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Searching For Grace Kelly

Searching For Grace Kelly

by Michael Callahan


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"A gem of a story" (Laura Moriarty) about the famed Barbizon Hotel in which three spirited young women form an unlikely friendship and come of age in 1955 New York.

For a small-town girl with big-city dreams, there is no address more glamorous than New York’s Barbizon Hotel. Laura, a patrician beauty from Smith, arrives to work at Mademoiselle for the summer. Her hopelessly romantic roommate, Dolly, comes from a working-class upstate town to attend secretarial school. And then there's Vivian, a brash British bombshell with a disregard for the hotel’s rules.

Together, the girls embark on a journey of discovery that will take them from the penthouse apartments of Park Avenue to the Beat scene of Greenwich Village to Atlantic City’s Steel Pier—and into the arms of very different men who will alter their lives forever.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544313545
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/27/2015
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.77(d)

About the Author

MICHAEL CALLAHAN is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of the novel Searching for Grace Kelly. A former deputy editor at Town & Country and Marie Claire, he has written for more than two dozen national and international publications, including ELLE, Departures, Bloomberg Businessweek, the Hollywood Reporter, and the New York Times. He lives in Philadelphia.   

Read an Excerpt


June 1955

It was curious that a building so large, with so many people hurrying in so many different directions, could be so quiet. And yet the noise inside Grand Central was not so much cacophony, as one might expect from the "train station of the world," but rather a low, steady hum, like a running current of electricity, fed by hundreds and hundreds of people passing one another by.

Laura wanted to stay here. Just stay still and be. Stand invisible and safe by the elegant old clock in the middle of the terminal and study the faces of every single person coming and going. Imagine their backstories, invent tales of long-lost lovers reunited, rushing to one another as the sun splashed, cathedral-like, down from the long, slender windows. It was at these moments when she felt her body tense with energy. She could write their stories. Would write them. It was, after all, why she had come.

She looked at the clock again. One.

I'd better call.

She lugged her suitcases over to a wall of phone booths and slipped into the last of them. "Yes, operator?" she said. "I'd like to place a collect call to Greenwich, Connecticut, please. Greenwich-1, 3453."

David picked up. For an eleven-year-old, he had a strange obsession with the phone, always wanted to answer it, which no one could explain but everyone acquiesced to, grateful he didn't sport even more peculiar habits. His cousin Donald had occasionally been caught wearing his mother's jewelry, which everyone also knew but never acknowledged. Such things were not spoken of in the Dixon family.

"Hey, Bucko, it's Laura," she said, enjoying the unvarnished glee in his voice as he unleashed an avalanche of questions about the train ride down, about the apartment — she'd stopped correcting him that it was just a room — that she actually had yet to step into. "No, no, no," she was saying, trying to cut him off. "I'm still in the train station. I promise I will write you a long letter and tell you everything as soon as there is an everything to tell. But I will tell you I already bought you something."

He sounded as if he might actually reach through the phone to get it. "What?! What?!!"

"The latest Batman. I think they get them earlier here than they do at Carson's." Now in a complete frenzy, he insisted on knowing what the cover looked like, what the story was about. She fumbled with her bag and extracted the July issue of Detective Comics. "The Thousand-and-One Escapes of Batman and Robin," she relayed, perusing the cover image of Batman and his trusty sidekick bound and about to drown. Marmy didn't like David reading comic books — "Superman is not going to get him accepted at Yale" was a favorite axiom — but Laura's father pointed out that it was better than an addiction to television. "I'll send it back with Marmy when she visits."

"No, no!" the boy protested. "She'll just throw it out."

He had a point. "Hmm. Okay, how about this: I'll hide it inside another gift for you. See how that works out? Now you'll get two things from New York."

Mollified, he went to get his mother. Laura had pictured Marmy waiting by the phone for her call, but instead heard David yelling up the stairs, telling her to pick up. Perhaps she had one of her headaches.

The other line clicked alive. "Hang up, David," her mother said. The kitchen phone clicked off. "Well, you arrived safe and sound, then? Are you at the hotel?"

