There was that odd thing where he seemed to tilt to one side as if to whisper something to her, as lovers often do. Her head turned, the perfect hat still in place, and she, out of instinct, leaned in as if for a kiss.
His face softened.
It took a moment for her to understand.
It was then that something—gray, dark—tumbled down the back of the limo and she followed after it. Held it in her hands as if it were a broken wing.
The film shows this: The agent jumped onto the 1961 Lincoln and pulled her back into the seat.
Unseen are the thirty-six long-stem red roses tumbling to the floor and the agent pushing her on top of her husband and then covering them both with his own body.
Heartbeat upon heartbeat. Then silence.
It was not a wing at all.
In the chaos of the moment, the agent focused on the suit. He knew she was crushed beneath his weight. He couldn’t help that. He knew her face was pressed into her husband’s. He couldn’t think about that. But he could focus on the pink beneath his body.
She was so quiet. He expected her to scream but she didn’t.
“Beautiful suit,” he would later write in his memoirs.
Most who can recall that day in Dallas think of the film’s grainy black-and-white footage. Those who were there, remember the suit.
That morning, an entire ballroom awaited her arrival. Her husband carefully orchestrated it. He joked about her being late, but the advance man knew that the wife was to make an entrance that would not be easily forgotten. The band played “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.”
When she finally walked into the ballroom, every head turned to watch her take the stage. The applause was thunderous. Even her husband took to his feet, laughing. “Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear.”
Of course, that was the plan. The suit was his favorite. She wore it often. “You look ravishing in it,” he once told her. He’d asked her to wear it that day.
She was “lovely in a pink suit,” the advance man would later tell the reporters. Even Lyndon smiled at the sight of her.
Later, when it was all over, in the underground parking garage of the hospital, Lady Bird would glance over her shoulder for one last look at the president. His limo was sideways, as if abandoned. The doors were flung open. The agents were desperate to get him inside; some hovered over the dark blue Lincoln, pleading. Some stood with their backs to it and their guns drawn.
No doctors. No nurses. There was really no need.
In the car, all Lady Bird could see was “a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms lying across the back seat.”
Aboard Air Force One, LBJ stood with his hand on the Bible. The widow stood next to him, still in the pink suit. The photographer posed her so that only a small stain on her sleeve could be clearly seen. Lady Bird tried to get her to change; the maid laid out a white dress.
“Very kind of you,” she said, but would only wash her face, which she later regretted doing. “Let them see what they have done.”
The photos ran in black-and-white.
At 5 a.m. on November 23, twenty hours after she first put on the pink suit to meet her husband in the ballroom—and after his body had been delivered to the Bethesda Naval Hospital for the autopsy—she returned to her private quarters for the last time. Twenty hours. One thousand one hundred and eighteen miles. Wife to widow.
Finally, she removed the suit.
While she was in her bath, it was taken away. Some say that the maid put it in a brown paper bag, that it may have been hidden in the Map Room. Some say it was given to the Secret Service. At that moment, the suit was unimportant.
Random bits of detritus made it through the chaos of that day—a typed copy of the itinerary, a stained breakfast program, partial lists of who had tickets to the event, and photographs of the motorcade in front of the Hotel Texas. But the pink suit went missing.
The National Archives in Washington, D.C., houses the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and what’s left of that day in Dallas. There’s the white lace-up back brace—the president’s back had become so painful that he couldn’t have sat in the car without it. There’s also his tie, nicked by the bullet, and the shirt that was cut off by the medical team. And in a cave somewhere, in an undisclosed location in Kansas, the Archives has stored the entire contents of Texas’ Parkland Hospital’s Trauma Room 1, where he was pronounced dead at 1 p.m.
They also have the pink suit.
It’s never been cleaned.
No one at the Archives seems to know exactly how it got there. They just stumbled upon it one day.
It’s currently stored in a climate-controlled vault in area 6W3, although no one can recall it arriving. It had been wrapped in plain brown paper. A single-digit postal code was written on the address label; and yet the US adopted five-digit zip codes on July 1, 1963. There was no return address. Or postmark.
The suit, blouse, handbag, shoes, and even her stockings, were bundled together along with an unsigned note on the letterhead stationery of her mother. “Worn Nov. 22, 1963.” That’s all it said.
How she came to have the suit is a matter of speculation, but in the presidential library, an oral history of the mother reveals that she’d kept it in the attic of her Georgetown home. She doesn’t say why or for how long. She said she’d given strict instructions to the maid not to have it cleaned. It was the “last link.” And so she put it in her attic, next to her daughter’s famous wedding dress.
Who sent it to the National Archives, instead of the presidential library, and why, is still unknown.
When it was finally discovered, the suit was not in a brown bag but in the original box from the dressmaker, Chez Ninon.
Next to the photo of the First Lady in the newspaper, there was a story about a Trailways bus that had been firebombed. The Attorney General, who everyone in Inwood just called Bobby, blamed “extremists on both sides.”
Very bad business, Kate thought.
Kate remembered when she first came to America, to Chez Ninon. All those signs. “No Dogs. No Irish. No Colored.” Awful. She hated to read that this sort of thing was still going on, especially on Mother’s Day.
Kate said a quick prayer and bought two newspapers because she liked the photo so very much. It was quite flattering. The First Lady was leaving Palm Beach on Air Force One. She was smiling, fit, and tan. She was wearing a white scarf and gloves. The neckline of her dress ran right below her collarbone—right where it should be.
