Who’s Here: Gail Sheehy, Author

Who’s Here: Gail Sheehy, Author

At the age of 38, journalist Gail Sheehy published a book, Passages, which remained on The New York Times best-seller list for three years and which the Library of Congress named as one of the 10 most influential books of our times. It was a success not only in America, but in most civilized countries around the world. It was translated into dozens of languages.

Since that time, Gail has written a dozen more books, including biographies and character studies of many prominent people in the world, including both Presidents Bush, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and most recently Hillary Clinton. She has just published a memoir of her life and times, and, to promote the book, will be speaking at Christies to the Aspen Institute Fellows in Manhattan on Thursday September 11 at the Harvard Club of New York on Friday and at the East Hampton Library on Saturday, September 13 at 2 p.m., after which she goes off on tour. Gail, whose primary residence is in New York, has had a home in the Hamptons, first in East Hampton and then in Sag Harbor, for most of her adult life.

Gail was born and raised in a ranch house by the harbor in Mamaroneck, New York, the daughter of an advertising man with offices in Manhattan and a housewife mom. She has a sister who is nine years younger.

“In that era,” Gail told me, “girls got married to ‘the right man’ and boys grew up hoping to get a high-paying job.”

Amongst her teenage girlfriends, they called their town “Mom Around My Neck.” On the other hand, Mamaroneck High School was a totally integrated school. There were the rich kids from Larchmont, middle-class and poor working-class kids, many of Italian heritage. And there were the black kids.

“All of us kids rode bikes around town. Once in a while, I’d invite one of my black friends home for lunch. I thought it was my duty. But my mom would set us up at a picnic table in the backyard so people on the block wouldn’t notice.”

She confesses she did some dumb dares, starting in her third week at college, which was at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

She’d met a worldly veteran and they fell immediately in love. He persuaded her to elope.

“He came to our dorm late one night and put a ladder up against the outside wall, and all my girlfriends cheered me on as I climbed down into his arms and we drove off—so romantic. I thought.”

They got only as far as the Vermont border before Gail had second thoughts and told her Lothario she’d like to call her mother. They found a payphone.

“Mom, I’m eloping,” Gail blurted.

“With whom?” she asked.

“He’s a surgeon.”

“Are you talking about McCarthy? He’s a tree surgeon.”

“Is Dad there?”

“Dad’s getting a shotgun. Come home. We’ll talk about this.”

Gail was telling me this story last Friday as we sat at an outdoor table having coffee at the Amagansett Farmers Market. She remembered this so vividly.

“Here was the deal my father offered,” Gail continued. “Dad would pay for me to go back to college, but this could never happen again. I’d have to telephone all my professors to ask them to take me back. And it was okay for me to be an English major, but that wouldn’t earn me carfare. When I finished school I’d need to get a job and immediately support myself. So I’d have to have a dual major: Home Economics. All this or he wouldn’t pay for my school.”

Gail agreed. She really wanted to go back to school. Learning, she was realizing, was more important than anything else.

“And I became a born again virgin,” she said. “From 18 until I got married at 23, I did not sleep with another man.”

“And actually,” she continued, “taking courses in Home Economics turned out to be a really practical job preparation. We studied economics, design, marketing, oral presentation, social psychology. As a result of these classes, I got the best job in my graduating class.”

This would be back in New York City. After securing an apartment (with roommates), she went to see the executives in the home office of J.C. Penney, the department store chain. The middle level executives didn’t know what to make of a female applicant. Women worked on the floor. So they kicked her upstairs to the boss, to the founder of the firm, James Cash Penney.

“So I was interviewed by this rosy-cheeked, cheerful older man and we hit it off. He practically had me sit in his lap. ‘We have one other girl applicant,’ he said. I dared to ask, ‘Do you pay girls the same as the boys?’ He thought about it. ‘Well, we should,’ he said. And soon, they did. And that, I later came to realize, was my first contribution in the fight to get equal pay for women with men.”

The job was certainly interesting. Gail was placed in the marketing department and traveled to small cities all around the country such as Abeline, Texas and Kansas City, to put on small fashion shows about the company’s products. She enjoyed this work very much.

Two years later, she and a girlfriend were sitting in the White Horse Tavern down in the Village when two men came over to talk to them. One of them, with a heavy English accent, introduced himself as Squadron Leader Greville Bell. He said he had flown in the RAF with the U.S. in Korea during the Korean War.

“I wasn’t interested in him at first. But he kept calling me. Finally, one day he called, but without the English accent. ‘Actually, my name is Albert Sheehy from Shelton, Connecticut,’ he said.”

“That might have put you off,” I said.

“Actually, he was so playful about this that I found it charming. So, in the end, I married him.”

That September, they moved to Rochester, New York so Albert could begin his studies at medical school. He wanted to be a doctor to serve mankind. Gail took on the role of PHT—Putting Hubby Through. She dared to ask for the job of fashion editor for the daily Rochester paper, the Democrat and Chronicle. Things went well for a while.

