06.23.09

Gloria Vanderbilt Gets Kinky

In her new erotic novel, the 85-year-old author (and mom of Anderson Cooper) writes sex scenes—with hairbrushes, masks, and bees?—that would make a Golden Girl blush.

Gloria Vanderbilt's new erotic novel, Obsession, comes with a number of consumer warnings. The book jacket cautions that the tale is "puzzling." Readers can expect a story of erotic possession and revenge that "asks more questions than reveals answers." Then there's Joyce Carol Oates' advance praise, which tells us that the mysteries contained in the book's trim 144 pages "teasingly suggest, but ever elude, decoding."

If there is a man who finds the idea of a honeybee landing on the head of his penis sexually arousing, this is the first I've heard of it.

Such caveats are usually uttered to prepare audiences for a bumpy and confusing night, and in this case, the skittishness is understandable. Today, Gloria Vanderbilt is probably best known for being Anderson Cooper's mother, but her claims to fame span many decades and industries. Before she wrote books, Vanderbilt gave the world designer blue jeans through her eponymous "GV" label in the late 1970s. She has worked as a painter, textile designer, and creates Joseph Cornell-like "Dream Boxes." Her four marriages and high-profile romances have been chronicled in great detail, most explicitly in her 2004 memoir It Seemed Important at the Time. Now a radiant 85 years old, what more does Vanderbilt have to give?

If Obsession is any indication, a mild spanking.

Her latest novel, as they say in pitch meetings, is Bret Easton Ellis meets Arthur Schnitzler meets The Golden Girls. The action opens straightforwardly enough with Priscilla and Talbot Bingham, whose Bold and the Beautiful names signal that they are people of privilege and culture. Talbot is your average Howard Roark type, an architect of indefinable genius with the requisite towering libido. Priscilla is his Miss Porter's-educated wife, and they have what everyone in 2009 New York wants out of life and love: a successful partnership. The Binghams share an "inner standard of excellence." They even share a logo. "Together we were bright and beautiful, rich, envied, successful, structuring our lives as partners in all things," Pris dolefully narrates. "Why wish for more, I asked myself?"

book-cover---obsession-an-erotic-tale
Obsession: An Erotic Tale. By Gloria Vanderbilt.144 pages. Ecco. $16.99. ()

All that glitters is not gold, of course. Pris doesn't much care for the sex. Talbot has skills, but she has daddy issues (her therapist confirms this). Fortunately, by the time we learn of her woes, Talbot's dead. He succumbs to a heart attack on page 2. That Pris' frigidity was no obstacle to her husband's sexual expression becomes clear when Pris stumbles on a trove of letters, all written in magenta ink by someone with eidetic memory and a yen for eye-popping metaphor.

The first letter's addressed to "Master," and it conjures a scene of matchsticks, honeybees, and... Tokyo. The prose is stilted; Pris is riveted. "It's as if that match is a bee that needs to suck your cock so much that it could find it, hidden though it is, in the world's largest city."

If there is a man who finds the idea of a honeybee landing on the head of his penis sexually arousing, this is the first I've heard of it. But the bee is actually Bee, a woman, and in letter after magenta letter, she conjures an intimacy with Talbot that spanned a California estate called Akeru, regular appointments at a brothel/swingers joint called the Janus Club, a ritual evening of pornified Cirque de Soleil—dubbed the Yab-Yum pageant—and friendship with Maja, aka "Mamacita," a madam prone to delivering Eckhart Tolle-isms on personal effectiveness. ("But I cannot warn you strongly enough—you must hold fast onto the deepest part of yourself—this is the essential component of success," she admonishes Bee.)

The letters and Pris' fevered reaction are the sole story until the second half, when Obsession devolves into fevered snippets of ever-shifting points of view, and all that's clear is that Pris and Bee have gone mad with jealousy—Talbot in memoriam losing some but not all of his potency. Ever the designer, Vanderbilt quickly dispenses with coherence and focuses instead on fabrics—before they can get to the bed, her characters must wade through hanging gardens of chiffon, taffeta, velvet, silk, and "saffron gauze curtains." She repeatedly shifts her eye from erect nipples to note approvingly the gold streamers flapping overhead, the grosgrain ribbons and tinkling bells, and when reading about all the pretty girls in jeweled thongs proves too much, Pris goes downstairs and fixes herself a bowl of cottage cheese because she'd read in The New York Times about how it settled the stomach.

One ultimately gets the impression that Vanderbilt's sincerest admiration is reserved for boardroom—not bedroom—skills. That Maja's Janus Club is a smoothly run, efficient operation is a point dwelled on longer than the size of Talbot's manhood. We're also informed that Pris would have been "capable of managing IBM." Kinky.

Even Bee was chosen not for her looks per se but for her organizational skills. Bee, Talbot confides in Maja, has "smarts and though appears diffident with a gentle reticence—occasionally an unexpected take-charge attitude breaks through (absolutely!), which I found a charming combination not found in others I've been auditioning." He determines her controlling streak will come in handy in managing the fun at Akeru so he can concentrate on his career.

Did he administer some sort of Myers-Briggs test, one wonders? Obsession is a jumble of competing impulses, only a fraction of which seem erotic. "Magenta" is used as descriptor no fewer than 14 times. Orgies are followed by scrambled eggs and hot chocolate for breakfast. Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot is namedropped on page 49 in a hiccupped discussion of chaos theory. Then we’re off to the spa at Canyon Ranch. As for Bee, her mincing voice can be plotted somewhere on the continuum between male fantasies of Singapore Airlines and the "special VIP room"-speak typically found in marketing brochures for investment opportunities in the former Soviet Bloc. Indeed, the sexuality Vanderbilt peddles is as product-centered and anodyne as the TBS version of Sex and the City. In one scene, an unnamed housekeeper recommends shopping in Montecito as a salve for acute sexual jealousy.

No matter. Pris isn't so much worried about her husband having shtupped Bee, Dominique, Nadine, Rowena, and what's-her-name—no, what really sticks in her silk-lined craw is that Talbot built Bee a more magnificent house.

Eventually, this short, louche novel that began with warmth and zest and cheekiness, wanders around aimlessly in magenta caftans. Even the main characters can't quite keep it up till the end. When Bee and Pris finally meet—whether in a dream sequence or not is hard to discern—their conversation is tense but cordial. Then Pris starts to cough, and Bee digs in her purse to hand her a sucking candy. (A Werther's Original perhaps?) It's a considerate and sisterly gesture, and not the kind of gasping, hair-pulling climax one expects in a story of aching passionate rivalry. In fact, it teasingly suggests that Vanderbilt's a real softie. Obsession is erotica even your grandmother can love.

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Megan Hustad is the author of How to Be Useful. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Slate, and American Public Media's Marketplace.