Major media maguls are control freaks not just about their business but also their life. 2,652 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
No matter how he crunched the numbers, Darby Morton saw little chance of making it to graduation with a roof over his head. He’d exhausted almost all of his maternal grandmother Nan’s allowance and what was left, to the penny, was committed to tuition and textbooks. Moving was not really an option though his Greenpoint apartment in Brooklyn was so small that, if he accidentally knocked over a bottle of mineral water, it might flood. In all likelihood, he would be out on the street by mid-March, the dreaded Ides. And then there was cruel April.
He’d been planning to spend the weekend studying for Monday’s economics test when he was interrupted by a call from Janis Shokovich, who ran Hi Society, a cross between a temp agency and a P.R. firm which specialized in odd assignments – personal shoppers, apartment sitters, assistants – for the well-heeled. She prided herself on having on hand a stable of the city’s most “appealing” (air quotes not optional) young men and women easy on the eyes with an aura of good breeding. She was impressed that Darby came from old money. What he didn’t mention to her was that there was no new money since his parents had poured most of the old money down a shot glass.
Darby had first heard of Janis after some dubious flatterers suggested he pursue modeling. But he was dismissed by a top agency because his face was more a freehand pencil sketch than a completed drawing. But the agent who delivered this damning criticism slipped him Janis’ card. She was a petite poodle-frizzed blonde who ran her business out of a snug one-bedroom on the upper East Side. She bore almond eyes, the hallmark of one too many encounters with a scalpel and paring knife. Though unmistakably a native New Yorker, her speech frequently lapsed into pseudo-British phrases like “other side of the pond.”
The modeling agent had been right: Darby was Janis’ type. To date, the only assignment she had come up with was as a walker for an octogenarian dowager who was going to the Met to see La Forza del Destino. In addition to paying for the rental of his tux, the old woman had tipped him with a folded-over twenty as if he was a maître d’ and she wanted a table by the window. But that was six months ago. Now Janis was on the phone to him.
“Bet you thought I’d forgotten about you, dearie,” she said. The assignment sounded easy enough: checking a “major media mogul” into the Hesperia Grand Hotel. The nabob’s name was Jace Wagner and she said he was gay. “But not for publication. Which reminds me, you have to sign a confidentiality agreement.”
Confidentiality agreement? Darby liked the cloak and dagger of that. “I suppose he’s checking in under an assumed name?”
“Of course,” Janis stated. “It’s de rigueur for a man in his position.” She stopped for a moment to cough up a lung and continued. “But I want to make sure of one thing. You are gay, aren’t you?”
Darby felt put on the spot. “Is that relevant?”
“The client has asked specifically for gay and I didn’t want to make any assumptions. Not that it matters to me one way or the other.”
He waited for her to add, “Some of my best friends…” But that was hardly necessary. Darby figured that a woman with that much plastic surgery and a squadron of ex-husbands undoubtedly has her own gaytourage.
“Don’t get me wrong. The assignment has nothing to do with being gay per se,” she explained. “But the client is willing to pay over and above what is already quite a handsome fee for that.”
Darby’s ears perked at the pairing of “handsome” and “fee.”
“It says here in the file that you’re good at math. Is that right?” she asked. He assured her he could add and subtract and had never been cowed by long division. “Good. This assignment requires an organized mind. I hope you’re not busy Saturday.”
He hesitated, until he realized the job would buy himself another two weeks of shelter immediately.
“This only fell into my lap because the person who regularly checks Wagner into the hotel was dismissed. This mogul is a bit of a stickler for detail and his people are very nervous, as you might imagine. Promise you won’t let me down and I’ll call them right now to say I’ve found the perfect candidate. They’ll be messengering a memo to your apartment.”
The manila envelope arrived in Greenpoint twenty minutes later – how was that possible in New York City traffic? – and it was at once clear why Janis had been on edge. Inside was a memo six pages long containing single-spaced, detailed, point-by-point instructions on how to check Jace Wagner into the Hesperia.
Across the top of the first page, in screeching 30-point bold type, further accentuated with yellow highlighter, was the advisory: PLEASE FOLLOW THESE INSTRUCTIONS TO THE LETTER. DO NOT DEVIATE!!!
As Darby began to read the memo, his curiosity began to eat at him. He needed a visual of Jace Wagner who was eminently Googleable. Over the next couple of hours Darby read through several bios. The mogul had discovered several major stars in the recording and film worlds. On a personal level, he was described as “Type A+", “a massive control freak” and “a screamer.” Photos of Wagner solo and on the arm of sylph-like women revealed an average-looking man as short and stout as a teapot. Even custom-made suits did nothing to enhance his figure. His face was more chilly than homely. His hair, what there was of it, was crew-cut.
