Shirley Lord, the novelist and veteran beauty editor for Harper’s Bazaar and then Vogue , was pouring tea in the library of her spacious East Side duplex one recent afternoon when something out of the ordinary caught her eye.
“I wonder what that is?” she asked, sounding like a character in her engaging new novel The Crasher , a murder mystery whose central character is a party-crashing New York fashion designer struggling to be discovered; Miramax Films has optioned the film rights.
Ms. Lord, whose creamy British accent was once compared by the fashion journalist Eugenia Sheppard to that of Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle-after her sessions with Professor Higgins, that is-rested her porcelain teapot, a wedding present from Vogue editor Anna Wintour, back on the table. Ms. Lord married Abe Rosenthal, the New York Times columnist, nearly 11 years ago. Wearing a pinstriped Donna Karan trouser suit with a white T-shirt, Chanel pumps and a necklace of blue lapis beads, Ms. Lord walked across the reddish-decorated room and took hold of a strange glittering object.
“Oh, I see,” she said, sounding disappointed, perhaps, that it wasn’t such a mystery after all. “It’s one of Abe’s awards,” Ms. Lord explained. “The maids are always putting them out on display.”
Ms. Lord returned to her perch on a chintz-covered sofa. Where was she? Oh, yes. “Fashion bored me until recently,” Ms. Lord declared, despite her long career working for fashion magazines. “Now, as an industry, it’s become so entertaining.” The business of beauty and its advances, “promising magic from a jar,” interests her most. For Ms. Lord, the basics are: simple, elegant dressing and, as the British say, a good makeup.
“Like florists who really resemble the rosebuds they sell, beauty editors take a lot of getting used to as well,” she laughed. “Just nibble away,” she continued, her hand sweeping toward plates filled with sandwiches and sweets. “Mary Wells Lawrence, you remember Mary Wells Lawrence [the legendary advertising executive], she summed up my feelings best about clothes when I interviewed her many years ago. She said it was very important that she not look too glamorous, but that she look well, healthy, on top of things, attractive, stylish. But not too much so that people noticed what she was wearing, rather than what she was saying.”
Ms. Lord looks very well. Her honey-blond hair is coifed big, like an abstraction of the ‘do of Venus, animated at a flattering shoulder length. Her face is a Gainsborough palette for a fine British complexion. One is reminded of the story of the man who once visited Ms. Lord at Condé Nast and was delighted by the smell of fragrance in her office.
“It smells so good here,” he exclaimed.
“It should,” Ms. Lord deadpanned, looking up from her computer screen and latest beauty copy.
Then there’s the remark made by her close friend Barbara Walters. “You’re not going to be the oldest beauty editor in the world, are you, Shirley?” Ms. Lord reported Ms. Walters asked her a few years ago. As she tells it, that launched a chain of events which led to Ms. Lord’s stepping down as the head of the beauty department at Vogue , a position she had held since 1980, in favor of a contributing editorship and writing novels.
“I’m lucky. Quite lucky in life. I’ve done practically everything I’ve wanted to do except write a musical, which I’m now halfway through.”
The story of how this self-described 16-year-old “Cockney sparrow” found her way to the typing pool at the Daily Mirror in the mid-1950’s, eventually became women’s editor of the Evening Standard , married twice, once to the millionaire textile magnate Cyril Lord, divorced, moved to America in 1971 to work for Harper’s Bazaar , married again, was widowed, and then fell in love with Abe Rosenthal is, she said, “another story too long for today.”
Or one she is keeping for her musical?
Ms. Lord wanted to write more novels; The Crasher is her fifth novel and ninth book. In 1994, Ms. Lord read an article in The Wall Street Journal about how entertainment-industry executive Brandon Tartikoff, who died last year, had established his own imprint at Warner Books. His novel idea was to develop projects simultaneously as books and films or TV shows. Ms. Lord decided she had to meet Mr. Tartikoff.
“A few nights later, by sheer luck, I was seated at dinner next to Revlon’s Ronald Perelman.” As she sipped her Darjeeling tea, Ms. Lord continued. “Brandon’s production company had recently been acquired by Perelman when he bought New World Entertainment, so he said he would arrange for me to meet him. True to his word, I got a phone call and went to meet Brandon Tartikoff.”
It was Mr. Tartikoff who suggested the idea for The Crasher . The idea came to him originally from a film-world acquaintance named Victoria Scott D’Angelo, whose original concept was to make a picture about a Hollywood party crasher. Ms. Lord took the deal and ran with it, setting the story in New York’s fashion world. The main character, struggling fashion designer Ginny Walker, crashes parties in order to get her designs recognized. Which leads, of course, to sex, murder, scandal and gossip, and lends new meaning to the notion of a “most wanted” dress.
Here, then, early in The Crasher , we find the enterprising Ginny has just been given a significant advance at the fashion house where she is working: “Sure enough, one weekend there was reason to celebrate. The promotion was hers, and a $5,000 raise went with it. Lee insisted on taking Ginny out-to swanky Mr. Chow’s-along with Marilyn Binzer, an artist friend. Later, they were all invited to a party in Chelsea, where Lee swore there would be no trace of Oz Tabori or anyone like him. Alas, thought Ginny, probably no trace of WWD , either.
“Ginny brought the subject up. ‘Lee, how can I get my designs in WWD ? How can I get to some of these parties where my clothes can be seen? What are the best parties, anyway?’ She started to giggle to hide her embarrassment, but hoped Lee would take her seriously.”
There will be plenty of parties in Ms. Lord’s immediate future. There’s one on April 15 at Bloomingdale’s, another on April 23 given by Warner Leroy, and a tea on April 27 given by Catie Marron, all in honor of her latest publication. Has Ms. Lord actually ever crashed a party?
“I crashed an office. Once, when I was trying to get a job on Fleet Street, I went to the Daily Express to try and meet an editor I knew was looking to fill a position. As I was being turned away at the front desk, I heard someone call his name. There he was, getting into the elevator, and I followed him all the way to his office.”
Ms. Lord didn’t get the job. “That’s what I wanted to crash. Not parties. Offices. In order to work. And I would have gone on crashing, if I had to … More tea?” Billy’s List
1. Parris Glendening is:
a. a character in The Crasher.
b. the Governor of Maryland.
c. the receptionist at the decorating firm Parish-Hadley Associates Inc.
2. Charlotte Armstrong is:
a. Isaac Mizrahi’s and Donna Karan’s hair and makeup person.
b. the executive secretary for WWD’s Patrick McCarthy.
c. the society chef and author of Charlotte’s Table, a new cookbook.
3. Theo Fennell is:
a. the lead character, an astronaut, in a recently discovered unpublished Jacqueline Susann manuscript.
b. the amusing British jeweler whose glittering objets are now available at Bergdorf Goodman.
c. the lead singer of the Propellerheads and Shirley Bassey’s friend.
Answers: (1) b; (2) c; (3) b.