CLAIRE MCMILLAN author of GILDED AGE
Intelligent, witty, and poignant, Gilded Age presents a modern Edith Wharton heroine—dramatically beautiful, socially prominent, and just a bit unconventional—whose return to the hothouse of Cleveland society revives rivalries, raises eyebrows, and reveals the tender vulnerabilities of a woman struggling to reconcile her desire for independence and her need for love. “I’m a native Clevelander. I went east to school, as we do. And I married the loveliest man from Charleston, South Carolina, and convinced him to move back to Cleveland and start a family with me. Nothing is more usual than Clevelanders of a certain ilk leaving, seeing the world, and then dragging a spouse back to settle down. My husband, Jim, calls himself in jest an import—used to vary the breeding stock.
I tell you all this so that when I tell you that Eleanor Hart moved back to Cleveland without an import, you have a sense of the problem this presented.” [READ MORE]
I’m a native Clevelander. I went east to school, as we do. And I married the loveliest man from Charleston, South Carolina, and convinced him to move back to Cleveland and start a family with me, as Clevelanders do. Nothing is more usual than Clevelanders of a certain ilk leaving, seeing the world, and then dragging a spouse back to settle down. My husband, Jim, calls himself in jest an import—used to vary the breeding stock.
And variety is needed here. I’ve known most of my Cleveland friends since we were infants, since crawling around together on faded Oriental carpets and cartwheeling in the grass at country club picnics. My parents knew their parents, and my parents’ parents knew their grandparents, and so it goes back to the very beginnings when Cleveland was considered the West, and nice families had to stick together. So imports are needed, as few things are less exciting than kissing someone you’ve known since kindergarten.
I tell you all this so that when I tell you that Eleanor Hart moved back to Cleveland without an import, you have a sense of the problem this presented.
I’ve known Eleanor since those days when we played while our mothers gossiped over coffee. I call her mother Aunt Hart, though technically we are no relation. Her father died when she was a girl.
It’s rumored that my great-grandmother once went on a date with Eleanor’s great grandfather. They say he took her to a speakeasy for some prohibition gin, and great-grandmother never spoke to him again. This only goes to show that Harts are adventurous and my family a bit prudish, yet discreet—a family trait.
Anyway, Eleanor was older than I by a year or two. I always forgot her age, and this coupled with her ridiculous beauty made her seem impossibly glamorous to me. Yet even as a child, she was always friendly to me. She was like an admired older cousin, and I’d known her forever.
My mother told me Eleanor was coming back. Mother talks to Aunt Hart all the time, though Aunt Hart moved down to Florida with a man a few years back. The Harts are a very fine family, but as long as we’ve known them they’ve been strapped for cash. My mother says they’re lucky the women in their family are so charming, and I suppose that’s true.
So I was only a little surprised to see Eleanor at Severance Hall, seated in a family friend’s box for the orchestra’s opening night of the season. Next to her was William Selden.
Of course I’d known Selden since childhood. He’s a little younger than I; the most angelic boy you’ve ever seen, with a head of wild blond cherubic curls that had darkened only a bit as he’d aged and were now matched by a gruff five o’clock shadow and thick tortoiseshell glasses surrounding his hazel eyes. Those glasses were a stroke of genius. They seemed to say he was a man above caring what he looked like, and it is always most attractive when a man is beautiful enough not to care what he looks like. Now he was a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, where his classes were packed almost exclusively with girls who had crushes on him. I’d heard rumors of liaisons with students but tended to doubt such stories. Good-looking men always have such whisperings in their wake, don’t they? Good-looking women too, now that I think about it. His specialty was the Romantic poets—a bit surprising, yes, that he’d be interested in those musty old rebels. You’d expect cutting-edge contemporary free verse. But I’ve since learned that maybe I haven’t always had the clearest view of Selden. Anyway, Romantics it was, and he’d been fishing around town for a tenure-track position for a number of years. He probably would have found one long ago had he not insisted on staying in Cleveland.
He and Ellie sat in the box across from ours. To my left, Julia Trenor and Diana Dorset hugged over the waist-high wall separating their families’ boxes. The Van Alstyne family’s box to my right was filled with people I didn’t recognize. The Van Alstynes had likely sold their tickets to opening night. Farther to the right old Jefferson Gryce’s nurse pushed his wheelchair into his family’s box. In all the boxes around me people rearranged themselves in the heavy velvet chairs so that they could sit closer to one another and hear the latest gossip along with their Mahler. Friday and Saturday nights you might find anyone up there. But Thursday nights the boxes belonged to the same family names that had been sitting there when the concert hall opened in 1931. The Saturday-night opening of the music season was the sole exception.
