Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
In Los Angeles there is no driver who isn’t prudently wary of the peppery band who pilot tiny Volkswagens. They are known to be a race of aggressive, intrepid free spirits who make it a point of pride to dart pugnaciously in front of any Rolls or Mercedes ever built; who automatically and outrageously take precedence at four-way crossroads and zoom unapologetically into parking spaces that have clearly been staked out by more impressive and less quickly maneuverable vehicles.
Gigi Orsini bought herself a flat-out flaming scarlet Volkswagen convertible when she decided to accept the copywriting job at Frost/Rourke/Bernheim, the advertising agency that had been wooing her for months.
For years she’d dutifully driven a worthy but dull Volvo, a gift from Billy Ikehorn, her stepmother, but now, during the three-day weekend she allotted herself between leaving one job and starting another, Gigi plunked down a bundle of slowly accumulated cash for, a car she could relate to. She put its top down and caressed its gleaming flanks; this mad machine, frisky and lighthearted, was exactly right for her new maturity, her new career, her new status. It was a nimble, merry car that suited Gigi’s optimism in this year of 1983, a year in which Barbra Streisand had the film industry poised to judge Yentl, the first film she dared to star in and direct as well as produce; a year in which L.A. got ready to host the Summer Olympics; a year during which Queen Elizabeth, game under her headscarf, visited President Reagan’s mountaintop ranch in the middle of a violent storm; a year that saw Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in his prime, sign an unprecedented contract that paid him a million and a half dollars a season; a year in which the finality of the last episode of “M*A*S*H” struck a notable note of sadness in the otherwise prosperous lives of millions of Americans.
Now, on an optimistically promising late fall morning in this optimistic year early in the optimistic 1980s, Gigi Orsini, electric with nerves, teeth grinding with caution and apprehension, feeling none of the arrogant insouciance a VW owner deserved, slowly cruised the parking lot behind the old-fashioned, vaguely Spanish-style office building on Sunset Boulevard near La Cienega where Frost/Rourke/Bernheim was located. It was the first day of her new job and she hadn’t felt so shy since beginning high school, when she’d been as bashful as she had ever been in her normally unself-conscious life.
If only she didn’t have a built-in need to disturb the status quo of her life, to upset the applecart, if only, Gigi jittered to herself, she’d been able to remain happily in the safe and wildly booming bosom of Scruples Two, the fashion catalog that she’d come to think of as the family business, she wouldn’t now be looking for a parking space in a state of gibbering fidgets, about to take her first steps in advertising.
Archie Rourke, copywriter, and Byron Berenson Bernheim III, art director, were two of the three partners in the agency that had set up shop in Los Angeles six months ago, arriving fresh from New York. As Gigi pulled in gingerly next to a sleek Porsche, she reminded herself of the words that Archie had used while he was trying to persuade her to come to work for them.
“Advertising is the major art form of the second half of the twentieth century,” he’d said. “Three hundred years from now, when a museum curator is putting together a show to make our era live again, the material will be drawn primarily from television commercials and magazine ads.” She hadn’t made her decision based on the content of his words, but she’d noted the absolute sense of conviction with which he delivered them, as if the worlds of the theatrical arts, writing, music, and photography existed only to be incorporated in great advertising. They’d aroused Gigi’s sense of adventure and given birth to a curiosity that had eventually led to this paralyzing moment.
Gigi punched the car-alarm code absently and smoothed down her skirt with hands that trembled slightly. At least she was appropriately dressed. Each time she’d had lunch with Byron and Archie, they had worn the California version of East Coast high dignity, sporting Armani suits with fine, striped dress shirts and superior ties. Advertising, she understood, both from Archie’s words and the way he and Byron put themselves together in the heartland of casual, was a business that took itself seriously. Both of them looked as if they could be agents, and agents were the most rigidly well-tailored men in California.
Certainly Archie was as smooth-talking and persuasive as any agent she’d ever met, a man she could only describe to herself with an inward giggle as a handsome brute, as if his rakish, devil-may-care brooding looks, with the unbeatable combination of black-Irish curly hair and policeman-blue eyes had been assembled for viewing through the pages of a Regency romance.
