All Summer Long

By: Dorothea Benton Frank


Easter Monday, April 6, 2015


Whether the subject of change was partners, possessions, or places, some people had an easy time letting go. A fixture in the crown of Manhattan’s classic interior designers, Olivia Ritchie was not such a person.

Over the years she had enjoyed the privilege of observing the private and personal habits of the one percent through her work. She was surprised to discover that there were people—many of them, in fact—whose closets weren’t jammed to capacity with twenty-year-old garments they thought would come back into vogue. Hers bulged with a kind of weird ferocity, as though the closets were populated by tiny, possessive museum demon docents that guarded the history of her style. These same people with the organized closets, whose clothing and accessories were usually spread over their other residences, which helped to explain why they were so neat, actually replaced the contents of their spice cabinets and pantries annually, and over-the-counter medicines were tossed out by their expiration dates, just because it seemed like a good idea. Actually, someone on their payroll did it for them. Olivia didn’t do any of those things. To begin with, she had only one home. And only a part-time housekeeper.

Olivia Ritchie wasn’t technically a hoarder, but she loved her collections and the precious possessions she had amassed over decades. She saved garments and linens simply because she loved the fabric or the workmanship. You could find them wrapped in acid-free paper and packed in acid-free cardboard boxes under the bed and stacked in the very top of the linen closet and armoires. There were scores of handbags and scarves and mountains of costume jewelry that had been out of style for a very long time. Sometimes she would use a detail from one of them to represent a motif in a custom wallpaper or fabric. Sometimes she used the object for color. She squirreled away all sorts of things because they could be an honest catalyst for inspiration. And if she truly tired of something, she managed to sell it to a client.

Olivia had dozens of objets d’art and curiosities from all over the world, ranging from a sixteenth-century Italian saltcellar sometimes attributed to the school of Benvenuto Cellini to dozens of ivory Japanese netsukes. She had miniature cloisonné boxes that played sweet music, tiny French clocks that chimed assertively on the quarter hour, and dozens of hand-carved Chinese puzzle balls. The intricacies of the puzzle balls never ceased to amaze her. They seemed impossible to her—impossible to envision as an artist and impossible to render. All of these belongings, down to the most humble buttons in her button box, were poised to ignite her creative spark. These tools inspired Olivia’s magic. She made the dreams of other people come true. At least that was the pleasant rationale to keep them all.

But she couldn’t keep her first husband, the philandering, financially irresponsible medical student she had married in her mid-twenties against the pleading of everyone she knew. Two years into it she came home one night to an empty apartment. All he left her was a note on the kitchen counter along with ten milligrams of Valium. The note read: Sorry. I can’t do this anymore. You’re too demanding and controlling. You really ought to get some help.

He took every stick of furniture, the contents of the kitchen and linen closet, and needless to say, all the music. Oh, he left the wedding album on a windowsill in the living room, a choice that stung. She ripped the pictures into shreds and threw them off the balcony, watching as pieces of her dream floated down to 73rd Street. It took her a while to get over it.

Olivia buried herself in work and built her business, one gnarly client at a time. After being single and, she would admit, very lonely, Olivia achieved extreme success and married again, this time with the blessing of everyone she knew. But she vowed never to answer to anyone again. There would be no mingling of resources this time around. She was in charge of it all and the happiest she had ever been. People said she had dreamed Nick into her life—Olivia was a lucid dreamer, something that drove her crazy because her dreams were so vivid it was hard to tell the difference between a dream and reality. Nick teased her without mercy about them, comparing her to a New Zealand tribe of indigenous people who confused them also.

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