“My life has been an adventure,” said Gail Sheehy, 76, on the phone from New York. The magazine writer and best-selling author of 17 books has been touring for her new memoir, “Daring: My Passages” (William Morrow, $30, 496 pages).
The dishy, name-dropping autobiography dwells in large part on her involvement in the upper stratosphere of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s during her tenure (1968-77) at the groundbreaking New York magazine, founded by visionary editor Clay Felker.
“New Journalism” (a.k.a. “New Realism”), a term that originated with writer Tom Wolfe, was a literary movement and novelistic style of journalism in which objectivity went out the window in favor of rich storytelling. Typically, the writer became involved in the story being told, setting scenes that were not witnessed and imagining the thoughts and motives of principal characters. It read like fiction, but was researched and stood as fact.
In 1968, Felker drafted Sheehy from the New York Herald Tribune for his new weekly magazine, serving as her mentor-editor. The two became lovers who married in 1984. Felker died in 2008.
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Sheehy covered major topics for New York, including feminism and the sexual revolution, “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, the amphetamine epidemic, midlife crises and race relations. Her story on prostitution in New York City, a six-month project, led to her 1973 book “Hustling.”
Sheehy interviewed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and both Presidents Bush, as well as Hillary Clinton and other international figures – even the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Her interview with Sen. Robert Kennedy was one of the last he gave before his assassination in 1968.
Sheehy’s profile of feminist and Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem (a friend and contemporary) is in the current issue of Harper’s Bazaar magazine.
Sheehy is famously known for her 1976 mega-bestselling self-help/pop psychology book “Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life,” cited by the Library of Congress as “one of the most influential books of modern times.”
Her new “Daring Project” asks women to submit their first-person stories, writing “a brief summary of your most daring moment and where it led. I will interview select women and write their stories … (perhaps) for a future book.” (www.sheehydaringproject.com).
Visit Sheehy at www.gailsheehy.com.
The word “Daring” in the title of your memoir seems to summarize your life.
I am normally a fearful person – afraid of the unknown and doing things I’ve never done before – so I had to work through that in order to take action. That became a habit, something I found very exciting.
For example, for my book tour I made a vow I was going to come out from behind the podium, no more hanging on to notes. So I took acting lessons to turn my book speech into a kind of one-woman show. It’s much more fun to act out scenes and take on the voice of Clay Felker, rather than talk about him.
You assume a lot of vulnerability in the memoir.
Writing it was literally an excavation, digging down and pulling up the periods of my life. Some of it was shocking, and some was very joyful. I lived in some of the best times in America, when events were constantly accelerating, and certainly during the golden age of journalism. Long-form stories were important, they (covered subjects) people talked about and debated.
Things have shrunk since then, and we’ve lost context. You can get only so much from social media and on websites. You don’t get the “why,” as my husband used to say.
New York magazine was experimental in the day, publishing extraordinary writers such as Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Terry Southern and Tom Wolfe. Were you aware you were part of bringing a sea change to magazine journalism?
Not in the beginning. The New York (magazine office) was a fourth-floor walk-up, only 100 feet long, (holding) 40 people, cheek by jowl. We became like siblings who had each other’s backs. It was only after three or four years that we began to hear so much about how everyone (in publishing) would run to get their copies of New York when it hit newsstands.
We became aware of (the importance of) what we were doing because we got such backlash from the New Yorker, because Clay had challenged it. There became an animosity between the old guard and the New Journalism. That made us know we were doing something (cutting edge) that would violate everybody else’s idea of what journalism should be.
You write that you and Felker began an affair in 1968 that culminated in marriage. How did you meld your mutual professional lives with your personal ones?
We put them together and tore them apart multiple times. What brought us together at the beginning and kept us fascinated with each other was “creative intimacy.” Clay dared me right off to start writing New Journalism, something (no other magazine) was doing. To go out on a limb like that, I had to trust his instincts, and I soon realized how good they were. He really knew what the trends were and where the stories would be. And he trusted me to come back with a story that was interesting.
What about the personal part?
We both were divorced about the same time, and for the same reason – both of our mates were unfaithful. We were hurt and gun-shy about remarrying, but we were romantically attracted from the beginning. It was absolutely magnetic, and we put it off for as long as we could bear.
When I moved in with Clay, it was like a Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movie. I went from being a single mother (living in a small apartment) to moving to the (exclusive) Upper East Side. Suddenly, I was in charge of dinner parties, with Henry Kissinger and (Washington Post publisher) Katharine Graham and David Frost at the table. I had to get used to that.
About that time, you began “Passages.” How did that evolve?
I was covering the Irish civil war and became involved in Bloody Sunday, caught in a crossfire between the Irish Republican Army and the British Army. Unarmed civilians were being mowed down. That was an early midlife crisis for me, (which) led me to become interested in the stages of life.
Once I became totally obsessed about writing “Passages,” I realized I couldn’t also keep writing for Clay’s magazine and rushing home to do bed, bath and reading with my daughter, and then be dressed to the nines to go out every night with Clay, who was Mr. New York. So I had to suspend our relationship for three years. It was painful, but didn’t break us.
In your body of work, what’s your favorite magazine piece?
One of the most fascinating was “The Secret of Grey Gardens,” which became part of American lore. It was about Big and Little Edie (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ and Lee Radziwill’s aunt Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and their first cousin Edith “Little Edie” Beale). They lived in the Hamptons with dozens of feral cats, in a beautiful old house that was completely falling apart, like a Gothic brothel in a Louisiana bayou.
The two of them were (unbalanced), but also fascinating. They would dress up and sing Broadway musicals. They were connected to Jackie and JFK when they were in the White House. (The Kennedys) were terrified they would call or come to Washington and make demands, and they did call once in a while. A documentary film was made (based on Sheehy’s New York piece) … followed by a Tony-winning Broadway musical and then (an HBO movie) starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.
Through your books, you’ve dispensed plenty of advice to women. What would you say now?
Learn how to take risks and fail early and often in your 20s. Only by failing will you learn how to fail upward and succeed at doing something that is fresh and valuable. Be daring enough to wait until you know who you are and what you want to do before you marry.
If you do marry, choose a mate who is going to be a partner, not dependent on you economically and not expecting you to turn over your dreams to support him. Hold out for a real partner for life.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.