An Opening for a Princess by
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I have no particular memory of having fairy tales read to me when I was small, or of reading them myself when I was older. But I certainly knew all the classic fairy tales, whether involving princesses or motherless children, fairies or elves, or various animals (wolves, pigs, bears, goats), so I must have absorbed them in some fashion now lost in memory’s haze. I don’t have a favorite, but here are two that have special meaning to me for different reasons.

I can't think of one fairy tale that is my favorite, but here are two that have special meaning to me for different reasons.

The Princess and the Pea

This fairy tale seems sillier than most, and the last line of Hans Christian Andersen’s version – “Now see, that was a real story!” – suggests that he knew it was hard for even young children to believe. The plot goes like this, if you’ve forgotten. A prince is ready to get married, but is told that he can’t just marry any old princess, she has to be a “real” princess, as defined by various characteristics, depending on which version of the story you read. He travels around to other kingdoms, but all of the princesses are unsatisfactory. Back at his home castle, one night there is a terrible storm, and answering a knock at the door he finds a very wet princess standing there seeking shelter. So of course he invites her in. To find out if she is a “real” princess, the queen puts a pea underneath twenty mattresses, saying that only a real princess will feel it. The next morning when the princess comes downstairs and they ask her how she slept, she says she couldn’t sleep a wink because there was something hard in the bed and she is black and blue all over. This shows she is a “real” princess, so they get married, and presumably live happily ever after. The pea is put in a museum.

Why do I like this fairy tale? Because it resulted in a wonderful Broadway musical comedy.

Once Upon A Mattress opened in May 1959 and ran until July 1960. It turned the Hans Christian Andersen tale into a hilarious comedy, and featured the Broadway debut of a new young talent named Carol Burnett. She plays a brash, unrefined princess who comes from the northern swamps. She arrives at the castle dripping wet, not because of a storm, but because she swam the moat to get there. Her name is Winifred, but she goes by Fred. She is the opposite of what the queen is looking for in a “real” princess to marry her son. The queen, who has devised different tests for twelve previous princesses, calculated to make them fail, decides that for this one, it should be a test of her sensitivity, and thus comes up with the idea of a pea under twenty mattresses. At the end of the show, after Fred qualifies to marry the prince because she had a sleepless night, the court jester is shown removing weapons and other sharp objects from beneath the mattresses, which had been placed there, unbeknownst to the queen, to ensure that Fred would pass the test.

Seeing this musical when I was eight years old, I fell in love with it, and with Carol Burnett too. We got the original cast album and I learned all the songs, many of which I can still remember, including the one that provides the title to this story.

The Ugly Duckling

As I’m sure everyone knows, in this story a swan egg gets mixed in with a bunch of duck eggs. When it hatches, it doesn’t look like the other ducklings, so everyone hates him and is mean to him. He gets chased away from many different places, and when finally he finds some wild geese who are willing to accept him even though he is ugly, they all end up getting shot by hunters. (That scene is not in most children’s books, but in the original Hans Christian Andersen version, the water turns red with their blood.) A couple of miserable, lonely years pass, but finally he sees some beautiful swans. He thinks they will hate him too, and he expects to be pecked to death, but it turns out they welcome him, and when he looks at his reflection in the water, he finally realizes he is a swan.

I don’t know if this tale had any particular impact on me when I was a child. But for the past fifty years I have described my transition from high school to college as the ugly duckling becoming a swan. In junior high/high school I was not popular. I had braces for some of the time, and glasses for most of it, I was too tall and too skinny, and worst of all, I was too smart and too outspoken. Even at a school which was entirely college prep, girls were expected to be more decorative than intelligent. I never had a real date until senior year of high school, and even then it was a boy from outside, not from my school. I didn’t think I would ever fit in. And then I got to Radcliffe, and all of a sudden I had lots of friends, and lots of boys asking me out, and I didn’t have to hide that I was smart in order to be popular. I truly felt like the ugly duckling who had turned into a swan!

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, great example of loving classics for good cause. I first saw Once Upon a Mattress at camp in 1966 (I’m in love with a girl named Fred!). The superstar of HS Girls played Fred, and Tovah Feldshuh (she shows up in my story too) played the Queen. As was true of the younger kids, we worshiped the older kids who had the leads, so that show made a big impression on me too.

    I don’t remember how gruesome the original version of The Ugly Duckling was, but I can totally relate to your personal version, since I went through something very similar, with the braces, glasses, etc. Birds of a feather, friend!

