American in Paris
can joan bennett, a girl from a small town in the midwest, find happiness in the city of light? are you kidding?
Joan Bennett stops in front of an art gallery in Chicago. In the window are several prints by Erté. The women are sophisticated, elegant, glamorous, creative. The lines are flowing, graceful. Our Miss January reflects, "You have to wonder what kind of man he is to create something like that. I love to look at women, and his women are special. I'll buy that for my apartment when I get an apartment." There is something about Miss January that reminds one of Erté's women. She was raised in Glen Ellyn, a small town in the flatland outside Chicago. She is tough ("I can sing, dance and box. I hate a man who treats women as inferiors, who takes advantage. I'll stand up and rip his lip off, just pop 'im up the nose"). She is a street fighter. She entered a bikini contest at Mother's, a Chicago club, to earn money to put together a portfolio of photographs. John Casablancas, the head of Elite models, saw her and offered her a job. The next thing she knew, she was flying to France and Germany, with the beginning of a career as an international model. And that's where the comparison to Erté's women comes in. It's as though she belongs in Paris. "Glen Ellyn was always the same. I thought there should be more to life than traditional sex, going to college, finding a rich husband and ending up in the driver's seat of a station wagon -- waking up to the sounds of kid playing with their Big Wheels every morning. I didn't want to let life go past." Less than a year after high school, Joan found herself looking for work in the cities of Europe. Every day, the agency would give her a list of "go-sees," photographers who were looking for models, and off she would go. She polished up her high school French (her mother is a French teacher), and waded in. "There I was, wearing my seven-dollar Michael Jackson watch, showing up for fashion shootings." She talks of the isolation, the adventure, the sudden passions that life overseas can lead to: "I was in a bus station, looking for something to read. The only books in English were by Roald Dahl. He's fantastic. It was like climbing onto an island of English. This trip, I discovered George Orwell. I know that he's good, that he's good even in the classroom, but I always remember books by where I read them. After the Playboy shooting, I took a room in the Hotel Le Montana, in St.-Germaine-des-Prés, above the Café de Flore. Every morning, the sun floods through these ceiling-to-floor windows. I would order a room-service breakfast and read. I could hear the musicians who played at the café."
Joan can talk with equal excitement about weekends in the country and the escape after a difficult shooting. She has an ear for sounds. "I spent a weekend at this spot that wasn't even on the map. It was a real break not to have to put on make-up every morning, especially when mornings began with a five o'clock rooster crowing. I spent the days lying in the sun, listening to classical music and mooing cows. It's a nice combination." She laughs when she recalls her early social encounters. "There was a guy in Munich whose idea of a first date was going to a nude beach. I got to watch him play Frisbee with his dog. Very funny. The next day, I was sunburned in places you wouldn't believe."
Being on the move makes romance difficult. "I met a fairly well-known man, and then an assignment made me leave in the middle of my feelings for him. You can't conduct a relationship looking at each other's pictures in magazines." Not that she will settle down any time soon. "I'll be his guest for dinner. He can wash the dishes the next morning." For the time being, Joan is committed to her career, shuttling between Chicago and Europe. Where will it end? Playboy Contributing Photographer Richard Fegley thought that Joan had more potential as an actress than any Playmate he's shot in recent years. Alas, Miss Bennett's ideas for the future don't seem to include Hollywood, unless they plan on making a "Rocky V" with a female lead and filming it in Paris. Joan recalls some of her early career plans. "Well, I took up weight lifting when I was 17, and everything was up north and firm. It was fun seeing results. I read a fascinating book on nutrition by Jane Brody. Perhaps I'll go to college and study nutrition and physical education. Maybe I'll go to college in Paris . . . ." Notice how Paris keeps coming up in the conversation? This is one girl who won't stay down on the farm.
Photography by Richard Fegley