Read The Bag Lady Papers Online

Authors: Alexandra Penney

The Bag Lady Papers (5 page)

BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
7.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The miles zip radiolessly past; the girls seem content in the backseat. I took a few minutes this morning to slide some $10.99 Canal Street dresses on them to cover the sexy underwear they usually wear—just in case a state trooper happens to check out my cargo. Some of them are still in wine cartons, but the dressed-up ones are now stuffed, semi-deflated, into shiny shopping bags with old towels covering them. The bags will soon be tattered…but will be reused in my new life as a bag lady. The dark visions are back. Forget this meditation business, I need heavy-duty tranquilizers. I've brought my new prescription bottle with me but I'm
still compos mentis enough to know it's not wise to partake of chemical serenity while driving.

Do I regret having put my savings in the MF's hands? I've lived by the premise that regret is a wasted emotion. After I left college and faced many major crossroads, I began to feel that whatever decision I made was the right one at the time that I made it, given that I always collected and analyzed as much information as I could about my options. I didn't want to leave any room for future regrets.

The decision to invest my money with the MF was the right one at the time that I made it. I did my homework. I sought out and talked with many informed people about Madoff and, with just one exception, they all agreed I was “safe” with him. I can't put my now wise self into my then innocent self. I don't blame myself for my losses. Loss is a part of living; I don't like it but I don't take it personally.


I finally arrive in Florida and, exhausted, fall into a troubled tossing-and-churning sleep. When I wake up in the morning, it's sunny, and it's Christmas Day. My little—but stylish—shack is on the wrong side of the tracks; this afternoon I am crossing over to Annette and Joe's for their holiday lunch in the luxurious environs of Palm Beach—the island, as the locals call it.

The luncheon is in an airy, casually elegant house with endless emerald green, close-cropped lawns; a cobalt-blue-tiled pool; and tall, slim, swaying—literally—royal palm trees. The food, prepared by the hosts' personal chef, is superb.
The dining tables are laden with white orchids, sparkling crystal, and old, heavy silver. I spot several large Warhols and some Schnabels on the walls.

I walk through the tall double doors made of aged pecky cypress, and Annette, the very soigné and beautiful hostess, a dear and empathetic friend, sees me right away and is just the same as she always is with me.

“It must be horrible to go through what's been happening to you,” she says, handing me a flute of champagne, the first drink I've had since December 11, MF night.

“There are some people here you don't know,” she says. “Come over and meet them.” She steers me to a small group of guests who are laughing and sipping their icy champagne. As she's making the introductions, one of the women gives me the once-over, checking me out from my white Chanel ballet flats and J12 watch to my pearl earrings to my Kyleat-Oscar-Blandi blond highlights. This is nothing new or Madoff-induced. Everybody knows that women check one another out all the time. Someone else in the group says, “Oh my god, you are the person that writes those blogs. A friend of mine e-mailed me one and I loved it.” I acknowledge the nice words. They all want to hear about Madoff and how I knew him.

“Never met him,” I explain, “but there are a ton of people here on the island who have lost huge fortunes with him.” Of course, this group knows the Madoff story only too well, but I want to get the spotlight off me. I'm grateful when I hear a man who's holding a double shot glass of what appears to be
straight vodka or gin say, “My wife and I had a lot of money with that bastard.”

The group turns to him and starts pounding him with questions, and I'm able to slide away to talk with a couple of friends who've just arrived.

The butler whispers to our hostess that lunch is served. “It's buffet style,” Annette says, “but look for your place cards so you know where you're sitting.”

I'm situated next to the shot-glass man who has been Madoff'd, but now he says, “Not for so much money.” He owns several houses and a “boat,” which, down here, probably means a major yacht. No mention is made of having to sell any of the properties. Money is so relative, I think. I've got it easy compared to some people, and he has it easy compared to me. But I don't have time to sink further into these thoughts because my friend Joe, the host, who's on my other side, is so charming and funny. He's a great raconteur. It's pure pleasure to sit with another glass of champagne and listen. When everyone else is engrossed in conversations, Joe says quietly to me, “I know you'll be okay but if you ever need anything, just remember I'm a phone call away.”

