“Rachel has nothing to do with me,” Gully Wells informed The Observer, on the phone from London. She was referring to Rachel Noyce, the tall, black-haired haired crush object in The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis’s debut novel, which is conspicuously dedicated to her.
Ms. Wells, 60, is best known for her decade-long, on-and-off love affair with the British author, beginning when they were students at Oxford.
She explained the confusion. “He wrote it while I was with him,” she said, adding that she thought the dedication “was very sweet.”
“I don’t know who she’s based on but it’s not me,” Ms. Wells said. “I know she’s not me, and Martin’s told me she’s not me.”
But Lily, in The Pregnant Widow? Definitely Gully.
FOR THE PAST THREE YEARS, Ms. Wells, an editor of Condé Nast Traveler, has been at work on a book of her own, The House in France, a memoir, to be published June 21 by Knopf. On Thursday night, British journalist Emma Soames will throw a book party for Ms. Wells, at the London apartment of Cathay Airlines Chairman James Hughes-Hallett. Ms. Wells, who now resides in Park Slope, grew up in Fitzroy Square, and maintains close ties to London.
“I met Gully many years ago—it would be not polite to ask how many,” Ms. Soames told The Observer. “We had both been out with Martin Amis, but we also had a lot of other things in common.”
“When Martin dumped Emma she came to cry on my shoulder,” Ms. Wells recalled. Which is not to say that the break-up struck anyone as a surprise.
“She’s one of Martin’s many ex-girlfriends,” Ms. Wells said. “I consoled her and we both survived. She’s a journalist too.”
One result of Mr. Amis’s prolific appetite for young, female writers during the 1970s is that the Martin Amis sex memoir has become a genre of British journalism practically popular enough to merit its own newspaper section.
Ms. Soames has written one. So has her former best friend, Julie Kavanagh, whom Mr. Amis left for Ms. Soames. Other liaisons were no less scandalous for being non-sexual: Ms. Kavanagh’s sister Pat was Mr. Amis’ss literary agent, whom he left for Andrew Wylie.
“It’s very incestuous,” Ms. Wells said.
It’s also very civilized. Mr. Amis has promised Ms. Wells he’ll be at her book party, despite the risk of encountering his entire little black book from years gone by. “We’ll drink too much,” Ms. Soames predicted. “We still do that in England.”
MS. WELLS’S BOOK loosely qualifies as a memoir of Martin as well. But while it lovingly recounts the days when she and Mr. Amis had the same shag haircut and shared a single bed at Oxford, it is more than mere kiss-and-tell.
The House in France combines travel writing, personal narrative and a family history that is brilliant, tragic and dense with boldface names. Ms. Wells’s American-born mother, Dee Chapman, was a headstrong columnist and television pundit who ran away to Europe and seduced her father, Alfred Wells, an American diplomat in Paris. She later married A. J. “Freddie” Ayer, one of the most prominent British philosophers of his time and, in Ms. Wells’s words, an “Aspergian snail.”
Dee and Freddie bounced between Oxford, London, and the titular summer house in Provence, dragging Ms. Wells to every dinner party along the way. Her adolescence was punctuated by encounters with Bertrand Russell, Bobby Kennedy, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Arranged play dates with the children of her parents’ wealthy friends seamlessly transitioned into University friendships.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Gully,” Vogue editor Anna Wintour wrote The Observer in an email. “She has, thankfully, pretty much always been a part of my life. Her mother, Dee, and her stepfather, Freddie Ayer, were great friends of my parents’, and even though children in that situation don’t always get along by virtue of being forced to spend time together, we most definitely did.” The two remain close friends.
When Ms. Wells first thought she might write a memoir of her own, she talked it over with her agent, Irene Skolnick, a friend of 30 years, who knew her mother and was familiar with her travel writing at Conde Nast Traveler. “I thought it was a little presumptuous of me,” Ms. Wells said. “I mean who cares?”
Ms. Skolnick urged her to weave together her knowledge of the history and geography of Provence, which she had written about at length in Traveler—and which has repeatedly proven its allure on best-seller lists.
Publisher Sonny Mehta, another longtime acquaintance and former Londoner, bought the book and quickly found an editor in Shelley Wanger, who understood Ms. Wells’s sensibility. “Shelley is an old friend, we’re on the same wavelength, with a similar sort of background,” Ms. Wells said.
DESPITE THE OBVIOUS BENEFITS of membership, Britain’s intellectual class could be stifling. As a result, Ms. Wells and many of her peers lit out for New York at the earliest opportunity. In 1979, Ms. Wells arrived in the city with her partner—now husband—Peter Foges, who’d been offered the chance to become the BBC bureau chief here.
“New York was an escape hatch for people who got tired of London,” said Lawrence Osborne, a British travel writer and a member of Ms. Wells’s Traveler stable. “London was struggling economically, it was dowdy, it was small and provincial.”
The BBC put the couple up in a brownstone on Bank Street—described, in Mr. Amis’s 1984 novel Money, as a “chunk of sentimental London”—which quickly became a hostel for a migratory flock of Oxbridge writers on the rise. “They were not lower middle-class drop-outs,” Mr. Osborne hastened to note. “They went to private schools and were from a very connected, privileged class. They didn’t need to come to New York except to find a wider audience and more opportunity.”
Christopher Hitchens was one of them. He spent his first six months in New York living at the Bank St. place, where he was beloved for using the bathroom only rarely, but chided for multitasking by smoking when he did. Mr. Amis also crashed in the townhouse when he came through, often dragging the gang to a University Place pinball arcade.
