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Lost & Found: Katie Arnold-Ratliff on Alison Rose and Gloria Vanderbilt

In today’s Lost & Found, Katie Arnold-Ratliff considers two memoirs of life in the 1%–Better Than Sane by Alison Rose and A Mother’s Story by Gloria Vanderbilt–and her relationship with both authors.  For more of Katie’s writing, check out her debut novel, Bright Before Us.

In April 1996, the New Yorker published an article entitled “How I Became a Single Woman,” by staff writer Alison Rose.  It was a wry catalog of the men Rose had loved, and an ode to the self-imposed exile she’d come to enjoy in her Upper East Side apartment.  The piece was unapologetically melancholy, but also tinged with wit.  Once, Rose wrote, as she sulked down Sunset Boulevard in 1970s Los Angeles, the actor Bruce Dern drove by and shouted, “Smile, you fuckin’ asshole!”

I mention that line because I never forgot it.  I read it as a teenager, sprawled in our squat rental on a dilapidated Northern California horse ranch.  I liked Rose immediately.  Growing up, her closest friends were three mops she danced with in the garden; I played with a rock collection.  I was awful at being a child.  I spent most of my time imagining.  (Rose wrote, “There is nothing more fun than thinking in private.”)  I wanted to be grown up: I would eschew marriage, write books, and be glamorously miserable.  For me, Rose’s piece wasn’t a bit of light reading.  It was a blueprint.

Fast forward: it’s May 2009, and I’m sorting through every draft of every Talk of the Town piece Alison Rose has ever written and every version of her 2004 memoir, Better Than Sane (based on the 1996 article), and several thousand e-mails she’s printed for no earthly reason.  She watches me, terrified I’m throwing things out on the sly.  Her lease is up, so a mutual friend who knows I need the money recommended me to help with the move.  Everything in here is sacred—“my private collection of my whole life,” she wrote in the book—and I’m the stranger who keeps touching all of it.

Better Than Sane is a curious read, in which the snappy esprit of the article morphs into something slightly oppressive—this is not a peek into Rose’s jaunty nihilism, it’s a full immersion.  And yet the book is somehow more than the sum of its parts, affecting through it has scant right to be.  We follow Rose through a life that’s somehow both languorous and unrelentingly anxious, comprised of her romances (and their various demises), her stimulating stint at the New Yorker (and its end), the people she loves (and their deaths).  Everything in Rose’s world expires, and she is left to decide what it was all for.  Her dear friend Harold Brodkey once typed out, “There should be a Bureau of Metropolitan Longing to explain to you why your life doesn’t mean more than it does.”  That paper now hangs, framed, on Rose’s wall.

Rose doesn’t care to editorialize about these losses—or anything else.  It seems she’s merely inviting us to join her in her chic, amorphous despair, which, for all its solipsism, is disarmingly human.  I can quote lines verbatim:

“My heart liked him.”

“I haven’t slept in a park since 1964.”

“I felt like a person walking over there in that dress, not like an impostor, not altogether completely like an impostor.”

Rewind: it’s 1996 again.  I’m in muck boots at sunrise, peeling off flakes of alfalfa for the horses’ breakfast.  Back in the barn, I return to my book.  It’s another memoir in which a wealthy woman describes a life marked by grief—her father’s death, the mother who abandoned her, a beloved husband who died young—which culminates in the suicide of her twenty-three year-old son: “the final loss, the fatal loss that stripped me bare, the loss that had no echo.”  The book is A Mother’s Story, the author is Gloria Vanderbilt.  At fourteen, I don’t know the name.

The book meanders, unencumbered by chronology.  Each chapter is a fragmentary burst of recollection: here’s little Gloria, pining for her mother; here’s a diary excerpt from 1971; here are her precocious young sons on the beach in Southampton.  The prose is blunt, unadorned—except when it’s suddenly florid—and wrenching.  Sentences contradict their predecessors, trains of though abruptly grind to a halt.  And then along comes a memory so precisely rendered it cuts the reader off at the knees.  Form and content feel inextricable—this, it seems, is how you write when your molecules are reordered by devastation.  Late in the book, Vanderbilt watches her son swing his body over the ledge of their fourteenth-floor terrace, hanging for a moment.  “Carter, come back, I shouted, and for a moment I thought he was going to,” she writes.  “But he didn’t—he let go.”

By the time I helped Alison Rose move, I’d been working for Gloria Vanderbilt for two years, as a typist: she wrote her fiction longhand, and I typed it for her.  Not long after we met—via e-mail; she liked that my e-mail address referred to The Great Gatsby—Ms. Vanderbilt asked me to organize her home library.

When I arrived, she greeted me with her warm and marvelous smile, showed me in, and then disappeared.  The floor-to-ceiling shelves were already at capacity.  There were books on the chairs, the floor, the table.  One full shelf held the memorial volumes printed for her son’s funeral.

