How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: Five Things We Learned

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise

by Chris Taylor

NY: Basic Books, 2014; 488pp

Star Wars Episode VII has a title — The Force Awakens — as you can’t have failed to notice if you switched on the internet last week. Great timing, as I spent last week taking suspiciously long lunch breaks to read Chris Taylor’s new history of the series, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise (Basic Books, 2014). Although Taylor is not endorsed by Lucasfilm, the Force is nevertheless strong with him. His fanboy credentials are never in doubt, even as he manages to maintain a decent editorial distance throughout. The book doubles as a partial biography of George Lucas, Star Wars‘ Creator (the biblical proper noun maintained throughout). Taylor takes us from Lucas’s childhood in Modesto, CA, a town which would serve as inspiration for his first big hit, American Graffiti (1973), to the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012 and the announcements surrounding Episode VII. Along the way, Taylor makes stops in some of the darker, less explored corners of the Star Wars universe. Here are five things I learned.

1. You can watch Star Wars in Navajo.

Inevitable, I suppose, that the first major movie to be dubbed into a Native American tongue, in this case Navajo, would be Star Wars. The new version, the brilliant idea of Navajo Nation Museum director Manuelito Wheeler, premiered in Window Rock, AZ, on July 3, 2013. Wheeler had conceived the project “as a way to nurture and preserve the Navajo language.” You can buy the DVD in Walmart, so I guess he succeeded.

Translating Star Wars into Navajo was mostly straightforward — it took only thirty-six hours, the movie being surprisingly dialogue-lite — but there were some complications. Princess Leia, Imperial Senate, and Rebel Alliance proved untranslatable into the decidedly unhierarchical Navajo language.

2. The White House has considered building a Death Star of its own. Well, in a manner of speaking.

In 2012, Sean Goodwin wrote a short article for Centives, an economics blog started by students at Lehigh University, entitled “How Much Would It Cost To Build The Death Star?” It was a fun piece, even if prospective Sith Lords were disappointed to discover it would take 833,315 years at current production rates just to mine all the steel that would be required, never mind the fact that it would also cost something like thirteen thousand times the world’s GDP to do so.

A few months later, after the blog had gone viral, a petition was posted on the White House’s “We the People” site to “secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016.” At the time, a petition only had to receive the support of twenty-five thousand signatories to trigger a White House response. And when it came, it was worth it (even if the petition technically failed). Under the heading “This Isn’t The Petition Response You’re Looking For,” the White House Office of Management and Budget proved to have not only an active sense of humor but a very detailed knowledge of Star Wars trivia and dialogue.

3. George Lucas nearly directed Apocalypse Now.

An adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in the Vietnam War was on the table in 1969 when Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola formed American Zoetrope. The concept for Apocalypse Now was later sold to Universal along with American Graffiti, which Lucas would direct in 1973. Even after Coppola had made The Godfather Part II (1974), he was insisting that his friend direct Apocalypse Now rather than he. It’s hard to imagine: a world without Star Wars as we know it, and with a version of Apocalypse Now made by George Lucas. Of course, it didn’t happen, but the two movies continued to cross paths in strange ways.

As Taylor reveals, Coppola’s epic shoot and spiralling costs on Apocalypse Now had a near-disastrous effect on The Empire Strikes Back, which, under director Irvin Kershner, also went over budget and over schedule. Bank of America, burned on Coppola’s film, withdrew its loan from Empire when Lucasfilm’s payroll hit $1 million, and it took the loan’s transferal to the First National Bank of Boston to allow Kershner to continue shooting. (The film was also upset by, of all people, Margaret Thatcher. The strength of the pound against the dollar increased off the back of Thatcher’s election, playing havoc with Lucasfilm’s accounting during their UK shoot.)

4. There’s more merch than you can shake a lightsaber at.

One of the many über-fans Taylor meets is Steve Sansweet, the president and CEO of Rancho Obi-Wan (click on the banner to visit). Located just west of Petaluma, CA, it’s a nonprofit “whose specific purpose,” according to its website, “is to serve the public through the collection, conservation, exhibition and interpretation of Star Wars memorabilia and artifacts.” Sansweet certainly has enough of it; his assistant, Anne Neumann, who has spent seven years cataloguing the first ninety-five thousand items, estimates there are at least another three hundred thousand to go. (As Taylor points out, the British Museum only displays around fifty thousand items at a time.) With Episode VII on the horizon, her task must feel Sisyphean. “It’s the large items you notice first,” writes Taylor:

the life-size Darth Vader with red lightsaber drawn (codpiece and helmet from the original costume), the original mold of Han Solo in carbonite, the larger-than-life Boba Fett, the head of Jar Jar Binks, the stuffed Wampa, an animatronic version of the Modal Nodes band from the Mos Eisley cantina, the iconic bicycle from Skywalker Ranch with lightsabers for handlebars and a Vader-shaped bell (known as the Empire Strikes Bike).

