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Thursday, January 3, 2013

MOVERS and SHAKERS: Carol Wallace, Author of To Marry an English Lord (Which Inspired Julian Fellowes to Create Downton Abbey) and The Official Preppy Handbook, Loved by Preppies Like Us Everywhere Our Coverage Sponsored by Hallak Cleaners the Couture Cleaner

Carol Wallace

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What do you do for a living when you father is a reporter and your mother runs a book store and your childhood home in Connecticut is next door to a library? Carol Wallace really had no choice – she had to become a writer.

Carol made a token effort to avoid her fate; after graduating from Princeton in 1977 she took a job at Workman Publishing. It seemed like a practical career choice, but within three years she had become one of Workman’s authors rather than one of its employees. She made the shift in the summer of 1980, as one of the four writers of The Official Preppy Handbook. That Princeton degree was turning out to be practical in unexpected ways.

Actually, being a writer turned out to be much more fun than working 9 to 5, so Carol kept with it, building a career as a freelancer. Early books focused on humor, social history and romantic fiction, supplemented with lots of magazine journalism and “day jobs.” (One of which, ironically, was working at Brooks Brothers during the Christmas rush – just as The Official Preppy Handbook was becoming a best seller.) When she had children she began turning to parenting topics which included several baby name books and a manners column for Child magazine.

By the time she had written 20 books, Carol felt restless, and went back to school to study art history at Columbia University. She earned an M.A. in art history in 2006. Her thesis was the basis for her 21st book, an historical novel called Leaving Van Gogh which was published by Spiegel & Grau in 2011. Stacy Schiff, author of the best-selling Cleopatra called it “A haunting novel that resonates long after its last, luminous page.” Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler said it was “A wonderfully rich exploration of the deep interconnectedness of art and madness… an utterly compelling read.”

But despite all the praise for Leaving Van Gogh, it’s an older book of Carol’s that’s currently in the news. In 1989 she and co-author Gail MacColl (also a Workman Publishing/Preppy Handbook alumna) published To Marry an English Lord, a nonfiction account of the 19th century American heiresses who married into the English aristocracy at the turn of the century. The book did nicely, then went out of print in 2003. Last fall, Julian Fellowes, the writer of TV sensation Downton Abbey, told an English reporter that he had been reading To Marry an English Lord when he was first asked about writing the series. Fellowes said, “It occurred to me that while it must have been wonderful for these girls to begin with,what happened 25 years later when they were freezing in a house in Cheshire aching for Long Island? That was where it all started.”

Workman Publishing recently re-issued To Marry an English Lord with a splendid new cover and a new group of readers is discovering the back story to Downton Abbey through Carol’s and Gail’s book.  

In her eternal quest for world domination, Carol blogs at “Book Group of One” and tweets as carol_wallace. Her website is We are absolutely thrilled to present Carol Wallace as our latest Mover and Shaker and her stellar interview kicks off Season Three of Downton Abbey on Whom You Know-which starts this Sunday 1/6/13 on PBS (click this to see what we thought of Seasons One and Two). Peachy Deegan interviewed Carol Wallace for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: Where was your dad a reporter and how specifically did his career influence you?
Carol Wallace: 
Dad worked for the New York Times as a sports reporter, which marked my life in a number of ways. He used to take us (I have two sisters) to Ivy League football games so when my sons started enjoying football as little boys, I knew how the game was played, and now I am a dedicated pro football fan. Also, there were always extra typewriters in the house. Sometimes Dad filed stories from home, and we would sit on the floor of his office to "write" while he was writing. I still love typing. Most important, of course, is that I always had a sense that being a writer was a cool career. Dad wrote books as well as his columns, and by the time I was 15, I knew I wanted to be an author when I grew up.

What kinds of books did your mom sell...please tell us about her store and how it influenced you.
Mom was the manager of a general-interest book store in Fairfield, CT called "The Open Book Shop." It was what we now call an "independent" book store -- the chains didn't exist yet. It sold the general range of books and I worked there in high school. I loved it. It's always fascinating to see what sells and why and to whom. It's a great background for any writer. 

Are you of English ancestry and if so, how so?
Yes, but it's pretty vague because the English ancestors mostly came over to the US in the 17th century and then we lose track of them. The Scottish and German ones are better documented. (Late 19th century, to the midwest.) 

