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Fiction

Queen For A Day

     I was a woman with a past and I wasn’t about to apologize for it. Stefan Gaulte, the photographer I worked for, had called me into his office. “Sit, sit,” he said with a sweep of his hand, leaning back in his chair like a potentate. I settled into one of his two George V high-backed chairs, looking at him across the antique birch morgue table he used as a desk, waiting to lose my job. But then his phone rang. It was Ursula, his stylist, who was arranging a casting call for noon that day, and he stood up to give her his picks from the models’ head-sheets that were arrayed on his desk: this one’s too blowsy, that one’s fabulous, I don’t like her ears. 

Shifting in the chair, I studied the row of tribal masks on the red lacquered wall behind him, but soon gave in to watching his patrician face and hazel eyes, his Beethoven-ian disarray of wavy brown hair, for any indication that he even knew I was still in the room. I had sat in that chair only one other time, seven months earlier, the morning Stefan had hired me, and since then I’d seen the royalty of the fashion industry lounging there, preening, posing, holding court, their Guccis propped on Stefan’s desk. Designers and editors, waxing on about the next season’s trends, with their tans in Manhattan in the dead of winter. Now I’d returned to that hallowed throneroom, having been asked to close the door behind me. I supposed I should’ve seen this moment coming.

I had moved to New York from Detroit, where I’d apprenticed under a prominent car photographer (we shot the magazine ads and the brochures for dealers’ showrooms), and I’d soon found that the New York fashion elite considered car photography somehow beneath them. Stefan didn’t subscribe to that bias, he was cool, even when assigning me a grimy chore. “Ginger,” he’d say (my name is Nell, but he’d nicknamed me for my shock of springy red hair), “a 5-K in the rafters, if you please.” And up to the rafters I’d climbed, tugging a thirty pound, 5,000-watt light up a twenty foot ladder, believing with all my heart that he saw something of his earlier self in my devotion and industrious ways. It was his clients who acted like I wasn’t in the room, like I was there to deliver lunch, who looked right through me the few times I broached a word with them.

One time I complimented the bracelet a designer from Chanel was wearing, I told her how clever I thought it was. Without looking at me she replied, “How would you know?” and sashayed away with her aquiline nose in the air. I’d assisted on car shoots in countless exotic locales, in Africa, Australia, Europe, and once above the Arctic Circle, as well as across the USA, but for Stefan’s clients the operative word was car shoot. In their fairytale careers I was beneath their caste, a gnome for schlepping, climbing, tending the cameras. And after a while, I began noticing that their snide remarks about me were having an effect on Stefan that didn’t bode well, as if I had somehow soiled his image, as though my presence there reflected poorly on him. There was something gone in his eyes, in his emerging habit of never quite meeting my own.

I knew that look. I’d seen it every day for three years in Detroit.

And what a bastion of arrogance that was: The Motor City. The birthplace of the automobile. I was born and raised there, graduated from a photography college there that was funded mostly by General Motors, the only one my parents and I (working nights at a film processing lab) could afford. I didn’t have the money after graduation to move to one of the coasts and explore my options. And there was something, I think, about my being the only girl and the youngest among four brothers that riveted me to that car crazy town. That drove me to becoming the only female assistant in an industry where all of the car photographers, all the creative directors, and all the automotive marketing gurus were men. Many women have since earned their way into those ranks, but this was 1972. I had to be twice as good and work twice as hard if I expected to ever be taken as seriously as the boys. I could never slip up, never forget anything, and never ever risk a bungle so glaring as being even one minute late for a dawn shoot.

There were times back then when my assignment was to get up at two in the morning to get everything set up before sunrise. I would put my alarm clock with its old-styled clangors in a tin wastebasket, where it would brrr-ring! and clatter so I couldn’t possibly oversleep. And then I’d drive the equipment truck a hundred miles into a desert or up some winding mountain pass, with the moon still in its downward path. If one of the crew was toting a forty pound strobe pack from the truck to the set, I’d carry a pack in each hand. If he had a pack in each hand, I’d jog past him with my two. If it started to rain, I made sure I was the last one dashing into the motorhome. I dressed in jeans and heavy work boots and a long sleeved men’s shirt, avoiding all things feminine, never wearing shorts, not even in August, not even on a shoot in the Sahara. In rare spans of time off, I agonized over the tiniest additions to my portfolio, determined to compile a body of work that could someday usher me into the men’s club, a car photographer running her own crew.

