ONEMarriage is an institution in which a man loses his bachelor’s degree and the woman gets her master’s.
I remember the first time she said it. We were in a taxi hurtling down Park Avenue on a steamy August afternoon.
“Boyfriend,” my mother, Madeleine, was saying, not in a mocking, judgmental tone of voice but matter-of-factly, as though she could be referring to the weather or an item on a menu. “Mark Robbins would make a very nice boyfriend, don’t you think?”
I was applying mascara at the time. The taxi lurched, and the brush slipped from my eyelashes onto my eyebrow, extending my brow line all the way over to my right ear.
“Boyfriend? I don’t quite picture Mark Robbins as boyfriend material.”
“Oh, not for you, darling,” my mother said, “for me.”
And then I knew: My mother, Madeleine Krasner-Wolfe, had crossed over to the dark side.
I come from a long line of family members who are crazy, each in his or her own way.
“Not crazy,” my mother said (who had begged me to refer to her on a first-name basis since I was three), “eccentric.”
“Why can’t I have a mother who’s normal?” I had implored throughout my adolescence.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Samantha. Anyone can have a normal mother. Eccentricity is so much more appealing. Someday you’ll understand that.”
But I could never adjust to the fact that when my friends’ mothers were puttering about their kitchens, mine was lying on a table getting a bikini wax or sipping champagne in the middle of the afternoon.
On this particular Tuesday we were on our way to lunch, a pastime my mother considered an occasion, not because she loved to eat but because it allowed her to parade herself in front of the world in her latest fashion ensembles.
“It’s so festive dining in restaurants,” she said, “eating at home is absolutely dull.”
My mother took daily living to new heights and considered Auntie Mame her fictional role model. She watched the film over and over, often quoting Rosalind Russell’s famous line: “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.”
Fortunately, my mother could indulge her fancies because she was loaded. My father, her first husband, Henry Krasner, whom she professed to be the love of her life, had croaked at forty-five on the sixteenth hole at the Rock Ridge Country Club, leaving my mother with a gaping hole in her heart, along with a small fortune that Dad had made in disposable diapers for adults, and an art collection worth millions.
As we were leaving the cemetery, my mother told me through a barrage of tears sprinkling down the front of her black veil that she could finally live the life she was meant to lead.
“Your father was a wonderful man,” she said, “but frugal was his middle name. He wouldn’t part with a cent. Of course,” she mused, “in the end that was probably a wise move, because now I won’t have to be a bag lady.”
That was certainly true. My mother was not one to make do. The only bags she paraded were designed by Gucci, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton. Cutting back was not something she could gracefully handle. And so, before my dad’s body was even cold, she went out and bought herself a sporty little Mercedes SLK350 Roadster that she rationalized would help her through the grieving process.
Her accountant, Sheldon Glick, had assured my mother that she would be fine as long as she lived within reason.
“Within reason? What does that mean?” Madeleine had put down her lace-edged monogrammed hankie and stopped crying long enough to inquire.
“You’re a rich woman,” Sheldon had said. “But like most of us, unless we’re Rockefellers, you need to be sensible.”
Sensible to Madeleine was having enough dough to keep her in her Upper East Side apartment with Gilda, our housekeeper of thirty years; the summerhouse in Connecticut; and a monthly allowance that guaranteed she could continue living in the style to which she deserved to be accustomed.
“I’m not a woman who takes to change well,” she’d said.
“Continue living as you are for now.” Sheldon had reached over his desk and took her hand. “We’ll revisit this subject in a few months.”
“Yes,” my mother had agreed. “After the ground settles, I’ll be able to think more clearly.”
Then she’d taken herself over to Per Se for lunch and drowned her sorrows in a couple of dirty martinis.
That was the one thing about my mother: She had style.
But the relationship I shared with my dad was unique. He was the role model for every man who would eventually come my way. In turn, I was the love of his life. He openly made his affections known, not only through the gifts that he showered upon me but with weekly dinners, just the two of us. From the time I was six, Tuesdays became our night. Although my mother often asked to tag along, Dad refused her entry into our exclusive club. This was our time alone, and no intruders, even my mother, were allowed to trespass on this ritualistic occasion.
Hundreds of such evenings punctuated my future. We began a tradition where these weekly jaunts allowed us to catch up on each other’s lives. Not once did I ever remember him canceling our standing appointment. In that way, Tuesdays belonged only to us, and in that way, they became cherished moments.
When he died, that abruptly ended. Dad’s death brought with it a sense of longing I had not yet been able to relinquish—a yearning for something that would never be the same again. I had accumulated a wealth of knowledge from our talks. I was privy to personal insights and private thoughts he enjoyed sharing only with me, mainly because my reactions to whatever he told me were spontaneous and deliciously secretive.
