The Blonde Bombshell

By all accounts, it was a fairy-tale wedding, and in the Parker House it had an ideal setting. Porters in double-breasted white jackets greeted guests as they breezed into the hotel's oak-paneled lobby, a grand chamber adorned with ornate moldings and gold leaf. Crystal chandeliers and matching sconces sparkled in the second-floor ballroom that hosted the celebration, and the halls whispered with history, romance, and old-fashioned high living. This was the Brahmin haunt where Longfellow and his literary cohorts shared lavish Saturday suppers, where hotshot bankers blew their 1990s bonuses on rare French vintages, where John F. Kennedy not only announced his candidacy for   Congress, but also proposed to Jackie.   

As for the less flattering signs of the hotel's 150 years — the worn upholstery on its wingback chairs, the frumpy tourists milling where businessmen in dandy suits once met — well, those could be worked around. The bride just had to coax her guests into ignoring the incongruities and playing along. And she'd proven quite adept at that.

For Natier Chartres, the marriage would be her second. Through her work as a fashion designer and charity hostess, the 49-year-old Chartres had gotten to know top-dollar attorneys and prosperous entrepreneurs. She mingled with gallery owners, nightlife impresarios, influential politicians, and popular entertainers. Rather than try to accommodate her “hundreds” of acquaintances, she would later explain, Chartres opted for an intimate Champagne brunch. On the invitations, Chartres used her full title, the Baroness des Ducruets, and identified her intended as Lord Philip Jason Reynolds.

The festivities commenced at 11 a.m. on February 28, 1999. Chartres wore a crème-colored, two-piece, knee-length silk crepe dress she'd designed and clear pumps she called her “Cinderella shoes”; in the heels, the 6-foot-tall platinum blonde appeared even more statuesque than usual. A duo performed the couple's song, Shania Twain's “From This Moment On,” and after she and Reynolds exchanged their vows, a harpist serenaded the gathering as eggs Benedict and miniature coffee cakes were served. The entire affair was cozy and sophisticated, just as Chartres had dreamed.

Like many weddings, however, it didn't come off exactly as planned. Chartres had an unwanted guest. On her way to the hotel, she was tailed by a private investigator hired by a manager at the Newbury Guest House. Seeking a change of pace, Chartres had recently landed a job there keeping the books. Soon after, she had started dating the owner, Nubar Hagopian.

Before leaving the Parker House, the investigator snapped a few photos, adding them to a file that suggested the baroness was not who she seemed to be. Natier Chartres, it turned out, was a made-up name. She was Nancy Tier by birth, Nancy Anderson by a failed earlier marriage, and when she switched to the new moniker she had also gotten a new social security number. She moved around a lot: Public records showed five different addresses in three years. She had sought bankruptcy protection and filed a prodigious number of lawsuits and legal complaints, including a scandalous sexual harassment grievance involving a prominent attorney and some racy telephone messages.

When the investigator checked for criminal activity, however, there was none to be found. For the time being, Chartres's record was clean. But a year and a half later, other investigators, these with the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office, would look into Chartres's behavior and background. What they found landed her in jail on charges of theft.

Chartres, meanwhile, would bring suit against Hagopian for sexual harassment and employment discrimination. Today she continues to assert her innocence. She says there's more to her story, that things aren't necessarily what they seem. On that point, if on nothing else, the prominent Bostonians who've crossed paths with her wholeheartedly agree.

Even as a little girl growing up with her working-class family in Melrose, Nancy Tier, as Chartres was then known, felt a kinship with the well-heeled. Her maternal grandmother, Edna Colby, was a matron of Victorian mores who taught her to enjoy sewing and high tea. Her grandfather, James Colby, had a thriving solo law practice in Boston and sat on a number of college boards. He also moonlighted as an author and had written several books. He died when Chartres was seven, but she says she still treasures the long letters he sent her when he traveled, which were filled with adages like, “Waste not, want not” and “Oh, what a tangled web we weave.” He treated her to breakfasts in the city, often at the Parker House. “I was the favorite granddaughter, the littlest angel,” Chartres says.

When Chartres's gilded visits with her grandparents ended, she returned to a meager lifestyle. Her dad was a handyman struggling with alcoholism; her mother raised Chartres and her brother and sister and struggled to cover the bills. Court records filed by Chartres's first husband, Carl Anderson, suggest the strain affected her as a young woman. “Prior to the marriage, Mrs. Anderson was timid and withdrawn,” Anderson's lawyer wrote during the couple's divorce proceedings. “Her family life was not satisfying to her, and on two occasions, she left home to establish separate living quarters for herself.”

