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The room was filled with the heady scent of roses past their prime. Pink petals fell from swollen blossoms in a Chinese bowl onto the polished surface of an ormolu escritoire. Although it was day, rose-shaded lamps were lit, and curtains of the same hue, drawn for the night in voluminous folds, remained closed. The bed had been rested upon, but not slept in, its rose-colored linens still pristine and uncreased. A vermeil clock, unwound too long, had ceased to tick; a radio, left on too long, had lost its tonal focus.
Lying on the floor, face down on the rose border of an Aubusson rug, was a golden-haired woman in a satin-and-lace nightgown. She was dead. More than a day dead. Perhaps even two.
Had she been alive, she would have told you, whether you asked her or not, that the Chinese bowl had once belonged to Magda Lupescu; that the escritoire had once belonged to Marie Antoinette; that the vermeil clock had been given to the Empress Elizabeth of Austria by the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria; that the Aubusson rug was a gift of the Belgian court to the Empress Carlotta of Mexico. That they were ill-fated women was of less consequence to the deceased than the sense of luster she acquired when repeating the history of her possessions.
The dead woman’s name was Ann Grenville. Leaning against a wall of her bedroom was the infamous portrait by Salvador Dali that had so deeply offended her on its completion years before. Long gone from sight, surprisingly present now, it stared out from its canvas at the rose-hued tableau, its knife-slash repaired, its prophecy fulfilled. Carnage had it promised. Carnage had it delivered.
Her obituary, when it appeared, was not impressive. If you had not been reading about the defeat of the German Chancellor on page one of Section A of the New York Times that continued over on the next-to-last page of Section D, after the business news and stock market quotations, you might have missed it, for that was where it appeared. There was her name, Ann Grenville, with the word “Dead” after it, and then a few paragraphs, all easily missable.
On second thought, of course, the placement of Ann Grenville’s obituary was probably exactly where Old Alice Grenville wanted it to be, and if she had called whatever Sulzberger was in charge of the Times and requested exactly that remote a placement in the paper for her daughter-in-law’s obituary, no one who knew her would have been surprised. It would not have been her first call asking for considerations from the newspaper on behalf of her family. Exceedingly old, in her nineties, Alice Grenville, born one of the Pleydell triplets, was still running things in her family, and one thing she felt, and felt strongly about, was that her family had been far, far too much in the news.
The obituary said Ann Grenville had been found dead in her apartment on Fifth Avenue. It said she was the widow of sportsman William Grenville, Junior, the mother of Diantha Grenville, the daughter-in-law of Alice Grenville, the philanthropist and social figure. It said she had a history of heart ailments. It said she was fifty-seven years old. It said she had been cleared in 1955 of slaying her husband.
She wasn’t fifty-seven at all, and hadn’t been for three years, but her lie, if lie it could be called, was closer by far to the truth than the age she had given twenty years earlier, at the peak of her notoriety, when, at forty, she had claimed to be thirty-two.
“Mrs. Grenville. Mrs. Ann Grenville,” called out a ship’s steward, hitting the gong that he was carrying as he walked along the decks and through the public rooms. “Telephone for Mrs. Ann Grenville.” Not a head turned at her paged name. Too many years had gone by. Not a soul on the ship remembered what Life magazine had called the shooting of the century.
A few years before her death I encountered her, for the first time in many years, aboard a steamship heading to Alaska. Long vanished from the social scene, she was, even on shipboard, a reclusive voyager. Unlike the Ann Grenville of yore, she was no longer the life of the party; rather she had resigned herself to the sidelines, not just of the party, but of life. I was transfixed. Her once beautiful face was ravaged a bit, perhaps by drink, and had acquired the similarity of surgically treated faces of women after middle age. Her slender splendid figure had widened some. Her golden hair semed less lustrous.
And yet there was magic still. Perhaps it was magic for the memory of her, for the weeks of my youth when she had held center stage. Her clothes were expensive and simple. Her perfume filled the air around her. Her jewelry was mostly gold, except for a sapphire-and-diamond ring of a size and cut that looked as if it had been handed down for several generations in the same family. She read. She did needlepoint. She looked for hours at the coastline of Oregon and Washington, smoking cigarettes, inhaling deeply, dropping the butts into the sea. She spoke to no one.
“Not bad news, I hope,” I said later, passing her deck chair.
