After last week’s serious post, I thought I’d treat you to a sneak peek at my work in progress. Enjoy the first few pages of The In Crowd.* Since I’m still in the process of manifesting new representation, feel free to pass it on to your favorite literary agent. Just kidding. (Sort of.)
THE IN CROWD
HOW IT BEGAN
“When you start at 20, you have a lot of nonsense to work out of your system.”
I’ve been to Woodstock. I’ve stood with the mourners of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I’ve walked abandoned rail tracks in the Rust Belt and tarnished neon streets on the north side of Chicago. I’ve got a bookcase filled with photography awards. Yet whenever I speak, there’s only one thing people want to talk about: What happened on November 9, 1965, when Lisa Todd, Queen of the In Crowd, climbed to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge, kicked off her shoes and disappeared forever.
They never did find her body, just her waterlogged mink which washed up on the shore of the East River. Her body must have washed out to see. At least that was what the authorities believed. None of us will ever know for sure.
I find myself thinking about Lisa a lot lately. Age, it seems, has made me nostalgic. Or maybe, it’s because Eddie and I are the only two left who remember what really happened. I read the books people have written about us and realize that time has slipped a filter over the lens. The photos and recollections tell only of the good times, and why not? No one wants to think about the bad. People today see the In Crowd as this impossibly cool and glamorous club, the darlings of Greenwich Village. They can’t see us for what we were, a bunch of kids playing at being adults.
1965 is the year we grew up. We started the year at the top, convinced the good times would last forever until the world taught us otherwise. Lisa’s fall was merely the most dramatic. By the time the lights (literally) went out 11 months later, none of us were the same.
You see, Lisa’s rise and fall is only part of the story. She, me – the whole In Crowd – we’re all part of the same chaotic picture. You can’t focus on one person any more than you can ignore composition in favor of a single element. The stories must be told together. That’s why, when people ask me what happened to her, I’ve always avoided the question. Until now.
Five plus decades ago, I showed the world the In Crowd’s story with pictures. The time’s come for me to tell it again, in words. What follows is my version of events as best I can remember.
Of course, all stories must start some place. For me, it stars in 1964 with a classified ad and a fifth-floor studio outside Greenwich Village.
It was by chance that I became Roosevelt’s assistant. Three weeks earlier, I’d arrived at the midtown accounting firm where I worked as a receptionist to find the office padlocked. Apparently Harold West, the sole properity of H. West and Associates had been skimming clients to pay for his mistress’s apartment. Thanks to his indiscretion, I was unemployed.
I’d been living in New York for three months by that point, having waved goodbye to East Greenbush, New York to become a ‘career girl’, which is what they called single women living on their own in those days. My parents would be delighted if I failed – my mother, in particular. She wanted me to live home, get a local job, marry a nice local boy, and live a life of church suppers, bake sales and bridge games, like my classmates from junior college, but I knew that if I stayed in East Greenbush, that I would be there until I died. The idea of living my life in suburban monotony, never experiencing more than what I could pack into a two week vacation, frightened the hell out of me.
I needed to do more. What more I didn’t know. All I knew for certain was that I had this space inside me, a longing, that ached to be filled.
And so, after promising my mother that I would take a room in a respectable, female-only building, and repeatedly reassuring her that not end up murdered like ‘those poor career girls last summer’, I escaped. I found a room in a female-only boarding house and a job that covered the rent. I’d even managed to see my first Broadway musical. (Stop the World, I Want to Get Off with Anthony Newley). All and all, things were going swimmingly until Mr. West got caught with his fingers in the honey pot.
With my rent due, and my parents just waiting for me to cry uncle, I spent the morning camped out at a payphone fruitlessly calling potential employers. It wasn’t long before I was down to my last two ads, one for a typist at a utility company and one for a photographer’s assistant. I didn’t have a clue as to what a photographer’s assistant did, but since the ad said no experience needed and sounded more interesting than typing, I called that number first. A nice-sounded man answered and, after a few minutes conversation, asked if I could come by that afternoon.
Two hours later, with my hair teased and sprayed into place, and dressed in my best herringbone jumper, I set out for the interview.
In those days, Roosevelt worked out of an old factory in Soho’s cast iron district. In 1964, Soho was far from the home of Dior and Prada that it is now. Prosperity deserted the area shortly after the Civil War turning it into a slum people nicknamed Hell’s Hundred Acres. Those beautiful iron-façade buildings which today would cost you a small fortune in rent, had become rundown eyesores, empty but for the homeless squatters who found their way inside. It stayed this way for over two decades until artists like Roosevelt and Warhol realized the combination of low rent and large open floor plans made for the perfect studio space and the district would begin a new identity as an artists’ mecca.
That renaissance, however, wouldn’t be for several more year When I arrived for my interview, Roosevelt was the building’s sole tenant, having renovated the top floor of a five-story building. The only access was a freight elevator with a cherry-red gate. The tracks were so old and rusty, the only way you could latch the gate into place was to pull it shut with both hands. Listening to pulleys creak and groan like I was the first person to ride in the contraption since D-Day, I changed my mind. No job was worth risking death every day. As soon as I reached my floor, I would tell the receptionist that I had found a position elsewhere.