A minor miracle. Kate had lost track of how many times that neckline needed to be adjusted so that it hit just so. It was worth it, though. The cut of the dress was remarkable. It hid every flaw—and there were many. Kate had always thought as her as “the one who needed the right side of the hem a little longer to cover a slight spinal sway.”
“Occupational hazard,” Kate’s neighbor Patrick Harris once said. “As a butcher, I always think of people by what they buy. Mrs. Leary is Pork Chops Cut to the Fat Side.”
Kate always wondered what part of the pig Patrick Harris thought of her as, but certainly understood the sentiment—entire families were known to her only by what they wore: fathers and sons in matching suits with the cut of Savile Row, or mothers and daughters with their identical rabbit-trimmed bathrobes. Unless they were extremely famous, in news-papers or magazines, Kate had no idea what they looked like. Chez Ninon had strict rules about that sort of thing—mixing. Kate never left the back room. Maeve did the fitting. Kate just followed the marks. She knew everyone’s tucks and pleats, but not their faces.
Still. She knew them. More importantly, she knew who they thought themselves to be. It was Kate’s job to know. As soon as those people were out of diapers, there was a constant need for various wardrobes for skiing, horseback riding, private school, and spring holiday in Paris—along with Having Lunch with Mummy at the Four Seasons Dresses and Meeting Other Children in Central Park Harris Tweeds.
Stitch by stitch, hour by hour, Kate would have to imagine every formal dinner, every exotic holiday, and every debutante ball as if she lived it herself. It was the only way to get the clothes right. She needed to understand how long a cape could be without being too long, or what type of lining a Belgian lace suit needed so it would stay cool and yet not wrinkle in the Caribbean sun.
Thirty-six years old—and so many years of Kate’s life had been spent hunched over one fabric or another, her focus unwavering. A simple dress could take a hundred hours to make. A beaded gown would always run over a thousand, sometimes two.
But she never met the clients.
Kate carefully trimmed the newspaper photo and pasted it into her scrapbook. She liked to keep clippings about famous clothes that she worked on; it was the only way she could see them being worn. She usually tucked a copy into her weekly letter to her father, along with seven dollars. Half of her salary. He never mentioned them at all, and so she never did.
“Clothes are your dreams on display for all to see,” she always told her niece Maggie Quinn—but Kate knew it wasn’t true. At least, not for her niece.
Maggie Quinn and the First Lady were exactly the same size.
Kate couldn’t help herself.
The muslin patterns were tossed away, anyway. There was no harm in it. Maggie was a couple of years younger, and pretty in a different way. A young mother, too. Their coloring was very similar, but Kate made sure that the fabric was never identical, just close enough. And she only would make a skirt or shirt. A dress maybe, but never the matching jacket. Never the entire outfit. And she never had the hats made up—even though Schwinn, one of the boys at the shop who always rode a bike, was a very fine milliner.
“It’s like waving a flag,” Kate told her niece. “Without the flag. Patriotic.”
It was Kate’s own way to honor Inwood, the northernmost neighborhood in New York City. Irish, mostly. To them, the president was a local boy made good. He took his first Holy Communion at St. Margaret of Cortona in Riverdale, right next door. And even though Kate thought of The Wife as having a bit of a swayback—and she had that French last name—the First Lady was a Lee from County Cork. And Kate was from Cork. According to her father, back home, their people knew each other.
Kate liked her, no matter what anyone said. And she had to believe that even with all those French mannerisms, the president’s wife must long for Ireland, too. It was only natural. After all, she did.
The last time Kate saw Ireland was the day she left. Her father was in the garden going at the roses with the kitchen knife, and then his teeth. A mad dog. The thorns left a thin trail of blood.
Kate knew the boat would not wait. He knew that, too.
Rose after rose—so much went unsaid. Finally, she picked up her suitcase and walked to the gate.
“You can press them into a book for luck,” he shouted after her.
Kate stopped and turned.
That helpless grin: the fistful of ragged roses—he’d refused to take her to the docks. It wasn’t that far, a couple of miles or so, but he wouldn’t do it. He’d already lost one child, his son, to America. He had no more to lose.
Behind him, a thick fog hid the lush greenness of the rolling hills; there was some mercy in that.
“Keep one,” she said. “We’ll match the dozen when I get back.”
“When you get back,” he said. “We’ll have enough money to plant a few more. Mum would have liked that. You and me, digging around.”
And then he turned and went inside.
Kate picked up her suitcase again. A rose petal fell at the gate. Then another. And another.
She was late. She couldn’t stop to pick them up.
Petal by petal, she ran down the long dirt road dragging her suitcase behind her. Then through the paved streets and then onto the dock, and then, finally, into the boat waiting in the harbor, a harbor whose motto was Statio bene fide carinis, a safe place for ships, and into the vast sea itself. Petal by petal, Kate left a trail just like a young girl with bread who does not think of rabbits and foxes, but only home.
They were taking the train into Manhattan. Columbus Circle. Then a short walk to Chez Ninon so that the backroom girls could give Little Mike a tour for his fifth birthday—they’d seen so many pictures of him they felt as if he was one of their own—and then on to the new children’s zoo in Central Park. Kate promised her great nephew that—but only if he took the subway, if he was a little gentleman, and if he didn’t cry.
Ice cream, too?
Ice cream, too.
The bench they were sitting on was narrow. Their knees knocked into the back of the legs of the people standing in the aisle: sleepy, arguing, whispering, shouting, praying to their own private gods, bobbing above the crush of their own lives.