If you could be any member of the Peerage, who would you want to be and why? 
I love this question! I would be a countess -- though I have to point out that, until recently, women could only very rarely be peers in their own right. A countess usually "shares" her husband's peerage. I like the idea of being a countess because it's substantial, the third highest rank. And your children are The Honorable (for boys) or Lady Peachy (for girls). And there are well over 100 earls, so it's a distinction, but there's also some anonymity. The idea I like most is that my checks would say, "the Countess of Pinehurst" (the name of my street). 

If you were an American Heiress over a hundred years ago which Englishman would you have wanted to marry and if there's a series of them, which are they and why? 
We know a good deal less about the men who married American heiresses than we do about the heiresses themselves -- just as, normally, we know less about any groom than about his bride. We also know more about the really bad husbands -- the ones who had debts, or mistreated their wives. Happiness tends to disappear in history. That being said, the Duke of Roxburghe, who married New Yorker May Goelet in 1903, seems to have been a very nice man and the two were evidently happy together. I have visited Floors Castle in the Borders of Scotland, where they lived, and May's Worth dresses were all hanging on a big rack jumbled up with tweed jackets and Wellington boots. It all seemed quite homey but also grand. 

What kind of American Heiress would you have wanted to be? 
Sad to say, I'm not plucky enough to have been one of the adventurous ones. I would have made a terrible Buccaneer and I don't have the looks for a Self-Made Girl. But I think I could have been a successful American Aristocrat, with fabulous clothes and pots of money and a sophisticated upbringing. Also, I happen to have the right kind of shoulders for very large jewels. Just saying. 

How do you define preppy?
 I have to say I'm getting a little confused about this. When we wrote "The Official Preppy Handbook" the only people who wore those clothes did so more or less automatically. You had Nantucket red shorts because you bought your shorts on Nantucket. Now, "preppy" is a style choice like "Goth." I am amused that it's coming back, yet again, but when you see a guy in seersucker on the street in Williamsburg, you don't conclude that he went to Hotchkiss. 

How can we get more of the world to become preppier? 
Why would we want it to? But if we did, maybe we could get Tory Burch to do a capsule collection for Brooks Brothers. 

We adore The Preppy Handbook and Peachy read it all the time when she was supposed to be doing her weekly chore of dusting. What is your favorite part of it?
Looking through it again, I think the illustrations are brilliant. The artist nailed the details, which are so important to that book. One of my favorites is on page 158-9, showing a NYC apartment inhabited by young preppies. The drawing is terrific, and the identifications for the preppy features are hilarious, like an invitation on the refrigerator to a "charity ball for the benefit of indigent Russian nobility." I bet Peachy has been to that ball. 

What is your first writing memory? 
Oh, golly. In fourth or fifth grade were were assigned to write a report about a hobby, and I have never, ever had a hobby. But I had to produce something -- so I fabricated some nonsense about bird watching. I don't care about birds: to this day I can barely tell a sparrow from a pigeon. The report was pointless and painful to write. Maybe that's where I learned the old adage about writing what you know. 

What books are you proudest of and what does each one mean to you? 
Oh, that's a big question and I can't answer it about 21 books because that would be too boring. But I am very proud of The Official Preppy Handbook because it reached so many people, and it was so much fun to work on. I still think it's wickedly clever and funny. Naturally I am very proud of Leaving Van Gogh because it was a real departure for me, writing historical fiction and treating the subjects of art and mental illness together in a serious way. An earlier book, All Dressed in White: The Irresistible Rise of the White Wedding in America was not a commercial success but I've always been obsessed with weddings and this is a well-researched, entertaining look at why contemporary weddings take the form they do, with the white dress and the reception and the cake and so on. And of course I'm proud of To Marry an English Lord because again, it's very thoroughly researched and yet entertainingly written. It's such a thrill to have this book rediscovered! 

Do you watch Downton Abbey and if so what are your favorite episodes and favorite characters? Of course I watch "Downton Abbey!" So does my husband. In fact -- he doesn't know this yet -- we will re-watch Seasons 1 and 2, to be ready for Season 3. Strangely, my favorite episode is the one where we actually see Matthew in the trenches of World War I. I've done a lot of WWI reading and I was worried about how that would be carried off -- I think they did it brilliantly. It was disturbing, as it should have been, but it was necessary. 
My favorite character is probably Lord Grantham. I like the way he just tries to do his best and be responsible while still being pleasant. And his distress during the war, when he felt useless, was so human. Then of course the other side of the coin is Thomas. I love the way he lounges in doorways smoking and sneering. 