People were intent on greeting each other. I stood in the front of the box and leaned out, casting a small wave across the way to Ellie. I noted the floor seats were filled, but seats stood empty in the balconies. They hadn’t managed a sell-out, but the economy being what it was, I suppose that wasn’t unusual. I still felt the general buzz of opening night, heightened by Eleanor being in town, and I enjoyed my prime seat.
Ellie was used to being the most beautiful woman in the room wherever she went, but she carried it lightly. Her thick hair was the color of tobacco, subtly streaked with honey, and hung down her back like a royal mantle. The fretwork in Severance Hall is modeled, so it’s said, on the lace of John Severance’s wife’s wedding veil and the Deco gilt-work glowed on Eleanor’s hair like a mantilla. Looking at that hair, I could only think that the upkeep—in cut and color—must be expensive, though that is not the effect it had on men. Men, I felt sure, only wanted to get their hands into it, mess it, feel it, and see what it looked like on the pillow next to them first thing in the morning.
She wore a sleeveless black leather dress of chicly conservative cut that hugged her curves. I don’t need to tell you that no one wears a leather dress to the orchestra in Cleveland. She’d tied a wide white ribbon at the waist, and on the knot of the bow she’d pinned a medal awarded to a Hart in World War I by the French. She looked youthful and chic with an alluring edge of danger. I admired her, as I do anyone who dresses well.
The women all forgave her for outshining them—poor Eleanor had returned from Manhattan. Alone. Divorced. And, so rumors said, fresh from thirty days at Sierra Tucson for unspecified indulgences. Though if anyone dared ask my mother if Eleanor had been in rehab, mother insisted Ellie had collapsed from the stress of her divorce. Mother’s a bit old-fashioned about addiction and things.
I mean, how many sober ex-classmates and old friends do I have? A bunch. And they’ll gladly talk to you about it if you ask, even volunteer the fact if an overeager hostess is pushing booze on them. “No, thanks, I’m in recovery,” they’ll say. If it’s a young hostess, she’ll want to know where they went for detox. “Oh, I had a friend go there, too.” But if it’s someone in my mom’s generation, the hostess will turn white as a sheet, smile, nod, and get the hell out of there.
The men in the concert hall all simply enjoyed looking at Ellie.
One man in particular could not keep his eyes off her. He was so obvious that I wasn’t the only one who noticed. He sat in the box that the orchestra kept for wooing potential patrons, the box next to Ellie’s, and I had a clear view of him staring. The director of development sat next to him keeping up a patter in his ear. He looked to be about my age with a sharply cut suit, the whitest teeth I’d ever seen, and a head full of dark hair—attractive hair, quite glossy, with a heavy sheen of gel in it.
I didn’t think about the man again until halfway through the first piece when a cell phone rang during a particularly quiet moment of the performance. Every head in the boxes turned toward it, and I saw it belonged to the same man. The development director turned scarlet. The man reached coolly—I was impressed by his cool—into his jacket and silenced his phone.
“God,” mumbled my husband, leaning his shoulder into mine and whispering in my ear. “Typical.”
“You know him?” I whispered.
“That’s Randall Leforte, the lawyer.”
“I should know him?”
“The ambulance chaser. He’s sued the Cleveland Clinic for millions. He’s as rich as Steve Jobs or those Google guys or something now.”
I remembered seeing him on the cover of Cleveland magazine as our town’s most eligible bachelor; he was photographed leaning up against his Maserati. Charitable and philanthropic boards all over town were vying to get a piece of his money.
At intermission Eleanor slipped into our box, as I knew she would, hugged me, and hugged my husband, Jim.
“Thank God, you’re here. I thought you might be.” She beamed at us. She’d always liked Jim. Most everyone did. My husband’s background of boarding school, Duke, and investment bank on Wall Street made him enough like a good Cleveland son. Yet his southern accent and manners made him an antebellum exotic. There is nothing certain Clevelanders like more than a whiff of a tattered but glorious past hanging about a person. Luckily that particular southern trait rolled off Jim as languidly as his drawl.
William and Jim led us out of the box to the patrons’ dining room, talking about the Indians in the playoffs.
“So William Selden . . . ,” I breathed behind their backs, fishing.
