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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: Chapter 3


I WAKE UP A HALF hour before my alarm. I check my e-mails, including one from Frankie with the subject line “KEEP ME UPDATED,” yelling at me in all caps. I make myself a small breakfast.

I put on black slacks and a white T-shirt with my favorite herringbone blazer. I gather my long, tight curls into a bun at the top of my head. I forgo my contacts and choose my thickest black-framed glasses.

As I look in the mirror, I notice that I have lost weight in my face since David left. While I have always had a slim frame, my butt and face seem to be the first to pick up any extra weight. And being with David—during the two years we dated and the eleven months since we married—meant I put on a few. David likes to eat. And while he would get up in the early mornings to run it off, I slept in.

Looking at myself now, pulled together and slimmer, I feel a rush of confidence. I look good. I feel good.

Before I make my way out the door, I grab the camel cashmere scarf that my mother gave me for Christmas this past year. And then I put one foot in front of the other, down to the subway, into Manhattan, and uptown.

Evelyn’s place is just off Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. I’ve done enough Internet stalking to know she’s got this place and a beachfront villa just outside of Málaga, Spain. She’s had this apartment since the late ’60s, when she bought it with Harry Cameron. She inherited the villa when Robert Jamison died almost five years ago. In my next life, please remind me to come back as a movie star with points on the back end.

Evelyn’s building, at least from the outside—limestone, prewar, beaux arts style—is extraordinary. I am greeted, before even walking in, by an older, handsome doorman with soft eyes and a kind smile.

“How may I help you?” he says.

I find myself embarrassed even to say it. “I’m here to see Evelyn Hugo. My name’s Monique Grant.”

He smiles and opens the door for me. It’s clear he was expecting me. He walks me to the elevator and presses the button for the top floor.

“Have a nice day, Ms. Grant,” he says, and then disappears as the elevators close.

I ring the doorbell of Evelyn’s apartment at eleven A.M. on the dot. A woman in jeans and a navy blouse answers. She looks to be about fifty, maybe a few years older. She is Asian-American, with straight jet-black hair pulled into a ponytail. She’s holding a stack of half-opened mail.

She smiles and extends her hand. “You must be Monique,” she says as I hold out my own. She seems like the sort of person who genuinely delights in meeting other people, and I already like her, despite my strict promise to myself to remain neutral to everything I encounter today.

“I’m Grace.”

“Hi, Grace,” I say. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise. Come on in.”

Grace steps out of the way and beckons to invite me in. I put my bag on the ground and take off my coat.

“You can put it right in here,” she says, opening a closet just inside the foyer and handing me a wooden hanger.

This coat closet is the size of the one bathroom in my apartment. It’s no secret that Evelyn has more money than God. But I need to work at not letting that intimidate me. She’s beautiful, and she’s rich, and she’s powerful and sexual and charming. And I’m a normal human being. Somehow I have to convince myself that she and I are on equal footing, or this is never going to work.

“Great,” I say, smiling. “Thank you.” I put my coat on the hanger, slip it over the rod, and let Grace shut the closet door.

“Evelyn is upstairs getting ready. Can I get you anything? Water, coffee, tea?”

“Coffee would be great,” I say.

Grace brings me into a sitting room. It is bright and airy, with floor-to-ceiling white bookcases and two overstuffed cream-colored chairs.

“Have a seat,” she says. “How do you like it?”

“My coffee?” I ask, unsure of myself. “With cream? I mean, milk is fine, too. But cream is great. Or whatever you have.” I get hold of myself. “What I’m trying to say is that I’d like a splash of cream if you have it. Can you tell I’m nervous?”

Grace smiles. “A little. But you don’t have anything to worry about. Evelyn’s a very kind person. She’s particular and private, which can take some getting used to. But I’ve worked for a lot of people, and you can trust me when I say Evelyn’s better than the rest.”

“Did she pay you to say that?” I ask. I am trying to make a joke, but it sounds more pointed and accusatory than I intended.

