Zibby is once again joined by New York Times bestselling author Fiona Davis to talk about her latest novel, The Magnolia Palace, which takes place in New York’s famed Frick Collection. The two talk about what inspired Fiona to tell a fictionalized version of the Frick’s story, how she managed to write so vividly about the museum during the early days of the pandemic while in lockdown, and the multiple projects she’s working on next. Fiona also shares why she decided to talk publicly about her Parkinson’s disease and how it may fit into one of her upcoming books.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Fiona. Welcome back, I should say, on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Magnolia Palace, which by the way, is so close to where I’m recording this podcast. I feel like I should’ve done a live thing on the sidewalk or something.

Fiona Davis: I like that. You with a microphone, yes.

Zibby: I should actually just walk over there and take a picture of me outside. Maybe I’ll do that later today or something and post it. Can you tell listeners what The Magnolia Palace is about?

Fiona: All the books I write about are set in landmark buildings. This one is set at the Frick Collection, which is a beautiful museum that was the residence to Henry Clay Frick and his family before it was turned over to the public and became a museum and is now the Frick Collection. My book is set in two different time periods because I love that jumping back and forth thing. In 1919, it’s from the point of view of this very celebrated artists’ model and muse who gets caught in a scandal. She has to hide out in the Frick mansion with the Frick family after getting hired as the private secretary to the very temperamental Helen Frick. She gets all caught up in the family drama, including romantic trysts and a stolen pink diamond known as a magnolia diamond. Then in 1966, it’s from the point of view of a fashion model named Veronica. She’s doing this Vogue photoshoot at the Frick that goes terribly wrong. She gets trapped inside during a three-day blizzard along with an intern named Joshua. She stumbles upon a series of hidden clues of messages that are tucked in around the artwork of the museum. That leads her and Joshua on a scavenger hunt that she hopes might solve all of her financial problems as well as possibly reveal the truth behind this decades-old murder in the Frick family. There’s a lot of moving parts.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. I love how you’re canvasing the city. As a native New Yorker, this makes me very happy. It’s just getting closer and closer, all the references you have, on West 65th Street. Now we’re on 70th Street. Now we’re here. Even the history, you’re so good at just weaving it in so it makes sense. How Mrs. Astor is the one who decided to move uptown — there was a term for it.

Fiona: Vanderbuilding.

Zibby: Vanderbuilding, yes. There was a whole migration. I love it. I wonder if later they’re going to call it Greenwiching or something, like when everybody was moving out to Greenwich and it became the thing with all the mansions. It sounds similar.

Fiona: It’s so fascinating. In the beginning, everybody was downtown. Uptown was farms. Then as time went on, they started moving uptown. You had the Vanderbilts building their French châteaus on 5th Avenue in the fifties. Unfortunately, they’re no longer around. That would be wild to see. Then you have Frick, who put out this very restrained, comparatively, and elegant mansion on East 70th Street in 1914. His whole thing was to keep it very conservative and elegant and restrained so that the focus was always the art on the walls. He was a huge art collector. Even today, as you walk around the Frick, the sunlight’s pouring in and you have these beautiful furnishings and that kind of thing, but every hallway in every room, you’re looking at Turners and Renoirs and Rembrandts. There’s thirty-four Vermeers in the world. I learned that three are at the Frick. You’re in this house with these beautiful paintings. It really feels like the Fricks just ran off to a dinner party and they’ll be back at any moment. I think that’s the magic of it. That’s why so many New Yorkers, if you ask them what their favorite museum is, it’s the Frick.

Zibby: Back I was younger and I would go to these galas all the time — not all the time. Occasionally. I had a girlfriend who was on the steering committee of that young person’s party. All to say, I would get dressed up in black tie and go to the Frick for all these parties. It was like out of your book. We’d all be in black tie with nice, beautiful dresses and holding champagne and wandering around. They would have all the galleries on the first floor. Everything was open. You could just wander. Then right in the middle courtyard, everybody would have this giant cocktail party. There’d be a DJ. It was really fun.

Fiona: In the before times, yes.

