To squander the last dollar left in the Blackbird family fortune, my parents threw a lawn party that would have made Jay Gatsby proud. My father wore a moth-eaten dinner jacket and poured champagne while Mama offered marijuana cigarettes to the ne’er do wells of Philadelphia high society who’d come to see how far the mighty had fallen.
At the party’s climax, my parents shot off fireworks and presented the Blackbird family art collection to my sister Emma. The Blackbird furniture went to my sister Libby.
Perhaps under the impression that I was the most responsible member of the family–which only means I’m the one who never entered a wet T-shirt contest-Mama and Daddy gave me the Bucks County farm. Then they blew the country for a sunny resort that catered to American tax evaders, leaving stardust in their wake and me with a delinquent property tax bill for two million dollars.
That winter I gave up my Rittenhouse Square condo and moved back to the decaying splendor of our family homestead. I sold my symphony subscription seats, got a partial refund on a weekend trip to Paris and terminated my charge account at Neiman Marcus, which was probably good for my soul anyway.
I tried to get used to poverty. I really did. But by spring I was down to my last Lean Cuisine, and the tax man had my number on his speed dial.
Which is why I, Nora Blackbird, former socialite who never really held a job in all my thirty-one years unless you count being secretary of the Junior League, found myself in dire need of a paycheck.
“How’s the job hunt?” my sister Emma asked me over our monthly lunch at the Rusty Sabre, the white tablecloth inn in New Hope. She lit up a cigarette after she’d been served her spinach salad and sat back to consider her next move on the food. “Find anybody who wants to hire an expert at organizing charity balls?”
“I do have other skills, you know.”
“You’re really good at seating charts,” said our older sister Libby, buttering a roll and showing none of Emma’s reluctance to chow down. Libby wore her excess pounds to sexy perfection. “A successful seating chart is a work of art. In fact, I’m hoping you’ll help us with the wedding, Nora.”
Her stepson was getting married soon. Half of Philadelphia knew the details thanks to frequent bulletins in the papers that documented the union of two old families—the Treese clan of Main Line and Libby’s new in-laws, the Kintswells of Society Hill.
Bored with the endless wedding discussion, Emma ignored Libby’s gambit to hash it over again. To me, she said, “Maybe the White House needs someone new.”
Libby stopped buttering and said quite seriously, “That’s not a bad idea.”
Emma winked at me. “You do beautiful calligraphy.”
“And I can polish silver.”
“But seating charts are your gift, really,” Libby said.
Emma and I exchanged grins.
The three of us began having our sisterly lunches about eighteen months ago, shortly after Emma and I lost our husbands. Libby had been a widow for several years and remarried, but when Emma’s husband Jake died in a car crash that nearly killed her, too, and a few weeks later my Todd was shot in a South Philly parking lot, Libby assembled the sisterhood. We took turns being the designated basket case, and to our collective surprise, our lunches were therapeutic. For the first time since our teenaged years, we were close again. We shared our frustration with Mama and Daddy, argued over how best to cope with being poor-Libby, the oldest and most free-spirited, advocated complete denial and Emma, the youngest and wired tighter than a piano string, never spent a nickel anyway–and we howled over the things that only sisters can find hilarious, like Aunt Rosemary’s shoplifting tendencies and our family inability to cook a decent meal.
We were not without conflict, of course.
Libby had appeared for our May lunch wearing one of her long, engulfing artistic dresses with a plunging neckline. Normally, she sported a beflowered straw hat as if ready to fly to Ascot at a moment’s notice. But today her hair was loose and Bardot feminine. Hardly any splotches of paint marred her manicure. All of her outfits included matching canvas bags in which she carried an ever-changing collection of books to share with anyone who came along. Libby had grown up ahead of Emma and me, during the time when our parents lived like minor royalty, so she had a different approach to life. Lady Bountiful in Birkenstocks, often lugging a sketchbook to document important moments in her life. She was an Artist of Life, she claimed. Things like financial survival were irrelevant to her.
Libby shook her knife and said, “No, they already have somebody at the White House. Remember Divvy Moncreath? Her son works there now. He gets along beautifully with the First Lady. They have the same taste in china.”
“Divvy Moncreath,” I said, “is probably the only woman in America who made a campaign contribution so her son could fold napkins.”
“He’s brilliant with place settings.”
“How do you know that?” Emma asked Libby. She was dressed in riding breeches and boots, as always, and she didn’t give a damn that the other ladies lunching nearby cast cool glances at the mud she’d tracked in.