It’s difficult to make peace with A Mother’s Story.  It’s startlingly personal—you feel you’re intruding just by turning the pages.  Vanderbilt explores her own psychic wounds and tenderly depicts the innermost intimacies of family life:  inside jokes, the canny comments of children that become private legend, the knowing exchanges between spouses.  She writes of the instant before her husband’s heart failed, when he said, “Something terrible’s about to happen.”  Early on she describes how, as a child, Carter once sleepwalked into his father’s office.  As the boy spoke incoherently, his father typed the words.  Vanderbilt writes, “I’d give anything in the world to have that piece of paper with Carter’s words on it.  It’s in a box somewhere…(I save everything).”

I watched for it as I worked.

Among the stacks in Alison Rose’s office, I happened upon a letter from her editor at Little, Brown.  I recognized the editor’s name; she had since become a literary agent.  My literary agent.  At the time, she was attempting to sell my novel.

“Did you always want to be a writer?”  Alison asked.

I said I had.

“How nice for you,” she said.

We talked a lot about books—Brodkey’s and others—and about California, where she was also from.  (She grew up in a posh estate in Palo Alto; her father was Doris Day’s psychiatrist.)  As a child, Rose wrote, she was smitten with the actor and playwright Gardner McKay:  “The school psychologist had had to get involved.”  Later, when she lived in Los Angeles, she became his typist and then his lifelong friend.

Crushes are Rose’s stock in trade; McKay was just one of the men Rose staked her existence on.  But, she wrote, she “never did think of [herself] as a person who would get married.”  Rose despises normalcy—in the book, she calls folks with children and mortgages “Grocery People.”

“Do you like being married?” she asked me.

“Sure,” I said.

“Did you always want to be that, too?”

I looked her in the eye.  “No,” I said.  We smiled.

She didn’t watch me as closely after that.

Ms. Vanderbilt also knew about my novel; the professor who’d recommended me to her had mentioned it.  As I worked in the library on my second day, ordering her Christie’s catalogues by year, I heard her enter.  She smiled gently.

“You’re going to be published,” she said.

I looked up, surprised.  “Do you think so?”

I don’t know why I asked this; she hadn’t read a word I’d written.

“Oh yes—I’m certain of it.”

That afternoon, I finally found a place for the funeral books.  Nearby were hatboxes filled with letters and photographs.  I wanted to look at them more closely, but didn’t.  Ms. Vanderbilt had trusted me with her most sacred mementos, and I wanted to be worthy of that trust.  I told a friend this later that night.  “She doesn’t trust you,” my friend scoffed.  “She doesn’t care what you see—you’re inconsequential.  You’re the help.”  As soon as the words were out of her mouth, I believed them, and they stung.

But I didn’t believe it for long.  The next morning Ms. Vanderbilt came into the library again.  “May I show you something?” she asked.  I followed her to the Lime Room—guest quarters with chartreuse walls—where she held up an ancient copy of Tender is the Night.  On the title page was an inscription and signature: Fitzgerald’s.

“My son went to Princeton, too,” she said.

Both of these memoirs are by women of means and leisure.  Both concern serial heartache.  Both are deeply intimate.  Both demonstrate how little privilege does to temper suffering.  Both are by women I would go on to connect with, despite differences in age and social stratum, by discussing the writer’s life, and books, and the stuff that fills books: disillusionment, joy, longing, grief.  I was allowed to see the physical tokens of their memories—sitting in stacks, lined up on shelves.  I read their memoirs, and then for a few days many years later, I inhabited them.  And both were written by women who live the life I wanted at fourteen: they spend their days putting pen to paper.

Not long after I signed my book contract, Ms. Vanderbilt sent her congratulations.  She mentioned the conversation we’d had in the library—about how she was certain I’d be published.

“And now it has all come true,” she said.

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Katie Arnold-Ratliff received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She is an Assistant Editor at O, the Oprah Magazine, where her writing appears regularly, and has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Opium Magazine, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, Bright Before Us, was released this spring.  Visit her website here.

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Comments: 1

(30) Comments

  1. Kara Krauze says:

    What a lovely essay. I too remember Gloria Vanderbilt’s memoir, most vividly its potent grief, an atmosphere (one which is often avoided), and that very scene with her son Carter on the balcony. Strangely, I am not at all sure when I read it. Strange, for me, because I feel that I was an adolescent, as Katie Arnold-Ratliff here describes herself, but now I’ve checked and this is not possible. The memoir was published in 1997, and so I read it after my father’s suicide, which occurred three years prior, which makes far more sense. By a series of coincidences, I’ve read this thoughtful essay today, the eve of my father’s death years earlier.
    Thank you for this reminder of a wonderful book, the introduction to Alison Rose’s work – and “Bright Before Us,” which I have recently read, a compelling, intense, and beautifully written novel.

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