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The L.A. Women : The Faces Behind the Statistics

February 21, 1988|PATT MORRISON | Patt Morrison is a Times staff writer.

THE BEDTIME STORY Sarah Napolitano liked best--the one she could wring night after night from a doting grandmother who knew she was being conned and loved it--was the one about glass.

Not the glass slipper. Not the Cinderella fairy tale of a modest maiden who lost a shoe but won a prince. Sarah wanted the one about glass--how it was made at the Oklahoma glass factory where her grandmother had once worked; how they took plain old opaque sand and other stuff and turned it into planes of lovely, crystalline nothing.

"I was curious. I guess I've been curious all my life," says Napolitano.

She wondered why, when she pleaded for one of those little metal toy Texaco stations one Christmas, a friend of her mother's asked sotto voce if something was the matter with little Sarah. Why, when she longed for art lessons, her mother insisted on typing classes. Why it mattered so much to the airline she flew for that she should wear a girdle. Why a boss would tell dirty jokes, and then laugh and call her a cheeky little thing when she said she didn't like it.

In that time in America, in the late 1940s, it didn't do for girls like Sarah to ask such questions.

Now that she is 52 years old--with a husband she is "really happy with," two grown sons she enjoyed staying home to bring up, and a book- and art-filled house in the "tree section" of Manhattan Beach--time and America have caught up with Napolitano's wishes. And she has one more thing: a license for her art business, one she felt like waving in the air and saying to her mother's spirit, "See, Mom, I finally did it, after all these years." She's a professional artist at last.

THOUGH AN APTITUDE test showed that the girl who was fascinated with glass-making stories would be a good mechanic, and though her art teacher hinted at scholarships, Napolitano's parents saw to it that she graduated from high school prepared to be a secretary. And then,in the nesting mood of postwar America, she did what a lot of single young women did as they waited for Mr.--preferably Dr.--Right. She worked.

In 1955, after saving up money she'd earned as a department-store clerk, she went to France for a year, and haunted the museums and boulevards. When the money ran out, she followed her parents to California, where they had moved from their Oklahoma ranch.

She worked as assistant manager of an apartment hotel, and when it was scheduled for demolition, she applied to be a stewardess (what flight attendants were called then). After the interviewer asked a few questions, he told her to stand up and turn around; he was looking at her legs. "He said, 'You have very thin ankles.' I said, 'Yes, I know that.' "

She and her thin ankles were hired. And made up and coifed and coached. She could handle the hurried mandatory full meal and three glasses of champagne on the Los Angeles-San Francisco flights, the drunks and rowdies, and the pilots who had to be fended off. But girdle muster was too much: Girdles made her itch. In the stewardesses' lounge, the chief stew would snap and pinch to make sure they were girdled. And after eight months and one girdle warning, she quit and went to work for an aviation company. "I didn't know what sexist was until I got there," she says. There was one boss who recounted distasteful jokes; a system that would not move women into better jobs, dates with men who turned out to be married.

"I always felt there was somebody out there who was intelligent and fascinating and funny. There's got to be someone else out there besides these people." Enter Anthony Napolitano. On one of their first dates, he had Sarah enthralled with his story of a business trip to Philadelphia when, on a cold day, he went to the zoo and almost met a tiger. Any man who would go to the zoo, alone, on a business trip, had to be special, she reasoned. On another date, they sat on opposite sides of her living room and just read. "I thought, 'Gee, this might be somebody I could really enjoy being with.' "

Twenty-five years later, she still does.

She quit her job to bring up their sons, and "I was perfectly content to stay at home," gradually appointing her low, bright house with Indian blankets and rugs, Mexican pottery and baskets to reflect a bit of her Irish and Seminole Indian heritage--early Santa Fe chic, desert-country when country wasn't cool. And art? Well, art "was just kind of put aside. I just thought that I couldn't afford to do this right now, I couldn't take the time."

Ten years ago, at an art sale, she met an artist whom she came to admire. They talked about their ailing parents, and they talked about art classes. Her husband urged her to take up her brush, and she signed up at a community college.

"I figured I'd be the old lady in this class. My hands were sweating so much it ran down to my elbows. After about a half-hour I didn't know where I was, what time it was. It was like I was blooming; I was just in my element."

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