I Passed as a Teenager By Lyn Tornabene

Before Drew Barrymore did it in Never Been Kissed, before Cameron Crowe did it for-reals for (the book) Fast Times at Ridgemont High, freelance journalist Lyn Tornabene, “cute and 33”, left New York and went undercover as a teenager in a gigantic suburban high school in an unnamed city “west of the Rockies”, ostensibly to write a series of articles for an editor looking for a new angle on this whole teenager thing that seems to be all the rage. Will she discover that teens of the mid-1960s are a new, dangerous breed that is completely indecipherable to the adults around them? Or will she confirm her suspicions that life is pretty much the same as it was when she was a high school student in the 1940s? Spoilers: yes. Only it’s more like IT IS EXACTLY THE SAME WHY OH WHY GOD IS IT EXACTLY THE SAME??? Frankly, if you swap out some of the slang and pop cultural references, it pretty much matches my  recollections of being a high school student in the 1990s, and I would bet that the average 16 year old in the 21st century would say the same.

I Passed as a Teenager

 

The Plot: With the encouragement of both her editor and her husband, Lyn gets a terrible haircut that makes her look like Prince Valiant and has a teenage relative take her shopping for a back-to- school wardrobe before heading west, where her friend Bess (a childless divorcee) has agreed to help her enroll in the local high school and pretend to be a distant cousin who is looking after her while her imaginary mother goes to Reno to divorce her imaginary father.  She finds that it is relatively easy to enroll in the school that she dubs Urban High, as the administration is trying to deal with twice the capacity of students that it was designed to hold. Thanks, Baby Boom! Within her first day at Urban, she realizes that convincing the teachers that she’s 16 isn’t going to be a problem, since no adult ever looks her in the face, and constantly speak about her in the third person unless it’s to order her to stop slouching or “speak up”. Between that and Bess being a little too game for the project is how she ends up enrolled in Public Speaking as her elective.

Her classmates are marginally more aware that there is something off about Lyn, as they comment that she has “a young body, but an old face”. Also her clothes are too hip: The Sixties haven’t quite reached west of the Rockies yet, so the most of the teens are still wearing bobby socks and circle skirts; Lyn comments that the boys’ pompadours look “anachronistic”.

Which raises a question: when exactly did all of this happen? The original copyright on the book is 1967, but it was adapted from a series of magazine articles that were previously published. Some cultural detective work leads me to believe that she enrolled in the fall of 1964: it postdates the Kennedy assassination, but the Beatles are still new enough that the girls who are “into” them are viewed as slightly odd (plus one of the school’s resident Beatlemaniacs asks Lyn if she’s seen “their movie”; it seems like if it was any later they would have specified between A Hard Day’s Night and Help!). Additionally, we hear about the looming election, for which one of the students is supporting “a third-party candidate, a well-publicized far-right extremist.” We’ll get to Gretel and her issues in a minute…. But  any Baby Boomers want to take a stab at whom she referring to? My money is on John Kasper of the National States’ Rights Party, who basically meets the definition of “domestic terrorist”.

During her first day, Lyn is made to attend many assemblies in lieu of classes because there are not enough teachers to go around, manages to get on the shit lists (her words) of both her homeroom teacher and her Public Speaking teacher (who is described is being young and sexy “a la Johnny Carson” which made me guffaw) and falls in with Gretel and Cooky, the two ringleaders of (they claim) the second-most popular clique at Urban. And at the end of the day Bess receives a call from Lyn’s guidance counselor informing her that her young ward “is a very disturbed child” whom she is personally going to keep an eye on. Great.

We are next introduced to the second-coolest Juniors at Urban, which include Roxanne and Kelley, the “Beatle nuts” who went to meet the Fab Four’s plane when they arrived on the local stop of their concert tour and got close enough to ALMOST TOUCH RINGO;  Avis, the pathetic hanger-on who has bribed her way in with a mountain of fan magazines; Cooky, who must have surely been John Waters’ inspiration for Tracy Turnblad; and my personal favorite, Billie, who is described as being “notable for her vocabulary, which came straight out of the foxholes of World War II” (we learn that “guys only like Billie as friends”) . And finally, Lyn’s temporary BFF Gretel,  who is constantly warning Lyn to be on the lookout for roaming Negro girl-gangs who will attempt to incite a race riot.

Thankfully, the rest of the gang is both much more progressive in their own attitudes and critical of Gretel’s (the same cannot be said of the teaching staff). One is almost inclined to feel sorry for Gretel, since she has a crazy oft-remarried mother who is constantly passive-aggressively manipulating her daughter; Lyn notes that Gretel “used her mother when she needed a quotable authority to avoid doing something she didn’t want to do anyway.” Lyn is slightly heartbroken when Gretel returns a pair of kicky tights to the store after she explained that her mother convinced her that she didn’t really want them in the first place. Like I said, one almost feels bad for her. Then in the next breath Gretel is warning Lyn about the hundreds of lesbians who attend Urban. Oh Gretel, I hope you grew up to not be as huge an asshole as your teenaged self would lead people to expect!

