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.

Five Minutes with Maestro Christopher Mason

Christopher Mason, who makes his House of SpeakEasy bow on May 20 (tickets on sale here), is an author, journalist, photographer, television presenter, wearer of excellent bow-ties, and singer-songwriter extraordinaire. It’s in this latter capacity that he’ll be entertaining the crowd at City Winery next week, much as he’s previously delighted mayors, senators, princes, duchesses, and Bob Weinstein’s three-year-old son. Literally. This week I spoke to Christopher about his fabulous career.

Charles Arrowsmith: You have been called “the premier journalist covering the nether world of high society”. What is it about this milieu that you find particularly fascinating?

Christopher Mason: My first job in New York as a transplanted Brit (thirty years ago) was working for George Trescher, a hilariously acerbic PR and fundraising genius, whose closest friends were Brooke Astor, Jacqueline Onassis, and Liz Smith. It was an eye-popping intro to the way power is wielded in New York, and a primer in the triumphs, tragedies, and atrocities of the literate glitterati.

I began lampooning them with satirical songs in the late ’80s, then switched to prose, taking some satirical swipes in my feature stories for the New York Times. That led to my investigative book The Art of the Steal (Berkley Trade, 2005), about the Sotheby’s-Christie’s price-fixing scandal — a story with elements ripe for satire. I’m also the host of Behind Mansion Walls, the Investigation Discovery TV series about murders in fabulous houses. Still relishing my life of crime.

CA: Having performed for royalty, world leaders and the one percent for many years, you must have some excellent stories. What can’t you tell us?

CM: I’m contractually obliged not to repeat the lyrics I was required to cut before performing for a gaggle of plutocrats during the Occupy Wall Street protests.

CA: We’re looking forward to hearing one of your great satirical songs next week. Who, for you, are the finest practitioners of the form?

CM: My all-time favourite is Tom Lehrer, whose satirical songs are as scathing and hilarious as they were when he recorded them in the ’50s and ’60s. When Henry Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, Lehrer famously quipped that satire had become obsolete.

I’m also a big fan of Tim Minchin, the outrageously funny Australian whose song “Inflatable You” makes me roar with laughter every time I hear it.

CA: Aside from the wonderful guests at the House of SpeakEasy, who in the world, dead or alive, would you most like to perform for — and what would your subject be?

CM: President Hillary Clinton and the First Rake, Bill. “The Scalia Follies” and “The Rush-to-Judgement Limbaugh Rumba” with a cheery refrain from “The Ballad of Benghazi.”

CA: And finally, what are the last three books you read?

CM: Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame, by Benita Eisler. Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies, by Lawrence Goldstone. Dark Invasion: 1915, Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America, by Howard Blum.

CA: Thanks, Christopher!

Alongside his musical career, Christopher has long written for the New York Times (see, par exemple, his pieces on Brooke Astor’s estate and former Warhol confrere Brigid Berlin). His book, The Art of the Steal, was hailed as “an excellent book” by the Sunday Times while the Economist called it “a genuine antitrust thriller, a gripping yarn of real-life collusion that is spiced up with Picassos, class warfare, art market bitchiness and the rather unsettling conclusion that some well-heeled villains got away with it.” Here’s Christopher talking about the case on CNBC’s American Greed:

Christopher appears at the next House of SpeakEasy literary cabaret, The Ink Runs Dry, on May 20. You can buy tickets here and follow Christopher on Twitter here.

How To Win Elections & Maybe Sometimes Influence People: Jonathan Alter on Obama v Romney

The story begins in media res. The Midterms, 2010: in something of a rout, the Republican Party captures sixty-three seats in the House of Representatives, the largest number to change hands since 1948. What honeymoon there might have been for America’s forty-fourth president is definitively over. The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, published in paperback by Simon & Schuster this week, picks up the national narrative from here and takes it through to the presidential election of 2012. Jonathan Alter, its author, has covered nine presidential elections and considers 2012 to be “a hinge of history”, “a titanic ideological struggle over the way Americans see themselves and their obligations to one another” in which the battles fought go back “to the dawn of the republic”. Hefty language requires ample support, and Alter’s the writer for the job: The Center Holds is a fantastically detailed account of the 2012 presidential election. Drawing on meticulous research and interviews with more than two hundred people close to the Obama and Romney campaigns, it comes to read almost like a handbook on how (not) to win an election. One by one, Alter ticks off all the major factors that contributed to the eventual outcome while simultaneously driving the story forward like a thriller.