Back and forth and in and out of darkness—Kate knew trains frightened Little Mike, but he would have to learn how to ride the subway eventually.
She held his hand tightly. Not because she was concerned that he’d run away or get lost—he was a smart boy, a well-behaved boy, anybody could see that—but because she liked the feel of his hand in hers. His hand was sweaty, though. Poor child. The squeal of metal upon metal made the boy quieter than usual.
Two college students huddled on. Kate noticed that the girl was well dressed in pearls and patent. Columbia University. The boy—he really seemed to be a boy—was wrinkled, badly fitted, and raccoon-eyed.
City College, of course.
Kate looked away, out the window. The world flashed by as if they were in a silent film, the frames slipping, then catching, then slipping again. No piano to accompany, just the rhythm of breath.
“Africa,” the student said, as if he had been asked a question. “Children die. Malnutrition. Mothers don’t know better.”
The train, and the words, rattled along. The boy bumped up against the girl’s shoulder. The wheels sparked. He kept on talking.
“A study. Taking blood. To test it.”
“Then feed them?”
“No. Of course not.”
181st Street. George Washington Bridge. Washington Heights.
There was a couple next to Kate who always got on at Dyckman Street: It was closer to the Projects. Their skin was dark, like smooth stones. Kate often thought of them as being African. Instead of a hat, the woman wore her hair wrapped in vibrant scarves with impossible prints and patterns and shades of orange and red and a particular burnished gold that made Kate think of Egypt and its queens. The times she heard the husband speak, he sounded more British than American. She could hear the shadow of King’s English, quite regal, even though it was seldom used anymore. It was what Kate was taught in school. The correct English, as she still thought of it.
They were beautifully dressed: cut and color perfect. Kate pointed this out to Little Mike on several occasions—a boy needed a trade after all.
They kept to themselves. Every now and then a nod to Kate, but mostly they were an island. The wife was deep water. The husband, all limbs and rubber, moved constantly. One eye rolled this way, and then that. She always sat. He always stood, looming over her, a sheltering tree, slightly swaying. No one would ever think to ask her to give up her seat.
The man didn’t seem to be dangerous, just broken.
“Did you hear what he said?” He asked his wife, and then Kate. “Did you hear that?”
Kate didn’t have to answer; the wife put her hand on her husband’s chest, a tender gesture. “Ras?”
Kate had never heard his name before.
He held his wife’s hand there for a moment. It seemed to calm him. “I am fine, Mrs. Tafi,” he said. “I am stellar. I am gravity itself.”
“I am sorry,” he said to her. Then he turned to Kate. “I am sorry.”
Kate nodded, slightly. Pulled Little Mike a little closer. Sean, O’Malley’s boy, was leaning against the train doors. Watching. Roughneck. Kate knew he was a bartender at one of the pubs—which one changed monthly.
“Everything all right?” he asked the students.
“It’s fine, Sean,” Kate said.
“No one asked you.”
“Well, I’m telling you anyway.”
More in. More out.
The student, the boy, moved closer to the door, closer to Sean. Then whispered. Ras leaned over to Kate and said, “I shouldn’t be upset. I know that. He’s trying to impress that girl, but she is not impressed. You can see it in her face. She knows you should feed the hungry. She knows that.”
Mrs. Tafi took his hand and kissed it.
“I know,” he said. “I know.”
His anger. Her calm. Teetering.
Three more stops, Kate thought. City College.
“You saying something, old man?” Sean said.
The husband did not turn around. His eyes rolled, his hands shook, but his voice was steady. “Educated people talk, not fight. We hold discourse,” he said to Kate. “Boy thinks because of this eye, I have no education. Because of this skin.”
The wife whispered, “Shh.”
“That’s right. Quiet. Keep quiet,” he said. “Always best.”
Out. In. The doors hushed closed again. Sean must have gotten off at 168th, Kate thought, but then saw him up ahead at the other door. Still watching. The train jerked. Sped. Sparked. Little Mike was wide-eyed.
“They’re just talking,” Kate whispered in his ear.
She squeezed his small hand. “Don’t let go.”
“Howard University School of Divinity,” the husband shouted at the student. “I feed the hungry. That’s what the civilized people do.”
The train rocked hard back and forth, squealed.
“Ras, it’s fine,” the wife said. “Everything is fine.”
The Transit Police were nowhere to be seen. Little Mike reached out and touched the man’s leg. The husband softened. “Isn’t that right, little one? Even a baby knows that you feed the hungry, as Jesus did. Opika pende. We all stand strong together.”
Little Mike’s cowlick was up again. Kate took off her white gloves and smoothed it back. “Better.”
He straightened his bow tie, a clip-on.
She whispered in his ear again. “Now Mike, take a good look. Whose coat is too big?”
It was a game that Kate taught him. He pointed at the student.
“Needs a hat, too.”
137th. City College.
Both students got out.
“That young man will never go boasting about again,” the husband shouted after him. “He learned his lesson.”
At 116th, Columbia University, the husband and wife got off the train. That was their regular stop. Kate had never thought of that before.
The husband tipped his hat to Kate. The wife was still smiling.
Lucky, Kate thought. Not just because the Transit Police did not arrest them, but lucky that they had each other.
They moved onto the crowded platform quickly, hand in hand. In the crush, Kate suddenly saw Sean’s face, just for a moment. He turned back and looked at Kate. Smiled. Then pushed his way through the crowd toward the couple. He was laughing. The train pulled away. Kate felt a catch in her throat.
