The Chameleon


By Sugar Rautbord

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Claire Organ was born a Christmas baby right in the middle of better dresses in Marshall Fields Department Store, to Violet Organ in 1924. Her father has disappeared but a trio of “aunties” (her mother plus two fellow salesladies at the store) make up the most loving and attentive family a young girl could have.


The majority of events and characters in this book are fictitious. Certain real locations, public figures, and historical events are mentioned; I used literary license with these people, places, and events to bring The Chameleon to life. All other characters, places, and events are totally imaginary.


Copyright © 1999 by Sugar Rautbord

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Cover illustration by Franco Accornero

Hand lettering by David Gatti

Warner Books, Inc.

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at

The Warner Books name and logo is a trademark of Hachette book Group

A Time Warner Company

First eBook Edition: August 2000

ISBN: 978-0-446-55368-1

Praise for Sugar Rautbord and THE CHAMELEON

"Ordinary folk can enjoy a close-up of the grand houses, the jewelry, the designer gowns, and opulent parties, while we look down on their owners' greed and snobbery."

—Chicago Tribune

"Celebrities from Claire's various eras help enliven an ever-smooth, sandalwood soaper with class stamped all over it. Quite dreamy, with mild dips into sex—real sugar all the way."

—Kirkus Reviews

"The best romp-filled, multi-husbanded climb by a smart, determined beauty to international society's peaks of wealth and power since Pamela Harriman."

Christopher Ogden, author of life of the Party

"Set against tumultuous pre- and post-World War II real-life happenings, packed with the most powerful real-life people in history, Claire's hugely entertaining story astonishes and intrigues to the last page."

Shirley lord, author of The Crasher

"Sugar Rautbord has invented the kind of world-class brassy broad heroine that Sinatra would have chased around the world. Who knows—maybe he did!"

—Bill Zehme, author of The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of livin'

"THE CHAMELEON is a lot of fun—sexy, humorous, and, like its protagonist, full of charm."

Scott Throw, author of laws of Our Fathers

Also by Sugar Rautbord


To all the chameleons—the women who've had the courage to change.


I wish to thank all the people at Marshall Fields who whirled me through the revolving doors and ushered me into their vast archives of social and fashion history. A special nod to retail wizard Michael Francis, window dresser superstar Jamie Becker, and store historian Homer Sharp, who was there when Coco Chanel herself swept into the store and young Vincent Minnelli was designing windows.

Thank you to my friends at Warner Books, especially Caryn Karmatz Rudy and Maureen Egen, and my stalwart cohorts Marcy Posner, Leigh Ann Hirschman, and Susan Leon.

My gratitude to the Chicago Historical Society and to Time Warner's Gerald Levin and Nan Miller for access to historical material from 1924 to 1970 or until my memory kicked in.

A salute to Jacques Leviant, Anne Roosevelt, Christopher Ogden, Maureen Smith, Bill Bartholomay, Kevin Johnson, Virginia Smiley, Audrey Pass, Patricia Tracy, John Remington, and all the wonderful peple who helped me sort the facts and find my voice.

Always thank you to Shelley Wanger, the Arnold Jurdems, Miriam Schwartz, Roy Zurkowski, Audrey Grass, Juanita Jordan, Gigi Mahon, Lane Davis, Bill Zwecker, Karen Patterson and Michael Rautbord for being there.

Change your hair, change your politics, change your tax bracket. Reinvent yourself, my dear, or the world will pass you by. Keep changing and when one door shuts you'll turn the knob and open another.

—Virginia George

You know how it is, when you look back on your life, you hardly recognize the person you once were. Like a snake shedding skins.

—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis


I have learned to confront misfortune even when it swallowed me whole.

I adapt to surroundings. I do not cave in to odds.

I instinctively know when it is time to change.

I reinvent myself when necessary.

I am a chameleon.

Claire Harrison Grant

She spoke in the low-pitched, cultured voice that was her trademark. The voice conjured up all the best places—private white beaches with big striped umbrellas, candlelit dinners in foreign embassies, highballs in old WASPy clubs—but its power lay in the instant intimacy it created, as if the focus of her attention was more fascinating to her at that moment than any world leader or lover she had ever known. Now the attention of the famous Claire Harrison Duccio Lefkowitz Grant was leveled at the eleven men who would decide her future.

She ignored the crowd in the chamber and the whirring television cameras as she answered their questions, one by one. When they brought up her past, she braced herself for the barrage of words that would echo off the hearing room's turn-of-the-century chandelier. Her stories, tossed up like an unsolvable puzzle that would fall down around her in a thousand pieces, rearranged to support their version of her history. She volleyed back with a practiced smile, the one she had cultivated for fifty years, the one that calmed her and belied any fear she was feeling. How often she had relied on this slight lift of her lips when she was in danger.

