A few days before the publication of The Sex Doctors in the Basement, Molly Jong-Fast’s rambling, name-dropping, half-crazy but very funny memoir, the 26-year-old writer met The Transom for sushi on the Upper East Side. In this book of essays about growing up Jong (she’s the daughter of Fear of Flying author Erica Jong and the granddaughter of Howard Fast, who wrote Spartacus and won the 1953 Stalin Peace Prize), Ms. Jong-Fast covers a lot of ground she didn’t have room for in her first coming-of-age memoir, the novel Normal Girl, which came out when she was 21.
On the first page of Sex Doctors, she reveals that her mother’s side of the family suffers from irritable-bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease. In Chapter 2, she calls her grandfather a liar and claims that Norman Rockwell wanted to have anal sex with him. Near the end, in a chapter titled “What’s in Joan Collins’s Box?”, Ms. Jong-Fast answers that question: a wig.
That didn’t sit too well with the award-winning actress and best-selling author, whose lawyer fired off a letter to Random House. The publishing house was quick to make changes and tone things down.
Ms. Jong-Fast, who refers to the affair as “Baldgate,” says it all started when she was 13. During a dinner with her mother and Ms. Collins, the latter kept talking about Valentino’s yacht, and Ms. Jong-Fast kept mentioning how much she’d like to check it out-to which Ms. Collins replied, “Oh, no, not as you are now, why you’re too fat to go on Valentino’s yacht.”
In late March, the two women found themselves locked in a staring contest at a Glamour magazine party. “She looked really pissed,” Ms. Jong-Fast recalled.
“I was holding Mom’s hand. She started coming towards me, and I said, ‘Mom, we have to get out of here-Joan Collins is going to kick my ass.’ So we left. It was so scary. She’s big, she’s tall, she could take me.”
As of April 11, Ms. Jong-Fast had received mostly favorable notices in the press for the Sex Doctors in the Basement, with the notable exception of one reviewer who noted that Ms. Jong-Fast’s “sense of entitlement trips her up” and another who lamented the lack of restraint in her memoir, which “suffers from such breathtakingly unamusing, self-important irony that this reviewer found it nearly unreadable.”
Neither review bothered Ms. Jong-Fast in the slightest. For one thing, they appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune.
“They were really mean, but so hilarious,” she said. “People from the Midwest don’t really get New York. With a book like this, you should be like, ‘She’s not even famous-who cares?’ That’s the way you should go. But it was like, ‘Why doesn’t she come to more profound realizations about her life?’ And that is why it’s funny. They’re reading it like it should be Angela’s Ashes or like Wasted.”
One reviewer even wrote to Ms. Jong-Fast, calling her “immensely talented” but wishing she’d eased up on the “cheap humor” and focused more on what it feels to be the child of someone famous. “I was like, ”Cause it doesn’t feel like anything,’” she said, adding that her book was meant to be an amusing response to all the earnest, humorless and “fake literary bullshit” memoirs out there.
Although it took Ms. Jong-Fast five years to write The Sex Doctors-in that time, she’s gotten married, had a baby (Max), earned an M.F.A. from Bennington, and contributed to The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Modern Bride and others-it sometimes reads like she dashed the whole thing off in a month, via e-mail, or casually dictated it all into a tape recorder. As she chatted and riffed away, it was as though she was testing out new material.
“I have a giant head,” she said, finishing her small green salad with extra carrot-juice dressing on the side. “I feel like that’s one of the other things I have going for me. I have an enormous head. A lot of people who are successful have enormous heads-they look like bobbers, you know, with big heads in the cars? Napoleon had a big head. Robert De Niro has an enormous head. Eve Ensler has a giant head.”
Reluctantly, Ms. Jong-Fast confessed that she’s not the Vagina Monologues playwright’s biggest fan.
“I can’t stand it when people use other people’s hardships as a way to self-promote,” she said. “She’s like, ‘Women in Samoa are being raped and murdered every day-buy my book.’ Or ‘I’m really here to talk about women’s rights-buy my book.’ Or ‘I’m going to be on HBO talking about women’s rights-buy my book.’ For God’s sake, shilling is one thing, but shilling on the backs of poor, homeless Samoans without genitals is a whole other thing.”
Ms. Jong-Fast backpedaled a little.