Luckily, Grace laughs. “She did send my husband and me to London and Paris last year as my Christmas bonus. So in an indirect way, yeah, I suppose she did.”

Jesus. “Well, that settles it. When you quit, I want your job.”

Grace laughs. “It’s a deal. And you’ve got coffee with a splash of cream coming right up.”

I sit down and check my cell phone. I have a text from my mom wishing me luck. I tap to respond, and I am lost in my attempts to properly type the word early without auto-correct changing it to earthquake when I hear footsteps on the stairs. I turn around to see the seventy-nine-year-old Evelyn Hugo walking toward me.

She is as breathtaking as any of her pictures.

She has the posture of a ballerina. She’s wearing slim black stretch pants and a long gray-and-navy striped sweater. She’s just as thin as she ever was, and the only way I know she’s had work done on her face is because no one her age can look like that without a doctor.

Her skin is glowing and just the littlest bit red, as if it’s been rubbed clean. She’s wearing false eyelashes, or perhaps she gets eyelash extensions. Where her cheeks were once angular, they are now a bit sunken. But they have just a tint of soft rosiness to them, and her lips are a dark nude.

Her hair is past her shoulders—a beautiful array of white, gray, and blond—with the lightest colors framing her face. I’m sure her hair is triple-processed, but the effect is that of a gracefully aging woman who sat out in the sun.

Her eyebrows, however—those dark, thick, straight lines that were her signature—have thinned over the years. And they are now the same color as her hair.

By the time she reaches me, I notice that she is not wearing any shoes but, instead, big, chunky knit socks.

“Monique, hello,” Evelyn says.

I am momentarily surprised at the casualness and confidence with which she says my name, as if she has known me for years. “Hello,” I say.

“I’m Evelyn.” She reaches out and takes my hand, shaking it. It strikes me as a unique form of power to say your own name when you know that everyone in the room, everyone in the world, already knows it.

Grace comes in with a white mug of coffee on a white saucer. “There you go. With just a bit of cream.”

“Thank you so much,” I say, taking it from her.

“That’s just the way I like it as well,” Evelyn says, and I’m embarrassed to admit it thrills me. I feel as if I’ve pleased her.

“Can I get either of you anything else?” Grace asks.

I shake my head, and Evelyn doesn’t answer. Grace leaves.

“Come,” Evelyn says. “Let’s go to the living room and get comfortable.”

As I grab my bag, Evelyn takes the coffee out of my hand, carrying it for me. I once read that charisma is “charm that inspires devotion.” And I can’t help but think of that now, when she’s holding my coffee for me. The combination of such a powerful woman and such a small and humble gesture is enchanting, to be sure.

We step into a large, bright room with floor-to-ceiling windows. There are oyster-gray chairs opposite a soft slate-blue sofa. The carpet under our feet is thick, bright ivory, and as my eyes follow its path, I am struck by the black grand piano, open under the light of the windows. On the walls are two blown-up black-and-white images.

The one above the sofa is of Harry Cameron on the set of a movie.

The one above the fireplace is the poster for Evelyn’s 1959 version of Little Women. Evelyn, Celia St. James, and two other actresses’ faces make up the image. All four of these women may have been household names back in the ’50s, but it is Evelyn and Celia who stood the test of time. Looking at it now, Evelyn and Celia seem to shine brighter than the others. But I’m pretty sure that’s simply hindsight bias. I’m seeing what I want to see, based on how I know it all turns out.

Evelyn puts my cup and saucer down on the black-lacquer coffee table. “Sit,” she says as she takes a seat herself in one of the plush chairs. She pulls her feet up underneath her. “Anywhere you want.”

I nod and put my bag down. As I sit on the couch, I grab my notepad.

“So you’re putting your gowns up for auction,” I say as I settle myself. I click my pen, ready to listen.

Which is when Evelyn says, “Actually, I’ve called you here under false pretenses.”