She lowered her voice an octave, as if she were inviting them into her private rooms, where each man's special interests would be listened to with all the flattery they deserved. There was a kind, maternal quality to her voice now. It had taken her years to get it just right, to have just this kind of effect on people.

Her listeners, wearing good-on-television red neckties, leaned forward to hear her better. This group of men, their brass nameplates arranged in front of them like giant place cards at one of Claire's famous dinners, were there to untangle the rumors that swirled around Claire from the facts. It was whispered that her celebrated stamp collection was a personal portrait gallery of all the great men she had known and that she kept her latest late husband's ashes in a green jar on her kitchen counter between the allspice and the oregano. Odd fodder for this stony lineup of middle-aged senators. She was seated at the green felt-covered table across from and several feet below their bench, wearing the same serene look that had stared out at them from dozens of magazines, her fingers gracefully interlaced. Her violet eyes pierced the dim room and seemed to beam directly upon each one of them, the currents of warmth in her soft irises rendering her unexpectedly vulnerable. Despite the acreage of years she had covered, most of it squarely in the public eye, Claire was remarkably handsome. She had opted not to change her face with cosmetic surgery. Most of her cronies, stalwart surgical pioneers, looked like they'd been hurled through wind tunnels at breakneck speeds. Claire had chosen to do her changing from within.

The sun emerged from behind a cloud and shone through the heavy wooden blinds, backlighting Claire like in a forties film noir. The kind she and Lefty used to cast. One of those romantic mysteries she could imagine she was starring in today. Would the heroine outwit the villain? Would the lady get her own microphone at the U.N.?

Claire inhaled deeply and adjusted her skirt length with only a slight movement of her leg. A subtle hitch. No hands. A trick she had learned from the image-conscious duchess of Windsor and mastered years ago when Claire realized she also would be on continuous public display. Everything that had been useful in her life she had learned early on in her unorthodox upbringing.

She drummed her fingers on the table and turned her head to survey the room. Why was it so difficult for these men to realize that the accomplished woman sitting in front of them was light-years away from that shy teenager photographed at Eleanor Roosevelt's elbow, or the notorious mankiller wrapped in a Christian Dior gown on the cover of Look?

Claire brightened when she saw the wild halo of apple-red curls and mouthed "I'm glad you're here" to her daughter. The earnest face suddenly put all her ambitions in perspective. This had been her hardest-fought battle, more bitter than any she'd fought with the powerful men who had crossed their swords with hers.

The men in her life. Fenwick Grant had called Claire a magnificent castle with no central heating. Fulco Duccio had called her the most expensive courtesan on the continent and many cruder things. Lefty Lefkowitz had said his beloved Claire was the most understanding wife in the world, whose skillful nursing had given him two more wonderful years. She had been called many other, less flattering, things, including murderess. Great luck and great tragedy had touched her, yet no one held the key to the castle that was Claire. She smiled now at the management of this carefully constructed facade, even as she thought of the men she had loved, and the one among them who had surely been the love of her life. As she thought of him now, of the touch of his elegant hands on her flesh, she involuntarily raised a hand to her lips and there was genuine excitement in her eyes.

Perhaps they would make her the ambassador. She believed with all her heart that she was singularly prepared for this role. After all, she had survived an avalanche of a life.

Not so bad for a girl who had come from humble origins.

Chapter One

Humble Origins

Many who arrive at the top are found to have very simple backgrounds.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Violet Organ was in a pickle. It wasn't enough that Leland Organ had saddled her with a plainly ugly last name. He had abandoned her at the worst of times. She hadn't been able to keep anything down except Frango mints for the last two days. Her young husband had suddenly developed traveling feet and bolted six months earlier to see the Pyramids, leaving her, Hyde Park, his job as a geography teacher, and a growing bump now the size of a world globe in Violet's belly. She was feeling so queasy she almost hadn't made it out of bed this morning, but if she missed one more day of work, she'd get her pink slip for sure.

"Hurry up," Slim called to her friend. "We don't want to be trampled to death on the train by all these last-minute shoppers. Procrastinators!"

Talk about waiting until the last minute, Violet thought. She supposed not going to the doctor to check on her symptoms was her own form of procrastination. There was hardly any mistaking them now. But then there was the expense of a doctor, which she couldn't afford, not to mention the embarrassment of it all. Part of her had preferred not to think about her predicament, hoping it would just go away like the January white sales. She let Miss Slim wrangle her to the train door.

