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Sex, money and the city in ‘One Fifth Avenue’

In '"One Fifth Avenue," author Candace Bushnell takes another look at the tough and tender women of New York City — this time, through the lens of where they live.An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In “One Fifth Avenue,” “Sex and the City” author Candace Bushnell takes another look at the tough and tender women of New York City — this time, through the lens of where they live.

One Fifth Avenue, the Art Deco beauty towering over one of Manhattan's oldest and most historically hip neighborhoods, is a one-of-a-kind address, the sort of building you have to earn your way into — one way or another. For the women in Bushnell's new novel, this edifice is essential to the lives they've carefully established — or hope to establish. From the hedge fund king's wife to the aging gossip columnist to the free-spirited actress (a recent refugee from L.A.), each person's game plan for a rich life comes together under the soaring roof of this landmark building.

It was only a part in a TV series, and only a one-bedroom apartment in New York. But parts of any kind, much less decent ones, were hard to come by, and even in Los Angeles, everyone knew the value of a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. And the script arrived on the same day as the final divorce papers.

If real life were a script, a movie executive would have stricken this fact as “too coincidental.” But Schiffer Diamond loved coincidences and signs. Loved the childlike magic of believing all things happened for a reason. She was an actress and had lived on magic nearly all her life. And so she took the part, which required moving back to New York City for six months, where she would stay in the one-bedroom apartment she owned on Fifth Avenue. Her initial plan was to stay in New York for the duration of the shoot and then return to L.A. and her house in Los Feliz.

Two days after she took the part, she went to the Ivy and ran into her most recent ex-husband, lunching with a young woman. He was seated at a table in the center of the room, reveling in his new status as the president of a network, and given the deference the staff showed the young woman, Schiffer understood the young woman to be his new girlfriend. She was rumored to be a concert pianist from a renowned family, but had the glossy appearance of an expensive prostitute. The relationship was a cliché, but 25 years in Hollywood had taught Schiffer that men never minded clichés, especially when the cliché concerned the penis.

Shortly thereafter, when she handed her ticket to the valet and stood outside the restaurant in her sunglasses, she decided to sell the house in Los Feliz, make a clean break of it, and move back to One Fifth.

“Schiffer Diamond has taken a part in a TV series,” Enid Merle said to her nephew, Philip Oakland.

“She must be desperate,” Philip said, half-jokingly.

Enid and Philip occupied two of the second best apartments in One Fifth, located on the thirteenth floor with adjoining terraces, separated by a charming white picket fence. It was across this fence that Enid now spoke to her nephew. “It may be a very good part,” Enid countered, consulting the piece of paper she held in her hand. “She’s going to play a mother superior who leaves the church to become the editor in chief of a magazine for teenagers.”

“Now, there’s a believable concept,” Philip said, with the sarcasm he reserved for most matters Hollywood.

“About as believable as a giant reptile that terrorizes New York. I wish you’d quit screenplays and go back to writing serious novels,” Enid said.

“Can’t,” Philip said with a smile. “I’m desperate.”

“It may be based on a true story,” Enid continued. “There was a woman — Sandra Miles — who was a mother superior and became an editor in chief. Back in the seventies. I had her to dinner once or twice. A thoroughly miserable woman, but that may have been due to her husband’s cheating. Being a virgin for so long, it’s possible she never got the sex part right. In any case,” Enid added, “the series shoots in New York.”

“Uh-huh,” Philip said.

“I suppose we’ll be seeing her around the building again,” Enid said.

“Who?” Philip said, trying to appear uninterested. “Sandra Miles?”

“Schiffer Diamond,” Enid said. “Sandra Miles left New York years ago. She may even be dead.”

“Unless she stays in a hotel,” Philip said, referring to Schiffer Diamond.

“Why on earth would she do that?” Enid said.

When his aunt had gone back in, Philip remained on his terrace, staring out at Washington Square Park, of which he had a superior view. It was July, and the park was lush with greenery, the dry August heat yet to come. But Philip wasn’t thinking about foliage. He was miles away, standing on a dock on Catalina Island twenty-five years before.

“So you’re the schoolboy genius,” Schiffer Diamond said, coming up behind him.

“Huh?” he said, turning around.

“They tell me you’re the writer of this lousy movie.”

He bristled. “If you think it’s so lousy — ”

“Yes, schoolboy?” she asked.

“Then, why are you in it?”

“All movies are lousy by definition. They’re not art. But everyone needs money. Even geniuses.”

“I’m not doing it for the money,” he said.

“Why are you doing it?”

“To meet girls like you?” he asked.

