Inside the Lie

September 29, 2014. As an amber-violet sunset spread across a CinemaScope sky to the west of Manhattan, the House of SpeakEasy returned to City Winery for the inaugural show of its fall season. Almost three hundred guests gathered to listen, to laugh, to share, and to refill their glasses as six writers — Marcelo Gleiser, Natalie Haynes, John Guare, Gary Shteyngart, Gail Sheehy, and Andrew Solomon — took to the stage to ponder this month’s theme, Inside the Lie. This month’s guest stars? Copernicus, RFK, Oedipus, Sophia Loren’s panties, an uncommon family set-up, a Bavarian porn star…

We’ll be posting videos from the show soon, but here’s a sneak preview of what went down when the curtain went up…

Marcelo Gleiser (Photo: Nick Carter)

Marcelo Gleiser: “We matter because we are very rare…”

Marcelo Gleiser set the scene in 1543 with the death of Copernicus. The Prussian math genius supposedly died with his newly published masterwork, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, in his hands, horrified by the preface tacked on by Lutheran nay-sayer Andreas Osiander that essentially discredited all that followed. Copernicus’s theory — maybe the sun… doesn’t orbit the earth? — would of course turn the world upside down (pun). But reversing the cosmic order, especially one which sustains the reigning orthodoxy, takes, in Marcelo’s words, “a lot of guts.” Copernicus, thankfully, would have the last laugh.

Many of the things we take for granted today depend upon the advances made by quantum physicists, working in the realm of the indescribably small. “Science is about opening windows into this invisible reality,” said Marcelo, windows which — he contends — go on opening indefinitely. “There is no final, firm scientific knowledge. Just evolving ideas.” If this sounds defeatist, though, it’s not. Embracing the Copernican Principle and all the scientific progress made off the back of it, we see in fact that “Earth is very special.” We may have one moon while Jupiter’s got sixty-plus, but the mass and relative position of ours is what enables the seasons to change. There may be two hundred billion other stars in the Milky Way, which is “really humbling,” but if intelligent life exists anywhere out there, it would have to be so remote from what we know that we are, effectively, alone. “We matter because we are very rare. We are the way the universe thinks about itself… That is liberating. It will keep us curious!”

Natalie Haynes (Photo: Nick Carter)

Natalie Haynes: “Batman & Robin — a film so bad I fainted at the end of it.”

“New York is the only city I ever performed in as a stand-up comedian where everyone speaks at the same speed as me,” began Natalie Haynes at the start of a light-speed set encompassing Aristotle and Angel Heart, Oedipus and Arnie. “Since the theme for tonight is ‘Inside the Lie,’ I thought I would talk about the greatest lie in Greek theater…”

Natalie recapped the plot of Oedipus the King at Nascar speed, right down to Jocasta’s suicide and the terrible revelation of the king’s provenance. “Come on, you’ve had two and a half thousand years to read it!”

As she pointed out, Sophocles’ masterpiece set the template for the modern whodunnit. It is, in Aristotelian terms, “the most perfect Greek tragedy,” an exemplary synthesis of — in order of importance — plot, character, reasoning, dialogue, music, and spectacle. Not how Hollywood works today, Natalie observed, with reference to Joel Schumacher’s 1997 anti-classic, Batman & Robin, “a film so bad I fainted at the end of it.” The costume for Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in said movie cost the production $1 million. “Could you have spent five, maybe seven cents of that on the script…?”

John Guare (Photo: Nick Carter)

John Guare: “I went into the bathroom and saw, hanging on a doorknob, Sophia Loren’s panties…”

Prompted by a James Taylor concert on PBS, legendary playwright John Guare took us back to February 10, 1971, “the day my life changed.” Following a film screening, Guare was accosted in the subway by a blonde woman and two short Italian men, one of whom turned out to be film producer Carlo Ponti, perhaps better known as the husband of Sophia Loren. Ponti had been prepping an Elliott Gould movie only for Gould to suffer a breakdown, leaving the production leading-man-free. Guare, whose elegant height is a decent match for Gould’s 6’3″, agreed to screen-test for the incongruous trio. The next day, he was offered a three-picture deal.

“My lawyer called and said, ‘Carlo wants you to go to the Essex House right now to meet Sophia Loren!'” And there she was. “I read she’d had the inner edges of her eyes tattooed so she’d never have to apply eyeliner again. I wanted to get close to check…”

Things got surreal. Needing a break, Guare slid into the bathroom, where he saw, “hanging on a doorknob… Sophia Loren’s panties.” As if to affirm both the reality and the absurdity of the situation: “I took them… and I put them on my head.”

Ponti made some amazing promises, including transforming Guare’s Broadway show The House of Blue Leaves into a movie. But Guare had had second thoughts.