“Maybe I’m just a tiny bit jealous that she’s a big star and I have a 27-pound cat,” she said. “Or maybe my jealousy stems from the fact that Samoans without genitals tend to shun me. Perhaps I’m just running with the wrong group. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I need some traumatized Samoan friends ASAP, but you just never meet Samoans in the Scoop store.”
Is she uncomfortable with her level of fame?
“It’s hard for me to be this famous,” she said. “It’s called not famous. I’m less famous than Jazzy Adams [the deceased dog that belonged to New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams]. I’m less famous than Jazzy, but I think I’m more famous than the new Adams dog, because we don’t know what his name is. I’m less famous than the Gastineau girls but maybe more famous than their doorman. Compared to me, the Gottis are huge stars.”
Does she have a stalker?
“If only! If I had a stalker, I’d be talking to Entertainment Tonight, not you. I might hire a stalker …. No, there are stops between where I am and Stalker Fame. No, the saddest thing is people who aren’t that famous but they have stalkers, like abused women. That’s sad. I had a fan, but I wrote him back and then he went away. But I do get fan letters, which is totally weird. And hate mail. No, I don’t get hate mail-yet. I get lawsuits. No, it’s pretty hard for me to walk down the street; my privacy is a big issue. It’s hard to keep a private life and be a public person, you know?”
She finished her spicy tuna roll and confessed to a horrible fear of flying. She’s tried everything (Fly Without Fear at LaGuardia, the “Mad Russian” hypnotist, virtual-reality therapy), but she still has nightmares.
“Mom and I did Oprah in Chicago two years ago-couldn’t get home,” she said.
“Couldn’t get on the plane, so we took the train. I hate flying. I once took so many beta blockers that I fainted at J.F.K. and had to be taken in an ambulance to the local hospital. Let me tell you that [Kings County Hospital] is not a nice hospital. Literally, I’ve got all my fancy luggage and there’s a woman next to me saying, ‘My skin is crawling-I’m coming down from the crack!’ She’s screaming, and I’m on the bed next to her.”
She said her mother has absolutely no fear of flying.
“The big lie of my life is that she wrote Fear of Flying,” Ms. Jong-Fast said. “And I really could write Fear of Flying.”
What is it with these Law and Order actors? Everywhere The Transom goes, it seems, we run into at least one of them, shilling for some children’s charity, raising money to help rape victims, all gussied up in an outfit from some fashion designer at some cocktail party at some socialite-filled boutique on Madison Avenue. Don’t these people know that they’re not actually lawyers, detectives or public defenders charged with representing the poor and besotted? Don’t we?
A case in point: Safe Horizon.
Last week, we found ourselves eating canapés in the corner of the Calvin Klein boutique talking to Stephanie March, who was wearing a $1,300 mauve Calvin Klein dress and an ample assortment of her own chunky jewelry. From 2000 to 2003, the blonde and glowing Ms. March played Assistant District Attorney Alexandra (Alex) Cabot on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. She’s on the board of Safe Horizon, a major New York charity with strong ties to the fashion industry that helps victims of crime and abuse. “Charities often operate in the court system,” she said, “so it’s natural for them to come to us.”
In a telephone interview earlier this year, Katherine Oliver, the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, tried to explain. ” Law and Order is the quintessential reality-television show,” she said. The intermingling of television show and city life is so complete, she added, that it’s no wonder people can’t quite tell the difference. People rush up to Sam Waterston and beg for legal advice. The Mayor has made two cameos on the show, conducting two mock press conferences in the real City Hall. When his office wanted to advertise the 311 information hotline, Law and Order writers happily worked it into the plot. Poised to become the longest-running television drama, Law and Order and its four franchises are all shot around New York City as often as on a soundstage. “A lot of New York City residents are pleased when Law and Order is shooting on their block,” said Ms. Oliver. “People like to see their city glamorized on TV.” Talk about suspension of disbelief.
Though she’s no longer on the show, Ms. March professed difficulty differentiating between her fictional and actual roles in life. “I was hoping Law and Order would get me out of jury duty,” said the newly married actress (who told The Transom that she and her hubby drank 84 margaritas over the course of their eight-day honeymoon in Cabo San Lucas). “But sure enough, I ended up on the jury.” It was a civil case, an argument between two Russian jewelers. “Working at Law and Order completely renewed my respect for juries,” she added. (Implicit plug: Watch the newest franchise, Law and Order: Trial by Jury!)
