Look, I’ll be straight with you—and none of this is for publication. The Secret Service is, after all, secret. But when Mac pulled me off the President’s detail and assigned me to head Hers, I protested—big-time. The Service has two missions: protection and counterfeit currency. This was worse than coins.
“Mac, gimme a break. Teas, receptions, Barbara Walters. What’re you doing to me?”
“This one’s different, Mancini. Or haven’t you been paying attention?”
That stung. Paying attention is what this job is all about. And the job was everything to me.
“Mac, I have to be where the action is. Especially now.”
Oof. I hadn’t meant to get personal, but it just snuck up. Which bothered me. We don’t like things sneaking up.
But Mac understood. I’d told him about Toni, the separation.
He leaned forward. “You think you won’t see action with this one? Our first First Lady who works? Between her Carnegie Hall concerts and her prize-winning statements, your plate will be swarming. He’s easy, everybody loves him. It’s her that causes sparks. Like you, she doesn’t do teas either.”
She also didn’t campaign, and when she did, she didn’t smile. ….. “Can’t Costick stay on with her?” I asked, stalling for time. Costick had been her detail leader since Iowa.
“His father’s in the hospital. Galloping cancer.”
I was about to ask, How fast a gallop, but I canned it. I tell you, my mind astonishes me sometimes. What was it Freud said: The unconscious never lies? If so, I was in trouble.
“Anyway,” Mac said, “she’s going to need our best—and that’s you, Rennie.”
Well, like everybody, I’m susceptible to praise. “Thanks,” I said. But it didn’t come out too enthusiastic.
Mac’s eyes narrowed. “So, Mancini: What’s your problem?”
What was my problem?
Another franca woman in my life—that was my problem! Sure, times have changed, and the Service “exposes” us to “sensitivity sessions,” but it was coming from all sides. First, Angela, my oldest, came home from Princeton, said my attitudes were “antediluvian.” Then Toni got ideas, dropped her mop, went back to nursing. And Gina, my baby—twelve years old—Gina was talking about going into the Army? Santo Dio, that’s no place for a lady. And speaking of ladies, mia carissima madre was encouraging her. Said Gina would learn “hard skills.” So, making the best lasagna in all Providence—the white sauce and the green—that wasn’t hard enough? And now I’d have to take orders from this “outspoken” woman? Who didn’t even go by her husband’s name?
On the other hand, it was a detail any agent would kill for. So to speak.
Mac looked at his watch. “So? You’d like to return to the field?”
“Va bene, va bene,” I said. “I mean: fine.” On duty I watch the Italian, the gestures. Control is everything with the Service.
“That’s better. Besides, Ren-boy, she is candy for the eyes.”
Certissimo, she was a stunner. Tall, slender, movie-star beautiful. Red hair. Creamy complexion. Very good for 40. Sure, she dressed unorthodox. The fashion types were after her already about all that black. But: She was gorgeous. Which would make keeping an eye on her both a joy and Mission Impossible.
Mac walked me to the door. “She is the perfect woman,” he said. “As such, she’s a target. It’ll be the test of your career. But, you’re up to it.” He shook my hand, squeezing it like he’d done with me and the assignment. “I want a full report, someday.”
So here it is, Mac: the full report—squeezed.
* * *
I hustled over the East Wing. The place was in an uproar—boxes all over, movers moving. As for Herself, I heard her before I saw her: From two rooms away, her belly laugh hit me. And she’s a non-smiler? Made you want to smile yourself—which to my surprise I was doing. Alert: Smiles are not “command presence.” I composed myself and stepped in.
There she was, sitting on the floor, in Bermudas and sweatshirt, talking on the phone. She didn’t notice me right off, so I studied her legs. Woof.
As if in response to the exclamation points in my head, she looked up and flinched. I pointed to my lapel pin, she waved me in. She was on the line with her agent talking dates four, five years down the road. Prague, London, New York. Sure, I knew she was famous, but I’d never heard her play. Her detail never teamed up with ours on the campaign trail.
“By the way, Sam,” she said, “performances this year: How many is it now? Eighty-five? Hmm, that’ll be a stretch, but good, fine.”
Whoa. Not good, not fine. How the hell was she going to finesse eighty-five performances and the zillion social events her wing is responsible for? Plus the teas and the do-good stuff. Stretch, nothing. We were talking bends. A conflict of schedule. Major.