One morning: “I woke up and turned on the radio, and heard James Taylor… It was ‘You’ve Got A Friend.’ ‘They’ll take your soul if you let them…'”

“At 7am, I called the Essex House and said I couldn’t do the movie. I was living inside this lie of success. Carlo said, ‘You’ll never act again,’ and I said, ‘Fine!'”

The special guest host for SpeakEasy’s literary quiz, Tip of My Tongue, was jewelry designer and sometime Wes Anderson co-star Waris Ahluwalia, who tantalised the crowd with the six Ferraris up for grabs outside City Winery for the winners (inside the lie indeed…) This month’s mystery passages came from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Dorothy Parker’s “Unfortunate Coincidence,” and Hamlet.

Gary Shteyngart (Photo: Nick Carter)

Gary Shteyngart: “My whole life has been just one lie.”

Little Failure, which comes out in paperback from Random House on October 7, is Gary Shteyngart‘s hilarious new memoir. In it, he recounts his experience of “being a liar, by which I mean being a writer…”

“My real name is Igor Shteynhorn — I was a Bavarian porn star before.” So begins the story of a little Soviet boy in Leningrad (no longer its name, of course) who comes to America loving Lenin, learns to revere Ronnie, and dreams of a day when he no longer has to attend the Solomon Schechter School of Queens (“I wanna live in Miami! Maybe there won’t be Hebrew school in Miami!”) Growing up in Queens in the 1980s as a Russian emigré necessitated a certain degree of deception, and young Gary, tormented by Reagan’s “evil empire” speech, pretends he was born in East Berlin. “You know things are bad when you have to convince Jewish kids you’re a German!”

But he found huge pleasure in writing. Admitting to a favorite teacher that he has written a novel — entitled The Chalenge [sic] — he is persuaded to share it with the class. It is well received, and eventually every class will be punctuated by hoots of “When will Gary read already?”

“God bless these kids for giving me a chance,” he concluded. “May their God bless them, every one.”

Gail Sheehy (Photo: Nick Carter)

Gail Sheehy: “It’s the job of the journalist to expose the truth or the lie.”

In the early days of her romance with New York magazine co-founder Clay Felker, Gail Sheehy was commissioned to follow Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential primary campaign as he battled Senator Eugene McCarthy. “You have to grab something that everybody’s talking about but they don’t know why,” said Felker, and off flew Sheehy on RFK’s trail.

“Would you like to sit up here, New York?” said the handsome senator. Sheehy, astonished, wordless, joined him. Kennedy reached for his brother’s overcoat, which he continued to wear even five years after the assassination. “We talk about that,” Sheehy told us, “and how he faces fear and death.”

During the flight, a sudden emergency: a second plane on the horizon, seemingly headed straight for them. “We dropped. And in the middle of the drop, RFK says, ‘I knew Gene McCarthy was desperate but I didn’t know he was that desperate!'”

Sheehy concluded with the revealing, somewhat risqué story of how Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, managed to look fabulous even ten years into her premiership. “I’ve done a lot of things to get a story,” she said, “but I draw the line at electrocution!”

Andrew Solomon (Photo: Nick Carter)

Andrew Solomon: “An interview about depression may not sound like the beginning of a love story, but it was.”

To round off the evening, the SpeakEasy crowd welcomed Andrew Solomon to the stage. Recalling his childhood, Solomon alighted on a gay couple his parents had befriended, Elmer and Willie, who often spent Christmas with the Solomons. Elmer had been studying medicine at Yale before he was drafted during the Second World War, and Solomon was brought up believing that he gave up becoming a doctor because of what he’d seen in battle. “I didn’t know I was inside a lie when I heard that story.” But as Willie later told him, “No one was going to a gay doctor then.”

“Not a great message for me to grow up with,” Solomon commented. His own sexual journey bypassed sexual surrogacy therapy in Hell’s Kitchen (“these women were not exactly prostitutes but they weren’t exactly anything else”) and a series of relationships with both men and women. Finally, he met John, now his husband, on the media tour for his book on depression, The Noonday Demon. Together, they mulled over having children. And after both had become sperm donors for other couples — one lesbian, one straight — they set out to do just that.

The truth is complicated. As Solomon remarked, searching for egg donors on the internet is “like ordering a car online that you’re gonna have to drive for the rest of your life.” And parties can get confusing — as one guest remarked after a dinner Andrew and John had hosted, “There must be a word for this kind of consanguinity, but I very much enjoyed talking to the daughter of the partner of the mother of your daughter.” But diversity is necessary “to sustain the ecosphere of kindness,” and truth in this case — and many others — is certainly preferable to the lies that destroyed so many Willies and Elmers.

You can buy books by all our writers at McNally Jackson. Follow us on Twitter for updates on our next show, No Satisfaction, at City Winery on November 17.

