On a hot Phoenix evening in late September, hundreds of people are crowded into Borders Books & Music at Biltmore Fashion Park. White-blonde toddlers in fancy dresses mix with aging frosted-blonde socialites in pantsuits, snacking on crustless peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches shaped like butterflies, and salmon canapés. But the blondes drawing stares are wearing black designer halter tops, open-toed heels and late-summer tans with their perfectly straight, ponytailed hair. They gather in the middle of the room, and every time someone they know walks by, they all look at each other, throw up their hands and shriek, "Hi!"
Just like in the movies. For real. Because this particular gaggle of blondes provided the inspiration for Legally Blonde -- a film that begat a cultural icon, the character Elle Woods, who, in her own halter top and open-toed heels, navigates the halls of Harvard Law School with a heart as big as Gucci and no small amount of panache.
Turns out that panache is Arizona-grown, honed at Arcadia High School, where accessorizing is practically a required subject.
Elle Woods is a household name. She's in the New York Times crossword. There's a Legally Blonde 2 movie, a Legally Blonde Barbie, and this summer the deal was signed for Legally Blonde: The Broadway Musical.
In certain Phoenix circles, the name Brown is almost as celebrated. The late Jack Brown, who founded the law firm Brown and Bain, was the king of intellectual-property law. His wife, Suzanne, was the queen of the Scottsdale contemporary art scene. Which makes their fourth child, Amanda, a princess -- not to mention the creator of the character Elle Woods.
Amanda, 33, and her husband, Justin Chang, now live in San Francisco with their 4-year-old daughter, Alexandra, but the crowd tonight shows how tied to Phoenix the Browns still are.
Amanda's a girl who clearly wouldn't be caught dead with her own arms exposed -- she's attractive in a more mature way than her cheerleader-pretty friends in the middle of the room -- but her own open-toed heels peek out from beneath the hot pink cloth over the table where she's furiously signing copies of Legally Blonde and her new novel, Family Trust, the tale of a Wall Street workaholic, a trust-fund preppie and an orphan who brings them together. There are no blondes in Family Trust, but the book has already been optioned for a movie by Universal Studios, with the actors Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe lined up to produce it.
This is not your typical book reading. Actually, it's not a reading at all. Amanda figures people can read to themselves, so she speaks for just a few minutes -- tells the audience her favorite authors: Jane Austen, Edith Wharton and Candace Bushnell -- then gets down to the business of selling books. (Some proceeds will go to the Phoenix Public Library, one of her dad's favorite charities.)
No one seems to mind. Their arms loaded with books, old friends of the Browns wait patiently in a line that snakes out the room and through the store. It's a remarkable scene, because these are people who are not used to standing in line for anything. Mixed in with the ponytailed blondes are some high-powered legal types, including Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Chief Justice Mary Schroeder, congressional candidate Chuck Blanchard, current Tempe mayoral candidate Hugh Hallman, and Patricia White, dean of the Arizona State University law school.
It's tough to picture such great minds curling up with a copy of Family Trust, a, um, fast read that has been hailed in women's magazines as a fine specimen of "chick-lit" (the subgenre spawned by Bridget Jones's Diary). The novel didn't merit a mention in the "New and Noteworthy" section of the New York Times Book Review.
And it's hard to believe that these elite members of the legal community have deigned to rent Legally Blonde at their neighborhood video store.
But nobody's here for cultural enrichment. Even years after his death, Jack Brown still commands such respect that a federal judge will come out on a weeknight to a party where the hors d'oeuvres are color-coordinated. (Pink, of course.)
And some of Jack's former colleagues make it known -- in whispers, around the stacks of books they carry -- that they're not exactly happy to be here tonight. Amanda wasn't always the most popular girl around Dad's office. But anything for Jack, who's alternately remembered as an imperious dictator and a wonderful human being.
The Browns are a lot of things, but they're not simple people.
Anyone who knows anything about Amanda Brown and Legally Blonde knows that Jack and Suzanne's daughter dropped out of Stanford Law School after two years to write a novel based loosely on her experiences. The pitch: Valley Girl meets and beats The Paper Chase.