Remembering Sex And Relationship Columnist Cynthia Heimel

Mar 2, 2018
Originally published on March 7, 2018 7:57 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Cynthia Heimel, a groundbreaking humorist who wrote about sex, romance and feminism, died Sunday in Los Angeles. She was 70. Her 1983 book "Sex Tips For Girls" was an instant hit, and she wrote sex columns for Playboy and The Village Voice. In a tribute in Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote that Heimel's combination of sophisticated wit and up-for-anything sexuality eventually spawned a host of successors. She says Heimel paved the way for Candace Bushnell's Sex And The City column, whose characters later appeared in the HBO series starring Sarah Jessica Parker.

She wrote a collection of columns called But Enough About You and a play called "A Girl's Guide To Chaos." Terry spoke to Cynthia Heimel in 1991 when she'd published a collection called "If You Can't Live Without Me Why Aren't You Dead Yet?!" They began with Heimel reading an excerpt of her piece "Snow Job," which addresses a familiar dilemma for single people. When someone asks you out to dinner, how can you tell if it's a real date?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CYNTHIA HEIMEL: (Reading) From now on, I think we must have new social behavior. From now on, we have to know whether we're going on a real date or not. I can't take it anymore. I can't take getting any more phone calls from any more men saying, how about if we go on a date on Saturday night? And what they really mean is, how about if we go to a party uptown and meet a lot of our friends and then all go out for something to eat and then I go home with someone else? Or how about if I take you to this odd little neighborhood place and tell you all about my divorce and how I have no sex drive anymore and how I don't think I'll ever be involved with anyone ever again and then ask you for advice on how to pick up the barmaid? Or how about if we go to a nightclub where I pump you for information about jobs, then I come right out and ask you to help me get a job, then I put a lampshade on my head, then in a taxi home, I get out real quick and you pick up the fare?

I mean, it's humiliating as hell to get a call for a date and not even know whether to be nervous or not, to not even be able to take that initial step and ask yourself whether you like this guy, whether you're attracted to this guy, whether you ever want to see this guy without his clothes on, because he may not even mean it. He may want to be just friends. But he doesn't tell me that. No. People are modern now, so I have to do this hideous mental contortion of keeping my mind totally blank, expecting nothing, hoping for nothing, but meanwhile, I have to clean my house, wash my hair, shave my legs, rub in body oil, splash on perfume, find the stockings, try on 10 outfits, jump on the scale a few times, blow dry my hair, wet it and blow dry it all over again, reapply deodorant, brush my teeth for 15 minutes, then put my hair in a ponytail just in case. All the while, I try keeping my mind a blank. All the while, my mind refuses to be a blank and keens, is this a date or not?

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: (Laughter) That's great. When did this start becoming a problem?

HEIMEL: I noticed it about three or four years ago that suddenly people were phoning up and asking me out on specious, weird dates. And I almost - I almost wanted to start out dinner and say, OK, what are your intentions? But I've never had the nerve to do that.

GROSS: Why not? You're a pretty nervy person.

HEIMEL: (Laughter) Nervy in my writing. Watch me in real life.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HEIMEL: A whole different kettle of nerves.

GROSS: Do you ever ask men out?

HEIMEL: Yeah, absolutely. And still I don't know if they know that it's a date (laughter). And I don't know how to say I'm asking you out because I think I might want to sleep with you. I mean, what do you say? How do you do it? I guess I'll have to figure this out because nobody else is doing it. I guess it's my job.

GROSS: Well, you know, as women, like, we were brought up where a man asks - a man or a boy asks a woman or a girl out for a date. And if there is any kind of, you know, romantic sexual contact, the male initiates it. So you had to overcome, you know, that kind of socialization and training. Have you ever, like, also, like, initiated the first romantic contact? Have you gotten to that point?