She hung up and looked at me. “I suppose you’re thinking, ‘conflict of schedule.’”
Christ, a clairvoyant! The surprise shook my head yes.
“I know, I know,” she said, “how to manage the social albatross.” She shook her head—“I’ll figure something out”—and came over toward me. I noticed again how tall she was. Almost up with me, a good 5’10. A very good 5’10 indeed.
“Hello, I’m Aurelia Buck,” she said, redundantly. “And you are….?”
“Agent Renato Mancini, at your service.” I asked how I should address her.
“Ms. Buck is probably best.”
Mizz—still sounds like a bumblebee.
She smiled. “Some people still think it sounds like a bumblebee—-“
“—and Buck is my name. Says so on the program, twenty years now. And this smile business: I smile when something’s funny.” She laughed. “Aren’t we defensive?”
She was so gorgeous I could swoon. And I had objections? She reached out to shake my hand. I reciprocated, possibly too vigorously.
“The hands, Mancini, the hands!” The look of pain on the First Face! But she laughed—a reprieve. While she massaged her hand, I noted it was a little wrinkly. Guess hands go before the neck. Speaking of necks, this one was perfect. Behind my Reflectors, I was having a field day.
“So,” she said, “you always wear your sunglasses indoors?”
Again! “Sorry,” I said, whipping them off. Come on, man: Get your balance.
She looked at me and nodded. “Nice,” she said. “You look interesting.”
Echo, echo: That’s what she said to the President when she first met him, when he was a Senator. “You look interesting,” the hostess heard her say, “are you?” Myself, I wondered what she saw in him. The man didn’t have an off button, not that I saw.
On the other hand, she said I was interesting. Women usually comment on my looks.
She turned to go. “Excuse me, I have to go check my 1000-pound baby.”
“Scusi?” It just fell out.
“My new performance piano. They’re moving it in now.”
She headed out. I followed her, my eyes on the ankles, the legs. Terrific thighs—not like Toni’s. Building up to a truly great—-
She turned around. I hoisted my eyes just in time. “Do you have something else to do,” she asked, “or do you shadow me everywhere?”
“The latter,” I said. “Besides, I have to examine the piano. Bombs, bugs, that sort of thing.”
“Wait’ll you meet my tuner. He looks like Lenin.”
I laughed. “That’s funny,” I said. She looked over at me and smiled. Heaven, I’m in Heaven.
We walked down the corridor together. I cut my eyes over at her, checking from another angle the cheekbones, the shoulders, the bazooms. What a view.
At which point, she sighed: “Always on view….”
Too much! I know artists are hyper-sensitive types, but this was too much. “Excuse me?” I said, praying for exemption.
Fortunately she was referring to the crowd outside, behind the barricades. We’d stopped at a window. She was looking out, I was looking at her.
“Always on view,” she said. “I guess it goes with the territory. But then….” Her voice dropped a little. “It tends to go with the sex.”
The magic word. Mac, transfer me!
We started walking again. “By the way,” she said, cutting through my haze, “do I have a new code name?”
“Yes,” I said, barely remembering. “It’s Scherzo.”
“Scherzo, eh? Lively, playful. Somebody’s attuned,” she laughed. “Though Cadenza would’ve been better.”
I asked what a cadenza was.
“An elaborate flourish, often improvised on the spot. If you get my drift.”
I told her I did. I also told he how ignorant I was about music.
“You and Calvin Coolidge. I read about it last night. He said he knew two tunes. One was ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’—and the other wasn’t.”
I laughed, hard. Her laugh landed on mine. “You’ll do,” she said. Coolidge shot to second place in my personal pantheon of outstanding Presidents, right behind Lincoln, nosing out Roosevelt.
“Scherzo’s all right,” she went on, “but it also means joke in Italian, doesn’t it.” She looked out the window. “Which this place could make me, but which”—she said this slow—“over my dead body it will not.” She looked at me. “Speaking metaphorically, of course.”
And before I could stop myself I said, “Speaking physically—-“ Jesus! “Excuse me, m’am, I just wanted you to know—-“
“I know, I know,” she said, touching my sleeve. “I’m in your hands.”
“I’m in your hands”: Gesu, Maria, e Giusepppe, one of us was talking metaphors. But the other—most definitely—wasn’t.
* * *
My impression of her? I was in lust. Pure, unmetaphorical lust. Which, combined with the normal stress of the job, meant I’d soon be walking around in shock.
