Cancer Vixen Tells All

On the evening of Thursday, Sept. 21, the Champagne and rosé were flowing yet again at Da Silvano on Sixth Avenue, this time in celebration of owner Silvano Marchetto’s wife, Marisa Acocella Marchetto, and her graphic memoir, Cancer Vixen: A True Story, published by Knopf—the suspenseful tale of what happened to the author after she found a cancerous tumor in her breast three weeks before her wedding.

The scene at the restaurant, as it so often is, was itself a sort of celebrity tumor: literary agents, Knopf editors, Glamour editors (Ms. Marchetto contributes there, and to the New Yorker), gossip columnists, TV stars and the aura of Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, attached to star in the movie version of the book. Heady with the excitement of survival and victory—when one lives, so do the rest—the crowd could not say enough.

“This is New York iconography,” said Ms. Marchetto’s agent, Elizabeth Sheinkman, just in from London.

“When I saw the pages, I cried,” said book agent Ira Silverberg. “The woman’s done a mitzvah.”

“I think the book is brilliant,” said Page Six’s Richard Johnson.

Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta addressed the crowd. “Brave, beautiful and inspired,” he said, praising his author. “The panels—I found them quite extraordinary.”

Also present were Ms. Marchetto’s hairdresser, her psychic, her priest, her oncologists and nurses, her father. And her mother: Violetta Acocella, possibly the star of the book, a former shoe designer for the Delman Shoe Company, wearing a red knit St. John jacket, putting cubes of steak into the mouths of those around her. She told a story about Jackie Kennedy. “She calls and says ‘I’m a size 10.’ I’m an 11. She was pregnant with John-John. We had a very close conversation. We were commiserating how we have big feet and how we can’t find shoes. Her friend, ah, the one with the mustache … he just died …. ”

Oleg Cassini?

“Yes! I was going to meet with her and Oleg Cassini, and Delman cleaned up the place, rearranged the furniture. That morning, my water broke. I never met her.”

Instead, the slender, golden-haired Ms. Marchetto, tonight was sparkling in fuchsia satin Dolce & Gabbana. Around her neck were crosses made of white gold and diamonds.

Cancer: A Love Story

Today, it seems that everyone has a breast-cancer memoir or knows someone who does. How would Jane Austen have written her memoir if she’d had a tumor? (The thought is not so far-fetched: In the early 1800’s, Frances Burney wrote a famous account in a letter of her mastectomy without anesthetic; it’s in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection.) In 1978, following her own cancer operation, Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor: “The cancer personality is regarded more simply, with condescension, as one of life’s losers.”

Now, with the explosion of the Internet, there are breast blogs, breast oral histories, breast theater. Glamour’s October issue has a “breast cancer diary” spread featuring Ms. Marchetto and Allison Briggs, a woman from La Jolla, who chronicled her breast cancer in 1,000 pictures “to share with family, friends and anyone who wants to understand breast cancer.”

How can one absorb it all? And keep from going into apoplectic fear upon reading about it, if one may not know that one already has it?

There are aspects of Cancer Vixen that keep the horror at bay. “WHAT happens when a shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic, single-forever, about-to-get-married big-city girl cartoonist (me, Marisa Acocella) with a fabulous life finds … A LUMP IN HER BREAST?” it begins. Then, later: “CANCER, I AM GOING TO KICK YOUR BUTT.”

The cartoon, the suggestion of superheroism, denies us—spares us—the visceral: fluids, glands, all those bodily parts that make people so ordinary, so animal. Walt Disney did that years ago in How Disease Travels, with its charming animated pellets of gonorrhea and syphilis.

The genius of the book lies partly in the perfect depictions of the author’s eclectic media circle, but mostly in the emotional drawings, the terror on the protagonist’s face during a chemotherapy treatment—the drugs aren’t going into the vein, her drawing hand and arm go numb, her mother is screaming. But the most special thing is the love story: a romance in a haunted place. Like the movie Old Dark House, in the most chilling, thundering night, in cold damp rooms, a couple falls in love. Very fast.

It was the day after her party, and Ms. Marchetto, 45, was sitting at a table at Da Silvano, discussing how, while growing up, she used to love reading Harriet the Spy.

“Here was this girl who was really smart and was just a great observer,” she said. “I think if she grew up, she would be a cartoonist. I think cartoonists are spies.” Writers? “I think they’re spies too. I think we’re all spying on each other.”

Ms. Marchetto’s husband appeared. He had just dashed back from the Bowery to get a new fryer. He was explaining how the other fryer broke, though as everyone who knows him says, you can’t understand him.

The silver-haired, soft-edged Mr. Marchetto, 59, grew up in an Army barrack in Florence, Italy, he said. He took off on a big motorcycle when he was 16 because “my mother was a pain in the neck,” went to hotel school and cooking school and came to New York, where he worked for Portofino and the Derby Steak House before opening Da Silvano at 260 Sixth Avenue in 1975. It was one of the first Tuscan restaurants at a time when everyone was still eating Southern spaghetti (though Gael Greene, who has just written a memoir of her own—hers is about excess—said that Da Silvano was “not the only one; there was Trattoria Alfredo on Hudson”).

