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Brooke Shields: The Newark In Me

Photo courtesy of Brooke Shields

Brooke Shields: The Newark In Me

You don’t need a degree in biology to appreciate the power of DNA. We are all products of our forebears—no exceptions, including Brooke Shields, who explores her own connection to Newark in There Was a Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me, published by Penguin Group this month. Shields took writer Gerry Strauss on a trip to the Ironbound, where her late mother, Teri, grew up.

29_TeriAndBrookePearlC_optradius How did your mother describe Newark in the 1940s and 1950s?

Shields: There was a sense of strength that she thought Newark represented. When she was in grammar school, they asked, “Why do you think they call [this part of] Newark the Ironbound Section?” Obviously, they were going to teach them about the railroads. Instead, she raised her hand and she said, “It’s because we’re so tough.”

radius What were her family’s circumstances?

Shields: They were very poor, but she was always proud of where she came from. She always just sort of had that Newark pride. She would revert to it if she wanted people to know that she couldn’t be messed with. There’s this no-bullshit kind of an attitude that she had about Newark, about being from there, and being really proud to be from there.

Photo by Lara Porzak

Photo by Lara Porzak

radius When did she leave Newark?

Shields: The minute she finished with high school, she was out. She moved when she was pretty young to New York. She wanted to be a part of the big-city life, but she never forgot and never was hesitant to mention where she came from. People who want to run away from somewhere, I think, have the tendency to never want to acknowledge the place or acknowledge what it is. She did the opposite. Her thing was that she was made in Newark…but she “made it” in Manhattan.

radius How did your mom’s Newark roots help her across the river?

Shields: They gave her something that is important to have when you move to Manhattan: street smarts. If you have that in New York. you’re so much farther ahead of the game. It takes more to shock you. You’ve got your wits about you. I think that that’s what it did. At the same time, as she started frequenting much higher, richer and wealthier parts of society, my mother also felt like somehow people were going to look down on her. She never had a chip on her shoulder. She was never that kind of a person, but she would play that “I’m from Newark, don’t mess with me” card if she started feeling insecure. So the very same thing that she said made her strong, also made her think that people were regarding her as uneducated, or poor, or working class—all these things that she was getting away from. Remember, she went from riding the bus and giving her mom bundles of crumpled-up dollars to being given furs and being taken out by senators and attending Broadway openings. I think she sort of had this paradoxical relationship with Newark, you know? Always called it home. Always would return. We’d go have Portuguese food, or stuff like that. She always loved that, but then I think it also slightly made her insecure…and then, she’d turn around, and she’d throw it back in your face. “Manhattan is tough, but Newark is tougher!”

9780525954842_There_Wa_optradius That paradox is a big part of the city’s culture.

Shields: It is. You see all that comes out of there—the fact that celluloid was invented there, the fact that Princeton’s original campus was in Newark. All those things create almost a dual identity, with regards to Newark.

radius Do we see any of your mother’s Newark experience in you?

Shields: Oh, sure. I took on whatever my mother perceived, or believed, or thought, or ate, or whatever. I would say, “Well, my mommy’s from Newark. My mommy’s tough. My mommy’s tougher than anybody. She knows better.” There was this sense of pride, because she was part of a scrappy, insurgent culture. That was a big thing for me and I grew to be proud of it. I thought it was cool. My mom could beat up your mom, you know, on the playground. That kind of a thing. It’s like, “My dad is stronger than your dad”…except it was my mom.


Photo by Chris Henchy_opt