There are a few things you don’t expect to see on the cover of a novel. Socialite Tinsley Mortimer’s name is probably one of them. And yet next month, Mortimer, the “It” girl-turned-handbag designer-turned-reality star, will publish her first novel, Southern Charm, about a “Southern Belle thrust into the frenzied world of high society in New York City.” In other words, it’s a roman à clef, and not a very veiled one at that. The book’s plot couldn’t any more closely mirror Mortimer’s real life (or that which she is somewhat public about) without having to be marketed as a memoir.
Mortimer, who co-wrote Southern Charm with “a friend,” didn’t feel the need to get overly creative with the book’s characters. The heroine is named Minty Randolph Mercer Davenport. Mortimer’s real name? Tinsley Randolph Mercer Mortimer. Minty has a Chihuahua named Belly. Mortimer’s Chihuahua is named Bella. Minty hails from South Carolina. Mortimer was raised in Virginia. Both Davenport and Mortimer move to Manhattan, marry into old-school, blue blood New York families, become boldfaced “It” girls and then end up in highly publicized break-ups.
Mortimer’s literary agent, Mollie Glick of Foundry Literary + Media told The New York Times that her client received a “healthy six figures” advance “in the ballpark of what TV personalities have been getting.” Not too shabby for the star of High Society, Mortimer’s failed 2010 reality TV show, which has the dubious distinction of being the lowest rated series debut on the CW, the network which also broadcasts Gossip Girl.
But will Southern Charm bring Mortimer fame and front row seats at Fashion Week (which some insiders say she lost due to the dismal response to High Society) or the scorn of the social world? Let’s not forget that celebrated author Truman Capote went from hosting the Black and White Ball in 1966 at The Plaza Hotel (a raving success) to being blacklisted by society swans like Babe Paley after excerpts of his unfinished novel Answered Prayers appeared in Esquire in 1975. After Capote’s chapter “La Côte Basque 1965” was published and was unmistakably similar to the lives of his good friends CBS founder William S. Paley and his wife Babe, Mrs. Paley led a brigade to ostracize Capote who went from being the confidant of the ladies who lunched at La Côte Basque to someone very few people in Manhattan wanted to meet for a hot dog on a street corner. Yet, Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City, based on people she knows in Manhattan, has turned her into a literary star.
“Books are the new handbag lines for socialites and celebrities,” quips Alexandra Lebenthal, a financial advisor, black tie party fixture and the author of The Recessionistas, a roman à clef about four women struggling with the economic downturn. “It’s a good thing to have on your résumé.”
Take, for example, horse-loving Georgina Bloomberg, the daughter of New York Mayor/mogul Michael Bloomberg, who just released the second book in her series about a young equestrian with a Wall Street billionaire father. Hmm. Then there’s the former Mrs. Billy Joel, Katie Lee, whose novel Groundswell features a young woman who falls in love with a surf instructor after a difficult divorce. (Publicists for both Bloomberg and Lee say their clients’ books are works of fiction, but readers may jump to a different conclusion.)
The list hardly ends there. Reality stars Lauren Conrad, Nicole Richie and even Nicole “Snookie” Polizzi have published novels inspired to varying degrees by their lives. And much like the shows that have made these women household names, their books tap into society’s seemingly endless appetite for the pseudo-real. You get an idea of what the truth is, but it’s heavily glamorized and then crammed into stock “storylines.” Readers don’t seem to mind. Lauren Conrad’s L.A. Candy, a bildungsroman set against the blinding lights of reality TV fame, spent a combined 59 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Says Farrin Jacobs, Conrad’s editor at HarperCollins, “People like to see behind the scenes and feel like they’re getting the real story.”
There’s nothing new about that. According to Sean Latham, the author of The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman à Clef, fictionalized tell-alls became popular in the seventeenth century and often focused on intrigues at court or within the Catholic Church. These romans (that’s French for novel) were often sold with a clef (or key), a separate document that exposed the real-life identities of certain characters. The keys were often published anonymously, and for good reason, as exposing a king or pope’s immoral behavior was considered a criminal offense. “You could be executed,” says Latham, the Walter professor of English at Tulsa University and editor of the James Joyce Quarterly.
