Legally Brown

You've seen Legally Blonde, but did you know Elle Woods really grew up in Paradise Valley?

By third grade, Amanda was bored at Madison Meadows, a public elementary school in north central Phoenix, so her parents transferred her to Phoenix Country Day School. She could have stayed there 'til college, but Amanda wanted a bigger social setting, so she went back to public school, at Arcadia High. Many years earlier, another Jew who would go on to make it much bigger in the movies attended Arcadia. But as he's revealed in several interviews, Steven Spielberg doesn't share Amanda Brown's fond memories of the place.

Amanda gushes about Arcadia. This is where she first experienced the Greek life (at the time, the high school actually had its own sororities, complete with rush activities) and refined her taste for frillier things. She fondly remembers her Hello Kitty calculator, which she lost junior year.

Her sunny perspective on Arcadia contrasts with the back-stabbing, bitchy place -- the Petri dish for the "Mean Girls" syndrome now widely examined by sociologists nationwide -- that others remember.

Suzanne and Jack Brown, on their wedding day.
Suzanne and Jack Brown, on their wedding day.
Barbie and her  cohorts, from left, Serena Churosh, Amanda Brown and Kristen Spayd.
Barbie and her cohorts, from left, Serena Churosh, Amanda Brown and Kristen Spayd.

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Photographs by Jeff Newton

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Amanda found it one of the friendliest places she'd ever been, and even says the atmosphere there spawned Elle Woods' sunny disposition.

"Elle's whole character is inspired by growing up here, because what makes her appealing and makes people able to relate to her is basically that she doesn't judge anybody," Amanda says. "She's a warm, open person, and she's someone who really believes, you know, that the world is great, she's great and nothing's going to change that. Not the circumstances, not the way she's treated. She's not above anybody, she's not beneath anybody. She's an individual, and she takes each person as an individual."

To hear some tell it, Amanda didn't stand out in high school as much of an individual; she wasn't even particularly popular. "She was the girl who would go and stand next to the popular girls, hoping people would think she was popular," one catty Arcadia grad recalls.

Other former classmates don't remember Amanda herself as much as they remember the huge parties she threw at her parents' house -- a rambling affair off Palo Cristi Road with a view of the Goldwater mansion (which is probably why the popular girls let her stand next to them).

For her part, mom Suzanne has nothing good to say about Arcadia, or about Amanda's experiences there.

"She wanted to be popular. She wanted to be in these sororities. I said, It's such a bunch of nonsense, Amanda, because underneath it all, you're really a nerd.'"

Amanda set her heart on the University of Southern California, and got in. She set her heart on Delta Gamma, and got in there, too, but neither lasted.

"I'm such not a joiner, I de-pledged twice. . . . I would go through rush week, and I would get in, and then I wouldn't go," Amanda says, explaining that she hates meetings.

She was home within the year. Amanda says she dropped out of USC because they changed the math requirement.

That math requirement (she jumps on this topic in interviews; it's so Elle Woods) plagued her until she finally graduated from ASU in 1993. She says she took math every semester and every summer, shopping the Maricopa County Community College District for the easiest class. Finally, she says, an instructor at ASU took pity on her when Suzanne begged him to pass her daughter.

At the same time, Amanda had decided she simply had to go to law school. She figured it was the best way to help abused women and children. It sounds like a way to please Daddy, but this was her idea, not her father's, Suzanne confirms. Others agree.

"Jack was the sort of person [who] figured that, by the time that you were 10, you should figure out what you should do," the widow recalls. "He just said, Don't ever marry anybody boring.'"

Suzanne wasn't so magnanimous. She told her youngest daughter she wasn't cut out for the law. And she should know. Amanda reminds Suzanne of herself, the older woman says. Suzanne was in the second class at Harvard Law that admitted women. Even beat Jack by two points on the LSAT. But she couldn't stand it, and dropped out. During logic exercises about a man and his chickens, Suzanne says, her mind wandered -- she worried about the chickens.

Amanda wouldn't listen to Suzanne. Or anyone else.

Serena had tried to warn her friend that there wouldn't be a lot of dating potential in law school, reminding Amanda of the experience they'd already had with the legal crowd.

"Amanda and I would go to the Brown and Bain functions, and her dad would make us take out the rookie lawyers, and Amanda and I would just die," Serena recalls. "We'd be, like, What a bunch of dorks!'"

Amanda applied anyway.

"I took every LSAT class in the history of the world, and applied to like 25 schools and said, I'll go to the best one that takes me.'"

Arizona State's law school didn't take her, even though both Jack and Suzanne had been big supporters (he with Indian law programs, she with donations of artwork) for decades. But Stanford Law School did. Paul Eckstein, managing partner of Brown and Bain and an old friend of Jack's, insists there's no way anyone played favorites to get Amanda into law school, even though Brown and Bain had offices in Palo Alto at the time, and strong ties to the school.

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