“Normal stress”: Ours is up there with combat pilots’. Agents on the White House detail rotate out after three years max. What with the stress and travel, the Service is death on marriages. It was on mine. Affairs are common—this is nothing if not a “people job”—but the Service is death on them too. Liz gave me my walking papers about the time Toni did.
But, I like the Service, the stress. I’m a competence nut. I like being tested.
And did we get tested. Eighty-five concerts averaged one every 4.3 days, and the next, in Boston, was two days off. White House duty is actually pretty tedious, but when the show goes on the road, attenzione. Plus this First Lady was the ultimate operational challenge: onstage and stationary. Made you long for the shoppers and homebodies.
But when I heard her play, I longed no more. Ladies and gentlemen, I almost burst my shoulder holster. All that sound! And a woman producing it? With just one hand? Because for openers she played a Bach tune Brahms did a variation of, Chaconne, that uses only the left hand. Impressive—very. Plus, with Scherzo looking so beautiful in black velvet, the whole scene was a wow. Which is what I said as she came offstage. “Thanks,” she said. “Now see what I can do with two hands.” I laughed. “By the way,” she said, looking me over, “you look terrific in a tux.” Wow again. Then she whipped back onstage, leaving me in a cloud of perfume and some steamy fantasies about what I could do with my two hands.
What’s that saying? “Who’s guarding the guardians?”
Too bad she ruined it with that encore, Beethoven’s Contra-Dance. As Denny, my lieutenant, moaned in my earpiece, “Wait’ll the West Wing hears about this. ‘First Lady Signals President’s Nicaragua Policy.’” Which is exactly what the headlines read the next day.
“For crying out loud,” she said on the flight back when the President’s chief of staff phoned. “The political implications of music? Look, Buster”—fortunately that was his name—“I chose it spur of the moment. It was the perfect encore, short and charming. Like you.” She looked at me and gave a silent laugh. “Oh don’t get bent.”
But the West Wing was bent. Next day the national security advisor went straight to the cameras, harrumphing about “lines of responsibility.” She was steamed. “Yes, I know, my responsibility is decoration. Guess Douglas hasn’t straightened them out yet. Is anybody listing to the music?”
“Is anybody listening to the music?”: Good question. Just about nobody.
Yes! Agent Mancini: Providence wienie, Fordham grad, Army grunt, police captain. Now and into perpetuity, music lover. Con brio.
O.K., it’s a switch from Tina Turner and Willie Nelson. But, hey, you hang around genius, you convert. Once upon a time, sight and touch were my only working senses, but with Scherzo, I cued into sound. And hers was so—- The word I finally came up with was “fluid.” Which was what The New York Times critic said—I checked the ‘Net: “Ms. Buck’s playing is so seamless, so fluid, one must constantly remind oneself the piano is a percussive instrument.” And to be in the same room when she practiced—White House duty went from tedious to terrific. I was so snowed I took her home with me—her CDs, that is. Like her, I’d start the day with Bach—say, Sleepers, Awake—and end it jogging around Arlington listening to her Mozart’s Fantasie in C-minor, Köchel no 473. Christ, look at me: umlauts!
And that’s just punctuation. Because of her I know a mordent from a trill, an arpeggio from a glissando, the component parts of a sonata. She taught me about shading, dynamics. Shit, I was learning nuance!
And that’s just musicology. More important was where the music took you. Because in the end, she said, tapping her heart, “We aim to move.”
Which got me thinking: What’s playing inside? I know, I know: Mancini, Toscanini of the female torso, wondering what’s playing inside. But listening to her, day after day, I began thinking all kinds of questions, like: How’d she get started? How’d she know she was good? And coming from me, the corker: How did a girl get it in her head to go for the brass ring?
It was Scherzo herself who gave me the answers. She was glad to talk. God knows, nobody else was asking. Plus, I was around 12 hours a day.
Here it is: As she says, she was born to play. It was Fate. “I was three,” she said, “and we were at the neighbors’. The lady sat down to play—Liebestraum it was—and my fingers began to tingle, my heart did somersaults, my brain went ‘I want, I want!’ If one person could get all that heavenly sound out of one instrument, that was for me. No question.”
Sounded like Fate to me. Also my symptoms, especially the “I want” part.
