Cats crouched all around in the grass, rattling in their throats, mean and stricken.
“Are they wild?” I asked.
She called for Tedsy Kennedy, a Persian. “Mother bred them all. We’ve had 300 cats altogether. Now we have 12, but they’re not wild. They’re fur people. … It’s true about old maids, they don’t need men if they have cats.”….
Then an operatic voice sang its lament through the upstairs window.
EeeDIE? I’m about to die.
“Oh dear, Mother’s furious because she’s not getting attention. I’ll be right up, Mother.”
This is how journalist Gail Sheehy described meeting the eccentric Edith Bouvier Beale at Beale’s decaying, animal-infested East Hampton home in 1972. Sheehy’s New York magazine piece, “The Secret of Grey Gardens,” employed the revolutionary New Journalism by freeing subjects from newspaper style, what she called “the old journalism, with its who-what-when-where-why rigidity.” Her techniques recreated scenes, recorded dialogue in full, and treated protagonists like characters in a novel.
She wrote about Grey Gardens while in East Hampton, her home away from Manhattan starting in 1971 (she told Newsday, “I wrote most of my books in my house in Long Island”). Sheehy’s bestselling fiction broke taboos and struck baby boomer chords surrounding menopause, divorce, remarriage and later-life fulfillment. Her 1976 blockbuster Passages, Predictable Crises of Adult Life, was a New York Times bestseller for three years and was named by the Library of Congress as one of the top 10 most influential books.
She wrote 17 books and numerous articles. What inspired her?
FINDING HER VOICE
Born Gail Merritt Henion in Mamaroneck, NY in 1936, her childhood storytelling talent — she wrote a biography of her grandmother — was cultivated by that grandmother, who bought her her first typewriter at age 7.
The budding writer later earned a bachelor’s degree in English and home economics from the University of Vermont in 1958. During her first job as a consumer representative for JCPenney, she wrote for the store’s magazine, learning the sacred journalism rule: Never miss a deadline. She also learned about speaking up, after moving to Rochester with Albert Sheehy, whom she had married in 1960. During a job interview at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the editor said he didn’t want someone to work for a year and then start a family.
“I said, ‘I didn’t expect a pregnancy exam,’” she later told the Democrat and Chronicle. In those days (the mid-1960s), women were categorized as “either Holy Mother or Frigid Career Girl,” she said.
She moved to Manhattan and found work at the New York Herald Tribune — a hotbed of New Journalism where writers … “used the tools of novelists … to create compelling narratives,” said The New York Times. Relegated to the women’s section (she called it “the estrogen section”), she ventured into “the testosterone zone” to pitch a story. Editor Clay Felker liked her idea and told her to write it as a scene. She was on her way.
In 1968, Felker founded New York magazine. Sheehy nailed Vanity Fair and Esquire assignments, profiling world leaders Robert F. Kennedy, both Presidents Bush, Hillary Clinton and many more. She became a mother then divorced her husband in 1968. On fellowship at Columbia University from 1969 to 1970, she earned her Master of Arts in journalism and was mentored by anthropologist Margaret Mead, who taught her to be a cultural interpreter exploring culture shock.
She followed Felker to New York as a founding staffer, reporting on issues such as the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings of peaceful protesters in Northern Ireland. Working alongside such New Journalism talents as Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe, she often included anecdotes of East End life in her articles.
She was the golden girl of creative nonfiction but the sheen tarnished. She committed a major ethical breach in her 1971 New York article on prostitution by fabricating characters. Felker deleted her admission of the fabrication — he did accept blame — but the article was out there.
In 1976, Passages was published, delving into cultural shifts and navigating life’s signposts during the prime career and relationship years. She was also sued for plagiarism by a psychiatrist; the suit was settled out of court. The next year, she bought an East Hampton house with earnings from Passages; she would live there for 30 years with Felker, whom she married in 1984.
In 2007, she sold her house; her husband died in 2008. But she returned to the Hamptons to visit friends and Canio’s Books on Main Street, staying at a rented Sag Harbor house. She was a sought-after lecturer, talk show guest, and in 2019 became an Audio Podcast Fellow at Stony Brook University, creating and producing Kid Rebels with Gail Sheehy, a podcast series.
In August 2020 she was working on Millennial World, a book about 20- and 30-somethings inventing new passages while struggling with the rupture in gender roles and a mental health crisis. She died of pneumonia at age 83 in a Southampton hospital before finishing the book.
This story first appeared in Long Island Press.