When Kate and Little Mike finally reached Chez Ninon, the backroom girls were huddled around a drawing. “A new order from our friends at the Maison Blanche,” Miss Sophie said. “Chanel is not going to like this at all.”
It was very pink.
The suit was not pink, but raspberry. That’s what they’d called the color. When the order from Chez Ninon first arrived in Paris at 31 Rue Cambon, Chanel was, indeed, greatly displeased. The suit was a personal favorite, not just of the Autumn/Winter Collection, but of the entire year.
It was modern and timeless—a very difficult thing to do. One can always design fashion, but to design beauty is another thing entirely. The double navy-trimmed pockets on each side were inspired. They drew the eye in and made the jacket look fitted.
Chanel liked it so much that she’d had one made in white bouclé for herself—a prototype. She often worked in it. Hers was always worn with a hat and ropes of pearls, as it should be, but she knew that if she actually fulfilled this request, the “pink” suit would not be properly worn at all.
In Washington, they wore her clothes like uniforms. Chanel wore them like her own skin.
“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”
When the order arrived, Chanel had been making the final alterations on that year’s Little Black Dress—the “LBD” as she called it, as every-one called it since 1926 when she pointed out that black should not just be for clerics, maids, and nuns.
The fitting wasn’t going well. The model, a new girl from New York, kept fidgeting.
“Americans,” Chanel sighed, and lit another cigarette.
Politicians were the worst. She’d gone along with the ruse of selling dresses for a “friend’s unseen cousin,” some unnamed “Sicilian noblewoman” who had, remarkably, the same exact build as the First Lady—a five-seven boy’s body with broad shoulders, big hands, and size 10 feet. They also had the same taste. “We must pretend her husband is the president of France,” the sister would say.
It was insulting. Once the clothes were finished, they were sent by special diplomatic courier to Washington—as were frequent shipments of Chanel N°5. The bill was always mailed to the father-in-law in Hyannis Port.
It was laughable, of course.
And so the request from Chez Ninon for a muslin toile, a test garment, was tiresome. While it was not unusual to create line-by-line replicas of designs—they were even regulated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture et du Prêt-à-Porter as a way to appease the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union—Chanel was always reluctant. It was her work, her vision, her art—why should she allow someone to put their own name on it? She’d resigned from the Chambre Syndicale in 1957. They had no jurisdiction over her. She could do what she wanted, and she simply did not want to.
Sophie Shonnard and Nona Park were pirates. Every season the Wild West Quilters of Chez Ninon, as Chanel thought of them—“The Ladies” as they called themselves—descended upon Paris and bought armloads of samples, which they would remake for wealthy Americans.
Carmel Snow, the editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, considered them the most “discerning American buyers of Parisian fashion.”
They bought the best and then knocked off a copy.
It was like creating the Mona Lisa with a paint-by-numbers set.
Because of this practice, Chez Ninon was forced to pay a “caution fee” to Chanel and the other designers. If they didn’t pay, they could not attend the runway shows.
The Ladies always pronounced it cow-see-on.’ Kate and the other backroom girls thought they did that to give it airs, but everyone knew that the fee was so exorbitant, that the Ladies could pronounce it any way they pleased.
The Ladies of Chez Ninon had a habit of being infuriating.
Nona was more than seventy years old, but how much more was difficult to tell. She was always red-carpet ready, dressed in the originals that she so shamelessly copied, and always demanding front seats at all the best shows. They were not hers to have, but that made no difference. Macy’s, Marshall Field’s, Ohrbach’s, even Bonwit Teller (whom the Ladies worked for managing their made-to-measure shop in the 1940s to early 1950s)—if Nona wanted a buyer’s seat she’d take it. She had sharp elbows and the air of a deposed duchess; no one dared refuse her anything. Her partner Sophie, only slightly younger, tagged along behind her, apologizing, wielding her Southern charm with the precision of a surgeon.
The press ignored them; their customers loved them. And no matter whom they had stolen their designs from, they would always make sure they put their own label on it. “Chez Ninon. New York. Paris.”
Paris, mostly—and it was not just Chanel, but Lanvin, Nina Ricci, Cardin, Givenchy, and Balenciaga. Simply everyone. Every season they would buy fifty designs or more, but only enough original fabric to make four copies each. When the Chez Ninon “collection” was ready, they would simultaneously pop champagne and open their doors at precisely 3 p.m. from Tuesday to Thursday, and sell until everything was gone. And then they’d do it again the next season.
Chanel was still angry that Chez Ninon claimed their versions of her clothes were better than hers.
“They give their customers four fittings and they think that makes them superior. We only need one fitting. We do it properly the first time.”
And now this suit.
If made, Chanel assumed that Oleg Cassini would take credit for the design. That was understood. He was the official designer. Everyone was shocked that he was named. How could a woman who was such a devotee of French couture and, more importantly, the chemise—which Cassini openly ridiculed in a fashion show by making a version in burlap and having the model litter the runway with potatoes—how could this particular woman have chosen such a man as her designer?
To make matters worse, at the bottom of this new order someone had typed, “How much?” The Wild West Quilters of Chez Ninon always wanted to know “how much” up front, as if they were buying a dozen eggs, not a timeless work of art.
For a moment, Chanel considered throwing the request in the trash. Cassini was the hottest name in mass-class fashion; she was Chanel.
And yet, money is money.
“I am going home to think,” she said and walked across the alley to the Ritz.