Lyn realizes that the main arena of teen life that she is missing out on is BOYS because all of her newfound friends have broken up with their boyfriends over the summer. So, she makes arrangements to be introduced to the 15 year old son of one of Bess’s friends. David is extremely suspicious of Lyn’s motives (he’s concerned that she is going to reveal teenaged secrets or make them sound like idiots), as are his parents who are concerned that she is going to Mrs. Robinson their son. Lyn and David have two chaste dates, one to a football game (David attends the roomy new School Of The Future) and the other to a house party. David is pretty boring and square as far as representing his generation goes. His sole attempt at rebellion is insisting that his Perry Como sweater is actually an Andy Williams  sweater.

It’s unclear how long Lyn keeps up the charade; possibly only a few weeks. She decides to bring the assignment to an end when she realizes that she is regressing back into actual teendom, complete with test anxiety and acne. Similarly, Bess is also getting a little too into the masquerade, and begins treating Lyn like an actual sixteen year old, at one point expressing concern, that her 33-year old friend is going to end up an unwed teenage mother.

In conclusion: teenagers have been into sex, drugs, profanity and toilet humor since the dawn of time. There is a particularly hilarious scene at the Urban football game when the gang spots a studly recent graduate who has grown a beard. The girls first come to the consensus that it makes him look like Jesus, then have a long, extremely sacrilegious conversation about what they would like to do to him.

Lyn ends the book with an impassioned plea for adults to treat teenagers like human beings: “STOP THREATENING ME! That’s what I wanted to shout in my classrooms, If you don’t cover your book by Wednesday, if you don’t have your homework written on lined paper, if you don’t bring your dollar for student government, if you don’t keep quiet, if you don’t stop, if you don’t start, you will be punished.”  Truly spoken by someone who was reminded that high school is (thankfully) not the best years of your life!

Sign it was Written in 1960-something Department: In her thanks and acknowledgements she urges David to let his hair grow out while he can, because he will eventually get drafted and have to get a crew cut.

Vocabulary Lesson Department: in a footnote she explains that both “bitchin’” and “tough” mean “great, gorgeous, terrific”. Devotees of S.E. Hinton know that in this context the latter is spelled “tuff”.

Conversation With the Ring of Authenticity Department:

“Have you ever tried marijuana?”

“Unh-unh. I’d like to try it someday.”

“Where can you get it?”

“In Greenwich Village”

“You mean in New York?”

“Sure”

“Where in Greenwich Village?”

“Oh, anyplace. You just get out of a bus and ask somebody. Or you ask a cabdriver.”

Postscript: Sadly, there is skimpy information available online about whatever happened to Lyn Tornabene, and if there was ever any reason to suspect that her undercover assignment did not go down as described. It looks like she is best known for writing a definitive biography of Clark Gable in the mid-1970s.

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11 Responses to I Passed as a Teenager By Lyn Tornabene

  1. Mr. T says:

    Another question is where the High School was located. Since it was listed as ‘west of the Rockies’ and there are race troubles with blacks, but little if any evidence of Hispanics in this circa 1964 locale, the locations narrow enormously. Many places have few blacks in the west, especially during this time. And the size of the city is probably in the 40,000 to 120,000 range, due to another high school ‘across town’ and the aged high school itself going on 40 years or so, the middle sized city label in the book. Nevada is probably near, as Washington State would raise eyebrows with divorcing, but California or Arizona much less so.

    With a stated 50% divorce rate of the student’s parents, in a large city, then that takes out Mormon areas of Idaho and Utah then, as well as cities like Mesa in AZ. Phoenix, AZ or Riverside County in California sound likely with the black gangs in an aged part of the city. Also the gang crimes headlines in the city newpaper (of local events) “teen forced to steal” does not seem like anything outside of a few areas. The retired author currently is in one of those states, too. Pomona, San Bernadino, Riverside, and Orange County seem right to me. Does not seem outside of Southern California in feel, nor coastal.

    About the length of the assignment undercover, my guess is 5 weeks. The only clue found was her birthday, which was a month away when she put on her clothes to go to school (in the nameless city), and the nugget that after finishing that she spent 10 days doing nothing serious but relaxing indoors/then a belated 34th year birthday celebration. Also there is the issue of transferrals of transcripts from the fictitious student in NYC school . Any more than 6 weeks is really cutting it, as the risk of discovery did exist, during or after publication by putting facts together.

    With disclosure, there is no story, since people tended to sue under similar circumstances (same with a novel, if rights of privacy are invaded, especially with minors and no real news event). With the divorce story, the western school could forget about it. Same happens with social security information (with those running away from the law, etc.) The author, as you mention, did several lines in publication over years, so avoided that fate.

    • mondomolly says:

      Good points all! For some reason I pictured Salt Lake City while reading it, but I was inspired to look up the Beatles’ 1964 tour dates in the Western US, to see where Roxanne and Kelley might have ALMOST TOUCHED RINGO and came up with:
      Daly City (Bay Area), CA
      Las Vegas
      Seattle
      Los Angeles

      I’m leaning toward Nevada or Washington State, seems like the kids in California would be dressed hipper, or at least not “anachronistic”.

