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.

Dana Vachon’s Mergers & Acquisitions

VachonBWThe advent of Dana Vachon on the American literary scene in 2007, with his novel Mergers & Acquisitions (Riverhead, 2007), was a case of spooky synchronicity. His satirical debut novel, a tale of gross financial incompetence and Caligulan excess, may not have explicitly foretold the financial collapse of 2007 and 2008, but with hindsight it certainly had a prophetic air.

The book opens at the engagement party for Lauren Schuyler and Roger Thorne, friends of protagonist Tommy Quinn. It takes place at the New York Racquet & Tennis Club on Park Avenue, “the most prosperous street in the most prosperous city in the most prosperous nation that ever lived”. This fairytale cadence sets the tone nicely for a steady procession of grotesques, high-society scrapes, and reversals of fortune. We’re in Bonfire of the Vanities territory here, a world stuck on caps lock characterised by unbelievable quantities of money, unforgivable lapses of basic ethics, and a generation of young men way, way out of their depth.

Having narrowly made it onto the graduate programme at J.S. Spenser & Co., Tommy finds he has to work much harder than his friend Roger, who, being rather more to the manner born, has a natural aristocratic style that seems to exempt him from actual toil. After ruining the sale of some worthless oil fields, Tommy is forced to work night and day alongside his mentor, Makkesh Makker, to fix things, a scenario that precipitates Makkesh’s untimely demise:

Forty-eight hours without sleep, with dozens of cans of Red Bull, quadruple-shot espressos, and cold sweats […] Makkesh’s heart stopped, and then Makkesh stopped, loosing his considerable weight upon his chair. The Herman Miller Aeron cost a thousand dollars, and was the seat of choice for Wall Street firms. The Aeron had been expertly designed to deal with a full range of body curvatures and preferences, but it was entirely unprepared for the kinetic fallout of a dying overweight banker.

MandAThe novel is full of lines, like this last one, that take unexpected, often humorous turns. And in doing so, they unveil the absurd system of values in which Tommy finds himself a troubled participant. His girlfriend, Frances, an unhappy observer of the action, withers in direct correlation to the accumulating misdeeds and moral corruption of the rest of the cast, and she eventually attempts suicide. Tommy, caught between the opposing worlds of Roger and Frances, struggles to keep all parts functioning. It’s this tension that drives the plot.

Vachon is rambunctiously humorous throughout, in a manner which occasionally echoes the best of Tom Wolfe. It’s present in the enthusiastic vulgarity and cheerful misogyny of Roger Thorne, who spends the best part of one chapter detailing his youthful sexual awakening (“I decided from the first minute we were there that me and Aunt Halsey would hang out with my wang out before it was all over”). It’s also there in the unfortunately initialled Latin American bankers, like Manuel Oliveira Rodrigo Orjuela de Navarro, who insist on monogramming their shirts. And then there’s the lampooning satire of highbrow culture, including the character of Yves Grandchatte, an artist who “had grown only more famous in the wake of the personal-injury lawsuits, the arson charges, and his ten-year banishment from MoMA”. It’s a fine satirical tradition to find oneself in, and Vachon gleefully pierces any number of bubbles as the novel skips merrily by. Knowing that he’s a former investment banker himself, one can’t help but wonder how many details he took from his own experience. As Jay McInerney wrote in an advance notice for the book: “If there is any justice he will be blackballed from all the right clubs and have several drinks thrown in his face.”

Vachon later entered journalism, a path Mergers & Acquisitions suggested he might have a great aptitude for. He does a nice line in gossip-page punnery, for instance, of one character commenting, “Her father was a senator from a flyover state, and you did not need to look beyond her intricately highlighted hair to see her Midwestern roots”. It’s this kind of wit that enlivens his journalism. A one-time guest host on Fox News’s Red Eye w/ Greg Gutfeld, Vachon’s also written for Vanity Fair, The Daily BeastSalonSlate, and the New York Observer. After reading Mergers & Acquisitions, in fact, it’s well worth checking out an article he wrote on having lunch at Bear Stearns for Slate back in 2008. “Abandon all hope, ye who lunch here!” he begins, demonstrating the same flair for classicalising real-life financial tragedy that he exhibits in relation to the farcical chicanery of his fictional world.

As the late-Roman exorbitance of certain elements of the financial class continues to fascinate us, it’s with great excitement that the House of SpeakEasy awaits Dana Vachon’s guest appearance at “This Is Not A Man” at City Winery on February 24. The show will also feature Steve Coogan, Uma Thurman, Tom Reiss, Susan Minot and Anton Sword. We look forward to seeing you there!