One of New York’s most elegant and exclusive retail establishments, Tarkington’s has been the preferred shopping experience of Manhattan’s elite for decades. But the unexpected death of founder Silas Tarkington has raised serious doubts about the future of the enterprise, and his daughter, Miranda, must weigh the pros and cons of continuing her father’s legacy. Then, at the reading of Silas’s will, disturbing questions arise about the tycoon’s past and suggestions of a dark, secret life threaten to tear the family apart. For Miranda; her elegant socialite mother, Consuelo; her estranged son, Blazer; and Diana, the fieriest and most recent in the late entrepreneur’s long line of mistresses, the truth could destroy much more than the family business—especially as it becomes more and more likely that Silas’s death was no accident.
Author Stephen Birmingham has spent his career documenting the lives of the wealthy and powerful in his bestsellers “Our Crowd” and “The Rest of Us”. Putting his unique inside knowledge of the privileged world of the upper crust to excellent use, he has devised a thrilling story of money, power, deception, and treachery that will keep the reader eagerly turning its pages.
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By Stephen Birmingham
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Stephen Birmingham
All rights reserved.
The Lincoln Building at 60 East 42nd Street is one of those solid, dependable New York office buildings, put up between the two world wars, which manages to confer upon its business tenants an aura of instant sobriety and respectability. No one flashy would ever lease space here, the building seems to say; no one who was the least bit sleazy would be comfortable. Stepping through the big bronze-and-glass doors into the marble elevator lobby, the visitor is immediately surrounded by a sense of probity. You are expected to be on your best behavior here, the vaulted ceilings of the lobby whisper almost audibly.
This is not a fashionable address; it is merely good. Forty-second Street isn't what it once was. Across the street, behind the imposing granite facade of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt's Grand Central Station, the homeless curl asleep in corners, looking like bunches of rags dropped from a great height. But from the twentieth-floor windows of the law offices of Mssrs. Kohlberg, Weiss, Griffen & McBurney, the blue-and-white flag of the Yale Club can be seen proudly flying above its Vanderbilt Avenue entrance, and it is from the Yale Club, and luncheon with his legal peers, that Mr. Jacob Kohlberg, senior partner of the firm, has just come for his two o'clock meeting. The Times obituary of Silas Tarkington is spread open on his desk.
"Very nice," Jake Kohlberg says, tapping the newspaper with the tip of his index finger. "He got the front page, and a full page inside the paper. Si couldn't have asked for a better sendoff."
"That was Tommy Bonham's doing," Miranda Tarkington says, almost proudly. "When Daddy died Saturday, Tommy pointed out that if we notified the papers then, the obituary would be lost in the Sunday paper. Tommy said, 'Wait till tomorrow morning. He'll get the front page on Monday.'"
"Of course one might have wished they hadn't mentioned that business about underworld connections," Jake Kohlberg says.
"Those rumors have been around forever," Miranda says. "No one pays attention to them anymore."
"And he received other awards that could have been mentioned."
"But those were the two that Daddy was proudest of."
"They might have mentioned that our father also had a son," Blazer Tarkington says. This is the first time Blazer has spoken. Blazer is Miranda's half brother, Silas Tarkington's son by his first wife. Blazer is twenty-eight, and he has chosen today to defy the law office's unwritten code of propriety. He is wearing a pair of faded Levi's, without a belt, and one leg of his jeans is out at the knee, revealing his own knobby knee, which, for some reason, is scabbed. Did Blazer fall and skin his knee on the way to this meeting? His posture, slouched in the leather office chair, legs spread apart, suggests no explanation. His sockless feet are in dirty Reeboks, one of them untied. Blazer's dark good looks are of a truculent variety. He is scowling now, his black eyebrows knitted over his black half-closed eyes and pleasantly off-center nose.
"Shit," Blazer says to no one in particular, and he removes a Camel cigarette from the pocket of his T-shirt, taps it against the heel of his untied sneaker, and lights it with a match.
