Genre: Literary Fiction
Author: Lynn Steward
Purchase on Amazon.
Although Lynn Steward’s debut novel, A Very Good Life, takes place in 1970s New York City. it has a timelessness to it. Dana McGarry is an “it” girl, living a privileged lifestyle of a well-heeled junior executive at B. Altman, a high end department store. With a storybook husband and a fairytale life, change comes swiftly and unexpectedly. Cracks begin to appear in the perfect facade. Challenged at work by unethical demands, and the growing awareness that her relationship with her distant husband is strained, Dana must deal with the unwanted changes in her life. Can she find her place in the new world where women can have a voice, or will she allow herself to be manipulated into doing things that go against her growing self-confidence?
A Very Good Life chronicles the perils and rewards of Dana’s journey, alongside some of the most legendary women of the twentieth century. From parties at Café des Artistes to the annual Rockefeller Center holiday tree lighting ceremony, from meetings with business icons like Estée Lauder to cocktail receptions with celebrity guests like legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Steward’s intimate knowledge of the period creates the perfect backdrop for this riveting story about a woman’s quest for self-fulfillment.
Dana McGarry, her short blond hair stirred by a light gust of wind, stood on Fifth Avenue in front of the display windows of the B. Altman department store on the day after Thanksgiving, November, 1974. Dana, public relations and special events coordinator for the store, pulled her Brooks Brothers camel hair polo coat tighter around her slim, shapely frame. Shoppers hurried past her, huddled in overcoats as mild snow flurries coated the streets with a fine white powder. It was now officially Christmas season, and Dana sensed a pleasant urgency in the air as people rushed to find the perfect gift or simply meet a friend for lunch. The frenetic pace of life in Manhattan continued to swell the sidewalks, but pedestrians were more inclined to tender a smile instead of a grimace if they bumped into one another. Dana often told her friends that Christmas was a time when there was a temporary truce between true believers and grinches. As far as business was concerned, she was pleased to hear the cash registers of B. Altman singing their secular carols inside the store, but she also still believed that the holidays brought magic and balance, however briefly, into a world of routine and ten-hour workdays.
Balance? Dana smiled wistfully, for balance was becoming harder to achieve. She was only twenty-nine, but the pressures of life were already assaulting her mind and spirit in numerous ways. She tried to please multiple people in B. Altman’s corporate offices on a daily basis, not an easy task given that the seasoned professionals who were grooming her had various agendas, not all of which tallied with each other. And then there was her marriage to Brett McGarry, a litigator at a Wall Street law firm. Brett was as busy as she, and simultaneously attending to her career and the needs of her husband was sometimes difficult, if not downright burdensome. His needs? Well, “demands” would be a more accurate description of what Dana had to contend with. Although Brett didn’t overtly order Dana around, he informed her of what he would or would not be able to do with her on any given day. His growing air of superiority was extremely subtle and couched in affable smiles that most of Dana’s friends could not accurately read.
Dana’s eyes had become unfocused as she stared past the display window, but she quickly snapped her attention back to the present moment. People, coated with a dusting of light snow, continued to stream through the portico outside B. Altman’s. Magic and balance still held the better claim on Friday, November 29. She’d worry about Brett later.
“I think they like it,” commented Andrew Ricci, display director for the store, as he stood to Dana’s left, referring to the happy, animated shoppers. “Good idea, Mark. Christmas was the right time to bring in livemannequins.” Andrew, slender and dressed in a gray suit with sweater vest, wiped snowflakes from his salt and pepper hair, wavy and combed straight back. Even as Andrew said this, a little girl waved both hands, trying to get the attention of one of the Sugar Plum Fairies behind the window, saying over and over, “I saw her blink! I did! I saw her blink!”
Mark Tepper was the president of the Tepper Display Company, and B. Altman had been a good accountfor ten years. “You’re welcome. I want you guys to look good. Bloomie’s is just twenty-five blocks away,” said the suave president, dressed in a blue pinstripe suit. He stood to Dana’s right. His light brown hair was parted neatly above a broad forehead, and he had intense blue eyes that could capture the slightest nuance. He was of average height, in good physical shape, and his ideas seemed to emanate from a bottomless reservoir of energy. “You can’t go wrong with a Nutcracker theme.” Mark stepped back and surveyed the scene. “Now if I could only figure out a way to make the live mannequins stop blinking,” he said with a grin.
