Cheap Diamonds: A Novel

Cheap Diamonds: A Novel

by Norris Church Mailer

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Norris Church Mailer triumphantly returns to the page with this breezy, hilarious novel of discovery and destiny. Set against the backdrop of 1970s New York City, Cheap Diamonds follows a sweet young girl from the South who risks it all to fulfill her heart’s desire.

Cherry Marshall seeks a life beyond the confines of her Arkansas world. “Sweet Valley was not the place for a girl with stars in her eyes, and I had stars big enough to blind me.” Leaving behind all the comforts–and problems–of home, she sets out to enter the New York modeling world at the advanced age of twenty-two. At “five-twelve,” with unusually white eyebrows, the platinum-blond beauty may be a little too unique to fit in with the latest crop of all-American girls dominating the magazines of the era. Yet aided by her Southern smarts, her drive, and a touch of country naïveté, Cherry finds herself in the right place at the right time–and with all the right people.

There’s makeup artist Salvador, who moonlights as “Miss Sally”; Suzan Hartman, a model turned agency head and fellow Arkansan; Mrs. Digby, Cherry’s eccentric landlady, a former Ziegfeld girl; Aurelius, a saxophonist and neighbor who piques Cherry’s romantic interests; and Lale, a hunk from back home who skipped out on his fiancée, Cherry’s friend Cassie, to become an underwear model.

It all unfolds like a dream–this new world where men have boyfriends, and paintings of soup cans pass for art. As Cherry’s star begins to rise, she finds herself at Max’s Kansas City among Andy Warhol’s glamorous crowd, dining at Elaine’s, and drawing the attention of high society. But their sophisticated, sometimes shallow ways are often at odds with Cherry’s homegrown values. The line between right and wrong blurs, and the ingenue will discover how far she’s willing to go to stay on top.

Mailer vividly captures a thrilling era when New York City was the burgeoning center of art and fashion, when being young and beautiful was the only currency one needed for survival. Smartly written, full of humor and hope, Cheap Diamonds reminds us that no matter where we travel in life, we are never very far from home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781588366535
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/07/2007
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 801 KB

About the Author

Norris Church Mailer is the author of Windchill Summer. She was raised in Arkansas and now lives on Cape Cod with her husband of thirty-two years, Norman Mailer. For five years in the 1970s, she was a Wilhelmina model, appearing in numerous fashion magazines and commercials, as well as portraying Britt Hemingway, a slightly over-the-hill model, on the daytime drama All My Children. She is the mother of two sons, two stepsons, and five stepdaughters, as well as a grandmother to one and step-grandmother to nine.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Cheekbones and Airplanes

There just simply wasn't any such place as 830 Broadway. It went down to 860 and dead-ended at Union Square Park, and that was all she wrote. I checked my appointment book to see if I had misread it, but no-in the nine o'clock space it said, Ron Bonetti, 830 Broadway. I stared at the numbers on the building again, then looked around the corner to see if they might for some reason continue down that way. Nope-860 was all there was.


On top of running out of Broadway, I was practically crippled from walking twenty-two blocks in new patent-leather gillies that had rubbed blisters on both of my heels, my right eyelash was off-kilter, and I was sweating in my mulberry Bobbie Brooks crew-necked sweater and box-pleated miniskirt. I never thought New York would be this hot in September, as far up north as it was. All I remembered from the news was big snowstorms, but then in Sweet Valley there never was a whole lot about New York on the news unless somebody got shot in a restaurant or thrown onto the subway tracks and run over, which seemed to happen a lot. Cabs cost a fortune and subways were faster than buses but I can tell you right now, I was leery of going down into them. I have a little problem with being underground anyhow, and most of the stations were not very well lit and had an odor like mothballs and dirty bathroom. Plus, I was shocked when I saw that homeless people lived down there, and I didn't like myself for the way I reacted to them. Part of me was disgusted that human beings could smell that bad and carry on their life right out in public the way they did, and another part felt sorry for them and un-Christian if I didn't give them money. Like what if they were the old angel-in- disguise beggar from the Bible story, testing my compassion? I would flunk big-time, because I really needed every quarter I had. The subway was thirty cents, and that added up if you had to go several places in a day. Which was another reason I had decided to walk it this morning, since the day was pretty and sunny, and I didn't know exactly how far it was. I was going to have to study a map of Manhattan, and soon.

