The author of 16 books, Gail Sheehy is probably best known as the author of Passages, a title that both codified and changed the conversation of the women's movement of the 1960s and 70s. An original member of the team of "new journalists" that included Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe, Sheehy was also an early protÃ©gÃ©--and eventual wife--of the legendary New York magazine founder Clay Felker. (She has contributed to many other publications, and has been a contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1984.) Sheehy's latest book, Daring: My Passages, is a memoir of her life and times, her experiences as a chronicler of everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Hillary Clinton, and, of course, her life-changing relationship with Felker. Sheehy spoke to me at a restaurant near her rented summer home in Sag Harbor, New York. --Sara Nelson
Q: This book is very personal - it's about your experiences as a journalist but also about your personal journey. Did you have a specific plan for the book when you decided to write it?
A: I didn't know that there was a theme in my life until I finished this book - and that theme is Daring. Daring to say cheeky things, like, for example, when I asked JC Penney (the legendary retailer) if he "paid girls the same as boys." That was a daring question at the time. And then there was the first daring walk I took to see Clay Felker at the Herald Tribune. My editor in the women's department "“ I call it the "estrogen zone" in the book "“ was a woman named Eugenia Sheppard and she could very well have fired me for taking my best stories to a competitor.
Q: You worked, early on, with some of the greatest journalists of a generation: Talese, Wolfe, Nora Ephron, Gloria Steinem and others, including Clay, of course. What was that like? Did you realize you guys were making journalistic history?
A: Mostly we were just having great fun. I don't think any of us knew what New York magazine would lead to; it took a while for city magazines to pop up. It was a scrabble to get stories every week, and one thing that happened that was exciting was that a lot of those stories became movies - Urban Cowboy and Saturday Night Fever came from stories in New York magazine. I think when Radical Chic hit (Wolfe's famous 1970 story about a fund raiser at which Black Panthers mingled with the likes of Leonard Bernstein) we knew something was happening. It got sooooo much attention. It was the first time that political correctness had been challenged "“ but in such a humorous way that you couldn't really fight it.
Q: Still most of the journalists at that time were men. Was it difficult being female in that environment?
A: I remember seeing Tom Wolfe in the elevator once, and of course I worshipped him "“ and I said I'm so excited to be writing for Clay. And he said: "This is the main Tijuana bull ring for competition between feature writers... so you have to be brave." I've always remembered that.
Q: What do you think about the state of journalism today?
A: It's obviously in a major transition. Going to journalism school, learning how to write, working your way up in a little paper in Decatur, Georgia and then moving to Atlanta and then maybe to New York: it's just over. You have to have a whole other set of skills now. You have to be a videographer, you have to do social media. You can't do a long, thoughtful, insightful piece if you don't have the time to do reporting, particularly reporting around somebody who doesn't want to be known or an issue that doesn't want to reveal itself.
Q: You came of age as a working woman before Sheryl Sandberg was born. What do you think about "leaning in"?
A: My experience was largely dictated by the times in which I lived. It was hard to break the gender barrier, even in a profession as seemingly open as journalism; it took everything I had. That's why I had to start a freelance career after only a few years at a newspaper: my daughter was 2 Â½ and I couldn't afford babysitters and I needed to be around. I think for women who have a good education and a lot of choices, they also need to be able to Lean Out for some time. I worry that the Lean In message is exclusive of taking the time to build a life. Young women who I think do the best job of balancing family life and a big career start businesses or work for themselves. That's the best way of being in charge of your life.
Q: While Daring: My Passages is a memoir of your life, it's also very much about Clay Felker, and the life you had together. It's partly a love story...
A: Clay and I had a creative intimacy that drew us back to each other again and again. He was so much part of my life I couldn't not write about him. So it is a book about him and that relationship, but I think it's not just an autobiography or a memoir: it's a book about going on, just going on. If there's one message in this book it's this: You go on when you think you have lost your life. I lost my house because I couldn't afford to keep it [and still take care of Clay]. I lost a lot of my career to take care of him "“ and then I lost him. I wanted to write that there's something beyond that. That you don't have to give up your idenitity to be a caregiver. You don't have to lose yourself.
Author photo copyright Yolanda Perez