“You’ve known Selden as long as I have. He’s just a friend.”
“Just a friend?” I asked. “An awfully good-looking friend . . .”
“An awfully good-looking old friend,” Ellie said with a smile.
We walked into the dark paneled room behind the boxes where silver samovars of coffee and a bar awaited. I took two gingersnap cookies, their recipe unchanged since 1931, off a Sèvres tray. Ginger is good for nausea and in my condition I’d found a new sweet tooth I hadn’t had before. Eleanor eyed me as she drank black coffee.
“Eating for two,” I said.
“My mom told me. Congrats.” Her tone was flat with disinterest.
“Well, don’t jump up and down or anything,” I said, joking but feeling stung. Ellie, I knew, was not keen on children. But I thought at least she could muster some enthusiasm for me.
She smiled. “Oh, I’m happy for you. You know how I feel.” It was as if she’d said, “That dress looks great on you; I’d never be caught dead in the thing.”
It didn’t satisfy.
“You and Jim will make wonderful parents,” she said listlessly as she scanned the room.
I’d forgotten this part of Ellie in the years since I’d last seen her. She was self-concerned, always had been, in a way that could be annoyingly juvenile. Oddly enough it was also one of the things that made me feel comfortable around her. Ellie made no pretense about who she was or what she thought. Given the Cleveland world I navigated, anyone who was straightforward, even if it was straightforwardly self-centered, was refreshing. You always knew where you stood with her, which is much more than I can say for a good number of people on my contact list. “Tell me about the conductor,” she said.
I swallowed a large bite. “You know I’m a musical illiterate. But everyone says he’s wonderful. Lovely accent—Austrian or something. I heard him interviewed on the radio once—”
“No, no, you know what I mean,” she said in a lowered voice.
I must admit that I laughed in her face. Leave it to Eleanor to be searching out men at the orchestra. Most men in the boxes were married, upwards of sixty, or both. I wondered that she didn’t ask about Randall Leforte, given his obvious interest in her. In any case, she’d zeroed in on the man who’d been in front of her for the last hour, the conductor.
“Married,” I said. “Happily, I think. There’s a child and such.”
Eleanor shrugged and resumed scanning the room. “You know what I kept thinking as I sat there?” she asked. “I kept thinking that all these people, their job is to do something they love. Can you even imagine it? The dedication, the discipline, the practice—you couldn’t do it if you didn’t have passion. And that’s what they get to do with their lives. Something they have real passion for. The passionate life. I wish I had that.”
“Don’t we all,” I said.
“Or to have a skill like that. To be one of the best in the world at something.”
“You’re the best in the world at being fabulous,” I said. I meant it truly, and lightly, but it came out as condescending.
“When’s the last time you felt passion?” she asked a bit aggressively.
I’d touched a nerve. Her questioning the passion in my life was the old bias that escaped Clevelanders have against the Midwest. The assumption was that you couldn’t have passion in Cleveland. It raised my ire a bit, yes. And while I thought this a little provincial, I guess I knew what she was getting at as it related to me. My prospects at the big-five accounting firm where I’d worked before my marriage had never been my life’s passion. Recently, I’d started to feel my marriage and a coming child might help me in this area. Not in a Betty Crocker, Phyllis Schlafly type of way, but in the way that I now had someone I could help along in life, a marriage to invest in. This baby, I hoped, might add to that sense. People say nothing else is important once your child is born, and part of me was banking on this. In any case, I wanted to put Ellie at ease. She’d just returned, and it was the first time I’d seen her since her divorce. I pointed to my waist, just ever so slightly showing, and though I knew it was not what she meant I said, “Well, there was at least one night of passion.”
Eleanor relaxed and laughed. “It seems like no time has passed since last I saw you.”
“That’s how Cleveland is,” I said, smiling, glad the situation was defused.
“It’s good to be back. These last six months have been pretty hard.” She sipped her coffee.
It was then that Jim seemed to materialize at my arm with Randall Leforte in tow and introduced him to Ellie. Something in Jim’s posture made him seem pleased that he could introduce them. Whether he was proud of knowing Ellie or glad to be seen with one of the sharpest litigators in town, I didn’t know.
Leforte smiled wide and moved in close as he took Ellie’s hand. It was fascinating to watch—and I’d been watching since we were children— the pull she had over men. I thought he might bend over her hand and kiss it. He smelled like patchouli, a hippie-ish, slightly dirty smell that didn’t mesh at all with his polished exterior. He clasped her hand and released it, his eyes wandering up and down her body, as if he’d like to do so much more than shake her hand.