Darby decided to dress for the assignment believing what Nan had told him during a shopping trip to Paul Stuart: that a navy blue blazer and a good pair of khakis covered a multitude of sins. He finished the outfit with oxblood tasseled loafers. Then he waved his dirty blond hair across his forehead. You’re overthinking this, kid. Now step away from the mirror.
Darby’s first order was to establish contact with the unctuous hotel concierge, Mr. Charles and explain that he was checking in “Mr. Small.”
“Mr. Small? But where’s Anthony?” Mr. Charles snorted. But before Darby could respond, the concierge twitched his left eyebrow and murmured, “Oh, that’s right.”
Darby began his prepared speech. “Mr. Small has requested either Suite 1523, his first choice, or Suite 745 if that’s absolutely impossible.”
Mr. Charles began to tap furiously on the computer. He shook his head several times and sighed, but continued to pound the keyboard. “1523… 1523,” he pondered as if he were being asked to explain whether it was a prime number or not.
“If you would be so kind,” Darby said before quietly slipping Mr. Charles two crisp fifties from the cash labeled “For Tips And Incidentals Only!” Magically, Suite 1523 became available.
Next, Darby accompanied two rolling wardrobes and assorted boxes to Suite 1523. As he opened the door, Darby understood why Wagner had been so particular. The wood furnishings and the brick fireplace evoked a private men’s club and the windows in both the bedroom and sitting room faced Central Park with a balcony off the latter. The bathroom was twice the size of Darby’s apartment and contained a double stall shower/steam room. Real men don’t take baths, Darby decided.
The next item on his agenda was Clara. And here he hit his first snag. “I’m afraid this is Clara’s day off,” Mr. Charles said, then offered Adolf instead. “Adolph is most sought after,” he assured.
Mindful of the mysterious Anthony’s fate, Darby countered. “I’m sure Adolph is eminently qualified. But Mr. Small specifically asked for Clara. Shall I phone his office and tell them you were unable to accommodate his request?”
Mr. Charles blanched and Darby began to have a good time.
After a sotto voce phone conversation, Mr. Charles announced, “For Mr. Small, Clara will make an exception.” More likely, Darby guessed, she enjoyed Ulysses S. Grant in duplicate. When Clara walked in twenty minutes later, Darby noted she bore more than a passing resemblance to the villainess Rose Klebb from one of the James Bond movies. Then Clara tore into Wagner’s clothes racks, separating them into two piles — one for airing and ironing, the other for dry cleaning.
Next came Wagner’s accessories and shoe boxes. Clara noted that the black wingtips needed polishing and one of the heels was showing wear. Then she checked his ties for stains. All the while, Clara cradled the hotel phone against her ear, speaking into the mouthpiece as she began to throw pairs of his silk briefs into a dry-cleaning pile, lifting them by the waistband in between her thumb and forefinger. His socks were similarly dangled.
Minutes later, a tall gangly man with hooded eyes appeared and, without a word, gathered up the clothing. “A little starch here and here,” she said indicating a shirt’s collar and wrists. “I need everything by 3. No later. Tell them it’s for Mr. Small. Take the shoes, too,” she instructed, shooing him out the door. Then Clara left and returned lugging an ironing board and a basket holding the iron, a few bits of clean cloth and a water spritzer.
Next, Darby enlisted Mr. Charles for a trip to the vault room in the basement where the memo directed him to Stall 63. The assignment required tapping in a five-digit combination to unveil a Miró oil, a Matisse watercolor, a Warhol cow, a Renoir portrait, and a Keith Haring abstract. They were sized to take the place of the suite’s existing “interior decorator art” — as it was referred to in the memo – and to place three paintings in the sitting room and two in the bedroom. “It’s easy to figure out where each piece goes,” the instructions noted. But, just in case, the memo spelled out the placements.
As Darby carefully hung and straightened the framed works, he thought about calling Nan to tell her that he’d actually laid his hands on a genuine Renoir, her favorite painter. Nan was out and had no answering machine or cell phone. (“I like to be reached when I like to be reached,” she would say and always wink.)
Next up was a shopping excursion. First stop, Hartnett’s, a privately owned upscale pharmacy filled with expensive horsehair brushes and placenta-enriched facial products. “Did you receive a fax from Mr. Small’s office?” Darby asked Jacob, the little bald man behind the counter.