Zibby: In the before times, yes. In fact, there was actually a blizzard one year. I remember tromping in. Everybody was all festive. It’s like we were trapped there, essentially.

Fiona: I love it. It was really wonderful to be able to get a behind-the-scenes tour. They have a bowling alley in the basement that really works, built in 1914. It still works. It’s just in beautiful shape. The way they keep it up is stunning. I’ve gone to a couple fancy soirées at the Frick. It’s amazing walking around with a glass of champagne and looking at these paintings. I think there’s just nothing better.

Zibby: You can feel, not the ghosts, but you can feel the people who have come before you. You feel like you’re in another era. That’s why it’s such a great setting for a novel. Even the present day, it feels like you’re not even living in today’s reality, so to speak.

Fiona: It’s so true. The personalities of the Frick family were so strong, especially Henry and Helen, that it’s true, it’s like their ghosts are still there wandering around telling you what to do. It’s pretty amazing.

Zibby: It’s also interesting that he built it knowing that he was going to donate it. I feel like that must have informed how he structured it and all of that.

Fiona: Definitely. For example, there’s a huge room in the back that normally, in a Gilded Age mansion, that would be the ballroom, but it’s an art gallery. It always was because that was his intention. It’s just stunning. It’s really, really quite amazing.

Zibby: I love how you crafted both of the women in both time zones — time zones? I guess you could say time zones. I don’t know. It’s not like they’re on the West Coast or whatever. Angelica, who’s really mourning her mom and really sad about that and trying to find her place in the world and getting by with a modeling profession that no longer really exists — does it? They used to make statues out of these women. She would just casually bump up against these really famous statues and not even tell anybody, that’s actually my body over there. That’s crazy.

Fiona: It really is. Her story’s incredible. The character Lillian/Angelica in the book is inspired by a real-life artist model named Audrey Munson. Her story is just incredible. She was this really celebrated artist model in the early 1900s where she posed for statues that are all over Manhattan. You can find them still today at Columbus Circle, in front of the library, in front of The Plaza Hotel, in front of the Brooklyn Museum. She’s also carved in stone above the entrance to the Frick, which is where I first figured out who she was and started googling. Her life is incredible. It’s stranger than fiction. She got caught up in a scandal which is very similar to the scandal in my book. Then she and her mother fled Upstate. Things just didn’t go well. She tried to get into a film career. That didn’t work. She eventually swallowed mercury trying to kill herself. Then her mother finally put her in an asylum where she died in 1996 at the age of 104.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. No way.

Fiona: Yep. At that time, she was buried in an unmarked grave. I thought, here is this woman who has completely been lost to history. We pass by her every day. No one knew that she existed. That’s really why I wanted to create a character who I call Lillian because I changed the trajectory of her life. I just wanted people to know about Audrey Munson and possibly google her and find out about her. She’s just an incredible person in New York history.

Zibby: Wow. Do you have some sort of a scavenger hunt map of where her statues are?

Fiona: Yeah. If you go on my website,, and you go to the book club kit for The Magnolia Palace, there’s a bunch of questions for book clubs, which are great. Then on top of that, there’s a map of the various statues. She’s everywhere. They’re beautiful. My favorite is the Titanic Memorial, which is on the Upper West Side. It’s kind of tucked away. It’s her lying on her side gazing dreamily at a fountain with all the drapery. It’s really beautiful. It was really fun to research what it was like to be an artist model back then and how you were lauded and celebrated. At the same time, because you were posing nude for men, you weren’t high society by any means.

Zibby: The Titanic sculpture that you mention in the book, too, it was based on a woman who sent her maid onto — that wasn’t Mrs. Astor, though, right?

Fiona: The Strauses.

Zibby: The Strauses, right. She sent her maid on the boat but decided to stay back with her husband so they could die together.

Fiona: I know, I know. The memorial, the sculpture of her, just really captures that poignancy. It’s really beautiful.

Zibby: When I read that, I was like, would I do that? How sure were they that it was going to sink? How sure were they that the boats would make it to safety? What is the risk? Would you be able to be in touch with the kids? I went down this whole mental debate. I decided I would’ve done the same thing, except for maybe the kids because then they would lose us both. How could I live with the guilt? How nice would it be to be — anyway, whatever. What would you do?