Hôtel Ritz had been Chanel’s home on and off for decades, since the beginning of World War II. Her room was unlike any other. It was not opulent, but small and tucked out of the way in the attic. It was just a bed with white sheets in a room with white walls. The only decoration was a spray of wheat, which her father once told her was a talisman that would bring her luck.
The room was profoundly quiet, much like the convent school where she spent her youth. It was a good place to think.
Chanel washed her hands and face with lye soap; she hated the scent of skin. She lit another cigarette and went out onto the rooftop with a glass of red wine and looked out over Paris. Even from that height, the city seemed to be made of buttercream—it was yellowed and dusty as if sculpted for a cake that would not be eaten, just remembered in one’s dreams. No longer the city of her youth: There were so many people, so much noise.
“Americans,” she sighed.
When the moon rose pink over Paris, Chanel finally decided that The Wife would have her suit. How could Chanel deny her? She was a loyal customer, after all.
However, if this particular Chanel was to go to America, to be made by American hands with Cassini overseeing it, there would have to be Restrictions and Agreements set in place. The man was vulgar: all high slits, low necklines, and high drama. “Sexy,” he called it.
No subtlety. No sensuousness. Impossible.
And so if this man needed this suit made so very badly, Chez Ninon would have to make it exactly as Chanel required. No alterations, or she would file a complaint this time.
They were not untalented, this Wild West Quilting Group. They were, in fact, the very best. But they were more interested in selling dresses than creating iconic style.
“There must be a hat created,” Chanel wrote. “If it is another godforsaken pillbox, please make sure that it does not appear to have been stolen from an organ grinder’s monkey.”
Chanel knew that there was a new man at Bergdorf Goodman’s assigned to create hats for the Washington crowd. Halston—one name only—was very meticulous. He had the same head size as the “unnamed Sicilian noblewoman” and would try her hats on and look at them with two mirrors, so that every angle was right and the fit was perfect. A milliner herself, Chanel had admired some of his work for Lily Daché, but knew that Cassini would try to influence his style and that would not do.
“For this suit,” she wrote, “think of a hat style that would set off that beautiful face. It should be a non-hat hat. And please, pearls. One can never have enough pearls. They could be longer, perhaps, more like a rope.”
As to the question, “How much?” Chanel wrote down a very large figure, indeed.
When the telegram arrived, Sophie showed the “ransom note,” as she called it, to her partner and they laughed.
“The French,” Nona said.
Their reply went out an hour later. “Sharpen your pencil and recalculate,” was all it said.
While Chanel, the person, was not easily copied, the same could not be said for the suit. That’s why the Ladies passed it up the first time. They had people who could easily knock it off if someone wanted it. The finished product might not have all the Chanel touches, but it would have a very similar look and feel and be made in half the time and at a fraction of the cost.
And if it weren’t a line-by-line, then it wouldn’t have to be completely stitched by hand; some parts could be run off with the machines. Better profit margin.
And paying for that toile and license was ridiculous and impractical—but Cassini insisted. Chez Ninon would also be forced to pay Chanel for the right, the material, the signature gold chain that would be sewn into the hem to help it hang properly, and the gold ‘CC’ buttons at $25 apiece—but Cassini was also quite clear that the entire suit couldn’t cost more than $1,000. Preferably $850 or less.
The buttons alone would cost $250. The profit margin would be very slim indeed.
“And, of course, Cassini will insist that he designed it,” Sophie said.
“He can say Chanel designed it as long as the check cashes.”
Nona wrote the suit in on the production schedule calendar.
“That’s just a month to delivery.”
“She’ll give it up in the end.”
But when five days passed without a telegram or phone call, without any response at all, Miss Nona’s confidence started to wane. She began to wonder if asking for a discount from an icon might be perceived as—she couldn’t think of the right word.
“Unseemly?” Sophie said. “Insulting?”
Nona was hoping for “amusing.”
The White House used other dressmakers. Any hint of scandal, and the Maison Blanche would surely go elsewhere. Maybe even appeal to Chanel directly, and that would not do at all.
When a week had passed without a word, The Ladies realized that if their request was denied, this could be a very expensive mistake. Miss Sophie had already ordered the fabric from Chanel’s supplier Linton Tweeds in Cumbria; the price of it nearly made Miss Nona’s heart stop. They should have waited for Chanel to agree, they couldn’t use the fabric without her consent, but the suit was to be worn the first week in November, seven weeks away. The president was apparently taking the family to the official country retreat, Camp David, for the first time.
The Wife had already rented a place in the country, near Washington, where she kept horses. Everyone knew that. And so it was quite clear that she needed a new suit that would convey a strong sense of cheerful femininity so that when she announced that this camp of David was too backwater, she would be photographed looking reasonable about it.
It was, after all, named after Eisenhower’s teenage grandson. The boy was acne-ridden. Paris, it was not.
So Chez Ninon didn’t have much choice. The fabric had to be ordered. Shipping from the Lake District of England took longer than one thought. And couture fabric was always custom made—hand-dyed and hand-loomed for each order specifically. That would take a month in itself. Linton was very particular about everything; they even knew what sheep the wool was combed from.
Miss Sophie couldn’t wait any longer. “I’m going to call.”
“Paris? It’s six dollars a minute,” Nona said.
Sophie had the call put through. Each ring sounded like the rattling of tin cans.
Then finally: “Allo, oui?”
“For Madame Chanel. Chez Ninon.”
“No?” Sophie couldn’t believe it. “Pouvez-vous prendre un message?”
The line went dead.
