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2024-06-07 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine Plum Sykes Returns with "Wives Like Us" and calls The Cotswolds "Beatrix Potter on Acid"

Plum Sykes Returns with "Wives Like Us" and calls The Cotswolds "Beatrix Potter on Acid"

Plum Sykes

Wives (Not Exactly) Like Us

In her new novel, Plum Sykes turns her satirical eye to the country princesses of the Cotswolds. JANET MERCEL caught up with Sykes as she returned for a two-week whirlwind in the old stomping grounds that started it all—New York.

“It’s like Beatrix Potter on acid,” Plum Sykes says of the picturesque strip of countryside in south-central England, where the “nouveau-posh” titans of media, tech and finance decamp from London for holidays, weekends, and in some cases, full time life. Wives Like Us, her latest snapshot of the beautiful and bored, follows a somehow lovable cast of women, and the dreamy executive butler who tends to them in this idyll. More inspired by Colin Firth in The Single Man than a stuffy, mashed potato-paunched version of household help, he epitomizes the sea change that has taken place from the Cotswolds of yesteryear. 

“The rich have changed,” says Sykes. “They want a person who’s smooth and suave representing them, not just an eccentric running their house— an all-in-one fixer, concierge, and nanny for grownups. No matter the request, the answer is always, ‘Absolutely, no problem.’ I’ve stayed at places with someone like that. One holiday away– it was tropical– someone said, ‘Can we get donkeys? It’s not Christmas-y enough here.’ Within ten minutes, there were six donkeys out back for the children.”

Of course, when long-time residents of centuries-old estates are forced to socialize with the only people who can afford to buy them, new doesn’t always mesh smoothly with old (ideals, money, people). In Wives Like Us, that’s when the fun really begins. It’s the Hudson Valley meets East Hampton, with more sheep and fewer paparazzi, and is just the comedy of errors that puts the author at the height of her powers. “Instead of ‘who was here twenty years ago,’” says Sykes, “it’s ‘who was here two hundred years ago?’” For example, she notes, the former medieval tavern in Burford that recently converted to an über-upscale Omakase 10-seater. “Incredibly fancy sushi in Burford? It used to be the only people you’d find there were a farmer or a tweedy lady buying gardening gloves.”

“The rich have changed. They want a person who’s smooth and suave representing them, not just an eccentric running their house— an all-in-one fixer, concierge, and nanny for grownups.”

Plum Sykes

Reading Bergdorf Blondes, The Debutante Divorcée, and Party Girls Die in Pearls is like picking up a conversation with an old friend, and very much like talking to Plum herself. (I used to mail a copy of Divorcée to friends in marital woe, in lieu of flowers). Sykes’ Vogue column in the late ‘90s “Fashion Fiction”— a millennial-era chat between two imagined Manhattan fashionistas– took off and Blondes was written at the encouragement of Anna Wintour. The “Park Avenue Princess” was born, and Sykes nailed the essence of an era. “I don’t think about how culture will age, I just put it in if I like it,” she explains. “I am interested in the zeitgeist. Look at American Psycho– it’s a perfect time capsule of details. Each generation processes it differently.” She’s right, obviously. Just as Bret Easton Ellis keeps Susan Bennis Warren Edwards and original Brioni suits alive, an Alice & Olivia mention from 2004 will resonate however many years later.

Plum Sykes signing books

Whitney Bromberg Hawkings is one of those zeitgeisty details. The founder and CEO of Flowerbx is behind the florals for brands like Burberry and Asprey, immortalized by Sykes in Wives as the “queen of the single stem.” “Plum didn’t even tell me! She just said, ‘I have to send you a galley of the book.’ And I screamed when I read it.” The women first met during Bromberg Hawkings’ tenure as SVP of Communications at Tom Ford. “She was writing a piece on Rihanna for American Vogue. She was literally the coolest person on the planet. I wanted to be Plum Sykes. Actually, I still want to be Plum Sykes.” 

“The “Park Avenue Princess” was born, and Sykes nailed the essence of an era. “I don’t think about how culture will age, I just put it in if I like it,” she explains. “I am interested in the zeitgeist.””

When Bromberg Hawkings and her husband, Peter Hawkings, creative director at Tom Ford, wanted a place in the countryside, Sykes paved the way. “It’s impossible to find something there on your own. Plum said to Georgia, the Duchess of Beaufort, ‘You have to find Whitney and Peter a house.’ We got the seal of approval, lived in one of the buildings on the estate, and spent every Saturday night at Badminton House [Gloucestershire] with the duchess until four in the morning. Plum is the key to the authentic Cotswolds.”

To celebrate all that Englishness, Sykes came back to where it all began– Manhattan. And, boy, was it happy to see her. From 1997 to 2005 she lived there as a Vogue staff writer, then jetted back and forth a bit before returning to England in 2010. Her twin, Lucy, (an also infamous It Girl) was there, too, as fashion editor at Town & Country. Not since Holly Golightly had the city enjoyed such girls about town. Now, it’s been five pandemic-affected years since Sykes last visited New York, and her friends were there en force to welcome her back. “It’s been absolutely brilliant,” she gushes. “Everyone’s taken me to dinner, given me things. Marina Rust, a very old friend, threw a party for the book and afterward a few of us went out. Ann Dexter-Jones took a ring she designed off her finger and gave it to me. The next morning, I told her, ‘I think there’s been a mistake.’ Ann said, ‘There’s no mistake, I made it with gold and amethyst and reiki blessings and gave it to you for luck.’ New Yorkers are so generous with their time and spirit.” 

Thankfully, there’s always family to keep you grounded. “She stayed here for two weeks and wouldn’t effing leave,” grumbles Sykes’ sister, Lucy, who still calls New York home. “Every day more things would arrive—Gucci boxes, etcetera. My seventeen-year-old son kept asking, ‘Um, when will the bathroom be free?’ We just could not get rid of her.” Shared bathroom time or not, Lucy’s joy at having back her old partner in crime is palpable. “We have so many mutual friends. A couple of times we went out on the town. One night we ended up outside my apartment building with a bottle of wine. Her very elegant publisher, Jonathan [Burnham, President of Harper at HarperCollins], happens to walk by as we’re sitting on the steps of The Whitney, laughing about the crazy day and drinking rosé and smoking cigarettes. Very un-Plum,” she adds. “He was all, ‘Not even a chic rooftop for you girls?’ It was wonderful, felt like it was all just yesterday.”

Lucy and Plum Sykes at a party in the late ’90s

“There will never be another Plum,” declares Erin Lazard, who managed to steal a few moments with the writer during her blitz through New York. The friends met when Sykes interviewed Lazard for the magazine in the early aughts. “I fell madly in love with her. With that Oxford education and Vogue way, and her excitement and joy of life— in that young colt body that’s still exactly the same as it was.” When Lazard’s daughter, Chloé, was a teenager, she dreamed of sending her to the Cotswolds to absorb whatever indescribable, chic, polished essence is to be found there. “If everyone could send their kid to live with Plum for two weeks and mix whatever their genes are with a bit of her, well…” Lazard is unable to fully articulate the specific results of such a desirable event. 

“I missed her terribly through Covid when no one could go back and forth,” Lazarad continues. “She’d say, ‘I’m over here in Blighty’, which is slang for the U.K, and I had to Google that. She is the real vision of a white gloved debutante running through a field, in tweed and organza and chiffon, and leather boots. To know Plum is to love her. And now, we’re all together again.” 

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