Chartres and Anderson were married by a justice of the peace in March 1970. She was 20; he was 29. Within eight months, she gave birth to a daughter, Amy. Four years later, the couple had a son they named Jon. They separated shortly after and split for good in 1977. During the divorce, she accused him of hitting her; he alleged infidelity. The contretemps carried on long after a judge awarded Chartres physical custody of the kids. Jacob M. Atwood, who went on to become one of Boston's most sought-after divorce lawyers, represented Chartres in the case.

Chartres spent most of the next few years grinding away in dead-end jobs, toiling briefly as a secretary at Hale and Dorr and later completing a longer tour assisting the CEO of a sealant manufacturer in Stoneham. In 1988, she decided to put her grandmother's tutelage in needlework to use by making women's clothes. Chartres called her new enterprise Jana — for Jon, Amy, Nancy Anderson — and submitted the necessary incorporation forms to the state. “My daughter was getting into beauty pageants, and I was designing the gowns,” Chartres says. “She was my model and my muse.”

Records indicate that Jana was involuntarily dissolved during its third year in operation. Chartres and her ex-husband continued to quarrel. In 1995, they went to court again; Amy, now with a daughter of her own, sided with her father and agreed to testify on his behalf. Chartres allegedly threatened revenge. “She stated, Don't fuck with her or she would take me down,” Amy wrote in an affidavit she filed while obtaining a restraining order against her mom. “She's [sic] told me to watch my back at night.”

Chartres was estranged from her family, cut off from her artistic inspiration. She faced mounting debts and had moved into a street-level apartment on a litter-strewn block of Mass. Ave. in the South End, far from the elegance and prestige she had tasted with her grandparents. But her reinvention was under way. She kept at her fabrics and set about crafting a fresh identity. She formed “Natier” from pieces of her given name; Chartres she borrowed from the French town with the famous Gothic cathedral. When she added the baroness designation a few years later, the image she'd created was convincing indeed.

On December 10, 1995, eight days before receiving an eviction notice for failing to pay her rent, Chartres exhibited a selection of her designs at a fundraiser at the Colonnade hotel. The event benefited the Elizabeth Stone House, a Jamaica Plain support center for battered women and children. In addition to Chartres's catwalk segment, the entertainment included a mime, a funk band, a male interpretive dancer who performed ballet to a down-tempo R&B song, and standup by an up-and-coming comedian named Jimmy Tingle. The vibe was high school variety show, with equivalent production values. But Chartres seemed to feel it was the start of bigger things. “She told us, 'I'll bring you to my New York fashion shows,'” says Dawn Kampersal, a paralegal who was one of Chartres's models that night. “We were like, 'Yeah, right.' But she believed it, I think.”

The following March, Chartres filed for bankruptcy. In June, her daughter, Amy, extended the restraining order against her for another year. Of course, those details were invisible to the stylish crowd that gazed upon the dress — a black-and-white number covered with handpainted ethnic faces — that she displayed in a showcase at the Bernard Toale Gallery, then on Newbury Street, during Fashion Week a few months later. That addition to her fashion résumé was coupled with other enhancements. Chartres had a new Beacon Hill address. Two people who knew her during this period recall her speaking with a faint British accent, and she sometimes wore wigs and traveled with a bodyguard. “She was definitely unique,” says Kampersal.

Chartres claimed to need this protection. She said she'd been assaulted and was receiving threatening phone calls and had changed her name as a safety measure. Then there was her former Mass. Ave. landlord, against whom she was waging protracted legal combat: He was harassing her, she alleged, and had gone so far as to send a man to menace her while she was dining out with Kampersal and a friend.

In his defense, the landlord argued that Chartres had concocted the charges as retaliation for her eviction. He finally convinced a judge to dismiss the allegations against him in November 1996. By then, Chartres was moving on to other ventures.

Chartres spent the spring of 1997 in a flurry of creative activity. She set up a new fashion enterprise, u & i, with Bette Gosule, whose husband ran an accounting firm where Chartres worked part time. Three weeks later, in partnership with another friend, Anita J. Clark, she founded CynSeria, a nonprofit fundraising organization. She was also collaborating with a fledgling caricaturist, Marlon Violette, on sketches for a pair of children's books, Adventures of the Bug Brigade: Defeating Lord Belcher and its sequel, The Land of the Bubble Lumps , for which she had just secured copyrights.