One can only imagine the insurance premium.

5. “We all speak Star Wars now.”

The depth of fan devotion to the Star Wars universe is pretty legendary, and Taylor meets many extreme exemplars of it. There’s the 501st Legion, founded by Albin Johnson in 1997, whose members carefully recreate Stormtrooper costumes and are now regularly employed by Lucasfilm at conventions and other events. In a similar vein, members of the R2 Builders Club spend on average $8,000 to $10,000 — and many, many years — constructing exact replicas of Star Wars‘ most popular droid. We’re all familiar with scenes of fans camping outside theaters for weeks for the next instalment of their favorite franchise — Star Wars is to blame. YouTube has plenty of evidence of extreme fandom, too — take, for example, the loving craft that went into the above crowd-sourced, full-length remake of The Empire Strikes Back

But Taylor doesn’t judge. Indeed, he makes a pretty convincing case that Star Wars is perhaps the closest thing we have to a universal cultural language, “the sine qua non of our modern media-drenched global culture.” It can’t be four hundred thousand hardcore fans who declared themselves Jedis in a UK census in 2001. The White House couldn’t pun so successfully on many other franchises in its public relations. Even in countries that had held off on embracing the franchise for a good thirty years, like Turkey, Darth Vader is now a familiar figure. We may not all be spending thousands of dollars on droid replicas, but it’s nigh-on impossible to find a total Star Wars newbie. And isn’t it reassuring that a story so resolutely on the side of the small fry, with a philosophy that’s basically Buddhist, should have found a home in the hearts of so many? Roll on the Force’s great reawakening…


Follow Chris Taylor on Twitter.

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.

Pride (In the Name of Love)

Pride, a great new British movie directed by Matthew Warchus, is as warm and witty as Billy Elliot or Kinky Boots but as fierce as a rampaging Ken Loach.

It’s 1984 and the miners’ strike has begun in opposition to the government’s proposed closure of twenty mines. “One isn’t here to be a softie,” explains then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the short montage of archival footage, spliced with shots of picket lines and police vehicles, that begins the film. If you’ll excuse the puns, this is a rich seam of recent British history for TV- and movie-makers, and oft-mined. Billy Elliot covers the same period as Pride, while Brassed Off, set a decade later, examines the aftermath of the unions’ collapse. But Warchus and writer Stephen Beresford have found a totally new angle. Lesbian and Gay Pride, in 1984 in its thirteenth year, is still very much a protest march at this point; a demand for civil rights and tolerance. So it’s extraordinary that a group of lesbian and gay activists should seek to ally themselves with the National Union of Mineworkers. Yet that’s what happened.

Eyes and ears on the ground are provided by Joe (George MacKay), a young man from Bromley just turned twenty, who hops a train to join the marchers at Pride ’84 and falls straight in with a group of activists led by the passionate Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer). Mark’s latest idea is to stand shoulder to shoulder with the miners on the basis that an enemy of the government must be a friend of the LGBT community. This is more difficult than he anticipates; many gay activists, alienated by provincial life in industrial towns, had fled to London to escape the monoculture back home. Trade unions are equally resistant to the idea of teaming up with the heavily marginalised gay rights movement. Unperturbed, Mark founds LGSM — Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners — and enlists a handful of dedicated supporters including Gethin (Andrew Scott), Jonathan (Dominic West), Joe, Steph (Faye Marsay), Mike (Joseph Gilgun), Jeff (Freddie Fox), and a newly minted pair “looking for something to do as a couple.” After much ringing around, they eventually find a mining community in South Wales willing to accept their help. This occasions the first great visual gag of the movie, as an elderly woman staggers towards the ringing phone at the mining lodge in Onllwyn so slowly that one is put in mind of Omar Sharif’s entrance in Lawrence of Arabia.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes,” one of 1984’s biggest hits, plays over an early scene in which Dai (Paddy Considine) takes to the stage at a gay bar to thank the community for their money and help. It’s a powerful moment, itself a meeting of two tribes, that’s later echoed when Mark and the gang arrive in Onllwyn to declare LGSM’s support for the town’s miners. Much of the film’s comedy — and drama — derives from the culture clash between the urbane activists and the conservative miners. Cue Imelda Staunton, on fine furious form, marching across the lodge and insisting that the town’s men “get over there and find a gay or a lesbian right now!” A riotous scene in which Dominic West takes to the dancefloor — ironically to the tune of Shirley & Company’s “Shame Shame Shame” — marks a turning point in relations.