And still they treated me like an intruding suffragette.

“What’s the dame doin’ here?” was one popular jibe, not always behind my back. Or my glance would catch their leers, as they sniggered suggestively, whispering among themselves.

I finally came to my senses on a Ford shoot in Le Mans, France.

We had wrapped for the night. I was in a robe with my hair turbaned in a towel, when someone knocked on my hotel room door. I opened the door expecting Tom, the go-fer I’d sent on an equipment errand, who’d be returning the keys to the grip truck. But instead it was Andy, the creative director. He introduced his “good buddy,” which was pointing out of his zipper and right at my chin. “Call your wife,” I said, “she misses you,” and slammed the door, hoping it gave his wiener a good whack.

“You’ll regret it!” he hollered through the door.

I wasn’t a whiner, I worked hard at my job, learning the nuances that raised a photograph to the level of Art. But I was trembling mad, really steamed, my dignity aching. I caught myself pacing the wall of curtains I had closed against the rain and the dark, and I stopped. Drawing long deep breaths, exhaling slowly, mindful, meditative, I found the absurd humor of a married man making cow eyes at me with his erection in his hand, and a smile grew across my lips. Propping the pillows on my bed, I sat down and dialed my cousin Anna in New York (with the six hour time difference she was still at work in her office). More than my cousin she was my dearest friend, and we soon got to cackling about men and their foibles, like two seasoned divorcées. But then, as I sighed that it was all in a day’s work, she cut me short.

“Screw those macho hacks,” she said. “How much longer are you gonna put up with those shits. You’re an artist, get your butt to New York. My sofa’s still waiting with your name on it.”

I’d heard this from her before. She’d been following my stalled career by phone, and for over a year had been offering me the use of her sofa. But this time she threw in a cherry, a starting place toward reinventing my career. Stefan Gaulte was the most sought after young photographer in Manhattan, and he was looking for a third assistant. It was a lowly job, he already had a full staff, and all the grunt work would be falling to me. But it was a coveted job nonetheless. Two guys who’d taken entry level positions with him had worked their way up, earned their stripes, and with Stefan’s help had two years later launched flourishing careers, with a client list of top fashion magazines and ad agencies. And Anna, the newly minted production manager at Vanity Fair, was confident that on her recommendation Stefan would at least agree to grant me an interview.

Ten days later, my battered suitcase and I trudged into Anna’s Soho flat. The next morning I was sitting across from Stefan. His black turtleneck, his furrowed brow. My career a lump in my throat. After a long pause, he looked up at me, drumming his fingers on my open portfolio. “You’re a storyteller,” he said, like a delivering archangel, and I almost cried. “The wry humor, the unexpected nuance. I love the way your mind works.” And while I sat there debating whether or not to gush that it was he who had inspired my work, he whom I’d idolized since high school, he said, “Besides, redheads are the apples of God’s eye. Be here tomorrow at eight.” It was all I could do to walk out of his studio without hugging everyone I passed. I’d bagged the elephant. The same portfolio that in Detroit had been derided as being “too artsy, too froo-froo,” had landed me a full-time job with the crown prince of New York. A month later, I got my own place, a fifth floor walkup above a fruit market in Chelsea, just five blocks from Stefan’s studio.

And now the crown prince was sitting across from me in his office telling Ursula, “I know you will, Baby. You’re the best. Ciao for now.” Then he hung up the phone, and I readied myself for unemployment. Seconds crept by as he took to fussing with the head sheets on his desk, arranging them into what for him was too neat of a pile, as though he were as uncomfortable as I was with the coming schism. When his gaze finally met mine, he looked almost professorial, saying, “You know that cluster-fuck for next Friday?”

