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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: Chapter 4

EVELYN AND I ARE BACK in her foyer. “I’ll meet you in my office in a half hour.”

“OK,” I say as Evelyn heads down the corridor and out of sight. I take off my coat and put it in the closet.

I should use this time to check in with Frankie. If I don’t reach out to update her soon, she’ll track me down.

I just have to decide how I’m going to handle it. How do I make sure she doesn’t try to wrestle this away from me?

I think my only option is to pretend everything is going according to plan. My only plan is to lie.

I breathe.

One of my earliest memories from when I was a child was of my parents bringing me to Zuma Beach in Malibu. It was still springtime, I think. The water hadn’t yet warmed enough for comfort.

My mom stayed on the sand, setting down our blanket and umbrella, while my dad scooped me up and ran with me down to the shoreline. I remember feeling weightless in his arms. And then he put my feet in the water, and I cried, telling him it was too cold.

He agreed with me. It was cold. But then he said, “Just breathe in and out five times. And when you’re done, I bet it won’t feel so cold.”

I watched as he put his feet in. I watched him breathe. And then I put my feet back in and breathed with him. He was right, of course. It wasn’t so cold.

After that, my dad would breathe with me anytime I was on the verge of tears. When I skinned my elbow, when my cousin called me an Oreo, when my mom said we couldn’t get a puppy, my father would sit and breathe with me. It still hurts, all these years later, to think about those moments.

But for now, I keep breathing, right there in Evelyn’s foyer, centering myself as he taught me.

And then, when I feel calm, I pick up my phone and dial Frankie.

“Monique.” She answers on the second ring. “Tell me. How’s it going?”

“It’s going well,” I say. I’m surprised at how even and flat my voice is. “Evelyn is pretty much everything you’d expect from an icon. Still gorgeous. Charismatic as ever.”


“And . . . things are progressing.”

“Is she committing to talk about any other topics than the gowns?”

What can I say now to start covering my own ass? “You know, she’s pretty reticent about anything other than getting some press for the auction. I’m trying to play nice at the moment, get her to trust me a bit more before I start pushing.”

“Will she sit for a cover?”

“It’s too early to tell. Trust me, Frankie,” I say, and I hate how sincere it sounds coming out of my mouth, “I know how important this is. But right now, the best thing for me to do is make sure Evelyn likes me so that I can try to garner some influence and advocate for what we want.”

“OK,” Frankie says. “Obviously, I want more than a few sound bites about dresses, but that’s still more than any other magazine has gotten from her in decades, so . . .” Frankie keeps talking, but I’ve stopped listening. I’m far too focused on the fact that Frankie’s not even going to get sound bites.

And I’m going to get far, far more.

“I should go,” I say, excusing myself. “She and I are talking again in a few minutes.”

I hang up the phone and breathe out. I’ve got this shit.

As I make my way through the apartment, I can hear Grace in the kitchen. I open the swinging door and spot her cutting flower stems.

“Sorry to bother you. Evelyn said to meet her in her office, but I’m not sure where that is.”

“Oh,” Grace says, putting down the scissors and wiping her hands on a towel. “I’ll show you.”

I follow her up a set of stairs and into Evelyn’s study area. The walls are a striking flat charcoal gray, the area rug a golden beige. The large windows are flanked by dark blue curtains, and on the opposite side of the room are built-in bookcases. A gray-blue couch sits facing an oversized glass desk.

Grace smiles and leaves me to wait for Evelyn. I drop my bag on the sofa and check my phone.

“You take the desk,” Evelyn says as she comes in. She hands me a glass of water. “I can only assume the way this works is that I talk and you write.”

“I suppose,” I say, sitting in the desk chair. “I’ve never attempted to write a biography before. After all, I’m not a biographer.”

Evelyn looks at me pointedly. She sits opposite me, on the sofa. “Let me explain something to you. When I was fourteen years old, my mother had already died, and I was living with my father. The older I got, the more I realized that it was only a matter of time until my father tried to marry me off to a friend of his or his boss, someone who could help his situation. And if I’m being honest, the more I developed, the less secure I was in the idea that my father might not try to take something of me for himself.

“We were so broke that we were stealing the electricity from the apartment above us. There was one outlet in our place that was on their circuit, so we plugged anything we needed to use into that one socket. If I needed to do homework after dark, I plugged in a lamp in that outlet and sat underneath it with my book.

“My mother was a saint. I really mean it. Stunningly beautiful, an incredible singer, with a heart of gold. For years before she died, she would always tell me that we were gonna get out of Hell’s Kitchen and go straight to Hollywood. She said she was going to be the most famous woman in the world and get us a mansion on the beach. I had this fantasy of the two of us together in a house, throwing parties, drinking champagne. And then she died, and it was like waking up from a dream. Suddenly, I was in a world where none of that was ever going to happen. And I was going to be stuck in Hell’s Kitchen forever.