There were times I believed my mother was jealous, though she always brushed it aside by asking: “Whatever do you two have to talk about?”
“Everything and nothing,” I would respond, hoping that would placate her, but it never did.
These dinners, my dad’s and mine, provided a setting I could retreat to in ways that I never could with my mother; Tuesdays became some of my happiest times. While my relationship with my mother was close, it was my father who left an indelible imprint on my psyche. Without judgment, he gently guided me through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood and served as my one-man support system and guardian of my soul. My mother, colorful though she was, exhibited her parenting in more outspoken, symbiotic ways that often put tension between us. As I evolved more into my own, she clung to me with an intensity that often felt smothering.
After my father’s death, while my mother lapsed into grieving mode, I mourned his death in a less conspicuous way. In the days that followed, I kept hearing him call my name, which would stop me cold. After that, Tuesdays were never the same again.
Now, at thirty-eight, I lived alone on the opposite side of Central Park in a brownstone on West Eighty-fifth Street. Alone, that is until my first cousin, Celeste Bleckner, a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence, decided to invite herself to spend the month of July with me. My mother had a hand in making the arrangements.
“You know I can’t stand her,” I said.
“Darling, it’s the least you can do. Your aunt Elaine is my only sister. When she asked, what could I say?”
“No!” I said emphatically. “The last thing I need is Celeste following me around all summer. I’ll have no privacy whatsoever. Why can’t she stay at school? Bronxville is only a half hour from the city.”
“Celeste wants to experience what city life is all about. It’s only for a month,” Madeleine said, holding firm. “And you do have that extra bedroom.”
“You mean my office?”
“She can sleep on the pullout couch. It will make her happy, and it’s good for family relations.”
“It might have been nice to have had Celeste check with me first.”
“She was afraid you’d say no.”
“Well, she’s got that right,” I said.
“Sweetheart, do it for me.” Madeleine played on my guilt. “Celeste looks up to you. You’re her role model.”
“You’re the one with all the space, Mother. Why can’t she stay with you? You have all those guest rooms just lying around with no one in them.”
The blood drained from my mother’s face. “Postmenopausal women don’t have roommates,” she said. “Anyway, she adores you. Maybe you can help her get over her shyness with boys. You know, teach her the ropes.”
But the only rope I was interested in was a noose to tie around Celeste’s chubby neck. Finally, after much prodding, I acquiesced. It was too hard to fight my mother. Celeste moved in on the last day of June with her bunny slippers and five bottles of olive oil she used as both a moisturizer and hair conditioner.
Celeste had an edginess that couldn’t be ignored. The elder of two daughters of Elaine and Philip Bleckner from Tenafly, New Jersey, Celeste, at twenty, was the less attractive of the two. Her nineteen-year-old sister, Fern, had no trouble attracting men, but she couldn’t care less. Fern was rumored to be a lesbian who was having an affair with a girl she had met at Smith during freshman year. The family tried keeping this hush-hush.
“Even more reason to be compassionate,” Madeleine said. “Poor Elaine is beside herself with grief that Fern might never give her grandchildren. At least with Celeste, there’s still a chance. That’s where you come in. Maybe you can find a suitable man for her.”
“The men I know are much older.”
“They might have younger brothers. You never know. At any rate, a month with you might be the best thing for her.”
“And the worst for me,” I said.
“Celeste will be a dream roommate,” Madeleine added. “She’ll never cramp your style or borrow your clothes. Maybe she can even shed a few pounds.”
For years, Aunt Elaine had referred to her daughter as “pleasingly plump.” At five-two and 160 pounds she was downright fat. On the plus side: She wouldn’t be borrowing my clothes. The negative: She never dated and would be hanging around my apartment every evening. Celeste considered a night at home with a hot novel and a pint of ice cream about as good as it got.
One of the reasons that Madeleine was so adamant about her moving in was that Celeste adored my mother, and with Madeleine, flattery went a long way.
“Aunt Madeleine is the hottest woman I’ve ever seen. The woman absolutely rocks. She’s more like a girlfriend than a mom,” Celeste said.
“Sometimes that can pose a problem,” I said.
“I wish my mom were more like her. I mean, at sixty-two, Madeleine is fab-u-lous.”
“I wouldn’t go spreading that around,” I said. “Madeleine doesn’t exactly advertise her age.”
“Her dirty little secret is safe with me,” Celeste said.
The year she turned sixty, my mother gave herself a birth- day present of a face-lift, a tummy tuck, and breast implants just so people like Celeste would continue to use words like “hot” and “fab-u-lous” to describe her.