Except there was no receptionist. There was no front door. The elevator stopped, and I found myself staring straight into Roosevelt’s studio.
Someone had painted the entire space battleship gray. The floor, the brick walls, even the plumbing lining the ceiling. Gray shutters blocked the large windows. Hanging industrial lights supplied the light.
“May I help you?” The question came from a man seated on a black velvet sofa. It was the only spot of color in the room. The sofa, that is. The man was as pale as his white dress shirt. He had long, gangly limbs too large for his frame and hair the color of bleached wheat. In bright enough light, you might never see him. For a moment I wondered if he could see me, since he was wearing sunglasses.
I tugged at my coat collar. “ I called this morning about the assistant’s job. The man on the phone told me to come by for an interview.”
“Is that so? Stevie,” he called over his shoulder, “did you tell someone to come by for an interview?”
“Yes, I did. I told you this morning, remember?” I recognized the voice from my phone call.
“Of course, I don’t remember. Details are your job. She seems frozen in the elevator.”
“She’s probably waiting to be asked inside.” A man stepped into view. “You must be Vanessa. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Stevie Tuesday. And this,” he gestured toward the sofa, “is Roosevelt Ellis.” He spoke as though I should know the name. “Let me get the gate. It sticks some time.”
The studio was much larger than it looked from the elevator. The room was divided into three distinct sections. On one side a large white shade hung down the wall and along the floor where someone had set a stool and a pair of spotlights. On the other was a gray plywood box with a thick velvet drape hung over the door. A single light bulb protruded from the wall above the material.
Nearby, a man lay on a cot taking a nap.
Stevie followed where my eyes went. “That’s Eddie. He crashes here sometime,” he explained. “The studio’s kind of a haven for local artists. When they get tired of nursing coffee at the café or need a place to get warm, they come here.”
“That’s really nice of you.”
“I like to cultivate young talent. You never know when you’ll come across the next great thing,” Roosevelt said.
I nodded, unsure how to respond. Roosevelt made me nervous. It wasn’t just his haughtiness – and believe me, he was haughty as hell. No, it was the way he filled the room. You would think a man as pale and colorless as him would fade into the background, rather than be a focal point, but he exuded a confidence that demanded attention.
He stretched a rangy arm across the back of the sofa. My skin tingled self-consciously. Sunglasses or not, I could feel his assessment. “So you want to be my assistant. Tell me, Miss…”
“Lawson. Vanessa Lawson.”
“Do you like photography?”
“Very much,” I replied.
“What do you like about it?”
“The pictures? I mean…” I stumbled to fill in my answer with something intelligent. “I don’t own a camera or anything, but I’ve always loved looking at pictures in the magazine. My parents are faithful subscribers to Life and National Geographic.”
Roosevelt smirked. “Did you hear that, Stevie? Her parents get Life and National Geographic.”
“I heard. So does my mother.”
“So does everyone’s parent,” Roosevelt said. “Let me guess. You would dream of traveling to far off places.”
“Yes, and…” And, like a lot of little girls, dreamed becoming a famous photojournalist, but why continue if he was going to mock?
“And what?” Stevie asked.
“I’m not sure how to explain.”
“Well…” I took a breath. “For some reason, my dad would store back issues in the living room cupboard, and when I little I would sometimes take them out and look at them. There was this one old issue…. I don’t remember the date, but there were pictures of a farm in Colorado. Only it looked more like the Sahara Desert than a farm. Nothing but fields of sand for acres and acres. In one picture, the farm and his wife posed with their dogs, and I swear, they stood ankle deep in sand. It’s funny. I read Grapes of Wrath in high school and can’t remember a single sentence, but that picture is as clear in my mind as it was ten years ago.”
When I finished, neither man said a word. After listening to my rambling answer, I imagined them regretting they ever asked.
Finally, Roosevelt spoke with a little less edge in his voice. “What do you think of fashion photography?”
“You mean ads and magazine spreads? They’re okay. They’re not as interesting as the stuff in the news magazines, though.”
“You know that Roosevelt is –”
He held up a hand. “Let her finish, Stevie. What is it about them that you dislike?”
“I don’t dislike them. They just don’t register with me. They’re all the same pose. Actually,” I said, “that’s not true. Some stand out. There’s this toothpaste ad that I love. The woman’s got this giant…”
“Toothbrush,” Roosevelt finished.
“Exactly. You know it.”
“I shot it.”
“Oh.” I suddenly got very warm. I don’t know what I’d been thinking, offering my opinion on photography to a professional photographer. “I really like it,” I added softly.
“I’m delighted you approve, Virginia.” I opted not to correct him a second time. I was too busy trying to remember if the diner near my apartment was hiring.
“You have a lot of opinions about photography,” he said. “Are you a photographer?”
Me? No. I’ve never touched a camera.”
“You just have opinions.”
“Yes.” Unfortunately, I added silently.
“Well, aren’t you the novelty? Like a female you, Stevie, only without the baby fat.”
There was a long pause while he lit a cigarette. “Come back tomorrow morning. Eight o’clock. We’ll want to see if you work ethic is as strong as your opinions.”
Just like that, I was Roosevelt Ellis’s photography assistant.
My life would never be the same.
*Copyright, Barbara Wallace. Subject to change because I am a serial reviser.