Two hours later, a call came from the White House. It was Her Elegance, as Women’s Wear Daily had begun to call The Wife. The child-like whisper, the partisan tone—Sophie’s hands began to sweat. When the Maison Blanche called, it was usually Kay McGowan, Cassini’s showroom director, who coordinated fabrication and acquisitions for the “state wardrobe,” as it was known. But this time, it was Herself.
“I’d like to see the toile for the suit. I’m working on a modification.”
Sophie covered the phone with her hand.
“What do we do?”
“I have an idea,” Nona said.
After thirty-three years in business, Sophie knew she would dread those words. She usually did. This time was no exception.
Champagne on ice. One glass. Kate sat at the small table, fidgeting. Ankles crossed. One hand over the other? Hands in her pockets? Beyond nervous, her knees shook.
Backroom girls do not meet Ladies. Ever.
Kate did not wish to be the exception—especially when it came to the Maison Blanche. It’s one thing to want to honor The Wife by turning Maggie Quinn into a regular Little J, but it’s another to meet the real deal. She could be sweaty, and that would ruin everything. And all that smoking—Kate did not care for women who smoked. After fittings, the dressing room was like a grey cloud. And what if she cursed? That would be awful.
Nothing good could come of this meeting. She closed her eyes and pictured that face—those eyes, that smile, the faint freckles across that nose and that particular chestnut color of that hair. Perfectly Black Irish, perfectly beautiful.
Perfect—not human. That’s the way Kate preferred her.
There was so much work to be done. And yet, Miss Sophie and Miss Nona had sent everyone home for the day. The Ladies felt that if Kate were alone, it would go better.
“I’m not much of a talker.”
“You’ll do fine,” Miss Nona said. “Whatever you tell her, we’ll say you were mistaken.”
And then they left.
And now The Wife was late.
Things had not gone well all day. 4:30 a.m. The alarm, as usual, went off. She liked to catch the 5:46 uptown, which put her in at 6:20 at Columbus Circle and then quick walk around the edge of the Park. 7 a.m. Open the door. Every day. Six days a week.
She knew every schedule of every train and bus; prided herself on it.
But that morning Kate bolted awake. Her front door was open. She could see the hallway light from her bed. She had no idea how that would have happened. She distinctly remembered locking it the night before. At least, she thought she did.
Light from the street lamps shone through the thick lace curtains. Everything looked fine. The tiny white kitchen with her teacup in the sink was still immaculate. Kate took all her meals downstairs at Maggie Quinn’s; that was part of their agreement. She paid them $3 a week and made their clothes; they gave her food and lodging.
Next to Kate’s kitchen, where a table should have been, the old door that served as her cutting board still held a muslin pattern from Mr. Charles and several bolts of silk matelassé, hand-quilted to look like a bed of white roses. Kate loved the color white for its quiet beauty; everything else seemed loud compared to it. But the fabric was greatly flawed. Some places were stained and some were snagged. In a few areas, the stitches were so sloppy they would have to be redone. It would take Kate weeks to work around the imperfections, but it was worth it.
It was always worth it.
If someone was hiding in her apartment it was difficult to imagine where. Fabric was piled everywhere: bolts and swatches and rolls from Chez Ninon’s remnant room—the girls were allowed their pick. When it came to fabric, Kate was obsessed by the touch, color, and the promise that it held. She had to have it, even if it just gathered dust.
Some of the cloth was for personal use, but some were remnants of history.
There was a half a yard of the bride-ivory satin—so calculatingly innocent—from the Inaugural Gala gown. And then the Renaissance red wool that turned out to be “the perfect thing” for a televised tour of the Maison Blanche renovation—although Kate was loath to remember the thick chain stitching that outlined the standaway neckline and the hem of the skirt, a signature of the Christian Dior house that nearly made her go blind.
Her favorite was a small snip of Chinese yellow silk from Nina Ricci for a State Dinner held in a room that was quickly painted off-white so that the brilliant yellow and deeply black gown could not possibly go unnoticed.
They were all reminders that beauty was calculated—nipped, tucked, pulled, and pleated into life. That morning, however, everything made Kate uneasy.
What time did I get in?
Too late, of course. And no dinner. Again. September meant back to school and that meant new wardrobes for everyone. All the girls at Chez Ninon worked late, Kate was no exception. But still, leaving the door open was inexplicable. And now she was wasting time. She’d be late. She was never late.
Kate quickly took the curlers out of her hair: Her head was raw from the bristles and clips. She put on her favorite suit, the grey one. Mr. Charles made it for her. The heather set off the strawberry in her skin—at least, that’s what he said. He was always saying things like that. He was the Dresser, but hoped to open his own shop soon. Talked of taking Kate along with him. “A partner.”
Such a grand scheme.
The morning had been bleak: a dull cold rain. Can’t last long. Kate pulled out her umbrella. Put on her cashmere beret, instead of her hat. She left the matching mittens behind and wore a new pair of soft gray kid gloves.
One doesn’t wear mittens in the City.
Kate wasn’t even sure who told her that. Probably Miss Sophie—she was always giving the backroom girls tips to improve themselves. She was kind that way.
By the time Kate arrived at the station at 207th, the rain was furious. Her hair was soaked, the curl gone. The beret and gloves would probably shrink, but there was nothing she could do. Her only comfort was at that hour not many from the neighborhood would see her. Pete the cop, maybe. Probably. He was everywhere. Father John, perhaps. There was an off-chance of that. He sometimes went downtown when he wasn’t serving the 6 a.m. Latin. Of course, he didn’t count either, being a priest.
