Daring: My Passages

  • By Gail Sheehy
  • William Morrow
  • 484 pp.

One of the best-known New Journalists reflects again on her life’s journey, with mixed results.

Daring: My Passages

Gail Sheehy has finally written a memoir Daring: My Passages — the title of which echoes back to the first book that made her a household name. Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life came out in the fraught year of the nation's bicentennial, 1976. Instantly, the book, with its bright rainbow-striped cover, showed up on the coffee table of every mom I knew (women seemed to accept more readily the idea of life being predictable: “The Trying 20s”; “The Forlorn 40s”).

Passages was a phenomenon. Some embraced it as the road map to their lives, at last. Others dismissed it as slick pop analysis, fluff. The Library of Congress has named it one of the 10 most influential books of our time.

Sheehy, who went on to be a best-selling author of 15 more books, including a stream of Passages sequels of one kind or another, began as a journalist honing her craft in the 1960s and 1970s. It was the heady time of the so-called New Journalism, which sure looks pretty halcyon now as we watch print news media shrink by the day.

The world of Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, John Gregory Dunne, David Halberstam, Gloria Steinem, and Ms. was what Sheehy describes as "a utopian experiment in American journalism."

We take it for granted now, but back then the New Journalism was a radically chic (to paraphrase Wolfe) approach "using the literary devices," as Sheehy describes it, "of scene writing, dialogue, and the expression of a person's inner thoughts" rather than the just-the-facts who, what, where, when, why, and how of traditional reporting.

One of the most utopian — and successful — magazines to come out of the New Journalism was New York, launched in 1968 by a major figure in Sheehy's book and in the slick magazine universe of the time: Clay Felker. My college roommate's mother gave me a subscription to New York when I moved to the city in 1971 (people's mothers did things like that back then). With the handsome, charismatic, galvanizing Felker leading the way as editor, the magazine was hot and irresistible. 

So were Sheehy and Felker to each other. Felker was passionate for the beautiful and talented Sheehy, but, like many men of that time and this, he was commitment-phobic. Daring thus sets out Sheehy’s evolution from the eager journalist writing famous cover stories for mentor Felker such as "Redpants & Sugarman" in 1971 — a controversial exercise in "saturation reporting," for which Sheehy, dressing the part, immersed herself in the seamy world of New York City prostitution — to her becoming famous in her own right; then the editor's on-again, off-again girlfriend; and, finally, in 1984, his wife.

Sheehy’s writing achievements — she  goes on to work for Tina Brown at Vanity Fair doing "character pieces" about Gary Hart, George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and Mikhail Gorbachev, among others, and making menopause mainstream with another bestseller, The Silent Passage — can’t help but have an elegiac feel in this book.

Their impact, as breathlessly spun by Sheehy as if it all happened yesterday, seems so long ago now. One exception: her analysis of Hillary Clinton and her relationship with Bill nails that complicated, contemporary union.

To have survived and thrived as a woman in the man’s world of American journalism of her time, Sheehy had to have a tough, often self-justifying ego. As a result, she frequently comes across as too eager to cite complimentary kudos (subtext: “If I don’t speak up for myself, who will?”). Up to the third and last part, “The Bonus Years,” Daring also has a rushed feeling, as if it were written and edited very quickly.

Her adoption of a Cambodian girl, as well as her experience as a single mother of another daughter by her first husband, are intermittently detailed and then ignored. There are missing antecedents that a copy editor should have been caught (e.g., “my lovebird”: What lovebird?). On page 177, David Frost is engaged to Diahann Carroll; on page 180, he has a “vivacious new girlfriend, Caroline Cushing Graham,” with no explanation in between. Minor, but jarring.

However, when Sheehy comes, inevitably, to her own passage into midlife, old age, and Felker’s death in 2008 at age 82 from cancer, Daring slows down and gains depth. Felker, “the love of my life,” has an agonizing, protracted battle with terminal illness that will resonate with many readers.

“When a shock pulls the gauzy curtain off our everyday resistance and throws a sudden floodlight on what our lives are really about” is her admittedly florid description of how it feels to find oneself coming to the end of life, with all those fabulous beginnings behind you. The final passage.

Kate Buford’s award-winning Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe was an Editors’ Choice of the New York Times. Burt Lancaster: An American Life was named one of the best books of 2000 by the New York Times and other publications. Buford has written for the New York Times, Film Comment, Bluegrass Unlimited, History Now, and Readex, among other publications, and was a commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition and APM’s Marketplace. She serves on the board of Biographers International Organization (BIO) and of Union Settlement Association in East Harlem, New York.

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