Skype talk connects author, audience
STEUBENVILLE — The wonders of technology connected guests and members of the Schiappa Book Club with Nyna Giles, author of “The Bridesmaid’s Daughter: From Grace Kelly’s Wedding to a Woman’s Shelter — Searching for the Truth About My Mother.”
Schiappa Book Club facilitator Juli Paquette, who extended the welcome and offered a brief overview of the author at the Jan. 29 gathering, arranged the Skype talk on what was a blustery cold evening, but the more than 30 in the meeting room of the Schiappa Branch of the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County were warmed nonetheless by explanations and insights of a daughter’s journey to understand her mother and herself.
Giles is the daughter of the late Steubenville native Carolyn Schaffner, who was 18 when she reigned as Steubenville’s Sesquicentennial Queen in 1947 in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Steubenville’s founding. Schaffner used some of her winnings to head to New York where she would become not only a famous model but would serve as a bridesmaid to best friend Grace Kelly when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco. Later in life, she spent years living in a homeless shelter, her mental illness undiagnosed.
Paquette, library services assistant, ironically is the daughter of the late Mary Mandich, “Miss Steubenville,” who was 21 and a nurse at Ohio Valley Hospital when she took third-place honors on that very same sesquicentennial court, local royalty serving along with Giles’ mother.
The book came out in March 2018, and Giles has been promoting it and her passion as an advocate for the mentally ill.
“I am so grateful to Steubenville because by making my mother sesquicentennial queen all those years ago, that gave her the chance to go to New York and pursue her dreams of being a model for what were perhaps the happiest years of her life,” Giles said, expressing gratitude to many in Steubenville who helped in the research process. Two of them present in the audience were Charlie Green of the Jefferson County Historical Association and Sandy Day, historian/genealogist at the Schiappa branch before her retirement.
In February 2014, Giles visited the Jefferson County Historical Association Museum along with co-author Eve Claxton. “We had a great day there, and Charlie had so many things there that I had never seen before. It was such an important part of the research, so I am very grateful that you preserved all those items. That was wonderful,” she said. Day sent Giles a package of articles “That was just phenomenal.”
Giles, who lives in New York, shared that after that visit to Steubenville, she received an article from October 1951 about her mother’s modeling success. It was about the 22-year-old Carolyn Scott being among New York City’s top models. Giles read the article that noted, in part, “The roots of Carolyn’s success were nurtured during her Steubenville school days when she was known by her real name, Carolyn Schaffner, her wide brown eyes, complemented by lustrous dark brown straight hair, and a smile that crinkled her nose and dimpled her cheeks were the envy of not too few of her classmates.” At 14, she was an admirer of famous fashion models and was encouraged by a cousin. In high school, a teacher introduced her to a commercial photographer who gave her some basic advice and made some test photos. “The promising results,” Giles read, “led to her departure to New York City in November 1947.”
“It really was just amazing what happened to her with her career,” Giles said, noting “the wonder and magic of what she was experiencing was never lost on her.” She said it was very important to honor her mother’s career, one she knew very little about growing up. “I knew she had been a Ford (agency) model,” but there weren’t many pictures in their house, and her mother had lost her portfolio on a plane trip.
“I spent the last five years researching her career. I have more than 550 images at this point from magazines, and that was one of the most rewarding parts of the journey, going to all the libraries. I have a great appreciation for libraries,” Giles said. “Librarians would roll out carts with bound volumes of magazines, and I would go through them and find pictures of her, which was really very special.”
Such discoveries raised questions, too. “Who was this woman, the woman my mother was before I was born? That (the model) wasn’t really the woman I knew growing up,” said Giles, who was the youngest of three daughters. Giles rarely went to school and spent her childhood isolated and frequently visiting doctors because her mother was convinced Giles was ill. She wasn’t, but her mother was, suffering from undiagnosed postpartum psychosis.
The book came about after Giles connected with Eve Claxton, who was doing preliminary research on a book about the history of the Barbizon Hotel in New York City. For many decades it was an historic female-only residential hotel where women stayed as they pursued their professional careers. That included Giles’ mother, who befriended Grace Kelly there.
“She reached out, and we had lunch and started talking about my mother, and I told her about my childhood,” Giles explained of her meeting Claxton. “My mother was a successful model and bridesmaid and best friend of Grace Kelly only to spend years living in a homeless shelter later in life, so the book is really my search to understand how this happened, how did this once beautiful, glamorous woman fall so hard, and it also goes into the impact mental illness can have on families and on children,” she continued.
“It’s been an incredible journey of more than 100 interviews,” Giles said of the pursuit that ran the gamut from family from Ohio she never knew to top health professionals. And Tippi Hedren, the model turned actress who many remember starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” in 1963.
“My mother worked with her often because Tippi was the petite blonde, and my mother was the petite brunette,” she said, noting the two models had nurtured a friendship, “and she would even come to visit us on Long Island. I essentially retraced the footsteps of my mother’s entire life — from Steubenville, Ohio, to New York City to Monaco to the Royal Palace, and I kept searching for new insights. There were certain pieces that didn’t fit. Much later in life she had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but she didn’t really have the classic symptoms of that, and it bothered me, and I didn’t feel that was really what happened, and especially during interviews with people asked if they saw any unusual signs or evidence of that before I was born and there was nothing,” she said.
“I can see the difference in her after I was born,” Giles said, who explained she met with an expert on schizophrenia, and “when I shared about mother what I knew, he felt that it was postpartum psychosis, which is more severe than postpartum depression but understanding that really that’s when all the pieces fit together of what happened and explained a lot.
“It is tragic because my mother could have been treated. It was a serious condition, but it’s temporary and treatable, and my birth was traumatic,” she said, explaining that she was a 10-pound, 10-ounc baby. Her petite mother had a Cesarean section and hysterectomy and was in hospital 10 days.
“She had moved to Long Island, her friends were all in the city, and everything that she loved was in Manhattan, so that year after I was born was really the perfect storm,” Giles said. “My birth was really a fork in the road, a turning point in her life from which she never fully recovered. It’s not an overnight thing, it’s a gradual thing. I’ve been very passionate about mental health advocacy for years. My mother’s story is giving me the opportunity to do so much more. Truthfully, her story is not unusual expect for the friendship with Grace Kelly, but I believe that’s all the more reason why her story can shine a light for others.”
Nyna was 47 when her mother, 79, died in 2007 at the Medford Multicare Home in Long Island, N.Y. Before that her mother had lived at a shelter for a decade, despite offers to live elsewhere.
Giles said the book, which also is her survivor story, is a gift that keeps on giving. Last Christmas, she received two boxes from a collector of Grace Kelly items, “things she thought I should have.” In the mix was the book “Princess of Monaco: The Story of Grace Kelly,” by Gant Gaither. The book inscribed Aug. 14, 1957, to her parents read: “For Carolyn and Malcom who played such important roles in this legend and contributed so much of themselves to making this wonderful dream come true.”
The library setting allowed interaction between presenter and audience members with one inquiry regarding whether Giles might like to see the book become a movie.
Giles explained she is talking to a “third interested party about a documentary,” and leaning on the side of that happening, given the subject is more of an inward journey “so it fits with the documentary.”
She also touched on her trip to Monaco in October 2016 as part of research, where she saw, for example, the royal wedding seating chart where Cary Grant sat in front of her father, Malcolm Reybold; how the book got its meant-to-be name; her sister, Robin, who was 25 when died in car accident 40 years ago Jan. 28; and that as part of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s legislative committee she will be sharing her story with legislators this month, focusing on issues surrounding housing and wraparound services for the seriously mentally ill.