DELETED SCENE #3
What follows are some of the very first pages I wrote in the development of Perfect Red. I had in my mind a secretary who had a secret talent for story that she hid for nearly thirty years. I thought there would be one special story she had saved and I was thinking about what would happen when the editor she served – and loved – all those years, suddenly died. I am drawn to older women characters, and have them at the center of both The Last Beach Bungalow and The Threadbare Heart, so it felt natural to be writing, again, about a woman at the end of her life. I worked for quite some time before my agent pointed out that it would be much more engaging to set the story at the time the action was taking place rather than years afterwards. I agreed. Everything I was writing about the editor was recollection – which isn’t very exciting to read. So I scrapped hundreds of pages and started again with my secretary as a young woman.
As for the story she saved, that was always going to be a story about a red lipstick. Why? A hundred reasons, really. I was inspired by a story one of my clients told me about a real-life duchess who used blood to make her cheeks red; I was inspired by some things I read about Coco Chanel, on whom my character Isadora is based; and I had done a lot of research about the color red for The Threadbare Heart. I was going to make the main character in that story a textile historian. I am always intrigued by the work that my characters do, and at first she was going to be a mathematician who liked fabric, and then she morphed into a fabric collector and historian. I read a book called A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield, which is a fascinating exploration of the history of the color red. So all that was in my head when I started writing this new book. Here are those original opening pages:
There is nothing quite like a funeral for a celebrated editor, because all the people who speak on his behalf, who eulogize him and mourn for him, are writers who are not only attuned to see the emotion and the drama in everyday life, but people who can articulate with exquisite precision the meaning of life’s larger events. I have attended many such funerals in my seventy five years and the funerals of too many great writers to name, and have always found them to be ultimately uplifting. Good stories well told are the perfect antidote to grief.
The funeral of Jamison Parrish, however, was different. It was torture. For fifty six years, as the world transformed from typewriters to laptops as light as notebooks, I had been Jamison’s secretary and stenographer. I had recorded his thoughts, his letters, his editorial notes to writers. I had given up any dreams I’d had of being a writer myself in order to orchestrate his success. I used the peculiar talent I had for seeing a story’s shape as if it were a physical thing to ensure that Jamison would die a legend – and he had. It had happened.
I was sitting three pews from the altar at St. John the Divine, wearing a black wool sheath dress I bought before Jackie O. started at Doubleday. In the front row, on the other side of the aisle, directly in my line of sight, was Jamison’s wife, Kathryn, flanked by their one of their children and eight grandchildren. Five rows back from them, were two sisters, both of whom Jamison had once bedded, though I am certain neither of them knew about the other. I did not crane my head around to see who was behind me, how many other women who had come claiming some measure of greif. It was enough just to see those who were in my view, and to hold in my head the contradictions I knew about their lives.
From my position, I could, of course, also see all the writers – the famous and the soon-to-be famous, the drunk and ruined writers, and those who were still striving for a taste of their past glory. When they caught my eye, they would smile or nod. When they passed by me, they would put a reassuring hand on my shoulder, because they knew that once Jamison was gone from the corner office on the 33rd floor, I would be gone, as well. We were obsolete. Throwbacks to another era. We had been allowed to stay because you don’t ask someone of Jamison’s stature to go, even if all he does anymore is come into the office to talk about books, to read them, to lunch with the people who make them.
On Monday, I would take the elevator to the 33rd floor. I would begin to pack away the books in Jamison’s office and the books in mine. I would pack up the typewriter ribbons I had stockpiled, and the box of Ticonderoga #2 pencils, and the coffee mugs that Jamison preferred – actual ceramic mugs, which I still took home each week to wash. The young people who worked all around us – some of them were so young – would be kind to me, of course. They would stand on a stepstool to get the books on the top shelf, and they would lift the filled boxes for me, and they would send any messages via email I felt necessary to send. It had been like that for years, now – the young people being kind, solicitous, and respectful of the role I had played in that place. Like most people, however, they had no idea what I had actually done for Jamison. They had no idea that I was anything besides a white-haired stenographer in a world that had passed me by.
But I had made him what he was.
And I had loved him, as steadfastly as any tin soldier.