Ellie was, of course, aware of the effect she had on Leforte. But it didn’t seem to please her. It seemed to bore her. She was looking for Selden, who was across the room talking to a group of men, each of them old enough to be his father. I felt sure they were discussing the financial state of the orchestra, the need for younger patrons.
“Mahler’s my favorite,” Leforte said, moving in close to Ellie.“Though I prefer Titan.”
Ellie rocked back and forth on her feet, looking like she was ready to spring for an exit, and I couldn’t figure out why. Leforte was attractive and certainly some chitchat with him wouldn’t hurt.
“You mean his First Symphony?” she asked.
“Yes, I guess I do,” he said in a hearty tone as he shifted closer to her, almost turning his back to me, trying to ease me out of the conversation and gain some privacy until Betsy Dorset interrupted us all.
Betsy Dorset wore trim black pants, a black long-sleeved Tshirt, and a neon green fleece vest—the type bought at sporting goods stores. Pinned to the fleece was the immense Dorset diamond brooch from the turn of the century, valued—so I’d heard—at half a million dollars. With her kind smile, cropped silver hair, and sensible shoes, she was the very model of a new-millennium Cleveland dowager. Her son, Dan, and I were the same age and had been at school together.
She hugged Jim and me and then made a great fuss over Eleanor, whom she’d known as a baby. Clevelanders of a certain age love few things more than one of their own returning home, and Ellie had the satisfying air of the prodigal about her.
Just as Randall was quietly trying to slip away unnoticed, Betsy demanded an introduction, and Jim obliged.
“Oh, but I know you from your billboard,” Betsy said, shaking his hand.
“Billboard?” Eleanor blurted before she could censor herself.
“Mr. Leforte has a billboard just as you come into downtown on the Innerbelt,” Betsy said to Eleanor. “I must admit it doesn’t do you justice,” she said to Randall. She said it in a flirty, confidential tone, but I knew she’d meant it not at all nicely. She sat on the board of the Cleveland Clinic; I’m sure she’d been forced to deal with Leforte, his clients, and their demands for legal settlements. She knew exactly who he was. “It has your eight-hundred number on it,” she added brightly. “Doesn’t it, Mr. Leforte?”
The chimes rang, calling us back to our seats for the second half of the music. Leforte made a quick exit.
“That man,” Betsy said in a hushed voice as she hugged me goodbye. “Getting rich off hospitals and others’ misfortunes. It’s the height of poor taste.” And she wafted off in a cloud of Joy perfume.
“I’ll come see you next week,” Eleanor said as Selden took her arm to lead her back to the box.
“Come on Wednesday,” I said. “Stay for dinner if you like.” Jim clasped my hand and steered me back to the box with my family’s name painted in swirling gold script over the door. The box my family has occupied since the hall opened in 1931.
Ellie accepted Selden’s invitation back to his house for a drink after the concert. He escorted her to her car, taking her the long way around the reflecting pond in front of the art museum, which was blindingly white under spotlights, marking it as a beacon of culture.
“You didn’t have to do this,” she said.
“This isn’t the greatest area at night.”
“You forget I’ve been living in New York.” Though now that Selden mentioned it, she remembered the park nearby had been dicey when she was a girl—rumored to be littered with needles and pipes and other unmentionable trash from furtive liaisons. But earlier this evening, as she’d arrived at Severance Hall, Ellie had seen a bride and groom having their wedding portraits taken right in this very spot. The clean Greek columns of the museum set off the bridal gown perfectly.
As Ellie and Selden rounded on the glowing front of the art museum, passing one of Rodin’s thinkers pondering them from his gleaming spotlight, a young couple emerged from under a low-hanging willow tree: he in a slim suit, thin tie, and black Converse sneakers, she in cat-eye glasses and a red taffeta dress. The boy was leaning down, intent to hear what the girl was saying, then he whispered in her ear. Lights from the water reflected on his teeth when he smiled, lit up her plump arm as she covered her mouth to laugh.
The gravel paths here were pristinely maintained. The young couple added youthful energy, and what was that feeling Ellie had when she saw them—hope, envy, anticipation? It’d been so long since she’d felt anything; she could hardly remember.
She watched as the boy lifted the girl’s hand and kissed it. Was I ever that young? Ellie wondered as Selden handed her into her car.
