After high school, my resume, if I had one, would read in this order:
Stuff ’n Turkey Moorestown Mall food court – 1993
Untrained home healthcare provider – 1994 (read about this here in Not College Part One)
Assistant to the Public Relations Director at Oscar de la Renta New York 1995 – 1997
My oldest sister is a brilliant colorist who, while working as a freelance artist, painted R.L. Polo Bears for towels that would end up at Marshall’s and breathtaking floral fabrics that were hundreds of dollars a yard for textile companies like Scalamandre and Schumacher. At the time she was friends with two women who worked for Oscar de la Renta. One was a designer and the other the Public Relations Director. During show season (there are two periods each year where all the designers show their work in a giant tent in midtown NYC ) interns would be hired for a three-week period to help with the extra work leading up to the show in Bryant Park. My sister asked if I was interested; her friend was looking for interns. “Yes, of course!” I was so excited. I had a teenage love of fashion. Growing up, I could either be found reading Archie comics (Jughead is my first love and is probably, in a Lolitaish-arrested-development-in-terms-of-love-kind-of-way, responsible for every funny idiot who found their way into my pants) or a glossy magazine like British Vogue or W.
Preparing myself to sleep on my sisters’ daybed in NYC (for a few weeks that turned into years) I packed white button down oxford shirts, a pleated black & blue plaid wool skirt with the appropriate giant brass pin, black opaque tights, cardigans of every color and black penny loafers. I really hadn’t an idea how to dress any other way than as a catholic school girl or in a dirty rock tee with Vans and cutoff shorts. Along with packs of skin-tight white Fruit of the Loom tees, I bought some black grownup lady pants at the Gap. They looked like those Audrey Hepburn cigarette pants that zip up the side; they felt so strange.
At the end of my three-week stint as an intern, I was offered a full-time position, complete with benefits, as the Assistant to the PR Director. I was as smug as could be; I didn’t need to go to Parsons or FIT to get a great job. All the people who told me I HAD to go to college could suck it. I got a job people would kill for, not because I went to school and trained for it, but because I had a foot in the door through my sister and I had the work ethic of an immigrant; there was nothing I wouldn’t do.
At one Christmas work dinner party, held at the then extremely fancy Le Cirque, I sat across from Mr. de la Renta. Next to him was the licensing director, who on finding out I didn’t attend college became as fanatical as a Jesus lover and couldn’t let it go, repeatedly telling me that I had to go. I wanted to tell him that prior to eating across from one of the most important fashion designers in history, I had worked at the Moorestown Mall food court and that maybe I didn’t need to go to college because I obviously HAD a job. I smiled instead, preoccupied with the dilemma that the fish I ordered came with bones. Looking at Mr. De la Renta, I had to make a choice to spit or swallow the tiny fish bones in my mouth. I decided that if this restaurant was really so great then the fish I ordered wouldn’t require the same skills you need to play the game Operation. Spitting in my napkin while sitting in the most elite restaurant in NYC across from such an important man seemed like the wrong thing to do… but punk rock… like not going to college. I spit in my napkin.
In the pages of those magazines that I used to read before living in NYC, were photos of people who looked like they lived fairytale lives – socialites, princesses, incredibly dressed women with gorgeous names like Honor and Mercedes. They were an alien set, a class separate from celebrity. I would look at their photos in the Suzy gossip column in W magazine, at the unbelievable parties and wonder “Who are they? Are they real?”
And now, here I was in a job where these same women walked in and out of the door every day; daughters and wives of the richest, most powerful men in the world; princesses, heiresses, the who’s who in the cream of the 1%.
I was put in charge of running the sample sales, sitting at a table in the showroom, writing up sales slips for dresses that had been five to 10 thousand dollars and now reduced in half. The thing I always found wild was when a regular customer, not a common girl who shops sample sales, would show up for the sale. Once a daughter-mom combo team was looking at gowns and, upon her mother suggesting a dress the daughter, a known NYC socialite, said in this bratty obnoxious tone “Mom!! MC has that dress!!!” She was referring to Marie-Chantal, Crown Princess of Greece. Here’s this girl shunning a dress worn by a real live princess and I felt like I was at the Cherry Hill Mall Merry-Go-Round listening to a local rich girl lose her shit at the audacity of her mom’s suggestion for a prom dress worn by last year’s prom queen.
I was young – 19 to be exact – and naïve. I thought that if their parents or husband, for instance, owned the Washington Post, controlled the world’s diamond markets or directed the Metropolitan Opera, that these women would behave like real-life Disney princesses; privileged but sweet and kind; I thought they’d have some awareness of their luck at having their fate bestowed on them by an extreme, freak-like nepotism, that their seat at the very top of the food chain would make them behave in the way Princess Diana was portrayed.
