Paige Dearest

The Grand Dame editor of Architectural Digest pens a glitzy trash novel -- and any resemblance to her own rocky, unglamorous past is strictly unintentional.

Published June 10, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

to be a really lousy writer takes energy, the critic Clive James once wrote about Judith Krantz. Paige Rense lacks Judith Krantz's energy, but then, trashy novel-writing for Rense (unlike for Krantz) is not a calling but a hobby. However, it is a hobby that has lasted. In one form or another, Paige Rense has been working on the just-published novel "Manor House," which she hopes will be the first in a series of detective yarns set in the design magazine world, for years. But of course most of her energy has been spent elsewhere: editing the 850,000-circulation magazine Architectural Digest, terrorizing decorators, periodically putting AD's chief rival, the recently revived House & Garden, out of business. As her friend Liz Smith, the gossip columnist, once told New York magazine, "In design circles Paige Rense is the proverbial 2,000-pound gorilla." What's more, her staying power -- 27 years as editor -- is a rare thing in the musical chairs world of media jobs. Mediaweek observed recently that, with the resignation of Helen Gurley Brown from Cosmopolitan, Rense (along with Ruth Whitney of Glamour) is one of just two surviving "reigning Grand Dames of the magazine world." "Manor House" is short (241 pages), its margins are wide and each of the 37 chapter headings takes up a good half-page. Although the buzz about the book has focused on its roman ` clef aspect -- is the trophy wife who wants to take over a magazine based on Veronica Hearst? Is the nasty billionaire financier supposed to be Ron Perelman? -- Rense's main characters are apparently inspired less by real-life counterparts than by celebrities, those convenient fantasy stick figures. The hero, gentleman detective Pierpont Tree, looks -- and delivers all his lines -- just like Harrison Ford. His partner and paramour, China Carlyle, actually is a (retired) movie star, so gorgeous she's compared to screen sirens from Garbo to Grace Kelly. Pierpont Tree's friend, the DA, is told by a coffeeshop waitress he resembles Mel Gibson. Meg Millar, the managing editor of the design magazine Manor House, could be Jodie Foster's sister. And so on. It all feels like a TV movie in the raw, so I wasn't surprised to read in the New York Observer the other day that the film rights to "Manor House" were just sold to producer Douglas Cramer -- and that Cramer's home was recently featured in Architectural Digest. Supporting characters aren't described in movie star terms, but then they are already so familiar they seem to have been wheeled out from some dusty prop-supply house of schlock stereotypes. There's Mattie, Pierpont Tree's devoted black maid, a combination of Thelma Ritter in "Rear Window" and Hattie McDaniel in just about anything. And Jeff Brittany, "a very short, very bald" movie producer who has the effrontery to be originally named Goldenwirtz and to offer China Carlyle a comeback role. "You're one of the reasons I choose, repeat, I choose never to do another picture," she responds. The key event in "Manor House," the murder of the magazine's bisexual editor, was inspired by the real-life fatal shooting of the former editor of Architectural Digest, Bradley Little, in a Los Angeles robbery over 25 years ago. (The crime was never solved.) Although the murder was unlucky for Bradley Little, it was not so for Paige Rense. She was promoted from associate editor, a job she'd held for just six months, to top editor, and as such she propelled AD from a nothing trade journal to what it is today. Decorators may privately carp about the magazine's cold, off-putting aesthetic -- all that artificial light and furniture photographed from weirdly looming angles -- but there's no doubt that in the world of shelter magazines, AD is Queen Bee. Knapp Communications sold Architectural Digest to Condi Nast in 1993, and since then its editor has cut such a swath in New York that it's easy to forget she was for two decades a Los Angeles institution. Old AD hands still trade war stories of Rense in her prime: how she threw fits if any sub-editor got even a crumb of media attention; how she was nicknamed "The Armoire" for her habit of clumping ominously down the hall; how she once took a bite out of every chocolate in a box -- and then put it out for the staff. But what of her time in Los Angeles before she became the internationally known decorating doyenne -- when she first dreamed of becoming the novelist she is now? The many articles written about Rense have touched only briefly on this period. In a lengthy 1990 New York Times Magazine profile, Joan Kron wrote that in the late 1960s Paige "decided to stay home in suburban Thousand Oaks attending to her husband and his three sons by a previous marriage. 'I was determined to bake bread,' she says ... Rense calls her domestic phase 'the worst two years of my life.'" So just as Winston Churchill had his wilderness years, it seems that Paige Rense had her bread-baking years. A shadow of this period can be found in "Manor House." China Carlyle, when she is not helping solve crimes or putting insufficiently WASPy movie producers in their place, sits in her Santa Barbara kitchen with cigarettes and coffee at the ready, tapping away at a book on her typewriter (even though "Manor House" is set in the present day). Flash back 30 years or so to Rense, sitting in her Thousand Oaks kitchen, cigarettes and coffee at the ready, tapping away at a book on her typewriter. Enter her youngest stepson, Rip, an annoyance China Carlyle lacks. "Don't you have any little friends you can go play with?" says Paige, shooing the boy out into the rain. And so on. Rip Rense is a friend of mine, and after a few conversations with him I got a pretty vivid picture of Paige Rense's bread-baking years, which it turns out were unpleasant not only for her. Rense has no literary pretensions -- "I hope it's something that you will have a good time reading on an airplane," she told Mediaweek about her new novel -- but certainly as a step-parent she's on a par with Phillip Roth. The Rense family's domestic problems didn't disappear when Paige went back to work: She kicked Rip out of the house when he was 16, and he went to live with his father's secretary. As her star rose at Architectural Digest, the marriage to Arthur Rense -- who'd given Paige her first magazine job in the late '50s when he was editing a skin-diving magazine but by the early '70s was a publicist at McDonnell-Douglas -- began to unravel.

