During her high-flying journalistic career, Gail Sheehy has written about Mikhail Gorbachev and Hillary Clinton, menopause and caregiving, streetwalkers in New York and civil war in Northern Ireland. But she remains most famous for her bestselling, Erik Erikson-influenced exploration of life transitions, "Passages."
Published in 1976, the book has spawned several sequels, including "New Passages," "The Silent Passage," and "Understanding Men's Passages." No surprise then that Sheehy's memoir should be titled "Daring: My Passages," yet another effort to capitalize on her personal brand.
Sheehy's chronicle of her life and loves is more sprawling autobiography than focused memoir. She admits that she had worried about crafting "so many disparate experiences into one coherent narrative," and the seams sometimes show. "Daring" is both ungainly and fascinating: a gossipy insider tale of a talented, ambitious woman making her mark during the Golden Age of New Journalism and a powerful, bittersweet love story.
With her (former) house in the Hamptons, predilection for lavish soirées, and references to her financial and marketing coups, Sheehy can seem self-congratulatory and entitled. She name-drops prodigiously, and friends such as Gloria Steinem and Tom Wolfe not only populate the memoir, but pen effusive blurbs for its back cover. But Sheehy also candidly reveals her late-developing alcoholism and her fears of intimacy, failure, and even success.
Sheehy's struggle to balance career, motherhood, and relationships is the story of her generation and her gender. Alternately chronological and topical in its organization, her narrative pirouettes back and forth in time, detailing the origins of Sheehy's most notable articles and books, her complicated romance with magazine editor Clay Felker, and her efforts to build a family that feels complete.
Though Sheehy doesn't dwell on it, her family of origin was certainly dysfunctional. Her mother, a frustrated opera singer, was an alcoholic (though she later became sober, remarried, and had a fulfilling second act as an entrepreneur).
Sheehy's salesman father was even worse: When five-year-old Gail dared to lose a swimming match, he would switch her legs till they bled. "He loved me when I won," she writes, suggesting the genesis of her desire to please powerful male figures. Later, after Sheehy began to prosper, her father would entreat her to fund his hapless business ventures.
It is no wonder that Sheehy, after an early, failed marriage to a doctor who cheated on her, should have been attracted to Felker. A towering character whose booming voice and enthusiasms were legendary, he was 12 years her senior, her boss and editor, and an obvious father figure. In deference to his overwhelming influence on her career, Sheehy titles the first part of her book, "The Pygmalion Years." Their unusual till-death-did-them-part love story is the unifying thread, and the heart, of the memoir.
Sheehy first encounters Felker at the New York Herald Tribune and follows him to New York magazine, which he founded in 1968. "[Y]ou can be a kick-ass writer," he tells her. Felker's approval is intoxicating, and Sheehy becomes his lover — secretly at first — as his marriage to an actress dissolves. Their coupling is "an erotic eruption," she reports.
But the romance is not an easy one. Both Felker and Sheehy, with a daughter from her first marriage, are emotionally cautious. "This was heaven and hell, the push-pull of attraction and withdrawal between two high-strung people scared of committing again," she writes.
Over the years, they would separate repeatedly and have other love affairs, not necessarily in that order. If the narrative is confusing at times, so was the relationship. "I felt eager to stretch," Sheehy says, just a few pages before expressing jealousy at one of Felker's dalliances. In her thirties, she leaves him — her most daring move, she insists — and enjoys "an emancipated bachelor woman's life." But the couple can't stay apart.
After Sheehy takes in a Cambodian orphan, they find their way back to each other for good. When, to the reader's delight, they finally marry in 1984, the union is a profoundly happy one — until illness strikes.
As Felker endures four bouts of cancer and other ailments, Sheehy supports him lovingly through a long decline. "My proper destiny was to see the war through," she writes. Near the end, a doctor tells her: "You've given him ten extra years of life."
Sheehy faces the all but impossible task of figuring out how to say goodbye to "the mentor who sculpted my career, the lover who haunted me for decades, the husband who shared my life for twenty-four years." She captures their tender final days in beautiful, heart-breaking prose — and then tells us how, in spite of her grief, she dared to move on.