In the brief silence that follows Blazer's comment — to which, of course, there is no real reply — Miranda wonders whether Blazer has been drinking. As Blazer sucks deeply on his cigarette, he shakes his head, and a thick shock of dark brown hair falls across his forehead. Miranda watches as her mother reaches out and touches Blazer's skinned knee with her gloved fingertips, a touch so gentle it would not ripple water. "You've skinned your knee," Miranda hears her mother say.
And Jacob Kohlberg presses a button on his desk. When his secretary appears at the doorway, he says, "Mildred, see if we can find an ashtray for Mr. Tarkington."
Needless to say, Blazer is not his real name. He was christened Silas Rogers Tarkington, Junior, but when he was just a little boy his father began saying of him, "This boy's career is going to blaze across the skies! Just wait and see. He's going to blaze across the skies." It is perhaps unnecessary to add that this has not happened, but the nickname stuck.
When the ashtray has been delivered, Jake Kohlberg shuffles some papers on his desk and says, "Now, let's see. Are we all here? Is Miss O'Malley —"
"Pauline was going to try to make it," Miranda says, "but she telephoned me this morning to say that she's just too upset. She was afraid she'd break down. She's taken this whole thing very badly, I'm afraid." Pauline O'Malley was Silas Tarkington's private secretary for thirty-two years.
"I can understand that," Jake Kohlberg says. "We'll have to make do without her." He turns to the third man in the room. "And you, sir? Forgive me, but I've forgotten —"
"My name is David Hockaday," the fair young man says. "I represent Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum."
"Ah, yes," Jake Kohlberg says. "Very good. Now, before we begin, let me explain that this is a somewhat old-fashioned procedure, the reading of the late Silas Tarkington's last will and testament. It isn't strictly necessary and is not legally required. I could easily have faxed copies to each of you. But I thought, considering the nature of some of the bequests and the somewhat unusual contents of the instrument itself, that it might be a good idea if we all met here this afternoon to go over the points herein, so that I might answer any questions you might have about the bequests or about the intent of the testator in certain clauses —"
Consuelo Tarkington clears her throat and leans forward slightly in her chair. "Jake?" she says in her soft, almost whispery voice. Miranda has noticed that her mother, as always, is dressed perfectly for the occasion in a navy blue Chanel suit with covered buttons, a blue Chanel over-the-shoulder bag with a gold chain, but with the gold double-C logo removed, and navy pumps — all chosen to emphasize her pale blue eyes. Her fluff-cut ash-blond hair is perfectly coifed, with two half-moon curls perfectly framing her perfect forehead. Miranda knows how much effort it takes to create perfect half-moon curls like these, nestled just so, just off the face. On any other woman, those curls might look too studied. But on her mother they look, as always — well, just perfectly right, the perfect touch. With a small frisson of jealousy, of which she is not proud, Miranda thinks her mother has the knack, the talent, the ability, call it whatever you want, to make every other woman in the room look overdressed, or under-dressed, or just plain put together wrong. Even Miranda, in a simple black silk sheath, cut to just above the knee, and a single strand of twelve-millimeter pearls, her chestnut hair pulled back in a ponytail and tied with a Hermès scarf, feels dressed all wrong, compared with her mother. But then, she always has.
"I wonder if I could ask just one question before we start," her mother says.
"Jake, as I think you know, Si wanted to make some changes in his will before he died."
Jacob Kohlberg pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "That is true," he says.
"These were to be substantial changes," she says. "I know what they were to be, and I believe you know what they were to be."
"That is true," he says again, pulling a white manila envelope from his center drawer and placing it on his desk. "In fact, this office was in the process of preparing the new instrument for his signature when unfortunately he —"
"Died," Consuelo Tarkington says, a little sharply. "Please don't say 'he passed away,' or 'we lost him,' or, like my black maid says, 'he passed over.' He died, is what he did." She sits back in her chair. "I'm sorry. We've all been under a strain these last two days."
