Oral History Interview with Willa McCarthy

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Title: Oral History Interview with Willa McCarthy

Creator: Willa McCarthy

Date: May 3rd, 2013, 11:00 AM;2013-05-03T11:00:00-05:00

Description: An interview with Willa McCarthy, Vassar Class of 1992, on May 3rd, 2013 about the dress she wore to her wedding on December 29th, 1997, her later divorce, and her views on marriage.

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Oral History Interview with Willa McCarthy


An interview with Willa McCarthy, Vassar Class of 1992, on May 3rd, 2013 about the dress she wore to her wedding on December 29th, 1997, her later divorce, and her views on marriage.



May 3rd, 2013, 11:00 AM;2013-05-03T11:00:00-05:00


For Better and For Worse


26 minutes, 49 seconds





Oral History Item Type Metadata




Alumnae House, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY


Emily: My name is Emily Goddard, I'm interviewing Willa McCarthy- correct pronunciation?
Willa: Yep.
Emily: Ok, it's for the Vassar College Costume Collection wedding dress exhibit, it's May 3rd, 2013, and it is 10:57 am, and we're at Alumnae House.
Emily: So I guess to start--can you tell me about your wedding?
Willa: Tell you about my wedding? Well, it was here at the Alumnae House. I got married in front of the library next to the living room fireplace, it was a very small group, and it was on December 29th, 1997, and about 55 people were here. It was a winter night, and it was a very bizarre night, because I remember there was thunder and lightning and snow, which should have been sort of a sign from above of things to come. But we had the whole house to ourselves, and it felt very much like a big family slumber party affair. It was just a beautiful evening, and I married to someone that I had met through the music community locally, where I am very actively involved, but it was a marriage that was not meant to be, even though it lasted ten years and produced two children. So, what other things do you want to know about the wedding itself?
Emily: Do you remember what your bridesmaids wore?
I didn't have any bridesmaids--I did not have a traditional wedding. It was just the groom and I, we each had...I had my best friend as a sort of matron of honor (she was pregnant at the time with her second child, and she was my best friend in high school), and the groom's brother was his best man, although he was completely unengaged in the process. So there was not a big wedding party or any kind of normal traditional ecoutrement beyond the...I think perhaps the most traditional part of the wedding was the dress. It was sort of very much a facade, a fantasy, an idea, not based in any kind of real understanding of what we were getting into or whether we were really right for eachother.
Emily: Moving on to the actual dress, do you remember where you bought it?
Willa: I do! I bought it at the Town Shop, which is one of the few--that I'm aware of--wedding dress shops in Poughkeepsie, and it's over near the Price Chopper on route 9, where the TJ Maxx home goods store is. I went over there because somebody locally told me about it, and it's a small little store but they have lots of different absolutely grotesque little things. I was over there actually recently, and I went in just for fun, just to see, and I was so horrified by all the things in there and I thought ‘God, is this what the people are wearing!’ Then I thought ‘Well yeah, that's what I wore, too.’
Emily: Do you remember why you chose the particular dress that you wore?
Willa: I think this dress embodied a childhood cinderella-esque fantasy. I just thought it was pretty and blingy and I felt very princessy in it. And I think that at the time that was something that really appealed to me, sort of a culmination of a little girl's dream. But now I look back at the pictures of the dress and I'm just like horrified that I ever thought that that was something that was pretty. I find it gaudy and overdone and completely not who I am at all, or who I've grown to be, but at the time I remember it being a very powerful emotional response. Which I think is probably true for a lot of women as they're trying on wedding dresses, that they have all of this fantasy over years that comes into play that is embodied as they're standing there looking at these 3- 4-way surrounding mirrors, in this very sort of princessy big fluffy thing in my case, with lots of beads all over it. But it was a total facade.
Emily: Do you think you identified at all with the popular culture and fashion of the time?
Willa: No, I think actually the dress was not at all what a lot of brides were wearing in that time. It was much more childhood fantasy like for me. It was winter too, so I wanted something with long-sleeves and so forth...but I have recollection of my friends who were getting married before and after me having much more sleek, sexy, body form fitting dresses, and I didn't feel confident about my body in that way, so the dress I selected had very much how I would look in it in mind. But it was a little over the top compared to what my friends were wearing; they had much more simple, sexy. Mine was much more cinderella.
Emily: Also, why did you choose to donate the dress?