“And those drop-dead clothes. I’d kill for the shoes alone,” Celeste said.
And so, on the Fourth of July, while fireworks exploded along the Hudson River, Celeste moved in for what was going to be a month of sheer hell.
When my mother stopped by a few days later to check up on things, she was sporting her latest pair of Manolo Blahniks and a little Donna Karan purse. I was so accustomed to her beauty, I had stopped being mesmerized years ago. It was only when Celeste raised my consciousness that I had to agree: For “a woman of a certain age” Madeleine was sexy as hell.
I was not the only one who thought so. Grayson Wolfe, widower and one of the most prestigious art dealers in New York, agreed. They had met at an art opening. After only a few months of dating my mom, he asked her to marry him.
That same month I was hired by Alexandra Cole, owner of the Cole Gallery on Madison Avenue, to run her gallery. Alexandra entrusted me to handle all affairs when she was away in Europe on her frequent “business” trips; really, she was screwing her head off with a Frenchman named Jean-Luc. While Alexandra and Jean-Luc fucked their way through Europe, I was still looking for my Mr. Right. In the meantime, my mother had found hers.
After Grayson proposed, Mom and I went to the Four Seasons, where, in the Pool Room under a canopy of trees, she told me she was considering accepting his offer. The five-carat yellow diamond from Harry Winston had clinched the deal.
“Granted, he’s not your father,” she said, “but he’s got a lot going for him.”
What my mother meant was that Grayson had inherited his family’s wealth and wanted nothing more than to lavish it upon her. His two sons, grown and married, were themselves highly successful. Pierce, fifty, owned a thriving orthopedic practice and lived with his wife and two boys in Atlanta. Hillard, fifty-three, a recently divorced real estate attorney from Austin, Texas, specialized in clients with big bucks. Each had become a millionaire by the time he was forty.
“Grayson even agreed to sell his apartment and move into mine,” my mother said. “You know how I detest moving.”
“The man is a relic. He’s as old as Methuselah.”
“He’s pushing seventy-five, but he’s very spry. Don’t let his age fool you. He’s a tiger in the bedroom.”
Grayson Wolfe might have been many things, but an animal between the sheets was hard to imagine.
“And let’s not forget his seat on the stock exchange,” my mother boasted, “and his board positions at the American Museum of Natural History and Memorial Sloan-Kettering. Grayson is one of the most eligible bachelors in New York.”
“For the geriatric set, maybe.”
“Not to mention he has season tickets to the opera, first tier.”
“You detest opera, Mother.”
“That may be true, darling, but I adore dressing up.”
That June Madeleine and Grayson tied the knot at a small gathering at the Carlyle. She wore a virginal white Valentino and a Vera Wang veil adhered to her head by a clip of white orchids. Grayson took one look at his blushing bride, and an erection appeared right though his Armani tuxedo pants, helped along by the Viagra he had popped minutes before saying “I do.”
For three years Madeleine and Grayson lived in marital bliss. Between my father’s money and Grayson’s fortune, my mother was having the time of her life running between the Westport house and Grayson’s home in Millbrook, New York, where he kept two polo ponies and his Lamborghini, used only for recreational riding. In between, he and my mother sailed the Atlantic, flew to Paris twice, toured the Greek Islands, and rented a villa in Tuscany for two months.
The night they returned home from Italy, Grayson complained of chest pains, blamed it on the airplane food, and dropped dead three hours later on the new Suri rug for which Madeleine had spent a bundle. Two days later, she gave the rug to Goodwill and buried Grayson Wolfe under a cherry tree at Green Willow Cemetery, where the elite meet in the afterlife.
Madeleine Krasner-Wolfe was a widow once again, only this time the word “filthy” preceded “rich.” Between the money of Henry Krasner and Grayson Wolfe, the world was her oyster.
“Life moves in strange and unexpected ways,” Sheldon Glick told Madeleine when they were going over Grayson’s will. “You’re a woman of substance.”
Then he tacked another thousand on to her bill.
“I’m a woman alone . . . again,” Madeleine sobbed. To cheer herself up, she went over to Tiffany and splurged on a little trinket.
During the weeks after Grayson’s death, my mother formed an abnormal attachment to me. She invited me to lunch daily.
On Tuesday morning, she called the gallery at ten.
“Mother, I’m a working woman, remember? I don’t have time to go to lunch every day.”
“That’s completely uncivilized, Samantha, not to mention nutritionally unsound. I’ll pick you up in a taxi, and we’ll grab a bite at Sarabeth’s.”
“Not today, Mom, I can’t. It’s crazy in the gallery. A new artist is coming in, and I have to be here.”