Fiona: That’s a really good question. You know, I don’t have kids, so I can’t answer that.

Zibby: Without kids.

Fiona: I would like to think I would stay with Greg and watch the ship go down hoping that we’d be rescued. I wouldn’t want to leave him. I think he would insist that I get on the boat, though. He’d pretty much throw me in the boat — I don’t think I’d have much of a choice — in the lifeboat. I would like to think I’d go down with the ship.

Zibby: Food for thought. We should do a little poll.

Fiona: We should.

Zibby: Speaking of Greg, you wrote a beautiful article for Good Morning America about your divorce and being with Greg now and your Parkinson’s. Can we talk about that? I didn’t even know about that.

Fiona: Yeah, sure. A couple years ago right before The Lions of Fifth Avenue came out, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I was really shocked. At that time, I was fifty-three. I was thinking, I’m way too young. Apparently, I’m not. Fifties and sixties is when it does hit. At first, there’s a part of you — when you get Parkinson’s, you know that’s something old people get, so I shouldn’t tell anyone. Medication really helps me with my symptoms, so you wouldn’t know at this point, but it is a progressive, incurable disease. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, you know, I’d rather talk about it because I’m sure there’s tons of readers who have it. The more we talk about it, the more funding we can get for research — for example, what Michael J. Fox has been doing for years and is incredible — and also possibly change things politically. There are certain pesticides and chemicals that are banned in Europe and other countries but are not banned here, and they’re known to cause Parkinson’s. In the same time, we’ve had a thirty-five percent increase in Parkinson’s over the past ten years.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Fiona: Right, so something’s going wrong. We need to fix it. I just feel like, well, the more we talk about it, maybe it’ll get people to reach out to their politicians and say, hey, let’s ban these substances and protect our .

Zibby: What are the main culprits?

Fiona: Paraquat is a pesticide. TCE is a chemical compound that’s found in a lot of drinking water and everywhere. They’re banned in Europe and China and other places, but not here, which is crazy. The response has been just wonderful. I’ve had so many people reach out and share either their diagnosis with this or similar diseases like MS. It’s been kind of wonderful. I thought, if I’m doing a book talk and my arm starts shaking, people will know, and that’s fine. You just carry on.

Zibby: In the article, you talked about thinking it was stress-related and that once you got the book out it would go away. Do you find that stress intensifies it? Is that actually correlated?

Fiona: Yeah. Oh, definitely. You want to meditate and eat well. They’ve found that exercise is one of the only things that slows the progression. Exercise also helps with stress. I try and do a half hour of serious cardio or strength training or Peloton six out of seven days a week. They’ve proven that that helps. I’m all into doing that and trying to not get injured. There’s just so many things to balance out. So far, it’s been fine. I have great doctors. I have a great Zoom support group. There’s a bunch of us who are all women in our fifties and sixties who have it. That’s just been wonderful. The disease is different in every person. You can’t say, do this, this, and this, because your symptoms could be dramatically different from someone else. It’s been a real learning curve, but there’s a lot out there and a lot of support. It’s been really wonderful.

Zibby: Wow. It was a beautiful, beautiful article. I’m so glad you shared it. I’m sorry you’re going through this, but it sounds like you have such a great approach and tactics and management.

Fiona: Thank you.

Zibby: Is this going to find its way into a novel, the character?

Fiona: You’re the first person who’s asked me that. Yes. Not in a really, it’s all about the Parkinson’s, but in a more sideways way. In fact, I was asked to do a short story for Amazon for an anthology of historical fiction authors that’s coming out this summer. That’s from the point of view of, in the 1950s, a classical pianist who’s about to perform at Carnegie Hall and realizes that she has something called dystonia where her fingers are starting to curl in. It’s about her journey, but it’s just a short story. It was so much fun to work on. That’s one way it’s seeping in. That story’s really more about her finding this village of people who live above Carnegie Hall in these 180 studios that they built. You have people up there. People who have passed through there include Marlon Brando and Mark Twain and Martha Graham. All these famous people have lived or been on top of Carnegie Hall in the studios. It’s just showing about this artistic village that she stumbles upon one night.

