Eleanor Perry's apartment is conveniently located between the Plaza Hotel and the St. Moritz in New York, walking distance from Lincoln Center and Broadway. It is furnished in the kind of clean-lined taste designer call "contemporary": a chrome-and-glass coffee table, a large, unframed abstract painting, pressed sawdust logs in the fireplace.
"Love?" she says, answering a question. "My favorite quote is Gore Vidal's-I have it on my bulletin board-'When I hear the word love, I reach for my revolver.'"
Considering her personal history and the themes of her new, caustic first novel, "Blue pages," that is not a surprising sentiment. But, she insists, "I don't think my book is against love. The woman in the book has had a tough time . . . The woman is very close to myself. She's a survivor, she's resilient. Sure she has moments of being crushed, but she has a sense of humor. She laughs, she goes on . . . she's not down yet."
Eleanor Perry is a successful woman of a certain age ("obviously you can see how old I am," she says, "the thing is to keep it vague so they won't think I'm geriatric"). In many ways, her life has been a blueprint for the social change within the affluent intelligentsia, an unplanned preview of changing life styles-among those who can change them.
Twenty years ago she "ran away" from life as a conventional middle-class housewife to have a play she'd written produced on Broadway. (It ran four months and was about corporate wives.) In New York, she met Frank Perry, 14 years younger and a would-be filmmaker. Together-she wrote, he directed-they made "David and Lisa," without studio backing, a big budget or Hollywood.
It became an art-house hit, won prizes, and the pair was lionized for their achievement as independent filmmakers. For a moment, they seemed to have it all-a marriage of art and love, fame and respect.
"The movie had such a wide appeal, the establishment wanted us right away. Everyone wanted to interview us, to photograph us . . . Suddenly we were the new phenomenon of two people who made this film," she says.
But the second film, "Ladybug, Ladybug," was not very successful, and neither was "The Swimmer." By the time "Dairy of a Mad Housewife"-by Frank Perry with a screenplay by Eleanor-was released in 1970, the marriage was, as they say in Hollywood, splitsville. He left her.
Now, in the recent tradition of "The Bell Jar," "Fear of Flying," "Such Good Friends," "The Women's Room," "Kinflicks," Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen," and other books of sexual re-revenge by women writers, Perry has produced an angry novel called "Blue Pages," She stoutly maintains the book is "a complete work of fiction." But she also says that the raw material for it-some very raw-is based on "my experiences in Hollywood and being married to a director."
Books like these have become popular because they tap a cathartic vein of female anxiety and anger in our sexual sociology. Whatever their literary merits, they also draw upon something else-something growing out of a sense of having been ripped off and out of the American Dream.
One thing is clear-in Perry's book as in the others-few male characters have many redeeming qualities. They are, by and large, hateful.
In the real world, in the "evening of the autumn of my life," as she puts it, there are many male characters. Perry lives in a world shared by the high-powered and famours. When she dines at Elaine's, people like William Paley and Shirely MacLaine say "hello." She summers at Martha's Vineyard, and sees everything on Broadway. "I have a male friend who takes me to everything," she said. "It's hell because everything is so terrible."
There's another man who takes her to opera and ballet, and she's invited to screenings and openings and has some of the latest books on her coffee table. Her phone, which has three lines, rings constantly during an interview, and each time it seems to be a man who wants very much to talk to her. Each time she puts him off graciously and warmly. She possesses the charm of a self-assured woman who has shed the insecurities of youth like so many layers of dead skin.
"She's the most generous person I know," says her good friend Shana Alexander, who promptly refused to say anything more.
Yet, amidst the comfort and warmth, there is an undercurrent of discontent. She has 11 unproduced scripts in her drawer, she said. She is paid, but her work isn't seen, and she feels too old to devote the years necessary to direct a film herself.
"I know I could do a thriller. I know I could do a comedy, or a Western. I'd love to have written 'Final Payments,' but I'm sure they never even thought of me, I could have done a beautiful job on that, I've lived that story. I've got great credits, but I don't have a recent good credit. So you get the reputation of being out of it. And you don't live in the West, so you're out of sight, out of mind."
Life Is Unfair
At the same time, Perry seems at peace with herself. She will not dye her gray hair; she will apologize about finding most women more interesting to talk to than men; she will not feel embarrassed at some of the searing details about her marriage in her book.
Mixed with the resignation, there is a strain of incredulity and anger at the baffling status of women in her lifetime.
"Life is just not fair for women," she said at one point.
There's the paradox of age, she says. The commercials may say "you're not getting older, you're just getting better," but in the marketplace of the 1970s-particularly in show business-that concept has not yet swept the public consciousness.
Perry once had a dinner party and invited several women of notable accomplishments, like Shana Alexander, and several single men about the same age.
"The men asked if they could 'bring someone.' So two of them-one was a big television producer, one a big journalist-showed up with these little chicks . They were very sweet and they didn't say a word all evening. The men talked to the older women all evening long, we had fantastic conversations. Then when it was time to go home, they went home with these little girls."