Lots of women attached to political figures popped in and out of the showroom during the two years I worked there. When Bill Clinton came into his second term, the windows in the work room where fifteen or so very tiny Italian women skillfully sewed the samples were draped with black cloth to hide Hillary’s Inauguration Ball dress from the paparazzi. Mr. de la Renta had designed clothes for many of the first ladies. Nancy Reagan’s phone calls were always met with rolled eyes and ignored in the years I worked there; I was told she famously never paid any of her bills.
I often got tossed a customer who was not important enough to be handled by one of the higher-ups; a perfect example is Mary Richardson, Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s second wife. She was heading to Africa for a three-week visit with her husband, on some sort of tour for a charity, likely a useless venture involving rich people parading around poor people.
She wanted clothes for this trip. I was told that, when she came in, I was to take her down to the 6th floor where we kept all the stock (items that came out of production from Italy and hadn’t made their way to Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman Marcus) and show her the clothes.
I was annoyed that I had to associate with a Kennedy. That family was always held in great disdain by me, long before I got near one of them; basically, I am grossed out by a general worship of hierarchy or similar and, to me, the Kennedys always seemed unworthy of the attention they received… they seemed like a bunch of duds.
So, I held my contempt at bay and listened to Mary explain to me what she was looking for. I took her down to the 6th floor and while we stood in the dirty service elevator she told me, completely out of nowhere, that “you know…my father-in-law (RFK) had a lot to do with Mr. de la Renta’s immigration into the US, years ago.” As soon as the words left her mouth, my face dropped, my eyes staring at the floor in utter silence and extreme disgust at a woman who had the nerve to tell me something like that, who had the nerve to try to coerce the lowest person on the ODLR totem pole (me) with elementary blackmail in the vein of “you-owe-me-free-clothes-mother-fucker-my-dead-daddy-in-law-whom-I-never-met-got-your-Dominican-ass-boss-into-this-country!”
“Fascinating”, I said as the elevator door opened to the sixth floor and I stepped out ahead of her. I showed her the clothes and told her the prices, all very matter-of-fact. All I could think was, “On her way over here, while being driven by her driver from one of the many homes she owns, did she think about how she could go about arm twisting her way to free clothes? Had she not noticed that she wasn’t even being helped by an actual salesperson and she was taken to what is essentially the ODLR basement in a service elevator?”
One day I was sitting at the receptionist desk covering for the receptionist while she went to lunch; I hit the buzzer and let Nancy Kissinger in, just as she stepped off the elevator. She, unlike a lot of her fellow socialites, had a perma-smile on her face which, after a short while, just made her look more nuts than nice. This may have been a facial relic of years of political activities. We smiled politely at each other and she sat down, waiting to see one of the sales people.
Mrs. Kissinger was wearing a blazer, the color of white birthday cake that had black south sea pearls for buttons, so large they resembled 25 cent double bubble gum balls. I had seen the blazer before; I knew Mr. de la Renta had designed it for Pierre Balmain, the French house of couture. I also knew that the blazer, a single piece of clothing, cost upwards of $50,000 dollars.
I stared at her for a long while which she didn’t seem to notice and thought, “Wasn’t your husband a public official? How many people work for you, care for your every stupid whim? Do those people who work for you make a decent living? Do they make even close to what that blazer cost in a year of employment by you?”
These people, the ones who control and manage the world, sitting high atop an invisible perch, have the kind of money none of us can imagine; and no amount of philanthropy could ever justify wearing a piece of clothing that would cost that much.
Not one of those women, around whom I spent two years of my life, impressed me as anything other than cheap in character. Not one of them. This taught me a lot about human nature and the true nature of wealth and power. Like a fly on the wall, I got an inside view to the rarest class of people, people who only associate with their wealthy peers and the peons they hire to take care of them and raise their children; the cook, the driver, the nanny, many of whom I met and most of who barely spoke English; they were probably paid a salary not so far from mine but galaxies away from the wealth of the person they cared for.
Those years shaped me, no doubt. It affected how I read people, how I view the news, and how I watch the world go round. The time I spent there expanded what the world looked like to me. I now knew who was really in charge. I had a sense of the character of those people. I think every last one of them would agree with Ms. Antoinette and “let them eat cake.”
I left NYC, wholly unimpressed but with dozens of stories like these. I knew that if I stayed I was in a position to advance, to flesh out a career from the contacts I’d made. A door had been opened for me but my heart just didn’t care. I was homesick.
I turned away from that door and returned to South Jersey. I missed the pine trees and the sound the wind makes when it blows through the maples and oaks where I grew up. I missed sitting in diners at midnight with my friends wearing dirty rock tees; but in all these years since I left NYC, I’ve never missed the rich and powerful. I bet nobody ever does.
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