The Bridesmaid’s Daughter,” Nyna Giles’ affecting new memoir, is a pair of love stories, though not in the way you might imagine.
Yes, there are weddings, including a royal one, and marriages, some more lasting than others.
But at its heart, “Bridesmaid,” out next month, tells the parallel narratives of a friendship between two women, a successful model and a Hollywood star turned real-life princess, and the complex relationship between that model and the daughter who would come to understand her descent into madness.
“I had always wanted to tell this story, which I think is a powerful story,” says Giles, COO of Giles Communications, a mental health advocate and a former account representative for Westfair Communications, WAG’s parent company.
It wasn’t until she met Eve Claxton in 2013, however, that she found the framework in which to do so. Claxton, a writer, editor and Peabody Award-winning radio producer, was looking to write a book about the legendary Barbizon Hotel for Women — the launching pad for scores of models, actresses and writers, including Ali MacGraw, Phylicia Rashad, Liza Minnelli, Eudora Welty and Sylvia Plath, who immortalized it in her novel “The Bell Jar.”
Among its guests in the late 1940s were two teenagers seeking success and adventure in New York who would become close friends — Grace Kelly, the future movie actress (“High Noon,” “Rear Window”) and princess of Monaco, and Giles’ mother, the future Eileen Ford model Carolyn Scott, who would appear on the cover of top magazines like McCall’s, be photographed by Francesco Scavullo and screen-tested by Howard Hughes. So close were these Barbizon residents that Scott would serve as one of Kelly’s bridesmaids at her cinematic 1956 wedding in Monaco. Later, they would be neighbors again at Manhattan House, after Scott married advertising executive Malcolm Reybold, Giles’ father. Princess Grace — a woman whose passions and down-to-earth nature belied her cool public persona — would serve as godmother to Giles’ oldest sister, Jyl.
And yet, in 1989, a supermarket tabloid would reveal that Scott was homeless — sleeping in a shelter on New York’s Upper East Side by night; freshening up in the ladies’ lounge at Bergdorf Goodman and frequenting the city’s parks, libraries and churches by day.
“How did this glamorous woman end up in a shelter?” Giles says. She and Claxton soon realized that this was the story they wanted to tell.
Giles was also moved to journey into her mother’s past by her own work as a mental health advocate. A parent whose children include a daughter with psychiatric and developmental challenges, Giles served as a vice president on the board of The Association for Mentally Ill Children of Westchester for 10 years. She and husband Peter co-chaired the Mental Health Association’s 2015 5K Run/Walk.
“I care about how people see the mentally ill,” she says. “And I realize how much I’ve learned.”
Over a leisurely lunch at Graziella’s Italian Bistro in White Plains, where she lived for 17 years, the Pound Ridge resident and former model — with more than a passing resemblance to Meryl Streep — takes WAG through the nuances of mental illness and her mother’s own complex narrative. There were telltale signs of trouble in Scott’s life along the way — impulsive trips to her hometown of Steubenville, Ohio, where a local beauty pageant had been her ticket out of a grim Cinderella existence, and to the Roman Catholic shrine at Lourdes; keeping Giles, the youngest of her three daughters, out of school with imaginary illnesses. (Giles stresses, however, that this was not Munchausen syndrome by proxy, because “she would never do anything to harm me or to gain attention by my ‘illnesses.’”)
In 1985, Scott was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but Giles’ extensive research has led her to conclude that her mother was suffering from postpartum psychosis, brought on after Giles’ birth and exacerbated by her “Mad Men”-style marriage. Though Scott lived with her husband and three daughters in a modern house on five acres of waterfront property in Lloyd’s Neck, Long Island, that he called “the Dream House,” Giles says this was far from the world of the arts and entertainment that she had relished as a Manhattan model.
Then, too, it was an era in which you didn’t talk about pregnancy let alone imagine any psychological effects from it. While both Scott’s husband and Princess Grace may have sensed something was wrong, they were at a loss as to what to do about it. The relationships were complicated by the princess’ onetime affair with her friend’s spouse. And yet, Giles says her mother never spoke of Princess Grace with anything but understanding.
Forgiveness emerges as a big theme in “The Bridesmaid’s Daughter.” One of the most moving moments comes when Giles — a watchful angel in her mother’s later years — meets her on Mother’s Day 1990 in the 58th Street square she favored.
“I want you to know that I forgive you,” Giles said, referring to the times her mother kept her home from school under the delusion she was sick.
“That’s a lot for a person like me to handle,” Scott replied, tears in her eyes.
Heart disease would force her into an adult home. Cancer would claim her life in 2007.
“I feel nothing but love for her now,” Giles says. “It’s important to separate the illness from the person.”
“The Bridesmaid’s Daughter: From Grace Kelly’s Wedding to a Woman’s Shelter — Searching for the Truth About My Mother” (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99) is on sale March. 27. To pre-order, visit thebridesmaidsdaughter.com.