“What new artist?” Madeleine switched gears, moving from the culinary to the creative.
“Blake Hamilton, the new rising star. He’s one of the exciting neo-expressionists. Very hot on the scene.”
Silence on the other end.
“Blake Hamilton? The British artist?” she said.
“You know him?”
“Not personally, but I follow him. That article in The Observer sang his praises. I’ve been admiring his work for several years. Maybe I can pop in. What time is he arriving?”
“That’s totally inappropriate, Mother. Anyway, I’ll be busy meeting with him. You wouldn’t even get to see him.”
“I’ll just come to browse,” Madeleine said. “Another interested party looking to buy some art.”
“Don’t be absurd. Your gallery isn’t off-limits. I’m sure he’d be thrilled to know he has a huge fan who’s considering buying one of his pieces.”
“His pieces start at thirty thousand.”
“As I said, I’m just browsing.”
And so it went until I told my mother to leave me alone and let me do my thing.
“Fine, fine, I get the hint, but I had another thought: Maybe you, I, and Blake can all do lunch together.”
“That’s it, Mother,” I said. I slammed down the phone.
Not one to be rebuffed, my mother appeared at eleven-thirty at the gallery, dressed in her latest Barneys acquisition: a beige pantsuit and a straw hat with a brown grosgrain ribbon. I scowled when I saw her. “For God’s sake, I told you not to come. I’m expecting Blake any minute.”
“I just want to sneak a peek,” she said. “I promise I’ll behave.”
Moments later, a vision of male pulchritude appeared, carrying a burgundy leather artist’s portfolio. He was dressed casually in gray pants and a navy blazer. A striped blue and white shirt hung out just enough to make him look hot rather than disheveled. Around his neck was a red silk scarf. A pair of loafers with red socks completed the look. He was drop-dead gorgeous.
Madeleine, pretending to survey the paintings, turned around and smiled. Blake smiled back. Without batting an eye, she walked over to him. “I do believe you’re Blake Hamilton,” she said.
“In the flesh, although I must admit the flesh is melting as we speak. It’s a scorcher out there.” Each word was enunciated in a charming English accent.
“Yes, I practically fainted on my way over here. Manhattan in July is brutal.”
“Hello,” I jumped in, “I’m Samantha Krasner. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“And I’m Madeleine Krasner-Wolfe,” Madeleine said, “Samantha’s mother.”
Blake paused, looking my mother up and down. Next came the predictable response. “Her mother? That’s quite impossible. You just couldn’t be.”
My mother blushed. “It’s lovely meeting you,” she said. “I often come in to peruse the latest work. My late husband, Grayson Wolfe, was a major collector.”
“You were married to Grayson Wolfe?”
“Yes, you’ve heard of him?”
“Heard of him. The man was pure genius. I believe he was solely responsible for the success of my friend Ross Duval.”
Madeleine swooped in closer. “Yes, of course. We own a Duval. It’s hanging in the study. It’s one of my favorite paintings.”
There was no stopping her now. My mother was charming the pants off Blake, while he, in turn, was undressing her with his eyes. It was a meeting made in hell.
“I hate to interrupt,” I said, “but I need to speak with you, Blake. Mother, if you’ll excuse us”—I shot her a look—“we have work to do.”
“That doesn’t mean we can’t pick this conversation up later,” Blake said, holding her gaze. “I’d love to take you for a drink, Mrs. Wolfe.”
“And I would love for you to do that,” Madeleine said.
“Let’s say five o’clock at the Mark. Is that good for you?” Blake turned back at me as though he had misplaced something and came back to find it. “Oh, and Samantha, I hope you’ll be joining us, too.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I won’t be leaving the gallery until late tonight. But thanks anyway.”
As far back as I could remember, I had lived in my mother’s shadow, and though a high-styled and well-coiffed shadow it was, I never felt I owned my life. Finally, after two years of therapy and becoming a junior partner at the Cole Gallery, I had started to emerge.
Junior, according to Alexandra Cole, was a prerequisite to associate partner. She promised me that come the end of the year, we would “evaluate the situation.”
Much in the same way, my mother was the CEO in charge of my life—a position I was no longer willing to accept. Add to that the fact that she thought nothing of insinuating herself in my life socially, much to my chagrin.
“I’m doing it for you, darling,” she whispered on her way out. “I’ll get the scoop on Blake and let you know if he’s as good as he looks.”
“I’m quite capable of interviewing my own men,” I snapped back.
“Can’t you just let me play my motherly role?”
“You’re being intrusive, Mother.”
“It’s just a drink, for God’s sake,” she said.
Excerpted from Bachelor Degree by Judith Marks-White. Copyright © 2008 by Judith Marks-White. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.