Still, Kate prayed to the Virgin for intervention and then went down the stairs. Through the turnstile.
The station, thankfully, was deserted.
The express train began at 207th. The conductor leaned out of the window, red-faced and cheery. “Raining is it?”
He wasn’t from the neighborhood.
“Just Heaven’s tears,” she said, shook out her hair, pulled out her compact—and that’s when she saw him. Patrick Harris. The butcher. He was standing at the platform. Watching her.
She let out a little yelp. “You gave me quite a start.”
Kate usually stopped at his shop on the way home if the family needed something—and sometimes, even if they didn’t. Patrick Harris had a kind way about him. Widower. He was from Cork, like her people. He still had that particular accent, that music, to his voice.
“How’s the Queen of Inwood?” he asked.
It was such an odd question, so accusing of being posh and all. Kate couldn’t tell if he was being smart or not. He seemed serious. He was ready for Sunday service in a suit and his dark blue overcoat. He’d shaved. Had a fresh haircut. He looked handsome, actually. He was wearing a Tartan tie, the Irish National. Not his clan, but it still looked good. She never noticed how blue his eyes were before. His silver tangle of hair was finally trimmed into place.
But he reeked of whiskey, and he wasn’t that sort of man.
“I see,” he said and turned and walked up the stairs. He didn’t take the train at all. That was very curious. And now. This.
Late. Late. Late.
You would think The First Lady would own a watch. Or someone in that entourage would. The waiting was killing Kate but it should have been expected. Even before she was The Wife, she was always late for all sorts of odd reasons. Once it was because she accidently started the backseat of her little red convertible on fire with a cigarette and was trying to find someone on Fifth Avenue who had enough ice water to put it out. “Firemen are always so much of a bother,” she said.
Apparently, she knew that from experience. At least, that was the story Mr. Charles told. “But she’s such a lovely person.” He always said that. And he’d know. As the Dresser, he not only spoke to her personally, but he knew exactly how warm she needed the room to be before she stripped down to her knickers.
Kate looked at her watch again. The lace ball gown for Mrs. B needed to be delivered that night—there could be no excuses. Mrs. B was a secret partner but it wasn’t much of a secret—her work always went to the front of the line. She’d recently lost weight—illness again—so there was a slight gap in the neckline, which could be easily fixed by inserting an elastic stay, but that would take at least thirty minutes, which was thirty minutes more than Kate had if all those security people and assistants and secretaries and all the rest of that entourage did not arrive soon.
Since the election, fittings were such a nightmare. The press often stood outside hoping to catch The Wife coming or going. To throw the reporters off, Miss Sophie bought a mannequin that looked exactly like her—and told everyone that it was a seamstress dummy, and that their important client, who was so important that her name could not even be said aloud, never had to come in for fittings anymore.
It was, of course, untrue.
Miss Sophie knew that no one believed her—but they didn’t dare question her either. She wasn’t the type of woman who encouraged questions.
The backroom girls, on the other hand, often had reporters following them home offering money for information, or hoping to buy them a drink or two to get the “dirt” on the cheap—as Miss Nona would say.
“One word and you’re fired.”
The rule was quite clear—private is private. Society women wearing knock-off designs are not fond of gabby backroom girls. No one ever talked. Ever. And that policy had worked well. But since the election, life at Chez Ninon had become complicated. So many prying eyes.
According to Miss Sophie, the Secret Service now could only drive as far as St. Patrick’s, a few blocks away, where The Wife put on her lace chapel cap and walked into the church and kept on walking to the sanctuary and then down into the catacombs. And there, in the presence of the Holy Dead, specifically all the Archbishops of New York, she took off her veil, put on a scarf and her dark sunglasses, and made a run for it with the Secret Service in tow.
Apparently, New York is filled with tunnels, and under St. Patrick’s there’s one that ends up at the back door of Chez Ninon.
At least, that’s the story Miss Sophie told the girls in the backroom.
It sounded a bit like a fairytale, but it wasn’t Kate’s place to speculate and so she didn’t. Kate was in charge of finishing—not questions. She’d worked her way up from delivery girl, pedaling the streets of New York on that broken-down bike all those years ago, by doing her work and minding her own business. Although, if asked, she would say that she could clearly understand why such a very important client and her bodyguards would be running through curtains of cobwebs in the abandoned service tunnels under the streets of Manhattan past rats and the watchful eye of the Holy Dead to shop at Chez Ninon—it’s exceedingly difficult to find good dressmakers.
Two hours and twenty-two minutes late, Kate thought. She’s probably at St. Patrick’s now.
Kate pulled the champagne bottle out of the bucket to take a good look at it. She wasn’t quite sure if there was a trick to opening it. She wasn’t much of a drinker but the color of champagne was an important factor in her work. When a champagne coupe is held, it becomes an accessory. The color of a gown must be chosen based on the type of champagne served.
It varied by brands, of course. If champagne was vintage, even if it were only aged a year or two, it could cause a golden cast and would throw everything off. Dom Pérignon was usually the color of new gold, unless it was aged more than five years; then it was more like autumn leaves. Taittinger, which was the drink of the moment, was always “cathedral” gold because it was the color of the gold leaf in St. Patrick’s.
Being Catholic, Kate liked that, although the Cathedral, convenient as it was, always seemed too grand a place to do any kind of real worshiping in. She just went every now and then. She preferred Inwood’s Father John at the Church of the Good Shepherd. The good father had been an esteemed member of the famed Dublin Gaelic footballers—he was a man who knew both God and greatness and that suited her just fine.
