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Authors: Irving Wallace

(1980) The Second Lady

BOOK: (1980) The Second Lady
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THE SECOND LADY

Irving Wallace

First published by Hutchinson 1980

Arrow edition 1981

Reprinted 1983 and 1986

Copyright Irving Wallace 1980

 

Sitting there, she began to feel better. The ordeal was almost over.

The Louis XVI furniture in the Yellow Oval Room had been rearranged. She sat straight, alert, in the middle of the striped sofa, her back to the arched window and expanse of south lawn, facing at least twenty female and four male White House reporters, most of them in folding chairs, all of them relentless.

She had placed herself between Nora Judson, her press secretary and friend, and Laurel Eakins, her appointments secretary, which was supportive and comforting. But the burden had been on her. Since she had become First Lady,-she had given only four press conferences in two-and-a-half years. This, at the urging of her husband (‘more exposure could help us both’), was her fifth. Because of her long silence, the press had arrived with an overload of questions.

Although there had been no respite in the past hour, the questions had been mostly easy and frivolous. Was it true she had been on a low carbohydrate diet? Did she plan to resume her tennis lessons? Would she actively campaign for her husband in the primaries? Did the President confide in her and ask her opinion on matters of state? What novels had she read lately? Did she have an opinion on current women’s fashions? Was Ladbury of London still her favourite couturier? What was her reaction to the recent public opinion poll naming her the most popular woman in the world today? And so on and on, without pause.

Now a corpulent woman with a Texas twang was posing

a serious question. ‘Mrs Bradford, concerning the announcement that you will be attending the International Women’s Meeting in Moscow this week, before accompanying your husband to the London Summit —’

‘Yes?’

‘- have you modified your views on the Equal Rights Amendment or on the subject of abortion? And will you speak of these subjects in Moscow?’

She felt her press secretary squirm uneasily beside her, but she ignored the warning and went ahead. ‘I intend to discuss both subjects when I address the meeting. As to my views, they have not changed an iota. 1 still believe equal rights for women in the United States have been long overdue, and we are receiving more and more backing for it every day. On the matter of abortion, there is much to be said for either side.’ She paused to hear her press secretary’s sigh of relief, heard it, and continued. ‘Nevertheless, I feel there should be no legislation against abortion. I think it should be a decision of individual choice, one made by every woman.’

‘You will speak of this in Moscow?’

‘Absolutely. I’ll also try to evaluate, based on statistics made available to me, where the women of the United States stand on both subjects at the present time.’

Another reporter, tall, bony, was standing. She spoke with a modulated Boston accent. ‘Mrs Bradford, can you tell us what else you expect to discuss at the International Women’s Meeting?’

‘Women in the American work force. Women in our armed forces. Oh, endless other topics. I’ll have a full report ready when I return.’

The women’s editor of the New York Times came to her feet. ‘I understand you will be in Moscow three days. Can you tell us of any other activities, outside the meetings, that you plan to engage in?’

‘Well, since this will be my first visit to the Soviet Union, I hope to find the time to squeeze in a little sightseeing — but I think Nora here is more familiar with my schedule.’

She looked at Nora Judson, and her press secretary took over quickly, efficiently, brightly.

With relief, Billie Bradford sat back for the first time. The day, especially from noon until now, had been so busy, so anxiety-ridden, that she had not realized until this moment how exhausted she really was. She felt dishevelled. She glanced down at her light blue cashmere slipover sweater and darker blue pleated skirt. Both were still fresh and neat. It was her hair then. She had worn her long blonde hair pulled back, tied with a silk ribbon around her chignon. But as always, some strands of hair had come loose and hung over her forehead. With a characteristic gesture, she brushed the strands into place.

Nora was holding forth to the press people about the First Lady’s Moscow itinerary, and Billie Bradford was grateful. Pretending to be attentive to her press secretary, Billie let her mind drift back to the late morning of this crucial day and then forward across the afternoon to this very time. Before noon, she had disposed of all her personal correspondence, especially her letters to her father in Malibu and her younger sister Kit, telling both that after Moscow, and before her departure for London, she would have to be in Los Angeles for one day and hoped to see them both.

After that, she had stepped in the pressure cooker. There had been a long lunch in the Family Dining Room for the wives of the majority and minority leaders in the Senate and House, as well as for the wives of several important committee heads. Immediately following, she had received the winners of a painting contest sponsored by a national association of handicapped persons. Then, Ladbury himself, just arrived from London, had appeared for a preliminary fitting of new dresses and gowns she hoped to wear in Moscow and London. Without rest, assisted by her personal maid Sarah Keating, she had plunged into a search for an old college scrapbook that Guy Parker needed as research for the autobiography he was ghostwriting for her. Next, she had hastened downstairs, and made her way outside to the Rose Garden. The late August afternoon had been balmy,

and it had been pleasant in the sun receiving the delegation of Girl Scouts and their leaders and passing out special awards to those who had performed outstanding community service.

With less than five minutes to spare, she had gone with Nora to the Yellow Oval Room upstairs, where the gathering of press representatives had been having tea while awaiting her arrival.

And now, after over an hour, she became aware that the press conference had just ended. Nora and Laurel were on their feet, on either side of her, and she hastily rose from the sofa to murmur her appreciation and say good-bye.

When the room was emptied, she remained standing, drained of energy. The smile, so long frozen on her classical pale features, melted to a straight tight line. It was done, the crucial day finished, and yet it was not.

There was one last act to undertake.

Pulling herself together, she left the room alone, went up the long corridor to the elevator and took it downstairs.