Scott Millstein, the chief operating officer of Safe Horizon, told us that unlike many other starlets, the Law and Order ladies actually mean business when they lend their support. “My impression is that they immerse themselves in these characters,” he said. “The more you immerse yourself in these issues in order to get into character, the more you identify with them. It’s a genuine support-it’s not a bullshit kind of, celebrity kind of thing.”
Last year, for example, the ubiquitous Mariska Hargitay, TV queen of the charity circuit, did a public-service announcement for the Safe Horizon hotline. After it aired, calls to the hotline increased 150 percent, Mr. Millstein said.
There is nary a benefit invitation that doesn’t loudly advertise Ms. Hargitay’s name. And she’s almost always there, smiling broadly, explaining her responsibility to the city, to the children, to the poor.
At the Safe Horizon party, we asked Ms. Hargitay what she’s doing with the rest of her time.
“Workin’, workin’, workin’,” she told us. “You know: bustin’ perps left and right.”
“Real-estate lust has been around for a long time,” said journalist Michael Gross. “But why the literature of real-estate lust?”
As the real-estate bubble expands, it’s no surprise that publishers are churning out books in which New Yorkers’ lives are entwined with their lairs. At Makor on April 6, four authors discussed various social worlds-a tony Park Avenue apartment building, the cultural melting pot in Morningside Heights and life in a midtown luxury hotel. Once the roughly 30-person audience was loosened up with free wine, a more provocative question was raised: Is Manhattan real estate the new pornography?
“I have always referred to magazines like Architectural Digest as ‘shelter porn,’” said Mr. Gross. If that’s the case, then his upcoming book must qualify as the Lolita of the genre. Mr. Gross’ 740 Park delves into the rarified world of one of the city’s most exclusive co-ops, where billionaires like Ronald Lauder, Steve Schwarzman and David Koch rest their heads.
The voyeuristic impulse to glimpse the extravagant lives of New York’s filthy rich has been with us for decades-but now there are more ways than ever to scratch that itch. The money that celebrities and socialites shell out to put a roof over their heads (reported for years in these pages) is now the subject of countless books, added column space in the papers and numerous blogs tapping into the growing public obsession. But citing the tech-boom crash as a reference point, doomsayers also see this moment-when sales records are being shattered and $1 million doesn’t buy what it used to-as a decadent, if not dangerous, era.
“There is something sexy about it,” said novelist Valerie Ann Leff, “and something so over the top that it’s exciting.” Although she now resides down South, Ms. Leff used her Fifth Avenue upbringing as fodder for her fictionalized world. She read from her novel Better Homes and Husbands, along with two other fiction writers, Karen Siplin ( Such a Girl) and Cheryl Mendelson ( Morningside Heights).
During the Q. and A. that followed, a recent Minneapolis transplant expressed shock at the cultural significance implicit in an apartment’s proximity to the subway. Other topics included Europeans buying up property while the dollar is in a slump, and which celebrities have felt the wrath of the dreaded co-op board.
However, one disgruntled Upper West Side woman found no discreet charm in the babble of the bourgeoisie.
“When you talk about New York, I don’t know which country you’re talking about,” she exclaimed, briefly disrupting the brick-and-mortar love fest.
She’d neglected to read Makor’s event description offering an inside peek into “the closed doors of New York’s stylish apartment buildings,” perhaps assuming it was a Learning Annex seminar on thrifty apartment-hunting. Sure, New York has historically welcomed the tired, the poor and the huddled masses, and real-estate advice is Topic A at dinner parties from Bridgehampton to Bushwick, but we reserve most of our longing for the opulent structures built for the city’s grandest and greediest.
“New York is like a layer cake,” said Mr. Gross. “It’s not one society; it’s 15 societies all layered on top of each other.”
Mr. Gross, who admitted that the combined wealth of everyone in the room couldn’t buy a single apartment at 740 Park, emphasized that using even a single building as the main character can give insight into New York’s complicated cultural history.
“It’s not a book about any particular Mrs. Gottrocks or Thurston Howell III,” Mr. Gross told The Transom. “It’s a book in which the building has a personality, exerts its own power.”