The couple returned to New York City and Gail discovered she was pregnant. She landed a job as a feature editor in the Women’s Department of the New York Herald Tribune, a newspaper that directly competed with The New York Times. The country was now going through the first spasms of the Civil Rights movement and Gail started writing features about it. She wrote about nurses going to Birmingham, Alabama to tend to the wounded. She remembered being called into the top editor’s office at that time.

“He held up my stories,” Gail said. “‘Are these your clippings?’ he asked. I told him they were. I thought he was going to fire me. ‘Keep it up,’ he said.

At this point, Gail told me, she did something that she considers the one of many things she ‘dared’ to do. Her new memoir, just out, is called Daring: My Passages.

It actually involved a passageway.

“I sneaked down four flights from the women’s department to the newspaper’s city room. I was crossing the Demilitarized Zone. I was determined to pitch my best story to the charismatic editor who was incubating New York magazine inside the pages of the Herald Tribune. I could have been fired for this. Outside his office, I heard his commanding voice. ‘What do you mean you don’t have my reservation!’ he was barking to a restaurant. ‘I’m hosting a senator. And my wife is opening on Broadway.’ His wife was the actress Pamela Tiffin.”

“This must have been very intimidating,” I said.

“It was. I felt myself shrink, but I said, ‘Mr. Felker?’ He looked up. ‘It’s Clay. Where did you come from’?’ he asked. ‘The Estrogen zone,’ I told him. He laughed. So I pitched him the story. It was summer. A group of loser guys who rented a house on Fire Island were advertising for pretty girls to sit on their beach blankets. These girls would attract other girls. They were holding what amounted to ‘Specimen Viewing Parties.’”

“‘Did you go to a specimen viewing party?’” he asked me. “Yes.” Felker thought for a moment. “‘Then write the scene just as you described it,’ he said. ‘We’ll call it the flypaper people.’

“This was totally new—writing nonfiction stories in scenes with dialogue and characterization,” Sheehy recalls. “It was the beginning of the New Journalism”

At this particular time, the Herald Tribune was hemorrhaging money. Felker’s new high-style city magazine, tucked in its Sunday edition, was an immediate and stunning success. But it wasn’t enough and the newspaper failed. So did Gail’s first marriage.

“As it turned out, Albert really did become a dedicated doctor,” she said. “Unfortunately, he was an unfaithful husband. Four years into it, he had an affair, and I left him.”

Because Clay Felker didn’t want the magazine he founded to die, he borrowed $6,000 from a friend (Barbara Goldsmith, Gail told me) and plucked the name “New York ” out as the Herald Tribune sank.

“And now I began working for him,” Gail told me. “Those next nine years were among the most exciting in my life.”

New York was fully engaged with the Civil Rights movement. Its third issue featured a story about Andy Warhol’s superstar, Viva. She was lying naked on a sofa, all drugged out. It caused a sensation. Many advertisers pulled their ads. But there were new ones to replace them.

“Our offices were on the fourth floor of a former Tammany Hall hangout on East 32nd Street,” Gail said. “It was one very long and narrow room. Clay felt we should all work in one open space so all of us would know what everybody else was doing. Of course with his booming voice, you’d mostly hear Clay. ‘Well look who’s here!’ or ‘I’ll make you a star!’ Those were the greetings you longed to hear. But there were others, when somebody didn’t deliver on deadline. And we’d all cringe.”

Felker hired, among others, Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem and Jimmy Breslin.

Gail wrote a sensational piece called “Redpants and Sugarman” about prostitutes, pimps and johns. Many were being murdered at that time in New York. She did an interview with Bobby Kennedy in California, one of the last before he was shot.

And then, as Clay’s marriage crumbled, Gail took up with him. He was 42, she was 30. But there would be no marriage plans, not for a very long time. “Marriage was not what people were doing in our group then.”

It was about that time that she and Clay and Gail’s small daughter, Maura, began coming out to the Hamptons. They rented a small house in Georgica directly across the street from a mansion in East Hampton that was to become famously known as Grey Gardens.

“One day, we found a box of kittens in our driveway. Maura, who was 7, said ‘Let’s take these to the cat house,’ which was the house across the street.”

In this nearly abandoned house, behind vines and wild foliage, there lived Big Edie and Little Edie, aunt and cousin to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, respectively. The house was a wreck, peeling paint, broken windows. Authorities later counted 23 cats living there, too.

“We walked over with the kittens, my daughter and I, and climbed up the steps to the rickety porch, and knocked on the door. Little Edie Beale came up behind, and after introductions, my daughter said the most endearing thing to her. ‘It must be so much fun to live in a house you don’t have to clean up.’ Anyway, we became friends. We’d go to the beach with Little Edie. She’d pick up conversation where we’d left off. She had nobody to talk to, except her mother, who just criticized her and bossed her around.”

Gail wrote a story about Grey Gardens for the magazine. The mansion had been built by the Bouviers in the 1920s and there was no one taking care of it. Mr. Beale had gone broke. He then abandoned them. Where was the rest of the wealthy Bouvier family to step in?

