Go back

Joan Kron 40th Anniversary

AND THEN I WROTE: The improbable story of how I started writing—and haven’t stopped By Joan Kron
(continued from home page)
image Andy Warhol's
“You're In”, 1967
®/™ Coca
Cola Company
The Andy Warhol
Foundation, Inc.
photo: Arts Resource,
New York

I’m not sure about society, but I had a few underground credentials. Looking back, I was a bourgeoisie Baby Jane Holzer, without the go-go boots or the blonde fall. I had commissioned and helped Andy Warhol create his perfume, “You’re In,” packaged in silver Coke bottles, until Coca-Cola threatened to sue. A friend and I had been invited—based on our success producing Roy Lichtenstein’s china and the Robert-Indiana Love ring—to run a gift booth at Woodstock. (Not crazy about crowds, we declined.) And I was impeached (and eventually forgiven) by my arts group for my role in bringing The Velvet Underground and some shocking, underground films to Philly.

There was only one problem, I told my would-be mentors: “I can’t write.”

“Everyone can write,” said Eisenberg, predicting the blogosphere.

We discussed. They persuaded. I finally agreed to try it, never for a minute believing I could be good at it or imagining where it might lead.

Only one thing was in my favor. I had ideas. For years I had given them all to journalist pals for their stories. Now I had a germ of an idea for my own. A friend was growing cannabis in her garden in a wealthy suburb on the Main Line (sort of society). She invited me to the harvest (very underground) and gave me permission to write about it. With no style of my own, I decided to parody that of Ruth Seltzer, the society editor of The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.

image Underground-Film
Troublemakers: (Rear,
left to right) filmmaker
Jonas Mekas, Andy, me;
(center) Edie Sedgwick,
and committee members.
 
 

But first, I called Philadelphia’s district attorney, Arlen Specter (now a U.S. Senator), to ask if I could get in trouble for attending such an event. As I recall, he said something like, since it was outside of the city limits it was beyond his jurisdiction.

So, on a beautiful, late-summer afternoon, armed with notebooks and pens, I drove out to what qualified as a rich-hippie event. The only gardening I was familiar with was tending my city back-yard, wisteria vines. So I asked endless questions and scribbled notes furiously. Over the next week I tapped out the story on my little Olivetti. I found the process absorbing and satisfying, as creative as design –only the medium was words. Maybe I could be a society columnist. I was excited. I called Jon Takiff.

“I did it. I think I can write.”

“Bad news. We lost our backer,” he replied.

image Alan Hapern,
without whom...

I was crestfallen. I wanted someone to pass judgment on my precious work of art. (Already I was exhibiting a malady common to writers—need for approval.) Jon suggested I take the story to Philadelphia, our city magazine. I knew Alan Halpern, the editor, socially. But this arty housewife wasn’t anything like the muckraking, Front-Page types he employed. My husband warned me not to get my hopes up. Try a neighborhood paper. I called Alan.

“Why don’t you drop it off,” he said, sounding just a bit condescending. “I’m on my way to Paris. I’ll read it when I get back.” I dashed to his office—eight blocks away—and left the story in an envelope with the receptionist. At home an hour later, the phone rang. It was Nancy Love, the senior editor. “Alan read your story on the way to the airport and he loves it. He’s going to run it. He’ll call you when he gets back.”

I’m sure my screams were heard all the way to Woodstock—or the moon.

Two weeks later, Alan invited me to lunch. (When editors take you to lunch, I soon learned, they’re serious.) I was thrilled when he said he wanted me to write for him on a regular basis. In that case, I had a plan. I would go back to college at night and study journalism. “Absolutely not. They’ll ruin you,” he said. “You’re a natural. I’ll teach you everything you need to know.” And so we began. While Alan edited, I would sit behind him and watch what he crossed out and what he inserted. And that’s how I learned to write.

The editing of that first piece was easier than many since. Alan left most of my words, especially my first line—the “lede”-made the jokes sharper, and fabricated the kicker at the end, explaining, half-seriously, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” (No angry letters, please. I don’t follow that rule.) Editors usually choose story titles. He called it, “Social Notes From Near and Far: Random Jottings From A Hash Harvest Festival.” He ran it as an amuse-bouche beside an investigative piece by another writer about the rise of marijuana use in the middle class—a story that was months in development. OMG. I had lucked into a capital T-trend—what magazines exist for.

As for my own participation, this is so embarrassing. I did not inhale. I didn’t even try one toke of hash, or marijuana, for that matter. I had kicked the cigarette habit years before. But I did sample a hash brownie. It made me talkative and ravenously hungry—dangerous for my diet, I thought, so it was my one and only.