Moët & Chandon was what the Ladies left for this particular meeting. It was what they always served. Non-vintage. Miss Nona bought by the case. When poured into crystal coupes, it cast the world in a shade of tattered moonlight; made everything feel both unbearably beautiful and unbearably sad.
Details like that always made a difference: They are what separate dressmakers from seamstresses.
Cut. Trim. Baste. Tuck. Pin. Trim. Stitch. That’s what most people thought sewing was about, but they were wrong. It really is about perfection.
Each stitch must be exactly like the one before it; each must be so small that it seems to be part of the fabric. A ribbon is always sewn into the waist of a skirt to keep the blouse in place. Zippers are either placed on the side for comfort or in the back to emphasis the elegance of the line. Each tuck and pleat is carefully created to disguise any flaw in the wearing or the wearer— most likely small breasts, uneven hips, thick waists and, of course, a waning youth.
There are so many elements involved, so many things to consider, and so many variables. From what Kate could tell, the same dress, or even a similar one, could not be worn Opening Night at the Met and also to the New York Junior League Winter Ball—the guest list was nearly identical. A dress worn to the Kentucky Derby could, however, be dyed another color and worn again in the same season. At the Derby, the “Horsey Set,” as Miss Sophie called them, spent so much time looking at each other’s hats they never noticed the dresses at all.
Late. Late. Late.
Finally, at 6:16 p.m., when there was no hope of getting Mrs. B’s gown to her at a reasonable hour that evening, and there’d be all Hell to pay, the phone rang.
Kate knees stopped shaking. That was fine. Good. Better she didn’t come.
Outside the rain began again, only harder.
A hot bath was all she wanted. Steam filled the small white room: a poor heaven. Windows kept the stars at bay.
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths of night and light and the half-light.
Kate hadn’t thought of Yeats since school. Now, because of Patrick Harris, she couldn’t stop.
I, being poor, have only my dreams.
Outside her window, the bar crowd was stumbling home. Their voices were scratchy. It was late again. Too many nights without sleep. At first, Kate didn’t notice the letter that had been slipped under her door; only part of it was sticking out from under the throw rug. Just a corner of it; difficult to see in the dark. It was addressed to “The Queen.” No postage, of course. It wasn’t that kind of letter.
I have spread my dreams under your feet.
The bath was hot, so very hot. She could barely stand it.
You tread on my dreams.
But the steam made her feel calm again. She closed her eyes for just a moment.
Then slipped into a dreamless sleep. Then slipped further. Nearly under. Nearly drowned.
It was a laugh that woke her. A blue-eye- shadow, loud laugh: slurry and squealing outside of her window. Maggie Quinn, late and drunk, with Big Mike in tow. Or so Kate thought, and woke with a start, gasping for air. Shaking. Cold. She jumped out of the tub.
Kate knew that drowning was the worst; your mind was the last part to go. The terror of knowing.
She couldn’t stop shaking. Her terrycloth robe smelled of bluing and was stiff. She wrapped it around herself and sat on the bathroom floor.
That’s when she decided. Right then.
She didn’t have much time.
Kate cleared off her worktable by the fistful. Heaping things upon other things. She put on her white cotton gloves, the ones she always used when handling fine fabrics. She rolled up the sleeves of her old bathrobe. Chanel always worked in a suit with hat and pearls, the Ladies told her. Kate didn’t have time to care.
Chanel’s box had been opened by the Ladies and resealed with a single strip of cellophane tape. Kate carefully pulled the tape up. The muslin toile was still wrapped in white tissue paper embossed with Chanel’s name and the double ‘C’ logo. There was a wax seal.
She gently slid the toile out of its wrapping. The seal remained unbroken.
Good. Fine. Perfect.
A muslin toile is not like a pattern from Vogue or McCall’s. It’s not pieces of tissue paper that you cut to a standard size, and then fit. A toile is a test garment made of cheap muslin. It’s basted together. You put it on. You fit it. You make adjustments. Then you take the toile apart and cut your fabric accordingly. And then sew the real thing.
This particular toile had the faint musky scent of roses and old perfume. And cigarettes. It reeked from cigarettes.
Kate dismantled it so very carefully. Every stich, and there were hundreds, she snipped with sharp shears. When done, finally done, she ironed the pieces flat. Each was like part of a puzzle. She placed them over a few yards of yellow calico she’d been saving for a summer dress. Pinned them down. Sharpened her scissors. Cut.
One snag. One stain. One slip. The muslin could be ruined so easily. But she cut. And cut.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
enwrought with golden and silver light.
She could hear everything in the apartments above and below her. The night chipped away at her. Tired. So tired. The restless creaking floorboards, the soft vibrato of sleep, the words of lovers scattered like rose petals—there were no secrets at that hour. Kate could hear the rasp of her own breath and the newspaper boy’s swing and thud. The milkman’s truck was a rattle of glass bottles. Then doors clicked. Dogs barked. Brakes squealed.
Kate basted the toile back together as quickly as she could, but she had to be careful, had to make sure that each stitch she removed was replaced exactly. There could be no mistakes. The Ladies would not be pleased if they thought Kate had copied the toile before the suit was made. It wasn’t done. The muslins she’d gotten before she’d pulled out of the trash. They were usually stained and ragged.
But it was such a beautiful suit. Sublime.
When a taxi stopped outside of the building, two honks, Kate finally finished.
She folded the toile. Slipped it back into the tissue paper. Slid it back into the package. Then sat. Shaking.