Partisanship. “It was Obama’s historical misfortune to serve as president during the most partisan era in modern American history,” says Alter. On the night of his first inauguration, “GOP public opinion impresario” Frank Luntz hosted a dinner for Republican lawmakers at which it was decided that the party must unite in its opposition to the president and everything he proposed. As legislative gridlock became a hallmark of the first term, it seemed this plan had become pretty much gospel for the GOP. Alongside what was happening at Congressional level, Alter charts the rise of Grover Norquist and the Tea Party, and speculates on the effect of the right-wing media, exemplified by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. At the fringes lies “Obama Derangement Syndrome”, a phenomenon Alter characterises as racist at heart, which finds its most prevalent myth in the birther movement and its most prominent figurehead in Donald Trump. That Obama was able to overcome all of these things to win a second term may yet fundamentally change the terms of the debate.

Author Jonathan Alter

The “Moneyball” effect. In Alter’s terms, 2012 was Chicago v Boston, sub-characterised as Silicon Valley v Mad Men. “The Floor” in Obama HQ “was full of young, supersmart Obamaniacs, who often sat on large rubber balls for chairs, played Ping-Pong on breaks, and rang a bell every time the campaign raised a million dollars”. Many of the campaign team were veterans of 2008 and knew that to win again required a whole different game plan. Their harnessing of Big Data, which allowed them to microtarget the electorate, proved critical to mobilising the 900,000 volunteers the Democrats had behind them by election day. Boston, on the other hand, suffered from a “geek gap”, their team instead comprising old-school advertising muscle — including a veteran of Reagan ’84, an election that took place before some of Obama’s campaign managers were even born. Despite aspirations of big-data savviness, Romney’s campaign had neither the time nor the funds to invest in analytics in a meaningful way. Its most ambitious technological development, ORCA, which was supposed to ensure that missing Republican voters were targeted on election day for their last-minute votes, ended up dead in the water, leaving the candidate himself to rely on TV news. Broadband trounces dial-up.

Demography. Reagan rode to a landslide victory in 1980 on the same proportion of the white vote McCain won in his failed 2008 bid. In the twenty years between 1992 and 2012, the proportion of non-white voters increased 16 percent. The redistricting that took place in newly Republican state legislatures after 2010 and the laws restricting voting passed in nineteen states between then and mid-2012 certainly had a huge effect on the election. But they were not enough to overpower the support Obama had from the African-American and Latino population. In some all-black precincts in Philadelphia, Mitt Romney failed to pick up a single vote, and Chicago ran nearly four times as many Spanish-language TV spots as Boston. Race was not the only factor, though. The president’s evolved position on marriage equality won him the lion’s share of the LGBT vote, while repeated gaffes on the subject of gender equality from Republican candidates (most notoriously, Todd Akin’s talk of “legitimate rape”) near-guaranteed Obama a strong showing from female voters.

Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, amongst others, in the Situation Room in the White House monitoring the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, May 2011. Photo by White House photographer Pete Souza.

History. One of the most dramatic chapters in the book details the killing of Osama bin Laden, which Alter believes history will see as one of Obama’s signature acts. Bin Laden’s vanquishing, and the deaths of many other senior al-Qaeda officers during the first term, put paid to a common impression of Democratic military weakness, while stories of Obama’s decisiveness despite the doubts of others contributed to perceptions of him as a strong leader. But the discovery of America’s Most Wanted was not the only time history would change the direction of the debate. In October 2012, eight days before the election, Hurricane Sandy made catastrophic landfall in New Jersey. The president’s swift action and warm bipartisan relationship with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey marked for some — President Clinton allegedly among them — the turning-point of the election.

All this having been said, The Center Holds is also vocal on what Alter perceives to be Obama’s weaknesses, including his failures as a communicator and his lacking “the schmooze gene”. And at many points in the story, he suggests how things might have taken a different turn. Obama’s disastrous debate performance in Denver, Alter writes, was a moment when he “almost threw his presidency away”. And would Romney have had a stronger showing without the release of the notorious “47 percent” incident? What was the effect of the attacks on the consulate buildings in Benghazi? Or indeed Clint Eastwood?

It’s all academic, of course. At the end of the whole extraordinary process, it turned out that all that had happened could be summarised in three words and an image redolent of the sort of blue-sky optimism that had propelled Obama to the White House in 2008. Even knowing the ending, in Alter’s hands it’s a thrilling ride.

Jonathan Alter, who you can follow on Twitter here, is a guest at our next Seriously Entertaining show, The Ink Runs Dry, on May 20. Tickets are on sale here.