As for my writing, the first byline could be a fluke. Could I do an encore? Alan told me to choose topics I knew something about and pretend I was writing a letter to my best friend. (Two friends, Ellen Kaye and Judy Friedman served as early sounding boards.) So, my first articles focused on what I can only describe as the sociology of everyday life—a term coined by the late Erving Goffman, the U. of P. sociology professor, who gave me a reading list and frequently pointed me in the right direction. (He once spent a day riding in Manhattan taxis with me so I could explain the interaction between the rider and the fare for a New York magazine piece.) I tackled subjects like – people you don’t dare seat next to each other at a dinner party; WASP nicknames; discrimination in Main-Line real estate; grief therapy; the psychology of Christmas cards. And, after I changed husbands, how to keep one’s own name. (I knew I was getting the hang of it when a newspaper in another city published a remarkably similar Christmas-card analysis by an academic who, in my opinion –I have to say opinion for legal reasons— paraphrased my first few paragraphs. It was definitely the sincerest form of flattery.)

Most of the subjects I wrote about - except for grief therapy - could be considered frivolous. But thanks to Alan, I never worry about that. I remember exactly when the subject came up. Philadelphia’s publisher, Herb Lipson, thought a decorating issue would attract advertising and I was elected to make it happen. I was skeptical. I didn’t want to write about decorating with a staple gun. Alan said, Get over it. Home, fashion, and food are what readers care about. Find a way to treat them seriously. Inspired by the new, New-Journalism articles in The New York Herald Tribune, I did just that.

My first decorating feature was “Mayor Rizzo Builds His Dream House.” (Rizzo was the town’s tough ex-chief-of-police.) Accompanied by one of the magazine’s investigators, whose name I can only remember as Frank, I visited the construction site. It was guarded by a Soprano’s-type guy sitting in a folding-aluminum patio chair. Frank and I talked our way onto the property for a look. “Oh, my G-d, Frank,” I said—“the foundation is in the shape of a gun.” (It turned out that what looked like a gun barrel was the concrete footing for a basement bowling alley.) Later, when I visited the contractor, I saw more guns. This time they were images of pistols, rendered in stained glass, in the French doors of his office.

The day after my piece came out, The Philadelphia Daily News followed up, estimating the cost of the mansion and questioning how the mayor could afford it. P.S. The Rizzos never moved in. The contractor did. And I learned that stories about decorating weren’t necessarily trivial.

I’ll never know why Alan agreed to publish a quirky piece I wrote for Rags, an underground fashion magazine, that also lost its backer. Better suited for a college newspaper, the piece was about decorating with industrial equipment and office-supply gear. Alan called it “Hard Hat Habitat.”

“I’m going to write a book about this one day,” I boasted, never believing I could. It was the genesis of High-Tech: The Industrial Style and Source Book for the Home,” the coffee-table book for coffee-tables made of industrial pipe, that I eventually co-authored with Suzanne Slesin. ( Suzy and I had yet to meet, but she was an art history major in the design field and noticed the trend, too. When we finally met in, of all places, a consciousness-raising group, we found we had very similar taste in design—like twins, separated by birth—only she was much younger.)

I moved back to New York in 1971 –but I kept writing for Alan while I looked for freelance work and tried to figure out how to get the attention of Clay Felker, editor-in-chief of New York magazine. Helen Gurley Brown, the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, was the first one to offer me a break. She famously kept a loose-leaf binder filled with titillating story ideas for writers to choose from. She wanted me to write about something many women dream of—and I had actually experienced—going back to your 25th high school reunion and hooking up with your former sweetheart. I was saved from exposing my private life, when I finally got an interview with Clay Felker and a job.

Someone warned me, Don’t give him any ideas, but I didn’t listen. I brought Clay a list of sixteen ideas for special issues and he put a check mark next to every one of them. My Arts Council experience— traipsing up to pop-artists’ lofts—cinched the deal. His favorite was my proposal for an issue about an upcoming, downtown neighborhood called SoHo. I was hired and handed off to editors, many much younger. It took a year, but with Dorothy Seiberling, the art editor, I helped produce a 22-page issue about SoHo. Milton Glaser designed a spectacular Toulouse-Lautrec-like cover and I wrote two pieces, including “Lofty Living.” Its message was that “under SoHo’s cast-iron exterior beats a Tupperware heart.” For years afterward, I skulked around that neighborhood in dark glasses. The artists and dealers living in luxury behind graffiti-covered doors blamed me for the rise in real-estate prices.

“If no one is mad at you, you’re not doing your job,” Laura Landro, a colleague at The Wall Street Journal, told me, years later. So I learned. Manhattan decorators were furious when I demystified the design industry’s pricing system in “The Half-Truth About Wholesale.” And it took a while before I reached détente with Mary Jane Poole, the editor of House & Garden, after my affectionate spoof—“The House & Garden Blues.” Paige Rense, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest has looked through me ever since I profiled her in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. (Maybe she has bad eyesight.) And Estée Lauder’s nose was out of joint when I revealed her age in a Wall Street Journal profile. Perhaps that’s why I never fib about my own age.