      Thanks for reading!

      • David says:

        The ficticious ‘mother’ would not go to Reno probably to get a divorce. She would do it in Las Vegas (the laws were the same throughout the state).

        My guess is some place like Hayward or Redwood City in the San Francisco area.

        • mondomolly says:

          It did strike me that by the mid-60s the Reno reference seemed a little outmoded. I love that everyone is trying to find “clues” to the high school, thanks for commenting! 🙂

  2. Richard says:

    I just finished reading this book for the second time. I graduated in ’61, so some of it was recognizable, although I was never in on the social stuff. Her teachers seemed to be less motivated in general than the ones I had, but maybe I’m just forgetting. As a car guy, I appreciated the dangerous ride home in the car with the passenger door that had to be held shut. Tacoma seems like a possibility for the location. She says girls wore sweaters and jackets in September, which would be unlikely in Los Angeles, and very unlikely in Las Vegas. Also, she mentions rain and pine trees. The excess student population and large number of transfer students indicate growth, and Boeing was doing very well at that time. Seattle Airport (Sea-Tac) is halfway between Seattle and Tacoma. Tacoma was one of the areas where blacks lived. Auburn is about the right distance for the out-of-town football game. Tacoma’s Mount Tahoma High was built in 1961, so it might have been the fancy new high school she mentioned. Also, the school colors are crimson, white and gold – she mentions white and gold. However, it did not have a sunken football stadium, whereas the old high school in town, Stadium, does. Stadium was built in 1906, so it’s older than her ‘Urban’ high, but she couldn’t describe things too accurately, or it would be too easy to figure out where she had been. Other discrepancies: Tacoma had four high schools in ‘64, not the three she mentioned, and none had more than 2,000 students. Actually, I wondered how much of the story was straight description, and how much of it was made up. Getting adopted into a ‘girl gang’ seems almost too good to be true (I wonder if the creators of ‘Grease’ read this book). I’d like to believe that everything happened as she described, because it’s such a great story, but if it has to be fictionalized to disguise people and location, why not go a step further and put yourself at the center of some events that you only observed? I’m sure some people will be very offended at this idea, but it is a possibility. She’s obviously a good writer, so making up an interesting story based in part on observation shouldn’t have been difficult.

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for sharing your insights! I had totally forgotten the detail about the jackets, so I bet you’re on the money with Seattle/Tacoma, especially the details with the schools. I’m sure that some the incidents were disguised, condensed or streamlined for better narrative flow, but I agree, such a great writer and such a fun book to read! Thanks for commenting!

  3. Anonymous says:

    little may be written about Lyn but I can personally tell you she continues to live her quiet life supporting the arts out west. She’s an amazing woman.

    • mondomolly says:

      Aww, that’s great to hear! Since I wrote this review I’ve come across a few additional references to her, including in the recent Helen Gurley Brown biography Enter Helen, in connection to a proposed Broadway musical based on HGB’s life. Would love to see that make it to the stage someday! 🙂

  4. Susan says:

    I have a subscription to Newspapers.com so I looked up Lyn there. For most of the articles I would have to upgrade my subscription, but I found a little in the free articles … In 1966 she had a book called “What’s A Jewish Girl to Do?” and was described as “As gorgeous an example of a Jewish girl as you’ll ever gape at.” (This was apparently a wire services item because it appears in many different papers.) At that time she was an editor at Ladies Home Journal. She did a few TV appearances to talk about that book.

    A 1967 article about the “Teenager” book says she got the idea when she was one month shy of her 34th birthday. This book brought her onto the Mike Douglas Show with Jerry Van Dyke, Skitch Henderson, and The Amazing Kreskin! At this point she is described as a “housewife-journalist.” And Then in 1970 she appeared on the Merv Griffin show with Frank Sinatra Jr., Henry Morgan, and Stu Gilliam! And another Merv appearance with Sonny and Cher! By 1975 she is referred to as a free-lance writer, and in 1976 as an “entertainment writer,” after she spent four years working on the book about Clark Gable (which made it into the top five of the bestsellers list). This book got her onto the “Dinah” [Shore] show with Rita Moreno, Stacy Keach, and Betty Ford’s press secretary.

    In 1981 she interviewed Mayor Ed Koch for Cosmopolitan and Dolly Parton for Woman’s Day.

    One article says she spent ten weeks undercover at the high school.

  5. Joan says:

    I worked for Lyn Tornabene’s husband, Frank, at Donald Art Company, Rye Brook, NY, back in 1960. I remember when they adopted their late daughter, Wendy. Lyn was a bit of a snob, but Frank was a Wonderful boss. They lived in Greenwich, CT, and then Tuscon, AZ. Lyn would be 86 now, if she is still alive. Sadly, their daughter died at 37, and her grandson wS adopted. I don’t think they allow her visitation due to an ongoing feud.

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