She drove slowly over to Selden’s house, giving him time to get there before her. The Heights were alive with evening strollers, dog walkers, fathers hauling garbage cans to the curb. As she drove past one driveway, a woman unloaded pumpkins, probably from the West Side Market, from her car. A kid in a number 23 jersey rode his bike down the sidewalk. A young guy in scrubs with disheveled hair walked with a cell phone lodged between ear and shoulder, a computer bag slung across his body. The sidewalks were busy and bright under the streetlamps. The Heights’ streets didn’t have energy like Manhattan. But a cozy warmth emanated from the neighborhood, as if neighbors might still drop in on one another and leave their calling cards during “at-homes” like people did a hundred years ago.
She parked in front of Selden’s small prairie-style bungalow. Though she could have had her guard up at his suggestive invitation, she didn’t. She’d known Selden from childhood. She knew all the pretty boys. Though she’d spent a few nights comfortably flirting with him in bars or sitting next to him at concerts like the one they’d just attended, she’d never taken him seriously. He was younger and an academic, which only slightly intimidated her and completely deterred her. The academic life was a tough one, almost worse than the military; you never knew where you might have to live. No, Selden had been a pleasant distraction in the pursuit of serious game.
The lawns on Selden’s street set the houses back a good way, making everything feel private. The deep porch wrapped around his one-story house like a secluded embrace. Walking up the steps, she felt confident she had made the better choice over staying in New York.
He swung the door wide for her, ushering her inside. Selden’s living room had a broad-beamed ceiling and a fireplace tiled in celadon green. He walked here and there, clicking on lamps. He’d furnished the room in what she guessed were thrift store finds—the ratty couch in nubby orange, the white space-age floor lamp arcing over a chrome and glass coffee table—the home of a bohemian and threadbare member of the Rat Pack. A frumpy Queen Anne desk, likely a cast-off from his parents, was littered with a laptop, an iPod, crumpled papers, and a few thick card-stock invitations stuck at random angles under a plastic Magic 8 Ball. Every nice young bachelor had a little untidy stack like that—nice bachelors always being in demand for weddings, birthdays that end in 0, cocktails to meet the new museum curator, and fancy dinner parties.
Selden opened the windows to the crisp night air and the faint scent of burning leaves. Academic books and journals covered the floor near the couch. He took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, the dim light catching the fine auburn hair on his arm. On a low table next to a reading lamp was a small bouquet of burnt-orange roses in a dented brass urn. He disappeared into the kitchen.
Ellie appraised it all and then nestled herself into a low chair.
“What a lovely thing to have a place like this,” Ellie called to him.
After some banging and clanging, Selden came in the room with a squat glass of tequila with a lime, a pot of tea, and a plate of pears with honey for dipping.
“Women have been known to have their own houses,” he said, handing her a cup of mint tea. She noted that he’d not even offered her a real drink. Apparently her stay in Arizona was already public news in Cleveland.
“Everyone says don’t buy a house if you want to get married. You’ll look too set in your ways, too grounded . . .”
“A lot of bullshit.”
“Mmm,” Ellie hummed. Selden was typical, she thought, professing not to care if a woman had a life, had a place of her own. But hermother seemed to think that men really did care about that. That a young woman in possession of her own house, her own space in the world, intimidated a man, left him emasculated. Perhaps a man felt he had nothing to offer if he couldn’t offer shelter? Absurd. Or did a man want someone with no past of her own?
She sighed and dipped a slice of pear into the honey. “How did you think of this?”
“Enjoying the last of the season.”
She held her palm under her hand as she guided the dripping fruit to her mouth, the sweet ooze of honey on the grainy pear. “You’d think it’d be gilding the lily, but it’s delicious.”
He smiled, and she noticed that he was watching her mouth.
Ellie leaned back in her chair and sipped her tea, sweet and sharpish on her tongue. “Working hard?” she said, gesturing to his desk.
He turned toward the desk as if seeing it for the first time and rumpled a hand through his hair, ending with it resting on the back of his neck. “I’m prepping for a new class I’m teaching next term.”
“What’s it called?”
“‘Decline, Decay, and Death,’” he said with a slow smile.
“Light.” She nodded. “That will have them preregistering for sure.”
He laughed. “They do. I have wait lists.”
“Yes, but it’s not because those undergrads want to depress themselves.”
“There are some serious students.”
“It’s the chance to look at you for fifty minutes twice a week, you sweet ding-dong.”
