The Chameleon

The Chameleon

by Sugar Rautbord

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Claire Organ was born a Christmas baby right in the middle of better dresses in Marshall Fields Department Store, to Violet Organ in 1924. Her father has disappeared but a trio of "aunties" (her mother plus two fellow salesladies at the store) make up the most loving and attentive family a young girl could have.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780446553681
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 12/14/2008
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 908,839
File size: 554 KB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Humble Origins

Many who arrive at the top are found to have very simple backgrounds.
—Eleanor Roosevelt

Violet Organ was in a pickle. It wasn't enough that Leland Organ had saddled her with a plainly ugly last name. He had abandoned her at the worst of times. She hadn't been able to keep anything down except Frango mints for the last two days. Her young husband had suddenly developed traveling feet and bolted six months earlier to see the Pyramids, leaving her, Hyde Park, his job as a geography teacher, and a growing bump now the size of a world globe in Violet's belly. She was feeling so queasy she almost hadn't made it out of bed this morning, but if she missed one more day of work, she'd get her pink slip for sure.

"Hurry up," Slim called to her friend. "We don't want to be trampled to death on the train by all these last-minute shoppers. Procrastinators! "

Talk about waiting until the last minute, Violet thought. She supposed not going to the doctor to check on her symptoms was her own form of procrastination. There was hardly any mistaking them now. But then there was the expense of a doctor, which she couldn't afford, not to mention the embarrassment of it all. Part of her had preferred not to think about her predicament, hoping it would just go away like the January white sales. She let Miss Slim wrangle her to the train door.

"I'm doomed," Violet Organ murmured. "It's probably too late for me." Could a healthy twenty-two-year-old be stricken with liver disease? Wouldn't that be better than having a baby? People were sent to sanatoriums out West where they recovered,weren't they? Or was that for some other disease? She was confused. She'd been feeling so light-headed since she'd awakened at dawn. How could she possibly work all day on her feet and take care of a child with only eighteen dollars in the bank? She could barely take care of herself. And how would she explain the sudden appearance of a baby? Did Marshall Field's Department Store believe in the stork? Violet sighed. Nineteen twenty-three was ending on a very low note.

When her belly had first started to swell a few months ago, she thought it might be an ulcer or a gallstone, her menstrual cycle being as erratic as her charming but peripatetic spouse. But as the bump in her belly was now swollen to the size of a pocketbook, even someone as naive as she could no longer deny the obvious. A baby born to a poor salesgirl whose husband was missing was utterly unthinkable. She hadn't dared to confide in anyone, not even Slim. She couldn't let anyone see how ill she was, or how desperate. Violet couldn't afford to lose her job at Marshall Field's this close to Christmas, not when there were a hundred girls in line anxious for the chance to work at the finest store in America, whose employees proudly felt a cut above anyone who worked anyplace else. By half starving herself and small-boned to begin with, she had put on only fourteen pounds. What if there were medical bills? What if she lost her Christmas bonus, her employee benefits, and all of the lovely friends she'd made in the two years she'd been there? They were becoming like family to her. Especially since Leland Organ had up and left. If only she could go to the store's Lost and Found on the third floor and find him, her "missing Organ," as Slim cheekily referred to Violet's aberrant husband.

She steadied herself as the Illinois Central train rounded its last big curve. Why, Marshall Field's was her family now. Who else was there? Her beautiful violet eyes brimmed over with tears. She quickly dabbed at them with a gloved fist as the train pulled into the black tunnel. Soon there would be the bright artificial lights of the early morning hustle in the Randolph Street station with its wake-up smells of freshly brewed coffee, warmed-over stale popcorn, and roasted chestnuts. At this hour, everyone would be headed in the same direction. To work.

And Violet was a good worker. She enjoyed her job in the world's most luxurious store among the cashmere, couture, fine china, and antique silver. She didn't even mind catering to the rich, famous, and fussy. The store was like an enchanted fairy land inviting the shopper as well as the lookers who couldn't afford more than a thimble and thread or a purchase or two at the ribbon counter.

Some people came to Chicago just for the chance to windowshop or daydream at Marshall Field's. Spotlighted display tables were set with gleaming silver centerpieces brimming over with freshly cut flowers, Waterford crystal, and Limoges china on fine linen, the napkins folded as if company were coming to dinner. Sometimes a flush customer would point to the whole ensemble and say, "That's exactly what I want. I'll take the whole table." The affluent carriage trade pushed through the revolving doors to shop for everything for their homes, their births, their debuts, weddings, and, in the case of one or two ancient North Side matrons, their own burial gowns. Often the younger society bunch would leave messages for one another at the elegant emporium's message center, or preferably with Charley Pritzlaff, the doorman, as they considered Field's their private club. And although they tipped him from time to time, it was hardly enough to compensate Charley for remembering that Miss Donnelley was having her fitting at three on Five and Miss Armstrong was lunching in the Narcissus Room at her usual table if Miss Armour and Miss Smith cared to join her, and didn't their hats look grand. Field's employees were required to be psychiatrists, confidants, fashion consultants, and always in polite good humor.

"Hurry up, Violet," Slim said, scooping Violet Organ's elbow into her steady hand like a forklift moving merchandise at Field's warehouse. "Salesladies must be alert at their posts before the customers come barging in."

Thank goodness Miss Slim, Violet's best friend from the store, was with her. They always referred to each other as "Miss Slim" or "Miss Violet" in the store, as company policy dictated. She didn't think she could have gone the distance by herself. It wasn't as if Violet were looking for a sympathy slot—just a warm, safe place to lie down and sleep. Perhaps for the rest of the winter. She yawned wearily. How dreamy it would be to curl up in one of the magnificent four-poster beds on the eighth floor, tucked in with the finest French linens threaded with Egyptian cotton for luxurious sleeping, as the catalog said, with mattresses so cushy they would cradle her to sleep. Wouldn't that be nice! She fluttered her thick lashes as Slim dragged her past the newsboy.

Violet's vision was so blurry that all she could make out was The Chicago Tribune, December 23, 1923. Only two more shopping days until Christmas. The store would be packed with a sea of people carrying parcels and good cheer, bundled up in, mufflers and mittens, happily shopping for or with their families. She wasn't feeling up to selling and chatting with her customers today. She was feeling nauseated. A feeling-sorry-for-herself tear slipped down, a dark eyelash falling on her porcelain cheek. She felt as if she were going to crack just like the translucent Spode teacup she'd dropped last week during a dizzy spell and then had been charged for.

"Just lift your little feet, Violet. Don't worry, I'll push you along."

Slim raised one of her eyebrows, which were tricky little art deco deals, almost works of art, plucked and penciled into chic L arches. Slim was Ladies' Finery and Furs. Sixth floor. She was going to Paris as soon as she'd saved the money. Miss Slim had been married once for five days, at which time her handsome new husband had been called off to the Great War and was killed. Having only enjoyed the honeymoon and never the little letdowns of marriage, Miss Slim, who smoked cigarettes, wore lip rouge, and shook her sassy Clara Bow haircut whenever she was making a point, was the dressing-room authority on sex and glamour," as she called it, in her eternal devotion to things French. She adored all conversations related to the wonderful madness of romance and passion. Miss Slim always referred to her husband as her "war wound," since his World War I death had wounded her forever. With her short, straight band of bangs and ear-length bob, she was the epitome of the stylish salesgirl with just a smack of roaring twenties flapper.

By contrast, Violet, dreamy-eyed and reticent with her long, wavy hair held back in pins, all of it now tucked under a perky cloche, always looked as if she had just stepped out of the last century and was befuddled to find herself in this one.

Both Violet and Slim shivered as they moved out of the cocoon of the walkway tunnel and up the Illinois Central stairs, outdoors and into a blast of arctic air at the corner of Randolph and Michigan Avenue. The Windy City suddenly lived up to its reputation as a tornadolike gust blew an assortment of men's hats off their heads: bowlers, derbies, and fedoras whirling up, off and into the direction of State Street. The wind whipped through the working ladies' thin cloth coats, sending their shoulders to their ears as if they could shrug off the cold.

"Boy, if only that gentleman from Minneapolis had bought me that sable coat I sold him for his cow wife yesterday." Slim's lament froze in midair. She tucked her chin into her squirrel collar to prevent the cold wind from needling her lungs. "The two of us could have fit into it comfortably together. Why, it was so enormous—"

"I feel warmish." Violet was the color of those white silk bed sheets sold on Eight. Sweat beads were forming at her temples despite the terrific cold.

"Oh my dear, you're clammy." Miss Wren emerged from the shelter of Pete's newsstand and closed in on the left flank. She'd been waiting for them under the portico of the Chicago Public Library where the small oil-can fire had momentarily taken the chill off her bones. The apple-cheeked Miss Wren sturdily lifted Violet's other elbow so that her tiny feet needn't bother to touch the sidewalk, just as they'd been doing every day this past week.

"She's getting heavier," Miss Wren said behind Violet's ears.

"Don't be ridiculous. The girl looks like a scarecrow! Did you get my movie magazine!

Miss Wren shoved the fan magazine across Violet's chest. She had just purchased the latest crossword puzzle book and a copy of Collier's for herself. As she slipped the copy of Silent Screen with a mournful Zasu Pitts on the cover over to Slim, she was struck by Violet's pallor. Miss Wren was suddenly reminded of her own poor mother, who had recently passed away.

"I tell you it's serious. She's too young to look so tired.

At that moment Violet winced and placed her hands on her right side. She apologetically explained, "Gas."

"Appendicitis." Miss Slim decided, blowing her frozen words over to Miss Wren.

"Gallstones." Miss Wren returned the volley.

Twins! Violet thought to herself in sudden horror. For months she had been hoping to hear the missing Mr. Organ's key turn in the door of their one-room Kenwood flat and announce that he was back for good to care for her and teach geography instead of traipsing the globe like a bespectacled Ulysses. Now she was seized with the terrible notion that he had brought her something more than the colorful souvenirs and native dolls from South America on his last trip home. What if it were something truly terrible, like syphilis? She had no idea exactly where Leland had been on his adventures; she had simply indulged his wanderlust, hoping it was just a thirst that time would quench. But if theirs was to be the Lost Generation, why did her husband have to take it literally? The pain that gripped her was double anything she had felt before. Why, if she had gone to a doctor, his diagnosis would have been "Stupid, stupid, stupid!"

"Sex." Violet blushed. How improper the whole business was. No, she didn't care if Mr. Organ ever came home.

"Divorce." Violet Organ whispered the forbidden words into the wind. She wondered how Marshall Field's Department Store would respond to the very unorthodox act of having one of its salesladies behave like the society folk to whom they were supposed to cater.

Violet thought it was so unfair that it was perfectly all right for her to sell Mrs. Hollingsworth an extravagant trousseau for her third marriage to some polo-playing playboy, but heaven help an abandoned, pregnant salesgirl thinking of legally leaving her "gone far and away" spouse—especially if she worked in a store that sold family values every bit as much as silver place settings, diamond chokers, chocolate truffles, school clothes, and shoes for the entire family.

"Archaeologist my foot!" Her words angrily assaulted the icy air as she thought back to his only postcard. He'd run off to join the excavators of the newly discovered King Tutankhamen's tomb the way an impulsive child might run off to join the circus. "He's just a geography teacher with a shovel."

"Uhhhhh!" A piercing pain shot through Violet's tummy like an eel weaving its way through her insides.

"Ohhhhh!" Miss Slim said, echoing the same sound, only in enchantment. The trio stopped in their tracks and stood wide-eyed in front of the big Christmas window.