Dana and Andrew laughed at Mark’s quick wit, the result of keen intelligence combined with a sophisticated playfulness. He could be highly focused without taking himself too seriously.
Andrew rubbed his hands together and exhaled, his breath drifting away in a small cloud of vapor. “Say, would you two mind coming inside to look at the blueprints for the cosmetic department? I have to make one change.”
Dana, like all B. Altman employees, was energized by the transformation of her beloved store, and being a close friend of Andrew’s, she knew of changes starting with the planning stage. More than a year ago, when Dana first learned that thecosmetic department would be renovated, she thought it might bode well for her idea to add a teen makeup section.
Inside, the store was glowing from Christmas decorations, chandeliers, and red-capped mercury lamps illuminating counters that curved and zigzagged across the main floor in every direction. A decorated tree in the center of the main floor rose fifteen feet into the air, a grand focal point for the holiday atmosphere. Andrew led the group to one of the counters in the existing cosmetic department and unrolled a set of blueprints he’d stored beneath the glass counter. The trio would be undisturbed since holiday shoppers were buzzing past them on their way to the gift departments, many to see the new million-dollar menswear section that opened the previous month and extended the entire block along 34th Street.
“We’re aiming for the new department to open the first week of May,” Andrew said, “followed by a black tie gala.” He poked his index finger onto the center of the blueprints for emphasis. He then looked up proudly and pointed to a section of the floor where the new cosmetic department would be installed.
“Good placement,” Mark said. “And nice layout, too.” Mark usually spoke rapidly and in short sentences. Insightful, he sized things up quickly and didn’t waste time. It was another aspect of his confidence that allowed him to act professionally without losing his innate charm. He also had a knack for including everyone around him in any discussion.
“So what does the public relations and special events coordinator think?” he asked, pivoting to face Dana, sensing she had something to say.
Dana cocked her head slightly while mischievously narrowing her eyes. “I think we shouldn’t forget that a teen makeup section is just as important as an updated cosmetic department. Otherwise, why are we bothering to update it in the first place? Our demographic is getting younger. Girls today are wearing makeup by the time they’re fourteen.”
Dana turned to Andrew. “What do you think, Mr. Ricci ?
Andrew chuckled at Dana’s use of his surname, which she occasionally did when talking business with her friend and confidante. Andrew was the quintessential Renaissance man—artist, craftsman, and cook. He and Dana attended art lectures at the Met, and he had personally taken Dana under his wing to give her what he called “a gay man’s culinary expertise” when her husband announced they were hosting a dinner party for a few of the firm’s partners. Andrew was not only Dana’s close friend, but he was also a consummate professional in his capacity as display director. He was a passionate man, at times almost compulsive, but he commanded respect from the refined corporate culture at B. Altman.
Andrew rolled up the blueprints and sighed. “Good luck trying to persuade Helen. She’s done a great job with her department, but she’s from the old school—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Andrew paused. “But the fact that Helen isn’t on board isn’t going to stop you, is it?”
Helen Kavanagh was the junior buyer at B. Altman.
Dana shook her head and winked. “Not for a minute. I’m an optimist, Andrew. Besides, it’s Christmas. I’ve been a good girl, and Santa owes me.”
Mark was clearly enjoying the good-natured exchange. “Santa naturally wasn’t big at Temple when I was growing up. No stockings hung by the chimney with care—although I remain an ardent fan of stockings. That having been said,” Mark continued, “I think—”
The conversation was interrupted by a no-nonsense twenty-something secretary, dark brown hair falling to her shoulder. “Ms. Savino would like to see you in her office as soon as possible, Ms. McGarry,” she said. The secretary turned on her heels and promptly disappeared into the busy throng of shoppers without waiting for a response from Dana.
Bea Savino was Dana’s boss and the vice president of sales promotion and marketing.
“She’s new,” Dana commented. “Poor girl—she’s scared to death. We all were when we started.”
“I still am,” Andrew laughed, “and I don’t even report to her. Bea can kill you with that look. You know, when her eyes tighten and she peers over her reading glasses—ouch! But give her a martini, and it’s party time. Bea’s a moveable feast.”