Of the three of us, Emma was the stone fox. A chic, very short and asymmetrical haircut flattered the narrow shape of her head, her sharp-cut cheekbones and wide-set bedroom eyes. The Blackbird auburn hair and magnolia white skin that made me look like a Victorian bride with the vapors, was sexy as hell on Emma. Her riding breeches fit her like a pair of gloves, and her boots gave my younger sister a piratical air that suited the look in her eye. Two inches taller than me and with ten pounds strategically rearranged, she could have gotten work as an exotic dancer anywhere.
Em always looked as if she’s just rolled out of somebody’s bed . . . with a whip. Libby looked ready to slideinto the next convenient four-poster. And I-well, I wasn’t going to venture under anyone’s down comforter but my own for a long time. My husband’s death had blindsided me, but didn’t compare to the hell of our last two years together when Todd binged on cocaine, lost his medical research job and showed me what havoc one man’s weakness could inflict on the union of two people who loved each other passionately. No, men were too much trouble.
“I already got a job,” I announced, intervening before the sisterly sniping developed into a full-blown squabble. “I started last week, so the White House will have to muddle through without me.”
“What job?” Libby brightened. “Where?”
“I went to see Rory Pendergast.” I smiled at the memory of dear old “uncle” Rory, years ago our grandfather Blackbird’s tennis partner, coming to my rescue. “I asked him for a job and he invited me to write for his newspaper.”
“Nora, that’s fabulous!”
“He still owns that rag?” Emma blew smoke. “I guess every billionaire industrialist needs a hobby in his declining years.”
“How is sweet Rory?” Libby asked. “I haven’t seen him in weeks. I should call him, in fact. We have things to discuss.”
“This is about Nora,” Emma said. “So shut up and listen.”
“Rory looked great,” I went on steadily. “A little frail, maybe, but still naughty. He’s eighty-five if he’s a day.”
Libby lifted her wineglass in a toast. “And he recognizes talent when he sees it. Writing all those medical articles for your husband has come in handy, Nora. Kudos! Tell us what you’ll be doing for theIntelligencer. A column for the health section?”
“No,” I said, taking a deep breath. “I’m writing for the society page.”
A short, stunned silence. Libby put down her glass.
Then Emma laughed outright. “Good God,” she said. “You’re going to write meaningful prose about debutante balls?”
“It’s a steady job.”
But a job that came with at least one drawback and Emma immediately hit the bullseye.
She said, “Tell me you’re not working with Kitty Keough.”
I gathered my courage and admitted, “I’m her assistant.”
Libby clapped one hand to her mouth to stop a laugh. “You’re kidding!”
For thirty years, Kitty Keough had been the elephant in the middle of every table at Philadelphia parties. She reported on weddings and funerals, cocktail receptions and tea parties. She detailed what people wore, ate and said. She had printed more pictures of men in tuxedos than People magazine ever will, picked her fork at more sea bass dinners with bulimic girls than a Miss America chaperone and air kissed more wealthy women than a presidential candidate. She wrote clever columns that sent the whole city flipping to The Back Page every Sunday to read how she cut the rich and famous down to size.
But she’d also made enemies along the way.
Emma said, “You’re life’s in danger the minute your name is associated with hers. People hate Kitty Keough’s guts.”
“But our friends do,” said Libby. “And what she said about Daddy and Mama!”
“Every word was true,” I pointed out.
“So what will you be doing exactly?” Emma asked.
“The job isn’t much different than my life used to be,” I explained. “I’m invited to the same cocktail parties, banquets and balls. Except afterwards I write up what I’ve seen and heard. I’ll attend parties for a living.”
“And Kitty?” Emma propped her elbows on the table, ready to dish. “I bet she was delighted to see you sashaying into her territory.”
“She hasn’t exactly rolled out the red carpet,” I admitted.
“It’s your name,” Libby declared. “The Blackbirds are everything Kitty Keough is not. She’s going to make your life miserable.”
“And the fact that Rory hired you himself,” Emma added with a grin. “That ticked her off big time, didn’t it? She hates anybody being more connected than she is.”
To be accepted in New York, goes the saying, all you need is money. Lots of money. But here in Philadelphia, it’s who you are that counts.
The Blackbirds, a family as old as the city itself, counted.
Kitty Keough did not.
“She seems a little upset about our relationship with Rory,” I agreed “She’s sending me to some … unusual places. Just to teach me the ropes, I’m sure.”
“To teach you a lesson,” Emma said. “She wants you under her thumb from the get-go.”
“Maybe Rory is easing Kitty out.” Libby dropped her voice to keep such speculation a secret from the women at the next table. “Maybe they’re grooming you to take over. She’s been writing the society column for a hundred years.”
Emma nodded. “Rory’s got you in the bull pen.”
“She has no intention of leaving,” I said quickly. “If she thought I was trying to replace her-”
“You’d be dead meat,” Emma finished for me.