Rusty-haired Byron was a contrast to Archie, a tall, elegant man with a mild and slightly awkward manner at the corners of which lurked an interesting edge of mockery. His world, Gigi thought as she walked through rows of cars, seemed to be filled with private jokes, and his gray eyes often widened and flashed with humor as he sketched his striking graphic ideas on tablecloths. She was amused at the way the two men interacted. They’d been a team for so long that sometimes they sounded like two sides of the same fairly irresistible person.
What was bothering her as much as anything, Gigi realized as she threaded her way reluctantly across the parking lot toward Sunset Boulevard and the entrance of the building, was that damn magazine article she’d read last night. What evil hazard had thrust it in her path, that helpful article in that caring woman’s magazine, an article that told her everything she needed to know about the first day on a new job?
She hoped gloomily that she wasn’t going to be driven to volunteering for the company’s annual blood drive, one of the recommended ways in which to get to know your fellow workers. Perhaps she could get away with inconspicuously observing the local atmosphere before she made an active move in what the writer had called “workplace politics.” The article warned sternly against getting involved with the first friendly people you met, since they were bound to be the “office losers”; it instructed her to be upbeat without being overly bubbly, for bubbly would seem desperate; to smile in a way that indicated warmth but not unprofessional pushiness; to make a seating chart of her co-workers in order to memorize their names and to prove herself quietly over a period of months as she waited patiently, without a touch of fatal overeagerness, to make an impression in the company’s “collective corporate subconscious,” a concept that the writer of the article had assured her was rock-firm even if unacknowledged.
“I will be good,” Gigi murmured firmly in the immortal words of Queen Victoria when she discovered that she was about to succeed to the throne.
“Oy!” Gigi halted suddenly as she walked past a delivery truck. Goosy, twitching with nerves, overloaded with all the information she’d absorbed, she suddenly needed to make a final inspection. She wore her one gray flannel suit, a recent gift from Prince, the great New York designer, cut with classic perfection. Its hemline, demure but not dowdy, bisected the middle of her knee; under the jacket she wore an immaculate white cotton blouse. She was five feet four inches tall but looked taller as she stood in perfectly plain black high-heeled pumps worn with opaque black panty hose. Her only jewelry was a pair of simple pearl earrings and the Cartier “Bathtub” watch with an alligator band that Billy had given her as a good-bye present at her going-away party when she left Scruples Two, a watch as expensive as it was discreet.
Was anyone ever so absolutely right, Gigi wondered, could anyone make a better first impression? But being absolutely right went against her grain. Her own inclination was always toward the offbeat, the riotously unexpected, and although this leap into advertising demanded a new wardrobe, an old impulse had led her to pull her favorite hat down over her hair, streaked by her own hand in all the reddish-orangy-yellowy-golds of a cluster of variegated marigolds.
It was a deep-crowned late-Edwardian hat made from a beautifully faded floral linen. The hatband was a double width of heavy crimson taffeta, trimmed in front with two red cherries, a large red velvet rose, and several appliquéd green velvet leaves. The wide brim was pulled up at the front and anchored to the band by the rose.
This was a hat that a girl had worn when she’d seen her fiancé off to the Great War, Gigi thought, a brave, frivolous hat that had made her face bright. She knew that the fiancé had come back from the war, otherwise why had the hat’s owner kept it so carefully stuffed and wrapped with tissue, in the box bearing the name of a London milliner that Gigi had discovered as she searched for antique lingerie? Until today, Gigi had kept the hat on a stand as a decoration for her bedroom, but now it transformed the severity of her costume with an aura of missing charm. She adjusted it carefully. The eighty-year-old hat felt as right as everything else she had on felt foreign and constricting.
Gigi pulled back her shoulders, tilted her chin, and marched out from the protection of the delivery truck, picking up speed and snap as she rounded the corner, entered the building, and, with a hint of her usual insubordinately dancing Jazz Baby walk, rapidly mounted the flight of steps that led to the offices of Frost/Rourke/Bernheim.