Monday, April 25, 2016

The Uber-Wealthy’s Compulsion to ‘Acquire’ Artsy Things (no. 44)

 by Larry Witham


High society. Art and antiques. A posh estate on Long Island. And, of course, the warped emotions of the filthy rich. That’s the world that underwrites Trick of the Eye (1992), author-socialite Jane Stanton Hitchcock’s story of a female artist invited into that glittering realm. It’s a world that Hitchcock herself apparently knows all too well.
            The author, a best-seller of noir novels about the rich, is herself heiress to two fortunes, one by birth (and adoption) and the other by marriage into the Andrew Mellon dynasty. While this does not reflect poorly on Hitchcock’s authorial life, it has given her a peek into the netherworld of wealth and privilege that she merciless roasts, at least in Trick of the Eye.
            It’s the story of Faith Cromwell, a thirty-nine-year-old artist who specializes in trompe l’oeil painting, the craft of putting up illusionary images intended to imitate real objects. In the novel, Faith speaks of her admiration, for example, of how Veronese painted so much illusionary imagery in palaces designed by the architect Palladio in and around Venice: walls covered with flora, fauna, people, and faux architectural illusions.
            On a smaller scale, this is what Faith does for a living. It typically puts her in the circles of New York’s well-off, those active in interior decoration, for example. One day she gets a job inquiry from Mrs. Frances Griffin, one of the wealthiest tastemakers in New York. She is an old widow whose daughter was murdered and whose husband died of a drug overdose. Anyway, her name in high society still reverberates. And Faith’s “best friend,” an elderly gay man named Harry Pitt, who she had met thirteen years earlier in their common art-and-antiques world, recommended she take the Griffin job.
            The task is no less than for Faith to design and paint a giant blank ballroom that had been built in the Long Island estate twenty years earlier but never used. That was because it was built for Mrs. Griffin’s only daughter’s coming out party, at which the daughter, Cassandra, did not attend. Later, Cassandra was found dead, stabbed through the heart in her bedroom.
            The rational for now painting the ballroom, at least as Mrs. Griffin informs Faith, is to bring it to life in memory of Cassandra. Faith gets to work, producing a vast trompe l’oeil of a gala party, painted on the walls and ceiling. As the final touch, a lifelike Cassandra is to be painted at the center of the composition.
            Things get very strange, however. Mrs. Griffin seems emotionally tortured, not to mention dying of cancer. Sympathetic to the old woman, Faith is compelled to find out who really murdered her daughter. The police hit a wall, and it was cold case. As it was said, “everyone knew” that Cassandra was obviously murdered by her husband Roberto, a handsome Italian ski instructor/bum whom the parents never liked.
            With the help of Harry Pitt—a mysterious figure himself—Faith tracks down Roberto in Colorado, leading the life of a remorseful drunk. From him she learns the identity of the murderer: Cassandra’s father, the family patriarch, Holt Griffin. He had sexually abused Cassandra since she was eleven. After a fight, Holt stabbed her to death. Once Faith returns to the estate with this knowledge, Mrs. Griffin divulges a shocking scheme and makes an audacious offer.
            Several years before Faith had met Harry Pitt, Harry was a good friend of Mrs. Griffin. Harry helped her “acquire” art and antiques. They discussed Mrs. Griffin’s desire to “acquire” an adopted daughter to take the place of the murdered Cassandra. Before long, Harry found Faith as the perfect candidate. He assessed and cultivated Faith for thirteen years, making sure she was as close a replacement to the departed Cassandra as possible. Faith is the same age, looks similar, loves art (like Mrs. Griffin) and has the same bad judgment as Cassandra in boyfriends.
            Of course, the domineering Mrs. Griffin is used to getting her own way. So she just assumes Faith will accept the adoption scheme. The lawyer will draw up the papers. After that, Faith will take care of Mrs. Griffin for the little time she has left (because of the supposed cancer). Faith then inherits wealth beyond her wildest dreams. Emotionally, moreover, Faith-as-adopted-daughter is expected to “forgive” the old woman for all the sins of her life, foremost, letting her evil husband abuse their daughter.
            Stunned, Faith sleeps on the offer, but turns it down the next day. She made her own life and does not want to give that up. Mrs. Griffin is outraged. She goes into a rage. Then, suddenly calm, the old lady apologizes. She invites Faith back the next day to retrieve the check for her trompe l’oeil artwork. She even praises Faith for the brilliance of the ballroom paintings, including the fact that Faith put her own self-portrait on the face of the lost daughter (at Mrs. Griffin’s request).
            Faith is exultant in her artistic achievement. She is also pleased that she and Mrs. Griffin can at least be friends thereafter. On returning for the check, however, she finds the entire ballroom whitewashed and acid thrown on her self-portrait. The butler gives her the check, which is ten times more than agreed upon. And then he tells her that Mrs. Griffin actually doesn’t have cancer; she will probably live for many more years. Faith tears up the check, leaves the house, and seeing the old woman in the window laughing, points an accusing finger at her.
            At first upset that Harry Pitt had been setting her up all these years, Faith reconciles with his good intentions. During her time in Colorado, in fact, the elderly Harry had died of natural causes. He leaves her an old-master’s painting, which ends up quite valuable. On its sale Faith upgrades her finances, her trompe l’oeil business, and life goes on.
            The novel was made into a for-television movie, Trick of the Eye (1994) (later marketed in DVD as Primal Secrets), giving the talented Ellen Burstyn a starring role as the rich and demented Mrs. Griffin. The wide-eyed Meg Tilly (as Faith) also does her part.
            The novel is full of mini-sermons against wealth, possessions, faithless men, and the superficiality of the rich (but there’s no taboo on graphic and gratuitous sex scenes, of course). Incidentally, author Hitchcock, with her divorce from the Mellon clan, and her lawsuit against an embezzling wealth manager, knows this world up close. Her former marriage into the Mellon line has an art connection as well. Andrew Mellon, the patriarch, gave his art collection to the nation, the start of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

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