Susan Takes Flight
By Bettina Zilkha
When I ask Susan Fales-Hill what her idea of a perfect day is, she doesn’t have to ponder long. “Any day my daughter is happy,” she answers. Fales-Hill has her priorities straight. Our visit has had to wait until past 9 p.m. to ensure that her sevenyear- old, Bristol, is asleep. Tall and gorgeous as always, Fales-Hill walks through my door, beautifully dressed in a pair of white jeans and a feminine black top. She is relaxed, her eyes filled with brilliance and wit, and she immediately makes me laugh.
Fales-Hill’s perfect day also involves lots of writing, often at the New York Public Library where she is a member of the Library Council. It was there that she completed her first novel, One Flight Up, a fictitious, wild and sexy journey into the private and public lives of four New York City women who all attended the same private school and have grown up to have it all, including extra-marital affairs. The characters are as diverse as New York: a South American heiress, the Jewish daughter of gallery owners and a high-achieving buppie among them. A terrific read, it is likely being discussed in every living room from Los Angeles to East Hampton this year. Inevitably, since the high society world of the story is so familiar and the subject is so juicy, the question will be asked: Is it a roman à clef? “It’s a ‘clef ’ to my own twisted mind and complex heart,” Fales-Hill says, taking a sip of the superb bottle of red wine she has brought for our chat. “The characters are composites of people who have crossed my path in the course of 48 years on the planet, not all of themfamous or infamous. Readers should not seek a character key. However, after reading it, they may want to contribute to my personal mental health fund.”
Her mental health will no doubt be buoyed by reviews from friends and critics. Vogue’s André Leon Talley calls the book, “a dazzling narrative of New York’s social diorama with wit, irony and great humor.” Producer Alex Hitz says it is “just as delicious as a real-life visit with Susan.” Muffie Potter Aston calls her “brilliant, a keen observer of NewYork society.” And the New York Post described One Flight Up as “a chick lit masterpiece that leaves Jackie Collins in the dust.”
If Fales-Hill is a born storyteller, she came into adulthood with stories to tell. Her international upbringing was, as she says, “wildly interesting, and thoroughly dysfunctional.” Her late mother, Josephine Premice, was a groundbreaking actress/singer/dancer of Haitian descent. Her father was the multilingual and devastatingly handsome black sheep of a proper WASP Social Register family. “He was,” Fales-Hill notes, “summarily expunged from the pages of that esteemed tome when he married my mother.”
But there is something she wants to clarify immediately. “We weren't dysfunctional because we were a mixed family. We were dysfunctional for the same reason every other family is,” Fales-Hill explains. “There was pain and it was dealt with the way people did in the era before ubiquitous 12-step programs and mandatory therapy: by having cocktails and smashing china. I often liken it to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, minus the drug-addicted mother and with a great deal more laughter.”
She herself laughs, and we sip more wine. There’s not an ounce of self-pity in her story. “In spite of the small fortune I have had to spend on therapy to achieve some measure of sanity as an adult,” she says, “I wouldn't trade my upbringing for the world.” Her parents, she says, were both brilliant, way ahead of their time and with a shared Voltairian sense of the world’s absurdity. Her brother and she felt embraced by both sides of the family. And their home was a salon for some of the great writers, actors, activists and social figures of the last century. “They were all mesmerized by my father’s wit, my mother’s humor, style and exquisite cooking,” she says.
So it was from her father that Fales-Hill inherited her passion for language, literature and history, among other gifts. But he also made a mark on her with his roving eye, and in some ways, he helped provide the subject matter at the heart of her novel. “What inspired me was growing up in the presence of infidelity and having harsh judgments about it, then getting married myself at 34 and realizing this is not as easy as it looks,” she says. “The ‘I do’s’ are not a happy ending, they are the beginning of an emotional and spiritual education. These are the realities I wanted to address: the doubts, the wayward desires, the ‘might have beens’ that every woman who was neither 20 nor a virgin on her wedding day harbors in her secret heart. I also longed to depict the world as I know it: friendship across ethnic lines.”
Josephine Premice also inspired her daughter, certainly with her sense of style, but more importantly with her inextinguishable joie de vivre, even in the face of the racism of segregated America (of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s). She bravely fought the devastating illness, emphysema, which stole her voice and eventually took her life. “I am who I am because of her,” Fales-Hill says. “I pattern myself after my mother and her coterie of bigger-than-life friends—Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, Carmen De Lavallade and, most important of all, her best friend and my second mother, Diahann Carroll— women who came to ‘live their lives out loud.’”
Like her mother’s friends she so admired, Fales-Hill is an accomplished career woman in her chosen, somewhat quieter profession of writing, which has unfolded in several acts. After she graduated from Harvard, Bill Cosby himself offered her a position of writer’s apprentice on his paradigm shifting sitcom. From there, she went to its spin-off, “A Different World,” which she eventually ran as head writer and executive producer.
Other shows followed, and in all she spent close to 15 years writing for television during the last of the “Golden Age.” It was a different time, Fales-Hill says, making her views clear. “There were few networks, and reality TV had not reared its mesquite-grilled-rateating head. It was also excellent training for writing books because it teaches you, more than any other medium, that writing is re-writing.”