“They can find better views than that,” Selden said, suddenly turning toward the windows.
Ellie looked out the heavy leaded windows too. “Maybe.” So here was William Selden’s passion—a lot of old books, descriptions of love, death, and loss. She wondered if he actually had experienced true love or passion in his life, or if he was content to merely read about it. Looking at him now, she couldn’t decide.
As she sat there watching him, wondering if he’d ever loved someone more than himself, she wished, not for the first time, that she’d pursued something in her life. She’d gone to a mediocre college and received mediocre grades, and afterward she counted herself lucky to land an internship at a fashion magazine in New York. She remembered those days fondly now, though at the time she’d felt panicked. She’d fetched coffee and copies for mercurial men who wore bronzer and opined about sequins. It had seemed exciting for about six months, and then she’d started to wonder what was next. She was living in a tiny apartment with four other girls. In her life of late nights drinking and exhaustion, of being constantly surrounded by gay men or other women, there were no straight male prospects inhabiting her fashion orbit.
She didn’t have the grades or the interest for graduate school. At the time she’d rather have died than return to Cleveland and her mother’s house. She started to think about marriage, preferably to a Wall Street type in a bespoke suit with a classic six on the Upper East Side.
“What about you?” Selden asked her.
“What about me?” Ellie started. She’d lost track of what they were talking about.
“Any proposals forthcoming? Any news you’d like to share with me?” His eyes were glinting, back to joking.
She rolled her eyes. “You act like marriage is the only thing on my mind.”
“Isn’t it?” He smiled.
“No,” she said petulantly, though she forgave Selden for saying this. It was what everyone thought of her, wasn’t it? Her marriage to her first husband was deemed brilliant by those around her. Alex was the son of an old New York family. Their engagement announcement was written up in the Times with ample mention of her husband’s background and little mention of her provenance. Their large town house on the Upper East side, all five floors, was a gift from his family. They spent weekends at his family’s farm upstate.
All the togetherness, the demands of his family name, used to grate on him. He complained about the expectations. So it seemed natural he would blow off steam. Yes, Alex had enjoyed a good time. What she hadn’t understood was that she was not supposed to enjoy herself equally as much. If he dabbled in a few controlled substances here and there, well, so did she.
Ellie had spent so much of her life being attractive, leading up to the ultimate test—catching a husband. Landing Alex had practically been a military campaign complete with complex strategy, precision, and subterfuge. One night, nine months into her marriage, she’d come to bed and found him passed out, his breathing shaky after a forty-eight-hour bender, a wad of blood-streaked tissues on the bed stand next to an orange prescription bottle. She watched him, making sure his breathing steadied, that he was all right. She wondered, for the first time since she’d started dating at fifteen, the first time in her life, really—did she even like this guy? The answer that night was, she wasn’t sure.
Over the next weeks as she observed his red eyes, his greasy hair, his complaints about the lazy housekeeper, his constant texts to his source, his bitching about his parents, his manic chattering about politics, she decided she didn’t. It wasn’t exactly fair; she’d admit that.
She’d known what she was getting into. She’d changed, not him.
Anyway, he didn’t stop, and she spent nights with either a maniac or a zombie. Could she really be blamed for taking up with a more attentive and lucid young man only tangentially in their New York circle?
Apparently she could.
“You should get a place like mine,” Selden was saying.
“If you ever think of selling, call me.” She leaned forward and took another piece of pear off the low tray. “What about you?” she asked. “Shouldn’t you be settling down by now?”
He tilted his head, looking at her quizzically.
“You’re very civilized, William Selden,” she said, teasing him.“Very domesticated. You need a wife to complete the picture.”
To her surprise he blushed and drained the last of his tequila. “Cigarette?” He opened a wooden inlaid box on the table, and she took one and then took a few more for her purse.
“Ladies buy their own nowadays, yeah?” he said, arching an eyebrow.
“But I like the brand you buy.” He lit her cigarette. “They taste better having been with you.” She stood up to peruse his bookshelves. “Besides, I shouldn’t really be smoking. If I buy a pack, I’ll just smoke them all.” She felt him observing her, detached and yet interested. Men were always interested. What had it brought her? she wondered. Her wasted ex-husband and other men who wanted to posses her beauty for varying lengths of time. Not that she’d have it any other way, of course. It was much easier to be pretty than not; she knew that.
“Have you actually read all these books?” she asked.
