Monday, January 28, 2013

'Grace Jones' bio explores one woman's big life

I was a young punk newspaper reporter when I met Grace Jones. I can’t remember the assignment, but it took me to her chic clothing store in Salado. Ms. Jones greeted me with an air of sophistication that was slightly intimidating. A rich woman from the East who somehow landed in Texas, I guessed. I was very wrong.

Mary Margaret Quadlander’s biography Grace Jones of Salado makes that abundantly clear. Jones was Texan through and through. Her life is straight out of Giant or perhaps a Larry McMurtry novel. It was big and got bigger.

Born Willy Grace Rosanky (her father wanted a boy) in the town bearing her family name near Lockhart, she was raised on a ranch by a hard-drinking, risk-loving entrepreneur who was flush with cash one moment, down on his luck the next. It was a swirling chaos that helped form Grace Jones’ live of both success and tragedy.

Quadlander was my graduate fiction-writing student at St. Edward’s University and already then a fashion designer of note when she first told me about this project. As the book tells it, Jones helped put Quadlander on the fashion map and a friendship was born. With it came great responsibility when the late Jones bequeathed her papers to Quadlander. The result is this fine book.

It tells of Jones' quick path to adulthood: marriage to WWII pilot-to-be, the loss of their twin children just after birth, a detour to a University of Texas sorority house, and a LOOK Magazine article that sent everything spinning.

That article spoke of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, a program where women would be trained to pilot and deliver airplanes stateside while the male pilots saw action overseas. Grace talked her father into letting her sign up in support of her pilot husband. She was soon in the air, semi-earning her wings, though the female pilots weren’t taken seriously enough for actual wings to arrive in Jones’ mailbox until the ‘70s.

But like a good novel, Jones’ life was a back-and-forth progression of wins and losses. Her husband divorced her for a woman he’d met overseas. She hightailed it to New York City and became a successful fashion model, then the wife of an even-higher profile pilot Jack Jones whose career led Grace overseas. When he retired they ended up in Salado, Texas, where they opened Grace Jones of Salado, an improbably successful, ultra-pricey home to high fashion. Celebs like Henry Kissinger and the actress Loretta Young jetted in.

Jack Jones turned from flyboy to errand boy for his famed wife. He couldn’t take it and divorced here. Grace kept her chin up as she’d always done. But underneath the story, Quadlander reveals, there is a deep sadness. It’s however tempered with the full joy and bravado of Grace Jones’ life. Jones said, “There are those who seek and those who wait. I’m a seeker. I have always been curious, not just about fashion but so may other things that interest me…. I took advantage of being in the right place to learn about all of these things that interested me. And I also took advantage of anyone who could teach me something new.”

There’s a lesson there. Perhaps a warning, too. Quadlander has captured it well in this compelling book about a compelling life. Quadlander believes it would make a good film. I believe she's right.

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