"I understand," Jake Kohlberg says. "But as I was saying, the new instrument was not yet ready for his signature when he — died."
"Well, what I'm asking you," she continues, "is whether, since you and I both know exactly what his final wishes really were, we can use that instrument — that draft, or whatever it was — whether we can use that as his last will and testament."
"Unfortunately, no. The new will was never executed. It was never signed or witnessed."
"But we both know he'd changed his mind about certain things — important things. So couldn't we consider —"
"— what my husband really wanted?"
"Legally, you see —"
"But couldn't we bend the law a little in this case, Jake? After all —"
"What you are suggesting constitutes fraud, Connie. And if it were even hinted that there was anything fraudulent about your late husband's will, it would open us up to lawsuits from all directions, since the size of the estate is, to say the least, extensive. I cannot suggest that you and I be parties to a fraud."
Mr. David Hockaday from the museum clears his throat. "I am afraid I shall have to divorce myself from these proceedings right now if anything like that is being considered," he says primly. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art would certainly not wish to be party to a fraud."
Miranda decides that she hates Mr. David Hockaday.
"And so," Jake Kohlberg continues, after a brief pause, "we must accept as the last will and testament of the late Silas Tarkington the one dated" — he places his glasses on his nose and removes the stapled document from its envelope — "dated June twenty-second, nineteen-ninety."
Miranda's mother sighs. "So we're about to hear read to us a last will and testament that wasn't his last will and testament at all." Her tone is bitter as she folds her gloved hands in her lap.
Jacob Kohlberg begins. "'I, Silas Tarkington, being of sound mind and body, do declare this to be —'"
His voice drones on. Miranda fingers her pearls gingerly, and her mother, her head tilted slightly to one side, her chin resting on her fingertips, gazes absently into a middle distance somewhere between the lawyer's chair and her own, her beautiful legs crossed gracefully at the ankle, just so.
The residences are disposed of first. Flying Horse Farm in Old Westbury, the house on Jungle Road in Palm Beach, and the Paris apartment all go "'to my beloved wife, Consuelo Banning Tarkington.'" Next comes the stable of horses, a small but distinguished one. This, "'unless either party has an interest in maintaining same,'" is directed to "'be sold at public auction, with the proceeds of such sale, less commissions, to be divided equally between my wife and my beloved daughter, Miranda.'" Miranda, knowing that her mother has little interest in horses, and also knowing that it costs $30,000 a year to stable a single animal, decides that probably this is what will be done.
Next come items of personal jewelry. Most of these are bequeathed to longtime employees and old friends. A pre-Columbian gold tie clasp in the design of a man and a pre-Columbian gold frog go to the store's chief of security. An eighteen-carat gold signet ring goes to James, the store's doorman. A fourteen-carat yellow-gold gypsy-style ring containing a 1.78-carat emerald-cut emerald goes "'to my old friend and associate, Thomas E. Bonham III.'"
"That should put an end to the rumor that there was any falling-out between Tommy and Daddy," Miranda whispers.
A pair of eighteen-carat gold cuff links set with cabochon rubies, and a matching set of studs, is left to Jacob Kohlberg himself, "with thanks for the years he has served as my principal legal counsel."
The list goes on and on, item by item, and Miranda tries to envision the pieces of jewelry her father liked the best, the cufflinks she occasionally helped him fasten when he dressed for dinner, and the pieces he liked less and rarely took out of the drawer in the bank, and gradually a vision of her father appears before her, a small but commanding presence, and in her mind she dresses him, from top to bottom, the way she used to dress her paper dolls as a child, until he stands, elegantly and impeccably clad, as always, before her. And she realizes that there are tears in her eyes, though her mother's beautiful face is impassive.
Now comes the first small shocker. "'To my faithful secretary, Miss Pauline O'Malley, I bequeath the sum of ten thousand dollars.'" There is a little collective gasp from the members of the family.