What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence? 
Anxiety. I am a worrier. I am a champion, Olympic-class worrier. Anxiety keeps me sharp, makes me meet deadlines, forces me to re-read what I've written, to search through one more book for more information, to make that last phone call, to check that last reference in a bibliography. Anxiety, and coffee. 

What are you proudest of and why? 
I am immensely proud of the two young men my husband and I have raised. They are polite, ethical, intelligent, and kind. And excellent company. 

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?
This is a tough question, because I've actually covered a lot of territory in my career. I've written fiction & nonfiction. I've collaborated and done work on my own. I've ghost-written books. I've written humor, romance, how-to, and reference books. In some ways what I'd really like to do is write a crackerjack thriller in the style of, say, Lee Child -- I love to read them. But I can't plot, so that's not going to happen, sadly. 

What honors and awards have you received in your profession? 
Not a single one! 

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan? 
My apartment in Washington Heights. I am a real homebody. I've got my books, my Wi-Fi, and the contents of the fridge. What more could I ask for? 

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan?
 Blue Mercury, on Broadway and 84th Street. It carries all the best beauty brands and I never get out of there with doing serious damage. 

What is your favorite drink? 
Beer! I am a great fan of craft beers. My current favorite is Coney Island Pilsner. But I also love the "Margarita con fuoco" at A Voce Columbus Circle. 

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party? 
Funny only in retrospect -- asking women if they were pregnant when they were not. I have done this THREE TIMES. And I generally think of myself as a civilized person. 

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan? 
I'd say A Voce at Columbus Circle. Food is terrific, service is nice, and if you get a window table your out-of-town visitors will never forget it. We were there for dinner once with some Californians and for some reason there were ballet dancers -- with lights on their costumes! -- around the fountain, dancing. What could be more magical? 

What is your favorite Manhattan book? 
For recent books, I adored Amor Towles' Rules of Civility. Of course E.B. White's Here Is New York is a classic and I love that, too. 

Who would you like to be for a day and why? 
I would like to be Colin Bailey, Chief Curator of the Frick Collection. I took a course from him at Columbia and he was a wonderful professor. And imagine working, as he does, surrounded by Henry Frick's beautiful collections. Also his office is magnificent! 

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why? 
A bench in the uptown stretch of Riverside Park, right near the George Washington Bridge. The park is so beautiful up here, and I look out on that view every day from my desk. 

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience? 
That would be a birthday party at the New York Trapeze School. Terrifying but so exhilarating. 

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else? 
Just walk the streets. Walk in a neighborhood you don't know, maybe on a spring evening. Look around at the people, the stores, the restaurants, think about who lives there and how and why, stop for a drink or a cup of coffee, eavesdrop on the conversations. There is nothing more stimulating. 

If you could have dinner with any person living or passed, who would it be and why?
Thomas Jefferson springs to mind. I think because he was so interested in so many different subjects, he must have been very good company. 

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience? 
A couple of years ago I went to an academic conference put on by the Columbia University Art History department. It was fascinating, and I left with my head full of exciting ideas. It was a beautiful spring afternoon and as I walked down-campus toward the subway I heard music -- familiar music -- it was Vampire Weekend, one of my all-time favorite bands, playing a set in front of Low Library. As I'm sure you know, those guys are all Columbia alumni (and they sing about madras and Cape Cod!). There couldn't have been more than 150 people there, on this gorgeous afternoon, just my random good luck to stumble across them. 

What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world? 
Taxes? Seriously, I have served on the vestry of our church and I'm currently on our co-op board -- I think we all need to participate in our communities when we can. 

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here? 
I think the parades are over-rated. And annoying. For under-rated, there are a lot of wonderful museums that people never get to -- the Hispanic Society in Washington Heights is one: so is the Museum of the City of New York. 

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it? 
I love "Dress of the Week." I like Peachy's fashion sense and her choice of practical but pretty frocks. 

Have you drank The Peachy Deegan yet and if not, why not? 
Sadly, I have not, but when I do I will send a photo!

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you? 
How happy I am to be included in "Whom You Know," and how much fun it was to answer these questions! 

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers? 

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