The intrigue in One Flight Up, the first novel by Susan Fales-Hill, begins before the story does. Just after the title page, the dedication reads "to Aunt Diahann, Aunt Eartha, Aunt Carmen, Aunt Lena. … " These marquee names aren't just the inspirations of Fales-Hill, the former TV writer and producer who worked on The Cosby Show, A Different World and Linc's. Rather, these women were frequent guests of her parents' at their apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side when the author was growing up in the '60s and '70s. They were friends of her late mother, Haitian-born singer and actress Josephine Premice, and the dedication thanks all of them for "teaching me that a woman must write her own rules and that blondes don't necessarily have more fun."
One Flight Up, which was published last month, is the fictional follow-up to Fales-Hill's first book, Always Wear Joy: My Mother Bold and Beautiful, a memoir. In it, Fales-Hill writes movingly and with humor about growing up amid such illustrious company at her family's frequent salons. One Flight Up relates the sagas of four upscale professional women. Before you begin thinking about Sex and the City or Waiting to Exhale, consider two things. First, in Fales-Hill's work, the foursome is multiracial: Monique Dubois-Dawkins, an African-American doctor; Abby Rosenfeld Adams, a Jewish gallery owner; Esme Sarmiento-Talbot, a Colombian heiress; and India Chumley, a mixed-race lawyer — all classmates from a private school much like the one that Fales-Hill attended. Second, the story is no chick-lit race to matrimony.
"I was so frustrated with literature and movies where getting to the altar is the whole story," Fales-Hill said one afternoon over lunch at Sardi's, the famous Broadway-area bistro, where a caricature of her mother adorns the wall. "To me," she continued, "the real drama begins after you say 'I do.' "
The India Chumley character will be the one most readily identified with the author. Both share a Harvard education and mixed-race backgrounds. Although Fales-Hill says the character was the hardest one to write, she enjoyed working through certain memories of her moments of racial validation. "A friend of mine called me one day while making dinner and said, 'Get out your Ebony Cookbook.' " She laughed as she continued, "I was so flattered that someone would just assume that I owned the Ebony Cookbook that I was nearly speechless."
Her mother and so many of her mentors faced struggles in the entertainment world because of their race, but Fales-Hill faced a different struggle because she didn't readily conform to conventional definitions of blackness. She was born in Rome to Premice and Timothy Fales, the son of a blue-blood shipping magnate. When the young family moved to the States, few New York landlords were willing to rent to a mixed-race couple. So the family settled just north of the Upper West Side's most desirable addresses and sent their daughter to the renowned Lycée Français on the East Side. The experience taught Fales-Hill to assert that "you are more than an address."
She was finishing her undergraduate studies at Harvard when she met Bill Cosby through her family connections. He asked her to write something; in response, she crafted a satire of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Impressed, Cosby first tried to score her a gig on Saturday Night Live. When that didn't work out, she was assigned a low-level job among the writers creating The Cosby Show.
The gig enabled her to see the inner workings of putting together a script; it also provided her with a clear-eyed understanding of how the industry worked. Even so, she says, she ran out of patience with the world of television in the late '90s, when she pitched a pilot about the industry. The white male executives she met with acted as if she knew nothing about women in the entertainment business — never mind her long list of producing and writing credits.
Fales-Hill left Hollywood and returned to New York City. In 1997 she married banker Aaron Hill, moving to the Upper East Side of Manhattan; her old Upper West Side stomping grounds had gentrified and were now out of her price range. Soon the Hills were holding cocktail parties that mirrored the salons of her parents. Fales-Hill made a name for herself on the social-philanthropy scene, becoming a regular in the society pages and in fashion magazines like Vogue.
But behind the glamour was a lot of hard work. Fales-Hills helped organize galas to support the Studio Museum in Harlem, American Ballet Theater and East Side Settlement House; she also chaired the annual event for the Fales Library (named after her grandfather) on the New York University campus. But after the birth of her daughter in 2003, Fales-Hill gradually toned down that aspect of her life. Now, she says, she and her husband lead a "more sequestered life."
It's a life, apparently, that involves a good deal of reading of the classics. Her conversations are dotted with references to Goethe's Faust and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. At her book party, as she talked about how women are held to a different standard of chastity than men, she invoked Homer: "If I was Penelope, and my Odysseus was going to be gone for 20 years, and I was on an island with 100 Mediterranean men. … " She raised a wry eyebrow to finish her point.
Overall, she says, she strives to live up to the high standard set by the trailblazers who mentored and inspired her as a youth. "My mother used to say that I was born liberated, and then I grew up around women who were so self-actualized." She closed her remarks at her book party by quoting Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher, who said, "Well-behaved women don't make history." It's a sure bet that Aunt Diahann, Aunt Eartha, Aunt Lena, et al., would agree.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.