To know me, you must first know my mother, Nancy Ann Whitney. More than anything else, my mother wanted to be an actress—a famous actress— which in the 1950s was all about being young, sexy, and available. She was all that, and more. She had big blue eyes, alabaster skin, a heart-shaped face, a beautiful figure. She was just a knockout.
But my mother seemed to feel there was an obstacle to her making it in show business in Hollywood. Children. And she had three of them by the time she was twenty-three—my two older brothers, Dick and Brian, and me. The fact that we existed made her seem older than she was. Her solution was to have us call her by her new stage name, Whitney Blake. We were not to call her "Mommy" anymore. We were to call her Whitney. I think she was hoping if we called her that, people might assume she was our aunt or maybe an older sister.
I can remember coming home from first grade, walking through the front door of our little white Craftsman-style house on Indiana Avenue in South Pasadena, and calling out, "Mommy, I'm home!"
No answer. I was confused; her car was out front. I stood very still.
"Mommy, I’m home!"
Still nothing. Then I remembered.
"Yes, dear?" her musical voice rang out from the middle bedroom, where she kept a vanity table at which she'd do her makeup. Although I believe she had no idea about the psychological impact this might have on her children, now that I'm older I realize that Whitney was probably just giving us what she got. Whitney's mother was born Martha Mae Wilkerson—my brothers and I called her Memaw. She was a scrappy, tough, smart, and wily survivor. She wasn't the soft, fuzzy type; she didn't coddle Whitney and she didn't coddle me. Whenever I would complain about my clothes, as girls do, Memaw would tell me in her dry, crackly voice, "When I was little I had a red dress and a blue dress. When I was wearin' the red dress, I washed and ironed the blue dress. When I was wearin' the blue dress, I washed and ironed the red one. I didn't have choices."