“What’s that?” she asked, as if she were being intruded upon.
Of course, I knew who she was, right from the beginning, even though I only said that she looked familiar, nothing more, when the man in the next deck chair, a Mr. Shortell from Tacoma, asked me if I knew anything about her. It is one of my traits that I least care for that I am very often a bundle of pertinent information about people I don’t know, especially important people I don’t know. But Ann Grenville I did know, although not as a friend. In the years when she was riding high as Mrs. William Grenville, Junior, and her name constantly appeared in Fydor Cassati’s column in the New York Journal American and her pictures, photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolf and Horst, appeared in all the glossy magazines, our paths sometimes crossed in the dining rooms of New York. She resisted me. In fact, she never trusted me. I felt she thought I could see right through the performance that her life was, in the same way that Salvador Dali had seen right through her when he painted her picture.
“Your telephone call. I hope it wasn’t bad news,” I said.
She had developed a way of looking at you without connecting with you, the way film stars sometimes do to protect themselves from the curious, as if deciding whether to get into a conversation or not. It took the tragedy to give Ann and Billy Grenville the prominence accorded them in the social history of New York. During that time, the autumn of 1955, all of New York, and much of the country, and world, rocked with horrified impatience at each day’s revelations in the Grenville case. What is so enticing as the rich and powerful in a criminal circumstance? Even the stately New York Times and the conservative Herald Tribune read like lurid scandal sheets. Except for it, Ann and Billy Grenville would have been nothing more than a rich and fashionable couple, both endowed with great good looks, who dazzled for a time in the society of New York.
“It was, rather,” she said finally. “Bad news, that is.” Her voice was deep and rich and matched the look of her.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“My dog died in New York. That probably doesn’t seem a bit serious to you, but I was incredibly devoted to her.”
She smiled faintly and went back to her book, indicating that the conversation was at an end. I returned to my deck chair.
Please do not think that I stalked her through the years, gathering information on her. I did not. But I did, even then, before it happened, occasionally make entries about her, and Billy too, in my journal.
From the festivities elsewhere aboard the ship, dance music was heard in our lonely corner of the deck. I noticed that her elegantly shod foot tapped to the beat. In that instant it was still possible to conceive of this middle-aged woman as young and beautiful, a show girl in headdress and feathers slithering across a nightclub stage, the mistress of rich men, the wife of a handsome American aristocrat, the hostess and social figure of an earlier decade, and, alas, the killer.
“Good legs,” I said admiringly, omitting the word “still” that occurred to me.
She laughed a low throaty chuckle and raised her leg in the air to look at it, turning her foot one way and then the other. “Not bad,” she agreed, admiring her limb, “for the golden years.”
“The golden years,” I repeated, laughing.
“Fuck the golden years,” she said, bursting into laughter, letting me know in her tone that the highly praised charm of the golden years had escaped her completely.
It was how we started to talk. She didn’t register surprise that I was there. She didn’t mention the last time we had met, in St. Moritz, when I had affixed the nickname Bang-Bang to her, a nickname that stuck as a permanent appellation. She just accepted the situation. She hadn’t talked to anyone for the whole trip and was ready to talk, and I hadn’t talked to anyone for the whole trip, except Mr. Shortell from Tacoma, and I was ready to listen. We talked about books we were reading, plays we had seen, places we had been. We talked about people on the ship.
“What do you suppose he does, in the yellow T-shirt, pretending he’s reading Proust?” she asked.
“How do you know he’s pretending?”
“It’s the sort of thing I used to do,” she replied and laughed. She had beautiful teeth and a lovely mouth. “When I first married my husband, during the war, my mother-in-law tried to groom me into being a Grenville and gave me a list of fifty books to read, but I could never read Proust then, so I pretended to.”
“The man in the yellow T-shirt is a Mr. Shortell from Tacoma. Not bad. He finds you fascinating. Would you like to meet him?”
“Oh, no. I tend to avoid new people.”
“Everything works out well at first, and then, somehow, they find out my story. ‘She’s the woman who killed her husband,’ someone tells them. And then they look at me differently and wonder about me. Alone is better.” Then she changed the subject. “What’s at the movies?”
“Le Rouge et le Noir.”
“Gérard Philipe. I never saw that,” she said.
“Neither did I,” I replied.