I look directly at her, sure I’ve misheard. “Excuse me?”

Evelyn rearranges herself in the chair and looks at me. “There’s not much to tell about me handing a bunch of dresses over to Christie’s.”

“Well, then—”

“I called you here to discuss something else.”

“What is that?”

“My life story.”

“Your life story?” I say, stunned and trying hard to catch up to her.

“A tell-all.”

An Evelyn Hugo tell-all would be . . . I don’t know. Something close to the story of the year. “You want to do a tell-all with Vivant?”

“No,” she says.

“You don’t want to do a tell-all?”

“I don’t want to do one with Vivant.”

“Then why am I here?” I’m even more lost than I was just a moment ago.

“You’re the one I’m giving the story to.”

I look at her, trying to decipher what exactly she’s saying.

“You’re going to go on record about your life, and you’re going to do it with me but not with Vivant?”

Evelyn nods. “Now you’re getting it.”

“What exactly are you proposing?” There is no way that I have just walked into a situation in which one of the most intriguing people alive is offering me the story of her life for no reason. I must be missing something.

“I will tell you my life story in a way that will be beneficial to both of us. Although, to be honest, mainly you.”

“Just how in-depth are we talking about here?” Maybe she wants some airy retrospective? Some lightweight story published somewhere of her choosing?

“The whole nine yards. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Whatever cliché you want to use that means ‘I’ll tell you the truth about absolutely everything I’ve ever done.’ ”

Whoa.

I feel so silly for coming in here expecting her to answer questions about dresses. I put the notebook on the table in front of me and gently put the pen down on top of it. I want to handle this perfectly. It’s as if a gorgeous, delicate bird has just flown to me and sat directly on my shoulder, and if I don’t make the exact right move, it might fly away.

“OK, if I understand you correctly, what you’re saying is that you’d like to confess your various sins—”

Evelyn’s posture, which until this point has shown her to be very relaxed and fairly detached, changes. She is now leaning toward me. “I never said anything about confessing sins. I said nothing about sins at all.”

I back away slightly. I’ve ruined it. “I apologize,” I say. “That was a poor choice of words.”

Evelyn doesn’t say anything.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Hugo. This is all a bit surreal for me.”

“You can call me Evelyn,” she says.

“OK, Evelyn, what’s the next step here? What, precisely, are we going to do together?” I take the coffee cup and put it up to my lips, sipping just the littlest bit.

“We’re not doing a Vivant cover story,” she says.

“OK, that much I got,” I say, putting the cup down.

“We’re writing a book.”

“We are?”

Evelyn nods. “You and I,” she says. “I’ve read your work. I like the way you communicate clearly and succinctly. Your writing has a no-nonsense quality to it that I admire and that I think my book could use.”

“You’re asking me to ghostwrite your autobiography?” This is fantastic. This is absolutely, positively fantastic. This is a good reason to stay in New York. A great reason. Things like this don’t happen in San Francisco.

Evelyn shakes her head again. “I’m giving you my life story, Monique. I’m going to tell you the whole truth. And you are going to write a book about it.”

“And we’ll package it with your name on it and tell everyone you wrote it. That’s ghostwriting.” I pick up my cup again.

“My name won’t be on it. I’ll be dead.”

I choke on my coffee and in doing so stain the white carpet with flecks of umber.

“Oh, my God,” I say, perhaps a bit too loudly, as I put down the cup. “I spilled coffee on your carpet.”

Evelyn waves this off, but Grace knocks on the door and opens it just a crack, poking her head in.

“Everything OK?”

“I spilled, I’m afraid,” I say.

Grace opens the door fully and comes in, taking a look.

“I’m really sorry. I just got a bit shocked is all.”

I catch Evelyn’s eye, and I don’t know her very well, but what I do know is that she’s telling me to be quiet.

“It’s not a problem,” Grace says. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Are you hungry, Monique?” Evelyn says, standing up.

“I’m sorry?”

“I know a place just down the street that makes really great salads. My treat.”