She laughed. She was wearing white jeans and a navy blue T-shirt. She was braless and barefoot and tanned. “Good answer, schoolboy,” she said, starting to walk away.

“Hey,” he called after her. “Do you really think the movie is lousy?”

“What do you think?” she asked. “Besides, you can never really judge a man’s work until you’ve been to bed with him.”

“Are you planning to go to bed with me?” he said.

“I never plan anything. I like to see what happens. Life’s much more interesting that way, don’t you think?” And she went to do her scene.

A minute later, Enid’s voice startled Philip out of his reverie. “I just talked to Roberto,” she said, referring to the head doorman. “Schiffer Diamond is coming back today. A housekeeper was in her apartment this week, getting it ready. Roberto says she’s moving back. Maybe permanently. Isn’t that exciting?”

“I’m thrilled,” Philip said.

“I wonder how she’ll find New York,” Enid said. “Having been away for so long.”

“Exactly the same, Auntie,” Philip said. “You know New York never changes. The characters are different, but the play remains the same.”

Later that afternoon, Enid Merle was putting the finishing touches on her daily gossip column when a sudden gust of wind slammed shut the door to her terrace. Crossing the room to open it, Enid caught sight of the sky and stepped outside. A mountain of thunderclouds had built up on the other side of the Hudson River and was rapidly approaching the city. This was unusual, Enid thought, as the early July day hadn’t been particularly hot. Gazing upward, Enid spotted her neighbor Mrs. Louise Houghton on her own terrace, wearing an old straw hat and holding a pair of gardening shears in her gloved hand. In the last five years, Louise Houghton, who was nearing one hundred, had slowed down, spending most of her time attending to her prizewinning roses. “Hallo,” Enid called loudly to Mrs. Houghton, who was known to be slightly deaf. “Looks like we’re in for a big thunderstorm.”

“Thank you, dear,” Mrs. Houghton said graciously, as if she were a queen addressing one of her loyal subjects. Enid would have been annoyed if not for the fact that this was Mrs. Houghton’s standard response to just about everyone now.

“You might want to go inside,” Enid said. Despite Mrs. Houghton’s quaint grandeur, which was off-putting to some, Enid was fond of the old lady, the two having been neighbors for over sixty years.

“Thank you, dear,” Mrs. Houghton said again, and might have gone inside but for a flock of pigeons that flew abruptly out of Washington Square Park, diverting her attention. In the next second, the sky turned black, and rain the size of pellets began to pummel Fifth Avenue. Enid hurried inside, losing sight of Mrs. Houghton, who was struggling against the rain on her spindly old legs. Another strong gust of wind released a lattice screen from its moorings and knocked the elegant old lady to her knees. Lacking the strength to stand, Louise Houghton tipped sideways onto her hip, shattering the fragile bone and preventing further movement. For several minutes, she lay in the rain until one of her four maids, unable to locate Mrs. Houghton in the vast seven-thousand-square-foot apartment, ventured outside and discovered her under the lattice.

Meanwhile, on the street below, two Town Cars were slowly making their way down Fifth Avenue like a small cortege. When they reached One Fifth, the drivers got out and, hunched against the rain and shouting instructions and oaths, began pulling out the luggage. The first piece was an old-fashioned Louis Vuitton steamer trunk that required the efforts of two men to lift. Roberto, the doorman, hurried out, paused under the awning, and called for backup before waving the men inside. A porter came up from the basement, pushing a large cart with brass poles. The drivers heaved the trunk onto the cart, and then one after another, each piece of matching luggage was piled on top.

Down the street, a strong gust of wind ripped an umbrella out of the hands of a businessman, turning it inside out. It scuttled across the pavement like a witch’s broom, coming to rest on the wheel of a shiny black SUV that had just pulled up to the entrance. Spotting the passenger in the backseat, Roberto decided to brave the rain. Picking up a green-and-white golf umbrella, he brandished it like a sword as he hurried out from under the awning. Reaching the SUV, he angled it expertly against the wind so as to protect the emerging passenger.

A blue-and-green brocade shoe with a kitten heel appeared, followed by the famous long legs, clad in narrow white jeans. Then a hand with the slim, elegant fingers of an artist; on the middle finger was a large aquamarine ring. At last Schiffer Diamond herself got out of the car. She hadn’t changed at all, Roberto thought, taking her hand to help her out. “Hello, Roberto,” she said, as easily as if she’d been gone for two weeks instead of twenty years. “Crap weather, isn’t it?”

Excerpted from “One Fifth Avenue.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Candace Bushnell. Reprinted with permission from Hyperion Books.