Anne Roiphe: Sex, Art and Booze Back When Writers Broke Taboos

Art–the decision to make it or value it–was, in that way, inherently political, and its Village congregants wore a uniform: eyeliner, blue jeans and black leotard, holey sweaters and Fred Braun sandals. Fred Braun’s store of leather T-straps was on Eighth Street. “Everybody had a pair,” Anne said. And the Met Costume Institute has a pair on display now. “If I saw a woman [then] my age–we weren’t women, we were girls–wearing blue jeans and a black shirt across the street, I would know exactly who she was and what was she doing there. And she would see me and recognize me. It wasn’t so much a uniform as a social statement. And then I blinked and suddenly this beatnik style was the style.”

“Tell her about the tour bus!” Katie said.

“I was walking in the Village,” Anne said, “and a tour bus came up to the corner and the door opened, and there’s a guy on the microphone and he says, ‘AND THERE’S ONE NOW! STANDING ON THE CURB!'”

But the emphasis on art wasn’t just the style; it was also the way of the academic institution. In all of Anne’s English classes at the conservative Smith College and the arty Sarah Lawrence, where she transferred after her first year, every poem was interpreted as being about the importance of art. “A few years ago,” Anne said, “I thought to myself, ‘Is every Auden poem about the importance of art? Is every Yeats poem about the importance of art? Did T.S. Eliot really just write about the importance of art?'”

“I try to teach my students that!” Katie, who teaches classes with a literary flavor at the N.Y.U. journalism school, said.

But is there anything to be missed about the old admiration of genius?

“No,” Anne said.

“She thinks no,” Katie said. “But I think in the seriousness with which people took their reading and their art, there is something to be missed.”

“You don’t think people take the writing and the writers seriously?

“Not as seriously!” Katie said.

“I don’t know,” Anne said.

“The fantasy we have of the artist is,” Katie says, “Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City. … It’s the novelist who sells his screenplay to Hollywood.”

But mother and daughter are in agreement about one thing: Mental state of artist then? Crazy. Now? Crazy. So does that make it daunting to know that both mother and daughter are artists? Craziness aside, is it daunting to be in the same field?

“I’m daunted by her,” Anne said.

“No,” Katie said. “It’s like the family business.”

The artists studios in Florence, Anne pointed out, were historically family-run. That was the family profession. “Those people were not crazy artists,” Anne said. “It’s when the artists come to be by themselves that they tend to be compromised.”

Later that evening, The Observer attended the birthday party of a 27-year-old writer where a few people kept mentioning something compromising about Katie. At a book party in February for the memoirist Jon-Jon Goulian at the Wooly, across from City Hall, there was an open bar for two hours, and sometime during that period, Katie fell across the lap of a seated guest. At 9 p.m., after it became a cash bar, it is rumored that Katie puked all over someone’s sweater and the table displaying the author’s publicity materials. “Is this amateur hour?” said someone passing by the vomit-drenched table. Hey, it happens! “What is this, spring break 2009?” the person continued. No, it’s a literary party 2011! “That’s a lie,” Katie said to The Observer. “Crazy rumors! I don’t know how that got around.”(It was the editor Lauren Bans who tweeted, “The world must know: Katie Roiphe barfed all over my friend’s sweater at Jon Jon’s [sic] book party at 9pm on a Wednesday.”) But who cares whose puke it was. There was puke! At a literary party on a Wednesday night! Katie is living the literary life–one not so dissimilar from her mother’s.

editorial@observer.com