In pairs or posses, from the other side of the country or down the block, Reunion participants from the Class of ’61 knew about Erica Jong—the guest speaker at their 50th reunion dinner. They had read Fear of Flying, her breakout novel about a woman on the verge of a nervous liberation, when it came out. Of course they had, said Mary- Jo Kline, enjoying pre-dinner cocktails on the Lehman Lawn with classmate Millie Merian Moseley: “You weren’t allowed to leave your 30s until you did.”
Since Fear of Flying, Jong has published historical novels, essay collections, several volumes of poetry, memoirs, and most recently a cliché-defying anthology about sex she edited, Sugar in My Bowl, with such illustrious contributors as New York Times columnist Gail Collins, novelist Min Jin Lee, The New Yorker’s Ariel Levy, playwright Eve Ensler, Daphne Merkin ’75, and Molly Jong-Fast (who weighs in on the joys of not having sex like her parents did).
Some women remembered Jong from college. In Robert Pack’s poetry seminar, Valerie Lewis Mankoff recalled, “She was larger than life: beautiful and brilliant and the teacher’s favorite. We were all envious.”
But whether they had come expressly to hear her or mainly to catch up with friends, there was nearly universal head-scratching over the announced theme of the talk— “agelessness.” Their children had reached middle age, parents had passed away, and there were health issues: How could they possibly pretend that age didn’t matter, and why would they want to? As one alumna asked, “Why do we have to be ageless?”
Jong, invited to speak by Susan Meister, a class reunion committee member, had a similar reaction when she first got wind of the topic, as she admitted before the 200-plus dinner guests enjoying Friday evening at The Diana Center’s Event Oval. Jong wore black trousers, a shimmery black sweater, a black blazer with blazing red cuffs and lapels, and low heels that caused her to quip as she mounted the dais, “I may be ageless, but I can no longer wear stilettos.” She began, “I had no idea what a difficult topic agelessness was until I started to do the research—like a good, well-trained Barnard girl.”
The room rumbled in laughing assent, as it would throughout the 25-minute talk. Ranging from King Lear to Max Greenfield, age 7, gladiator-in-training and Jong’s grandson, she circled around a central paradox: To be free of the constraints of age—like “those who remarry at 85 even though they’ve buried many husbands”— older women must embrace both hope and their own “fleshly decrepitude.” Then they will recognize their roles as “the younger generations’ historians, their boosters, mothers, grandmothers.”
“We are now the elders who embody memory, and we must share what we know,” Jong said. “We live in ‘The United States of Amnesia,’ a line of Gore Vidal’s I love. I think that of all the problems that afflict our country, our historylessness is the worst and the most dangerous. Many of the battles we fought for women’s rights are now discarded. What do we do about all the young women who say, ‘I’m not a feminist, but...’? We live in a place where everything is forgotten too soon and our history is unknown. We have a job to do.”
But to take on that responsibility— to enter what Jong calls the stage of “generativity”—a person needs a keen sense of empathy. Jong recently revisited King Lear in a production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and made new discoveries. As she approaches Lear’s age, she appreciated that the king only achieves empathy for his subjects and his beloved daughter Cordelia once he is “reduced, reduced, reduced,” she said. “Only in his humility does he find wisdom.”
And perhaps that is the gift of aging, she proposed. “It seems unfair, but only with the decay of our powers do we become humble enough to allow wisdom in. I see that in myself, understanding things I never understood at Barnard.”
But you don’t have to forfeit a kingdom or your mind to gain wisdom. For Jong it sufficed that when her Max announced one day, “Grandma Erica, you love Italy; I have spring break; I need to see the Colosseum,” and they went. She had the time of her life.
Jong emphasized that for it to do any good, humility must be paired with buckets of hope. Still, Jong hit a wall with the as yet untitled novel she is currently writing, in which Fear of Flying’s irrepressible and endearing heroine, Isadora Wing, returns. What lifted her out of dark despair was a Hebrew Sabbath prayer. It calls attention to common miracles, one of which, Jong suggested, was “the miracle of getting older and having the miracle of empathy grow younger inside you.” Agelessness suddenly didn’t seem so off the wall.
Skeptics before dinner enthused afterwards. Exclaimed Merian Moseley, “Empathy, hope, giving back—I could relate to the whole thing.” As one of the many grandmothers in the room, Sylvia Elias Elman was touched by Jong’s “intense relationship of sharing” with her grandson, while Aviva Cantor, founder of the pioneering Jewish feminist magazine Lilith, appreciated Jong’s reminder that the political battles that her generation had won could be lost if they didn’t serve as “the repository of memory.” Cantor said that the young women she meets “who call themselves feminists or used to call themselves feminists don’t know anything about the horrors of the pre-feminist state. The battles, the struggles—and the exhilaration!” The talk also stirred up ambivalence and anxiety. Could empathy really compensate for dread? Was it true that hope and humility sprang from the same root? And why no mention of that paragon of agelessness, the soul—“which is not born and does not die,” observed Surya Green, author and journalist on spiritual matters.
A few dinner guests pointed out that as professors, teachers, and therapists, they had already dedicated their lives to younger generations. But everyone agreed that to be forever young, one needed to stay involved. Since retiring from teaching philosophy, Susan McAlister, for example, has returned to her first love, theatre, as a producer and director.
The conviction that it is never too late to take up a new venture or entertain a novel risk was regularly sounded at the lively lunch panel on agelessness the next day. Susan Meister organized and moderated the event.
Panelist Diane Stewart Love recently submitted to her first singing audition after deciding three years ago to take voice lessons. She told the man auditioning her, “You are the first person besides my teacher and my husband to hear me.” Reader, she got the part. After she sang her number, the man asked, “You tap dance?”
“I can do the tap dancing!” panelist Louise Bernikow offered. For Bernikow—author of many books, including an ode to her dog subtitled How a Good Dog Tamed a Bad Woman and the anthology The World Split Open: Women Poets in England and America—the crucial risk is “to tell the truth.” Women’s truths, “about marriage, childbirth, abortion, breast cancer,” remain halfburied, she said, quoting poet Muriel Rukeyser’s famous words, “…if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
For Nancy Stone Lang, work is key. In fact, most of the women who spoke up emphasized their careers. Bernikow—who decided not to marry or have children after watching domestic responsibilities “squash” her mother, a Hunter College class valedictorian—flashed this statistic: within a year of graduation, 80 percent of the Class of ’61 had married. Several women I interviewed were wed before they graduated. But everyone talked about their work when they talked about their lives. When a ’91 alumna, one of a handful of participants from ’91 and ’01, spoke of the pride she felt in becoming a stay-at- home mom after a hectic career in Washington, D.C., doing political work, the reaction was polite but subdued. In 1961, staying at home was nothing to be proud of: it was simply what women did. And these women didn’t. Next to that, agelessness may prove a piece of cake.