Given the uneventfulness of the average writer’s workday, the only valid reasons to publish a soup-to-nuts autobiography are (1) to chronicle historic events they have witnessed; (2) to explain things they did that might need justification; (3) to settle scores; and (4) to share noteworthy gossip about other writers they have known and perhaps warred with.
All of these motivations seem to lie behind Gail Sheehy’s decision to chronicle her life — that and the fact that an editor suggested she do it — but the upshot is a rather cautious passage. The memoir is titled Daring, yet there is little material in it that is truly, rashly daring. During her prolific career — Sheehy has published more than a dozen books, including her 1976 best-seller, Passages, and scores of magazine articles — she has worked alongside Tom Wolfe and Gloria Steinem, studied with Margaret Mead, supped with Henry Kissinger and Katharine Graham and David Frost, profiled Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, plotted story ideas with Tina Brown, sat knee-to-knee on a plane with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Along the way, she rose from suburban obscurity to become one of the A-listers she wrote about: people so larger-than-life that they hardly seem real, even though they must be — or must have been, once.
If she had been more willing to betray her social set, perhaps she could have retained the authority and alienation to produce a well-observed memoir about the influencers she has crossed paths with. But in the end she avoids hard reflection or big revelations: She drops names, but respectfully declines to deliver gimlet-eyed details about the anthropological habits of the high and mighty.
That said, I’m glad to have read this memoir, mostly because I am obsessively interested in the 1970s, a liminal moment when women who grew up thinking they were consigned to one kind of future abruptly perceived that a more expansive one might be possible. She belongs to a generation whose lives took place on both sides of a major American fault line. The ’70s were our true cultural inflection point: a time when women with drive and a deep sense of their potential realized that they might have a chance; unlike their mothers, they did not have to pickle their dreams in alcohol or play out ambition through their husbands.
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The fault line transformed the life of Sheehy, who grew up in the 1940s and ’50s with dreams of being a writer, but majored in home ec (along with English) in college and married at 23 for fear of passing a woman’s “sell-by date.” She took a newspaper job to support herself and her then-husband, Albert Sheehy, while he attended medical school.
But when the couple moved to Manhattan for his medical internship, she went to work for the women’s page at the New York Herald Tribune and quietly began making transgressive crossings to pitch gritty street-life stories to the Sunday supplement editor. That editor was Clay Felker, who was just then creating the Trib’s New York magazine, the iconic urban weekly that became the epicenter of New Journalism, a yeasty, bold, experimental place where an astonishing number of major journalists got started.
Felker emerges in these pages as a man who was unthreatened by women’s talent and pragmatically willing to put it to use. At a time when newspapers and magazines were routinely underpaying women and relegating them to the “back of the book”; when women were beginning to file class-action, equal-pay lawsuits; when many male journalists looked upon female colleagues as sexual playmates or prey, Felker saw them as an untapped market and advanced them. But he was also a creature of his time: He was fully capable of hitting on women who worked for him — Sheehy, for one. They had a long-running love affair and eventually married, but only after a lot of breaking off and resuming and fooling around with other people.
Sheehy also recollects the men who were less supportive: her father, who she says never read her writing; her first husband, who didn’t either, and who she says resented her earnings and had an affair that precipitated their breakup; the psychiatrist who sued her for plagiarism. Even Felker expected her to handle his dinner-party logistics and wanted to pick her hostess dress to ensure it was good-looking. Trying to make sense, in retrospect, of her decision to break with him for a time, she concludes that to grow as a writer and a person, she had to get away from his influence.
Sheehy at times has had a bit of a truthiness problem. Maybe all these men did undermine her; doubtless some did; maybe they have a side to tell. During her early days at New York, she immersed herself among prostitutes and wrote an expose that focused on one, nicknamed Redpants. After the story was published, it emerged that Redpants was a composite, and Sheehy suffered a lot of blowback. She claims that a paragraph explaining her technique had been removed without her knowledge and that Felker later fessed up to deleting it for the sake of narrative flow.
During a reporting trip to Northern Ireland, Sheehy she saw a boy shot in the face, and was seized by awareness of her mortality and the sense that life was passing. Back home, she experienced a full-blown anxiety attack feared that she was “cracking up.” Receiving a modest book advance for an “untitled work about couples,” she spent years researching what became Passages, in which she argued that adult life, like childhood, has developmental stages and that the true measure of character is how well a man or woman emerges from periodic, inescapable life traumas. Her work presaged much of today’s emphasis on resilience, post-traumatic growth and the lessons of failure, and pioneered the authorial technique of illustrating social science with the life accounts of real people.
Sheehy dismisses Nora Ephron (she “didn’t like competing with the other women writers” and “mined the self-hating feminine eye”) but in a way that seems thin and unexamined: If female writers back then felt the world wasn’t big enough for all of them, it would be useful to drill down on why that was.
But she redeems herself with chapters on taking care of Felker as he was dying. He had throat cancer, and she became his primary caregiver, pureeing organic food, straining it to broth, pouring it in a feeding tube, taking him to doctors. On an impromptu trip to Paris, she experienced an impulse toward joie de vivre and decided, what the heck, to pour cafe au lait into the feeding tube. “Clay bolted upright.”
The startling gesture feels ambiguous, a welcome jolt for him, perhaps, or maybe a tiny gesture of payback for the paragraph he removed, if he did remove it, long ago, damaging her even as he helped launch her.
Liza Mundy reviewed this book for The Washington Post.
Meet the author
Who: Gail Sheehy
When: 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Women’s Day Luncheon for the Alper JCC Berrin Family Book Festival
Where: Coral Gables Country Club
Tickets and more information: alperjcc.org