Pain was pushed aside as Miss Slim, Miss Wren, and even the teary-eyed Violet fell under the spell of Fraser's greatest glory. Arthur Fraser, with his staff of twenty display artists, painters, carpenters, plaster molders, and electricians, created his windows like meticulously crafted stage sets. The sixty-foot window was breathtaking with its Noel magic and fashions of the hour. The two ladies balanced Violet between them as she pressed her nose against the window. It was too cold to snow outside, but inside the enchanted store window fake snow was softly falling, miraculously visible from two tall French windows that sheltered a stylishly decorated art deco living room. Inside, a happy family was gathered in front of a cozy fire. A mother mannequin wearing a Vionnet velvet evening gown and a father mannequin sporting a satin-collared smoking jacket were enjoying the magic with their two eager, round-faced mannequin children, a boy and a girl, while the doggy mannequin and the starched-white-aproned, crisp-capped maid mannequin looked on approvingly as she held out a tray of cheese puffs. A stern-faced nanny mannequin rocked her miniature mannequin charge, snug and warm in its Italian hand-crafted cradle, available in Infants' Goods on Four. All the holiday gawkers gathered outside oohed and aahed into the frosty air, creating ice balloons with their breath.

The details in Field's windows were artfully impeccable, but that was why thousands of people poured into Chicago to see the spectacular displays. In the center of the window scene, a pyramid of presents encircled an elegant twelve-foot Christmas tree lit by flickering candles. But the real stars of the "Window Show," decked out in red velvet with white satin trim and gold braiding, were the robust Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus who were sitting down with the Field's family to Christmas cider and yummy gourmet treats.

"Uhhhh!" Another piercing pain shot through Violet, turning her into a skinny question mark. "I think I'm going to expire." Violet started to fold.

"Get her into the store!" Slim snapped.

"Why?" Miss Wren asked but did as she was told.

"Because nobody's ever died in Marshall Field's!"

"Oh dear, I'd hate for Violet to be the first," said Miss Wren.

"Nonsense! Christmas is no time for tragedy." And with that, the Misses Wren and Slim waltzed in the door of the employees' entrance, the airborne Violet Organ between them, up the main aisles wreathed in holly, mistletoe, ribbons, and tinsel, to a lovely little creche with the baby Jesus and the barnyard animals gathered in the manger that greeted them as they clocked in for work.

"Going up!" Homer Jackson, the impressively uniformed elevator operator, smiled broadly, courteously greeting the regular shop girls on their way to their posts.

Violet clenched her teeth to keep from screaming. The store smells of evergreens, fresh chocolates, brass polish, and rich perfumes accosted her nostrils, and she closed her eyes, ready to swoon in a dizzy vapor. The store was already full of anxious hollday shoppers. Somehow she thought if she could just get to her counter in Finer Dresses on Five, everything would be all right.

"Second floor. Linens. The Elizzzzabethan Roooom," Homer sang. He ran his elevator like a streetcar conductor, calling out the most interesting stops and sights along the way. His routine never varied. Whether he was running his Otis car for customers or employees, he let everyone know where the goods were.

Homer pulled open the heavy iron door to reveal the Marshall Field's Choral Society hitting a crescendo in "Away in a Manger."

"Oh dear! Violet looks like she's been hit by a train."

"Let's get her to the first aid room."

"Or the waiting room."

"Homer, hurry! Can't you make this an express?" Slim was panicked.

"Company rules." Homer sighed. "Gotta stop at every floor." Once again, he pulled the ornate iron door open. "Third floor. Booooks—Staaaamps ! "

"Ohhhhh." A sharp stab in her lower back caused Violet to wince in pain.

"Fourth floor. Tooooys, stuffed animals, Weeeedgwood china, and don't forget to visit the Young People's Theater."

Two surprised shoppers opted not to enter Homer's elevator. One of them pointed to a small rivulet puddling on the floor between Violet's ankle-strap pumps.

"Fifth floor."

"Enough of the sight-seeing. We're getting out now!" Miss Wren announced. Violet's floor at last.

The pocketbook had just performed a somersault in Violet's stomach. Homer stopped the elevator perfectly level with the Fine Dress Department and the two women hurried Violet Organ out. Just in time. Violet's stomach performed one more aerobic maneuver. She let out a shriek that rattled the fine china off the shelves on the third floor, announcing the arrival of a wailing baby.