I'm overwhelmed by his words. All I can find to say is “I can't tell you how much that means to me,” and I lift my glass to him.

I realize I'm having a great time. The Virginia Christmas ham is outrageously delicious, ditto the dripping-butter mac and cheese, the crisp haricots vert, the mâche salad, and the plethora of spectacular desserts. I take two helpings of
everything, an unembarrassed three of the brandy-soaked plum pudding. For a minute I step outside myself and watch. I don't seem to have changed that much. I talk, I laugh, I listen. I've regaled my table with what it's like to write a controversial, highly personal blog, I've admitted some of my fears to my host but basically I'm just being me, broke, and having a good time with friends on a sun-washed Christmas Day. Until I wake up the next day at four a.m.

Urgency at All Costs!

can't remember how long I saved and went lunchless to buy an Hermès bag. It was the seventies and an Hermès Kelly cost about six or seven hundred dollars, which was almost a month's salary, but to climb the
editorial ladder the bag was a necessity. And at
, competition was exceedingly infectious; ascending the masthead quickly became an imperative.

I've always been ambitious. But I'm not competitive. Competitive, to me, means you have to win. For me, at the time, “competitive” was symbolized by the boarding school girls who battled on the hockey field at Smith. Those girls
had to win
even if it meant whacking someone in the shins with their sticks when they thought the coach wasn't looking.

I don't need to win at someone else's expense. But I'm
going to try as hard as I can at whatever I do. There's room for everyone, even at the top.

My job at
included shuttling papers back and forth from the Promotion department to the publisher's office. At the time, the son of the owner of Condé Nast was the publisher of
. In my mind I referred to him as the Boss of Bosses. He wore blue chambray shirts and gray sleeveless Shetland cardigans with brown leather buttons and never had his shoes on. His office was a third the size of Miss G's and his secretary worked in his office at a desk less than a dozen feet from his.

He had a great sense of humor and was a rare combination of informal and seemingly unapproachable. But I was never intimidated by him. One day, a book I had recently finished was lying on his desk in the spot where I normally deposited the copy for him.

“I just read that book,” I said to him.

“I did, too,” he responded, after a long pause during which he did not look up from his ubiquitous yellow pads, always full of numbers. Another uncomfortably long stretch of time passed and he added, “What did you think of it?”

We talked for about thirty seconds at most. The conversation ended: he thought the book was mediocre. I disagreed.

Over the weekend, while my son was napping, I started thinking about all the things I believed could be done to improve
magazine. Impulsively I typed out—nonstop—a memo to the publisher with four single-spaced pages of ideas for stories for
. The next time I delivered some
papers to him, I said that I'd written him a memo, while clutching it in my hand. Without looking up, he motioned me to put it in the in-box.

The next day, after I dropped off more copy for him, he asked, “Do you have any more ideas where those came from?”

“Yes, many,” I replied, trying to look as unemotional as he always appeared to be. He said nothing and never raised his eyes from the numbers scrawled in black felt-tip pen on his yellow legal pads. I was pretty sure I had overstepped my bounds.

A week later, I received a summons from Personnel.

“Please do sit down,” said the personnel director, Mary Campbell. If people were frightened by Miss G, they were absolutely terrified of Miss Campbell. Even the Boss of Bosses was said to be on his guard around her.

She directed me to a down-filled loveseat upholstered in navy blue velvet. I sank into it and stared down at the chinoiserie rug, as something in me sensed it would be rude to look directly at her. Was I in trouble for writing that memo? Oh god, what had I been thinking? She rose from her desk and sat herself in a comfortable wing chair upholstered in deep blue silk. She looked at me and I looked at the gleaming antique English walnut coffee table upon which all of the Condé Nast magazines had been carefully fanned,
occupying the top position.

“Would you be at all interested in being the beauty editor of
magazine?” she asked. I looked up at her perfect platinum coiffure and straight into her stormy, blue-gray eyes. I didn't quite comprehend what she was saying.
She must have meant to say did I want to be an assistant to the beauty editor. Why was someone with such an important position offering me an assistant's job at a less prestigious magazine on a lower floor when I was a full-fledged promotion editor at
? This was my comeuppance for writing that memo.

