The iconic faces of the Smith brothers of cough-drop fame are said to have been loosely based on my great-grandparents, Eustace and Lily Smolken. Focus-group participants on the Eastern Seaboard and in the central plains thought the brothers had shifty eyes and weak chins despite their beards. A drawing of my forebears based on a striking wedding photograph was quickly substituted. Eustace’s bare upper lip and old-Dutch-style beard made him a shoo-in for the elder brother, William. The more heavily bearded and younger Andrew, the one with the gravity-defying magic-carpet shag, found his muse in my great-grandmother Lily, a woman who lovingly stitched the sentiment “Let not a little unwanted facial hair spoil a girl’s chances for happiness” on a treasured sampler that hangs in my own home today.
Fame struck our family a second time in a more literary vein not long after. It is widely known that the character of Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s gender-shifting hero, was loosely based on Vita Sackville-West. What is not so well known is that Sackville-West was herself loosely based on my maternal grandfather, a mustachioed man who strode about the English countryside a lot and exacted great devotion from women, affection he was never equipped to reciprocate.
Despite a dearth of supporting evidence, my paternal grandfather insisted even on his deathbed that the character of the beautiful iconoclast Countess Olenska in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence was based loosely on him. It is more credible, however, to believe critics’ assertions that he was in fact the inspiration behind the character of the white whale in Melville’s Moby-Dick. Little is known of his more reserved wife, however, other than that she kept a jar of Dixie Dew chocolate sauce buried in the bottom of her laundry basket.
The character of my mother, a woman who for the last 47 years has slept with waterproof tape across her forehead to prevent frown lines from forming in her sleep, is loosely based on Arlene Dahl, the ex–Mrs. Fernando Lamas and actress who has become an expert on topics as far ranging as anti-aging devices most people probably already have in the pantry, medicine cabinet, or garage, and keeping men in relationship lockdown. My mother disavows any comparison to Dahl, though, and claims instead to be the real-life inspiration behind Rusty Martin, the character played by Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas, who distracts Lucky Jackson (Elvis Presley), causing him to mislay the money he’s raised to buy the new engine he needs to race his car in the city’s first Grand Prix.
When Ann-Margret shot down my mother’s claim by observing that “no character portrayed in my work with Mr. Presley is based more than 10 percent on any one person,” my mother fired back, “I suppose the fact that I have long red hair and am a swimming instructor is just coincidence.” Count Elmo Mancini, Lucky’s main competition on the racetrack and his rival for Rusty’s affection, is believed to be loosely inspired by Rick Johnson, our next-door neighbor, a claim no one disputes.
Jack Ryan, Tom Clancy’s dedicated public servant of popular novels and films, is thought to be loosely based on my father, a soft-ice-cream vendor in Venice Beach. In Executive Orders, President Ryan releases the Ryan Doctrine, a treatise on his foreign-policy views with striking similarities to my father’s contributions to ordinances seeking to control the raft of taco and falafel vendors who threaten to choke boardwalk sales of more traditional American treats, like hot dogs and cotton candy.
My husband is a character based loosely on a guy I used to observe hustling change at the student union. When we make love, I pretend he is a character loosely based on a handsome farmhand played by Rufus Sewell in Cold Comfort Farm. It should also be noted that my computer avatar, loosely based on Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft, never fails to inflame the wrath of my husband’s avatar, a character loosely based on Baby Spice.
The characters of my children are based loosely on Amy and Chip Carter, who, it is rumored, carved their initials into a White House window casing before they left. However, revisions are currently in the works that will probably move my children more in the direction of Malia and Sasha Obama.
Finally, it should be noted that any similarity between me and any other person living or dead is purely coincidental and any resemblance I may bear to Janet Reno, the character Edna Mode in the Pixar animated film The Incredibles, or Linda Hunt is completely unintentional and just the way God made me.