Dana nodded. “True enough. I better see what the indomitable Ms. Savino wants. Gentlemen, it’s always a pleasure.”
Dana headed to the bank of elevators on the far side of the store, passing a dozen lively conversations that blended into what she regarded as a delightful holiday symphony. People were spending money—and happy to be spending it. She envisioned a teen makeup section facilitating that same enthusiastic banter at some point in the future.
Dana wheeled around to see Mark hurrying past shoppers, his outstretched arm indicating that he wanted her to pause until he could catch up.
“People just can’t get enough of my infectious optimism,” Dana proclaimed.
“You’re cursed with good genes,” Mark said, stopping a foot from Dana. “Seriously, the teen makeup section is a smart move. I think you should ask Helen if she’s been following the incredible success of Biba.”
“I think everybody’s eyes are on London.”
“If not, they should be. Biba just moved to a seven-story building in Kensington, and the store is attracting a million customers a week. Teen makeup sure seems to be working for the Brits. The birds, as the English call young girls, are flocking to the store in droves.” He paused. “I’m mixing my metaphors—birds, cattle—but you get the gist.”
` Dana put her hands on her hips and burst into laughter.
“When was the last time you used the word droves, Mark?”
“Hey, I’ve watched cowboys on TV like anybody else,” he replied with mock defensiveness. “Head ‘em up and move ‘em out. And that’s what Biba is doing. The customers are in and out, and most of their wallets are quite a bit lighter when they leave. That’s the idea, right?”
“Go get ‘em, tiger,” Mark said, touching the side of Dana’s arm right below her shoulder. He walked away, turned back with a big smile and a thumbs-up, then disappeared.
Mark’s energy and enthusiasm, as well as his one-minute pep talk, were just what Dana needed to boost her confidence and keep her idea alive.
As Dana neared the far side of the store, she and Helen Kavanagh simultaneously approached the same elevator.
As always, Helen was impeccably dressed, and her carriage bespoke an elegant, stylish demeanor. She was in the later years of middle age, but she advanced towards the elevator briskly, her blond hair pulled severely back from her face and secured with an ever-present black velvet ribbon. Her face expressionless, she glanced at Dana, her pace unchanged. A signal had clearly been given. In point of fact, Helen truly admired Dana, but the young events coordinator was in her twenties, and there was a protocol in Helen’s universe that she didn’t believe needed to be articulated. Respect carried the day, with camaraderie offered in moderation, preferably outside of the workplace. Danatherefore halted just long enough to allow Helen to slip into the elevator before she followed, the doors closing behind her. The two women were alone as the elevator ascended to the executive suite of offices on the fifth floor.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Dana thought. Besides, Mark had literally gone out of his way to suggest that she approach Helen. Mark, of course, could be aggressive and disarming at the same time, so such a feat would naturally be far easier for him to accomplish. Still, she was quite aware that Mark had her best interests at heart. It was worth a try.
“Good morning, Helen.”
Helen nodded and smiled thinly. “Dana.”
“Helen, I was wondering if you shopped Biba when you were in London last month. They’re pulling in a million customers a week. A million!” Dana raised her eyebrows, her clear blue eyes sparkling even in the dim light of the elevator.
Helen tapped a silver ballpoint pen against the brown leather case holding her yellow legal pad. “Biba,” she said with frustration. “Biba is filled with non-paying customers who rush in before work to try on free makeup. Free, Dana. Are they running a business or having a party? Try it before you buy it? I don’t think so. They’re crazy. Excuse me—as the British say, they’re quite mad. They’ll be out of business in a year.”
Dana’s heart skipped a beat, but she wasn’t going to show any nervousness. Instead, she laughed. “Well, I’m sure you’re right. Shows what I know!”
It was a self-effacing remark, but Dana knew when to back down.
Helen, who had been facing forward, turned and looked at Dana squarely. “And don’t even think of taking this to Bea.”
Dana smiled as the elevator door opened, but she said nothing.
