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Movie Life (November 1958)

"Yes, I Will Go Steady"

By Joyce Bulifant as told to George Christy

The way it all happened makes me laugh now when I think back on it. Everybody seems to think Jim and I had a moonlight-and-roses romance, the kind you read about in the women’s magazines -- boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy dates girl.

Maybe romances happen that way for other people, but in our case, the opposite is true.

We didn’t like each other.

Jim and I were in the same class together at Solebury School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. We were freshmen that first year we met, and I believed I was such Big Stuff. I was dating a boy two grades ahead of me, so naturally my head was in a whirl.

In the middle of that year Jim and I had our first encounter, face to face. It was a cold January day, and I had just finished lunch in the school cafeteria. Solebury School has a beautiful campus -- wide lawns and old shade trees -- but in the heart of winter even the loveliest park can look very grim with its snow-scarred earth and bare trees.

I was running to English class. I had spent too much time gabbing with girl friends in the cafeteria. I was afraid of being late so I was racing hippety-clip across campus.

When I came to the classroom building, I stopped for a second to catch my breath. I walked to the door, and there was Jim, on the other side of it, holding it tight and not letting me enter.

He had a silly grin on his face, the kind that spells m-i-s-c-h-i-e-f. I pointed a finger at him and told him if I was late for class, he’d be to blame.

He strengthened his grip on the door.

I didn’t know what to do. Thinking I’d outsmart him I ran to the other side of the building.

And there he was, holding the other door shut.

Did this make me furious! The final bell rang, and I started scolding him. Finally he threw open the door and said, “Okay, goody-goody. Run to class!”

I held a grudge against him for weeks. What a smart alec, I said to myself. What a nuisance! Furthermore, Jim had gotten a reputation for being a devil with the teachers. He was always involved in classroom pranks, and the teachers had a tough time holding him down.

Some of the things he would do? Put tooth paste under doorknobs, send out false fire alarms, smoke between classes. As a result he was constantly being punished with “bounds” -- or restrictions.

One day that winter Jim’s mother -- the famous actress, Helen Hayes -- was coming to school to see Jim. The school buzzed with the news of her visit, and I’d heard one of the fellows in our class say Jim had asked him to have lunch with her.

The morning of her arrival Jim came up to me between classes and he said, “Hi. I guess you heard about my mother coming to school today.”

I told him I had, that the whole school was talking about it. But I remember I was impatient. I didn’t want to be seen talking with him. Why? I just didn’t like the idea of being associated with a big troublemaker.

But then he said the nicest thing. “I ... I don’t know if you’d like to, but I thought it might be kind of nice if you had lunch with us.”

Brother, was I bowled over by his invitation! Why me? I was just a thirteen year-old freshman. Anyway Jim and I didn’t get along, so why did he ask me to lunch with his mom? Naturally I was flattered, and the thrill of meeting such a great actress soared through my heart and I said, “Gee, I’d love to.”

We had lunch in the school cafeteria -- Miss Hayes, Jim, his buddy, some other pals of Jim and myself. Meeting her, of course, is a memory I’ll always cherish. She never once made us feel she was an important celebrity. She was so down-to-earth. We all found it easy to talk with her. She asked about our school, our studies, she even made some jokes about the cafeteria food. She could have been anybody’s mom -- she was so easy to get along with.

All of us, after we met her, talked about it. We felt we had made a friend. She didn’t make us feel uncomfortable for a minute. Some actresses (whom I’ve met since) can overwhelm you with all the overly affectionate and insincere words they use -- “darling” and “angel” and “lovey-dove.”

But one thing did bother me through lunch. Nobody else noticed it. Jim didn’t help his mother into her chair when she sat down at a the table the way a gentleman should.

Later on when he asked me I liked his mother, I told him she was great. But I also told him he was rude. I was honest with him from the start of our relationship. “I was shocked to see that you can’t even be a gentleman with your mom,” I told him with a huff and walked away.

In the spring of that school year, when we had our semester recess, my mother came to drive me home to New York for the long week-end. Since there would only be the two of us in the car she asked the teachers if there were any students who needed a ride to New York.

Who do you think came along?


When I heard Jim was going to ride with us I complained. “I’m not going to sit in the back seat with him,” I told my mother. “He’s the worst boy I know, always rigging up things against teachers.”

So Jim sat alone in the back seat, and I let my mother make conversation with him while we drove from Bucks County to New York. Strangely enough, my mother and Jim got along very well. He was so polite and gentlemanly with her and I began to wonder if all the ruffian stuff of his wasn’t an act to impress everyone at school.

When school ended that summer Jim and I were far from being friends. I was dating Mike; and he was the Only Man in my life.

In September Jim and I started our sophomore year, and I got a Dear Joyce letter from Mike. Mike was now a senior, and he didn’t dig the idea of going around with a sophomore -- so he told me I was on my own and free to explore the world of boys.