“Do you have any questions?” she asked, unsmiling, assuming I had said “yes” when I hadn't uttered one word. I replied that I did not have any questions at all and she said, “You'll see the editor in chief this afternoon at three, and if all goes well, you can start tomorrow.”

It sounded urgent. I understood urgency. I nodded and said I'd be there. When Miss C issued an order, the only choice you had was to obey. By five that afternoon,
's Publicity department had called me to read the corporate release announcing that I was to be the new beauty editor of
Condé Nast's largest and most financially successful magazine. That was when I finally comprehended what had transpired in Miss C's office, and I was in a state of complete mind-body shock. I was to be responsible for producing forty or more editorial pages a month. I soon learned that I was also to receive an enormous salary raise and not one but

Everything at Condé Nast happened
in a flash.

I was overwhelmed as I whipped up dinner for my son and husband that evening. Rick suggested we toast my new job with a glass of wine. It took me a moment to register what he was saying and to raise my glass. Things had happened with such speed that the day seemed completely unreal.

The next morning I agonized about what to wear. What did a
beauty editor look like? Beauty? I personally was no beauty but I knew I had to look good. Very good, very “pulled together,” which was the high compliment I had received from
fashion editors on the occasions when I met their enigmatic standards.

Finally I pulled on a khaki Saint Laurent top from Rive Gauche, with matching khaki pants–a major splurge even at the discount price that
editors often received—and checked my black Hermès Kelly purse in the mirror to see if it looked right with the outfit. I wished I had a sportier bag—maybe a Gucci hobo, which Miss G carried when she was in her “casual” traveling outfit (a seven-eighths length leopard coat, Galanos gray-flannel jumpsuit, and mid-heeled chocolately brown shoes, made to order in Paris), but in truth the Kelly was the only decent bag I owned.

I strode purposefully into my new office. It was even larger than Miss G's. The company decorator was waiting and asked me what “look” I wanted. There was no time to think—there never was at Condé Nast. So I said, with all the authority I didn't feel, “Just white. All white. Please.”

By the end of the week, I was ensconced behind two sparkling titanium white Parsons tables, with three white slipper chairs done up in white canvas for guests. The assistants each had a smaller Parsons table and
assistant had one, too, along with their own canvas-covered chairs.

I'd always loved Miss G's white orchids so I wrote a polite memo to the decorator asking for a plant for each table. A few hours after the memo was delivered—everything was
done lickety-split, chop-chop for chief editors—my office was festooned with white pots each bearing four or five stems of blooms, a bit over the top for my taste but who was I to say no? My entire new environment, indeed the air the assistants and I breathed, was superchic. Only three years ago I was in jeans every day gallivanting with my husband across Europe in a small car with no destination. Now I was sitting in this large fancy office and I had to figure out a way to generate forty intelligent and visually arresting editorial pages tout de suite. I didn't know what else to do but affect an aura of urgency and an efficient, knowing manner. The whole facade peeled off the second I hit home and started stirring pasta for my son and husband's dinner.

Such a Word as “No”

y assistants at
were holdovers from the previous editor, who had been an imperious Miss G type. They were well-trained in the “there is no such word as ‘no'” school. They approached my table with long lists of meetings to attend and people to interview. My editor in chief, the fabled Ruth Whitney, had left me with the advice, “You'll learn by doing and I have complete faith in you.” I didn't have the foggiest idea where her trust came from. Maybe my
memo had been passed on to her to convince her that at least I had some fresh ideas.

My first face-to-face was with the Viennese art director, Mrs. D. The bosom buddy of the previous beauty editor, Mrs. D clearly didn't think I had the goods to replace her friend. I wasn't sure I did, either.