Fate or no, she worked like a Trojan. Sometimes she’d concentrate so hard on a trick passage, she’d scrunch up that beautiful face. And if she messed up, she’d go over and over it until it was perfect. “Then and only then,” she said, “can you inject the passion.” Too many pianists today, she said, were note-perfect—“technical wizards, like our technical times”—but their playing was sterile. “And passion is the point, right?”
I could relate to that. But, it wasn’t a come-on. She just spaced out when it came to music.
I mean, she’d talk about things like the Soul, which she capitalized. At first I thought it was high fruitcake. In the Service you don’t hear about the Soul, and for sure it’s not part of standard American discourse. But, if you zip the lip and listen to the music, something inside you, well, stirs. You want to make confession and fly straight forevermore. So when she quoted Bach—“All music should be made to the glory of God, anything else is but infernal scraping and bawling”—I thought: Sure. This is the way it should be.
But that’s not the way it went. Talk about “scraping and bawling.”
* * *
What followed was the norm for this place. After the honeymoon, the sniping. Unfortunately, Scherzo’s remark about missing the President’s trip to the U.K.—“I’m a soloist, not an accompanist”—ratcheted the sniping up to bombs-away.
Take the social diddle. Like I predicted, her concert schedule made it a physical impossibility to meet her social obligations: We were out of Washington half of each month. And even when she was in the city, she was still “unavailable” for stuff. She had to practice—morning events were out, her practice time—and she had to keep learning new repertoire, the piano literature being humungous. As she said, “I want to grow in office too.” Another firecracker statement.
After that Buster did his best to keep her from the press. But, now that I pondered it, yeah, wanting to grow in office: It’s understandable.
Mancini pondering, understanding? But really, who wants to regress? Angela, call your father.
But what really stuck were the state dinners she missed. Attending a White House dinner is a very big deal—even movie stars get excited and RSVP personally—so if she didn’t show, there was grousing. She tried to cover by asking the Vice President’s wife to stand in, but that didn’t fly. As the Veep’s wife said, “They want steak and they get me, hamburger.” Soon, disgruntled celebs were giving exit interviews from the White House driveway, claiming they finessed contractual obligations to be there, why couldn’t she?
Which became the big issue: her obligations, contractual versus social. The airtime and column inches expended! Scherzo stood her ground—“I signed on the dotted line with no purpose of evasion”—but Washington, contrary to its paper-pusher image, loves to party and it squawked “absenteeism.”
“Christ, Mancini, if I fail to show for a concert I get sued and if I fail to show for a dinner I get crucified. Is this no-win or what?”
It was. Plus, it didn’t help that when she did show up for events, she didn’t shake hands. “Ice Princess.” But she’d learned her lesson at the Inaugural balls. After shaking 5,000 hands, her arm was paralyzed. And the next night she was taking on “the Everest” of the piano, Brahms’ Paganini Variations, Books I and II. That sucker, with all the repeats, runs 45 minutes, no break.
But, she did not cancel. “No excuses, Mancini, no excuses.” I had to admire that.
Mancini: admiring a woman?
Another thing: Social events take planning and this she absolutely had no time for, though Buster waved these “duties” in her face. To extricate herself from guest lists and menu preparation and seating charts, she put in for a half-dozen more staff positions. Man, the buzz about the expense! You’d think it was she and not the President who’d asked for a tax hike. “Christ on a crutch,” she’d say, “sell a missile and make it up.”
It was during this particular diddle that she put it to me.
“Mancini, I ask you: How would you compare the social utility of planning a menu versus working out a cadenza? Honest.”
Honest? “No comparison, M’am, short-term or long. Go for the cadenza.”
“Thanks, Renato,” she said. “I needed that.”
When I mentioned this to my mother, she dropped the phone. When I added that she didn’t have to make lasagna from scratch anymore on my visits home, she dropped it again. “Renato, you got a heart transplant? My son, you are improving.”
“Ma,” I said, laughing. “You live, you learn.”
Meanwhile, there was also the political diddle. Coincident with the “Contra” crisis—and the flak over Air Force One-Point-Five that Scherzo needed for concertizing—there was the uproar over her new piano. I saw the problem myself when I checked it out: Made in Japan. Major sin on the part of Consumer No. 1. When Yamaha launched an advertising campaign featuring You-Know-Whom, labor went ballistic.
And the sound-proofing flak. Buster, that towering connoisseur, had complained about the “noise” from her practicing—she used the ballroom—so she had the room sound-proofed. Another expense! Her response? She’d compensate by not changing out the White House china. Which, naturally, the media played as “First Lady’s China Policy: Non-recognition.”