It didn’t bother me as much as I’d thought it would, that Dear Joyce letter. I figured Mike’d be going to college next year and I’d be left alone anyway. So I was kind of glad to have the opportunity of looking over the field to see who I could come up with that might be a steady escort.

I decided upon a guy named Eric. There was a school dance, and Eric came up to me and asked if he could have the last dance. I was delighted. But who do you think cut in? Jim! I was so upset because Eric would think I was interested in Jim and consequently never ask me out on a date.

I told a girl-friend of mine all this the next day and she told me bluntly, “I think Jim likes you. I’ve heard he wants to ask you to the movies, but he’s embarrassed because he thinks you’re still crazy about Mike.”

I must admit I didn’t like this. I didn’t like the idea of people still linking me with Mike.

Not long after that our class went on an Indian-summer outing to Washington’s Crossing, the historic spot where George Washington bravely crossed the Delaware River. There was a friendly luncheonette nearby where we all played Ping-pong and danced to the jukebox music. Jim was there at the outing and he looked so lonely. So I got up all my gumption and went over to him and whispered, “I don’t like Mike any more. You can ask me to the movies.”

He didn’t know what to say, so he asked me to jitterbug. Afterward we went for a walk along the country roads where we kicked the dry, fallen leaves from the trees. It was a warm, golden day with the harvest sun shining overhead, and I’ll never forget it because I suddenly realized what Jim was like underneath that show-off exterior. He was a human being who wanted to be liked -- just like everyone else.

He asked me to the movies later that week, and I was a little scared. I’d heard Jim liked fast girls (but I found out later this was all malicious gossip that the schoolgirls made up). All he did in the movies was put his arm around me.

We began to take walks on Sundays. We talked about the things we liked and didn’t like. We both decided we were crazy about pizza pie, jazz and crew neck sweaters.

We’d go to dances together, and have Saturday-night movie dates. But all during that time he never kissed me -- or tried to.

We dated each other for over a month, but we weren’t going steady or anything. One night after we saw the picture show we stood waiting for the bus that’d take us up the hill to Solebury School. As older couple waited in front of us in the bus line. They held hands and mooned all over each other. I could tell they made Jim nervous. He didn’t like this public display of emotion.

But they must have put a bug in his ear. Because when he took me home and said good-night he leaned over and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. Then he ran as fast as he could all the way down the hill to his dorm.

Next week he asked me to go steady.

I told him no, I didn’t want to. I was afraid I’d get into a rut.

Winter came. He wrote me notes asking me to go to different dances or inviting me to have a coke with him after classes. At the bottom of every note he’d write: P.S. When?

The “When” meant “When are we going to go steady?”

I strung him along. I liked Jim, but I didn’t know if he was the steady for me. But he was determined. He hounded me, and I’ve got to admit I loved the attention.

We found we had a lot in common, and when winter ended and April came along with its balmy spring days, I told Jim to meet me in the typing room during Milk Lunch, a mid-morning break we had at Solebury School.

Books under his arm, he sailed into the typing room. We only had a few minutes.

I told him to close his eyes.

“What for?” he wanted to know.

“Because I want you to,” I told him.

So he listened and closed his eyes. I put a sheet of paper in one of the typewriters. I wrote I WILL GO STEADY WITH YOU in capital letters, folded the paper, gave it to him.

He could open his eyes now, I told him.

He read the paper and let out a yell like a banshee.

A lot has happened since then. Of course we both graduated from Solebury School in 1956. During our last years there Jim quit horsing around with all his mischief-making and he was elected president of the Town Meeting, Drama Club, also of the senior class. He was a letterman in all the major sports, and I was proud of him. He was a Big Man On Campus.

Then Jim started to act professionally and he had to travel to Hollywood, and we were separated for months at a time. He enrolled at Harvard for a year and a half while I studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, and we didn’t get a chance to see each other as often as we liked.

I remember one letter he wrote me from Harvard. He said, “I hope you miss me like crazy because I’m missing you like mad!”

He knew I missed him terribly.

Then last winter, he decided to quit school because he wanted to concentrate on acting. The acting bug had bit him and he couldn’t follow through on his studies. But, as Jim says, he plans to go back to school -- after he gets a little of the acting blood out of his system. Since he comes from such a great theatrical family, I figure it’s only natural.

This May he gave me the surprise of my life. A velvet gift-case with a beautiful diamond engagement ring. He gave it to me on Mother’s Day, and we had a big laugh about that.

Well, for now, I guess this is the end of my story. It goes to prove one thing. Boy meets girl ... and anything can happen!

James MacArthur, Joyce Bulifant

Joyce Bulifant, James MacArthur

Joyce Bulifant, James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

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