“She was very pretty, very fashionable, very charming and pleasant,” Violette says. “She reminded me of Martha Stewart in a sense. She had that sort of flair.”

Chartres soon tapped Violette for another project, a poster promoting a charity fashion show she and Clark were going to put on at the Boston Center for the Arts at the end of the year. They were calling it “A Passport to the Arts: Midnight in Paris.” Jimmy Tingle would host, and Chartres mentioned Bruce Willis and Julia Child among the celebrities expected to attend. Public Action for Art & Education had been offered the proceeds. “They came to us,” says an official with the organization, who adds that Chartres and Clark “thought bigtime” when drawing up the plans.

Around 100 guests in formal attire attended the gala. They bought paintings and raffle tickets for a Parisian getaway and gave Chartres a nice ovation when she took her bow. Yet Public Action never got a penny. “We've done hundreds of events, we're careful what we get involved with, and we've always broken even,” says the official. “But that one, we lost money on.” Before the night was over, the cash box had disappeared, along with Chartres's dresses. She blames the Cyclorama's guard team for not preventing the theft. Chuck Colbert, head of production and security, accuses her of sloppiness. “In the approach, some producers can come in and make the show sound great. Then on the day of the show it just falls apart. She was like that,” he says. “I've been doing this for almost 10 years here, and this event was one of the worst five. She went right on my never-again list.”

Chartres now says the imbroglio convinced her that the Cyclorama fashion show should be her last, but she staged two more before she quit. The first was an innovative fundraiser for the gubernatorial campaign of Scott Harshbarger, who she said she'd met when their sons played together on the same Yawkey League baseball team. (Harshbarger says he doesn't remember Chartres.) Young professionals who braved the snowy February night to mix at Oskar's, a lively Leather District lounge that has since closed, watched models strut in Chartres's bright-hued frocks. The Globe and the Herald covered the party, giving Chartres her first press. Both articles referred to her as a baroness.

As it happened, she would be back in the newspapers weeks before her final production, a Grease -themed Oscar party at the Rack thrown on behalf of the Ellie Fund. On February 17, 1998, Chartres went to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination with a sexual harassment complaint against her long-term attorney, James Dilday, a former president of the state bar association. She alleged that he had groped her breast in his office and left explicit messages on her answering machine. She had tapes to prove the second purported offense. (“I'm going to a board meeting tonight at 6, but I guess it'll be kind of dull. We'll be discussing development issues. What I'd like to develop are my fingers running all up and down your luscious body. . . .” one of the messages began.) Sensing an explosive situation, Dilday's since-suspended lawyer employed a novel preemptive tactic: He took the story to the papers himself, contending that his client's randy monologues in fact represented consensual phone sex.

The case against Dilday was ultimately withdrawn. That fall, Chartres applied for the newly created position of controller at the Newbury Guest House. She easily landed an interview with the owner, Hagopian, whose chief concern was whether she was overqualified. “What's a girl like you doing applying for a job like this?” he asked. “You seem to be way above this.”

Chartres said she was burned out from running her own business, that the opportunity was just what she was looking for. She was hired at a starting salary of $40,000. That the guest house was unable to obtain a single positive employment reference for her apparently did not give Hagopian pause.

On November 17, her second day at work, Chartres went to Hagopian to request some time off. Her parents, she told him, had been killed in a traffic accident. She returned to the office a week later, but soon another tragedy struck. Her sister, she said, had been driving the car and couldn't get over the guilt: She had committed suicide.

Chartres gradually divulged other personal information to Hagopian, including details of the relationship she said she was having with a well-known Boston attorney. Hagopian had already confessed his attraction to her, and their relationship soon grew intimate. “She was very solicitous, very caring,” he says, adding that she endeared herself with small gestures of kindness, bringing him coffee and offering to have his Jeep washed when he left it behind while traveling. “I thought, 'A throwback. Ooh, great.'” But some hotel staffers saw something else in Chartres, especially after she complained to general manager Dan Newcomb about what she depicted as Hagopian's unwanted advances.