I crossed the street to Union Square Park, found a bench near a statue of Abraham Lincoln, and sat down to reglue my eyelash and try to figure out what might be the best way to go to find more Broadway. My blistered feet didn't want to make too many detours. I made a mental note to carry Band-Aids in my purse from now on. Thank goodness I had gotten up early and left myself a lot of time, having already found out the hard way how long it took to get anywhere in this town, and another little phobia of mine is being late.

Sitting in the park under green shade trees with the cheeky pigeons pecking on the ground right by my feet, I still had a hard time believing I was really in New York City. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't what had gone on in the last crazy week. Everything had happened so fast that, like Alice, I felt I was running as hard as I could just to stay in place. Up until last Saturday, I had never been on an airplane in my life, or out of the state of Arkansas, for that matter, except for a couple of trips to Vian, Oklahoma, to visit my aunt Juanita's family.

"I just can't understand why you want to go to New York and try to be one of those models, Cherry," Mama said for the umpteenth time. "It's a big old dirty city, and there are young girls in the papers every day up there who get killed or worse. I won't get one good night's sleep worrying about you in that place. I thought you wanted to be an art teacher! That's what we paid for you to go to college and do. Is all that money wasted? And what are we supposed to do with that big box of expensive oil paints and brushes you brought home? Your daddy and me sure can't use them. I couldn't paint a straight line with a ruler."

Daddy just said flatly that I wasn't going, and that was the end of that.

But that's what he thought. I talked to them until I was blue in the face. I had done a lot of research in Cosmopolitan and Vogue, and they said the model agencies took good care of their girls-why would they want anything to happen to their moneymakers? And I wouldn't be all alone up there. I would make friends. I was good at that. If an agency didn't take me on, I'd come right back home, I promised. If one did, I would call every week and write a lot. I was twenty-two years old, for Pete's sake! A college graduate. Half my friends were married with kids, including my cousin Lucille, who was younger than me and already had a baby more than a year old. Her mother and daddy didn't treat her like she was a child. I had never in my life done anything drastic that they didn't want me to do, and I know I was their only child and they would miss me, but I really, really wanted to go to New York and I just couldn't go if I didn't have their blessing. Or at least their saying it was sort of all right.

It took a while, but I wore them down. Mama, I think, even got to be a little excited about it. She'd never had a chance to do anything but be a wife and mother, since she had married Daddy the summer before her senior year of high school and had me the next July. She even confessed that at one time she'd dreamed about going to Hollywood, but didn't have the money or the nerve. At forty, she was the mother all the boys my age voted the hottest-looking mom; blond and beautiful and slim, she always dressed like a movie star to the best of her ability. She wore filmy nylon negligees around the house, and high-heeled satin slippers with marabou feathers on the vamps. I think her feet were permanently arched, like Barbie's, from always wearing heels, and flats weren't comfortable. She didn't even own a pair.

"There's no reason to pad around the house in flip-flops and a ratty old robe, like some fat housewife who has given up. Just remember, Cherry, if you let yourself go, your husband won't be far behind."

She always said that, but she and I both knew she had Daddy wrapped around her little finger. And when she finally came around to my side, Daddy had to throw up his hands and quit.

"I can't fight the both of you," he said. "But I'm buying you a round- trip ticket, Cheryl Ann, and you get on that plane and come home the first time you even smell trouble, do you hear?" I heard. I heard he was buying my ticket!