"I'm doomed," Violet Organ murmured. "It's probably too late for me." Could a healthy twenty-two-year-old be stricken with liver disease? Wouldn't that be better than having a baby? People were sent to sanatoriums out West where they recovered, weren't they? Or was that for some other disease? She was confused. She'd been feeling so lightheaded since she'd awakened at dawn. How could she possibly work all day on her feet and take care of a child with only eighteen dollars in the bank? She could barely take care of herself. And how would she explain the sudden appearance of a baby? Did Marshall Field's Department Store believe in the stork? Violet sighed. Nineteen twenty-three was ending on a very low note.

When her belly had first started to swell a few months ago, she thought it might be an ulcer or a gallstone, her menstrual cycle being as erratic as her charming but peripatetic spouse. But as the bump in her belly was now swollen to the size of a pocketbook, even someone as naive as she could no longer deny the obvious. A baby born to a poor salesgirl whose husband was missing was utterly unthinkable. She hadn't dared to confide in anyone, not even Slim. She couldn't let anyone see how ill she was, or how desperate. Violet couldn't afford to lose her job at Marshall Field's this close to Christmas, not when there were a hundred girls in line anxious for the chance to work at the finest store in America, whose employees proudly felt a cut above anyone who worked anyplace else. By half starving herself and small-boned to begin with, she had put on only fourteen pounds. What if there were medical bills? What if she lost her Christmas bonus, her employee benefits, and all of the lovely friends she'd made in the two years she'd been there? They were becoming like family to her. Especially since Leland Organ had up and left. If only she could go to the store's Lost and Found on the third floor and find him, her "missing Organ," as Slim cheekily referred to Violet's aberrant husband.

She steadied herself as the Illinois Central train rounded its last big curve. Why, Marshall Field's was her family now. Who else was there? Her beautiful violet eyes brimmed over with tears. She quickly dabbed at them with a gloved fist as the train pulled into the black tunnel. Soon there would be the bright artificial lights of the early morning hustle in the Randolph Street station with its wake-up smells of freshly brewed coffee, warmed-over stale popcorn, and roasted chestnuts. At this hour, everyone would be headed in the same direction. To work.

And Violet was a good worker. She enjoyed her job in the world's most luxurious store among the cashmere, couture, fine china, and antique silver. She didn't even mind catering to the rich, famous, and fussy. The store was like an enchanted fairy land inviting the shopper as well as the lookers who couldn't afford more than a thimble and thread or a purchase or two at the ribbon counter.

Some people came to Chicago just for the chance to window-shop or daydream at Marshall Field's. Spotlighted display tables were set with gleaming silver centerpieces brimming over with freshly cut flowers, Waterford crystal, and Limoges china on fine linen, the napkins folded as if company were coming to dinner. Sometimes a flush customer would point to the whole ensemble and say, "That's exactly what I want. I'll take the whole table." The affluent carriage trade pushed through the revolving doors to shop for everything for their homes, their births, their debuts, weddings, and, in the case of one or two ancient North Side matrons, their own burial gowns. Often the younger society bunch would leave messages for one another at the elegant emporium's message center, or preferably with Charley Pritzlaff, the doorman, as they considered Field's their private club. And although they tipped him from time to time, it was hardly enough to compensate Charley for remembering that Miss Donnelley was having her fitting at three on Five and Miss Armstrong was lunching in the Narcissus Room at her usual table if Miss Armour and Miss Smith cared to join her, and didn't their hats look grand. Field's employees were required to be psychiatrists, confidants, fashion consultants, and always in polite good humor.

"Hurry up, Violet," Slim said, scooping Violet Organ's elbow into her steady hand like a forklift moving merchandise at Field's warehouse. "Salesladies must be alert at their posts before the customers come barging in."

Thank goodness Miss Slim, Violet's best friend from the store, was with her. They always referred to each other as "Miss Slim" or "Miss Violet" in the store, as company policy dictated. She didn't think she could have gone the distance by herself. It wasn't as if Violet were looking for a sympathy slot—just a warm, safe place to lie down and sleep. Perhaps for the rest of the winter. She yawned wearily. How dreamy it would be to curl up in one of the magnificent four-poster beds on the eighth floor, tucked in with the finest French linens threaded with Egyptian cotton for luxurious sleeping, as the catalog said, with mattresses so cushy they would cradle her to sleep. Wouldn't that be nice! She fluttered her thick lashes as Slim dragged her past the newsboy.

