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January 27, 2020

Portrait of Miss Cora Pratt by Diane Arbus, 1961

Miss Cora Pratt, the Counterfeit Lady, is fashioned of a set of teeth, an old wig, beads, brooches, feathers and laces out of the attic, and the whimsical inclination of Polly Bushong who has been practicing this little hoax for nearly twelve years.

It really began longer ago than that, for when she was just a child, Polly’s father, a socially prominent New England gentleman, introduced the parlor game of shocking people by wearing a crenelated slice of raw potato under the upper lip as buck teeth. It remained for Polly, years later, to purchase a fine and monstrous extra row of real false teeth and to pursue the game to its logical conclusion by occasionally becoming someone else, which she has done with such inspiration and cunning that she has never once been found out.

If Polly is a delightful, witty and talented Dr. Jekyll, Cora is a guileless, rapturous and preposterous Mr. Hyde, who commits the most unerring blunders and cheerfully treads where angels fear to. Once Cora Appeared, by prearrangement with the host, as the maid at an elegant New York cocktail party – attended by a dazzling array of steel tycoons, shipping magnates and theatrical luminaries – wearing a permanently crumpled uniform and a pair of saddle shoes, she surreptitiously sipped the drinks as she served them, blew the ashes out of the ashtrays in full view of the aghast guests, solicitously offered pieces of cheese on her outstretched hand, and fell asleep in a corner of the living room.

Portrait of Polly Bushong, the real Miss Cora Pratt.

Polly and Bobby were famous for their party costumes and their wild sense of humor. They helped enliven the social circuit of artists that dominated the 1950s and 1960s on island. Polly often dressed as a mysterious character, Cora Pratt, in outlandish costumes and carved buck teeth. Photographer Diane Arbus captured Polly as Cora, the Counterfeit Lady, several times with her camera.

(Harper’s Bazaar November 1961; Photography: Diane Arbus)


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