He nodded. “It’s all ready.” Jacob produced two large brown paper shopping bags and Darby gave him a fifty-dollar tip. “Tell Mr. Small I hope he enjoys his stay.”
The next item on the agenda put to rest any questions about why Wagner had requested the services of a gay man. Circus Of Fun was a sex emporium and carried the brand-specific paraphernalia required. Darby paid the neurasthenic salesman who had three rings in his nose and more tattoos than his skimpy frame could handle. The visit left Darby feeling queasy. He had only passing familiarity and no direct experience with many of the gadgets he’d purchased. But his was not to sit in judgment.
When Darby returned to the hotel, Clara was tightening a shirt button. He locked himself in the bathroom and emptied out the pharmacy bags and followed every instruction. While at first maddening, their specificity impressed Darby. All this painstaking work just to give the impression that all these products had appeared magically without human intervention.
He placed the black-striped toothbrush upright in a tall cut-crystal glass on the sink to the right, and beside it, a new tube of Crest “with no visible dents or dimples.” Darby was directed to a container of Glide: “open and slide out a quarter inch of floss” before snapping the lid back on. The second toothbrush, a green-striped one, was positioned on the left sink with another tube of Crest. Not only did Wagner not share a toothbrush with his guests, he didn’t share toothpaste. A third toothbrush, with red stripes, was deposited in the drawer by the second sink. Here was Wagner possibly entertaining more than one visitor on this trip while Darby couldn’t remember the last time he’d even had a date.
Darby then inserted a cartridge into a Gillette Fusion razor and placed it on its back exactly two inches to the right of Wagner’s toothbrush glass. Mentholated shaving cream and an after-shave bracer were lined up next to the razor. The guest or guests received no shaving supplies. But there were His and His jars of lemon-scented liquid soap centered above each sink along with hand moisturizer. “Make sure the pumps work. No drips please, either on the sink or the jars.” Neatly folded white face cloths were deposited in the space between the two sinks.
Next up, terry cloth robes were hung on the back of the bathroom door. Darby saw to it that they were properly belted with no missing loops. Hotel-comped guest slippers were deposited to the right of the door.
Darby had no intention of sorting through the Circus paraphernalia in Clara’s presence. But together they followed every other instruction to make sure they didn’t miss a beat. Clara seemed to enjoy the challenge and, for the first time all day, she graced him with a smile, apparently grateful for an extra pair of eyes.
Wagner’s identical dark gray suits were hung on the left side of the closet, a fresh white shirt beside each along with the same stripe tie in various colors. On the floor beneath each suit were shoes and Clara inserted a whalebone shoe horn into the right one and steel grey socks into the left. There were two black suits for evening with gold cufflinks in the left-hand pocket of each jacket, plus black ties, black socks and patent leather lace-ups on the closet floor.
A center column separated the suits from the casual clothes. Two identical tennis outfits including sleeveless pullovers were accompanied by white Nikes. The sheathed tennis racket and a canister of balls were stacked on the shelf directly above. Several other sportswear sets were laid out in succession. The final item was a belted tan raincoat – properly looped, untied – ankle-high boots below and a black rainproof cap overhead. No umbrella. That’s why god created doormen and chauffeurs, Darby realized.
When she was finished, Clara backed out of the room. Darby rewarded her with two fifties. “Good luck,” she said, bemused.
Darby then set about filling the center nightstand drawer with Circus paraphernalia, lining up each item in a specific order. He thought of the poor assistant’s face typing up the proper placements. The final item in the drawer was a bottle of blue pills.
One last chore. Among the pharmacist’s trove was a carton of Kools. It was a non-smoking hotel, which explained the balcony.
The next afternoon, Darby was listening to the digital recording of Professor Rogers’ final lecture on global monetary policy when Janis phoned. Jace Wagner was most pleased, she reported, “And since he’s going to be coming to New York more frequently, would you be interested in servicing him on a regular basis?”
Darby didn’t answer immediately, weighing his distaste for the anal-compulsive assignment against being homeless. “I guess,” he said with noticeable tepidity.
“Wonderful,” Janis clucked, estimating her commission as she spoke. “Mr. Wagner has his own car and driver when he’s in town. But, on occasion, you may be called on to pick up or drop off acquaintances or to stock his place in the Hamptons.”
“And how will I know what to do?”
“Oh, you’ll be getting memos. Lots and lots of detailed memos.”