A busboy came running in with a new cell phone for Mr. Marchetto. “He gets new ones all the time,” Ms. Marchetto said. “Plus seven cars, over 60 watches”—today an enormous Audemar Piguet watch with a python wristband. Mr. Marchetto said that he usually wears “fins” around his neck. He is a deep-sea diver. “Even though he has 100 pairs of shoes,” Ms. Marchetto said, “the funny thing is, he like doubles up on styles. A lot of time he’s in the kitchen cooking and he gets oil all over them.”

Then Mr. Marchetto heard that he was in Page Six. He is always in Page Six, but he jumped up to get the paper. He was very excited, and read something about Lindsey Lohan being at the restaurant.

“I love Elaine’s, but with all due respect, this place is a lot more stylish,” Ms. Marchetto said. “This sidewalk is like a runway, like a youthful energy down here.” Just then Nicole Seidel, a lawyer and also Alec Baldwin’s girlfriend, walked over.

“Hiiiiii, hiiiiii,” Ms. Marchetto said. “Isn’t she gorgeous?” The previous evening, at the party, Ms. Seidel had held out her cell phone for Ms. Marchetto and said, “It’s Alec.” And all the girls screamed. Mr. Baldwin had been calling from Silvercup Studios, where he was taping 30 Rock, but he is often sighted in the restaurant, where he has been known to enjoy the snout-nosed lobster. “He does this imitation of Silvano,” Ms. Marchetto said. “He’s always reluctant to do it in front of him. We bust out crying. He’s really one of the comic geniuses.”

Grazie, Al Gore

But back to the book, which tells of the then Ms. Acocella’s lapsed health insurance and medical costs, which will run almost $200,000. What would her fiancé—owner of the most Dolce Vita–esque restaurant in downtown New York—say when he found out? Would she end up being another Betty Rollins (First You Cry, 1980), whose then husband, Mort Zuckerman, didn’t like to be around illness?

When our heroine gets her diagnosis, she had just started getting her cartoons into The New Yorker.

Ms. Marchetto grew up in a split-level home in Roselle Park, N.J. Her father was a pharmacist. After attending Pratt, she worked in advertising, helping found Kirshenbaum Bond. Her clients included Phyllis George (George’s Chicken).

Richard Kirshenbaum introduced her to editor Grace Mirabella, who published Ms. Marchetto’s first strip, entitled “She” in her now-defunct eponymous magazine.“Damn, can’t Al Gore be single,” was one of the punchlines.

Mr. Gore somehow got wind of this, “wanted a copy, and I got some attention,” Ms. Marchetto recalled. From 2000 to 2001, she did a panel called “The Strip” for the New York Times Style Section. In 2002, her “Glamour Girls” cartoon began appearing in Glamour’s “Dos & Don’ts.” Her editor, Lauren Smith Brody, after hearing about Ms. Marchetto’s tumor, had a light bulb and (bearing in mind Nora Ephron’s maxim “Everything is copy”) asked her, “Do you want to write about it?” The Times covered the resulting panel in the Arts section. The Glamour editor got 15 phone calls asking if Ms. Marchetto had an agent.

For all the glamour surrounding her life, Ms. Marchetto said that she and her husband work in the same room in an apartment one block from the restaurant. In the month that she spent on the book, she worked 20 hours a day. “I was a mess,” she said.

“They were going to give her two weeks for 510 pages,” said her mentor, New Yorker cartoonist Sam Gross. “I told her, ‘Forget the deadline—schtup them with pages!’”

In truth, graphic artists like Ms. Marchetto have to work really hard. That is the touching part of her story, and perhaps of most people’s: She had to work during the whole cancer horror—satisfying Glamour, even standing in line at The New Yorker, where she began contributing in 1998.

Panels in the book cover The New Yorker’s weekly, mostly male, Tuesday cartoonists’ line for an individual meeting—it’s all “FIRST COME, FIRST SEEN,” she writes—with cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. In one scene, Mr. Mankoff hands back some cartoons and tells her: “Your women are too thin, too pretty, they’re not real and I can’t relate to them.”

He probably would have sniffed at Brenda Starr—“I loved her,” said Ms. Marchetto, who just sold something to The New Yorker last week.

She had adjourned with her husband to an outside table.

Where do they go every night? “Most of the time, we have a party here,” Ms. Marchetto said. “He has to make sure the bread is facing a certain way …. Tonight, we will have tomatoes for dinner.”

The couple sat in the sunlight, made more golden by the yellow awnings, with a late lunch of lamb empolese and a Brunello di Montalcino Riserva ’97, looking a bit like the tourists on vacation. And Ms. Marchetto, wearing an orange leather jacket—orange is Mr. Marchetto’s preferred color—said, eating the lamb, “This is the best thing. I say that every night.” Cancer Vixen Tells All