Kitty Keough’s work seemed silly to people outside our world, yes, but if you wanted to raise a million dollars for cancer research by holding a black tie ball, you needed Kitty to sell tickets beforehand and pat the big donors on the back afterwards. If you wanted to heighten the public profile of your company, you sent Kitty an invitation to a party where you gave a dozen computers to an underprivileged youth club. You let her photograph your wife in a ball gown to get a mention for your law firm, investment bank or plastic surgery practice. You needed Kitty’s help to build a hospital, save an old theater or feed the homeless.
But for a woman who pretended her father never worked in a steel mill, the climb onto the dais at the mayor’s inaugural ball had been a long one. So Kitty relished every minute of fawning, every box of chocolates sent by handsome CEOs, every engraved invitation hand-delivered by a personal assistant of society leaders. She dressed like a movie star and splashed her weekly page of newsprint with wit and venom as well as the niceties. And readers ate it up. She used her column to slap down social climbers who didn’t pay her proper deference. She complained when seated at a bad table or if paired with a dull dinner companion. Her paragraphs gushed with favorite names and high praise for anyone who played the game her way, but sharp put-downs became her best known comments.
“Lacey Chenoweth’s garden looks a little less posh this year,” Kitty wrote after one hostess failed to pay her respect. “Maybe the lovely Mrs. C. is letting her lace slip elsewhere this spring.”
My sisters absorbed the fact that I now worked for the most feared woman in our social circle.
Emma said, “Well, don’t drink from the office water cooler.”
“And,” added Libby, “don’t get pushed down any elevator shafts.”
“You’re way off base,” I said. “It’s going to work out fine. My more pressing problem is the tax bill.”
I sipped my wine and braced myself to deliver the news I’d really come to tell them. Admitting I’d taken a job as a society columnist had been my smoke screen. My sisters weren’t going to take the other news so quietly.
“I’m not going to jail,” I said succinctly. “Not because Mama and Daddy didn’t pay their taxes.”
Both Libby and Emma looked at me with their full attention.
I gathered my courage and said, “This job will help me make payments on the tax bill, but first I have to reduce the debt. So I’ve sold a few ancestral acres.”
I assumed the Rusty Sabre’s restaurant was civilized enough that my sisters wouldn’t scream bloody murder when I broke the bad tidings. At least I’d hoped they wouldn’t.
“You’re selling the farm,” Emma repeated, as if she couldn’t believe her ears.
“No. Just five acres.”
“You’re selling five acres without discussing it with us.”
“It’s already sold.”
Libby dropped her fork and splashed raspberry vinaigrette. “You can’t do that. It’s been Blackbird land for two hundred years.” She put her face in her hands. “Oh, my God.”
“Here we go,” said Emma.
“I didn’t have a choice,” I said. “I have to keep the wolf from the door, so I sold five measly acres.”
“Without consulting your sisters?” Libby demanded, clearly forgetting we were in a public place. “You just went ahead and threw away our family history?”
“Five acres, Libby, that’s all.”
“But once you sell land, you’ll never get it back.” Libby eyes had actually begun to fill with tears. Her bosom trembled. “You’ve traded the Blackbird legacy for financial security for yourself.”
“There’s no tax on your inheritance. So what do you know?”
“You can’t destroy a national treasure like Blackbird Farm.”
“National treasure? The barn is falling down, and parts of the house don’t have central heating. I’ve got weeds twelve feet tall! And neither one of you has set foot on the property since Christmas.”
Libby clutched the table to gather strength for an impassioned speech. All our dishes and glasses lurched. “Suburban blight has spread too far already. If we keep destroying open land, we won’t have any left!”
Emma rolled her eyes. “Oh, for godsake, Lib. Another of your causes.”
“It’s a valuable cause! A noble cause! We of all people should be doing something about it. Soon every farm in the nation will be paved for superstores and our children will never see a cow.”
Emma said. “You talk a good line, Libby, but you never actually do anything.”
“Take it easy,” I said to both of them. “Shouting isn’t helping.”
“I am going to do something,” Libby said, wounded, but not defeated. “I’m going to stop you.”
“Let her go,” Emma said. “She’ll start a petition, and that’ll be the end of it.”
“It will not.” Libby trembled with anger. “I’m going to stop you from destroying Blackbird Farm, Nora.”
“Oh, good.” Emma stamped out her cigarette. “Someday one of our sisterly lunches will end without one of us walking out in a huff. But not today. The record stands.”
“Yes, it does,” said Libby, spinning around and stalking out of the Rusty Sabre.
“Well,” said Emma. “If you’ve sold land, you can afford to pay for lunch.”
And she left, too.
My sisters stopped speaking to me, which didn’t seem so bad.
I should have known at least one of them was plotting.
–from How to Murder a Millionaire by Nancy Martin, Copyright © October 2002, Signet, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.”