Like Alan Halpern, Clay Felker gave opportunities to women at a time when journalism was a man’s game. Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine premiered inside New York. So did Judy Daniels’ Savvy. Death wasn’t Clay’s favorite subject, but he published several of my pieces about it, including “Designing a Better Place to Die,” the first major story in the U.S. about the Hospice movement; another about cancer-support groups; and “The Girl in a Coma”—my first news-breaking cover story.

Gail Sheehy, one of the magazine’s bold-face writers (and Clay’s future wife), wanted to cover the court battle playing out over Karen Ann Quinlan, who was comatose after a possible drug and alcohol interaction. Quinlan’s parents wanted to remove her from the respirator. The hospital objected. Clay let me do the story because I had put in so much time investigating the death-and-dying movement as a cure for my own grief. (Thanatology, as the field is called, was to the 70s what ecology is today.) I believe I was the only reporter who predicted Quinlan would not die if removed from the respirator. It’s not that I was so smart—but I had top neurologists for sources. And she didn’t die—not for ten years. (I eventually covered her funeral for The Wall Street Journal.)

Dottie Seiberling reminded me recently that I did a lot of grief counseling in those days.

“I remember the day that you and T. George [Harris, a former editor of Psychology Today and a consultant to New York] sat on the floor at NY Magazine and shared stories about life's sorrows,” she wrote. “You were both commiserating and consoling him…. The rest of the staff just milled around and went on with the day's life. It was a kind of classic scene at NYMag.”

Clay and I had only one disagreement. When the Quinlan family asked me write their book, retaining final approval for themselves, I saw it as an opportunity to become a capital-A author. Clay exploded. The conversation was pretty one-sided and went like this: “Is that what you want—to be a hack, letting someone else tell you what to write?” Okay, okay, I turned down the book offer.

When Clay lost New York to Rupert Murdoch, I walked out in support, along with many others—an act that did not endear me to the new regime. Coincidentally, The New York Times was just starting its Home Section and, with a good word from Ada Louise Huxtable, the architectural critic, I was hired as chief reporter. There was a certain irony in this.

Several years before, my Philadelphia townhouse was photographed and published by Rita Reif in the Times magazine. Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, the daughter of the paper’s founder and a woman with traditional taste, was horrified. “’I hope [the doctor] knows more about medicine than he does about decorating a home, otherwise it will be hard on his patients,’” she wrote in a letter to Turner Catledge, the managing editor.

“’I am very sorry you didn’t like it,’” responded Catledge. “’This is an old house which has been given a new type of treatment and I had entertained the hope that you might approve of the piece as an illustration of what some people do with buildings of this sort.’”

Detailing the correspondence in his 1971 memoir, My Life and The Times, Catledge wrote: “I never really convinced her that a Duncan Phyfe chair is not news, but one made of plastic is.” The publisher, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger agreed in a separate memo: “’I have had it with this absolutely way-out crazy furniture that we have been showing in our magazine’” He suggested replacing the design reporter “’with someone who has more traditional taste.’” To Catledge’s credit, he didn’t replace her.

Newspaper writing was a new challenge for me. I worried how I could write a column and a feature every week, but I soon learned to write faster with the help of Nancy Newhouse, who edited the Thursday section. I have always felt that design magazines promote the false idea that life in a beautiful home is as perfect as the décor. I didn’t want my first Home Section piece to be intimidating, so it was called, “I’d Like to Invite You to Dinner but the House Isn’t Finished”—words familiar to every home-design reporter.

In between covering King-Tut fever, flower powers, the trend for gigantic pillows, and a luncheon with Jacqueline Onassis, I was able to slip in a story now and then about the ongoing Quinlan saga, and one about the U.S. military’s relentless quest for those missing in action. The most affecting moment in my career occurred while researching that story. I went to Arlington National Cemetery to attend the burial of the remains (actually bone fragments) of one airman, who had been MIA for a decade.

Working at the Times was stressful but there were unexpected benefits. The Philadelphia organization that had refused me a desk and a phone invited me back as an honored speaker. And my mother was proud every Thursday. But, oddly, my enduring legacy at the Times may be the anecdote about my desk that has been told and retold in histories of the paper.

When I first arrived they gave me a tiny secretarial desk, smaller than any other reporter’s desk. I was told they were redoing the newsroom and in a year I could have a bigger one. Hello! There was plenty of room—so what would any former decorator do? I called a friend in the business and ordered a large L-shaped desk with a bookcase on top. To make sure it was noticed, I specified that it be made of white laminate with red trim. When it arrived it stood out like a glamorous yacht in a sea of walnut-Formica tug boats. One by one, people from every department began strolling by. When the assistant-managing editor in charge of our section learned the manufacturer was an old friend of mine, he was alarmed. “Give me the bill and don’t tell anyone.” (Oops. Sorry, Jimmy.) Mimi Sheraton, then the food critic, and never shy about expressing her opinion, critiqued my small act of independence. “It’s a newspaper. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable,” she said.