Curtain Call: Inside the Lie


Seriously Entertaining is back! The first of our two shows this fall, Inside the Lie, hits City Winery on Monday, September 29, with a mind-expanding line-up of literary talent. Don’t have your tickets yet? Check out our writers below in an audiovisual preview of some of the pleasures that await you.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist specializing in particle cosmology. He’s also one of the great elucidators. Gleiser’s work is remarkably accessible, cracking open the hardest nuts of quantum physics and cosmology for the general reader. Books include The Prophet and the Astronomer (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), which investigates the ongoing search for meaning in the stars, and, most recently, The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning (Basic Books, 2014). Read our review of The Island of Knowledge here, follow Marcelo on Twitter, and watch his Ted Talk on the origins of life here:

John Guare‘s fifty-year career on the American stage and screen has been marked by some stunning highs, including the Tony Award-winning success of The House of Blue Leaves, Louis Malle’s classic 1980 movie Atlantic City, starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, and, more recently, A Free Man of Color (2010). Check out our survey of his career here. In this interview at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Guare muses on the theory he helped popularize in perhaps his best-known play, 1990’s Six Degrees of Separation. “What about all the people we can’t find? The people who, through race and poverty… vanish? That’s what the play is about.”

Stand-up comedian, popular classicist, essayist, columnist, and now novelist, Natalie Haynes brings all her talents to bear on her literary debut, the tragic thriller The Furies (St. Martin’s Press, 2014). Set in a children’s behavioral unit in Edinburgh, it’s a fast-moving psychological stunner shot through with black humour (check out our full review). Earlier this month, we chatted to Natalie about Sophocles, The Wire and Mickey Rourke, and what we should really be teaching our kids. Read the full interview here, and watch Natalie talking about her earlier book The Ancient Guide to Modern Life here:

Gail Sheehy‘s explosive journalistic career has seen her board the Kennedy ’68 campaign jet, travel to the heart of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, and investigate the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Along the way, she found time to get lost inside Grey Gardens, to follow Hillary Clinton into bathrooms, and, most recently, to dash off a quick memoir, Daring: My Passages (William Morrow, 2014). A veteran of the political profile and an intrepid reporter on the female experience, Sheehy’s is a fascinating journey. Read our review of Daring, follow Gail on Twitter, and check out the lady herself as she talks about her new book here:

When Adam Gopnik describes your memoir as “Portnoy meets Chekhov meets Shteyngart!” you’re probably onto a winner. Gary Shteyngart is the novelist behind The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (Riverhead, 2002), Absurdistan (Random House, 2006), and Super Sad True Love Story (Random House, 2010). His most recent book, Little Failure: A Memoir, published earlier this year by Random House, is a brilliant, milk-snortingly funny ride from 1970s Leningrad through 1980s Queens to 1990s Ohio. Follow Gary on Twitter, and watch the “book trailer” for Little Failure, featuring some surprise celebrity guests, here…

Andrew Solomon won the National Book Award in 2001 for his remarkable mental-health study The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (Scribner). A decade later followed a book even more ambitious in scope and masterful in execution, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner, 2012). In it, he meets hundreds of families learning to cope with children whose identities and abilities are in some ways challenging to them. Children with autism or severe disabilities, children born deaf or transgender, children who grow up to become criminals. It’s a powerful, moving, epic work. Follow Andrew on Twitter, read our review of Far From the Tree, and watch his illuminating Ted Talk on how our worst moments make us who we are:

What are you waiting for? Snap up your tickets now!

Daring to Live: Gail Sheehy’s Passages

“You’ve taken LSD, you’ve jumped out of airplanes, you dressed up in hot pants to walk the streets with hookers; for heaven’s sake, you embedded yourself in the Irish civil war before anybody ever heard of embedded reporters and got caught in cross fire! You even scared presidential candidates — I mean, my God, didn’t the first President Bush shudder and say, ‘Is this going to be a full psychiatric layout?’ You’re so alive to the people and happenings around you, you can’t help yourself. You live life in the interrogative!”

— Robert Emmett Ginna, Jr., to Gail Sheehy

When you put it like that, one wonders why it took Gail Sheehy so long to write a memoir. Then again, it does sound like it might have been difficult to fit in. Sheehy’s astonishing, intrepid career has taken her to California with Bobby Kennedy, to Derry with the women of the Irish civil rights movement, and to Cambodia in search of the child survivors of the killing fields. Her best-selling books — particularly the Passages series — have charted a new course for women of the baby-boom era, opening up national discussions on divorce, working mothers, menopause, and more. With so much life-material to choose from, it was perhaps inevitable that Daring: My Passages (William Morrow, 2014) would be a sizzler, crammed with fantastic first-hand accounts of some of the key moments of recent history. But it’s also a deeply personal book; a moving picture of love and loss; a frank, bracingly honest self-portrait.