The two women stepped onto the fifth floor, the rooms of which were a facsimile of the 1916 interiors of Benjamin Altman’s Fifth Avenue home. Dana and Helen walked through the reception area, which was a replica of Altman’s well-known Renaissance room. Fine art adorned the wood-paneled walls beyond the anteroom, with elaborately carved woodwork accenting the hallways. The President’s Room was a reproduction of Altman’s personal library, while the Board Room was a faithful rendering of his dining room. Oriental carpets lay on the polished parquet floor, and Dana never ceased to marvel at the rich interior of the executive suite and its expensive art collection no matter how many times she entered the area. It had the ambience of a corporate cathedral, and the first time she stepped onto the floor years earlier, she had unconsciously lifted her right hand for a split second, as if to dip her fingers in a holy water font.
Dana and Helen walked in the same direction for fifteen paces until it became obvious that they were both heading for Bea Savino’s office.
“I was told Bea wanted to see me,” Dana stated.
“I’m sure you were,” Helen said flatly. “But I need to see her first. That isn’t a problem, is it?”
“No. Of course not.”
It was another elevator moment. Dana gave Helen a politically correct smile and stepped back, allowing her to open Bea’s door and slip into the office.
Dana walked up and down the hall, admiring the landscapes hanging on the dark paneling. Miniature marble sculptures stood on pedestals and library tables with inlaid mother-of-pearl. She hoped Helen wouldn’t be long since she wanted to get back home, walk her dog, and double-check arrangements for the annual McGarry Christmas party, now only six days away. It was one o’clock, but if Bea called a special events meeting, Dana’s afternoon would be lost. She was overseeing the expansion of the adult programs, known as “department-store culture,” and she and Bea were still working out the details for the rollout in January. B. Altman was a pioneer for such a program, and Dana would be programming three events a week in the Charleston Garden restaurantthat seated two hundred. A smaller third-floor community room was newly renovated for the expanded sessions that included mini-courses in art appreciation, cooking demonstrations, book signings, self-improvement, and current events.
She reversed direction and walked past Bea’s office, noticing that the door was slightly ajar. She turned around and decided to wait outside Bea’s inner sanctum to make sure Helen wouldn’t slip out unnoticed. Heart pounding, she stood near the open door and heard Helen expressing dismay.
“You know how I feel about having shoes in my department, Bea. Can’t you help me convince them to find somewhere else to put this Pappagallo shop? Shoes belong with shoes. It just doesn’t work for me. I don’t want to see them. Period.”
There was clear exasperation in the junior buyer’s voice.
“But it works for Ira and Dawn,” Bea responded calmly, “and they firmly believe in the merchandising potential for this young market. “Don’t quote me, but I heard Ira’sdaughter will be working in the shop this summer. You gotta get on board, Helen. Think young. Think upbeat.” Her voice rose with sudden enthusiasm. “Think Biba!”
“Bea, if I hear that name Biba one more time!” Helen interrupted.
Bea ignored her. “The kids are all drinking espresso, and I’ll probably go down for a cup in the afternoon.”
“What are you talking about?” Helen asked. “You’re going to—”
“Helen,” Bea slowly responded, “Pappagallo stores have love seats and espresso machines. It’s that Southern hospitality. They were introduced in Atlanta. Anyway, we have no choice. Remember, Pappagallo is leasing the space.”
There was a noticeable silence inside Bea’s office.
“Breathe deeply, Helen,” Bea advised with a laugh. “You’re going to hyperventilate. It’s
not the end of the world.”
“Espresso machine?” Helen repeated. “Love seats? Taking up selling space. I’m not putting up with this. Fine. Then they’ll just have to give me a larger department. I’m not giving up without getting something in return.”
Dana smiled. IfIra Neimark, the executive vice president and general merchandise manager of B. Altman, together with his hand-picked vice president and fashion director, Dawn Mello—Helen’s boss—were looking for waysto bring young people into the store, maybe the teen makeup department wasn’t a lost cause after all.
Helen came flying out the office, brushing past Dana by mere inches as she talked to herself under her breath. “B. Altman will be out of business before Biba. It’s all totally absurd.” She took no notice of the young events coordinator.
Dana moved forward and stood in the doorway. “You wanted to see me?” she asked. “Yes, Dana. Come in.”
Bea Savino was a tiny but feisty Italian woman with snow white hair, a chain-smoker with a no-nonsense approach to life and business. Bea had married five years ago, at the age of forty, and had no children, but she felt compelled to give her adopted young staff reality therapy every chance she could, believing they were too influenced by the soft dress-for-success career articles in fashion magazines. With Dana, Bea’s mantra was “Toughen up, for God’s sake!” When Dana had been passed over for an assignment and complained to her boss, Bea merely said, “It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, kiddo. I didn’t even know you were interested. Carol was in here every day, begging. Speak up, Dana.”