“Um. . . ” I said. “Sure I do.” He was referring to an assignment for Vogue, one of those shots so deceptively simple that they gave even top-tier photographers the heebie-jeebies. Deceptively simple because no matter how fully prepared and experienced you were, leaving nothing to luck, any number of things could easily go wrong. If something did go wrong and you rolled with it, nailing the shot anyway, no one would bother to pat you on the back; perfection was expected of a pro. Whereas if you fumbled the shot, if you let the unexpected trip you up–even if something clearly beyond your control went wrong–well, let’s just say phrases like “You’ll never work in this town again” would come to mind.

“Well, they’ve moved it up to Tuesday,” he said. “The giraffe is being sent back to Kenya earlier than planned, and Tuesday’s the only day everyone else is available. That’s the day Celia goes in for her biopsy.” In my head I was composing words of concern and best wishes for his wife Celia’s biopsy when he added, “So I want you to shoot it for me.”

I held his gaze, neither of us blinked, while I made the transition from about to be fired to being offered a treasured though dubious prize. I’d seen the layout. It was a recipe for disaster. I was worried that my first big break might become my last hurrah. And I did try to worm out of it, graciously, gratefully, reminding him he had two assistants more seasoned than I at fashion work (and who’d be quick to put their own ambitions ahead of good judgment, willing to sleep on the street for the opportunity).

He leaned at me, lacing his fingers atop his desk, saying he had gone out on a mighty long limb to get me this chance, calling in a favor from the vice president of editorial at Vogue. My talent and work ethic, he said, put me in a league above the rest of his staff. I was born for a job like this one, he told me. My shot at the big time had landed in my lap. “Courtesy of moi,” he added. I told him, “I owe you a lot. Don’t think I don’t know that.” Yet I felt I was staring into an abyss, worried not for myself but for him. He had sold me to Vogue with his reputation, saying, in effect, if you trust me, then you can trust her. And though risk was in my nature (I hadn’t gotten this far by being timid), the weight of that responsibility–of his risk–scared me. But then he reminded me about the letter of recommendation from my former employer, the one I had handed to Stefan the day he hired me, which read, in part: She’s a stickler for detail. She’ll never let you down.

***

I got on the phone in the production office, hired two freelance assistants for the shoot, and sat down over coffee with Stefan’s producer, Allison. She’d be coordinating all the details with Vogue, chasing down loose ends, reconfirming the supermodel’s booking, tracking the arrivals and special needs of the principals, ordering a catered breakfast and lunch for Tuesday. That much of the shoot was in seasoned hands. The rest was up to me.

I took a walk, straight up Broadway, numbed to the jostling pedestrians, the curbing taxis, the dreamy dander of falling snow, contemplating my shot at the big time, that recipe for disaster: take equal parts of a supermodel named Zoe, who had just gotten out of rehab; and a yearling albino giraffe that was on loan from Kenya to the Bronx Zoo; and a hand-sewn Rouennet gown, which was being flown from Paris with Mr. Rouennet’s personal entourage (with its own seat in first class); and a black hybrid orchid, raised in a laboratory in Hawaii, the star of an upcoming floral convention at Madison Square Garden. And I couldn’t shoot them separately and strip them together in this pre-digital age, where photos were still retouched by hand with opaque inks. Vogue wouldn’t allow it. That was the trick, the twist, the reason they had brought it to Stefan.

The shot would be accompanying a feature article about “One-of-a-Kind Luxuries,” and Vogue wanted it to look so real that you felt you could reach right into it. They wanted it shot on portrait film, on eight by ten inch color transparencies, which meant hauling Stefan’s vintage Diedorf view camera out of storage, with its long leather bellows, mahogany frame, and black cloth for draping over my head.  She’s a stickler for detail, she’ll never let  you down. What had that gotten me into? Pausing to get my bearings, hunched over with my bare hands jammed into the slash pockets of my vest–Jeez!–I’d walked all the way to midtown. On the way back, I stopped at my walkup to phone my dad in Detroit.

My dad had been my earliest mentor; he’d shown me the craft behind the art, the professional deftness without which inspiration never gets fully expressed. He had taught photography at the local junior college, and during the summers earned extra money by shooting portraits at horse shows around the country. Portraits of the dressage crowd, the thoroughbreds with their thoroughbreds, as Dad used to say. Beautiful horses, with their riders sitting upright in the saddle or sometimes standing alongside, their smart little caps, their riding crops, their gleaming black boots, their perfect teeth that they talked through.