"No, I'm still at Grand Central Station. It's —"

"Terminal, dear. It's Grand Central Terminal. Please be precise, Laura. Women of good breeding are always precise."

Laura inhaled sharply. "Of course," she mumbled. She wanted to tell her mother that being precise wasn't what counted, what was important. Right now what was important was to be downstairs in the Oyster Bar, sipping a Tom Collins, making witty conversation with a traveling salesman from St. Louis who thought she was the most fascinating and sophisticated girl ever and had never heard of Greenwich, Connecticut, and never, ever wanted to go there.

But she couldn't and knew she wouldn't. One wrong word and she'd be back in Greenwich overnight. And the next time she may never get out.

"Remember, Aunt Marjorie and I will be down in two weeks to take you shopping for the rest of your wardrobe," Marmy was saying. "We can't have you working on Lexington Avenue appearing anything less than your very best."

"It's just for a month," Laura reminded her.

"It's Mademoiselle, Laura. You cannot go into the most fashionable magazine for American college girls and not look the part." A weary sigh escaped. "We'll go to Bendel's and Bergdorf's, of course, and then perhaps pop over to Knox the Hatter if there's time. Aunt Marjorie will want to eat at the Colony Club, which will try me to the point of exasperation, but I suppose it can't be helped." Laura's eyes had fixed on a woman wearing the new polka-dot dress from B. Altman and was about to remark on it when she heard her mother gently clear her throat, her effete signal that a conversation was ending. "I'll let your father know you arrived safely. Go right to the hotel and call us tomorrow. I want to know how the accommodations are, that everything is in order."

Ten minutes later, the city whizzed by as the taxi zoomed up Third Avenue toward East Sixty-Third Street. Laura wanted to take it all in but willed herself not to. There'll be time for all of that, she thought. I am not a tourist. I live here now. Even if it is only for a month.

The other girls — who, like her, had been named "guest editors" at Mademoiselle, and who would be putting out the magazine's annual college issue in August — would also be arriving this weekend. Laura had pleaded with Marmy and Dad that she should come a few days earlier, that getting settled first would leave her more refreshed, sharper than the other girls when they all walked into the Street & Smith offices for that first day of work. Marmy was nothing if not competitive, as her bridge partners could attest. But the Friday before was as early as they'd allow. At least they'd let her come alone.

The cab pulled over to the left, and the driver stopped the meter with a slap. "Forty cents, sweetheart," he said.

"What girl wouldn't want this marvelous location to live and study for her future?" the ad in the back of Charm had tantalizingly asked, and from the moment she'd read it, at the age of fifteen, Laura knew she would one day live in the Barbizon Hotel for Women.

"Name?" the dour-looking woman at the reception desk asked.

"Dixon. Laura Dixon," she replied.

"Yes. You're part of the Mademoiselle group, correct?" "Oh, yes. But I wanted to come a bit early to ..." Why was she so nervous? "To get to know the city a bit. Get my bearings." She sounded like an idiot.

The clerk, still peering over her glasses and never looking up, continued to scan the big black register on the desk. "Yes, well. Normally you would sit for your interview with Mrs. Mayhew before seeing your room. Unfortunately, she is off premises today." She began scribbling. "You'll come down tomorrow morning at nine for the orientation tour to familiarize yourself with the amenities and procedures. Please be prompt."

"Of course." Laura nodded.

The clerk looked up, appraising. Despite the summer heat, Laura had worn her best pair of white kid gloves, feeling it would show her commitment to fitting in at the city's most desirable residence for young women. She had selected a canary-yellow linen dress with a cinched belt and a straw hat with a matching sash, hoping to broadcast a stylish contrast to her dark hair and eyes. But the cab had been stuffy and hot, and her nerves had exacerbated her perspiring. Her hair was matted underneath the hat, which now seemed pretentious and ridiculous. The palms of her gloves were almost soaked through. She had hoped to sweep through the doors of the Barbizon as Gene Tierney and had instead arrived as Gene Tunney.