"Shit!" Blazer says. "She slaved for him for thirty-two years and that's all she gets, a lousy ten thousand bucks?"
Perhaps to change the subject, Miranda's mother interrupts. "Tell me," she asks quietly. "Does the name of Moses Minskoff appear in the will?"
"No, it does not," Jake Kohlberg answers.
"Well, thank God for small blessings," her mother says.
Jake Kohlberg hesitates, then nods, almost imperceptibly, in agreement.
Now comes the first mention of the art collection, and David Hockaday sits forward in his chair and almost visibly seems to prick up his ears. Miranda watches as he opens his briefcase, removes a gold pen and a legal-size pad of yellow paper, and makes a desk out of the briefcase on his lap. This is all he cares about, she thinks: the art collection. It doesn't matter to him that a man has died, and rather mysteriously at that. He doesn't care about the troubled and divided family the dead man left behind. He doesn't care about the uncertain future of Tarkington's, that rare and special store her father created, the store that as a little girl she used to think of as her own private castle, the store she used to dream of running herself someday, if only her father would ever take her seriously. Who will run the store now? Perhaps the will offers an answer....
As a little girl, Miranda used to come down from the apartment at night and wander through the store after the clients and the salespeople had gone, pressing her nose into the minks and sables and lynxes and foxes in the Fur Department on three to smell the pungent odor of the pelts, each different; touching the skirts of the gowns in the French Room, on four, and in the Bridal Salon next door. Then down to Sportswear, on two, and then down to the street floor, to Small Leather Goods and Shoes and Accessories, the gleaming cosmetics counters, and all the glittery contents of the locked glass cases of the Jewelry Department. "That you, Miss Mandy?" Oliver, the store's night watchman, would say to her as he made his rounds with his time clock. "Just don't leave no fingerprints on the glass or I'll catch hell from your daddy." Sometimes, in the dressing rooms, she would encounter some of her father's special ladies — the ones who had been given their own keys — and sit and listen to them as they gossiped and tried on clothes. Two slender dark-haired women she got to know that way were Gloria Vanderbilt and her friend, Oona O'Neill. Normally, dogs were not welcomed in the store — James kept them on their leashes outside while the ladies shopped — but an exception was made for the pair of borzois belonging to Doris Duke. And a small, angular, homely woman, who seemed to expect deferential treatment and the right to precede other women through doorways, turned out to be the Duchess of Windsor.
"I think we can dispense with the reading of the full inventory of the art collection," she hears Jake Kohlberg saying. "It is attached as Appendix A to the instrument. I've had a copy made for you, Mr. Hockaday, to review at your leisure. The entire collection, or rather the full list of items on this inventory, is bequeathed to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, there are some conditions."
Mr. Hockaday shifts the position of the briefcase on his lap and sits with his pen poised above his yellow pad.
Jacob Kohlberg reads: "'Clause forty-six A: A gift in the sum of three million dollars is made to the Museum, to defray the costs of displaying and maintaining my collection, conditional upon the Museum's acceptance of the full collection and the terms under which it is given. Clause forty-six B: The collection shall be displayed in its entirety, in a special gallery to be designated the Silas Tarkington Collection in letters no less than twelve inches high. Clause forty-six C: My beloved wife shall be permitted to select as many as twenty items from the aforesaid collection and to retain them in her home or homes throughout her lifetime. Testator suggests that Monet's "Water Lilies," always a particular favorite, may be one of the works she may wish to retain. But upon her death, those works thusly retained shall be turned over to the Museum proper. Clause forty-six D: In addition to housing, displaying, and maintaining the Silas Tarkington Collection, the Museum shall designate Miss Diana Smith as Special Curator of this Collection and shall employ her in this capacity for as long as she may wish.'"
Excerpted from Carriage Trade by Stephen Birmingham. Copyright © 1993 Stephen Birmingham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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