Revisiting Judith Krantz’s “Scruples,” a Novel with a Passion for Clothes

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Judith Krantz always wanted to write fiction, but it was not until she was approaching fifty, in the late nineteen-seventies, that her husband, Steve, persuaded her to finally attempt a novel. Her career up until that point had been in women’s magazines; she had been an accessories editor at Good Housekeeping and then a writer at Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan, and she was an avid connoisseur of clothes. So when she turned, with trepidation, to fiction, she wrote what she knew. Her first novel, “Scruples,” published in 1978, is a fashion-retail version of a Cinderella story, set in nineteen-sixties L.A. It centers on Billy Orsini (born Wilhelmina Hunnenwell Winthrop), a young striver who moves to New York, where she takes secretarial work at Ikehorn Enterprises, a global conglomerate, and begins sleeping with the C.E.O., Ellis Ikehorn. They marry, and she takes to Ellis’s lavish life style with gusto—appearing at events and on best-dressed lists, and wearing a pair of eleven-karat Harry Winston diamond earrings at all times of day, “heedless of convention.” Then Ellis suffers a stroke, and the couple move to Bel Air for the mild weather. When Ellis dies, Billy finds herself a rich young widow with money and ambition to burn. So she decides to do what any clotheshorse dreams of: she opens a luxury boutique, called Scruples, on Rodeo Drive, and becomes the queen of Los Angeles fashion.

The rest of the plot of “Scruples” is schlocky, steamy “Dynasty”-era romance fare: hearts get broken, tongues get intertwined, gossip gets spread around. Much of the book reads today as deeply out of date; the phrases “divine wop” and “fag bullshit” are tossed off within the first ten pages. But, as an account of nascent eighties decadence the novel remains one of the most enjoyable texts I’ve ever read. At the store—which was modelled on the über-successful Giorgio Beverly Hills—Billy hires a smooth salesman named Spider Elliot, a blond lothario who sleeps with his customers as often as he dresses them. On Spider’s recommendation, she installs a pub and a backgammon table in the store, a boys’ club inside the girls’ club where shoppers’ husbands can drink and dally while their wives swipe their credit cards. And oh, the clothes! “Scruples” contains so many delicious descriptions of garments that you may find yourself longing to pet its pages. Fabrics are not just brown; they are “future-wordly tones of melting taupe, fawn, biscuit, and greige.” A woman doesn’t just walk into a party; she enters “with the glitter of a matador, encased in a vintage, shocking pink-and-black satin Schiaparelli, thickly encrusted with gold braid.” Of Billy’s jet-setting years with Ellis in Paris, Krantz writes:

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Krantz, who died over the weekend, at the age of ninety-one, developed her taste for fashion early. Born in 1928 as Judith Bluma-Gittel Tarcher, she was the daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Her father worked in advertising, and sent Krantz and her two siblings to an exclusive private school on the Upper East Side. But Krantz’s mother, a lawyer for Legal Aid who was always dressed to the nines, did not want Judith and her siblings to go soft in their life of privilege. So she made them “wear cheap clothes to their fancy school,” as Judith Shulevitz wrote, in a New Yorker piece on Krantz from 2000—“an injustice that guaranteed Judy’s commitment to the art of self-presentation.” As an adult, Krantz followed trends the way that some people follow stock tickers, and in her later years (after writing novels, including a “Scruples” sequel, had made her wildly wealthy) she obsessively collected Chanel and Hermes. In an essay for Vogue that she wrote at the age of seventy-three, Krantz looked back on her eventful life in apparel, sounding a lot like Billy Orsini: “I’ve sported bare legs with heels, the cinched-waist mid-calf skirt, the trapeze, the chemise, the chiffon blouse without a bra, the Mary Quant miniskirt, the YSL Smoking, the total Courrèges white-boot look, the bell-bottom trousers with the po’ boy sweater, the power suit, and the tie-dyed Zandra Rhodes evening pajamas.”

“Scruples” offers the fashion-minded reader not only immense pleasures but also some legitimate advice. If Krantz had one exceptional skill, it was knowing how to walk into a store and, with laser focus, find the item that would look sensational. Shopping, “Scruples” argues, is all about self-knowledge. As Spider Elliot tells one of his clients at the store, you have to abandon the idea that you will look great in everything and find what works just for you. “Ask yourself,” he says of trying on clothes, “am I still there or have I vanished? Think thin, think soft, think simple, think easy, with the emphasis on your eyes and your skin. That way you won’t ever get lost.”

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