The summer I turned fourteen Dad started taking me with him. I stood off to the side of his camera with a carrot or a pail of oats, so the horses would stand rock-still and stare only at me. It was a marvel to watch Dad work. The riders were often impatient, snotty, snooty, but Dad’s concentration was so complete and intense you could feel it in the air. And he always managed to get his clients as soothed and poised as their horses. He never let anything distract him, never flubbed a shot, waiting, waiting, finally squeezing the release at the “decisive moment,” capturing an instant of perfect symbiosis between horse and rider. “They’re amateurs, Honey,” he once told me. “And they’re usually full of themselves. You have to let them know without ever saying it that you’re so in charge of this thing, there’s nothing they can do but go along with you.”

When I phoned Dad about the Vogue shoot, his advice was priceless. He sent me to FAO Schwartz, the toy store on Fifth Avenue for the children of the rich.

At FAO, I bought a stuffed giraffe, seven feet tall, the size of the yearling giraffe I’d be shooting. No way would it fit in a taxi, so I had it express-delivered to the studio. On Sunday, the assistants I’d called, Simon and Jake, brought in several boxed orchids, and Stefan’s producer Allison brought in a beaded dress from a vintage clothing store that approximated the Rouennet. I ran the rehearsal using my cousin Anna as the supermodel, until I knew that this crew who had never worked together before had it down better than a second nature. Anna on the right, the giraffe behind and aside her, the orchid on a marble stand set before them, the heights, the shapes, the lighting, all working really well in composition. I burned through eighty sheets of raw film, and might not have stopped if Simon hadn’t turned to me with a timid expression and said, “I think we’ve got it down, Nell.”

I shot ten more sheets, for discipline. And then I called it “a wrap” for the day.

Tuesday morning, just after dawn, I stood looking in the mirror with my wet hair turbaned in a towel. I’d be running the show for my first time ever. It was all on me, and I was trying to decide whether or not to wear makeup. A small point, I know, but when you’re in charge it helps to bring people around if you look the part. In the end I went with a subtle peach lipstick and nothing more. I puckered into the mirror, thinking Only the unprepared get  surprised. I was ready for come what may.

At the studio door I punched in my alarm code. I was early, the only one there. So I went to the kitchen to put water on the stove for tea. Walking out to the stage, I turned a spotlight on over the set, what little there was to the set, which consisted of a marble pedestal, a tripod without a camera, both of them standing squarely on their tape marks. A tiny island of white with two stoic inhabitants amid fourteen hundred square feet of empty white space. I circled it once from some distance, slowly, letting the players take their places in my head, my footfalls echoing about and coming back to me from the rafters eighteen feet above me. Then I returned to the kitchen to choose my tea. Not long after, Simon came in, restless, overeager to prep the camera, dust the set. I sat him down to a white mug of Chamomile.

Norbert, the art director from Vogue, strolled in nearly an hour late, even though I’d asked him to be there at nine so we could talk over my favorite pick from the Sunday rehearsal. There are a number of things I could tell you about Norbert: he was tall, six-three to my five-two, with a fussy blonde pompadour and effeminate hands, and he was a turd (this was Stefan’s private assessment, even though Norbert had always treated him with a great deal of deference). He had the affectations, both in attitude and mannerism, along with the snobbery that rolled off his tongue, of a William F. Buckley with half the IQ. Also, he’d hit on me once, during one of Stefan’s shoots, asked me to show him the darkroom so we could “get naked.” He was known to boast that he was bisexual. Boast it, not as a casual comment or flirtatious advance, but in a way that seemed like he thought it made him somehow mysterious, outré. The consensus in the fashion business, however, according to Stefan, was that Norbert was a virgin among both genders. As for showing him the darkroom, I’d told him to put a penny in his crocodile loafers and take a walk.