Despite the sensitivity of her position, the guesthouse had not ordered a background check on Chartres before hiring her. Newcomb asked Data Quest Investigations to run one. But the resulting report — with its revelations regarding Chartres's prior identity, litigious streak, and Parker House nuptials — contained little Hagopian didn't know. Chartres had confided everything to him. The only exception was the wedding, and, he says, she had a ready explanation for that: She was just acting as a stand-in, a surrogate bride for a girlfriend ducking a violent ex-lover.

Chartres got to keep her job and was awarded a $2,000 raise after her one-year performance review. Newcomb resigned. But Hagopian's daughter, Lee Hagopian, still had her own suspicions, and they grew deeper when Chartres refused to allow other employees anywhere near the payroll. So Lee did some sleuthing of her own. She tracked down death certificates showing that Chartres's father had died in 1989, not when she said he had. Her mother had died four years later. A simple phone call uncovered a third apparent inconsistency. Chartres had disclosed that she was battling breast cancer and would regularly excuse herself while spending weekends at Hagopian's house on Buzzards Bay, saying she was due for chemotherapy at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. Lee checked the clinic's schedule. It didn't offer chemotherapy during the hours Chartres claimed to be there. Chartres, who later did prove she had cancer, now claims she was at the hospital for other reasons.

On a Sunday afternoon in July 2000, Lee confronted her father. Before launching into what she'd learned, Hagopian recalls, “My daughter said, very gingerly, 'I don't want you to get mad at me.'” When she'd finished, he was thunderstruck. “I felt like Michael Douglas in that movie.” The reference, of course, is to Fatal Attraction .

Hoping to dismiss Chartres quietly, Hagopian and his attorney prepared a severance package. She accepted its terms, but any relief Hagopian may have felt would be short lived. When the next batch of pay stubs arrived, he found one for Chartres not only from the guesthouse, but also from his other property, the Harborside Inn. Chartres had been paying herself a second, unauthorized salary, taking close to $90,000 in all and fudging the ledgers to cover it up. That fall, Hagopian got in touch with the Suffolk County District Attorney.

Looking back, Hagopian says his self-diagnosed “neediness” made him blind to the warning signs. “At the beginning, I believed everything she said. There was no reason to believe she was making things up, so I just accepted things.” Which is the same way it might have happened to you.

For starters, Chartres would have seemed too harmless to trigger your defenses. “She's very sweet, pretty, well-spoken, demure,” says a Boston attorney. “But she's wracked, wracked by the forces that have consumed her.” If she later said or did something that struck you as odd, you would extend her the benefit of the doubt. After a while, if you were certain she was stretching the truth, you might have responded like Hagopian, writing it off as a personality quirk: “Okay, there are people like that. So I'd just go 'Uh-huh.' You don't want to be rude.” And should her luck have started to appear impossibly bad, her reaction to her calamities curiously play-acted, there'd still be some questions that you, if you're like most people, would feel ashamed for even considering and downright low for raising aloud. Besides, even if you did, she'd have an answer that would just deepen your uncertainty. No matter how hard you dug, you would never find the bottom.

At least, that was my experience.

While Chartres was serving out her sentence at the Suffolk County House of Corrections, she agreed to a face-to-face interview. We also spoke several times by phone. She had a lot she wanted to say, and several times she grew emotional, seeming about to break into tears. She told me, for example, that she had given birth to a daughter when she was 16, that the girl had been raised by a couple who had become her unofficial foster parents — that it was they, not her biological parents, who had died in the car crash and her foster sister who'd been driving, a claim she'd also made in court. She had never seriously represented herself as a baroness; that was the title of one of her fashion lines, and business associates suggested she adopt it as a marketing gimmick. There's a good reason there wasn't a certificate on file for her marriage to Lord Reynolds: What took place at the Parker House was just a commitment ceremony. And the reason he's not around is because he died in a car crash in Connecticut. (I had earlier heard it was South Africa. Or Europe.) No, she'd never suggested her son played in the Atlanta Braves' farm system, though she had heard that rumor. Oh, and by the way, Amy used to model. That one I'd never heard before. Best I could determine, it's true.

After she was released, I spoke with Chartres again by phone. She wasn't sure what she would do next, but she had made one resolution. Her hair had gotten much darker than she liked, and she was going to fix it. “I'm going back to being a blonde,” she said. “I'm going to be who I am.” A few weeks later, Chartres called again. She had made more plans. A New York publishing house had signed her to a book deal. She was off to France to work on the manuscript.

Chartres hung up before I could ask who the publisher was, and I found the news of her book deal hard to believe. But who knows? She certainly has enough imagination to pull it off.