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Gail Sheehy recalls her life and career with 'Daring'

Gail Sheehy appears on "The Oprah Winfrey Show"

Gail Sheehy appears on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 1992. Credit: Gail Sheehy

Before Gail Sheehy launches into her recounting of deadly protests in Northern Ireland, life-changing interviews with refugee children at the Cambodian border and revealing meetings with the world's most powerful women, there's something the celebrated author and journalist wants the audience at Temple Avodah in Oceanside to know.

"There's a question we have to clear up, right off the bat," Sheehy tells the audience of about 50, who gathered recently in the temple's cavernous auditorium to hear her speak. Some have copies of Sheehy's latest book, a memoir titled "Daring: My Passages" (William Morrow, $29.99).

"People wonder -- Sheehy, could that name be Jewish?" the author says, speaking slowly into a hand-held microphone. "And I say, no, but I have three Jewish grandchildren and a brand-new Jewish grandniece, so I am a bubbe and a tante," she says, referring to the Yiddish terms for "grandmother" and "aunt."

The audience laughs, but Sheehy takes care of one more detail before starting her talk. Some in the crowd can barely see the diminutive author on the poorly lit stage; others can't hear her clearly. "Well, it's not me," Sheehy says. As attempts are made to turn on more stage lights and pump up the volume, Sheehy ad-libs wisdom worthy of her 1976 bestseller, "Passages, Predictable Crises of Adult Life," her most famous book that has been reprinted in 28 languages.

"I don't know about you," says Sheehy, who is 77, "but at this age I find lip-reading is a great assistance."

That kind of self-mocking humor should be familiar to fans of Sheehy's 17 books and countless influential magazine articles. Sheehy was a founding staffer at male-dominated New York magazine, gaining experience and fame alongside other seminal New Journalism figures such as Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe. She went undercover to expose Manhattan's prostitution trade for a book adapted into the Emmy-nominated TV movie "Hustling." Later, she witnessed and reported on the infamous 1972 "Bloody Sunday" massacre of peaceful protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland.

However, Sheehy is best known for her first "Passages" book, a baby boom classic named as one of the top 10 most influential books in an early 1990s Library of Congress survey. Many sequels followed, the latest being a 463-page memoir mixing globe-trotting reportage with anecdotes from her time living and writing in East Hampton and Sag Harbor.

For most of her career, the Island has been a second home to the author, as well as a creative comfort zone and source of material. "I wrote most of my books in my house in Long Island," Sheehy says in a phone call from her Upper West Side home. She bought an East Hampton house in 1977 with earnings from "Passages," and lived there for three decades with her husband, New York magazine editor Clay Felker, who died at age 82 in 2008.

"I would go out there in February in the dead end of winter to start a new book," Sheehy says. "I felt that the earth was frozen over and would gradually soften, and I wanted to follow that rhythm in starting a new book, melting into and warming up to it and having something I could call a real beginning by the end of the summer."

While living in East Hampton in the 1970s, Sheehy met Edith Bouvier Beale, an eccentric first cousin of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Sheehy wrote about the unusual lifestyle of Beale and her mother in "The Secret of Grey Gardens," for New York magazine in 1972. Their story was the subject of a documentary, a TV movie and a successful Broadway musical.

"Americans are always fascinated by exotic rebels, and that's what the Beale ladies were; living in the midst of dazzling wealth and upper-class manners and prancing around in their crazy clothes, or nothing at all," Sheehy recalls.

Her technique of "writing scenes as journalism," memorably employed in books and magazines, has endeared her to generations of readers.

"She is a name I have known for almost my entire life," said Barbara Weider, 65, of Baldwin, who attended the Temple Avodah event. "The Silent Passage," published in the early 1990s, was Sheehy's exploration of the challenges women face during menopause and helped Weider "to make choices about how to deal with menopause," Weider said. "It taught us how to talk to our doctor and that what we were going through was normal." She read Sheehy's newest book in 10 days, and brought along her copy for an autograph. "She was so much in the forefront of what was going on in the world, both here in the U.S. and in other countries, that my entire life was relived reading the book," Weider said.

Florence Tannen, 79, of Baldwin, enjoys Sheehy's books because they are "down-to-earth and not esoteric." Added Tannen: "People can identify with her work. . . . She's a very inspiring lady."

Sheehy's next speaking engagement on Long Island will be in Great Neck on March 22 (see box).

In a phone interview two days after the Oceanside event, Sheehy took a break from writing a newspaper article to talk about the famous people she's interviewed. Asked who were the most impressive women she has written about, Sheehy said, "It's a toss-up between Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton." Sheehy's book, "Hillary's Choice," was published in 1999. "I heard Hillary Clinton speak well before her husband declared his candidacy for president, and I was astonished that she spoke without notes and spoke in paragraphs. She was unlike anybody I've ever met," Sheehy said.

Noting the recent revelation about the former secretary of state's use of private emails for State Department business, Sheehy says Clinton's presidential candidacy "is not inevitable. She'll have to work very hard because these kinds of stories about the private emails, when she was the public face of the United States, and the contributions to the Clintons' business by foreign countries that we don't trust, like Algeria and Saudi Arabia, will revive the old story about the Clintons always hiding behind lockdown on any question that they don't want to answer."

Sheehy keeps up with the news and musings of world leaders, but when she wants to relax, Long Island is high on her list. She sold the East Hampton house in 2007 after Felker's illness prevented him from traveling, but still visits her old haunts on weekends and in summer, staying with friends or renting digs in Sag Harbor.

"What I love to do there most of all is walk and ride a bike and be in nature," Sheehy says. She takes her dog, a black-and-white, 5-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Chollie, for outings in local wooded areas and on Sag Harbor's Long Beach. In summer, there are outdoor dinner parties with friends. She's also a fan of the local variety store, restaurants and Canio's Books on Main Street, where "the two women who run it can tell you about any book that you can think of," she says.

However, the veteran Hamptonite knows there are certain things one never does in the coming high season. "In the winters, I love to go to the restaurants," she says. "In the summers, they're impossible."

Sheehy in Great Neck

Gail Sheehy will be discussing her new book, "Daring: My Passages."

WHEN | WHERE 2 p.m., March 22, Temple Emanuel, 150 Hicks Lane, Great Neck; sponsored by Great Neck Public Library

INFO 516-466-8055, ext. 218


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