Finally, Abe Rosenthal, the powerful and feared managing editor, paid a visit. He took one look and proclaimed, “Mine is bigger.” Then he invited me to his office to see his desk. It was an aircraft carrier.

Despite the fact that the new Food and Home sections were literally saving the Times by increasing circulation, the old-time newsmen treated the style newcomers—all women—with ill-concealed contempt. On the night of the big blackout in 1977, I passed one of these guys in the hall—we were all carrying flashlights that had been stored in nooks under the floors for emergencies. He sneered at me and said, “How is the Home section going to cover the blackout? Decorating with candles?”

There used to be a saying (before the current buyouts), No one ever quits the Times. But I did when they wouldn’t give me a leave of absence to finish High-Tech. By then Suzy Slesin and I had been working on the book after hours for a year—with Walter Bernard, New York’s art director, who was designing it, and Nancy Klein, our research assistant. But it needed more attention. “Do you see all these reporters,” said Arthur Gelb, the assistant managing editor who had hired me, gesturing to the vast newsroom. “They’re all writing books. If I give you a leave, they’ll want one too.” Suzy and I were in deep debt to the publisher. There was no choice. I walked out. (It was a risk , but I was encouraged by a rare compliment another top editor had given me. He made the mistake of telling me one day that I was “irreplaceable.” Of course, no one is irreplaceable, but it gave me confidence, briefly.)

Since the paper didn’t want my desk, I had a messenger service pick it up. Abe Rosenthal—the big boss—wasn’t happy and let me know it. Now I was black-balled for quitting not one, but two, major publications. For several years after I left, no Times editor would dare give me a freelance assignment until Dona Guimarez, the subsequent Home-Section editor, decided the ban was ridiculous and I became an occasional freelancer. (Years later, I ran into Abe Rosenthal at the theatre and greeted him with trepidation. He gave me a big bear hug. He had totally forgotten he was furious at me.)

The trauma was all worthwhile, when, High-Tech was finally published (Potter, 1978). Clay Felker, by then, editor of Esquire, serialized the book in six installments—the cover of the first one was emblazoned with the term High-Tech in type large enough to be seen a block away from a newsstand. Within weeks, “high-tech” went from linguistic obscurity to national buzz word. Department stores and specialty shops like Pottery Barn began selling “high-tech” restaurant cookware. A wife in a New Yorker cartoon, scolded her husband for not being “high tech” enough, calling him “middle middle middle tech!”

But most amazing, The Oxford English Dictionary created a new entry for high-tech, crediting Suzy and me by name. That was particularly satisfying since the head of Crown, the parent publishing house, had wanted us to change the book’s title. “No one will know what it means,” he said. We compromised by adding a descriptive sub-title. Today, when the term “high-tech” is common in every electronics’ ad and Silicon-Valley story, it’s hard to remember a time when no one knew what it meant.

After the book tour, I was once again at liberty. What to do next? Thanks to a recommendation from Walter Bernard, I began consulting for The Washington Star. I developed a prototype of a Sunday home magazine and wrote a string of features for John Montorio, another one of my enablers. One of them may be the best-read piece in my bibliography. The hit TV show of the moment was Dallas. The lead character was the charming scoundrel J.R. Ewing, who lived at a fictitious ranch called South Fork. Scenes at the ranch were shot at a real ranch in Plano, Texas, owned by a entrepreneurial man, whose initials were also J.R. His property was becoming a major tour-bus attraction and J.R., the ranch owner, lacking an oil well on his property, had a more original gusher. He was selling small pieces of ranch sod for $25 apiece. I proposed a story about it to the editors of D (for Dallas) magazine. They turned it down as “tacky,” but the Star jumped at it. My article was syndicated in papers all over the world.

Oddly, after writing so many home-design stories, I felt I still didn’t understand why decorating caused home owners so much angst. The result was a two-year project culminating in Home-Psych: The Social Psychology of Home and Decoration (Potter, 1983), a book that put the living room couch on the couch. In order to write it I had to familiarize myself with arcane theories of home, possessions, territoriality, gender roles, gate-keeping, status striving, gift exchange, and hospitality. It was like writing a Ph.D. thesis and then translating it into easy reading. Many sociologists , especially Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist, praised it. But one review in a decorating magazine nearly destroyed it. Reviewers are entitled to their opinions, so I took my lumps. Later, I was a guest on a panel along with an academic whose work was quoted in the book and who had dismissed my effort in a negative review. She took me aside and apologized, saying she had panned it because she was jealous. Welcome to the book world. The experience was humbling—and enlightening.