Bea lit a cigarette, exhaled a plume of smoke, and laughed. “I think poor Helen is headed for a stroke. I saw you standing outside, so I know you heard our exchange. Ah well. She’ll get over it. She’s a tough old broad, God love her.” Bea shuffled some papers around her desk before finding the folder she was looking for. Her office was not a model of perfection and order, as were Helen’s and Dana’s.
Dana cringed at the term “broad.” The expression seemed out of place on the sacrosanct fifth floor, but she merely took a deep breath and remembered that Bea didn’t mince words. She decided to pitch her idea despite Helen’s warning.
“Bea, since Mr. Neimark and Ms. Mello are interested in the youth market, why can’t we go one step further than the Shop for Pappagallo and add a teen makeup section too? As I told Helen, Biba is pulling in a million customers a week.”
Bea leaned back in her chair and took another puff of her cigarette.
“You always tell me to speak up,” Dana said, her voice rising slightly as she shrugged her shoulders. “So . . . ?”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Bea conceded as she surveyed her cluttered desk, “but it’s not going to happen, at least not now. One step at a time. Let Helen adjust to the intrusion of Pappagallo first. It’s too much at once.”
“Go whine to Bob. I know you two are thick as thieves. I asked you here to discuss something else.”
Bob Campbell was the store’s vice president and general manager. He was Dana’s unofficial mentor, a fact that often irritated Bea to no end. It was she, not Bob, who was the young woman’s immediate boss.
Dana clasped her hands behind her back, squeezing her right fist in frustration. Was she supposed to toughen up and be vocal or remain silent? Bea’s mixed messages could be infuriating. Dana was advocating the same teen strategy that the general merchandise manager and fashion director of the store apparently believed in, and she couldn’t help but think that she was being penalized for her youth. Or maybe it was because Helen might pitch a fit. Either way, Andrew had been right: Bea was a moveable feast.
“Bob has chosen the winner for this year’s teen contest. You’ll announce the results next week at the Sugar Plum Ball. It’s a favor for a friend of Mr. Campbell. His friend’s daughter, Kim Sullivan, will be this year’s winner.” Bea sighed deeply and crushed her cigarette in a large glass ashtray on her desk. “Have a good weekend, Dana,” Bea said, summarily dismissing the figure standing before her.
Dana was speechless. The contest involved getting the best and brightest teens to write essays, make brief speeches, and model clothes, and they were down to the five finalists. She’d run the contest for three years, but the idea that the contest was rigged this year—and by Bob Campbell of all people—left Dana dazed and temporarily unable to move. The Sugar Plum Ball was the annual December benefit for the Children’s Aid Society. The idea of committing fraud was bad enough, but she would also have to disappoint the girls who would be competing in good faith. Did such a prestigious charity event have to be marred by dishonesty?
Bea looked up, glasses perched on the end of her nose. “Is anything the matter, Dana? You look positively pale.”
“No. Everything’s fine.” Everything was most decidedly not fine. Dana had the ear of Bob Campbell, and she would use her access to the general manager to express how odious the idea seemed. One way or another, she’d find a way to avoid making the contest into a sham.
Feeling manipulated, Dana turned and left Bea’s office. Her normally fair complexion was red with anger, and her breath came in quick, short bursts. She marched down to the Writing and Rest Room for Women, a beautifully carpeted room with chairs upholstered in blue velvet. The mahogany walls and soft lighting made this one of the most elaborate rest areas in any store, and Dana sometimes came here because of the quiet and repose it offered. Today the room was, not surprisingly, filled with shoppers taking a moment to compose themselves. She hurried to her office in the General Offices section of the fifth floor, retrieved her purse, and tried to calm down.
Regaining her composure proved impossible, however. She took a deep breath and decided that she would have no peace for the rest of the day until she spoke with Bob Campbell. Bea must have been mistaken. Bob would never rig the yearly teen contest.
Dana got up from her desk, hoping to get a few minutes with the general manager. She walked back to the executive suite, ready to make her case.