Money & Careers

Book Review: The Venturesome Life of Gail Sheehy




This just out: Daring, the gripping memoir of Gail Sheehy, the investigative journalist who was present at the creation of Women’s Voices for Change. She has lived a life in full—a life so audacious that every chapter brings forth another story of emotional and physical daring.

1409737514823.cachedIt’s a great read: the tale of a tempestuous romance; a compelling look into the first stirrings of female revolt in the 1960s and ’70s, when the governing assumption was that women are naturally inferior to men; the story of a petite redhead (“I’m little but I’m fast,” she writes with pride) who throws herself into danger so persistently, and writes about it so novelistically, that her memoir seems like the blueprint for a screenplay.

Men find Gail alluring, and she is sensual and impulsive. At 17, newly installed in college in the late 1950s, she climbs down a ladder from the window of her freshman dorm into the arms of a tree surgeon, the 22-year-old “older man” who had made her pregnant. They are bent on eloping . . . until she changes her mind, maneuvers him into driving her home, and falls weeping into the arms of her mother.

There is an abortion (many years before the law allows it). There are later romantic adventures—one involving a smitten senator, another a fling with the dashing English reporter in the adjoining room of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s compound in India. If Gail’s accounts of her amours read as if they’re lifted from a 1950s romance novel (“All at once we were enveloped in each other’s arms. It was an erotic eruption”), this all we need to know. Her discretion is refreshing.

Clay Felker

Clay Felker

These assignations, however, are mere dalliances during Gail’s many explosive separations from the love of her life, the volatile magazine editor Clay Felker. He was her Pygmalion, her journalistic mentor, the man who sent her on the challenging assignments she always accepted. But their affair was complicated. She was a single mom living hand to mouth with her young daughter, Maura, in a walk-up apartment on the Lower East Side, wounded by the betrayal of the husband she had put through medical school. Clay was a tall, handsome, brilliant bachelor-about-town pained by his divorce from the movie starlet Pamela Tiffin. Neither was ready to commit to marriage—not, it turned out, for 17 years.

“For my part,” she writes, “I had three lives, which only occasionally overlapped; Maura’s mother; Clay’s partner and hostess; and Gail the writer and breadwinner. Every day I felt as if I were running a minimarathon, dashing past Clay’s office with my story unfinished in time to pick up my daughter from school or have dinner-bath-books with her before I had to be dressed to the nines as Clay’s partner for the evening’s events. Clay often said, ‘I can’t get enough of you.’ There wasn’t enough of me to go around.”

Some of us will read Daring eagerly for its look behind the scenes during the golden days of magazine journalism. (Full disclosure: I was on the staff at New York magazine in those days.) Some may not be as interested as media junkies are in the dramatically told chapters on how Rupert Murdoch unseated Clay from the groundbreaking magazine he had created. But everyone will enjoy this memoir for its page-turning momentum, its glimpses into the world of the power elite, and its portraits of the icons of second-wave feminism (Gloria Steinem, Barbara Goldsmith, Betty Friedan) as they gamely begin to challenge the traditions that have constricted women for so long. Not to mention the book’s window into the mysterious creative process—how a writer conjures stories out of obsessive curiosity and painstaking, often tedious,  sometimes dangerous, research

Gail’s audaciousness begins in her early days in journalism. She risks getting fired from her post on the women’s-page staff of the New York Herald Tribune by sneaking down the back stairs to enter the “testosterone zone,” the lair of the all-male city room staff, to pitch a story to the imposing, impatient, bellowing-prone Sunday supplement editor, Clay Felker.

In this book, vivid incidents abound. There’s Clay’s Watergate-era dinner party, whose ten guests include Henry Kissinger, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and Post political columnist Joseph Kraft. Clay’s long-term cook/housekeeper, however, is so deeply jealous of Gail’s position in his household that she is about to serve unfrozen beef tenderloins to this distinguished party when Gail, sensing trouble, forces her way into the kitchen and discovers the sabotage. (The solution: servings of emergency Peking duck, ordered from the restaurant downstairs).

There’s Gail’s colorfully hardscrabble life a shabby neighborhood. The Ukrainian seamstress on the first floor of her walkup announces visitors with the comical zaniness of a super in a sitcom (on Clay’s arrival: “He wants comin’ gup. A fancy man”).

There is Gail’s penchant for throwing herself into risky research: putting on hotpants to prowl the sidewalk interviewing the violent hookers plaguing Midtown East (Gail’s story provokes a city crackdown); getting caught in the crossfire in Derry, Northern Ireland, on Bloody Sunday— January 30, 1972—while researching a story on the women of the IRA. (“I lifted my head to see the boy’s face. A bloody socket where the eye should be.”) The appalling carnage “is engraved upon my brain as on a tombstone,” she writes. After returning home, she is hit by post-traumatic stress that sends her into a near-breakdown. She is only 34, but “I could not escape it. Something unspeakable, alien, but undeniable, had begun to inhabit me. My own mortality.”

Gail Sheehy discusses the most frightening moments of a daring life.

This is the story of a consequential life. Gail’s nourishing care played a major role in rescuing her younger sister, Trish, from death by amphetamine addiction. Gail reared, and was the working-mother breadwinner for, her daughter, Maura. Then, in her forties, after visiting a refugee camp, concern for a war-traumatized 12-year-old Cambodian orphan she met there led her into a determined (and successful) campaign to adopt her. It also led her to became a savvy activist on behalf of the thousands of Cambodians in refugee camps. She spent more than a decade as the devoted caregiver of her beloved Clay during his long, agonizing decline into death from throat cancer.

While filling these demanding roles she somehow researched and wrote 17 books, including the best-seller Passages (named by the Library of Congress one of the ten most influential books of our times); traveled the world interviewing major figures like Margaret Thatcher, Saddam Hussein, and Anwar Sadat—not to mention American power brokers like Robert Kennedy and Hillary Clinton; and, through her undercover reporting, triggered investigations into problems like violent prostitution and the poor care given women in public-health clinics.

She’s got a brain, she’s got a heart, she’s got the nerve.


Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • ellen sue spier-jacobson September 29, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    Thanks for this review. Your knowing Gail firsthand sounds wonderful to me! Based on your review I obtained the book from Bala Cynwyd Library & except for eating & sleeping & doing necessary errands, I read this book in 3 or 4 days. I could not put it down!
    I read 3 of Sheehy’s previous books, but her autobiography is the best one yet! I ordered a couple more.
    Thanx! ellensue

  • Barbara Lovenheim September 19, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    A well-written and heartfelt review of a woman who paved the way for many of us to set up our own passages, however daunting the way may have seemed. Good work!

  • Sally Olds September 18, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Terrific article about what sounds like a terrific book. “Passages” was a major influence on my life — and my writing, when I went on to write a Passages-like approach to sexual development throughout life.

  • Susanna Gaertner September 15, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    Another probing profile…there are echoes of Joan Rivers here, another feisty, fearless, peerless (until later in life) woman with heart, head, and chutzpah.
    Terrifically inspiring, Deb, I must now read the book.

  • Dale Breidenthal September 14, 2014 at 1:30 am

    Thank you Women’s Voices for Change, I am continuously informed,encouraged and inspired by your content.

  • Toni Myers September 13, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Many thanks for this thrilling review of a book I now know I must read, as I did PASSAGES so long ago.

  • Roz Warren September 13, 2014 at 7:55 am

    Great review! Can’t wait to read this book. I’m number 20 in line on the reserve list at the library where I work.