Read an Excerpt
In California an earthquake isn’t considered to have happened until people are able to get to a phone and discuss it. If friends aren’t at home, any stranger who answers the phone will provide a satisfactory ear, so long as that person has also experienced the quake and can validate its existence. A dentist’s answering service, a temporary file clerk, a children’s nurse are all satisfactory repositories of post-earthquake exchanges. Only after such a conversation can a Californian be satisfied with the earthquake and put it into its right place in the scheme of things.
Today was such a day. There had been a distinct but insignificant temblor as Jazz Kilkullen drove to work and traffic had been tied up for an hour, but, alone in her car, with its long-unrepaired radio, she had only the irritated faces of strangers in other cars for verification. Finally Jazz pulled her classic 1956 turquoise and cream Thunderbird into her usual lot, vaulted out of the driver’s seat and ran full tilt up the street from the lot to Dazzle, her photography studio.
Of all days to be late, she thought furiously, as she barnstormed past the occasional strolling couple who stepped back out of her way and stopped to stare at her. These tourists in Venice, California, already pleasantly alarmed by the minor but definite movement of the earth, were in a mood to be gratified by anything they encountered in this curious sideshow of a neighborhood The sight of Jazz only confirmed Venice’s reputation for eccentricity and authenticity.
On this slightly ominous but otherwise ordinary Friday morning in September of 1990, this girl in full stride, who ran as if the street belonged to her, wore the kind of improbable hat they’d seen in photographs of women at Royal Ascot, a big black straw cartwheel, its brim laden with giant, floppy red poppies. Her red wool skirt flared five inches above her knees, revealing long, glorious legs in black hose and high-heeled black shoes. She must be someone special, they decided as they looked after her. Who but someone special would sport such feature-concealing, outrageously big sunglasses, who but someone special would run with such a single-minded lack of awareness that anyone was in her path?
Jazz arrived at the street entrance to Dazzle, flung open the double glass doors and confronted Sandy, the receptionist.
“Did you feel the quake, Sandy? How long has he been here?” she demanded breathlessly. “Damn! I hate to keep people waiting!”
“It’s O.K. One of his people just called from the limo. He’ll be late, at least another hour, probably more.”
“He’ll be late? He’ll be late? After I almost went starkers in that traffic jam? Didn’t you feel that quake? He’s got one hell of a nerve. I hope you told them that.”
“Sure I felt the quake. It was just your ordinary shiver. I called my sister in the Valley and she didn’t know there had been one. Jazz, if you had a car phone, I could have let you know that he wasn’t here,” Sandy complained. She lived basically by the grace and favor of the telephone, and the fact that Jazz refused to profane the interior of that old heap she drove so proudly with such an indispensable instrument was a constant irritation to her.
“You’re right, as usual,” Jazz replied, grinning like a cocky urchin who had just committed some un-discoverable mischief. She took a deep breath and recovered her habitual insouciance, holding herself with the invisible discipline and confidence of a bareback rider in the circus who makes the most difficult balancing act look easy.
She took the stairs two at a time to her second-floor studio where the walls of the outer office were covered with large framed photographs. Each frame contained two shots of the same subject, one taken during the first minutes of a session, when the subject was still suspicious, stiff and balky, determined to project a cherished persona, the other taken at the end of the session, when the subject had been transformed into a spontaneously reacting, openly human creature whose inner truth had been revealed by Jazz’s camera.
François Mitterrand, Isabelle Adjani, Princess Anne, Jesse Jackson, Marlon Brando, Muammar Khaddafy, Woody Allen: the more difficult it was to establish a relationship, the more pleased Jazz was with the results. Pictures of subjects who had already established a deep complicity with the camera, from Madonna to the Pope, were never displayed on the walls of this studio in which she had become one of the most successful celebrity portrait and advertising photographers in the United States.
“Anybody home?” Jazz called as she entered the studio proper, kicking off her shoes, throwing her hat on the floor, and sinking down on a Victorian sofa, an incongruous prop in the enormous white-walled space whose huge windows looked out onto the Pacific Ocean, which was flat and soothingly blue.
