Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Queen of the American Versailles


The Queen of the American Versailles likes to collect things: purses, pet birds, Chinese marble statuary, children. She has eight in this last category. Sometimes they play a game in which she drags the children through the house as if they're heavy shoes; the children attach to her ankles like a ball-and-chain. The Queen of the American Versailles likes to feel rich in children. People to love her, all the time.


The Queen of the American Versailles’s husband doesn’t love her anymore. His lust for her dried up. There is a new Miss America every year, and it’s been many years since it was her. But he tolerates her because he's grown used to her, and he's old and tired, plus someone has to attend to the emotional needs of the children.

(Their practical needs are attended to by a dozen Filipina nannies, some of whom missed out on their own children’s childhoods because the nannies were here at the American Versailles, and their children were over there, and every drop of the nannies’ money had to go to poor relatives, with none left over for a plane ticket home, not even for Christmas.)

The Queen of the American Versailles likes to share the joke her husband has made more than once. He said: When the Queen of the American Versailles turned 40, he was going to trade her in for two 20-year-olds. But now the Queen of the American Versailles is older than 40, and her husband still lets her stick around.

The Queen of the American Versailles goes to the salon and the plastic surgeon and suffers through youth-restoring treatments, chemical peels that leave her face puffy and red, needles to the forehead. She gets on the treadmill every day and eats mostly salad. She blow-dries her long blond hair and puts on her makeup. Her low-cut clothing is chosen to show off her obvious breast implants.  

When the Queen of the American Versailles goes up to her husband and says, “Can I have a kiss?”, as she does all the time, as she does far too often – her husband weasels away and says, “I don’t want to kiss some old hag.” He doesn’t seem to be joking.

The Queen of the American Versailles laughs this off. She follows him into his office like a puppy before he can close the door. “Remember how you said when I turned 40 you were going to trade me in for two 20-year-olds?” Her point is: I am still here. Her point is: That must mean you love me.

The Queen of the American Versailles’s husband yells through the door: “And now I can’t wait until you turn 60, so I can get three 20-year-olds!” The Queen of the American Versailles’s husband tries to defeat and provoke her, but the Queen of the American Versailles is resilient, having been beaten by her first husband. There are worse things than mean jokes.


Her husband made his money in time shares. This is when you sell the same unit to many different people, again and again. Each family gets one week, for life.

At his staff’s sales meetings, his semi-estranged adult son from the first marriage (who is very loyal to his father and to his father’s business) motivates the sales associates: “We’re saving lives here. Vacations save lives – I could show you the newspaper clippings about the studies. You are all like doctors and nurses. Let’s go out there and save some lives.”

The associates nod. They are motivated.

People buy the units, again and again.  


The Queen of the American Versailles grew up in rural western New York, a leggy, photogenic blonde in a small town whose main employer was IBM. “I thought: I can either be someone’s secretary, or I can be an engineer, so I became an engineer. I'm not a stupid person.”

One day the future Queen of the American Versailles asked an IBM co-worker about a project he was doing on the side. He said: “I’m making a clock that counts down the exact number of years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds until I retire.” She asked him why. He said: “Because that’s when I can start to really live my life.”

The Queen of the American Versailles turned in her resignation the next week, and went to New York City to be a model.

Her first husband sliced a scar into her face and said: “Now you can never make your own money.”

Which may or may not have turned out to be true.


One of the Filipina nannies has taken over a white, columned playhouse that the kids lost interest in, a replica mini mansion. The nanny asked the Queen of the American Versailles for permission first. The nanny says: “I like having a place where I can get away from it all and have some peace and quiet.” The playhouse is tiny, and is filled with the nanny’s beloved cheap knickknacks.

The nanny says: “My father always dreamed of having a house. He wanted a concrete house. He passed away, and his tomb was a small concrete house. So maybe he got what he always wanted. Maybe that was enough for him.”


The Queen of the American Versailles has gotten accustomed to having drivers. She spent years getting around Orlando by limo, when the family wasn’t traveling in its private jet. Sometimes she had the driver go through the McDonald’s drive-thru; she would order Chicken McNuggets by the hundreds for her children.

Then the stock market crashed and they gave up the jet, and after that whenever she went out of town she had to fly commercial and rent a car. Her first time at the car-rental counter she inquired, “What’s my driver’s name?” It was a question she asked so she could get on friendly terms with whoever would be chauffeuring her around. 

The teenage kid behind the counter stared. Was it a joke?

Finally he said, “There’s no driver.” The Queen of the American Versailles appeared briefly put-out, then recovered. She grew up poor, and she can adapt.

A solution

After the stock market crash, the Queen of the American Versailles’s husband spends his days alone in his home office with bills and receipts and paperwork, thinking of nothing but how to save his business.

At the Las Vegas property – the one whose sign is so bright that Donald Trump, who has a building nearby, asked him to turn it down – they have had to lay off almost everybody. The call-center cubicles are an eerie ghost town where two shifts’ worth of workday life used to be.

Failure is not an option. The banks are the enemy.

The Queen of the American Versailles’s husband eats his dinner in his home office alone while the rest of his family gathers around the table. He snaps at his wife each time she brings him dinner on a tray, each time she says, “Can I have a kiss?” He ignores his oldest daughter when she comes in to tell him that he’s being rude.

All he wants is a solution. He tries everything. He even asks Donald Trump for help. Nothing works. He will keep trying. It’s all that matters.

House tour

The filming crew came to do a documentary about the family who was building the biggest home in America. The mansion, more of a compound than a normal home, with 10 kitchens alone, was halfway constructed. It had an outer shell and even a stained-glass skylight but nothing in it. The construction crews stopped coming after the stock market crash. It's unclear whether they will ever come back. 

After the crash, when the documentary crew decides to make a “riches-to-rags” tale instead of what it first came to do, the Queen of the American Versailles continues to talk to the camera just as she did before. The camera is a source of love. It wants to look at her, invite her to speak, probe into her thoughts.

(When recalling, for the cameras earlier, what attracted her to her much-older husband, back when she was a Miss America in the 1980s: “It felt good to be adored.”)

When the film crew says, “Let’s do this shot as if the stock market hasn’t crashed yet, and you’re confident that the house will be finished,” the Queen of the American Versailles accommodates.

The Queen of the American Versailles prances up a grand stairway in her miniskirt and high heels. She says, in a voice that is raspy with hard life and unhideably Midwestern: “This is where we’ll have the orchestra, for black-tie affairs. This will be the health spa. This is the ice-skating and roller rink. This is the children’s wing.” She shows the crew a garage filled to the rafters with boxes of Chinese marble statues, $500 million worth. There’s a lot of gaudy gold furniture that’s supposed to look like it came from a French palace.

“Here’s where we’ll watch the Disney World fireworks every night,” she says, standing on a landing alone except for the film crew, speaking in tentative future tense. Later the family will try to offload the mansion for a fraction of its value, and there will be no takers.

The Queen of the American Versailles jokes -- with the camera, with her children -- about how broke the family is becoming. When her son asks what time is it, she says: "I don't know -- I can't afford a watch!" Her son points out that she could just look at her phone. The Queen of the American Versailles laughs her hearty laugh. Look at what a brave face I put on.

1 comment:

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