Since no research goes to waste, I was able to use my knowledge of tribal potlatches—over-the-top-gift-competition festivals —in a Times article when the Museum of Natural History presented an exhibition of British Columbia’s Kwakiutl Indians. And I used my research again in a Times piece examining the modern uses of status symbols in The Sisters Rosenzweig, the play by Wendy Wasserstein.

With Home-Psych behind me, I was once again out of work. But for whatever reason—burned by the criticism, overloaded with design information—I wanted to investigate another field: Fashion.

On a hunch, I took myself to Hollywood to investigate the clothes that were becoming almost characters on a new TV show called Dynasty. Nolan Miller, the costume designer was agreeable and invited me for breakfast—“I’ll pick you up at 6:30.” Uh-oh. Breakfast was a bun on the set of Hotel, our first stop. Then, in quick succession, we hit fabric stores for swatches; showed sketches and swatches to Joan Collins on the Dynasty set; drove to Linda Evans’ Hollywood Hills house for her approvals; stopped by the Spelling mansion to fit a gown Candy Spelling was to wear to an award dinner; and then to Nolan’s costume shop, where dummies of a half-dozen stars including Lana Turner and Sophia Loren were waiting to be dressed. The next morning the costumes were finished and the process started over again. I never got breakfast. But I did have my picture taken on Dynasty’s grand, double staircase.

About the same time, The Wall Street Journal was looking for a front-page, fashion-business reporter. Clay Felker knew I wanted to write fashion and put in a good word. Having a pop-culture story in my pocket helped. I got the job. On the first day, I realized I was the oldest person in the newsroom. The Journal was known for hiring reporters right out of college. One reporter—on the technology beat—was blunt. “What are you doing here? You’ve written books.” His jaw dropped the next day when the publisher stopped by my desk to welcome me. We had grown up around the corner from each other and our mothers were friends, though he and I barely knew each other. “My mother told me to say Hello,” he said, dutifully. That was the easy part.

Anything I thought I knew about writing went out the window when I came up against the Journal’s editing system. It was journalism boot camp. I rewrote. I re-interviewed. I learned to defend every word. By then, I was secure enough to surrender my ego, but I witnessed a lot of tears in the ladies’ room. Laura Landro, Meg Cox, and Teri Agins—reporters there, adopted me and coached me in the corporate culture. When I was afraid to interview someone I suspected of mob connections, my editor told me I was not expected to put my life in danger. But Jonathan Kwitney, a fearless investigative reporter, shamed me. “If you don’t make that call, you’re not a real reporter,” he said. I made the call.

The Dynasty story ran on the front page in the center column—the A-hed, as the space was called. And the fallout was pure Hollywood. Aaron Spelling, the producer of the TV show, was so pleased to be quoted on the Journal’s front page, he surprised Nolan Miller with the car of his dreams: a vintage Rolls Royce. For years after that, whenever I was in L.A. on business, Nolan would take me for a spin in “our Rolls.” (Years later, he convinced Sophia Loren to let me profile her for Allure.)

The interview I worked hardest for was Yves St. Laurent. After his couture show in Paris, I was told he was under the weather and to wait at my hotel until I was called. When the days stretched on, with one postponement after another, I had to do something drastic. I bought a French edition of High-Tech, found St. Laurent’s personal florist and sent the book with a huge bouquet of his favorite white flowers. Miraculously, the next day I got my interview and a four-page, handwritten explanation of his design philosophy.

Despite a body of work at the Journal that included respectable front-page business stories about YSL, Vogue, Estée Lauder, and Middle-Eastern princesses who buy haute couture—my best-remembered piece was about a new form of taxidermy for dead pets called freeze-drying. I got the idea watching a report by Judy Licht on the evening news. The next day I suggested it to my editor, Don Moffitt. The paper had a history of doing A-heds about animals. I had even written one about a canine fashion show and another about duck shooting. Don couldn’t find anyone in the newsroom willing to do the story, so he appointed me—against my will. The grossest moment in my career was a visit to a taxidermist in New Jersey. He invited me into the kitchen and lifted the lid of his big-box freezer. Sitting there, next to gallon cartons of ice cream, was a client’s freeze-dried pet pooch.

On the morning my Estée Lauder profile appeared, a phone call woke me at 7 a.m. It was Judy Price, the founder and publisher of Avenue, a service magazine for Manhattan’s rich and pretentious. She wanted me to be her new editor in chief. By then, I was 58 and it was now or never. Although a Spy article on notorious bosses wasn’t kind to Judy, I had a great four-year education under her tutelage.

With a talented team—and consulting from Alan Halpern—we tried to give the magazine an edge. In addition to advising readers how to buy mega-yachts and Louis Seize fauteuil’s, we looked at some close-to-the penthouse issues like the penalties for white-collar crime. In case any of our readers were convicted, Gaeton Fonzi did a lodging-advice piece about the minimum-security prisons in the U.S. with the best amenities. I wonder if Bernard Madoff saved that issue.