Watching out the thick round window of a plane as the ground falls away and the cars on the highway become the size of Raisinets is not the most comforting of feelings, especially after the stewardess made a big point of showing us what to do in case of emergency, how to blow up the life vests and breathe in the little yellow cups and all, and I couldn't help but notice there was a booth that sold flight insurance right by the counter where I got my ticket. I thought about buying some, but figured my parents would be too grief-stricken to spend the money if the plane crashed, so I saved my seven dollars. They were plenty unhappy as it was, and waving good-bye to them from behind the rope at the airport gate was one of the hardest things I had ever had to do. We were all teary-eyed, and I thought for three full seconds about turning back and forgetting the whole thing, but there was that little siren voice in my head that kept calling out to me-Cherrrry . . . come to New Yorrrrrk . . .

yoooou can be a model . . . you knooooow you can-so I took a deep breath, blew them a kiss, and got on the plane. In spite of how much I loved Mama and Daddy, Sweet Valley was not the place for a girl with stars in her eyes, and I had stars big enough to blind me.

Plus, I needed a change of scenery, big-time.

It's a long story, but a lot had happened to me since last year. The Reader's Digest version is, I had sort of fallen in love for the first time in my life (and finally lost my virginity!) with a guy named Tripp Barlow, and then it ended, which, as it turned out, was all for the best, since he had a wife he neglected to tell me about that he had married in Vietnam. Although he thought they were separated, she had other ideas, and now they had a baby girl named Mai.

I went, in the spring, up to St. Juniper's Catholic Boys Academy in the Ozarks to do my practice teaching, then came back and graduated from DuVall University, B.A. in art, class of 1970. I was out of school and the sixties were over. I'm optimistic by nature, but the last couple of years strained it, with several of my friends getting messed up in Vietnam, a couple of them killed. President Nixon promised he would end the war, but he sure was taking his good sweet time about it. It looked like his plan was to bomb them until there was nothing left to fight over-burning down the village to save the village, as the government is fond of saying. Like the Vietnamese are deader when the Communists kill them than when we do. And the ones they put to doing the shooting and burning are boys like my friends. It was getting crazy, especially after the National Guard shot those kids at Kent State last May. A lot of students across the country kind of lost it, rioting and taking over the administration buildings of colleges, but we hadn't done near that much at DuVall. We had a rally and everyone lit candles, but that was about it. I felt like I had done all the protesting I could, though, and needed a break from it all.

It was bittersweet, watching Arkansas disappear beneath the clouds as the plane carried me away. I felt light, like I was leaving everything behind-the war, the ex-boyfriend, Du U, and the schoolwork, but I felt a little lost as well. I was also leaving everything I loved, my family and friends, especially my best friend, Baby, who I hadn't been apart from since we were four years old.

But, like the angels in heaven, Sweet Valley and all I loved was still there; I just couldn't see them for the clouds.

The plane landed without crashing, thank the Lord, and after I called Mama and Daddy collect, I took a taxi to the Barbizon Hotel up on Lexington and Sixty-third Street, which Cosmo had said was a good, safe place to stay until you got your break. It was for women only and Grace Kelly and Lauren Bacall had once stayed there. Hopefully, I would be taken by an agency and could get an apartment soon, which would be a lot cheaper. I figured I had enough savings to last two months, if I was careful, and that seemed like enough time to make a start.

The room at the Barbizon was tiny, with a closet that barely held five of my outfits, so I had to leave the rest in suitcases, stacked around the bed, which didn't leave much room to walk. I shouldn't have brought so many clothes, but you never know what you'll need and the season was changing, so I pretty much brought everything I had.

Sunday, I spent the better part of the day trying to pick out what to wear for my interview at the model agency on Monday. All my clothes seemed hicky and wrong to me here in New York, even the few good outfits from Millie's, the best store in Sweet Valley, which Millie copied from the latest magazines as close as she could. I had sewn most of the rest myself, and although I used Vogue patterns, I had gotten a C in home ec, which, sorry to say, was deserved. As hard as I tried, I wasn't good at zippers, and the stitching on my hems could make you seasick looking at it. Plus, everything I had was a miniskirt, and all the fall magazines were showing midis. So be it. I would get some new clothes when I started making money, and maybe the midi was just a fad anyhow and wouldn't last. If they couldn't see past what I wore at the agency, it was their loss and they could just lump it.

Brave words, said into the mirror.

