Elissa Altman laments her mother's penchant for lying about both their ages.
My mother started lying about my age the year I turned 50.
It wasn’t enough just to lie about her own age—You look fabulous for 80 someone would say; I’m 60, she’d answer—but during a birthday lunch at Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, when a table of NYU psychology professors celebrating someone’s tenure passed us on the way out and saw me blowing out a single pink candle on a narrow sliver of chocolate cake, she looked up at them, smiled, and said It’s her 35th! I’m 55. Don’t we look great? Like sisters—
Ma please—I whispered when they left, I don’t look 35 and you don’t look 55.
How dare you, she whispered through clenched teeth. You want to be old because you hate me. 50 isn’t exactly young, you know. You have to lie. Everybody does it—
During a birthday lunch at Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, when a table of NYU psychology professors passed us on the way out and saw me blowing out a single pink candle on a narrow sliver of chocolate cake, my mother looked up at them, smiled, and said It’s her 35th! I’m 55. Don’t we look great? Like sisters—
Call me Pollyanna: I refused to believe that women in my own circle lied about their age. My friends and colleagues weren’t like that. I didn’t run with that kind of crowd. Until I discovered that someone with whom I was doing a well-publicized event in support of my second book sliced two years off her age in a public bio right before we appeared on stage together. Suddenly, I was older than she. I hated that she did it. I hated that she lied. I hated that her self-respect was so flimsy. I hated that I was now older than she. But most of all: I hated that my mother was right. It stung for one brief, sharp moment that took my breath away.
Anyway, my mother went on while I ate my cake, it’s simple math: if you’re younger, then so am I. That’s how it works. A united front.
My mother’s obsession with age is not atypical for a woman who grew up when and where she did. A former model and Eisenhower-era television singer whose performance career ended with my birth in 1963, she spent hours of my childhood scouring magazines and watching taped television interviews with her heroes, searching for signs of decay and fakery. When a well-known model or actress mentioned her age in a magazine feature, my mother rolled her eyes and declared her a fraud.
Add ten years, and then maybe—
Lauren Hutton was not in her 30s at the height of her career, my mother insisted, but 60. Katherine Hepburn wasn’t in her 70s when she famously appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, my mother said, but closer to 90. When the original Charlie’s Angels hit television in the mid-seventies and I was, go figure, glued to the screen once a week, my mother would come into my bedroom in the middle of a chase scene involving one of the women on a skateboard grabbing on to the rear bumper of a runaway milk truck, fold her arms, and point to the television.
That Farrah Fawcett? She’s really 60. She had a little work.
I refused to believe that women in my own circle lied about their age. My friends and colleagues weren’t like that. Until I discovered that someone with whom I was doing a well-publicized event in support of my second book sliced two years off her age in a public bio right before we appeared on stage together.
But my mother’s certainty that all women lie about their age wasn’t limited to public figures; when my father’s sister turned 96, my mother swore that she was really 98.
Why would a 96-year-old woman lie about her age? I said.
Because that’s just something she’d do, my mother said, shrugging.
But it was also something she’d do, and that she’d expect me to do, as we both got older, like it was our birthright as women devalued with every passing year by the world around us and succumbing to the necessity of fraudulence in order to not simply vaporize where we stand, leaving nothing behind but our underwire bras and jet black Caddis readers floating in a puddle of watered-down Chardonnay.
To grow up in the sixties and seventies (and eighties and nineties) meant that a woman’s relative worth and sexual appeal existed in direct correlation to her age and corresponding looks. This is nothing new; read back to the ancients—the myth of Aphrodite as stunning young seductress; Plutarch’s tales of a beautiful, young Cleopatra leaving Caesar dumbstruck; Hebe, goddess of everlasting youth—and the theme of youth and beauty as a way to quantify a woman’s value is foundational and old as the hills.
Even Barbra Streisand in The Mirror Has Two Faces transforms herself from a plump, middle age English lit professor to a siren to breathe sexual life into her marriage of convenience. Grace Mirabella, longtime editor in chief of Vogue who had worked for years under Diana Vreeland, found out in 1988 that she was being replaced by the considerably younger Anna Wintour on the same morning newscast that I did. Models, fashion publishers, movie stars, our next door neighbors, the dry cleaning lady down the street: when their chronological ages began to climb into figures generally associated with the emergence of laugh lines and crow’s feet, wiry strands of gray hair, and midsection thickness, it was implicit that their societal value was also beginning to ebb.
To grow up in the sixties and seventies (and eighties and nineties) meant that a woman’s relative worth and sexual appeal existed in direct correlation to her age and corresponding looks.
In our home, I was trained from a young age to understand that a woman would eventually lie about the numbers and the facts, taking pains to weave a corresponding false narrative in support of their story. This would often fall flat: my mother’s best friend, a comely Norwegian woman who reminisced about growing up in Nazi-occupied Oslo where the Gestapo strolled down the city’s main street, reported her birth year as 1952. When my mother began whittling years off her age, it never occurred to her that telling people her singing career began on radio, before the days of television, was a dead giveaway.