HEIMEL: Never. I mean, it's, like, involuntary. You know, you breathe without thinking about it. I think I've been trained from the time I was 6 months old to be passive when it comes to that sort of thing. It would take more than courage. It would take being blind, roaring drunk, which I - you know, I don't think I would ever be able to do it. I'm just too timid.

GROSS: Do you ever feel, though, that, you know, as as a feminist, you should get over this thing and be able to, you know, be on equal terms even in starting a romantic relationship, you know what I mean? Do you feel like you're behind on that level and you should try to overcome that? Or do you just accept that that's the way you are?

HEIMEL: I don't know. I used to spend hours and weeks and months working on myself to make myself more attractive, more available, more wonderful, more thinner, with more hair, with better skin just so I could attract men. And as I've gotten more self-confident, less insane, I think I'm tired of turning myself inside out.

If somebody wants to go out with me, they'll let me know. I'll let them know back. But I don't feel like pursuing it to the ends of the Earth anymore. It's just too demeaning. And I think women's roles have been to feel that we - we're doing something wrong if we're not dating. We're doing something wrong if nobody's asking us out. There's something hideously awful - secret thing about us that everyone can see but ourselves.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HEIMEL: And we read, like, 100 million self-help books. You know, "Women Who Love Too Much" was actually probably not a bad book. But to have half the female population devouring this book and then realizing, yes, I have something new wrong with me - I think that's anti-feminist. I think it's about time we all just said, OK, you want me, fine. If you don't want me, too bad.

GROSS: Now, you're one of the few feminists I can think of who writes about fashion and dating. And granted, you do this with a lot of irony. But on the other hand, like, you really do love shoes a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What makes you angry when you go shopping for clothes now? What do you find frustrating?

HEIMEL: Well, the prices are of course frustrating for anyone who wants to look good. The other thing that I think is really frustrating is that there are so many of us now who are approaching or have reached 40 and do not want to become grandmothers, do not want to become dowdy, do not want to become frumps, do not want to look desperately like mutton dressed as lamb, and all were confronted with our clothes for teenagers.

Now, I love Betsey Johnson to death, and I've always worn Betsey Johnson clothes. But I can't really wear them anymore. I can't wear a lot of them anymore. I don't want to wear a baby doll dress covered with flowers - pink baby doll dress. I would just look stupid.

So what I want to know is, who's out there designing weird, fashionable, adventuresome clothes for women of my age and the thousands and millions of women who - you know, we're all - there are so many of us who grew up in the '60s who just don't want to suddenly settle into the stereotypical world of Chanel suits or Chanel - faux Chanel suits.

DAVIES: Writer Cynthia Heimel speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. Heimel died Sunday. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TROPICALISIMO BITIKO SONG, "NO LO PUEDO CREER")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's 1991 interview with groundbreaking sex and relationship columnist Cynthia Heimel. She died Sunday at the age of 70.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: In one of your pieces in your new book...

HEIMEL: Yeah.

GROSS: There's a piece about inviting over a few male friends and then another piece about inviting over a few female friends to watch pornography. What was this exercise about? Were you trying to compare the differences between men and women and their reaction to pornographic film?

HEIMEL: Well, they were Playboy columns, so I'm not sure that I consciously knew what I was doing. But it was an experiment, yeah. It was to see what men were like. And then when I realized that they acted so completely goofy, I thought, well, let's see what women do. And, you know, it was so amazing. I think that biologically, the males and females are so differently organized, you know? They just - I'm surprised we ever get together at all 'cause men are so visual, and women have to have so many fantasies or have to be somehow attached or in love to really be having sex.

GROSS: Were the women kind of baffled about what men were doing to women in the movie? I mean, sometimes I think that pornographic films are made by people who have no idea (laughter) how women function.