If some were killed for it, others were celebrated. In her critically acclaimed biography, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Amanda Foreman noted that Georgiana, a fashionably flamboyant British aristocrat, wrote about her life in a roman à clef called The Sylph (a bestseller for its time). “She felt trapped by her marriage, and couldn’t believe what was happening to her,” says Foreman, adding that although the tome was published anonymously in 1778, many in Georgiana’s circle knew she wrote it.
Flash forward a couple hundred years to the rise of chick-lit and books like Bushnell’s Sex and the City (based on her dating column for The New York Observer), The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (about her stint as one of Anna Wintour’s beleaguered assistants), The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (two former Upper East Side nannies) and Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes (chronicling the author’s glamorous friends). These literary confections reinvigorated readers’ desire to glimpse into the rarefied worlds of haute fashion and high society. It wasn’t long before readers of Bushnell’s column figured out that the notorious “Mr. Big” boyfriend was actually based on Ron Galotti, the then-publisher of Vogue. A spate of other tomes, all written by Manhattan insiders, followed in their best-selling wake: Karen Quinn’s The Ivy Chronicles (about coaching preschoolers for private school entrance exams); Bridie Clarke’s Because She Can, which was rumored to be about Clarke’s former boss, Judith Regan; and Anisha Lakhani’s Schooled (about a fashion-obsessed teacher/tutor on the Upper East Side).
There’s no doubt these books are fun to read and try to decipher who’s who in real life. But are they art? “The novel tries to set itself up as everything the roman à clef is not,” says Latham. A novel, unlike a tell-all, is entirely invented or imagined by an author; whereas a roman à clef acts almost like a “parasite,” cribbing from the real world. “It suggests that the author isn’t all that talented,” says Latham. “They have to steal and sort of cover up and make their book look like a novel.”
That’s one point of view.
But others argue that most writers, even highly respected, prize-winning novelists, pull from their lives in some way. “Storytellers from Jane Austen to Jay McInerney base their work on real life,” says Sykes. “For the reader that is half the fun of it, to me it doesn’t diminish a work of fiction or make it derivative in a negative way. In fact in a social comedy, if the book is to have any value and make any comment on society, it must seem as real as possible.”
But will Mortimer’s Southern Charm be a little too real for social circles? Capote ended up a friendless, drugged up drunk when Answered Prayers turned him from the darling of café society to a social pariah. After Capote died of liver cancer at age 59, author Gore Vidal commented that his death was “a good career move.”
Public scorn is one thing Lebenthal doesn’t worry about, despite the fact that she based two villains in The Recessionistas on people she knows. “The bad people in the story would have no trouble knowing who they are,” she says. “The power of the pen is the ultimate ability for revenge.”
If some write to get even, others for a fast buck and still others for fame, is it worth it in the end? The answer may depend on what you value most in life—friends or riches? Social clout or tabloid notoriety? Those aspiring to red-carpet royalty might be wise to try other avenues. “I think if anyone wrote a novel to attain celebrity, they would be nuts!” says Sykes. “Most novels languish in deep obscurity.”
Which brings us back to Mortimer, already a red-carpet regular, and already familiar with what can happen when you choose the pursuit of celebrity over social mores. With Southern Charm, it may be reasonable to assume Mortimer hopes to regain some of the status she lost after being widely ridiculed for High Society.
And as implausible a novel (presumably) written by Tinsley Mortimer may sound; it does make a measure of sense. After all, her life would make for a juicy read and—as I was recently reminded at an Upper East Side cocktail party—she does look every inch the chick-lit heroine. Which gave me an idea…
The crowd parted and there stood Tinsley. She was dressed in a floaty black frock, her hair as blonde and glossy as ever. I set down my drink—I’ve never been one for apple-flavored vodka—and gave her an air kiss. “Tell me about the book,” I said.
She batted her faux lashes. “It’s not like yours. My character comes from the South.”
“So does mine,” I said.
“Oh.” A tawny hand flicked to a glitter-dusted breastbone. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
The truth is I had never expected her to read my book. She was a busy girl. Photo ops. Designing handbags. And those eyelashes surely didn’t glue themselves on. “That’s okay,” I said.
She flashed an embarrassed grin.“I did host your party!”
I nodded, now wishing I had kept my mouth shut. Tinsley was sweet. And nice. I hadn’t wanted to put her on the defensive. “Really, it’s fine.”
“I would have read your book. But I don’t read. Like, ever.” There was a brief pause. A tiny line appeared between her bright blue eyes. “I mean, I did write my book.” End of chapter.