"We would typically put you with another girl on the magazine apprenticeship program, but you've arrived early and those rooms are not yet available," the woman was saying. "So I've had to put you with one of the Katie Gibbs girls." Laura had no idea who Katie Gibbs was but figured she must be important. "This," the clerk continued, thrusting a small pale blue handbook at Laura, "is the Barbizon manual, with your rules and requirements for residency. Please read it thoroughly. Any violation of policy is grounds for immediate expulsion." She lifted her eyes briefly, coolly surveying her as one would an unruly child on the first day of school. "I would particularly draw your attention to page eight."

Laura was about to start thumbing through to page eight when the clerk waved her away. "Elevators around the corner," she said, sliding a key over with her left hand. "Twelfth floor."

Five minutes later Laura was outside her room, fumbling to put the key properly in the lock, when the door suddenly opened, almost knocking her back on her heels. "Oh, sorry! Sorry, sorry!" exclaimed a short, slightly stout girl — she couldn't have been more than five two — with curly black hair and a broad, heart-shaped face so kind that you almost couldn't imagine it dark or angry. She reached past Laura, grabbing her luggage. "Here, let me help you!"

Laura protested but the girl was already ahead of her, two hands lifting the cumbersome suitcase and plopping it onto the single bed on the left. "I'm so sorry," Laura said, tossing her handbag, hat, and the Barbizon manual onto the bed with it. "Packing lightly proved to be a challenge."

"Well, you're here now," the girl said brightly, taking a step closer and extending a hand. Laura wasn't sure why, but she suspected the girl was midwestern. "I'm your roommate, Dolores Hickey. But everybody calls me Dolly. Except my grandmother, who is deeply religious and thinks Dolores is much more suitable, but then Dolores means something like 'pain' in Latin — you know the Catholics — and who wants to be called 'pain,' anyway? So I'm glad to be Dolly."

An almost maternal warmth radiated from Dolly, though Laura suspected she was probably a year or two younger than her own twenty years. For the next fifteen minutes, Dolly rambled on about anything and everything, from her studies at Katie Gibbs — a secretarial school, whose students all lived at the Barbizon, though most would be gone for the summer, but Dolly had landed a summer job working as a typist in a small publishing house, so no back to Utica for her — to how she had recently become addicted to whiskey sours at the Landmark Tavern, where she liked to go because even though it was a taproom, the hamburgers were to die for, even though she shouldn't really be eating hamburgers, of course, because, well, look at me, she said. She grabbed Laura's hotel manual, flopped onto her own bed as she kicked off her shoes. "Have you read this yet?"

Laura was layering blouses into her tiny dresser. "No, I just received it when I checked in," she said. She took a step back, appraised the bureau closer. "Oh my. Is this all the drawer space we have?"

"Yessiree," Dolly said, thumbing through the booklet. "The Ritz this ain't. No matter what the brochures say. Speaking of which, you don't have to read this. I can tell you anything you need to know about living here."

"All right, then, Dolly Hickey of Utica, New York. What's on page eight?"

Dolly laughed. "Ha! You must have been checked in by Metzger. She's famous for trying to scare every girl who comes in the door with that."

"With what?"

"Page eight. That's where they talk about male visitors." Dolly looked over, wiggling her eyebrows. She flipped to the page, cleared her throat dramatically as if reciting Macbeth. "'The Barbizon understands ...'" She glanced over at Laura. "That's another thing: They always talk about 'the Barbizon' as if it's a person. Or God." She resumed reading. "'The Barbizon understands that New York offers unlimited entertainment and diversion for today's accomplished young woman, and that dates with a suitor can enhance this experience. However, to ensure that the decorum and integrity of our residents is protected, no males other than fathers or physicians may be admitted into the personal domiciles of the Barbizon at any time. Residents who wish to entertain callers ...'" Dolly looked over again, shrieking. "Callers! When was this written, 1890?" She shook her head, finished up. "Okay, sorry. '... callers may receive them in the public lounges on the mezzanine or on the outside veranda after obtaining a visitor's pass from the registration desk.'"

Dolly tossed the book aside, laughing. "I bet they lifted that entire paragraph right out of the handbook for the Carmelites."