If a lie about one’s age is actually going to work, all details have to be covered: historical references have to be correct when dropped into cocktail conversation, memories of watching the live performances of favorite musicians (Elvis; Judy Garland) have to be accurately date-stamped. There can be no wiggle-room, especially if one is a woman in the public eye and people—like my own mother—are focusing on the truth like a scientist with an electron microscope.
I was in my 30s when my mother went back to performing at cabarets all over Manhattan; when someone in the audience said over a post-performance glass of wine that she looked terrific for someone her age, she couldn’t simply go off on a tangent about how much she loved singing on radio shows as a child because there was no such thing as television yet. A decade later, when a music producer finally asked her age point blank and she stammered and stuttered and blurted out 40, he turned his attention to me, sitting next to her at Feinstein’s on Park Avenue, sipping my dirty martini.
And how old are you, then, Darling? 15?
In our home, I was trained from a young age to understand that a woman would eventually lie about the numbers and the facts, taking pains to weave a corresponding false narrative in support of their story.
While Barbara Cook sang from the stage, my mother stamped on my foot with a Miu Miu kitten heel before I could answer, knowing that I would likely tell the truth. It was no longer just about her; it was about both of us.
What does lying about one’s age do to one’s sense of self? To one’s authenticity? We are the sum total of our experiences, for better and for worse; to lie then, is to dilute and reduce those experiences, making us something and someone other than what and who we actually are. My late aunt, who died at 102, never once lied about her age: born during a pandemic, she died during another one, having lived through the end of the first World War, the Great Depression, her husband going off to fight the Nazis in Europe, the loss of her eldest daughter as a teenager, the loss of her grandson, and enough joy to counterbalance the sorrow. She spent twenty-five years as a French, German, and Spanish teacher in New York, traveled the world with her husband, and played eighteen holes of golf three times a week well into her 80s.
Experience and time, she once told me, make me who I am.
But does being in the public eye change that?
I look in the mirror now, in my late 50s, and my skin tone has gotten pinker, the texture of my hair isn’t the same, and I’m getting a small hint of the telltale left (but not right) cheek jowl that my mother has, that launched her short-lived relationship with the needle.
You can do something about that jowl, my mother said last Thanksgiving, when she caught me staring in my entry way mirror, poking at my cheek. I did —
I would like to say that I never gave it a thought. But that would be a lie.
Over the years since our lunch at Gramercy Tavern, when my mother proactively lied about my age for the first time, I have resisted the urge to whack even a few years off my number which, as of this writing, is 58.
Age does, in fact, equal experience. But, when I was once told by a former agent that I didn’t land a particular gig in publishing—an industry heavily peopled by middle-age women in executive positions—and why it went to a woman ten years my junior even though I was far more qualified, she explained why.
You don’t have a blog the way she does, the agent said. And also, she just has more energy than you do.
I was in my mid-40s at the time; my blog won a James Beard Award the following year.
It’s because you refuse to lie, my mother said, when I told her I’d been passed up for the job. You have a baby face. If you lie, people will believe you the way they believe me.
Over the years since our lunch at Gramercy Tavern, when my mother proactively lied about my age for the first time, I have resisted the urge to whack even a few years off my number which, as of this writing, is 58. I feel the changes in the way I am perceived, the very definite invisibility at the hands of both men and women in hiring and firing and publishing positions. When I launched a year-long Washington Post column about the vagaries of feeding a senior glamourpuss mother with a particular hatred of food—it was really about sustenance and nurturing, and coming to terms with our vast differences—I mentioned, in the context of her celebratory birthday lunch, that she was a magnificent, stunning woman nearing 80. Because she barely knows how to turn on her computer, I didn’t send her a link; instead, one of the managers of her apartment building helpfully stuck a copy under her door.
The call came minutes later. Her rage pointed not to the mentions of her former career as a singer, or the lifelong body dysmorphia she has battled, and that has resulted in profoundly bad nutrition and dangerous bone loss. She glossed over the words gorgeous and stunning.
You said I was nearing 80 and that you were middle-aged. No man will ever look at me now that they know the truth, she cried.
But you’re beautiful, I said. What did you want me to say?
What do you think? she said. I wanted you to lie about us both.
I really hope all women can get away from lying about our ages! Because so many women do this, the world has no idea what it *really* looks like for a woman to be 40, or 60, or 80.
If I were going to care at all, I'd much rather someone thought, "She looks pretty good for 52" (my age right now, which I never lie about), instead of "Damn, she looks awful for 40!"
Elissa, I love your books and of course I loved this essay. There is so much in your writing that reminds me of my own mother, her deep aversion to eating for pleasure, and vanity in general.