HEIMEL: Yeah, well, the women said - you know, they were just laughing. I mean, it was so absurd. There was one scene in one of the movies where the woman was having phone sex with the guy, and she was wearing God knows - you know, like one of those garter belts. And her hair was perfect, and her makeup was perfect, and she was sort of breathing heavily over the phone. And the few women in the room who had talked sexy to their boyfriends over the phone - you know, had some version of phone sex - were all saying, oh, sure, we were wearing flannel nightgowns and knee socks and...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HEIMEL: You know, get out of here. Who does that - no one. No one does that. No one is like that. I mean, that's what those movies are for. They're not for us. They're not for women. I saw some that were designed for women, and they did do a lot of good draperies, and they did a lot of good, you know, interior design. But they were so boring in bed. I think that the most pornographic film for a woman is like a room with a view...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HEIMEL: ...You know, where it's just seething under the surface. I can't wait; I can't wait - oh, my God, oh, my God - you know, that kind of thing.

GROSS: Yeah. I want to ask you about the tone that you use in your writing...

HEIMEL: OK.

GROSS: ...Because you have this great, funny, ironic tone whether you're talking about sex or clothes or self-help books or whatever. And it seems like - you know, like, part Dorothy Parker, part spoof of fashion magazine. Talk to me about your tone a little bit in your writing, where it comes from, what what you're doing with it.

HEIMEL: I don't know. I mean, it's interesting to have a style, and it just evolved. I think - I never went to college, so nobody ever taught me how to write, which helps a lot 'cause they can teach you all the wrong things in college if you try and take a creative writing course from a moron. And I read all the time when I was a kid. And I remember when I was, like, 16 reading J.D. Salinger incessantly. So I think there's something like J.D. Salinger in there. I know it's strange, but that's how it started. I read a lot of Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe for journalism. And I just worshipped these people.

But, you know, to me, it's the only way to write. It makes sense to me. It's sometimes really interesting when I see somebody who's copying me, and that happens to me every once in a while. And I kind of recognize the style. And it's so interesting to see that somebody is copying me because it makes me realize I do have a style.

GROSS: You write, among other places, for The Village Voice and for Playboy. And it would be hard I think to find two publications that represent different politics.

HEIMEL: (Laughter).

GROSS: So what do you...

HEIMEL: How about when I worked for Village Voice, Vogue and Playboy all at the same...

GROSS: Oh, OK, great.

HEIMEL: How about a spectrum there (laughter), yeah?

GROSS: So how are you treated differently? What do you represent in each of those publications?

HEIMEL: Well, at the - you know, at The Village Voice, I'm definitely the comic relief. I mean, it's a very earnest paper. And everyone is extremely socially aware and socially active and politically aware and politically active. And I'm much lighter at The Village Voice because I don't feel I have to preach to anybody. It would be like preaching to the converted. The audience of The Village Voice is people who already are AIDS activists or black activists or feminist activists or wannabes anyway. And so I can just go as goofy as I want, and I do.

Whereas in Playboy, I feel that I have to - that I have an audience of fairly conservative men - not always. I mean, it's an interesting magazine because they do have decent fiction and journalism. They have really well-done pieces. They have actually nice editors there. But they still mainly have naked women. So a lot of men are going to buy it just to look at the naked women. And I have to address those men and say, OK, this is what women are like. Besides what you see on page 142, this is what we're thinking about. This is what it's like to go to the gynecologist. This is how we feel about our careers. So my friend Emily Prager once called being in Penthouse being in the missionary position. And I thought that was a really good way to put it.

(LAUGHTER)

HEIMEL: OK, guys, deal with - listen to this.

GROSS: Cynthia Heimel, it's been a lot of fun. Thank you a lot for talking with us.

HEIMEL: Thanks, Terry.

DAVIES: Cynthia Heimel speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1991. Heimel died Sunday at the age of 70. On Monday - show writer Luis Alberto Urrea, the son of a Mexican father and American mother. He says he grew up with a border wall in his own family. He's written about doing relief work in the mountainous garbage dumps of Tijuana, where the poor scrape out a living. And he's followed the deadly path of immigrants trying to cross the border. He has a new novel. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "LA VIE EN ROSE")

DAVIES: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "LA VIE EN ROSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.