“Course,” he answered distractedly.
What did he see in those poems? Did he write any of his own? She didn’t want to ask. It’d be rude if he’d been published and she didn’t know. Perhaps he’d be embarrassed if he hadn’t written anything at all. “Important for being a professor?”
“Important for having a life.”
“Life of the mind,” she said, nodding.
He shrugged in assent.
She knelt down to look at a book on the low shelf. “What’s life for anyway, Selden? That’s what I keep wondering.”
“Life is for enjoying.” He laughed and reached to refresh her tea. But she didn’t laugh. “Right?”
She straightened up, eyes still on the bookcases. “Yes, but how?”
“Now, that is a serious question,” he replied, moving toward her. “In need of serious consideration.” He smiled, his tone light.
“I’ve already made so many mistakes,” she said, cutting him off.
He said nothing but reached for her waist. His hands fumbling there brought a rush of heat to her middle. He tugged at the ribbon, unclasping the pin and worrying the knot like a puzzle until he’d untied her sash. She remembered that as a boy he’d stolen the pink gingham ribbon out of her hair and teased her that her ponytail was as thick as a real pony’s. This upset her at the time; now she’d take it as a compliment. He was aware of her past; she knew that. He was aware of the things being said about her. He probably thought her a frivolous gold digger. He took her wrist and wrapped the ribbon around it several times, securing the whole thing with a tight knot, placing the pin in her hand.
“What’s that for?” She smiled, but she knew. Men had been marking her since grade school—from the boy who insisted she wear the stickers he gave her, to the college boyfriend who wrote his name in Sharpie on her thigh after each time they’d had sex, to her ex-husband, who’d wanted her wedding band tattooed on her finger, meshing his prep school background with his penchant for the seedy. Fortunately, she’d successfully resisted that last one.
“To remember,” Selden said. “That life is for enjoying.”
She smiled at that. “Shouldn’t it go on my finger for remembering?”
“You’ll wear it longer here,” he said, leaning close.
“I know I’ve made mistakes.” She turned back to the shelves, mumbling to herself. “I don’t want to make any more.”
“You won’t,” he said quietly, moving beside her. “I know it.”
He was close enough that she could smell the peppery tequila on his breath, could see the blond scruff next to his ear that he’d missed shaving. Her wrist started to pound where he’d tied the ribbon tightly, almost cutting off her circulation. She walked over to the table and picked up her teacup. “I should go.”
“Right,” he said, flustered, confused, she knew, by her sudden movements. “Course.”
She gathered her coat, her purse, looked at her phone while Selden busied himself with plates and cups. She felt the age difference between them then. An older man, a man her age, would have grabbed her, she thought. An older man wouldn’t have picked up on her subtle change of energy or would have ignored it, would have taken what he wanted. But Selden was perceptive, perhaps a bit shy around her. He paid attention. She wondered what it would be like to kiss him.
She gave her head a sharp shake.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling at him. “You know there’s no one here who understands these sorts of things.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “You’d be surprised.”
She was out the door before he could say more, and she felt him watching her as she walked down the block to her car, blood pounding in her hand below the ribbon, the autumn leaves swirling at her heels.
What initially drew you to Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth and inspired you to update this classic?
Edith Wharton has always been one of my very favorite authors and The House of Mirth is a favorite of her work. I read it first in college, and it made such an impression—one of those books that you read at the exactly right time. A few years ago my husband gave me a first edition bound published copy. We were discussing why I like Wharton’s work so much, and I remember saying that everything she wrote about still was happening today. And the idea for the update was born.
What was your process for modernizing the story? How did you decide what scenes to rework or to leave out?
I reread the book through again once, and then I placed it next to me as I wrote. If a scene stood out in my mind, such as Lily and Selden in his apartment or the tableaux vivants scene, it was included. I told myself at the start that I didn’t have to kill her in the end if I didn’t want to. I actually attempted to write a happy ending for Ellie and William, and it was awful.
Why Cleveland? Are you from the Midwest? What is it about the Midwest that makes it a compelling setting for this novel?
I grew up in Pasadena, outside of Los Angeles. Pasadena and Shaker Heights were built around the same time in the 1920’s and they look quite similar—though Pasadena has palm trees and Cleveland, snow. My husband is the native Clevelander, and “imported” me after we married. I obviously love Cleveland and find it inspiring. It has faded grandeur and a nostalgia for better days that permeates. There is a fierce kind-of pride about Clevelanders, and yet they run down their city harder than any outsider. The cultural institutions such as the museum and the orchestra are incredible, and of course I snobbishly knew nothing of them until I moved here. The sense of community is both warm and practical – very Midwestern in attitude.