Sir Harold Evans, who had a reputation for recruiting young stars to The Times of London, brought along one of his brightest, Tina Brown, who was by then his wife. When he took over Condé Nast Traveler, he made Gully Wells an editor—a position well suited to her capricious interests as well as her cosmopolitan upbringing.
And there was always room, it seemed, for another London expat in magazine publishing.
Part of what made this re-colonization so alluring for this generation of Britons-of-privilege was the chance to make something of themselves—and for themselves—free from the stratification of the British class system.
“Here they give much more credence to you as a bright person rather than judge you by your accent or your friends or your school,” observed expat author Simon Winchester, another of Ms. Wells’s writers at Traveler and a friend.
Britons may seem one large, well-heeled and attractively accented coterie to New Yorkers, but among themselves, they make dozens of narrow class distinctions. “People don’t pick up on British social nuance, and why the hell should they?” asked Anthony Haden-Guest, who, had his parents been married at the time of his birth, would be known as 5th Baron Haden-Guest. “That’s baggage one leaves at home when one comes here.”
In the robust magazine culture of the ’80s, the group found an exciting new home. According to The House in France, when Ms. Wells and Mr. Foges ran into Mr. Hitchens and Ms. Wintour at Mortimer’s one night, they declared New York “the only place to be.”
They called it the Pact of Mortimer’s. It was never intended to be binding, but no one from Ms. Wells’s expat group has left New York permanently. Their rapid rise up the city’s mastheads likely had something to do with it. Meanwhile, New York has changed. It’s become safer, more bourgeois, and more closed off—like the London of their parents they left behind 30 years ago.
Ms. Wells—who is known for her osso bucco and for having inherited her mother’s gift for assembling combustible groups of people—revived the spirit of London literary society in Brownstone Brooklyn. “It’s very homely—and I don’t mean that in the American sense,” Mr. Winchester said of Ms. Wells’s Park Slope townhouse. “When you’re inside, in the dinner parties, in the homes, it’s the same as London,” said Hylan Booker, Dee Wells’s former lover. “It’s not pretentious, but there is a patina of formality.”
“It’s like a time capsule from the past,” said Lawrence Osborne. “They’ve preserved themselves—the witty conversation, the urbane manners that you don’t often see anymore. A dinner party is like a duel, you’re expected to say provocative things. They’re very high-spirited people, which is quite unusual in New York.”
If there is no new Oxbridge crew poised to claim New York for themselves, it is in part New York’s fault. The city is no longer the universally acknowledged center of culture.
According to Mr. Osborne, a declining education system is to blame as well. “They were the last generation to get that really Victorian education,” he said. After them it began to sort of fall apart. You just don’t meet those kind of encyclopedic minds, that human type, anymore.”
Not that it bothers Ms. Wells, Park Sloper. “I was never very interested in living in the red hot center of everywhere,” Ms. Wells said. “That’s probably why I’m not Anna or Tina.”
Thanks to her extraordinary family, Ms. Wells tended to find herself there anyway, always longing for something just slightly more conventional. The reason she and Martin Amis split, the memoir reveals, was that while Mr. Amis needed to lock himself in the library in order to achieve academic and literary greatness, Ms. Wells was ready for domestic bliss. Though her mother had expressed ambivalence toward her children in letters, Ms. Wells always knew she wanted to have babies.
MS. WELLS’S MEMOIR chronicles the years when the sexual revolution made London swing, simultaneously documenting its effects on the two generations that straddled it—Ms. Wells’s on one end and her mother Dee’s on the other. Since Ms. Wells was already at Oxford when the fun began, the loosening of social restrictions merely meant that her youthful folly could be indulged without serious consequences. She wore thigh-high boots under her academic gown, was photographed topless in the school paper, and dropped acid on the lawn of Exeter College.
The older generation’s newfound freedom had more harmful reverberations. Ms. Wells’s half-brother, Nick Ayer, twelve years her junior, was just a child when Dee and Freddie began having serious extramarital affairs. Their home was literally broken. Dee lived with fashion designer Hylan Booker on the third floor Tuesday through Friday, while Freddie was at Oxford teaching. While there, he slept with Vanessa Lawson, then wife of Spectator editor turned member of Parliament Nigel Lawson (the father of chef Nigella Lawson). On weekends, Freddie lived on the first floor of the family house.
Ms. Wells hand-picked lessons from her mother’s example. “My main advice to young women is: do what you love and don’t forget to have a baby,” she said. (Ms. Wells had two.) “She taught me that life is fun and part of the fun is being surrounded by very funny, clever people and going to bed with clever, funny men,” Ms. Wells said.
Watching her mother relate to so many different men—all of whom, it must be said, seem to have adored Ms. Wells and actively enriched her life—left her with the impression that men exist to make her happy, if she were nicer to them than her ball-busting mother had been.
“If you think men are great and treat them well, they’re going to give you an interesting and loving and good time,” she said. “I’ve had nothing but good times with men, and I hope I will continue to do so as friends and lovers.”
For the memoirist, this romantic philosophy has yielded an embarrassment of riches. Ms. Wanger and Mr. Foges read early drafts and had the same reaction to the inclusion of one lover in particular: “Oh, please.”
“Superfluous,” Ms. Wells said, “and he was in every sense of the word, in my life and in my book. So we got rid of him.”
Follow Kat Stoeffel via RSS.