It’s barely noon, and when I’m anxious, the first thing to go is my appetite, but I say yes anyway, because I get the distinct impression that it’s not really a question.

“Great,” Evelyn says. “Grace, will you call ahead to Trambino’s?”

Evelyn takes me by the shoulder, and less than ten minutes later, we’re walking down the manicured sidewalks of the Upper East Side.

The sharp chill in the air surprises me, and I notice Evelyn grab her coat tightly around her tiny waist.

In the sunlight, it’s easier to see the signs of aging. The whites of her eyes are cloudy, and the complexion of her hands is in the process of becoming translucent. The clear blue tint to her veins reminds me of my grandmother. I used to love the soft, papery tenderness of her skin, the way it didn’t bounce back but stayed in place.

“Evelyn, what do you mean you’ll be dead?”

Evelyn laughs. “I mean that I want you to publish the book as an authorized biography, with your name on it, when I’m dead.”

“OK,” I say, as if this is a perfectly normal thing to have someone say to you. And then I realize, no, that’s crazy. “Not to be indelicate, but are you telling me you’re dying?”

“Everyone’s dying, sweetheart. You’re dying, I’m dying, that guy is dying.”

She points to a middle-aged man walking a fluffy black dog. He hears her, sees her finger aimed at him, and realizes who it is that’s speaking. The effect on his face is something like a triple take.

We turn toward the restaurant, walking the two steps down to the door. Evelyn sits at a table in the back. No host guided her here. She just knows where to go and assumes everyone else will catch up. A server in black pants, a white shirt, and a black tie comes to our table and puts down two glasses of water. Evelyn’s has no ice.

“Thank you, Troy,” Evelyn says.

“Chopped salad?” he asks.

“Well, for me, of course, but I’m not sure about my friend,” Evelyn says.

I take the napkin off the table and put it in my lap. “A chopped salad sounds great, thank you.”

Troy smiles and leaves.

“You’ll like the chopped salad,” Evelyn says, as if we are friends having a normal conversation.

“OK,” I say, trying to redirect. “Tell me more about this book we’re writing.”

“I’ve told you all you need to know.”

“You’ve told me that I’m writing it and you’re dying.”

“You need to pay better attention to word choice.”

I may feel a little out of my league here—and I may not be exactly where I want to be in life right now—but I know a thing or two about word choice.

“I must have misunderstood you. I promise I’m very thoughtful with my words.”

Evelyn shrugs. This conversation is very low-stakes for her. “You’re young, and your entire generation is casual with words that bear great meaning.”

“I see.”

“And I didn’t say I was confessing any sins. To say that what I have to tell is a sin is misleading and hurtful. I don’t feel regret for the things I’ve done—at least, not the things you might expect—despite how hard they may have been or how repugnant they may seem in the cold light of day.”

Je ne regrette rien,” I say, lifting my glass of water and sipping it.

“That’s the spirit,” Evelyn says. “Although that song is more about not regretting because you don’t live in the past. What I mean is that I’d still make a lot of the same decisions today. To be clear, there are things I regret. It’s just . . . it’s not really the sordid things. I don’t regret many of the lies I told or the people I hurt. I’m OK with the fact that sometimes doing the right thing gets ugly. And also, I have compassion for myself. I trust myself. Take, for instance, when I snapped at you earlier, back at the apartment, when you said what you did about my confessing sins. It wasn’t a nice thing to do, and I’m not sure you deserved it. But I don’t regret it. Because I know I had my reasons, and I did the best I could with every thought and feeling that led up to it.”

“You take umbrage with the word sin because it implies that you feel sorry.”

Our salads appear, and Troy wordlessly grates pepper onto Evelyn’s until she puts her hand up and smiles. I decline.

“You can be sorry about something and not regret it,” Evelyn says.

“Absolutely,” I say. “I see that. I hope that you can give me the benefit of the doubt, going forward, that we’re on the same page. Even if there are multiple ways to interpret exactly what we’re talking about.”