At Avenue, I learned the difference between a writer and an editor. My hardest decision was when our star writer, William Grimes, in an art piece, criticized a museum curator. She happened to be the daughter of the aforementioned publisher of The Wall Street Journal. I wrestled with my conscience. Do I use my power and censor an article for personal reasons, or keep my integrity and hurt my former employer and family friend? I did what I think the publisher would have done. I gritted my un-veneered teeth and allowed the writer his opinion.

When a celebrity guest failed to meet his deadline for a last-page essay in my first Avenue issue, I needed a replacement, fast. By chance, I had attended a gala dinner the night before at the New York Public Library and witnessed an etiquette meltdown. Sophisticates who knew how to eat dessert with a fork and a spoon, were flummoxed by the Glorious Food, cheese-and-salad course: a dollop of cheese on an endive leaf. It was meant to be eaten with fingers. Furtively the guests looked left and right to see how others were getting the endive from plate to mouth. As I recounted the scene to my staff—the proverbial light bulb turned on, and a Nouvelle Manners columnist was born. Her name just slipped off my tongue. Ms. Faux Pas—it was my nom de plume for four years of columns.

The antithesis of Miss Manners, Ms. Faux Pas didn’t know all the answers, but she knew bad manners when she saw them—and she saw acres of them. At last I was a society gossip columnist and an etiquette consultant—all in one. Concerned about ticking off folks who kept high-priced lawyers in adjoining offices, Ms. Faux Pas changed names—slightly. She dissed Dis-invitations. Outed guests who switched place cards at dinner parties. And was the first to define Termination Chic, observing: “The bad news is you’ve been fired. The good news is you’re important enough for Liz Smithereens to break the news to you on TV!”

Her columns, brought to life by Michael Witte’s witty illustrations, and edited by Alan Halpern (who made every joke better), were filled with the escapades of Donald Trumpet, Suzi Richfriend, Broke Faster, Horst Von Polo, Lothario Frittata, and Bubbly Waters. Many of these essays were collected in a 1988 book—Ms. Faux Pas: A non-Guide to Glitterati Manners, published by moi. A glowing review by John Gross (not a friend or even an acquaintance) in the Times made up, somewhat, for the pain of Home-Psych.

Ms. Faux Pas has been lying low since she left Avenue. But she is discussing a comeback. There is talk with producers (over salade niçoise –not eaten with fingers) of her moving to Hollywood—and starring in a feature film. Yoo-hoo, Monsieur DeMille. Ms. Faux Pas is ready for her close-up.

By 1990, when poufs and lifestyles were deflating, it was time, once more, for me—like Mary Poppins—to grab my umbrella and float away. Again, a former colleague opened a door for me. Sue Roy introduced me to Linda Wells, the former Times magazine beauty editor, who was developing a beauty magazine called Allure for Conde Nast. Skeptics kept asking Linda, “How much can you say about lipstick?” That was 19 years ago and she hasn’t run out of ideas. Beauty is a subject that’s easy to dismiss as fluff—and some stories can be fluffy. But appearance is at the center of identity. It affects the way others see us and the way we see ourselves. Why else would large numbers of people get shots of neurotoxin to look more rested or go under anesthesia for a slimmer nose or bigger breasts. No one risks death to wear the latest fashion (sky-high heels excluded) or to recover their sofa.

When Linda and I began our working relationship, she was half my age and twice as smart. We’ve had a two-decade run without one bad word between us. She appreciates ideas, gives credit where it’s due, and is as tough as any Journal editor. Many of my story proposals begin with me saying: “Linda, you’ll never believe this.” And then I’ll tell her about some new treatment or some event that only a novelist could dream up. My piece in Allure’s first issue, “The Image Police,” was about workplace dress codes. I discovered that at Disney World, every facet of employee dress and makeup was controlled and spelled out in a manual. Earrings could be no bigger than a dime—and Minnie Mouse was the only female employee allowed to wear black tights and mascara. It made an amusing photo—MM in her black tights in the center of a group of Disney women, all wearing flesh-colored hosiery.

But I found my real beat at Allure when I volunteered to interview four plastic surgeons and ended up having a face-lift (not part of the assignment). We were all surprised at the response when the resulting story, “Shopping For a New Face,” came out. Even though our readers are young, we discovered, they are fascinated with cosmetic surgery. In the early 90s, plastic surgery was exploding and it had meager coverage in the popular press. I asked for the beat, rationalizing that I was the only one at the magazine old enough to appreciate it. My face-lift made me look as young as I felt. I wonder if I would still be working if I looked my age.

