The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gail Sheehy, journalist and author with an eye for human behavior, dies at 83

Journalist and author Gail Sheehy in 1988. (Associated Press)

Gail Sheehy, a journalist and author whose bold prose style, immersive reporting and anthropologist’s eye for human behavior made her nearly as prominent as the subjects she chronicled in New York magazine, Vanity Fair and a shelf’s worth of books, died Aug. 24 at a hospital in Southampton, N.Y. She was 83.

The cause was complications from pneumonia, said her daughter Maura Sheehy. She added that her mother had tested negative for the novel coronavirus after she was hospitalized, but that the family was awaiting the results of a subsequent test.

A vibrant member of the New York media landscape, Ms. Sheehy honed her craft under legendary editor Clay Felker, whom she later married; studied under anthropologist Margaret Mead, who advised her to “drop everything” to report on cultural phenomena; and analyzed the psychology of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, spiritual guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and then-first-lady Hillary Clinton.

The author of 17 books — including the 1976 bestseller “Passages,” which was credited with helping to popularize the concept of the midlife crisis — Ms. Sheehy was initially known as an original contributor to New York magazine, which Felker co-founded in 1968. The weekly glossy emerged as a bastion of the New Journalism movement, in which writers such as Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Nora Ephron and Gloria Steinem applied the techniques of literary fiction to stories about real-life events.

For her part, Ms. Sheehy crafted long, deeply reported articles about streetwalkers, courtesans, the Black Panther party and the “golden men” of New York’s commuting class. While her earlier newspaper editors had instructed her to cover traditional women’s issues such as fashion and home economics, Ms. Sheehy became a star at New York in part by placing a tape recorder under a hotel mattress to report on prostitutes and their clients.

Among her earliest coups was a 1972 cover story about “Little Edie” Beale and her mother, “Big Edie,” relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who lived in a derelict mansion on Long Island. “The Secret of Grey Gardens,” as the article was headlined, spawned a frenzy of news coverage, including the acclaimed documentary “Grey Gardens” and a Broadway musical of the same name.

“Her inside-out style of reportage made readers feel as if they were brushing up against their subjects, an intimacy achieved through a determination to leave nothing out,” Marc Weingarten wrote in “The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight,” a history of the New Journalism movement.

Ms. Sheehy’s coverage of Times Square prostitution — reported as she dressed in hot pants and go-go boots, keeping her tape recorder out of sight in a fanny pack — was cited when New York won a National Magazine Award for reporting excellence in 1973, and led Newsweek to dub her “the hooker’s Boswell.”

But it also drew criticism after it was revealed that one of Ms. Sheehy’s most compelling subjects, a prostitute named Redpants, was a composite character, stitched together from numerous women whom Ms. Sheehy had interviewed for the story. Felker later said that Ms. Sheehy had explained her composite technique early in the story but that he removed the admission because it disrupted the story’s narrative.

The episode was sometimes cited by critics who accused Ms. Sheehy of being loose with the facts, even as they acknowledged her talent at anticipating social trends or taking a broad look at subjects such as menopause (in her 1992 bestseller, “The Silent Passage”) or adult development, most notably with “Passages.”

Ms. Sheehy was a single mother when she began writing the book after experiencing “a breakdown of nerve” in her mid-30s, triggered by a traumatic episode in which she saw a young boy’s face blown off while interviewing him on assignment in Northern Ireland.

“It never occurred to me that while winging along in my happiest and most productive stage, all of a sudden simply staying afloat would require a massive exertion of will. Or of some power greater than will,” she wrote.

After hearing a lecture on adult development, she immersed herself in academic studies and interviewed more than 100 people, trying to do for adults “what Gesell and Spock did for children,” as she put it. The resulting book was translated into 28 languages and named one of the top 10 most influential books in a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club.

“Miss Sheehy reminds us, not with the detachment of a Freudian psychoanalyst but with the fervor of a street-corner evangelist, of all the recognitions we sneak under the rug,” wrote New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard. “She threatens, rhapsodizes, nags, exhorts — all for the purpose of waking us up to our possibilities. If you read ‘Passages,’ you will be in less danger of living the unexamined life that Socrates decried.”