Five years ago Jazz and two other photographers, Mel Botvinick, a top food photographer, and Pete di Constanza, who specialized in car photography, with their representative, Phoebe Milbank, had bought an empty building built in the style of the Piazza San Marco, on Windward Boulevard in Venice, right on the boardwalk, only steps from the beach. It had been a bank before it had been abandoned and allowed to run down for forty years. They were able to get a good buy on the noble hulk, which had been rechristened Dazzle and converted into a complex consisting of three large studios, an office for Phoebe and plenty of working room for their assistants and studio managers.
Toby Roe, Jazz’s chief assistant, a slim young man wearing black from head to toe, emerged from behind the door that led from the studio into the offices, dressing rooms and filing space.
“Hey, are you O.K.? Was it the quake that made you late or is today’s job that much of a bore?” Toby asked.
“We didn’t blame you when you didn’t show,” Melissa Kraft added. Jazz’s second assistant was dressed exactly like Toby, and like him carried three cameras. “When you think about it, what is he but just another lowlife macho creep with a good agent?”
“Scum,” Jazz agreed. “Your basic theatrical slime. Let’s never forget, this guy’s an actor. Just an actor. You guys feel the quake?”
“Yep,” Toby said. “Nothing to get alarmed about. I called my mom but I got her service so I left a message and phoned my brother and told him all about it—he’d slept right through it.”
They smiled at each other, the earthquake disposed of and already forgotten. In spite of the wry objectivity that photographers traditionally prefer to maintain toward their subjects, as if they were puppet-masters to the world, all three of them knew the others were excited about the shoot scheduled for today.
In a series of startling performances, Sam Butler, an Australian, had suddenly eclipsed Tom Cruise as the most seductive and talented young actor to emerge from any country in years. Unlike most American stars, he had not yet consented to promote his movies with portrait sittings for magazine covers, so today’s cover shoot for Vanity Fair was a coup.
“Sandy says he won’t be here for an hour,” Jazz told her assistants.
“She let us know when his people called,” Toby answered. “That’s why young Melissa here isn’t foaming at the mouth. She’s saving it.”
“Toby’s planning to ask him where he gets his hair cut,” Melissa said, busy with a lens. Toby didn’t bother to respond. He was looking at Jazz, relaxed momentarily on the sofa, as he repeated to himself the mantra with which he started each day of work:
“Thank God I’m never going to fall in love with Jazz. She’s rich and famous and she’s my boss. I’m never going to fall in love with Jazz.” Armed with this mantra, which he sometimes had to repeat many times if a shoot was held up and his concentration on the job slackened, Toby had managed to stick out two years of hopeless lovesickness.
At least she’d never suspected, he thought as he glanced at her, trying, as he always did, to understand the riddle of her face. He’d been a photographer since his early teens and Toby still couldn’t quite capture in his mind’s eye, once and for all, what it was about Jazz that fascinated him so. The nature of his work had accustomed him to looking at women whose central fact in life was their beauty, many of them more beautiful than Jazz, and younger than she was at twenty-nine, but hers was the one face that he’d never been able to look away from with a sense of visual finality, of repletion, of aesthetic surfeit, as if he had seen as much as he needed to see.
Jazz, creature of flesh and blood that she was, had surfaces that could only be compared to a topaz, that rare gem flashing a rich gold with an undertone of warm brown, those precious crystals which the ancient Scots thought were a cure for lunacy. But had those ancients ever seen a woman with golden eyes, Toby wondered? Had they ever looked at a woman whose tawny plumage of golden brown hair looked amber in some lights and chestnut in another, hair that hung all the way below her shoulders in the kind of artless, childlike ripples that other women sometimes possess, but only at their temples or foreheads? Had they ever had to deal with a woman whose skin seemed always faintly tanned, with a tint that gave her cheeks the blush of an apricot-hued Brandy rose, a golden pink blush very different from that of any other rose in any garden? If so, he felt sorry for them, as sorry as he felt for himself.