I wasn’t at all surprised when the first words out of his mouth were to tell me to send someone to get him a Tibetan Tea from Dr. Choi’s in Chinatown. I told him there were croissants and seven flavors of butter, and eggs scrambled with shallots and lobster, and Moroccan coffee, but he turned his nose up at it all. So I sent Jake off to Dr. Choi’s, knowing how important it was to Norbert that everyone should see he wasn’t impressed by the catered food. Then I towed Norbert over to show him the shot from my rehearsal, only to see him fling his hand when we got to the light box and go skulking off, snarling, “I’ll tell you when you’re fucking up.” Flipping up the collar of his monogrammed shirt, he dropped into a distant sedan chair. It seemed pretty clear that he wanted me to know he wasn’t thrilled about having been forced by his boss’s boss to work with me, and I was determined to let his rudeness roll off me. There were far bigger egos than his to contend with among the people who were soon to arrive.

Rouennet ‘s entourage paraded in at eleven. Seven of them, two just to carry the gown between them, a periwinkle floor-length toile with 1,200 hand-sewn beads. I’d thought that Rouennet  himself would be joining us (he was in town for Fashion Week), but his Nordic aide-de-camp, a beardless Viking in black leather jeans, told me “Hubert doesn’t do such affairs.” Zoe, the supermodel, had arrived and was in one of the makeup rooms, screaming at someone. A big slat-board crate was rolled in with the darling, wide-eyed giraffe inside. A vet shot her up with a tranquilizer that might’ve been put to better use on Zoe. Two botanists shuffled in with the orchid in a refrigerated box, like the ones used to transport donated organs, neither of them looking particularly eccentric, although the smaller one, shorter, rail thin, wore a bolo tie that didn’t fit with my preconception of scientists living in some super secret enclave in Hawaii.

The caterer took down our breakfast buffet, and began setting up lunch, under the arched eye of Rouennet ‘s aide-de-camp, who complained that the caviar, though Russian, was red rather than black. The beaded gown didn’t quite fit because Zoe had put on a few pounds in rehab (only nine ounces, she insisted), and Allison found herself on the phone with Zoe’s agent, who was trying to renegotiate Zoe’s fee because I had asked Zoe to wriggle into a girdle so the gown’s zipper would zip up. Ultimately, we all agreed to pin it closed, and pose her so it wouldn’t show in the shot, although I’d had to restore a tenuous peace when Rouennet ‘s Viking hissed, “Why don’t we just staple it to her ribs?” The botanists watched all this with lethargic eyes as they scooped caviar from a crystal bowl with Doritos they’d found in the kitchen. And though the studio’s thermostat was set to sixty-eight, and Simon was idled for the moment, having nothing further to do except to wait by the camera, which he and I had already set up and prepped, his gray t- shirt’s armpits had darkened with half moons.

Through it all I was the referee, each iota called huffily to my attention by Norbert or one of the Rouennet  stiffs, as if it were my fault–even the scandalous Doritos. But I was in a zone, calling the ball, so to say, the zone I had learned early on from my dad and later developed as my own. I didn’t clap my hands when I was ready to start, demanding everyone’s attention, hastening them to the set. I simply walked away from a hot debate between Rouennet ‘s Gestapo and Norbert about whether Rudolph Nureyev was gay, and I waited at camera. “Take some deep breaths,” I told Simon, who was chewing his cuticles. It wasn’t long before the others noticed me, and wandered over, forming a ragged semi-circle.

“I want Zoe and Twiggy (the giraffe) right now,” I told them, “and the orchid standing by.” When my cast was assembled and posed, I fired the strobe several times, to be sure it wouldn’t startle Twiggy. It was then that I realized Norbert wasn’t beside or behind me with the others. He was well off to the side, his view of the set perpendicular to mine. I eyed him for several seconds, his brow scrunched with disapproval, a feigned seriousness of purpose that bordered on absurd, and when he didn’t return my gaze I realized what he was doing: he was waiting, expecting me to fail. Maybe even wanting me to fail. His plan, I guessed, was to stand there apart while I exposed ten or twenty sheets of film, then come marching to my camera, his arms waving–”Wrong, wrong, where did you get your art degree, a cereal box?”–and order this or that to be changed, more light on the orchid, less light on Zoe, blah-blah-blah, and claim later to have saved the day. Fine. Let him wait. “I’ll have the orchid now,” I said. And when the botanists had freed it from its box, I positioned it just so on the marble pedestal.