“Passages” spawned a franchise of psychology books for Ms. Sheehy but also spurred controversy when she was sued for plagiarism by UCLA psychiatrist Roger Gould, who accused her of lifting one of his speeches word for word. She would have fought the suit if she had the money, she later said, but settled out of court, with Gould receiving 10 percent of the book’s earnings.

[Gail Sheehy, in and out of character]

He was still bitter a decade later, The Post reported in 1988, but acknowledged that Ms. Sheehy was “very acute in seeing patterns that were newsworthy. She knows what the public wants.”

Indeed, she reportedly negotiated an advance of more than $1.2 million for her follow-up “Pathfinders” (1981), which examined the way in which successful men and women had turned personal obstacles into opportunities. She also brought a psychological focus to popular Vanity Fair profiles that examined politicians’ family histories and personal lives while grappling with their character.

Much of her magazine work was adapted into books, including “Character” (1988), which analyzed President Ronald Reagan and the candidates who sought to succeed him; “The Man Who Changed the World” (1990), a biography of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; and “Hillary’s Choice” (1999), a portrait of the former first lady.

Those works drew mixed reviews, with some critics praising her thorough reporting but questioning her more sweeping conclusions, such as her argument that presidential candidates Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson “both use the political process as therapy for the private demons they cannot lay to rest.”

“I think Gail sometimes slips into psychobabble,” journalist Ken Auletta told The Washington Post in 1988. “That diminishes work that is otherwise good.” But Ms. Sheehy argued that in focusing on psychology, she was pursuing something more essential than the standard political reporting of the day.

“I didn’t have to write about politics like the boys do, focusing on the horse race and daily polls,” she said in 2016, delivering the commencement address at her alma mater, the University of Vermont. “I could explore the character of the candidates. That was the epiphany: issues are today. Character is what was yesterday and will be again tomorrow.”

The older of two daughters, Ms. Sheehy was born Gail Merritt Henion in Mamaroneck, N.Y., on Nov. 27, 1936. Her father was an advertising executive who, according to Ms. Sheehy, quashed her mother’s artistic and professional ambitions, decreeing that she stay home rather than pursue a career.

Ms. Sheehy said she turned to writing as a refuge from conflict between her parents, recalling that as a young girl she would “trespass on somebody’s estate and go sit on the rocks and with my little pad, write away, and the tide would come in and I’d be stranded on my rock and have to swim in with notebook over my head.”

She graduated from the University of Vermont in 1958, worked as a traveling home economist at J.C. Penney and married Albert Sheehy two years later, working as a fashion consultant at a department store before being hired as a fashion editor at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.

After the family moved to Manhattan, where her husband worked as a physician, Ms. Sheehy joined the Herald Tribune as a feature writer. In a memoir, “Daring: My Passages” (2014), she recalled sneaking away from the women’s department to the “all-male preserve of the city room,” where she pitched stories to Felker.

They developed an on-again, off-again romance after Ms. Sheehy’s first marriage ended in divorce, and they married in 1984. By then, the couple had adopted a Cambodian orphan, Phat Mohm, whom Ms. Sheehy had met while working on a story about refugee camps in Thailand, and whose childhood she later chronicled in the book “Spirit of Survival” (1986).

Ms. Sheehy’s husband died in 2008. Survivors include her companion Robert Emmett Ginna Jr. of Sag Harbor, N.Y.; a daughter from her first marriage, Maura Sheehy of Brooklyn; her daughter Mohm Sheehy of Woodstock, N.Y.; a sister; and three grandchildren.

In interviews, Ms. Sheehy often cited Mead as a pivotal influence on her work, saying that the anthropologist had urged her “to become a cultural interpreter” while doing graduate work at Columbia University in the late 1960s. In her Vermont commencement address, she passed along the same advice she had received from Mead decades earlier:

“Whenever you hear about a great cultural phenomenon — a revolution, an assassination, a notorious trial, an attack on the country — drop everything,” Ms. Sheehy said. “Get on a bus or train or plane and go there, stand at the edge of the abyss, and look down into it. You will see a culture turned inside out and revealed in a raw state.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries

Book review: ‘Daring: My Passages’ by Gail Sheehy

Gail Sheehy, in and out of character