Warchus’s direction is confident and sensitive. His sense of rhythm in particular, honed no doubt during his successful musical-directing career, is superb. Some scenes play out in a single shot, including a marvellous and touching dialogue late on between Bill Nighy and Staunton as the two of them sit making sandwiches. The unspoken is a great British trope, and in Pride the unseen plays a part too. We’re spared the spectacle of a gay-bashing, if not the aftermath — a necessary chunk of grit in a film that occasionally risks being too light. In perhaps the darkest moment of the movie, Mark bumps into an ex, played by Russell Tovey, who murmurs that he’s on his “farewell tour” of the London clubbing scene. Tovey appears out of nowhere, a dead man walking, and is gone almost before his words hit home. In the midst of the hilarity, it’s an unnerving reminder of an issue that, even in 1984, dominated and perverted public perceptions of the gay community.

Mostly, though, Pride is just damn funny. And funny in a characteristically British way. There’s a barnacle-stubborn part of our national character that we love to celebrate, and Pride pretty much hits the bull’s-eye every time. Whether it’s Steph lamenting having her heart broken at a Smiths concert, or one of the group commenting, “How can that be a village? It doesn’t have any vowels!” there’s no mistaking where we are. It doesn’t matter that some of the characters are pretty stock when the writing and performances are this good; you can’t complain while laughing.

Considine, Scott and Marsay stand out, but the breakout performance comes from MacKay as Joe. In order to join LGSM on its first trip to Onllwyn, he tells his parents that he’s going on a residential course to learn how to make choux pastry. When his mother asks him later how it was, his clear-eyed response is heartbreaking: “It was the best experience of my life.” Through his eyes, we see most clearly — and wrenchingly — the tension between the life imagined for him by his family and the life he must lead to be true to himself.

Pride is a timely movie, with the first same-sex marriages taking place in the UK this year and the tide of public opinion turning in the US. It opened well back home last week and goes on limited release in the US on September 26. See it if you can and spread the word; it’s hard to imagine a more consistently entertaining picture emerging in the coming awards season.

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.

Curtain Call: In Case of Emergency


A state of emergency is declared. You fly tonight. What do you take with you? Clothes? Thermos? Hatchet? Naaah: books, of course. Fortunately you know of a safehouse nearby. A safehouse by the name of SpeakEasy. That’s right, comrades, there’s a Seriously Entertaining way out of this crisis. Between our six guests next week, we have everything you need to survive In Case of Emergency. Don’t have your ticket yet? Fear not, there’s still a few left here. Your checklist:

1. Amor Towles. Author of the marvellous Manhattan merry-go-round Rules of Civility, which we reviewed a few weeks back, and its ebook follow-up Eve in Hollywood. Here’s Towles talking about the great American photographer Walker Evans and the genesis of his debut novel:

2. Evie Wyld‘s new book, All the Birds, Singing, was just published in the US. When it came out in the UK last year, the Guardian said that it “should enhance her reputation as one of our most gifted novelists”. We took a look at her debut, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, earlier this week. In this clip, Wyld reads the opening to All the Birds, Singing:

3. J.D. McClatchy‘s new collection Plundered Hearts just came out to ecstatic reviews — the LA Times called it a “landmark collection”. We took a look at his poetry last week but he’s well known in musical circles too. McClatchy’s operatic work ranges from Mozart to… Stephen King. Check out these highlights from the opera of King’s Dolores Claiborne, which McClatchy wrote the libretto for:

4. Maggie Shipstead. Like Wyld and McClatchy, Shipstead has a new book out at the moment, Astonish Me, which is set in the ballet world. Her first novel, the witty social comedy Seating Arrangements (2012), won the Dylan Thomas Prize and LA Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Here she is talking about her influences and research methods:

5. Daniel BergnerSalon wrote of What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire (Bergner‘s latest): “This book should be read by every woman on earth”. Every man too, probably, if we’re honest. In this TEDxEAST talk, he debunks some of the many cultural myths that surround female desire:

6. Leonard Lopate. The host of this month’s edition of our literary quiz, The Tip of My Tongue, Lopate is best known for his daily talk show, which has run for the best part of three decades on WNYC. Here he is in conversation with Christopher Hitchens about Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and the joys of drinking: