Excerpt from The Chocolate Money: Chapter One
(From September Issue of Town & Country)
Secrets and lies from the wicked witch of Windy City: A Rockefeller heiress tells all—and then some—in this exclusive excerpt.
The Chocolate Money, a dishy roman à clef starring a poor little rich girl and her raunchy, imperious Mommie Dearest, is Ashley Prentice Norton’s first novel. It tells the story of Bettina Ballentyne, an only child even lonelier than most. She doesn’t know who, or where, her father is. Her mother, whom she calls Babs, is the heiress to a chocolate fortune. Babs chain- smokes Duchess Golden Lights, travels by stretch limo, and homewrecks happy families.
Like Bettina, Norton, a great-great-grand- daughter of John D. Rockefeller, grew up in Chicago. But she’s coy about the life/art divide. “Eighty percent fiction, 20 percent truth,” she says of one outré party scene. Then she laughs as she recounts her 21st birthday: “Henley theme, Pimm’s Cup, lace gown. Bob Mackie designed our dresses. My mom was a Solid Gold dancer.” Her mother, Abra Prentice Wilkin, had a gossip column in the now folded Chicago Daily news; she also wrote for Town & Country (from May 1991: “The Limo Life”). “My mother’s attitude was, If you have some money, why not have some fun?” When it came to her family background, however, she insisted on discretion. “My mother said that if people found out, they would hate me,” says Norton.
Haircut. August, 1978.
The day I cut my hair and completely fuck up the Christmas Card, I am merely bored, not a defiant brat, like Babs tells all her friends.
It is late August. I am ten. Babs is in the kitchen talking to Andie, who comes Saturday afternoons for Bloody Marys and Eggs Benedict. Babs doesn’t drink alcohol. She always nurses freshly squeezed juice (grapefruit, plum, raspberry) in a Baccarat champagne flute, cut with a heavy pour of Perrier. Fruit straight-up has way too many calories.
“So Andie,” Babs says, “We’re doing the Card tomorrow. I can’t decide if I should go summer or for more of a holiday feel. No matchy-matchy reindeer sweaters, of course, but maybe a tad less controversial than last year’s. I know the nudity was tastefully done, but I don’t want that bitch Nona Cardill writing more nasty things about me in her column. That bitty probably never takes off her underwear. And all the calls from school. Those women have no sense of humor at all, give no points for creativity.”
All the kids in my grade at Chicago Day were really mean about our last Christmas Card. Yes, we were naked, but I was sitting on Babs’s lap and covered up her privates. That didn’t make things any better. They said I was totally weird to have my picture taken without any clothes on. The best I could come up with was that it wasn’t my idea.
It was very avant guard, Babs. I still have it up on my fridge,” Andie says. I think this is kind of creepy. Babs just laughs.
I’m sitting on the floor by the kitchen table, almost out of view, flipping through Tiger Beat. My idol Brooke Shields is on the cover. Babs gave me a subscription for my tenth birthday and it is one of the best presents I have ever gotten. I watch them smoke and ash into their Villeroy & Bach plates. It doesn’t matter that we eat off of these every morning at breakfast. Babs turns anything she wants into an ashtray.
She and Andie lean into the white marble island as if they need help remaining upright. Babs wears white short-shorts and a white Playboy bunny tank top, with a silver bunny head outlined in rhinestones. She has blond hair she wears up in a messy French twist and blue eyes. Babs has the icy beauty of Grace Kelly, but lacks her poise: she uses words like “cock” and “pussy” and hits little kids. She always says she would much rather look like Brigitte Bardot, sexy, fluid and open-ended like an unmade bed, but she doesn’t have the curves to pull it off.
Andie isn’t even remotely attractive, and this is exactly why Babs is friends with her. She has curly hair with grey in it, and big horse teeth. She always agrees with Babs, no matter what.
“That’s the difference between our Card and other people’s. As you know. You’re not just supposed to snap something in between gift-wrap and holly-hang. Spend some time on it. Surprise people when they open the envelope. I’m thinking a Turning Point theme, both of us with buns in matching leotards, red or green, or maybe gold with ornaments hanging off them. I’m afraid most people won’t get it. It’s just too bad we don’t know Misha. Those fabulous legs, those tights.”
I don’t get it. Buns and leotards? Who is Misha? Since when does Babs like ballet?
“Anyone who doesn’t get that movie doesn’t deserve a Card, Babs.”
Today, Andie is surprisingly authoritative, making up standards for Babs’s friends. I think she hopes this Card will narrow the pool of people Babs likes and give her more of a shot. As it stands, Andie is just a day-time friend. She’s never invited for dinner when other people come. But Andie thinks if she just keeps showing up, Babs will bump her up on the roster, make space for her at the table. This will never happen. Babs makes up her mind about people and doesn’t allow for upgrades.
Babs spots me listening in on their discussion and says, “Bettina, stop hovering. Go find your own fun.” Hovering is fucking annoying, so I stand up and leave.
I venture into the living room. I’m not supposed to go in there by myself, but it is the best room in the aparthouse. It is two stories tall and takes up one whole half of the aparthouse. Standing in it is like being suspended in a lucite box, hanging on a thin string from the sky. Instead of a solid wall, there is a huge pane of glass that goes floor to ceiling and sports an amazing view of Lake Michigan. You can watch the cars on Lake Shore Drive go right up to North Avenue. In the summer, you can even see women who don’t have country club memberships sitting on Oak Street Beach, slathering themselves with cheap suntan lotion, probably reading Danielle Steel.
I decide to risk a trip to the top of the spiral staircase that leads up to Babs’ room so I can saunter back down them, just like Babs does when she makes an entrance into her parties. But my beginning is clumsy. I’m so busy looking up that I almost knock over a Majolica cup filled with Babs’s cigarettes and step on her scrapbook scissors.
I love these scissors: the blades are long and silver like swords. The handles are gold and encrusted with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. They are bumpy and smooth at the same time, like a seashell sticky with sand. Sometimes I put them in my mouth and suck on them. They have a metallic taste that is surprisingly sweet.
I pick them up and press them against my cheek. I spread the blades wide like legs, and position them on my right cheek. They slide a little deeper into their splits, and I press them down firmly. The pressure feels dangerous but reassuring. Just a little bit harder and I would split the skin.
A piece of hair falls to my mouth and sticks to my lips. I blow it back, remove the scissors from my face and am about to put them back. But I hear Babs in my head, pause: You are such a fucking chicken, Bettina. You never go all the way. I yank a section of my hair to make it stop, like I always do, but this time the words stick in my head. I know they won’t go away until I react.
I open the scissors as wide as they will go. Cut. My hair is baby-fine so there is no resistance. A butcher knife slicing a birthday cake.
After about one short moment of triumph, I spiral into a complete panic. This was my idea, not Babs’s after all. I am way to the left of pretty, and this has undoubtably made it worse.
Will Babs leave me out of the Card? That would be the worst punishment ever. Everyone knows, ugly or not, you include your kids in your Christmas Card. Unless they are dead or locked up somewhere.