When just out of college I worked for one year at a family owned department store in Milwaukee called “Chapmans”. I needed a job to escape my father’s ridiculous dream that I’d join him in the family business. My mother one evening looked at me with pleading eyes and said, “For God’s sake get any job!” So I did. Advertising Coordinator (AKA “Layout Artist” in the parlance of the day) at Chapmans. My father was not happy. Really not happy. Shortly into my apprenticeship of sorts it was announced that Gloria Vanderbilt would be visiting the store to launch “Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans”! (Remember that swan logo?!) Stan Jolton the company president thought she’d fly in, get a cab and, well, figure things out for herself. There were TV & radio interviews plus a “big time launch party” at Park Avenue—Milwaukee’s only high-class discotheque. I was appalled! Even I knew she was like some tortured fairy tale heiress princess! Geez! ‘Take a cab?!?’ I stepped up and offered the use of my father’s ultra impressive and brand new Lincoln Continental sedan. Stan said, “Ehh...OK but who’s going to drive her?” (Didn’t even dawn on him to hire a driver.) “I will” I gulped. And so it was. I met her at the airport with her assistant. Squired her to the hotel, store, TV studios and even held her umbrella to shade her from the bright sunshine when not in the car. (Contrary to Coco Chanel our Miss Vanderbilt did NOT want a tan!) She spoke very little which made her even more intimidating. But she was always full of smiles and flawless manners. A simple fitted suit in pale blue (probably Chanel) and then there was that hair! Ultra-smooth. Almost too perfect. And perfectly “flipped up” at chin level. A style that she wore in one form or another all her life. The night of the big party I picked her up at the city’s only chic hotel, The Pfister”. She was lithe and soignée in a tangerine fitted shirt and matching tangerine GV jeans. Heels of course. I escorted her to the disco door and thought that was that. Later after joining the festivities I watched man after man clamor for a dance. She either demurred or took a quick spin to The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and then returned to her “spot”. Just before she departed and I was to get the car I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Mr. Hardin. You’re not going to ask me to dance?” I was floored...and delighted. We had not shared but a handful of words over two days but now this unexpected invitation. I muddled through some sort of hybrid of “The Bump” meets “The Funky Chicken”. She just sort of shimmied and twirled—effortlessly of course. The General Merchant for the jeans business at Chapmans, a man named Barry Bell, was furious as we spun past him. He had not had even one dance with Miss V. His always chronically uptight razor thin mustache was in a huge bunch. I knew he’d have words for me the next day. But at that moment I felt like someone on the inside for the first time in my life. Returning her to the airport the next day she thanked me and shook my hand. A nice handshake. I never saw her again. That little moment reset my inner compass for something better. Eight months later I was at VOGUE. Thank you Miss Vanderbilt and rest in peace (probably in Chanel). x
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