Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: I’ll Eat When I’m Dead

Saying that Barbara Bourland’s I’ll Eat When I’m Dead is like The Devil Wears Prada on steroids undersells this wacky dip into the fashion magazine world, or, as the protagonists would have it, a global feminist publication that happens to cover fashion and beauty. The book’s pampered creatures have a bipolar attitude toward recreational drugs: They kill but they’re so much fun! Their magazine tackles the shabby business model behind fashion, then moves on to the celebration of older women. There’s a manifesto in here, and it’s a wild, improbable ride along the way. Grand Central Publishing published Bourland’s sweet-and-sour confection last month.

IT WAS NOT impossible for a thirty-seven-year-old woman to starve to death in Manhattan, less than a mile from the nearest Whole Foods, though it was unusual.

When the NYPD opened the locked workroom at the offices of RAGE Fashion Book, where Hillary Whitney’s body lay dead on the floor, most of the officers placed their bets on a cocaine overdose. The still-perfect hair and makeup, the bleach-white Dior pumps, the long, manicured red nails; it could all have been part of one of the magazine’s photo shoots, if not for the way her limbs sprang—unnatural, akimbo—from her mint-colored dress. It was the officers’ collective experience that women who died at work in clothing this expensive were partying themselves into eternity.

Yes, cocaine was a solid bet, but still: one optimist had chosen aneurysm. “She looked like a nice girl,” he’d said, “and her skin was in great shape.” Another risk-taker bet meningitis, “because you never know.”

Yet, in the end, Carol, Midtown South’s senior secretary and most enthusiastic bookmaker, was the sole profiteer: the coroner’s autopsy reported that Hillary Edith Whitney had experienced a fatal coronary as the end-stage event of starvation, which no one had thought to bet on. In a zip code where the average net worth topped a million dollars, starvation hadn’t been recorded as a cause of death for an able-bodied woman under sixty since the previous century.

The unmistakable signs of a lifetime of disordered eating, chronic malnutrition, and various muscle tears and strains from an intense daily exercise regimen—along with a clean standard toxicity screen—buttressed the coroner’s conclusion, and

Author Barbara Bourland. / Photo by Dennis Drenner.

so the precinct’s detectives saw no reason to dispute his theory that with the right combination of stress and a diet of alkaline-only green juices, a fatal heart attack could’ve happened anytime.

Clues, too, were in short supply. The only things discovered in the workroom with her were one half-empty juice bottle, an oversized and overturned box filled with thirteen yards of “luxury” ribbon, a pile of blank index cards, and a pen. It appeared she’d suffered the heart attack before she had the opportunity to write anything down. An attorney for Cooper House, RAGE Fashion Book’s publisher, confirmed that Hillary Whitney was working on a shoot involving ribbon. He helpfully offered that she was probably taking notes on the texture and provenance, which he insisted was a “low-stress” activity—though Cooper’s reputation as a high-stakes workplace preceded his remarks, but that in and of itself wasn’t technically a crime—and so, the case was closed in eleven days.

Eventually, like all things do, the death of Hillary Edith Whitney faded out of public consciousness.

Two months later the odors of new paint and new carpet were almost gone from the workroom where she’d died. The funeral was long over, her ashes scattered in Old House Pond on Martha’s Vineyard, when her boyfriend went back to his wife and her parents stopped crying first thing in the morning. Her estate was processed, her apartment was put on the market, and an interim fashion director was hired to replace her. It seemed to everyone that the ripple of her death had run its course.

Naturally, they were wrong.

—Barbara Bourland

Excerpted from I’ll Eat When I’m Dead by Barbara Bourland. Copyright © 2017 by Barbara Bourland. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.  

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