by Nyna Giles and Eve Claxton
Nyna Giles was picking up groceries at the supermarket one day when she looked down and saw the headline on the cover of a tabloid: “Former Bridesmaid of Princess Grace Lives in Homeless Shelter.” Nyna was stunned, shocked to see her family’s private ordeal made so public—the woman mentioned on that cover, Carolyn Scott Reybold, was her mother.
Nyna’s childhood had been spent in doctor’s offices. Too ill, she was told, to go to school like other children, she spent nearly every waking moment at her mother’s side at their isolated Long Island estate or on trips into the city to see the ballet. The doctors couldn’t tell her what was wrong, but as Nyna grew up, her mother, who’d always seemed fragile, became more and more distant. Now Nyna was forced to confront an agonizing realization: she barely knew the woman on the magazine in front of her.
She knew that her mother had been a model after arriving in New York in 1947, living at the Barbizon Hotel, where she’d met the young Grace Kelly and that the two had become fast friends. Nyna had seen the photos of Carolyn at Grace’s wedding, wearing the yellow bridesmaid gown that had hung in her closet for years. But how had the seemingly confident, glamorous woman in those pictures become the mother she knew growing up—the mother who was now living in a shelter?
In this powerful memoir of friendship and motherhood, Nyna Giles uncovers her mother’s past to answer the questions she never knew to ask. Keep reading for an excerpt of The Bridesmaid’s Daughter.
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A day later, Carolyn stepped down from her train at Penn Station, and caught a cab to 140 East Sixty-third Street. She read all the fashionable magazines, so she knew that the Barbizon Hotel for Women was the best place for a girl to stay while in the big city. Barbizon residents were models, actresses, singers, students, and secretaries, girls who, like Carolyn, wanted to make something of themselves. The hotel’s rooms were reasonably priced, and most important, as male guests weren’t allowed much farther than the lobby, she would be safe.
Most of the hotel’s guests, not only the out-of-towners like Carolyn, would have been intimidated at first sight of the Barbizon. From the sidewalk, even if you craned your neck, it could be hard to see the tip of the building, twenty-three stories high, with dark brown brick terraces and setbacks, like a giant, somber wedding cake. Carolyn pushed inside the revolving doors and into the lobby, nearly as wide and as deep as the building, with a curved staircase sweeping up to an ornate wooden mezzanine. Nervously, she walked toward the front desk, where a small, smiling woman was waiting to greet her. This was Mrs. Sibley, the hotel’s manager. Carolyn handed over her references while Mrs. Sibley looked her up and down.
Candidates for residence at the Barbizon were assessed on their references, as well as their age, looks, and background. The management’s preference was for attractive girls in their late teens or very early twenties—and with a waiting list of at least one hundred names, Mrs. Sibley could have her pick. At nineteen, Carolyn met the age requirement. As for her pedigree, Mrs. Sibley most likely assumed that Steubenville was a steel town and that Carolyn’s parents were solidly blue-collar. Fortunately, Carolyn was pretty enough to pass Mrs. Sibley’s test.
Then Mrs. Sibley read Carolyn the hotel rules and regulations. No cooking appliances in the rooms, lest the building burn to the ground. No liquor in the rooms. It was the hotel’s preference that young ladies did not stay out late at night but returned to their rooms at a respectable hour. A warning would be given to anyone who didn’t comply. If, after a warning, the girl continued to stay out late, Mrs. Sibley would have to inform management, who might decide to give her room to another girl. As a guest of the hotel, Carolyn had the use of its swimming pool, gym, library, and roof garden. In the afternoons, complimentary tea and cookies were served in the recital room, on the mezzanine above the lobby. Should she wish to join, backgammon and card games were held in the evenings in the recreation room, and there were regular educational lectures on a range of subjects, to improve the mind.
But Mrs. Sibley and her fellow staff of the Barbizon weren’t only seeking to improve the minds of the young ladies of the hotel. They were also determined to protect their virtue. No men were admitted beyond the lobby, Mrs. Sibley warned Carolyn, unless a guest wanted to bring her date to the coed lounge on the nineteenth floor, in which case a special pass was required. And after sundown, male elevator operators were switched for female ones, in case any man should be tempted beyond his station.
Carolyn’s room was on the ninth floor, and like all the Barbizon’s rooms, it was tiny and narrow; you could almost stretch out your arms and touch the walls on either side. There was just enough room for a small single bed with a nightstand, a desk with a radio, and a table lamp. The green drapes matched the bedspread and the carpet. Bathrooms were shared and situated at the end of the hall. Carolyn didn’t mind. From her window, she could look out across the rooftops of the tan-colored town houses of Sixty-third Street and beyond to the entire city. Even after midnight, she learned, the streets were alive with noises: traffic, taxi horns, and the voices of people passing down below. For twelve dollars a week, this world was hers.
NYNA GILES is the youngest daughter of Carolyn Scott Reybold, a model best known as one of Grace Kelly’s bridesmaids. Having had a successful, 20-year career in advertising, digital marketing and sales, Nyna now serves as Chief Operating Officer for Giles Communications, a leading public relations company. She is also a tireless advocate for the mentally ill, having served as a vice president on the board of The Association for Mentally Ill Children of Westchester, Inc. for 10 years. She lives in Westchester County, New York with her husband.
EVE CLAXTON is a writer, editor, and Peabody award-winning radio producer. She’s worked as an editor or co-writer on numerous nonfiction books.