of Bel Ami. It was made by the director Albert Lewin, whose woozy claim to fame was the use of shocking Technicolor portraits in otherwise black and white films, just prior to Bel Ami, he had also done so in The Picture of Dorian Gray, to great effect. Though Judy’s part actually has a name, Hortense, (one can only conclude that someone somewhere was calling in a favor) she looks unhappy, unsuited, and the camera hates her; already, I see the desperation of a girl pushing 30 who will never be a star, not unless something big, something Wham, happens.
And it did happen.
Judy had an increasingly entrepreneurial bent as she approached 30, and she pitched the idea for a see-through swimming pool, portable, in which she would swim in a gold lame bikini for assembled guests at high roller parties. She constructed a model, a pool and doll in a homemade bikini, and took meetings, pitching it to investors. She also made the cover of the Vega Aircraft company magazine in her bikini, and the company saw her as a minor celeb, noting in Life magazine that she was “Wham by day and trouble for the Japs by night.”
Vega was Lockheed, and Lockheed was Hughes, and Hughes liked girls in bikinis. He began using Judy at his parties through the war, and my aunt Maggie claimed that she and Hughes ran hot and cold, with Hughes sometimes ringing her up and saying “Judy, bring that doll back over here.”
In 1947, Judy was a peroxide blonde, 32, and every photo of her shows a strong-legged thoroughbred, already having had too much sun, and every photo looks like a crime scene photo: overexposed, Judy almost a photonegative, hair white, face dark, every line beginning to show. That summer, Hughes was investigated by the Senate War Investigations Committee in the famous Brewster investigation, and for a month or two every day brought more details about lavish parties. Judy was subpoenaed to testify, as were other party girls, as there were receipts: $50 to Judy Cook for services rendered. What services?
The other girls demurred. The other girls disappeared. Although never actually called to testify, Judy instead decided to talk. And talk.
She said the parties were very nice. She said that it’s only natural to mix business with pleasure. She said Hughes was a good friend. She said she was paid to swim. (A cheesecake photo appeared in the Des Moines Register with just the phrase ”Paid to swim” under it, not even needing to identify the subject by this point). She said she was available for parties. “Iowa-born Miss Cook says she will travel back East if the government will buy her an airplane ticket.”
Wham stopped whamming. In 1949 she was briefly in the news suing Bing Crosby and his brother, claiming they used a photo of her from her Aqua Follies days without her consent to publicize a show in Chicago. Now mercifully a redhead, the paper reported her age as 26 on September 29, and accurately as 33 a month later when she withdrew the suit. The Crosbys were baffled, saying that they had nothing to do with the show and had never heard of her.
In the early fifties, after she had married briefly, had a child and gone to work as a television repairman, my uncle Spike was in Los Angles, and stopped by Judy’s wearing his dinner tux, along with my more practical aunt Maggie. Judy at first didn’t recognize Spike, cooing “Who is your friend?”, gliding her index finger up his sleeve, before he said “Down girl, don’t waste your best on me” while she slugged him and said “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Spikey!”
What do we learn from this delicious disaster? To a person, each of these people remained sexual, or insisting on their own sexual power, or wait, even more to the point, insisting on it to the exclusion of everything else, to the end of their days: one of the last intelligible utterances from my aunt Maggie, bedridden with Alzheimer’s, had to do with her effect on men in the glory days of her gorgeous gams. Latin club, oratory, all fall away. Only my mother, who has reduced the whole mess to a matter of plumbing and ridicule, seems to have escaped the fate, that certainty, that humid reality of the lure, the desire, the wonder of all that fucking. Why?
I wrote an essay, or tried to, about Judy when I was 20. Reading it again, it was surprisingly good, but missed the point, except for a great line that I will again use. My family, my Des Moines, I think this will always be true: in the great midnight of Des Moines, the pools are full of girls, the trees are full of boys with huge chunks of ice, and there is nothing to do in Des Moines tonight but kiss.
Of this I am certain.