Violet's vision was so blurry that all she could make out was The Chicago Tribune, December 23, 1923. Only two more shopping days until Christmas. The store would be packed with a sea of people carrying parcels and good cheer, bundled up in mufflers and mittens, happily shopping for or with their families. She wasn't feeling up to selling and chatting with her customers today. She was feeling nauseated. A feeling-sorry-for-herself tear slipped down, a dark eyelash falling on her porcelain cheek. She felt as if she were going to crack just like the translucent Spode teacup she'd dropped last week during a dizzy spell and then had been charged for.

"Just lift your little feet, Violet. Don't worry, I'll push you along."

Slim raised one of her eyebrows, which were tricky little art deco deals, almost works of art, plucked and penciled into chic arches. Slim was Ladies' Finery and Furs. Sixth floor. She was going to Paris as soon as she'd saved the money. Miss Slim had been married once for five days, at which time her handsome new husband had been called off to the Great War and was killed. Having only enjoyed the honeymoon and never the little letdowns of marriage, Miss Slim, who smoked cigarettes, wore lip rouge, and shook her sassy Clara Bow haircut whenever she was making a point, was the dressing-room authority on sex and "l'amour," as she called it, in her eternal devotion to things French. She adored all conversations related to the wonderful madness of romance and passion. Miss Slim always referred to her husband as her "war wound," since his World War I death had wounded her forever. With her short, straight band of bangs and ear-length bob, she was the epitome of the stylish salesgirl with just a smack of roaring twenties flapper.

By contrast, Violet, dreamy-eyed and reticent with her long, wavy hair held back in pins, all of it now tucked under a perky cloche, always looked as if she had just stepped out of the last century and was befuddled to find herself in this one.

Both Violet and Slim shivered as they moved out of the cocoon of the walkway tunnel and up the Illinois Central stairs, outdoors and into a blast of arctic air at the corner of Randolph and Michigan Avenue. The Windy City suddenly lived up to its reputation as a tornadolike gust blew an assortment of men's hats off their heads: bowlers, derbies, and fedoras whirling up, off and into the direction of State Street. The wind whipped through the working ladies' thin cloth coats, sending their shoulders to their ears as if they could shrug off the cold.

"Boy, if only that gentleman from Minneapolis had bought me that sable coat I sold him for his cow wife yesterday." Slim's lament froze in midair. She tucked her chin into her squirrel collar to prevent the cold wind from needling her lungs. "The two of us could have fit into it comfortably together. Why, it was so enormous—"

"I feel warmish." Violet was the color of those white silk bed sheets sold on Eight. Sweat beads were forming at her temples despite the terrific cold.

"Oh my dear, you're clammy." Miss Wren emerged from the shelter of Pete's newsstand and closed in on the left flank. She'd been waiting for them under the portico of the Chicago Public Library where the small oil-can fire had momentarily taken the chill off her bones. The apple-cheeked Miss Wren sturdily lifted Violet's other elbow so that her tiny feet needn't bother to touch the sidewalk, just as they'd been doing every day this past week.

"She's getting heavier," Miss Wren said behind Violet's ears.

"Don't be ridiculous. The girl looks like a scarecrow! Did you get my movie magazine?"

Miss Wren shoved the fan magazine across Violet's chest. She had just purchased the latest crossword puzzle book and a copy of Collier's for herself. As she slipped the copy of Silent Screen with a mournful Zasu Pitts on the cover over to Slim, she was struck by Violet's pallor. Miss Wren was suddenly reminded of her own poor mother, who had recently passed away.

"I tell you it's serious. She's too young to look so tired."

At that moment Violet winced and placed her hands on her right side. She apologetically explained, "Gas."

"Appendicitis," Miss Slim decided, blowing her frozen words over to Miss Wren.

"Gallstones." Miss Wren returned the volley.

Twins! Violet thought to herself in sudden horror. For months she had been hoping to hear the missing Mr. Organ's key turn in the door of their one-room Kenwood flat and announce that he was back for good to care for her and teach geography instead of traipsing the globe like a bespectacled Ulysses. Now she was seized with the terrible notion that he had brought her something more than the colorful souvenirs and native dolls from South America on his last trip home. What if it were something truly terrible, like syphilis? She had no idea exactly where Leland had been on his adventures; she had simply indulged his wanderlust, hoping it was just a thirst that time would quench. But if theirs was to be the Lost Generation, why did her husband have to take it literally? The pain that gripped her was double anything she had felt before. Why, if she had gone to a doctor, his diagnosis would have been "Stupid, stupid, stupid!"

"Sex." Violet blushed. How improper the whole business was. No, she didn't care if Mr. Organ ever came home.

"Divorce." Violet Organ whispered the forbidden words into the wind. She wondered how Marshall Field's Department Store would respond to the very unorthodox act of having one of its salesladies behave like the society folk to whom they were supposed to cater.

