Gail Sheehy's "Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life" was a guide for anxious baby-boomers hitting the shoals of middle age.
The 1976 best-seller turned into a career project for Sheehy, who died Monday at age 83 in Southhampton, N.Y., from pneumonia complications.
Sheehy wrote several other "Passages" books as the self-important postwar generation tumbled toward old age. While derided by some for its glib generalizations, "Passages" was one of those books that capture the spirit of its era.
Before "Passages" brought her national fame, Sheehy was known in New York City as one of the stars of the old New York Herald Tribune and its successor, New York magazine. She was one of the few women writers who flourished at the Trib, whose lineup included Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe and Dick Schaap in its glorious dying days.
In moving from the Trib's "estrogen" zone, the women's section, to the "testosterone" news department, Sheehy caught the attention of editor Clay Felker, the innovative co-founder of New York magazine. Sheehy and Felker entered into a torrid relationship that eventually led to a long-term marriage.
Along with influencing the New Journalism and inventing the city magazine formula of service articles, personality pieces, neighborhood reporting and investigative articles, Felker after leaving New York magazine bought Esquire and gave it new life. When his inventiveness lost favor with a new generation, he taught journalism at Columbia University.
Sheehy's "Daring: My Passages" is one of my favorite journalistic memoirs, an entertaining account of the high-powered New York cultural, social and political world. I particularly remember her recollections of the lavish dinner parties she and Felker hosted, whose guests ranged from Gloria Steinem to Henry Kissinger.
Along with the inspiration for "Passages," Sheehy recalls her journalistic career, from the heady days at the Trib through her work for New York and Vanity Fair.
One of her biggest New York magazine scoops was discovering the destitute relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier, living in a run-down Long Island mansion. The article resulted in the "Grey Gardens" play and documentary.
She also discussed her article about going undercover to expose prostitution at the staid Waldorf Astoria. While she admitted in an introduction to the New York magazine piece that she'd invented characters, Felker deleted her disclaimer, according to her New YorkTimes obituary. Despite a wave of criticism that she had violated journalistic ethics, the article made a stir, and was turned into a movie.
For journalists, Sheehy repeated Felker's questions he asked a writer while producing an article: Why are things the way they are? (Sniff out the latest trend); What led to this? (history); How do things work? (who is pulling the strings or making the magic or making fools of us); How is the power game played in your corner of New York?
Sheehy's death came only a couple of weeks after that of Pete Hamill, another member of New York City's glorious journalistic era launched in the 1960s. A stellar generation is making its final passage.