Daring herself to be bold

Gail Sheehy


“Be bold in doing the rest of your life.” 

That’s what Gail Sheehy wrote in my copy of “Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life” in 1976 when I interviewed her after that groundbreaking book first came out. It remained on The New York Times Bestseller List for more than three years and has been reprinted in 28 languages.

Sheehy, 77, has taken her own advice. You can read all about it in her compelling new memoir, “Daring: My Passages.” At an event sponsored by the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, Sheehy will talk about the book and sign copies at 7:30 p.m. March 17 at the Jewish Community Center.

Sheehy is the author of 17 books, six of them on the stages of adult life. As a journalist, Sheehy has covered national and world leaders for numerous national magazines, writing about Hillary Clinton, Robert Kennedy, Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher and Saddam Hussein. In a recent phone interview from her home in New York City, Sheehy spoke about the new book. 


Your memoir is about your life, but it’s also about love, about journalism and about loving journalism. Would you agree?

All those things are true. I’m working on a big journalism piece right now about major tech companies realizing they desperately need to build out the pipeline to include women and minorities. I’m talking to the people I call the “GAL-vanizers” behind this movement. 

The late Clay Felker, the founder of New York magazine, was your longtime mentor and later, your husband. Felker, a native of Webster Groves, figures prominently in the book. You write, “We believed that in working together and helping each other, we made a contribution to the national conversation about ideas and issues.” Talk a bit about him.

Clay always told me, way back when I was covering Bobby Kennedy, to tackle the big stories, the topics people are talking about when they don’t know the why of it. We had an attraction of ideas, and helped each other find platforms and outlets to express them

But you made it clear to him that your work mattered to you.

Yes. We had a tempestuous relationship for many years. I moved in with him and then back out – twice – before we married. One of the biggest dares in my life became my obsession with writing “Passages,” and I couldn’t work at New York magazine all day, come home to feed and snuggle with my daughter and then go out with Clay to all the events he was expected to attend. I told him I didn’t want to lose him, but I had work I needed to do. 

When “Passages” first came out, I asked you whether knowing about the stages of adult life helped you traverse them. You said no. Did that change?

Over time, I developed the habit of when I fear, I dare. I would never say I am a fearless person, but as we go along, we have to develop our strategies. Mine was instead of holding back, I just force myself to take the dare, to try it. I always feel stronger in the process for having attempted it.

Tell us about a recent challenge you embraced. 

In my early 60s, I decided I would take a year off to work on a play about care giving. I wanted to stretch myself in that way, and I am glad I did. It helped discharge the angst of that period when my husband was dying. The play had a couple of workshops, and was enormously satisfying, and the experience also helped my writing.

That interest in the theater led to another personal challenge for you. What was it?

I have given a lot of speeches over the years, always using notes. Not too long ago I took part in a literary performance salon, a fundraiser for writing programs for disadvantaged kids, where I had to tell a story for 15 minutes with no notes. At first I freaked out, but I promised myself I would learn to detach myself from the podium. And I did. 

You have a website (http://sheehydaringproject.com/) where you encourage “women who dare” to submit their stories about bold decisions they’ve made. What’s that about?

A lot of people who have read “Daring: My Passages” say the book has inspired them to take that trip or start that business, to be more daring in their lives. I am collecting stories of daring from women, and eventually will publish an ebook. 

What can audience members at the event on March 17 expect? 

Well, I never read from a book. I think that’s really boring. Instead, I will act out daring episodes from my life and I will share engaging stories about daring from women of all ages, in each phase of life.  

Are you Jewish? 

No, but I have three Jewish grandchildren and a Jewish grandniece. I am happy to be an honorary member of the tribe.