Laura had worried about what her roommate would be like, expecting to be paired with another girl like herself, a college coed running around in new heels, aiming to impress the steely, impervious, and impeccable women who ran Mademoiselle. By coming early, she'd prevented that. Dolly was spunky, authentic. Laura could picture her married, ironing shirts and making endless meat loaves, and happy as could be doing it. What she herself would wind up doing, she had no idea. It didn't matter, as long as she didn't end up being Marmy.

Laura picked up a copy of Movie Stars magazine on top of the dresser. Jane Powell stared back from the cover, beaming under a straw hat not unlike the one she'd worn to arrive. Laura wondered if it was some sort of sign. She began fanning herself with it. "It's awfully warm in here," she said.

"Page ten," Dolly replied drolly. "'No electrical appliances allowed.'" "A fan isn't a waffle iron, for God's sake."

"Mmmm ... I would love to eat a waffle right now. With ice cream. On the boardwalk at Coney Island." Dolly flopped onto her back and crossed her legs. "Although I don't think Frank would like it."

Laura stuffed the last of the blouses into the drawer and shoved it closed. How was she going to survive without an iron? She turned back to Dolly. "Who's Frank?"

Dolly propped herself up on one elbow. "My fella. Well, he was sorta my fella. But I think he'll be my fella again. He was always worried I was going to get fat. His sister Regina is really fat."

"All of this talk of food has me starving," Laura said, running her fingers through her damp hair. She'd only had fruit at breakfast — Marmy had insisted that bacon and eggs would make her nauseated on the train ride down. "Want to go get a bite to eat?"

The Barbizon coffee shop was small and narrow: a long counter, stools, and a ring of leather booths that horseshoed around. It was also, mercifully, air-conditioned. Laura and Dolly slid into a booth, the cool leather a tonic on the skin. "Ohhhhh, that feels nice," Dolly said, looking around for a waitress.

Predictably, the place was littered with girls who lived at the hotel, though Laura noticed a few middle-aged types, each eating alone, engrossed in a book or magazine. Dolly followed her stare.

"They're the ones we're all afraid of turning into," Dolly whispered.

"What do you mean?"

"The Women. They came here when they were our age, in the thirties and forties, and never left. They're the Barbizon spinsters." Dolly dissolved into an exaggerated shudder. "I'd rather die than be living here at twenty-five."

Dolly ordered an egg salad sandwich and a Coke. Laura wanted a burger. Marmy would hate that.

Laura's eyes kept going back to the Women. There were three or four of them scattered about the coffee shop; Laura thought each had to be at least thirty-five. Maybe forty. What had happened to keep them here? Were these ladies as unhappy as they appeared, slurping as they sat reading Ellery Queen? Had they once been her, young and impatient and curious about the world, thrilled to have arrived in Manhattan, and then watched it all go horribly wrong? Each one of them has a story, she thought. A love gone wrong, a promise unkept, a betrayal uncovered ...

"Hello? Hello? Are you still here?" Dolly was saying, waving her hands.

Laura snapped back into the present. "Sorry. It's compulsive. I love watching people. It's the reason I want to be a writer."

"I imagine being a writer would be fun. It gives you an excuse to snoop into other people's lives — Oh my. Don't look now, but look at who just walked in."

Laura ignored the contradiction in Dolly's commandment and swiveled her head to catch a glimpse. A tall blond man in a sparkling white tennis shirt and draping linen slacks had come in. He had his elbows on the counter, ordering something from a girl who looked agog to be taking his order.

"Who is he?" Laura asked.

Dolly shot over a look of disbelief. "And you're going to be working at a magazine? That's Box Barnes."

Laura's eyes narrowed. He was impeccably groomed and unquestionably handsome in a country-club style she recognized from growing up in Greenwich. He was clearly, if not an athlete, then at least supremely athletic, with a head of wavy, perfectly Brylcreemed hair and piercing pale blue eyes. In short, the kind of man women noticed and often dreamed of. But there was something else about him, a magnetism that seemed to emanate from him like after-shave. His gaze caught Laura's and he smiled. She whipped around in the booth, mortified.


Excerpted from "Searching for Grace Kelly"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Michael Callahan.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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