“Okay,” I said, returning to camera, “we’re going live.”

I had coached Zoe in the dressing room, and on my cue she fell into her pose, her hand on her cocked hip, her pouty gaze, the ideal expression of bored elegance. Without prompting, all on her own–one of those moments you could never plan for–Twiggy craned her long neck, leaning down toward Zoe’s shoulder. I thumbed the cable release, the strobe fired, and we had our first frame of film.

But as Simon flipped the film holder for the next exposure, Twiggy bent lower, bumped Zoe, then reared her head high, munching on the orchid. “Are those poisonous?” the vet squealed from behind me. The slack-jawed botanists couldn’t seem to summon a word between them, but we didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Twiggy got to tossing her head about, and just as the fretting vet reached her side she vomited down the bosom of Zoe’s gown, a sound like creamed corn flung at a wall, sending Zoe screaming across the room, at which time Twiggy collapsed to the floor in a heap, pinning the vet beneath her.

I rushed to Twiggy’s side, kneeling, stroking her trembling neck, her eye cocked back at me in terror. A shrieking exchange erupted behind the camera, I spun around in time to see Rouennet ‘s aide-de-camp take a lunging roundhouse slap at the smaller of the two botanists, screaming about the dress of 1,200 beads, the bodice of which was caked with lumpy yellow vomit.

“Where’s Norbert?” I asked Simon, who replied with a helpless shrug. Allison, I saw, was off with a box of tissues chasing Zoe in big looping circles. “Where’s Norbert?” I asked no one in particular. But nobody knew.

I eventually managed to separate the various parties. Allison, Zoe, and Zoe’s agent (who had rushed from his office), were in a makeup room; the vet was on a phone in the kitchen; the Rouennet  people were in Stefan’s office so the aide-de-camp could lie down (on Stefan’s desk, looking like a sartorial cadaver); the two botanists had left, but the lawsuits they’d threatened still hung in the air. Twiggy had been further tranquilized, and was dozing on the floor, draped with black drop cloths from Stefan’s storeroom. The orchid had only made her ill. The two truckers who’d delivered Twiggy were waiting for a sling-lift to be brought from the zoo. At some point I took a phone call from Simon, who was in a panic, waiting at the lab for my film to be

developed.

“I’m not cut out for this shit,” he said. “One sheet, Jesus Christ, I’m dying here, what if we’re screwed?”

“We expected the unexpected,” I told him. “And that’s what we got. Do you think I would’ve shot it if I didn’t like what I saw?”

“You think we got lucky?” he asked.

“You think luck had anything to do with it?”

After we hung up, I realized I hadn’t had lunch. I sat down with a plate of Chicken Kiev and caviar, wondering but not much caring anymore about what had become of Norbert.

When Simon returned with the film, the single 8 X 10 sheet, Twiggy was being sling-lifted off the floor, somewhat awake. I left my plate, went strolling over to give Twiggy a few last strokes between her ears. Then I went over to Simon, who was standing at the light box, his weight shifting from one foot to the other. He was still all wound up. But grinning. I’d nailed it, I saw that at first glance, the image was there, it was perfect. I bent over the film with a magnifying loop. Even if I’d shot a hundred more sheets, this first sheet would have been the one, the winner, the decisive moment. God bless Twiggy for her impromptu move, her ad lib. I was about to congratulate Simon, I was so proud he had shared the experience, mere months as he was out of art school. But we turned to the sound of the studio’s steel door yanking open.

Norbert came crossing the studio, another Tibetan tea in hand.

“You’re okay?” I asked as he neared. But he brushed by me, grumbling something I couldn’t make out, and fell to examining the film. Scowling, muttering, staring down at the shot. After a moment, he swiped the magnifying loop from my hand, and bent over the film, eyeballing it inch by inch, checking the focus, the facial expressions, Zoe’s then Twiggy’s, Zoe’s then Twiggy’s, and the pretty pink stamens splaying up from the orchid’s center, searching, I imagined, for what venomous words he could offer. Then he pulled himself tall, huffed his disgust, and walked away.

“You’re one lucky shit,” he said.

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