Gail Sheehy was born in Mamaroneck, New York, in 1937. “My father didn’t really mind my being a girl, but I had to do double duty, as a boy-girl. He told me I could be a champion if I practiced hard enough and never gave up.” A childhood spent competing athletically, “as a boy-girl,” can perhaps be credited with the tenacity she attained — and needed — to be an ambitious woman setting out in the working world in the late 1950s. In an early job interview with J.C. Penney himself, she asked the businessman if his organisation paid girls the same as boys. “He smiled, puffed up a little, and pulled on his suspenders. ‘We certainly should.’ And so he did.”

“The Secret of Grey Gardens” was first published in New York in 1972. Click on the image to read it.

An elopement, an abortion, an early marriage to a young medic (whom she supported with her work at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle), and a baby daughter by the time she was twenty-six. When she pitched her first story to legendary editor Clay Felker in 1965, Sheehy’s life had already given her the breadth of experience that would make her such a sympathetic and insightful writer about the issues women faced in the shifting landscape of ’60s and ’70s America. But there’s much more to Sheehy’s work than gender politics. Watching Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his most famous oration on television in 1963, she resolved not to spend her life experiencing the news second-hand: “I would dare to be there as history happened and write what I saw.” She took this attitude to Felker’s New York magazine, which launched in 1968 and would be the platform for many of her best-known pieces. These include “The Amphetamine Explosion“, a phenomenon Sheehy had direct experience of through her younger sister’s addiction; “Redpants and Sugarman”, an investigation into the conditions under which prostitutes survived in 1970s New York; and “The Secret of Grey Gardens“, the Gothic tale of Jackie Kennedy’s cousins “Little Edie” and “Big Edie” Beale which would later become a critically acclaimed documentary.

“Women can have it all, but not all at once.” This is one of the foundational insights of Passages (1976), the book that sent Sheehy careering up the best-seller lists and propelled her work into the national conversation. The Passages series examines in widescreen the most widely shared life experiences (graduations, careers, births, marriages, deaths), synthesising hundreds of interviews and a wealth of academic research to offer new perspectives on the choices we make. The first book was pretty much mainlined zeitgeist, appearing just as the social consequences of the sexual liberation of the 1960s started to manifest themselves and “mid-life crisis” became an unwelcome addition to the national vocabulary. As her own life changed, Sheehy recognised that there were more “passages” to write about. Follow-up volumes on menopause (The Silent Passage, 1992), caring for a loved one (Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos Into Confidence, 2010), and other subjects gave the project a panoramic scope.

Gail Sheehy

Sheehy proved equally adept in the political sphere when Tina Brown approached her in the 1980s for a series of profiles of presidential candidates for Vanity Fair. These included Gary Hart (“This was a man with an unusually serious case of grandiosity”), George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, and Al Gore. She met and profiled Margaret Thatcher, whom she discovered “lived basically on coffee, vitamin C, and royal jelly — a wallop of minerals right from the hive, as befits a queen bee.” It would be Hillary Clinton, though, who would hold her attention the longest, even becoming the focus of her 1999 book Hillary’s Choice. “The saga of Bill and Hillary had echoes of Franklin and Eleanor,” she writes, “as well as Tracy and Hepburn, with a dash of Bonnie and Clyde.” Why the particular fascination? “As I saw it, she was the lightning rod for people’s fear of change: the change of generation from Bush to boomers, the change in equation between men and women, the huge social dislocation as we moved into a new information-based economy.” Hillary is also, of course, a great case study for adherents of Passages. Oft-pilloried, she would nonetheless go on to win political office of her own, run for president, and accept high office at the State Department. And who knows if that’s the end of her political journey…

Despite Sheehy’s many journalistic and authorial achievements, Daring: My Passages is by no means a self-aggrandising work. She pokes endlessly at her on-off relationship with Clay Felker in the 1970s and early ’80s, revealing huge doubts about her own motives and emotions. She’s alive to and suspicious of the chemical effects of love, which repeatedly send her back into Clay’s arms. (They eventually married in 1984.) She’s also critical of her own mothering, first of older daughter Maura, and later of adopted daughter Mohm, who enters her care direct from a refugee camp in Cambodia. In this tendency toward self-examination, we see the full strength of the spotlight she’s also been able to turn outward onto the world in her writing.

So yes, read it for the fantastic anecdotes. On the campaign trail with Bobby Kennedy. The dinner parties with Tom Wolfe, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch. The hostile takeover of New York magazine in 1976. But discover also a spirit open to all that life can throw at you; an intellect unwilling, perhaps unable to rest. A life of daring, Sheehy argues, is a life lived. Hard to argue.

You can buy Daring: My Passages at McNally Jackson. Gail Sheehy will appear at our next Seriously Entertaining show, Inside the Lie, on September 29 at City Winery. You can buy tickets here. Our other guests are: Natalie Haynes, John Guare, Marcelo Gleiser, and Andrew Solomon.