This article resulted in the Maysles brothers making a classic documentary film called Grey Gardens. After that, there was a book, two movies and even a Broadway musical. Grey Gardens embedded itself in our American culture.

I asked Gail how she came to write Passages.

“At a certain point, Clay agreed to let me go to cover the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. It went well at first. But after a peaceful civil rights march in Derry, I climbed up to an outdoor balcony on a block of flats in the Catholic Bogside and suddenly the shooting started. British paratroopers were jackknifing out of armored cars and shooting at unarmed civilians. IRA sharpshooters began firing back. It was Bloody Sunday. A young Irish boy about 14 came running up the stairs to help me, when suddenly a bullet tore into his face. I bent to try to put him back together—up to that moment, I thought everything could be fixed. But we were pinned down in crossfire. Others came and we inched up the steps like a caterpillar. We had to get this boy inside. Who would crawl out in crossfire to bang on a door? I wasn’t going to volunteer—until a bullet whizzed past inches from my nose. I hurled myself against a door and we were all taken in to hiding. I was terrified.”

“And the boy?”

“He was dead. I was traumatized by this. Here we were living our innocent lives. And where was Clay? Busy being Mr. New York. Going to parties. I became very unsettled. Should I have another child? Clay didn’t have time for a baby. Was I making a contribution to society? Our relationship soured and I moved out. This seminal moment in Ireland became the foundation for my book, Passages. Everybody goes through crises. But maybe some crises are identifiable, I thought. Maybe they can be predicted. I became obsessed. And certainly nobody was writing about women going through their crises.”

Three years later, she finished Passages. She’d traveled around interviewing people, doing research. She had no reason to believe this book would succeed. Also, she was broke.

Gail escaped to Italy with a girlfriend and their children when the book came out. She didn’t want to be in the States to read the reviews. Clay called.

“Do you want to hear The New York Times review?” he asked.

“No.”

“What if I told you Passages is Number One on The New York Times Best-Seller List.”

The book is about taking chances, changing your life, going through a passage to a new place. These can feel like little deaths, but they lead to growth. When you get to the other side everything feels new.

At this point, Clay invited Gail to take a holiday vacation with him to Thailand. There they renewed their relationship. But they also learned of children who had been forced to flee the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Now in refugee camps in Thailand, they were unable to go further because the American government had shut down the pipeline for refugees of the Vietnam War.

“Maybe there’s a child for you here,” Clay said. Gail had never thought of a foreign adoption. But she was heartsick over her only child going off to college.

“Why don’t we go out to the camps?” Gail said.

It was their next to last day in Thailand.

“Give up an afternoon?”

“We’re going.”

They met a brave girl of 12, whose only name was Mohm. They filled out the paperwork. They came home without her. Mohm and Gail wrote one another letters, neither one of which, it turned out, were delivered. And then, one day, about nine months later, there was a message on Gail’s answering machine in New York.

“Phat Mohm arriving, tomorrow, 8:30 p.m. JFK.”

Gail and Clay adopted Mohm together and Clay rebuilt his apartment so they could be married there and start a new family.

In 1979, Clay lost control of New York magazine. He had tried to expand the company by starting a magazine like New York in Los Angeles. But he had to take in Wall Street investment bankers to finance this. They now were the senior partners. As a result, Rupert Murdoch stepped in, bought the magazine, weathered a strike by the staff and then Clay Felker was out.

“Kay Graham of the Washington Post tried to save New York for Clay,” Gail said, “but it didn’t work. After that New York went through a long dark period of absentee ownership. Until, finally, it was revived by Bruce Wasserstein and Adam Moss.”

Clay continued on in the New York publishing business but never matched the success he had with New York. Gail continued to write. In the Hamptons, the family first lived in a rented house on Wainscott Stone Road. Then, a realtor called Gail.

“She said, ‘It’s time for you to buy a house.’ And she was right. For the first time, I had some money, from Passages. I didn’t know what to do with it. I’d put it into a house. I fell in love with an 80-year-old farmhouse on Baiting Hollow Road in Georgica at the intersection with Darby Lane. It had a pool and a lawn. But the thing I really loved about it were the hallways leading off to different rooms. You could get lost in it. Find privacy in it.”

Gail and Clay lived there raising Maura and Mohm (pronounced like Ohm) for the next 30 years. They had many get-togethers, many friends. Today, Mohm is a chef in an inn in upstate New York. Maura is a psychotherapist in Brooklyn with three children.

In 2008, Clay died at the age of 82. A year before, as the country neared collapse into its long economic malaise, Gail asked a Wall Street friend when she should sell her house. “Last year,” he said. So she gave up the house that Passages bought and moved to a smaller house in Sag Harbor, where she lives today. She spends most weekends in the Hamptons, enjoys tennis in Mashashimuet Park, kayaking and visiting with friends.

She is also embarking on a lecture tour. But her’s will not be normal lectures. She is working with a drama coach to turn these lectures into dramatic presentations. And she has started her next book.

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