“We need to do a bath story,” she stated the minute I entered her office. Like Miss G, she never absented her space except to okay layouts. Unlike Miss G's leopard lair, Mrs. D's office had a sterile air with its centrally placed long work-table and its single drawing pad. An overhead spotlight was aimed at the pad and two highly sharpened pencils in a chrome holder lay nestled next to it. It reminded me of an operating room.

need to do a story? Hmmm, wasn't it the beauty editor's job to come up with story ideas? At least that's what they did at

“I would like to see a ravishing nude in a beautiful bathtub in an even more beautiful bathroom,” she continued in a heavy Austrian accent, not leaving me a second to utter a word. She focused on the pad in front of her and pencil-sketched—poorly—her vision.

“The photographer is Gianni Luttini,” she finished, handing me her sketch and placing the pad to one side of her desk. I knew I was dismissed when she started sorting other papers into perfect piles. I had my marching orders. I almost clicked my heels together before making an obedient second lieutenant's turn out of her office.

I'd been on several shoots for
so I had at least some inkling of how to proceed. When I called Luttini, who was famous for being difficult, to schedule the shoot, Mrs. D had already done it—for the next day.

He informed me that he needed “the most
bathroom in New York,” and “a model with a
body.” He spoke
mostly in Italian, but I recognized the gist of a command when I heard one.

I was to organize the entire shoot within the next twenty hours.

There is no such word as “no.”

I found the perfect bathroom. A friend of mine's rich grandmother had an amazing one with a Pissarro on the wall opposite the sink. (I was told it was authentic but didn't they understand—or care—that the humidity would completely ruin the painting?) My assistants located the perfect model. Little did I know that under no condition would she take off her clothes. I was also unaware that
magazine didn't countenance nudes in its pages. The Viennese Viper had set me up!

My first shoot at
was, of course, a disaster. Although she didn't let on, the editor in chief knew full well that Mrs. D had a history as a troublemaker. She was kind enough never to ask to see Luttini's pictures. I think he probably didn't have film in his camera anyway.


Over the course of my four years at
I endured several more of the Viennese Viper's ideas for stories. One of them involved a trip to the Caribbean with a famous French photographer whom the VV had flown over first class on the Concorde from Paris the week before. He was a tall, overweight, distinctively ugly man with a kind of Nixon-like demeanor with wobbly, just-forming jowls. He never
looked me straight in the face while making demands in his heavy French accent.

Three models; a hairdresser; his assistant; a makeup artist and her assistant; the photographer and his assistants; my assistant, P; and I trooped down to St. Maarten to shoot a major bathing suit portfolio for the March issue. I had scheduled five days, which was a long stretch to be away from my family, but this was, according to the VV, a “most important portfolio” and therefore required an unusual amount of time.

The French photographer turned out to be a maniac. Nothing I could do or say or provide was okay for him. The food (not French), the rooms (which were lovely), the hairdresser (one of the best), the clothes (edited by him), even the models (also chosen by him) were ruthlessly criticized. Within two days I'd had it with the whiny, moody creep.

I'd been driven to the point that I didn't care if we had no pictures to show the VV.

I didn't care if I was fired.

I told P that I was stopping the shoot after lunch on the fourth day and I would book return tickets for all of us. I asked her if she could handle the shots that had already been planned for the morning.

P said calmly that she could cope with the French photographer and that she could get the necessary pictures.

“Okay, I'm not letting you utter another word,” I said. “If you really believe you can take over, I will depart on the next plane.” And I did. It was the first and only time I left a shoot before it was done.

There was a lesson here for me: there
such a word as
“no.” And although, to paraphrase the legendary
editor Diana Vreeland, “‘No' means elegance,” “no” can also mean “no fucking way.” The French photographer was unreasonable and professionally out of his mind and I was fed up with him—and with the Viennese Viper as well.

I weighed the situation carefully in my room that night. I didn't think I would be fired—I hadn't been in the job long enough for my boss to think I was a complete catastrophe as an editor—but obviously I was willing to risk it. If I were let go, I would find another job at another magazine company or I'd freelance. The decision would be the right one because I had fully dissected the options.

A few days later P returned to New York. I did not know—and did not ask—how she did it, but she brought back enough pictures for a beautiful twelve-page portfolio. Today P is one of the most successful, most sought-after stylists in the business.


A few weeks later, I left my white office at
and went to pick up my son at nursery school on Lexington Avenue at Eighty-first Street. As I walked from the subway I passed the brightly lit Rosedale Fish Market. A small hand-lettered sign in the window advertised help wanted. I didn't need to be at school for another twenty minutes, so, on a whim, I ducked in and asked the cashier about the job.

“You have to speak to Robbie, the owner,” she said, pointing at a tall red-faced man in a white apron expertly carving fillets out of an enormous pink salmon.

He wiped his hands on the towel that was folded over his apron strings and strode over to the cash register. We talked for less than five minutes and he offered me a job as daytime cashier. I took it on the spot. He said that I could read books if the store wasn't busy. Three days a week I would have four hours off to attend the Art Students League, where I'd always wanted to go to learn how to draw.

I had been trying to come up with a plan to leave
since the disastrous trip to St. Maarten, and for god knows what reason, it had all gelled in the instant I walked into the fish market. My strategy was to work at Rosedale, to try my hand at freelance writing, to attend the Art Students League, and to apply to graduate school for a master's degree in Studio Art.

I picked up my son, and I was more thrilled than usual with the finger paintings he bestowed upon me as a present. I'd bought some fresh swordfish at Rosedale (from now on I would get a major discount there) and I cooked it with lemon and dill. Our son ate his dinner first, and we read him two Babar stories, and then two more. We hugged and kissed him good night and in a few minutes he fell asleep, a true angel with his fine hair golden from the light in the hallway.

My new gig would give me much more time to be with him. With two emotionally distant parents, I was often on my own as a child. I didn't want my son's childhood to be that way. There'd be no more packing of Paris-bound Vuittons deep into the night. No more nightmares about Viennese Viper art directors. The chichi life of Condé Nast had become too rich for my blood. The endless business lunches, the many
nights spent at charity or industry dinners instead of with my family, had become meaningless. I began to see my closetful of designer clothes as reflecting the superficiality of the fashionable world that I inhabited by day. I couldn't care less if I never ate another baked potato with shaved white truffles—a favorite of mine at the Four Seasons restaurant, where I had been allotted my own table. I wrote down a list of reasons why I was leaving:

Your children are only young once.

Live the life you want to live, not the one you're supposed to live.

Follow your big dreams while you are able to do so.

New experiences are what make life interesting.

Listen to your heart as well as your head.

Try something unexpected and adventurous—you can always go back to what you did before.

I went to my bookshelf and took out a worn green cloth-covered college edition of Thoreau and added this quotation to my list:

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

After dinner that night, over decaf espresso, I told my husband about my new job. To his enormous credit, he didn't flinch. Perhaps he thought I was a bit tetched in the head, and he didn't have time to realize that I would go from a cushy editorial job to fishmongering, but I was his son's mother and that was really what counted. I told him my plans and that I was sure I could supplement my salary by doing some freelance writing, since I'd made a lot of contacts at
. I also said that if he thought this was a really stupid idea, all I had to do was tell Rosedale Robbie that I had changed my mind.

“No,” he said, “I think I understand where you're headed.”

I was so grateful for his support that tears came to my eyes.

The next day I told
's editor in chief that I was quitting to go back to school and to freelance. She sent out an afternoon memo to the staff: “AP is leaving for her own interesting reasons but I am sure she'll be back.” Those weren't the exact words but they're pretty close.

Was I crazy to leave a high-paying, prestigious editorial job for a fish market? I don't think so. I knew that the longer I stayed at
, the more unlikely it was that I would become an artist. Now that I look back and remember the big chance I took in my twenties, becoming a fishmonger in order to pursue my dreams, I think surely I can find a way out of the mess I'm in now.

BOOK: The Bag Lady Papers
7.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Kill Fee by Barbara Paul
La biblioteca perdida by A. M. Dean
Bound and Determined by Shayla Black
The Devil's Heart by William W. Johnstone
The Watchers by Ruth Ann Nordin
The Destiny of Amalah by Thandi Ryan
Feast of Stephen by K. J. Charles
Mark of the Demon by Rowland, Diana
The Wrong Man by Jason Dean