“I was gorgeous, even at fourteen. Oh, I know the whole world prefers a woman who doesn’t know her power, but I’m sick of all that. I turned heads. Now, I take no pride in this. I didn’t make my own face. I didn’t give myself this body. But I’m also not going to sit here and say, ‘Aw, shucks. People really thought I was pretty?’ like some kind of prig.

“My friend Beverly knew a guy in her building named Ernie Diaz who was an electrician. And Ernie knew a guy over at MGM. At least, that was the rumor going around. And one day, Beverly told me she heard that Ernie was up for some job rigging lights in Hollywood. So that weekend, I made up a reason to go over to Beverly’s, and I ‘accidentally’ knocked on Ernie’s door. I knew exactly where Beverly was. But I knocked on Ernie’s door and said, ‘Have you seen Beverly Gustafson?’

“Ernie was twenty-two. He wasn’t handsome by any means, but he was fine to look at. He said he hadn’t seen her, but I watched as he continued to stare at me. I watched as his eyes started at mine and grazed their way down, scanning every inch of me in my favorite green dress.

“And then Ernie said, ‘Sweetheart, are you sixteen?’ I was fourteen, remember. But do you know what I did? I said, ‘Why, I just turned.’ ”

Evelyn looks at me with purpose. “Do you understand what I’m telling you? When you’re given an opportunity to change your life, be ready to do whatever it takes to make it happen. The world doesn’t give things, you take things. If you learn one thing from me, it should probably be that.”

Wow. “OK,” I say.

“You’ve never been a biographer before, but you are one starting now.”

I nod my head. “I got it.”

“Good,” Evelyn says, relaxing into the sofa. “So where do you want to begin?”

I grab my notebook and look at the scribbled words I’ve covered the last few pages with. There are dates and film titles, references to classic images of her, rumors with question marks after them. And then, in big letters that I went over and over with my pen, darkening each letter until I changed the texture of the page, I’ve written, “Who was the love of Evelyn’s life???”

That’s the big question. That’s the hook of this book.

Seven husbands.

Which one did she love the best? Which one was the real one?

As both a journalist and a consumer, that’s what I want to know. It won’t be where the book begins, but maybe that is where she and I should begin. I want to know, going into these marriages, which is the one that matters the most.

I look up at Evelyn to see her sitting up, ready for me.

“Who was the love of your life? Was it Harry Cameron?”

Evelyn thinks and then answers slowly. “Not in the way you mean, no.”

“In what way, then?”

“Harry was my greatest friend. He invented me. He was the person who loved me the most unconditionally. The person I loved the most purely, I think. Other than my daughter. But no, he was not the love of my life.”

“Why not?”

“Because that was someone else.”

“OK, who was the love of your life, then?”

Evelyn nods, as if this is the question she has been expecting, as if the situation is unfolding exactly as she knew it would. But then she shakes her head again. “You know what?” she says, standing up. “It’s getting late, isn’t it?”

I look at my watch. It’s midafternoon. “Is it?”

“I think it is,” she says, and she walks toward me, toward the door.

“All right,” I say, standing up to meet her.

Evelyn puts her arm around me and leads me out into the hallway. “Let’s pick up again on Monday. Would that be OK?”

“Uh . . . sure. Evelyn, did I say something to offend you?”

Evelyn leads me down the stairs. “Not at all,” she says, waving my fears aside. “Not at all.”

There is a tension that I can’t quite put my finger on. Evelyn walks with me until we hit the foyer. She opens the closet. I reach in and grab my coat.

“Back here?” Evelyn says. “Monday morning? What do you say we start around ten?”

“OK,” I say, putting my thick coat around my shoulders. “If that’s what you’d like.”

Evelyn nods. She looks past me for a moment, over my shoulder, but appearing not to actually be looking at anything in particular. Then she opens her mouth. “I’ve spent a very long time learning how to . . . spin the truth,” she says. “It’s hard to undo that wiring. I’ve gotten too good at it, I think. Just now, I wasn’t exactly sure how to tell the truth. I don’t have very much practice in it. It feels antithetical to my very survival. But I’ll get there.”

I nod, unsure how to respond. “So . . . Monday?”

“Monday,” Evelyn says with a long blink and a nod. “I’ll be ready then.”

I walk back to the subway in the chilly air. I cram myself into a car packed with people, holding on to the handrail above my head. I walk to my apartment and open my front door.

I sit on my couch, open my laptop, and answer some e-mails. I start to order something for dinner. And it is only when I go to put my feet up that I remember there is no coffee table. For the first time since he left, I have not come into this apartment immediately thinking of David.

Instead, what plays in the back of my mind all weekend—from my Friday night in to my Saturday night out and my Sunday morning at the park—isn’t How did my marriage fail? but rather Who the hell was Evelyn Hugo in love with?


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