Evelyn picks up her fork but doesn’t do anything with it. “I find it very important, with a journalist who will hold my legacy in her hands, to say exactly what I mean and to mean what I say,” Evelyn says. “If I’m going to tell you about my life, if I’m going to tell you what really happened, the truth behind all of my marriages, the movies I shot, the people I loved, who I slept with, who I hurt, how I compromised myself, and where it all landed me, then I need to know that you understand me. I need to know that you will listen to exactly what I’m trying to tell you and not place your own assumptions into my story.”

I was wrong. This is not low-stakes for Evelyn. Evelyn can speak casually about things of great importance. But right now, in this moment, when she is taking so much time to make such specific points, I’m realizing this is real. This is happening. She really intends to tell me her life story—a story that no doubt includes the gritty truths behind her career and her marriages and her image. That’s an incredibly vulnerable position she’s putting herself in. It’s a lot of power she’s giving me. I don’t know why she’s giving it to me. But that doesn’t negate the fact that she is giving it to me. And it’s my job, right now, to show her that I am worthy of it and that I will treat it as sacred.

I put my fork down. “That makes perfect sense, and I’m sorry if I was being glib.”

Evelyn waves this off. “The whole culture is glib now. That’s the new thing.”

“Do you mind if I ask a few more questions? Once I have the lay of the land, I promise to focus solely on what you’re saying and what you mean, so that you feel understood at such a level that you can think of no one better suited to the task of gatekeeping your secrets than me.”

My sincerity disarms her ever so briefly. “You may begin,” she says as she takes a bite of her salad.

“If I’m to publish this book after you have passed, what sort of financial gain do you envision?”

“For me or for you?”

“Let’s start with you.”

“None for me. Remember, I’ll be dead.”

“You’ve mentioned that.”

“Next question.”

I lean in conspiratorially. “I hate to pose something so vulgar, but what kind of timeline do you intend? Am I to hold on to this book for years until you . . .”

“Die?”

“Well . . . yes,” I say.

“Next question.”

“What?”

“Next question, please.”

“You didn’t answer that one.”

Evelyn is silent.

“All right, then, what kind of financial gain is there for me?”

“A much more interesting question, and I have been wondering why it took you so long to ask.”

“Well, I’ve asked it.”

“You and I will meet over the next however many days it takes, and I will tell you absolutely everything. And then our relationship will be over, and you will be free—or perhaps I should say bound—to write it into a book and sell it to the highest bidder. And I do mean highest. I insist that you be ruthless in your negotiating, Monique. Make them pay you what they would pay a white man. And then, once you’ve done that, every penny from it will be yours.”

“Mine?” I say, stunned.

“You should drink some water. You look ready to faint.”

“Evelyn, an authorized biography about your life, in which you talk about all seven of your marriages . . .”

“Yes?”

“A book like that stands to make millions of dollars, even if I didn’t negotiate.”

“But you will,” Evelyn says, taking a sip of her water and looking pleased.

The question has to be asked. We’ve been dancing around it for far too long. “Why on earth would you do that for me?”

Evelyn nods. She has been expecting this question. “For now, think of it as a gift.”

“But why?”

“Next question.”

“Seriously.”

“Seriously, Monique, next question.”

I accidentally drop my fork onto the ivory tablecloth. The oil from the dressing bleeds into the fabric, turning it darker and more translucent. The chopped salad is delicious but heavy on the onions, and I can feel the heat of my breath permeating the space around me. What the hell is going on?

“I’m not trying to be ungrateful, but I think I deserve to know why one of the most famous actresses of all time would pluck me out of obscurity to be her biographer and hand me the opportunity to make millions of dollars off her story.”

“The Huffington Post is reporting that I could sell my autobiography for as much as twelve million dollars.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Inquiring minds want to know, I guess.”

