Here she comes, straight down the middle of the sidewalk on New York’s Columbus Avenue, her body wrapped in a faux leopard coat and her feet in heels high enough to give normal women a nosebleed. Only five feet four inches tall and maybe a hundred pounds, with hair like spun sugar and a little rump about the size of a grown man’s hand, Morgan Fairchild is such a spectacle that even the most jaded New Yorkers stop dead in their tracks to take her in.
“Oh, honey, thank you,” she purrs as I open the door for her at an Italian restaurant. She takes a seat by the window. People outside pretend to study the menu posted by the front door so they can keep staring at her. When the waiter arrives, Fairchild lifts her pointy nose, lowers her eyelids halfway over her pale blue eyes, and gives the waiter her world-famous look—the one that is simultaneously bone chilling and sexually thrilling. Trust me on this. If you are a male, and you are the recipient of “the look,” you don’t know if she’s going to slit your throat or drag you off to bed.
“I’ll have a Coca-Cola,” says Fairchild. “With a straw.”
The waiter just stares at her. I stare at her. Half of New York seems to be staring at her, which is baffling, because this is exactly the kind of woman New Yorkers are supposed to despise: a high-maintenance blonde, a glitzy glamour queen, a television actress who looks as if she came from—yikes!—Dallas, that city of hair spray and pink Escada outfits.
Dallas, of course, is exactly where she came from. In the same way that Sissy Spacek of Quitman reminds us of every small-town Texas sweetheart we have ever known and Farrah Fawcett of Corpus Christi has been our symbol of the wholesomely sexy campus beauty queen, 46-year-old Morgan Fairchild has spent almost three decades representing the chic, dangerous vixen from the city.
After being introduced to the American public in the early seventies as the college-student-turned-murderess Jennifer Pace Phillips on CBS’s daytime soap Search for Tomorrow, Fairchild has played a variety of high-class vamps and tramps, sirens and supershrews, trollops and hot tomatoes. In the eighties you couldn’t turn on a prime-time soap without seeing her staring coldly at a rival or getting undressed with another woman’s husband. And just when you thought television was moving on to a new generation of Melrose Place-style hussies, Fairchild made a splashy return, accepting a million-dollar offer from ABC to appear as media mogul Sydney Chase on a new daytime soap, The City, which premiered earlier this year. In the promo for the show, she is seen stepping out of a helicopter as the announcer says, “Give us your poor, your tired, your wretched,” to which Fairchild, dressed in all-white Versace, snaps, “And please get them out of my way.”
So far, her work on The City has landed her some of the best reviews of her career. The New York Times called her “smart, gorgeous, and of course venomous if need be.” The review added that she had created a character in Sydney Chase who was likely to become “a heroine for the Contract With America crowd.” With her dazzling collection of underwear, Fairchild can still play a sex kitten better than women half her age. But there is no doubt that her most significant contribution to American acting is her ability to act like a bitch. You know the kind of woman I’m talking about—haughty, conniving, and completely self-absorbed. In other words, those certain women you always find around the most exclusive shopping areas of Dallas and Houston.
“A bitch?” says Fairchild, pulling her pursed lips slowly away from her straw. “Oh, I never view the characters I play as mere bitches. I view them as, well, complicated.”
You see, she understands this woman better than the rest of us. In the world according to Fairchild, the bitch is an unappreciated species who looks dangerous because she refuses to be victimized. She also can see right through manipulative adversaries, especially men, in a way a “good” woman cannot. “There’s a certain feminist approach in bitchiness,” Fairchild explains in a thoughtful deconstruction of the genre. “If she gets kicked, she’s going to kick right back.”
When Fairchild was growing up in the Lake Highlands section of East Dallas, she gave no hint that she could ever master the role that would turn her into such an enduring small-screen diva. She was the daughter of a Texas Instruments engineer and a high school English teacher. Her real name was Patsy McLenny, and she was so chubby in elementary school that classmates called her Fatsy Patsy. In the fifth grade, when she was too shy to read her book report out loud, her mother took her to acting classes to help improve her confidence.
By high school, Patsy was getting regular work at a Dallas theater company called Theatre Three. Most important, she slimmed down, blossoming into a beauty with a lion’s mane of blond hair. She did some modeling (she soaked in a Lucite bathtub for a Neiman Marcus catalog), and she was Faye Dunaway’s stand-in during the filming of Bonnie and Clyde. By then, she had already recognized that she had this innate ability to stir men’s fantasies. Warren Beatty, who played Clyde, took her to lunch and to dinner (“But never to bed,” she said in one interview).
At seventeen, Patsy married a Dallas music promoter. But the brief marriage was such a disaster that she wanted not only to change her life and get as far away from Dallas as she could but also to change her name. Soon, Morgan Fairchild arrived in New York, where the writers of Search for Tomorrow gave her the opportunity to kill her lover’s wife. By 1977 she was off to Hollywood to further her career. She was immediately cast as the villainous sister in a television movie called The Initiation