“Oh for crying out loud!” she cried out loud, “does anybody really care about this stuff?” She was, no kidding, heading for the White House press room to give them “one memorable cadenza,” when I actually laid hands on her person and said, “M’am, go practice instead.” “Good thinking, Mancini,” she said. “But first”—and as we reversed, she gave them the bird.
We laughed. For the moment, the dumbness of things got a laugh. But I noticed her cheeks were blotchy, her neck had a nasty red rash. And next day, a zit appeared. “This place,” she said, “will ruin my complexion.”
Which leads to the fashion diddle. Classic double-bind. St. Louis illustrates.
She was in the Green Room—it was intermission—I was outside the door, when I heard her dial Connie, her press secretary, to check the day’s news. Last week’s “news” was her “mannish” hands. O.K., they are big, but consider what they do. From the get-go she was taking hits for wearing the same outfits, “disdaining” American designers, “all that black.” “Scherzo,” I beamed to her, “don’t ask about news, not with the knuckle-busting Ravel coming up.”
But she did. “My what?” My ‘fright mask in concert’?” She let out a yelp and hung up.
I stepped in. “You know,” I said, “supreme effort is going to do something to your face. Fuck ‘em.”
A first: Mancini voting for Art over Beauty. Also using profanity with a First Lady.
But she was rattled. So I said, “Look, why let the style crap get to you?”
“Because”—and here’s the double-bind—“it’s the same message I hear in my head. ‘More color.’ ‘Try a new hairdo.’ ‘Big hands.’ I just hope they stay off my fat knees.”
Fat knees? I wanted to say her knees were perfect, but then I thought: What have knees got to do with anything? And maybe her overheated fears were related to my overheated fantasies?
She tore on. “I hear other voices too. I hear—see—Eleanor Roosevelt saying to me: ‘Let the career go, Dear, and dedicate yourself to your unique humanitarian role. Signs of decline are all about, the nation is in a psychic Depression, it needs a ministering angel.’ She’s powerfully persuasive. What’s tickling the ivories compared to her contribution?”
I was about to say beautiful music is a contribution too, when a very worried concert manager appeared. I picked up the Ravel and, taking her elbow, guided her backstage. “That’s a lot going on in your head,” I said.
She nodded. “Is it like that for you?”
“Nah, all I hear is ‘Don’t forget to pick up your cleaning’ and ‘Go for it.’” Not to mention Denny screaming in my earpiece, “You need cover? You need cover?”
“You’re lucky,” she said. “I tell you, Renato, it’s enough to cause a wrong note.”
I couldn’t let her go like that, so I held up the Ravel: “Go for it.”
“Thanks, coach.” But instead of checking Ravel one last time, she checked herself in my Reflectors. “How do I look?” she asked.
She’d had better days. “Bellissima,” I lied.
“Thanks, I needed that.” And, squeezing my arm, she was gone.
Normally I’d react to the physical contact, but that lost look on her face unnerved me. Suppose Scherzo hit a wrong note? But, she didn’t. She’s too much the pro, though in the Ravel she repeated a section three times instead of the customary two. I was across the way when it happened. I saw the faraway look in her eyes—she was in automatic, a place a pianist “never ever should be”—and when she realized it, she flinched. But, she saved herself. I was proud of her.
On the flight back, she brought up her near-miss. “Almost got away from me, Mancini.” She sighed. “Always, always, always: ‘How’m I doing?’ and ‘How’m I looking?’ Guess which one counts most?”
Then, eyes sparkling, she looked at me. “All right, Mancini. What does count most?”
“When you met me,” she pressed on, “your first thought was….”
“Honest now, Mancini.”
“Your repertoire. Absolutely.”
She erupted in a belly laugh. “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”
I laughed too. “That was then, this is now.”
We were pushing protocol to the max, but we blinked—just in time, woof—and pulled back from the line. I made a vow, though. If it would help, if it would relieve some of the pressure, I’d never think bazooms again. Just credentials.
When I said something along this line to Toni—I called about seeing Gina on her birthday—she dropped the phone. When she got back on the line, she sounded winded. “You? Simpatico? Renato, my estranged husband, how you’ve changed.”
“Toni,” I said, “you learn, you live.”
* * *
Clearly, while Scherzo wasn’t the sort to break down in sobs, the combined diddled was getting to her. And leave it to Buster to combine it for her.