The subject is worthy of a movie, she thinks, and she and a friend, director Joan Silver ("Hester Street") have interviewed male contemporaries to gain further insight.
"A lot of these men, high-powered, middle-aged, said, 'I don't want intellectual stimulation when I get home. I want someone who'll bring me a drink.' They all wanted some sort of little bunny!"
Later she recalls a line from a television interview earlier that day. "I told Gene Shalit that all men are 3 years old. I bet that line gets cut . . ." She laughs.
Men as Child ren
Certainly the men in "Blue Pages" rarely exhibit behavior more mature than the average 3-year-old. Each one is more boorish, foul-mounthed, dishonest and asinine than the last. They are routinely unfaithful, professionally treacherous, with the taste of baboons. They cheat the heroine out of money, applause and jobs; and the men she has affairs with after her marriage breaks up are boring as well.
The husband is portrayed as a red-haired, overweight enfant terrible with talent, who is accepted by the Hollywood glitter set, starts wearing his shirts unbuttoned with gold beads around his neck and thinks the social climbers are "interesting" and "real."
Frank Perry says he hasn't read the book yet, but is "looking forward to it." When asked about her ex-husband and his current wife, a writer, Eleanor Perry got a little testy. "I don't want to turn this into a festival of publicity for Frank Perry and his wife," she said. "It embarrasses me to talk about it . . . the book says what I feel about everything."
But Truman Capote apparently has read the book, and was quoted in a New York gossip column "striking back." Capote thinks a character was patterned after him as Perry's retribution for Capote's accusing her of stealing an idea for a television play. ("Aren't these fueds fun?" gushed columnist Liz Smith.
Capote and the Perrys collaborated on an Emmy-award-winning television adaption of Capote's story, "A Christmas Memory," in 1966. In the novel, the heroine and her husband collaborate with a pudgy, gay, well-known writer who hangs out in chic New York circles with a dark-haired contessa. The heroine is tricked by her husband into sharing screen credit with the writer, even though she has written the scripts.
Perry's novel is equally acerbic about the perfidies and inanities of Hollywood, where Perry has worked, but refuses to live.
"Writers in Hollywood, women or men, are lackeys," she says. "They are considered expendable . . . Of course they'd try to get a rise out of me by using a lot of four-letter words, but I can use them right back. But that's trivia. The first thing they do is fire the writer and get someone in to re-write.
"It always starts like unbelievable heaven. Everyone loves you, admires you, asks you if you want anything, they put you up at the Beverly Hills Hotel, give you a car, it's unbelievable. Then the script starts coming back. They cross out your lines and put in their bad grammar . . ."
But if writing in Hollywood was aggravating, writing a novel was a different kind of frustration.
"I used to panic and wake up in the middle of the night and say, 'Who cares?" And run to my shrink, and say, 'Who cares?' . . . I certainly am a masochist anyway. But I like neurotic people. Who wants to be bland?
"Look at how they treated me, and look at what I took. Right now I don't think anyone could treat me that way men or moguls or anybody . . .
"My self-esteem was very low. As you get older and somebody splits, you don't feel like the most attractive, confident person in the world. In fact, you think you're finished-on the shelf and over the hill and no one will ever, etcetera.
"I don't know why I took it - now that I think back, it would have been better for our marriage if I'd said: f-you, get out. He would have come running happily. I said that in the book-he would have loved me much more if I'd done something outrageous."
There's a scene in the book where the fictional couple gets into a fight in their room in the Beverly Hills Hotel:
"He doubled up his leg and kneed her violently in the stomach. She fell on her back between the beds. She scrambled to her feet, panting, grabbed the bedside lamp and slung it down at him. The cord was too short. . . . They struggled back and forth until he put his foot out and tripped her. He started to drag her across the room. Her nightgown caught under her body and ripped. The carpet scraped her skin. He dragged her all the way to the bathroom, where she lay on the cold white tiles, weak and gasping . . . A gargoyle face grimaced at her from the mirror, blotched and puffy, the maniac eyes streaming, the nose streaming, hair plastered in tufts across her forehead, her torn night-gown hung below her breasts, her breasts streaked with red burns from the carpet. Ugly-she was so ugly, so ugly! Then he was picking her up. She lay safe in his arms, her face warmed against his chest that was flesh again and not stone. Safe. She was safe. He carried her into the bedroom and dropped her down on the bed like a sack of potatoes."
"I was shaking, writing that. I wasn't sure I could do it," she recalls. "Later my daughter read it and she was very embarrassed by it. She said, 'It embarrasses me, letting it all hang out . . .
"I thought, I'll be damned. I wasn't going to change it. If I was younger, I might have been embarrassed myself. But now, what do I care? . . .
"It's a damn good scene." CAPTION: Picture, Eleanor Perry with pictures of her children; by S. Karin Epstein for The Washington Post.