Zibby: That sounds like a full-on novel. This is just a short story. I’m like, why are you wasting it on a short story?

Fiona: It worked out really well. You know what’s fun? The next book is interesting. I was trying to figure out, after Carnegie Hall, what to write. A woman reached out to me who said, “I’m in my eighties. I’m a former Rockette. If you want to know the secrets of Radio City, you should call me.” Of course, I did and went down this wonderful rabbit hole and have been talking to Rockettes in their seventies and eighties about their experiences. I’m setting the next book at Radio City in the 1950s from the point of view of a Rockette.

Zibby: That’s very cool.

Fiona: It should be fun.

Zibby: I feel like I read something that involved somebody who was a Rockette.

Fiona: I love Rockette stories.

Zibby: I’m going to think of it in a little bit.

Fiona: It’ll come to you when you’re not thinking of it.

Zibby: I will send it to you. You’ve probably already researched this. It was bringing all sorts of disgrace to her family. Her parents didn’t want to know. The dad was furious, but then she ended up doing a great job.

Fiona: Oh, yes, yes. I know exactly who you mean.

Zibby: What am I talking about?

Fiona: I spoke with her.

Zibby: She had a whole thing with the owner who was this famous guy. Was it Nicola Harrison’s new book? Was it The Show Girl? No.

Fiona: Oh, no, that’s the Ziegfeld Follies.

Zibby: Ziegfeld Follies, okay.

Fiona: That’s wonderful. That’s such a good book. She’s terrific. That’s the Ziegfeld Follies. That’s more risqué. That was in the twenties. It was pretty risqué, so I can see why fathers might be upset. The Rockettes are much more wholesome. It’s been wonderful talking to women who were Rockettes because they found such a sisterhood in the troop. It was such a wonderful, defining moment in their lives. They’re all still very tightly woven today. It’s just an incredible story.

Zibby: I have a friend who was a Rockette, if you want to talk to her.

Fiona: Ooh, yeah. I’ve talked to a number. Yeah, I would love to. That would be great.

Zibby: I promise, a Rockette this time, not the Ziegfeld Follies, which is exactly what I was thinking about. Sorry, my brain is puttering to catch up with what I would like to extract from it.

Fiona: I get it.

Zibby: That’s amazing. How, by the way, was your event with Julie Satow? Was it amazing?

Fiona: It was incredible. For the launch of The Magnolia Palace, I asked Julie, who wrote The Plaza, which is a wonderful book that we both did a salon with you about, which was wonderful — that’s where we met. She’s become a great friend. I asked her to do a book talk in person at Rizzoli Books for the launch of The Magnolia Palace. Of course, because she’s a journalist, she comes at it from a really interesting angle. We had a wonderful conversation. We had a full house. Lots and lots of author friends came out, which is really the first time in a long time that I think we’ve all assembled. It just happened to be the end of the latest wave of COVID, so people felt safe enough to do it. It was a blast. It was so great seeing so many familiar faces, even if they were masked. It was just wonderful.

Zibby: Were you working on this during COVID, during the beginning?

Fiona: Yeah. You know what’s so funny? I got that behind-the-scenes tour in January of 2020. That’s great, but usually, I go back multiple times to visit a building. We locked down in March. Luckily, has an amazing floor plan on their website. You can go into any room and get a 360-degree view. That saved the day because I could pop into the stairway and say, all right, if someone’s looking up, how much can they see? What angle would they have to be at? What’s above the fireplace in the library? What is that painting of Mr. Frick? How should I describe it? That was great. They also were able to send me digital archives of things like the payroll. There were three people living in the mansion, the family. It was Henry, Adelaide, and Helen. Helen was in her late twenties at that point. They were served by a staff of twenty-seven. I could see the payroll and who was paid what. What were their roles? What were their jobs? They would send dinner menus from 1915 when they had a dinner party for thirty. Here’s who was invited. Here’s the seven courses that they did, that kind of thing. It’s looking for those details that really help the book pop. I don’t have to know exactly what happened back then, but if you have enough details to feel like the characters are embedded in that time period, you can bring the reader along with you. That’s what I was trying to do. It worked out well. Now, of course, the Frick is under renovation until next year. They’ve moved most of the artwork to the Frick Madison, which is just within walking distance. You can still see all the art and learn about the family. It’s a really interesting way to view it. It’s gotten great reviews all over the place for the way they’ve reconstituted the collection in this new location temporarily.

