Marriage and Money in 1950s Manhattan

How my teenage marriage helped me become financially independent.

In the fall of 1952, when I was 19 years old and a first-year student at Sarah Lawrence, I eloped with a college dropout named Jason. He said he was a painter. Since I had dreams of becoming an actress, I fantasized that we could be struggling artists together.

Reality set in when my parents refused to support us financially, and Jason declared he had no intention of getting a job because he wanted to spend all his time painting. “You’ll have to go to work,” he said.

“Doing what?” I wondered. I had no training, no skills. It was a time when women were raised to be wives and homemakers. My own mother had received a generous weekly allowance and didn’t have a checkbook until my father died.

Then I had an idea. While I was growing up, I’d learned to cook. I actually knew a lot about food. I immediately went to a local restaurant and offered my services as a chef. I was literally laughed out of the place because I was a woman, and female chefs didn’t come into their own until the 1970s.

I ended up working as a waitress at a drugstore soda fountain for my first job. The pay was low — $50 a week — and I soon quit and found a better job at a little café, where I was fired for adding up checks incorrectly. At my next job as a hat-check girl in a nightclub, I was fired again — for refusing to go out with the club’s owner.

It was Jason’s idea that I try my luck at modeling. Family friends arranged an interview at the John Robert Powers Agency in New York. I seemed to fit their image of the “typical fresh-faced American girl,” and I started earning $60 an hour.

I posed for ads in Seventeen magazine. I did a Prell shampoo commercial. I began acting, too, in a 15-minute soap opera for NBC TV that was broadcast live out of a studio on top of Grand Central Station.

I was anxious a lot of the time. Afraid I’d fail, that I’d make mistakes. An older, wiser model soon took me under her wing; she taught me makeup tips and showed me how to handle the male photographers if they came on too strong.

Once I started earning money, she advised me to open a bank account and keep a checkbook. I eventually put myself on a budget because I planned to save money, too. I didn’t have to worry about rent because Jason and I were living with his family, but I did buy his painting supplies and new clothes when he needed them.

After I received a huge fee for posing as a teenage bride for Good Housekeeping magazine, I even bought him a car, which he refused to let me drive.

While I juggled modeling assignments, I was attending classes, too. I was probably one of the few students on campus who were also married and working. My father paid for my college tuition, insisting I earn a degree, even though I’d wanted to quit. In retrospect, how glad I am that I was persuaded not to.

My marriage to Jason lasted less than two years. In that time, I’d never been able to count on him financially and had always been the main breadwinner. This led to a terrible imbalance of power between us and caused him to always feel threatened by me. In the end, he became physically abusive.

When I think about it, we’d even started off our relationship with him owing me money — I’d paid for the motel room on our wedding night. He’d promised he’d pay me right back, but he never did. This pattern continued throughout our short marriage. I kept doling out money; he kept promising to pay me back. He held down some menial jobs, but I always made more money.

At first, I’d been accommodating. I’d even hidden certain expenses and quietly settled debts, hoping he’d eventually change and take responsibility. But he never did.

Here’s what I learned: It’s a lousy idea to depend on your partner financially. I had hoped we could love and care for each other on an equal basis, that I could finally depend on Jason to at least shoulder half our financial load. But he just couldn’t.

Today, I look back on my teenage marriage as an empowering experience. I learned to depend on myself. It was a matter of survival. I had to earn my own living — or else. Difficult and confusing as it was, it forced me to wake up and take charge of my life. I learned how to be responsible for myself, and after I started earning a decent living, I gained self-confidence.

I also learned certain tools. I learned how to concentrate. I learned how to think. Before I’d eloped, I’d never truly thought or considered anything. Slowly, painfully, I began figuring out what to do in a myriad of situations, whether it was balancing my budget or finishing a college paper or getting to that next modeling assignment, all in the same day.

I also learned to work hard. I had so much to do that I became very organized. I planned my days up to the minute. I tried to always be prepared when making choices about how to live my life — another sign of growing up.

Although all of this happened to me back in the 1950s, the financial issues that arise in a relationship between a man and a woman are very similar today. The main difference is that we now talk openly about what’s bothering us, whether it’s borrowing or budgeting or salary differences or when one partner is fired from a job. There are countless advice columns, books, and blogs about money. Back in the 1950s, there was nothing. There was silence.

Today, women don’t have to — or usually, don’t want to — depend on a man. They depend on themselves, and there are so many more opportunities for women. I’d like to imagine that today, I could even be a chef in a four-star restaurant.

Photo: Bosworth at 19, when she was married to Jason and starting work as a model.