By the winter of 1973, Paige had separated from her husband and he was living with his two younger sons in a Marina Del Rey duplex. But Arthur Rense perked up when Paige said she would come over for Christmas dinner. On the phone she'd suggested he make a leek salad -- "It's simply divine!" - -
and he'd been cooking for hours by the time she arrived. But soon Paige said, "Oh, Arthur, I have a terrible headache, I don't think I'm going to beable to stay as long as I'd have liked." Her husband was sympathetic until the phone rang. Robert Culp was on the line, wondering when the AD editor
would be arriving at his Christmas party. "I guess I can't compete with that," said Arthur Rense pointedly. "I'm sorry, boys," said Paige, exiting grandly, "that Arthur has ruined your Christmas."
"The old man felt mighty bad," says Rip Rense, recalling this incident. "But my brother said, 'Tell you what, Dad. Let's take this leek salad, and roast beef, and chop it all up real good, and feed it to the dogs in the alley. And then let's go out and get some hamburgers.' So we did." And that was the end of that marriage ... until 1987, when the Renses remarried. They stayed together until Arthur Rense died of cancer in 1990. There were still rough patches, such as when Arthur helpfully told the New York Times -- which wanted decorating anecdotes from Paige's housewife years -- that "she was always repainting the dining room orange." Orange? It was many shades of peach! Because of the orange remark, Paige didn't speak to her husband for two days. But finally she came around, and she was with him when he died. "They had a long and tumultuous association," says Rip, "but in the end they really loved each other." "Manor House" is dedicated to Rense's current husband, artist Kenneth Noland, but also "in loving memory, [to] Arthur Rense, without whom ..." A few years ago Rip Rense called the Santa Barbara cemetery where he had been told his father's ashes were interred. "Mr. Rense is not with us," said a cemetery official. "Mr. Rense is in the custody of ... Mrs. Rense." But where? "I suppose under the bed," says Rip. "Where she used to keep the remains of the beloved family dog." It's an ending that would work well in a novel. Probably not one that Paige Rense would write though.

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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