Zibby: The reason I was wondering if it was written during COVID is because I feel like these characters are a little angrier than most of your other characters, the crossed arms, like, whatever, here I am. Take me or leave. I don’t even really care. Whatever. I feel like that’s a departure. In Lions of Fifth Avenue, she was curious about having this other life, but she wasn’t super angry about it. Even in the Chelsea Hotel book, The Chelsea Girls, they were exploring. They’re in the wartime wanting to act, and friendship — nobody was so pissed off as these characters. That’s my read on it.

Fiona: That’s hilarious. One of the characters who I loved writing about was Helen Frick. She was really interesting because she was a real daddy’s girl, but at the same time, they really fought. She was just a tough woman. Her mother was kind of depressed and stayed home a lot, so she became her father’s confidant both socially and in terms of the art collecting. He was a tough guy. This is a guy, Henry Frick, who was a crazy union buster. He survived an assassination attempt. They took the bullets out of him without anesthesia. This is a tough guy who you don’t want to mess with. She met him straight on. She was someone who, when he died in 1919, was left thirty-eight million dollars, which made her the richest unmarried woman in America. What was interesting is she was described in a New Yorker profile as a woman of extremely robust prejudices. If her friends bobbed their hair, which was very popular in the 1920s, she would dump them. She wore a pompadour and a bun most of her entire life.

She hated Germans. She wouldn’t let anyone in the library that she created, the Frick Art Reference Library, with a German last name. She fought with the board of the Frick for years until she finally resigned in the sixties. At the same time, this is a woman who, in 1917 at the height of World War I, created a Red Cross unit and went to France with it in order to help refugees. She was just a really complicated woman and not easy to deal with by any means. By putting our character Lillian, who is a real fish out of water because she doesn’t know how to be a private secretary — she’s not trained, so she’s really flailing badly — against this hard-headed boss, a lady boss, I really enjoyed that. What’s been wonderful is so many readers have reached out to me and say that their favorite character is Helen, which I really like because I wanted to try and make sure the Fricks were three-dimensional and showing their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths and their prejudices. Hopefully, we achieved that.

Zibby: Amazing. Love it. What is your advice to aspiring authors? Maybe part of that could be how you maintain this level of output and frequency with your writing, how you accomplished that.

Fiona: I accomplish that because I don’t have kids. This is why it’s perfect for your podcast. I got divorced, and so I’ve created my own universe where I get to do whatever I want. That is really, really nice. I love kids. I think they’re wonderful, but I just never had the inclination to have them. It does give you a lot of free time. I know a lot of friends with kids. As they grow up, you’re suddenly like, yes, I have my life back. That’s been really helpful. The advice I’d give to a writer would be, you don’t have to write your first book by the time you’re thirty. Take time. Go out and live life. Go do other things. Go have relationships. Try things. Do other things. Then when you really feel like you have something to say, that’s when it’s time to write a book. I didn’t start writing until I was in my late forties. It was only because a story hit me that I just really wanted to see if I could tell. That became The Dollhouse, my debut book. I couldn’t have written that book in my twenties. I was a dingbell. I just had nothing to say. It took some tough things to happen to make me realize, oh, yeah, I want to write this down because it’ll be interesting to dig into it, really get into the weeds. I think that’s what good books do.

Zibby: Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you for bringing some pretty flowers into this gloomy winter day with this novel and the cover and all the imagery inside. It really transports even though it takes place so close. It’s always really fun to talk to you. Thanks for being so open about your diagnosis and all of that. I hope to see you soon.

Fiona: Thank you. Thank you for these great questions. Just wonderful.

Zibby: No problem. Bye, Fiona.

Fiona: Thank you. Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Fiona: Bye.



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