Violet thought it was so unfair that it was perfectly all right for her to sell Mrs. Hollingsworth an extravagant trousseau for her third marriage to some polo-playing playboy, but heaven help an abandoned, pregnant salesgirl thinking of legally leaving her "gone far and away" spouse—especially if she worked in a store that sold family values every bit as much as silver place settings, diamond chokers, chocolate truffles, school clothes, and shoes for the entire family.

"Archaeologist my foot!" Her words angrily assaulted the icy air as she thought back to his only postcard. He'd run off to join the excavators of the newly discovered King Tutankhamen's tomb the way an impulsive child might run off to join the circus. "He's just a geography teacher with a shovel."

"Uhhhhh!" A piercing pain shot through Violet's tummy like an eel weaving its way through her insides.

"Ohhhhh!" Miss Slim said, echoing the same sound, only in enchantment. The trio stopped in their tracks and stood wide-eyed in front of the big Christmas window.

Pain was pushed aside as Miss Slim, Miss Wren, and even the teary-eyed Violet fell under the spell of Fraser's greatest glory. Arthur Fraser, with his staff of twenty display artists, painters, carpenters, plaster molders, and electricians, created his windows like meticulously crafted stage sets. The sixty-foot window was breathtaking with its Noel magic and fashions of the hour. The two ladies balanced Violet between them as she pressed her nose against the window. It was too cold to snow outside, but inside the enchanted store window fake snow was softly falling, miraculously visible from two tall French windows that sheltered a stylishly decorated art deco living room. Inside, a happy family was gathered in front of a cozy fire. A mother mannequin wearing a Vionnet velvet evening gown and a father mannequin sporting a satin-collared smoking jacket were enjoying the magic with their two eager, round-faced mannequin children, a boy and a girl, while the doggy mannequin and the starched-white-aproned, crisp-capped maid mannequin looked on approvingly as she held out a tray of cheese puffs. A stern-faced nanny mannequin rocked her miniature mannequin charge, snug and warm in its Italian hand-crafted cradle, available in Infants' Goods on Four. All the holiday gawkers gathered outside oohed and aahed into the frosty air, creating ice balloons with their breath.

The details in Field's windows were artfully impeccable, but that was why thousands of people poured into Chicago to see the spectacular displays. In the center of the window scene, a pyramid of presents encircled an elegant twelve-foot Christmas tree lit by flickering candles. But the real stars of the "Window Show," decked out in red velvet with white satin trim and gold braiding, were the robust Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus who were sitting down with the Field's family to Christmas cider and yummy gourmet treats.

"Uhhhh!" Another piercing pain shot through Violet, turning her into a skinny question mark. "I think I'm going to expire." Violet started to fold.

"Get her into the store!" Slim snapped.

"Why?" Miss Wren asked but did as she was told.

"Because nobody's ever died in Marshall Field's!"

"Oh dear, I'd hate for Violet to be the first," said Miss Wren.

"Nonsense! Christmas is no time for tragedy." And with that, the Misses Wren and Slim waltzed in the door of the employees' entrance, the airborne Violet Organ between them, up the main aisles wreathed in holly, mistletoe, ribbons, and tinsel, to a lovely little creche with the baby Jesus and the barnyard animals gathered in the manger that greeted them as they clocked in for work.

"Going up!" Homer Jackson, the impressively uniformed elevator operator, smiled broadly, courteously greeting the regular shop girls on their way to their posts.

Violet clenched her teem to keep from screaming. The store smells of evergreens, fresh chocolates, brass polish, and rich perfumes accosted her nostrils, and she closed her eyes, ready to swoon in a dizzy vapor. The store was already full of anxious holiday shoppers. Somehow she thought if she could just get to her counter in Finer Dresses on Five, everything would be all right.

"Second floor. Linens. The Elizzzzabethan Roooom," Homer sang. He ran his elevator like a streetcar conductor, calling out the most interesting stops and sights along the way. His routine never varied. Whether he was running his Otis car for customers or employees, he let everyone know where the goods were.

Homer pulled open the heavy iron door to reveal the Marshall Field's Choral Society hitting a crescendo in "Away in a Manger."

"Oh dear! Violet looks like she's been hit by a train."

"Let's get her to the first aid room."

"Or the waiting room."

"Homer, hurry! Can't you make this an express?" Slim was panicked.

"Company rules." Homer sighed. "Gotta stop at every floor." Once again, he pulled the ornate iron door open. "Third floor. Booooks—Staaaamps!"


On Sale
Dec 14, 2008
Page Count
528 pages