‘Pas­sages’ author, pop so­ci­ol­o­gist

Chicago Sun-Times - - OBITUARIES - BY HIL­LEL ITALIE

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.

AP

Gail Sheehy’s in­ter­view of Jac­que­line Kennedy’s rel­a­tives helped in­spire the doc­u­men­tary “Grey Gar­dens.”

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