    • Suzy says:

      I knew Terrie Sue Feldshuh went to NMC. She’s a couple of years older than I am, not sure if we were there at the same time. When I went to one of those camp zooms, she was in my breakout room. Glad to hear they put on Once Upon a Mattress, sorry it was after my time.

      Love your “birds of a feather” comment! Perfect description of how we both went through the duckling-to-swan transition!

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        You would have seen Terri Sue as Cousin Hebe in HMS Pinafore in 1963. I was not a camper that summer, but my brother swabbed the deck as a chorus member, so our family drove up to see the production. Tovah credits Dude Stephenson for starting her career with that lead. The musical was “The Boyfriend”. It was the first one ever performed at camp. I honestly don’t remember if Tovah had a big role or not. My brother didn’t. The Shakespeare was “Romeo and Juliet”. The girl who played Juliet was Laurie Heineman, whose big claim to fame was playing alongside Jack Lemon in his Oscar-winning role in “Save the Tiger”, so that, too, was impressive.

  2. Wonderful story Suzy! Thanx for the reminder of Once Upon a Mattress and the amazingly talented Carol Burnett!

    But your connection to The Ugly Duckling fairy tale is fascinating – a part of Suzy’s past I’d never have guessed!

  3. John Shutkin says:

    A great story about great stories, Suzy. Two of my own favorites, for what it’s worth. And I love your descriptions of them.

    As to “Princess and the Pea,” I was delighted to see you reference “Once Upon A Mattress,” as I also saw and fell in love with it at an early age. Indeed, when I first saw Carol Burnett on TV (the old Garry Moore Show), my first thought was, “The Princess!” Also, one of the all time great musical titles.

    As to the Ugly Duckling, all I can say is that, by the time I met you in college, you were already a swan!

    As to your song title title, for a pleasant change, I knew it, since it is from “Once Upon A Mattress.” A perfect title for this story, though, as to a song itself from that show, I preferred the more generically titled “Song of Love” because it has that wonderful refrain, “I’m in love with a girl named Fred!”

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. Funny that you and Betsy both reference “I’m in love with a girl named Fred!” That wasn’t one of the songs running through my head while I was writing this – those were my title song plus “In A Little While” and “Sensitivity,” in case you were wondering. But now I will be singing the Fred song too.

      Also thanks for your sweet comment about my already being a swan when you met me!

  4. Susan Bennet says:

    Thank you for highlighting Ugly Duckling, Suzy. I think it is a straightforward tale that even the youngest child can relate to in some way. In his day H.C. Andersen was considered a homely man. Perhaps this explains why his story is so tenderly rendered.

    And your own U.D. story of a transformativev transition to college is spot on for many. I always assure high schoolers that college will give them the opportunity to totally reinvent themselves. I had a similar experience to yours in freshman year. A cute classmate who had not seen me since middle school approached me after class, asked me out on a date and then exclaimed, “If you had told me back then that I would be asking YOU out on a date I wouldn’t have believed it!” Uh….thanks? We didn’t go out for long. Great story.

  5. Marian says:

    Seems as if many of the Retro women went through the ugly duckling phase, Suzy. Thanks for the reminder, I can identify with your trauma, although I didn’t remember the part about the geese being shot in the story. I had braces in middle and high school but no glasses, although I had my previous broken nose, so when it was repaired in my junior year in college I started getting asked out a lot more.

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    Your story reminded me of the Janis Ian song “At Seventeen”, and her line about “ugly duckling girls like me”. I think a lot of kids who were branded “smart” didn’t fit in at high school and blossomed in a college environment. Turns out there are a lot of swans!

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    These are two of my favorites as well. I remember telling The Princess and the Pea to some children I was babysitting. I was amazed they had never heard or read it before, but they loved it and mercifully went to sleep. Loved Once Upon a Mattress. As for the Ugly Ducking, that story also resonated with me and (I’m sure) many girls as they emerge from a time in their life when they feel unattractive or unpopular. Great choices!

  8. You were fortunate, Suzy, to feel like a successful swan as you entered the Radcliffe pond as compared to your secondary school experience. There were others among us who had been the “cat’s pajamas” (at least, academically) back home, and who quickly realized that there were others far more accomplished. I wonder what fairy tale would represent that trajectory? Perhaps more of an Aesop’s Fable?

  9. “Once Upon a Mattress” is an excellent musical. The composition of the music is really amazing, and nearly every tune is catchy.

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