The way Evelyn is having so much fun with this, the way she seems to delight in shocking me, lets me know that this is, at least a little bit, a power play. She likes to be cavalier about things that would change other people’s lives. Isn’t that the very definition of power? Watching people kill themselves over something that means nothing to you?

“Twelve million is a lot, don’t get me wrong . . .” she says, and she doesn’t need to finish the sentence in order for it to be completed in my head. But it’s not very much to me.

“But still, Evelyn, why? Why me?”

Evelyn looks up at me, her face stoic. “Next question.”

“With all due respect, you’re not being particularly fair.”

“I’m offering you the chance to make a fortune and skyrocket to the top of your field. I don’t have to be fair. Certainly not if that’s how you’re going to define it, anyway.”

On the one hand, this feels like a no-brainer. But at the same time, Evelyn has given me absolutely nothing concrete. And I could lose my job by stealing a story like this for myself. That job is all I have right now. “Can I have some time to think about this?”

“Think about what?”

“About all of this.”

Evelyn’s eyes narrow ever so slightly. “What on earth is there to think about?”

“I’m sorry if it offends you,” I say.

Evelyn cuts me off. “You haven’t offended me.” Just the very implication that I could get under her skin gets under her skin.

“There’s a lot to consider,” I say. I could get fired. She could back out. I could fail spectacularly at writing this book.

Evelyn leans forward, trying to hear me out. “For instance?”

“For instance, how am I supposed to handle this with Vivant? They think they have an exclusive with you. They’re making calls to photographers this very moment.”

“I told Thomas Welch not to promise a single thing. If they have gone out and made wild assumptions about some cover, that’s on them.”

“But it’s on me, too. Because now I know you have no intention of moving forward with them.”

“So?”

“So what do I do? Go back to my office and tell my boss that you’re not talking to Vivant, that instead you and I are selling a book? It’s going to look like I went behind their backs, on company time, mind you, and stole their story for myself.”

“That’s not really my problem,” Evelyn says.

“But that’s why I have to think about it. Because it’s my problem.”

Evelyn hears me. I can tell she’s taking me seriously from the way she puts her water glass down and looks directly at me, leaning with her forearms on the table. “You have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here, Monique. You can see that, right?”

“Of course.”

“So do yourself a favor and learn how to grab life by the balls, dear. Don’t be so tied up trying to do the right thing when the smart thing is so painfully clear.”

“You don’t think that I should be forthright with my employers about this? They’ll think I conspired to screw them over.”

Evelyn shakes her head. “When my team specifically requested you, your company shot back with someone at a higher level. They only agreed to send you out once I made it clear that it was you or it was no one. Do you know why they did that?”

“Because they don’t think I—”

“Because they run a business. And so do you. And right now, your business stands to go through the roof. You have a choice to make. Are we writing a book together or not? You should know, if you won’t write it, I’m not going to give it to anyone else. It will die with me in that case.”

“Why would you tell only me your life story? You don’t even know me. That doesn’t make sense.”

“I’m under absolutely no obligation to make sense to you.”

“What are you after, Evelyn?”

“You ask too many questions.”

“I’m here to interview you.”

“Still.” She takes a sip of water, swallows, and then looks me right in the eye. “By the time we are through, you won’t have any questions,” she says. “All of these things you’re so desperate to know, I promise I’ll answer them before we’re done. But I’m not going to answer them one minute before I want to. I call the shots. That’s how this is going to go.”

I listen to her and think about it, and I realize I would be an absolute moron to walk away from this, no matter what her terms are. I didn’t stay in New York and let David go to San Francisco because I like the Statue of Liberty. I did it because I want to climb the ladder as high as I possibly can. I did it because I want my name, the name my father gave me, in big, bold letters one day. This is my chance.

“OK,” I say.

“OK, then. Glad to hear it.” Evelyn’s shoulders relax, she picks up her water again, and she smiles. “Monique, I think I like you,” she says.

I breathe deeply, only now realizing how shallow my breathing has been. “Thank you, Evelyn. That means a lot.”


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