Since that first memoir, I’ve written almost 150 pieces, large and small, about cosmetic surgery—including good results; bad results; the fall and rise and rise of breast implants; “What Can Go Wrong”; “Death by Face-Lift”; “Appointment With Death” (about a woman who murdered her surgeon); “Fantastic Voyage” (about life as a woman for Harlow, the 40-year-old transsexual I had written about 20 years before); “Nipping and Tucking in Tinseltown”; “Pretty Poison” (about Botox); “Living Young” (a study of twins’ aging); and “The Final Cut” (the evolution of Michael Jackson’s face).

On this beat I’ve learned on the job, traveling to Brazil to see if Ivo Pitanguy, the jet-set plastic surgeon, was still working; and to Paris to meet Yves-Gerard Illouz, who developed liposuction. The fact that I was once married to a surgeon has helped. I don’t faint while watching surgery. And just when it seems there is nothing new to say, along come lasers and ultra-sound devices to melt fat without incisions. My book Lift: Wanting Fearing and Having a Face-lift (Viking/Penguin, 1998/1999) summed up much of what I learned about facial procedures and the history of plastic surgery. I take the responsibility seriously. Every time you mention a doctor’s name or a new procedure you know you’re putting someone on the operating table.

There’s a back story behind every story. For instance, “Dueling Facelifts”—a shootout over techniques between four surgeons who were operating on two sets of twins. While covering the competition, I was accused of unethical behavior. One of the doctors could not imagine how I had located two of the twins. I must have read a medical chart upside down on his desk, he complained. Linda defended me. Actually, I had found the twins quite easily. Another one of the surgeons had told me, on the record, where these twins worked. How many sets of twins do you think were employed then by Southwest Airlines as flight attendants? Six. But only one pair in that age group. It took me about an hour to get a message to them and a call back. I was eventually exonerated, but not before being barred by one plastic-surgery society from its annual scientific sessions. The society soon learned that when you ban one member of the press, you have to ban every member of the press. That year the society got no press coverage of its meeting. The following year they gave me a journalism award.

image Dr. Do-It-All
copyright © by Mary Ellen Mark

In a list of fascinating stories, one stands out for its strangeness, legal ramifications, and its eventual conclusion. “Doctor Do-It-All” was a profile of a 70-something surgeon in Utah with a huge breast-implant practice and a basement operating room. He fancied custom-made Nehru suits, conspicuous diamond jewelry, and full-length fur coats. Venus de Milo statuettes adorned his office and home. His wispy, grey pompadour was dyed a reddish-brown. Visiting his facility, I discovered two post-operative patients sharing, yes, sharing, one bed; questionable sanitation; and what appeared to me to be inadequate anesthesia during one surgical procedure. When silicone implants were banned in the early 1990s, this doctor had bought up dozens that should have been returned to the manufacturer. He was importing others illegally. The local authorities had been trying to take his license away for years. The doctor finally surrendered his license as the case against him was going to trial and he couldn’t get another postponement. He died recently.

Since my first story 40 years ago about the hash harvest, I’m sure I’ve put in the obligatory 10,000 hours—the amount of time required to master a craft, according to Malcolm Gladwell in The Outliers. In the process, I graduated from manual typewriters, to a Selectric, to a Lexitron word processor, to PCs, and a Blackberry. I’ve written close to 800 features and columns and four books and I still pull all-nighters and obsess over each piece as if it were my first. (It might have been five books if I hadn’t said No to ghost-writing the backstage book of Hair. That’s just another might-have-been in a long list of missed opportunities that includes turning down my first dream job—assistant to the costume designer of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It conflicted with my wedding plans. It was 1950—what can I say. And I do wish I could meet the advisor who told me not to bother applying to Bennington College. I could never get in, she said.)

In the same 40-year period my brood grew to four when I acquired three step-children—and, before long, there were weddings to plan and four daughters- and sons-in-law and seven grandchildren. I also managed several home renovations with guidance from Fred Schwartz and Mario Buatta; acted as style director for the family buffalo ranch; and hardest of all, stood by my husband during a long illness—and by my mom who died a few months after my husband did. She was just shy of 106. If I ever felt sorry for myself, Andrew Wilkes, a friend and colleague, would kick my butt—and Suzy would take me shopping. Somehow I never missed a deadline.

As my 40th writing anniversary loomed, I wanted to find the three young Turks who assured me that anyone can write and give them a virtual fist bump. It’s not cool to get sentimental about your first story—or so I thought—until I attended a seminar by D.A. Pennebaker, the documentary filmmaker. He showed his own initial effort and said that first films, poems, and articles are important, no matter how awkward, because they reveal a glimmer of the artist in the making. That made me feel less self-indulgent about resurrecting my marijuana story and thanking my Godfathers.

Jon Takiff is the contemporary music and consumer electronics columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News. Lee Eisenberg, a former editor-in-chief of Esquire, lives in Chicago and writes books. His latest is Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What. Bill Mandel, a former columnist for The San Francisco Examiner and seven-time Pulitzer-Prize nominee, is a corporate-communications consultant. There aren't enough words to thank Alan Halpern. At his memorial service a few years ago, they had to haul me off the stage, when my homage to him ran overtime. Alan was one editor who let me write long.

image Reminds me of
my editing 'mob.'