Given everybody back home warning me about muggers, I was a little nervous about walking around in the city by myself, but finally I got hungry and bored of the Barbizon café, so I ventured out and bought a slice of real pizza at the closest place to the hotel on Lexington Avenue and sat at a little table on the sidewalk watching the people pass by. Not every woman was beautiful and chic, as I thought they might be, which was somehow cheering, and there were lots of women pushing baby carriages. How dangerous could it be, finally, if the streets were full of babies? I relaxed. After dreaming about it for years, I was really here, on the street in New York City! Eating pizza!

I lay awake most of the night, too excited to sleep, thinking about tomorrow and listening to the noises of the traffic and police sirens and the muted voices that drifted up to the third floor of the Barbizon. It was strange and magical. Even the air was different in New York, like every breath was jammed full of electric currents that tingled my nerves.

I drifted off to sleep and dreamed I was climbing hundreds of stairs to get to the top of the Empire State Building. The higher I went, the more stairs kept on appearing, and I woke up at six o'clock, worn out and feeling alone. I wished somehow Baby had managed to come with me. Baby was nearly as upset as Mama and Daddy about me going, but she had already signed a teaching contract, and even though she was the most beautiful girl I knew, she wasn't the type to be a model, being four feet ten, and you had to at least be five-seven.

Reading Group Guide

1. Cherry’s good looks and choice of career often get her into trouble. How did the author undercut the idea that modeling is all glitz and glamour? Was there anything in the novel that went against this notion?

2. What did you make of Cherry’s relationship with Aurelius? Do you think Cherry ever really loved him?

3. Religion plays a big part in this novel. Discuss Cherry’s internal conflict when confronted with morally questionable situations–does it seem as though she is choosing between her past and her present?

4. If you were to pinpoint the novel’s essential theme in only a few words, what would it be?

5. What insights did reading Cheap Diamonds give you into the New York City of the early seventies? How did it seem different from New York today?

6. Early on in the novel, Suzan tells Cherry that “friendship takes a backseat to love every time.” Did that turn out to be true in Cheap Diamonds? Have you found it to be true in your own life?

7. Did you think Cherry betrayed Cassie when she didn’t confront Lale right away about abandoning her and the baby? What would you have done under the same circumstances?

8. In her professional and personal relationships, Cherry confronts some of the most pressing issues of her time–race and homosexuality.
How does this naive girl from Arkansas come up against these issues? Does her perspective change over the course of the novel? What does this suggest about the era in which Cheap Diamonds takes place?

9. The author embodies more than one voice in Cheap Diamonds, from Cherry to Cassie to Baby to Suzan to Sal, even a cabdriver who appears for only one scene. What is the effect of this multiplicity of voices? Which voice did you find most effective, and why?

10. When Cherry and Baby thwart Cassie’s attempted suicide on the railroad tracks, Cassie says that her “guardian angel” must have sent them. Then Sal suggests that Lale’s guardian angel must have arranged their chance meeting at the truck stop, which led to Lale’s success as a model. “Don’t you believe in fate?” Sal asks. What role does fate play in this novel? Do you believe that certain things are predestined?

11. In what ways did Cherry grow and change over the course of the novel? Do you think she let her success as a model, and the preferential treatment that came with it, go to her head?

12. Dramatic irony is a literary term used to describe moments when the words or actions of the characters have a different meaning for the reader than they do for the character, in most cases due to the fact that the reader knows something the character doesn’t. One example of dramatic irony in Cheap Diamonds is when Suzan winces because of the pain in her ribs and claims she “slipped on the bathroom floor.” The reader is immediately cognizant of what’s happening with Freddy, but Cherry doesn’t seem to catch on. Can you think of other examples of dramatic irony in the novel?

13. Which character did you most identify with and why?

14. Do you find the title of the novel an apt one? What do you think Mailer was trying to suggest?

15. Identity is one central theme of this novel–many of the characters have their identities questioned and challenged by others. Is there a message about staying true to oneself that you took away from your reading of Cheap Diamonds?

16. If you could ask Mailer a question of your own, what would it be?

17. Cheap Diamonds is the second book in a trilogy that began with Mailer’s 2000 book, Windchill Summer. What do you think will happen to Cherry next? What would you like to see happen?

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