In Gilded Age, Ellie is a divorcee and in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. Why did you decide these traits were important to her character?
In the original, Lily Bart is on the cusp of becoming a spinster and this is a scandalous, almost semi-tragic thing for her. I tried to think of some traits to give Ellie the same sort of air about her. Though divorce is common now, it’s still considered gossip fodder. I added in her recovery because I wanted to add some scandal about her. I also wanted to hint at a double standard I believe exists today concerning drugs and women. If men experiment or even if they have a problem, they’re usually looked at as bad boys or sowing wild oats, an extreme example is Charlie Sheen. While I think women who get in trouble with drugs are judged much more harshly and differently, i.e. Lindsay Lohan.
How would you describe the narrator of this novel? Do you prefer writing in the first-person or third-person?
The narrator is a spectator to what is really Ellie and Selden’s story. I was thinking very much about Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby when I wrote her. Of course she has her own story going, as well as what she witnesses. I’m not sure I have a preference for writing from one point of view over the other. To me they both have their advantages but also limitations that have to be wrangled.
You pepper the novel with contemporary stylistic touches like text messages, social media references, and email correspondence. Is this a direct parallel to letter-writing in centuries past? In your opinion, is there a difference when you are writing in these modern mediums?
Letters serve as a pivotal plot point in the original book, both their contents and their existence as physical objects. I wanted to make sure my update felt realistic so I used the mediums we use daily. Emails are like the new millennium letters to me. It feels like such a glut sometimes that I would love to have someone else deal with them, much like Bertha Dorset ropes Lily into answering her correspondence in the original. Text messaging, also writing on someone’s Facebook wall, have the flavor of leaving calling cards at people’s homes back in the day—a way to signal interest, a desire to start up a friendship, a social nicety, fulfilling an obligation, perhaps a request for a more private conversation.
You received your MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. What was this experience like? What was the most important thing you learned?
Bennington is an incredible place, and I am so grateful and frankly amazed that I had the opportunity to study there. When I was admitted, I was still practicing law full time and knew no other writers and few people who cared about books the way I did. Bennington gave me a community of fellow writers. You’d go into the campus bar and people would be discussing novels or poets. You could always strike up a conversation by asking someone what they were reading. I learned so many things, but one thing that stands out was the advice to read authors with whom I don’t have rapport. I had stuck close to reading lots of authors with similar obsessions or world views. I think that’s a pretty natural desire to try and find yourself in a book regardless of the setting or characters. But when I started reading authors who were maybe plowing a field totally unlike mine, it became easier for me to digest the craft of what they were doing and pay attention to how the book was put together, rather than fall under the spell of the story.
Are you planning to write another book?
Yes, I’m working on a new novel, and at least part of it is set in Cleveland in the 1920’s.
Next to Jane Austen, I think we most like to reread Edith Wharton when we’re looking for smart fiction that also provides a little bit of escape. So imagine my delight when I had the opportunity to acquire Claire McMillan’s Gilded Age, a pitch-perfect modern retelling of Wharton’s The House of Mirth.
While Gilded Age is set in preppy, old money Cleveland society, its setting would be familiar to anyone living in a town with an art museum, country clubs and prep schools, or a local symphony. Claire McMillan was inspired to write the book when her husband, knowing her love for Edith Wharton, gave her a first edition of The House of Mirth. When he asked her why she loved this author, she said that she saw Wharton’s themes being lived out today, just as they had been in Wharton’s time. She wrote the novel to show him this, and the result is a book that is as intelligent and witty as it is tender and poignant. Claire has a sharp eye for the telling detail; she has a heart big enough to help us love her characters however flawed they may be, and she masters her plot with a swift, sure hand. The result is a book I read in one sitting, a book that I couldn’t wait to give to my mother, my sister-in-law, and my best friend.
Does a woman still need a husband to be socially complete? Does a woman’s sexual reputation still affect her destiny? Have we found a way to reconcile a desire for independence with a need for love? We may think we know the answers to these questions, but Claire McMillan’s assured and revelatory debut novel provides some provocative observations about gender, class, and the timeless conundrum of femininity.
I hope you will enjoy Gilded Age.
Vice President, Executive Editor
Simon & Schuster