"It's a girl!" Miss Slim announced.

"Thank heavens—it's not a gallstone," Miss Wren fanned Violet with her Colliers.

"Claire Organ!" Slim shouted out the first French name she could think of, thus christening Violet's daughter amidst the pearl necklaces, silk lingerie, high-fashion shoes, and women's fancy custom apparel directly beneath Louis Comfort Tiffany's grand mosaic dome.

"Boil some water!" A customer scurried through the aisles on rubber soles.

"Marshall Field's has just given birth to a baby girl!"

Miss Slim pulled on a long pair of white opera gloves from the fake display arms on the counter and helped pull the child into the commotion on Field's fifth floor. One sales clerk rushed over with a monogrammed motor blanket while Miss Wren seized the scissors used for wrapping gifts.

"I'll cut the cord!" Miss Slim called out as gaily as if she were cutting a holiday ribbon.

Miss Wren took it upon herself to scurry down the back stairs to Four, where she purloined a bassinet, two swaddling blankets, and, just for good measure, a silver rattle. After all, it wasn't every day a Christmas baby was born at Marshall Field's Department Store. As soon as she turned the corner on her return sprint, she saw Miss Slim kneeling on the floor, proudly holding the loveliest, tiniest babe in her bloodied evening gloves and showing her to an astonished Violet Organ.

"Oh joy!" Mrs. Winterbotham clasped her hands together and waddled closer for a better look, the nodding minks wrapped around her neck as a stole still in possession of their eyes and noses. "Imagine being born in this great store and having all of these wonderful layette doodads and imported baby things at one's fingertips."

The nurse and doctor from First Aid on Seven bundled Violet and baby off the floor and onto a stretcher, carrying the new mother away as if she had the bubonic plague. Mrs. Winterbotham hurried off to telephone her husband, who was the editor of the Tribune, to tell him of the wonderful miracle that had happened on the fifth floor of Field's.

"Henry," his wife puffed into the phone, her voice carrying the news as rapidly as one of her husband's wire services. "A mother and child born practically in the manger display. Why Henry, right in sight of the stuffed barnyard animals and women wearing jewels and garments as splendid as the Three Kings, this child was born! And to a working girl! Henry, a simple working woman whose husband is missing. Well, I don't know. In Egypt I think. Oh Henry, what if it's the Holy Land? Henry, it's a story!" Indeed. It was the Tribune's front-page Christmas Eve story, Field's being the Tribune's biggest advertiser and all.

In her febrile state, it was Violet Organ's true belief that fate revealed her daughter's destiny that December day. The new mother somehow felt it was auspicious of great things to come that her dimpled daughter was born in the midst of luxury, even if it was only a warehouse of other people's luxuries. After all, it wasn't as if Claire had been born on the eighth floor among the toasters and vacuum cleaners.

It was the article in the Tribune that saved Violet from being fired on the eve of Christmas 1923, when the not easily amused store manager, Mr. Trost, treated Violet to her own private inquisition in the bleak maternity ward of Cook County Hospital.

"Where is the father?" he demanded to know.

"Wandering the desert."

"Missing in action."

"Dead." Miss Violet, Miss Slim, and Miss Wren answered in unison.

To the next question they silently established an order of protocol.

"Oh she's married, all right. They had a church wedding eighteen months ago. I was there." Slim was the authority on romance.

"Legally married." Wren was practical as she handed over the marriage certificate.

"It's just that he's excavating King Tut's tomb," Violet apologized.

"He doesn't know about the baby," Miss Slim added helpfully. She didn't know, so how could he, she thought to herself. How could Violet have been so duplicitous or so dumb? Either way this baby was going to be too much for Violet to handle on her own. Why, Violet could barely fend for herself! They'd just all have to knuckle down, pull up their socks, and pull together to be a family for the poor child.