Willa: I chose to donate the dress because it was taking up a huge amount of space in my closet. I had very negative feelings about it and I wanted it out of my life. I knew that it was something I would never want my daughter to wear or that would ever really be appropriate, not to mention that she's a beanpole so it would never even fit her, and I just thought, you know, the dress doesn't have to be a negative thing--the dress can go on to serve some sort of purpose that could be useful for someone, and of course I grew up in a family of actors and performers, and the very first thing that popped into my head was the Costume Shop. I just thought there may be some time when a Vassar production has a need for this ridiculousness, or that it could be disassembled and somehow used in some fashion by the costume shop to produce something that they need that has all this frill and bling. So I didn't even hesitate. I was doing a purge of all kinds of things in my life, and that was one of the things that went.
Emily: Great. This is actually going back a little bit, a question I just thought of--why did you choose to get married in the winter? And the date and time and place and everything, do you remember?
Willa: You know, I'm trying to remember now why, I think it had to do with sort of the logistics of when people were available, and it seemed to do it around the holidays was a time when just logistic. My mom was a broadway actress, and she was in production and she only had a few days off, and it was right around Christmas, and we got married--it was a Monday night, which was really weird. But theaters are dark on Mondays, and so I in part picked it because I wanted my mom to be there...and I'm pretty sure--I'd have to go back and look at the calendar--but I swear to god it was a monday night. So it was very tactical in nature and had nothing to do with any romance about the season or any particular desire to have a winter wedding opposed to another time in the year. It was much more pragmatic--when could I get the people who we felt were important to us in the same place at the same time, and two days after christmas, or however many--4 days after christmas--seemed to be the time.
Emily: Was Alumnae House sort of the same--picking this location--sort of the same thing?
Willa: Well you know, I've worked in this building for twenty years, and as you know I'm an alum, and this building has always held a very special place in my heart, but it was also a pragmatic decision. The space was right here--it was beautiful, I could afford the rental because my ex-husband and I paid for everything ourselves. This was not...we were both older. I was 30 or 29 and he was 33, and it just wasn't something being financed by parents and all of that, so it just made sense. Though it was a little incestuous to get married in the building where I worked and then I spend a huge amount of my time here because of alumni events. So we got married in the living room. We had dinner in the dining room, then we had dancing back in the living room, and so it felt almost very much like all of the events I had ever staffed, except this time it was just my party. But the thing that made it extra special was that we really did have the entire building to ourselves. Tthere were no other guests here, and so I remember my neice--my ex-husband's neice--was two years old at the time, and she came running across the living room in her little party dress and she said ‘I want to live in a big house!’ So she was very enamored with it, and it's just a beautiful space, and it was all adorned for the holidays, so it had all the decorations...there was very little that I had to do to make it feel like home.
Emily: That's great. If you're comfortable talking about this--because you totally don't have to be-- how did you meet the groom?
Willa: We met through the local Blues Jam- there's been a very active community of blues musicians through the Hudson Valley for many decades. We happen to live in a place where there's extraordinary talent, and he was a drummer, and had been part of the house band at the local blues jam, and actually a member of the Vassar faculty in the math department, and said to me ‘There's this jam’ and he knew that I was a singer, and he said ‘You should go check it out,’ because I was looking for an outlet, and I really didn't know of anything locally at the time. So I performed onstage with my ex-husband for three months before we were ever introduced, because the nature of the jam is that there's a house band, and players get up and go down, and somebody runs it. So they pick you know, the singer-- ‘You get up here, bass player, you come up, this one.’ So, but the drummer was always pretty stable, so he was in the background. so after about three months, this professor in the math department, who doesn't work here anymore, introduced me to Sean, and said ‘Willa this is Sean, Sean this is Willa,’ and we started talking, and we just became friends, and it was a very fast sort of acceleration. We met, 6 months later we moved in together, 6 months later we were engaged, 6 months later we were married. And ten years later we were divorced.
Emily: Do you remember around the time of your wedding how important was it to you to get married--was there pressure to be married?
