Soon, if the appeals courts do not rule to the contrary, we will be able to see what Brooke Shields, the Jean Harlow of the teenybopper set, looked like when she was 10 years old and buck naked. For this we must thank Teri Shields, who is Brooke's mom, and Garry Gross, who is a photographer, and Edward J. Greenfield, who is a justice of the State Supreme Court of New York.
It was Mom who decided six years ago to let Gross take pictures of her nude daughter for a book, published the next year by Playboy Press, called "Sugar and Spice." Then a funny thing happened to little Brooke: she burst out of her cocoon and turned into a great big star, just like that. Suddenly the pictures acquired a new and alluring value; and suddenly Brooke and Mom decided that, with the book out of print, Gross had no business peddling the pictures anywhere else, even though Mom had signed a release for them.
So they went to court, where last week Justice Greenfield ruled against them. He said that the pictures were "not erotic or pornographic" and that Brooke would not suffer irreparable damage if they were republished; he ruled that Gross had not violated the terms of the release.
And so long as he was at it, Justice Greenfield delivered himself of a tidy lecture on the subject of stage motherhood. He described Teri Shields as "a concerned mother"; he said she lived not merely "for" her daughter but also "through" her. He said that her behavior was "maternally protective and exploitative," that she wanted "to have it both ways" by representing Brooke as "sexually provocative and exciting while attempting to preserve her innocence."
This story of Teri and Brooke Shields, sad and infuriating and even appalling though it may be, is not exactly a new one -- though the business of authorizing a nude photo of one's 10-year-old child is, in the annals of stage motherhood, a new one on me. But if you know the musical "Gypsy," or the book on which it was based, you know the tradition from which this relationship springs.
"Gypsy" is the surprisingly tough-minded tale of the early years of Gypsy Rose Lee, the celebrated ecdysiast and wit. Gypsy, whose real name is Louise, is pushed into vaudeville by her starstruck mother, Rose, along with her sister June; they call their act "Baby June and Her Newsboys" and, later, "Dainty June and Her Farmboys." When June elopes with one of the fellows in the act, Rose concentrates all of here formidable attentions on Louise. They slip from vaudeville into burlesque, but Rose is undeterred; when the lead stripper is arrested, she forces Louise into the vacant role. At the end Rose sings: "Why did I do it?/ What did it get me?/ Scrapbooks full of me in the background . . ." Wistfully she recalls that "I had a dream," protests that "it wasn't for me," and then adds the stage mother's ultimate zinger: "If it wasn't for me,/ Where would you be,/ Miss Gypsy Rose Lee?"
Unlike Rose, Jackie Coogan's mother sang no songs, at least none that have been recorded; but she was a vaudevillian like Rose and she too knew a main chance when she saw one. Her son became an international sensation after starring as the waif in the 1920 Charlie Chaplin film, "The Kid"; at the age of five he signed a contract that ultimately brought him some $4 million -- between $20 and $30 million in today's dollars. But he saw very little of it, because his mother and father took refuge in a California law that gave parents total control over their minor children's earnings. When he turned 21, Coogan had to sue them to try to recover what was left of the fruits of his labors.
Jackie Coogan, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor -- there's a long list of actors and actresses shoved or coaxed into the limelight by ferociously ambitious parents. Some, like the indomitable Taylor, withstand the pressures and emerge to lead their own lives. Others, like the pitiably vulnerable Garland, never recover and are exploited throughout their careers.
What will happen to Brooke Shields is anyone's guess, but the early omens are not propitious. Quite literally since she was a little girl, she has been promoted not as the embodiment of childish innocence or sprightliness or charm, but as a precocious sex object. At the age of 10 she was posing in the nude. A couple of years later she had a prominent supporting role as a child prostitute in a film called "Pretty Baby." A couple of years after that she co-starred in a fleshy back-to-nature flick called "The Blue Lagoon"; in a nice display of hypocrisy, a stand-in did her nude scenes. Now she is the star of "Endless Love," the central subject of which is boiling, roiling teen-aged sex; and here she had a stand-in for the sex scenes.
There is no evidence, to be sure, that anyone is dragging her kicking and screaming through all of this; she is becoming very wealthy indeed, and she appears to enjoy being a celebrity. But the "exploitative" behavior upon which Justice Greenfield remarked can't help but leave its mark. Her sexuality, after all, was for sale before she had reached the age of puberty. Though she takes some pains in interviews to depict herself as, in her private life, a youngster of innocence and virtue, in the roles that have made her famous she has portrayed girls of flagrant and premature sexuality. When she was 14 or thereabouts, she posed for unusually suggestive blue-jean commercials, her tight-fitting jeans and pouting expression reeking of sexuality.
This, mind you, is a kid. When Brooke Shields posed in the nude for Garry Gross, her mom's ink on the release, she was old enough to be in the fifth grade, which presumably she was; fifth grade is about right for jacks and marbles and braces and "My Weekly Reader." When she made "Endless Love," she was old enough for the 10th grade; 10th grade is about right for sock hops and slumber parties and 10-speed bikes and, maybe, some uncertain petting.
Okay. It's true that teen-agers know more about sex these days than they did when I was one a quarter-century ago -- or at least they are exposed to more about it. Perhaps Brooke Shields is portraying behavior and attitudes that are more common among the young than we old fogies would like to acknowledge. But whether the fault lies with Brooke and her mom, or with the temper of the times, as I see it, at the age of 16 she is a veteran of six years of exploitation. The release that Mom signed for Garry Gross was just the beginning, one that has now come back to haunt and embarrass her -- and to provide for the rest of us an instructive case study of the fruits of parental ambition.