Minutes later she entered the West Wing, headed for the Cabinet Room and entered it. She was rarely apprehensive or nervous, but she was both right now. The large room smelled of leather and cigar smoke. As she had expected, there they were, the five of them, all seated at the near end of the rich mahogany table, still staring at the two television monitoring screens showing pictures of the Yellow Oval Room she had just vacated.

The biggest of the group, a squat hulk of a man, General Ivan Petrov, chairman of the KGB, jumped to his feet. His broad Slavic face bore a grin.

‘Ah, Vera Vavilova!’ he exclaimed. He went to her, kissed one of her cheeks, then the other. ‘My dear, you were superb. A performance without flaw. My congratulations!’

Behind him, the others, Colonel Zhuk, her own beloved Alex Razin, and two she did not know, were also standing, voicing their congratulations.

Her heart stopped pounding. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Thank you very much.’

General Petrov was speaking again. ‘So the last dress rehearsal is over.’ He studied her. ‘Do you feel you are ready?’

‘I am ready,’ she said.

‘Very good.’ He picked up his cap. ‘We go now to the Kremlin to inform the Premier.’

When they left the Cabinet Room, she trailed after them, and watched them get into the limousine, and depart the fake White House, going through the gate in the high fence opened by the KGB guards. She stood and saw, far beyond the open fence gate, the distant golden cupolas and spires inside the Kremlin and the skyline of Moscow.

Three more days, she thought, after nearly three hard years.

At last, Vera Vavilova smiled to herself. A real smile this time.

Yes, indeed, she was ready.

The minute that he stepped out of his Georgetown apartment building, Guy Parker knew that it was not going to be his kind of day. When Washington DC was hot and humid, there was no city in the land more suffocating. By the time he turned into the alley and walked to the garage, he began to feel sticky all over. There were patches of perspiration from his armpits to his waist. His shirt clung to him like a vast bandage of adhesive. After unlocking his new Ford, he shed his seersucker jacket, loosened his knit necktie, then bent and got inside behind the wheel. He folded his jacket across the passenger seat and dropped his small cassette tape recorder on top of it.

After starting the car, backing out, and leaving the alley, he accelerated and drove as fast as possible toward The Madison hotel. His luncheon appointment was for 1.30. He did not want to be late because his guest was extremely busy and doing him a favour. Twice before he had arranged a lunch date with George Kilday, and each time Kilday had cancelled the date at the last moment because of a fast-breaking story. An hour ago, he had telephoned Kilday at the Los Angeles Times bureau in Washington, and he had been assured that this afternoon their appointment would hold. Parker was doubly determined not to be late, because the interview truly was a favour. The bureau chief had nothing to gain from seeing Parker, whereas Parker had a lot to gain from seeing him. It was all over town, at least among members of the Fourth Estate, that Parker was getting to keep a half-million dollars of the publisher’s advance to

the First Lady for her autobiography (the other half-million going to charities). Kilday might have had every reason to be jealous and sourly uncooperative. Instead, he had proved to be a nice person, an old-timer who liked to see fellow writers make it big.

Guy Parker reached The Madison four minutes early. Snatching up his tape recorder and coat, he turned the car over to the doorman. Inside the exquisitely furnished lobby, the cool air gave him immediate relief and fresh energy. He veered right past the reception desk and cashier’s window and hurried to the unpretentious cafe. As he entered, he saw a waitress showing Kilday to a table. He went towards them, hailing Kilday with a wave, and Kilday waved back.

He did not know Kilday well, but had run into him perhaps a half-dozen times in the past two-and-a-half years in the time when Parker had been one of the President’s speech writers, and the few times they had talked, it had always been brief and always politics.

He had known little about Kilday personally, except that he was a newspaperman respected among colleagues for his doggedness on a story and his almost religious regard for accuracy. Parker had not known there had been any connection between Kilday and the First Lady, until one early session when Billie herself had brought him up. They had been talking about the period after Billie had graduated from Vassar as a journalism major. Before her father’s retirement, she had worked for the advertising agency that handled the company marketing her father’s inventions. She had obtained a job with a New York public relations firm, and later been their representative in London for a short time. She had returned to Los Angeles determined to write a novel, and halfway through she had torn it up.

‘And soon after, you got a job on the Los Angeles Times?’ Parker had asked her.

‘Not quite. Actually, my first newspaper job - if you can call it that — was on a Santa Monica throwaway paper at nothing-a-week. The money didn’t matter. I really didn’t need any. But it gave me access to many events and places

I would otherwise never have seen. Well, one day the editor assigned me to write a piece on a drug rehabilitation centre. Instead of doing it routinely, interviewing the director, I got an idea from something I’d read in a biographv of Nellie Bly.’

‘The one who tried to beat Jules Verne’s around-the-world-in-eighty-days record?’

‘The same. Verne’s Phileas Fogg did it in eighty days in fiction. Nellie Bly did it in fact in 1889 and 1890. She went around the world in seventy-two days. Anyway, before that, while just starting out as a cub reporter on the New York World, Nellie Bly undertook a story about insane people who had been committed to Blackwell’s Island and how they were being treated. But instead of doing the story in an orthodox way, Nellie disguised herself in ragged clothes, gave herself a deranged look, feigned insanity, and got herself committed to Blackwell’s Island. As a patient, she saw the miserable conditions and the cruelty to the other patients first-hand. When she got out, she wrote two front-page stories about the experience. This expose made her famous overnight. Well, there I was with a routine assignment to write a story about a drug rehabilitation centre in Santa Monica, and I thought of Nellie Bly, and I said to myself — why not?’

BOOK: (1980) The Second Lady
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