I have a mountain of debts to others, too. Behind every writer are legions of editors, fact checkers, copy editors, photo and art directors—and lawyers—who shape one’s work. I’ve worked with a parade of talented people –though respect has never stopped me from wheedling, arguing, bitching, and crying about passages cut from my stories and pictures so large I have to trim my text. Still, I know these colleagues—whom I imagine standing behind me like the mob in the Verizon commercial—have made my work better. I’ve made a list, below, of many who hired me, green-lighted my pieces, shaped them, art-directed them, promoted them, or saved me from embarrassment by killing clichés, rewriting and cutting mercilessly. If I could, I’d send them all gift certificates for Botox for the frowns I’ve caused. And if I’ve omitted anyone, hey, it’s the internet—it’s never too late for a correction.

My story doesn’t end here. This is just a short pause before I am off to pursue my next scoop for Allure. To be continued….



Philadelphia
*Alan Halpern: Eliot Kaplan, Nancy Love, Dan Rottenberg, Art Spikol

Rags
Mary Peacock

Ladies Home Journal
*John Mack Carter: *Lenore Hershey

Town & Country
*Frank Zachary

New York
*Clay Felker: Walter Bernard, *Elizabeth Crow, Judith Daniels, Brian Dobell, *John Duka, Milton Glaser, T. George Harris, Deborah Harkins, Laurie Jones, Nancy McKeon, Quita McMath, Jack Nessel, Nancy Newhouse, Dorothy Seiberling, Suzanne Slesin, Ellen Stern, Priscilla Tucker, Alice Turner, Shelley Zalaznick

New West
*Clay Felker: Rosalie Wright

Ms.
Gloria Steinem: Suzanne Levine

The New York Times
*Abe Rosenthal: Arthur Gelb, James Greenfield: Michael Cannell, Steven Drucker, Annette Grant, Barbara Graustark, *Dona Guimarez, William Hamilton, Linda Lee, John Montorio, Nancy Newhouse, Dan Shaw, Al Siegal, Lou Silverstein, Wendy Slight, Larry VanGelder, Alex Ward, Michella Williams

Clarkson Potter Publishers
*Jane West, Carole Southern: Nancy Novogrod, Betsey Nolan

Savvy
Judith Daniels

The Wall Street Journal
Norman Pearlstine: Cynthia Crossen, Ellen Graham, Jim Hyatt, *Jonathan Kwitney, *Lee Lescaze, Joanne Lipman, Bill Mathewson, Don Moffitt, David Sandford, Raymond Sokolov, James Stewart

The San Francisco Chronicle & Examiner
Rosalie Wright Pakenham

House Beautiful
Doris Shaw

House & Garden
Lou Gropp, Nancy Novogrod

The Washington Post Magazine
Nancy McKeon

The Washington Star
*Henry Grunwald, *Murray Gart: John Montorio

Cue
Nancy Love

Avenue
Carlo Barile, Lise Funderburg, William Grimes, *Alan Halpern, Susan Roy, Dan Shaw, Andrew Wilkes

The New York Times Magazine
Ed Klein: *Carrie Donovan, William Grimes

HomeStyle
Suzanne Slesin: Dan Shaw

O at Home
Suzanne Slesin: Kathryn Millan

Allure
Linda Wells: *Eileen Baum, Jeffries Blackerby, Maggie Buckley, Nancy Berger Cardone, Agnes Chapski, Paula Chin, Richard Constantine, Paul Covaco, Lucy Danziger, David DeNicolo, Jeffrey Dersh, Deanna Filippo, Fiona Gibb, Sandy Golinkin, Sandy Hill, Marie Jones, Felice Kaplan, Jennifer Kass, Ruth Kauders, Susan Kittenplan, Carol Kramer, Dianne Partie Lange, Valerie Latona, Kathy Leventhal, Jillian MacKenzie, Karen Marta, Nadine McCarthy, Martha McCully, Polly Mellen, Hannah Morrill, Kristin Perrotta, Jessica Prince, Ron Prince, Tom Prince, Ilene Rosenzweig, Susan Roy, Catherine Scroop, Lori Segal, Lucy Sisman, Jennifer Tung, Sarah Van Boven, Sadie Van Gelder, Andrew Wilkes

Viking/Penguin
Wendy Wolf: Breen Wesson

Lucy Kroll Agency
*LucyKroll: Barbara Hogenson

ICM
Amanda Urban

Special Thanks
Randy Dryer
All the "deep throats" and those who have allowed me to interview them

www.facelift.com: copy-editing mistakes are my own. JK

*Deceased.

Go back