Willa: You know, that's an interesting question. I think that there was internal fantasy associated with a time clock that so many of my...I watched this happen with so many young women, and I went through it myself, of not having the confidence or the sense of self to determine who you are or who you want to be in your life and instead basing some sort of fantasy trajectory on needing to be married by a certain time, needing to produce children by a certain time, needing to own a home or have the sort of material goods that the American cultural standards set. I grew up as the child of baby-boomers who were war babies and there was always this sort of barbie generation, cinderella generation, of girls. I was born in the late 60s and I grew up and came of age in the 70s and 80s, and there was very much this feeling of...I was the last of all of my friends to get married, and I had kids way later than all of them, and I just had a very different trajectory. My trajectory to Vassar was different. I was not here as a traditional age student, I came in three years older than the seniors when I got here, and so I felt behind, and I felt that my life hadn't gone the way that I thought it was going to, and I put some pressure on myself that... you know...here was this person and he was a decent guy, and he asked, so I said yes. And it wasn't because it was right, or because I was in love with him, or because of anything other than ‘This is what I'm supposed to do now’ and here's this person and he said ‘Hey you want to?’ and I said ‘Okay’ and then we just went into logistics mode. It was like event planning mode for ten years: now we're gonna get married; now we're gonna buy our house; now we're gonna have kids; now we're gonna do this...and we just...after checking everything off the to-do list of life, found that I was terribly unhappy.
Emily: Has your view of marriage changed since then, I'm guessing?
Willa: Yes. I don't know, I definitely having been through what I would say was a marriage to the wrong person, though he's not a bad person. We just were not the right people for each other--that marriage was much more of a business transaction than I thought. I had been stuck in a lot of fantasy about love equaling marriage, and I think for the rare married couple that's true, because they were self aware enough about their needs and wants and that they actually really found their life partners and soul mates and friends and whatever and made the decisions to get married for the right reasons, not out of some sort of fantasy or sense of timing or biological clock ticking or any of the rest of that. But now I definitely see marriage as much more of a legal relationship and I hope there will be a time in my life again when I might view it differently, that I might meet or be with someone who made it more about wanting to make a commitment to be with someone because you love them and because they're the right person to be with, not because they asked and you said yes. So I would tell you: Don't rush to do anything! Know who you are, stand by yourself! (laughing)
Emily: Good advice. Completely different topic: do you remember what the groom wore to the wedding?
Willa: Yes! My ex-husband and I were the greatest sight-gag known to man. I'm 5'9", and I'm not a small woman, and my ex-husband was 5'2" and weighed about 100 pounds. So there were no tuxedos that fit him. Nonetheless, he went and he rented a grey tux, and it hung off of him like a sack, and it was kind of hilarious actually. But you know he looked good, and he cleaned up as well as he could, but he was not tailored by any stretch of the imagination. So it was sort of funny...I look at the wedding pictures now, we took a wonderful photograph actually, the photographer stood on the stairs downstairs and the entire wedding party, everybody who was here, crowded in front of the fireplace in the lobby (and if you have any interest in seeing the picture I could show you) and everybody was just packed together, and seated, and so the whole of the experience was captured in this photograph...and it was really fun, actually, I like the picture. But the tux..this ridiculous sort of senior prom level awful gray tux that was way too big, is what he was wearing.
Emily: I guess my last question is if you could tell me a little more about yourself- obviously you went to Vassar, but you said you went there later..?
Willa: I, well, I was--very condensed history--I was born in New York, both of my parents are from New York, and as a baby my family moved out to Colorado so I grew up in Denver. But after high school, my parents had divorced, and my mother returned to New York as an actress, that's where she really wanted to be, and my father and his wife stayed out in Colorado. But I chose to come out to New York after I graduated from high school, and I began working full time as a secretary in New York City for a non profit association. I was going to music school at night at a commercial music school learning how to be a jingle singer, because I thought perhaps that's what I wanted to do. I was a singer, and I wanted to use that school to make a profession, but I was a big chicken and I did not have courage to really put myself out there in that way. So my mom one day said to me ‘You know, you need to go to college. There's a community college down the road, so go, get out of here.’ So I went to LaGuardia community college in Queens, and I began my part-time evening coursework there, and over the course of 5 years from age 18 to 23 I was in the city working full time during the day and going to school at night. In 1989, one of my faculty members at LaGuardia told me about a program at Vassar called 'Exploring Transfer', and I had never heard of Vassar, which was sort of the irony. I later went back to visit my father in Denver and right across the street from the road we lived on was Vassar Road and it intersected with Yale Drive which was down the street from Harvard Way. And I just...it was not part of my consciousness. As a kid, colleges were...I had certainly heard of Yale and Harvard, but it had never occurred to me that this whole neighborhood was structured around you know Bowdoin Path and Bates Circle, and none of that was on my radar at all. So it sort of cracked me up years later... So this professor said, you know ‘You're doing really well here at LaGuardia, and we've been asked to select our best students to be applicants to this program up at Vassar, which is...’ he didn't really know much about Vassar either, because he said it was some Ivy League school in New England, which was sort of funny. But anyway, I applied to the Exploring Transfer program, and I was not accepted, and I was pretty depressed about that because I got really excited about the possibility of going away to a college and having an experience that I never thought would be in my lexicon of experiences. So I went back to work, and I was kinda bummed out about it and thought ‘Well, I'll just finish college at community college and go be a secretary and do my thing.’ So one day the phone rang and it was Vassar, and they said somebody couldn't come to the program, and I was the first person on the waiting list, and did I want to come? And I was like, ‘Oh my god, yeah, totally.’ I had no idea how I was gonna do it, but I said yes, and hung up the phone, and went ‘Oh my god, I have a job, I have an apartment, how am I going to do this?’ Because the Exploring Transfer program is a 5 week intensive study residential program over the summer that happens here at the college, so it was not a commuter situation. I had to commit to being here. So I went to my boss, and I said ‘I have this opportunity, and I'd really love to have a leave of absence where I can come back to my job, but if you're not willing to let me do that I'm gonna quit, because this is important enough to me to have this opportunity that I was to do it.’ He said ‘Yes,’ which was wonderful, and my father agreed to pay my rent for one month in my apartment in the city so I could come here, and it changed my life. I was here with 65 students aged 18-60ish who were...actually it was 59 students now I think of it...who were a variety of walks of life, and I don't know if you know anything about the Exploring Transfer program, but it's targeted to nontraditional populations who are talented at the community college level, but who might not otherwise be considering a four year educational--certainly not a residential four year experience. It was just extraordinary. At that point I decided I had to come to Vassar. I didn't apply anywhere else. I applied to Vassar, and Vassar was far less selective back in those days. It used to admit more than 50% of its applicant pool, and because the Exploring Transfer program was very early--I was in the fourth year of the program, it started in 1985--more Exploring Transfer (or ET as we call ourselves) students were admitted, so I got in and I never looked back. I finished my degree here in '92, and left for about six months after graduation, and the job market was really bad and there was a job at the magazine as a photographer or writer and editor, and I fought and I got it and I've been here ever since.
Emily: That's great, that's a fantastic Vassar story. So is there anything else you'd like to tell me about your life, your wedding, your marriage, anything, your dress?
Willa: You know, when I look at pictures of the dress, and when the exhibit goes up I suspect I'm gonna want to come and stand in front of it and touch it and look at it, or at least look at it because you don't want people touching these things now, I'm not sure how I'm gonna feel about it, to be honest. I feel like that dress represents a chapter of my life that is long behind me, because even though the marriage isn't that long behind me--The dress is decades ago. I was in such a different place in my life at that time...it wasn't authentic, and I guess that is, more than anything else, what that dress represents to me. It's a time in my life that was not authentic. I wasn't true to myself. I didn't yet know who I was, and that dress was trying on something that I wasn't. So there's a little bit of sadness that's associated with it, and yet there's also satisfaction at knowing that somehow it is preserved and useful in some other way, that it's not in vain, if you will, that the dress exists. It had a part of my life and now it can go on and have a life of its own that might be useful in some way.
Emily: That's all the questions I have, thank you so much for talking with me.
Willa: You're welcome, thank you.


Willa McCarthy, “Oral History Interview with Willa McCarthy,” Vassar College Costume Collection, accessed February 26, 2024, https://vccc.vassarspaces.net/items/show/4215.

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