‘Passages’ author, pop sociologist
NEW YORK — Gail Sheehy, the journalist, commentator and pop sociologist whose best-selling “Passages” helped millions navigate their lives from early adulthood to middle age and beyond, has died. She was 83.
Ms. Sheehy, widow of New York magazine founder Clay Felker, died Monday of complications from pneumonia in Southampton, New York, according to her daughter, Maura Sheehy.
“Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life” was published in 1976 and immediately caught on with a generation torn by the cultural revolution of the time, sorting through mid-life struggles, marital problems, changing gender roles and questions about identity. As Ms. Sheehy noted in the book’s foreword, close studies of childhood and old age were widely available, but far less scrutiny had been given to the prime years of work and relationships.
“It occurred to me that what Gesell and Spock did for children hadn’t been done for us adults,” Ms. Sheehy wrote. “It’s far easier to study adolescents and aging people. Both groups are in institutions (schools or rest homes) where they make captive subjects. The rest of us are out there in the mainstream of a spinning and distracted society, trying to make some sense of our one and only voyage through its ambiguities.”
Drawing upon more than 100 interviews, Ms. Sheehy combined research and personal stories to probe why some marriages lasted and others ended, why some left unsatisfying jobs while others stayed, why some were able to reconcile with growing older while others never developed beyond their early years. Part of the book’s appeal was its hopeful message, as suggested by the subtitle: There’s a consistent and manageable pattern to adulthood; it’s OK not to be young anymore; if you’re willing to take chances, there are richer, more meaningful ways to find happiness later in life.
“The greatest surprise of all was to find that in every group studied, whether men or women, the most satisfying stages in their lives were the later ones,” she wrote. “Simply, older is better.”
“Passages” helped set off a conversation that lasted for decades. The New York Times praised Ms. Sheehy for her “pertinent
and persuasive” objections.
But Ms. Sheehy was criticized for overgeneralizing, for focusing too closely on affluent professionals and for such glib expressions as “Trying Twenties.” She also was sued for plagiarism. Los Angeles psychiatrist Roger Gould alleged that Ms. Sheehy made extensive use of his research without giving him credit. The case was settled out of court.
When not writing books, Ms. Sheehy was a popular lecturer and television commentator and a well-traveled journalist specializing in psychological portraits of public figures. For New York magazine, Vanity Fair and other publications, she interviewed everyone from Bill and Hillary Clinton to Margaret Thatcher to Mikhail Gorbachev. Her 1972 cover story for New York on Jacqueline Kennedy’s impoverished relatives Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale helped inspire the documentary and Broadway show “Grey Gardens.”
Born Gail Henion in Mamaroneck, New York, the daughter of an advertising man and beauty consultant, she had been a storyteller since childhood. She was an undergraduate at the University of Vermont and a journalism major at Columbia University, where she found a mentor in the anthropologist Margaret Mead. After school, she married medical student Albert Francis Sheehy (they divorced in 1968) and had a daughter, Maura. (Ms. Sheehy and Felker later adopted a girl, Momh).
Ms. Sheehy’s journalism career began at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and the New York Herald Tribune, her colleagues including Tom Wolfe, before joining New York in 1968.
Gail Sheehy’s interview of Jacqueline Kennedy’s relatives helped inspire the documentary “Grey Gardens.”