When the nurse excitedly arrived carrying the freshly powdered infant and a late edition of the paper, Mr. Trost had to admit it would be bad policy to fire the mother of what the Tribune heralded as "Field's Littlest Christmas Miracle." The caption ran under a photo of an expensively swaddled Claire cradled by Violet, wearing a quilted satin bed jacket, her long, wavy tresses flowing past her shoulders like Lillian Gish's. The two salesgirls, whom the article described as the infant's aunties from the Field's family, were gathered around the mother and child bearing gifts from First Floor State Street and Baby Goods on Four. Mr. Trost was later promoted for his good public-relations sense.

Slim read aloud from the paper. "'The young lady appeared promptly at nine-twenty a.m. Field's newest accessory weighs seven and a half pounds, has sapphire blue eyes, a button nose, and a little figure that could model any fancy infant ensemble."

"Five toes and five fingers on each little hand and foot." Miss Wren beamed broadly.

"'Customers,'" Slim continued reading the story, "'actually registered to buy gifts for the new baby from the store's vast collection of antique silver baby cups, christening gowns, warm woolen flannels, and English baby prams.

"'Marshall Field's special events coordinator, one B. Cunningham, said, "You can't say that Field's doesn't deliver!" and presented the baby's mother, Mrs. Leland Organ, the wife of a prominent archaeologist'"—Slim rolled her eyes as she read on—"'with a two-volume leather-bound boxed set of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. What a lucky little girl!'"

All the women's eyes were tearfully focused on the child, who was noisily sucking air around her. What would become of her? They looked at one another conspiratorially and nodded. They would see to it. The child would be safe in their collective bosom.

"We'll all be little Claire's aunties," Miss Wren announced, making a mental list of all the practical things they would need. She clucked happily at the thought of reading to their baby.

"I'll teach her French and dress her in Paris couture." Miss Slim could hardly wait. Maybe the war widow hadn't been denied a child after all.

"We'll love her." Violet grazed her finger against her baby's dewy cheek.

And "their baby" she became. The three women and Claire had somehow bonded amidst the bloody opera gloves and the excitement of a new birth, all in the spirit of Christmas. It was tacitly understood at this moment that they had become a family for a variety of reasons. Each of the lonely women had room to spare in her heart, room Claire would fill for all their lifetimes.

What People are Saying About This

Christopher Ogden

The best romp-filled, multi-husbanded climb by a smart, determined beauty since Pamela Harriman's.
— Author of Life of the Party

Shirley Lord

Sugar Rautbord's heroine is a true original. Set against tumultuous pre- and post-World War II real-life happenings, packed with the most powerful real-life people in history, Claire's hugely entertaining story astonishes and intrigues to the last page.
— Author of The Crasher

Scott Turow

The Chameleon is a lot of fun -- sexy, humorous, and, like its protagonist, full of charm.
— Author of The Laws of Our Fathers

Barbara Taylor Bradford

Sugar Rautbord's The Chameleon is a fascinating read, the story of a woman who fulfills all of her life's ambitions and rises to great and powerful heights. Claire Organ is a fetching heroine, a cross between Claire Boothe Luce and Pamela Harriman -- beautiful, beguiling, sexy and savvy. It's fun to follow her climb, to see how she makes it to the top, and rejoice with her when she finally succeeds.
— Author of A Sudden Change of Heart

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Chameleon 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
G007 More than 1 year ago
too long..too want the book to finish and SHE to stop getting married.. marrying out of necessity and not love. a romantic relationship that does not come to fruition. Hollywood is always the same boring story of actors, movies, etc.. too slow too descriptive
Guest More than 1 year ago
Someone recomended this book to me and I must say that I really enjoyed it. It is one of the few books that I have read that I feel the need to read again. I am an avid reader and couldn't even begin to count the number of all the books that I have read. Therefore, for one of these books to leave an imprint on me, it must truly stand out in a remarkable way.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Chameleon was a book I just couldn't put down. Claire is the kind of woman many strive to be, but are too afraid to truly change. I have recommended this book to many friends and everyone loves it. I highly recommend this book for easy reading and for shear entertainment. You won't be disappointed!