After her mother passed away in 2001, things shifted for Fales-Hill. “I lost my appetite for writing for television because it didn't give me the freedom to portray the many worlds I knew,” she explains. She devoted herself to her first book, an ode to her mother called Always Wear Joy, which grew out of an article she wrote for Vogue about, as she says, “growing up biracial and not being a basket case.” More changes came when she had her one and only child at 40. “It slowedmy pace considerably. I wrote a few articles, but did not get right back to the task of attacking the next book. I wrote One Flight Up on spec, the first piece of such length that I’d ever produced with no guarantee of a check.” Over that hurdle, she is already working on her next novel, for Atria.
She also works tirelessly for her chosen and lucky philanthropic organizations. Mostly, it is the arts that she favors. With characteristic erudition, she cites that most quotable of world leaders: “As Churchill snapped at a minister suggesting cutting funding for a cultural organization at the height of World War II, ‘Good lord man, what are we fighting for?’” She sits on the board of American Ballet Theater (ABT), where she has forged a close bond with a young dancer named Misty Copeland, her “second child.”Misty, who started dancing when she was 13, is one of the company’s first African-American soloist. Fales-Hill and her husband recognized Copeland’s incredible talent, and sponsored her as a dancer when she was in the corps. Fales-Hill encouraged Copeland to excel by introducing her to other great “firsts”—black women who opened doors in their industries, such as Diahann Carol and Veronica Webb. Thanks in part to Fales-Hill’s efforts, ABT has created scholarships that welcome dancers of all races into the company. Copeland, now mentoring young dancers, is also a great admirer of Fales-Hill. “I have been so lucky to have Susan in my life,” she says. “A strong, intelligent and glamorous black woman, she has been such an inspiration to me.”
Her tireless advocacy has also won her the admiration of Rachel Moore, ABT’s executive director. “I have always been impressed with how Susan can traverse wildly disparate communities with extraordinary grace,” Moore says. “She inspires friendship and confidence in people ranging from those in the highest levels of business and society to the young and passionate in the dance studio to those from less advantaged backgrounds. This is an amazing skill.”
Fales-Hill also sits on the board of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and actively supports the Fales Library at NYU, a collection of rare books and manuscripts named for her father, and of course, the New York Public Library (NYPL) where she, and others far less fortunate, can find the resources and tranquility to write. Her friend Catie Marron, chairman of the NYPL’s Board of Trustees, says Fales-Hill is “always so full of life and spirit” and “reflective and compassionate.” Early childhood education, addressing the rising numbers of men of color in prison, and keeping a woman’s right to choose safe are all causes near to Fales-Hill’s heart.
Of course, there is also her daughter to raise. She is a hands-on mother to Bristol, and hopes that she will reap the benefits of her multicultural heritage without necessarily feeling the burden. “I was blessed,” Fales-Hill says. “In our home, multiculturalism was not an academic exercise; it was as natural as breathing. We spoke English to my mother, French to my father, Italian to our governess (while we had one), and my parents spoke French and Creole to each other. I’m trying to pass as much of that along as I can to my daughter.”
If she can pass on a fraction of her learning and refinement, Bristol will be another world-beater. “Susan can quote from books that she read 20 years before and always in the original text—English, French or Italian,” says another close and admiring friend, Peter Bacanovic. “She has the most unique combination of stellar qualities and to a degree that I have never seen in anyone else. She has held herself to the very highest standards in every context throughout her entire life.”
It’s a tough act to follow, but most agree that, even at her tender age, Bristol seems more than up to the challenge. Certainly, she is growing up in a different era than her mother. “I grew up at the height of the struggle for civil rights,” Fales-Hill says. “My family raised me to believe I was an ambassador everywhere I went, for both sides of my family—for blacks, for mixed people—and that my failures would embarrass not just myself, but entire populations. Frankly, it’s a lot of pressure, and makes one unwilling to take risks for fear of making a misstep. Whenmy daughter was born, I pondered how to address the race question. I made a conscious decision not to impose all of the ‘you must be better than’ criteria that was appropriate to the world in which I came of age, but is a bit outmoded today. With African Americans helming multinationals from American Express to Xerox, and Mr. and Mrs. Obama gracing the White House, I think the case has been made, even if prejudice persists. I have also chosen to emphasize her cultural heritages (Trinidadian and Barbadian on my husband’s side, Anglo-Saxon and Haitian on mine) over color. I’m pleased to say that she’s very clear about who she is, and feels at home everywhere.”
Fales-Hill’s late mother’s dear friend, Diahann Carroll, approves whole-heartedly of the job she is doing. “Susan’s parenting is quite extraordinary,” Carroll says. “I’m very proud to watch her take what her parents have given her, keep what works, discard what doesn’t and replace it with something that’s more part of today’s culture.”
With all of the pressures and the changing times, there is one aspect of being a representative of her race that Fales-Hill acknowledges she embraces. “Sartorially, I do accept my role as ‘racial ambassador,’ the theory that when and where I enter, the whole race enters with me,” she says. “So I’d better not be slouching around town in cargo pants and a tank top with bra straps akimbo.”
While she does not know President Obama personally, his election is deeply meaningful to her. She loves the fact that he has made intelligence cool again. More importantly, “I love what he symbolizes: our country’s miraculous ability to evolve,” she says. “He was elected almost 50 years to the day after my parents wed in 1958, a time when such a marriage was illegal in a great many states. To see this happen in my lifetime is truly awe-inspiring.
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