The White House correspondent for the Washington Post gleamed like a brand-new car.
Even his name was elegant: Lee Adrien Lescaze.
That day he wore a double-breasted gray flannel suit, its patrician authority both undercut and emphasized by the burnt-orange shirt with white collar and cuffs, the blue silk tie, the polished black wingtips. Any other man would have looked like a dandy, but his ease and confidence dispelled any such idea. He was no schmo, as my grandmother would say.
He was headed for the newsroom, and as he passed my desk, he tossed me an amused, detached smile. Something in me stirred.
I knew about Lescaze–everyone did. He was something of a legend at the Washington Post: an elegant writer, the quintessential foreign correspondent who had been assigned first to Vietnam, where his stories about the Tet Offensive had earned him a reputation for courage and rare insight, and then to Bangladesh and Hong Kong and many of the world's dangerous and dusty places. In the newsroom he'd worked as both national and foreign editor; his name was on some of the short lists as a possible successor to Ben Bradlee.
His background was glamorous: his father had been a distinguished Swiss architect, his mother the locus of a literary and cultural salon for New York artists and intellectuals. He'd gone to Exeter and Harvard–rumor had it he'd smashed up a Jaguar there. He played tennis and squash, spoke Mandarin and French, collected jazz, blues, and rare books–first editions of Samuel Beckett and Ezra Pound. He wrote book reviews with the same finesse as he did war dispatches, and he talked of the Mets and Matisse with equal adoration. He was said to be charming and witty, yet buffered by a nearly opaque reserve. No one claimed to know him very well. To catch the eye of a man like that would be something.
Lescaze hadn't been around the newsroom much–for the last four years he had worked in New York as the paper's bureau chief there, living in the Turtle Bay townhouse in which he was born, with his wife and three children. Newsroom wisdom had it that that assignment had been something of a furlough, easy coasting after time spent on the cross as the national news editor under one of the paper's most notoriously difficult silverbacks. Now he was back in harness, assigned to the White House, and he and his colleagues were in constant motion: Ronald Reagan had won the 1980 election in the sort of landslide that made everyone in official Washington walk a little faster. Careers would be made, while others came undone.
Mine for one, I thought grimly. In the Style section, the math was simple but exacting: the longer the stretch between stories, the more dazzling you had to be. I had hardly been in the paper at all lately, and other, fresher bylines were appearing below the most prominent headlines. Patience was wearing thin. The editor of the section wanted to have a little talk with me later that day. This story had to be good.
Style was different from the rest of the paper. It was relatively new then, a gorgeous, bitchy, brilliant feature section that had emerged from what used to be the women's pages, one of the first of its kind. Some of the writers on the national and metro staffs, the real reporters as they thought of themselves, saw Style as a kind of sandbox for the terminally unprofessional, but from the perspective of my own overheated romanticism, it was heaven. After three years the place still dazzled me. A study in the triumph of personality over character, the section nurtured neuroses that would have driven Freud to drink, tolerated egos the size of Cleveland, fetishized obsession, vanity, and genius, and produced some of the best writing I have ever read. Style was steeped in ambition, insecurity, and malice, all of it on display, and all of it, to my fevered ideas of greatness, utterly wonderful.
The editors gave writers a lot of latitude in Style. Temper tantrums and tears, Proustian eccentricities, expense accounts equaling the GNP of small third-world countries–nothing seemed to matter but the quality of the writing. To keep your balance in a place like that, it helped to have a sense of your own worth. To remember that journalism was just a job and that writing, like baseball, was a matter of batting averages–a hit every third time up was good, amazingly good.
There were older and better writers who tried to tell me these things, but I didn't believe them. No, each story was a judgment, deciding my fate.
I forced myself back to the green letters floating on the black screen. I hated computers: words behaved differently when they hadn't been hammered into the page by metal keys and a satisfying clack. So hard to summon in the first place, they slipped away too easily from this eerie darkness, disappearing like makeup at the end of a long night. Writing was scary enough without that.
If only I could write the way I kissed, then everything would be perfect. Then I would work with courage and abandon, then I would write for the joy of it, I would take the rapids in a bark canoe. I would know how to write the way I knew how to laugh: and I would let the writing come the way laughter does, rushing in on a rising tide.
That day I was writing about a woman who didn't know who she was–autobiography, I realize, but only now.
The woman had appeared on Good Morning America the week before. She sat rigid as a doll, staring straight into the television cameras without blinking her blue-gray eyes. The host, David Hartman, called her Jane, as in Jane Doe. She had been found on a Florida beach naked and dying, her clothes folded neatly by her side, her face frozen in a grinning mask, able to move only her eyes. She could remember nothing about herself, not even her own name.
"I try to remember, and I can't recall where I went to school, if I have any friends," she had said. As she spoke, a phone number trailed across the bottom of the TV screen, the one to call if you had any information about her. "I feel I'm left alone in the world. I'm just trying to go about my life as best I can." A few hours later I was on a plane to Miami.
Since the TV show, hundreds of families had come forward to claim the young woman, saying that she was the one who drove off in the blue Torino two years ago, she was the one who climbed into the car headed for Oregon, the one who walked out the door without saying goodbye. It didn't seem to matter that Jane Doe was a blue-eyed brunette in her early thirties. "Crystal would be almost seventeen years old," one mother wrote. "It is a family trait that during sickness or trauma, the brown eye pigment changes to a blue-gray cast. If you need proof, I will furnish it through further data."
The Fort Lauderdale police chief had a theory about women like Jane Doe. He said it was all the fault of Dr. Spock. In the sixties, he said, "youngsters weren't brought up to respect authority or believe in accountability. They're frightened by it. They can't cope with distasteful reality, so they just pick up and take off."
I met Jane Doe in a small courtyard outside one of the brightly colored concrete bungalows that dotted the campus of the Florida State Hospital, home to nine hundred psychotic and schizophrenic indigent men and women. She had fluffy brown hair and two moles on her pale neck. The police chief had noted that apart from the moles she had no distinguishing marks, no tattoos or scars or vaccinations. "Jane, you're perfect," the talk show host had said, and in a way she was, swept clean of every mistake she had ever made.
The woman without a memory sat at a table, her hands busy with a piece of pink cloth, her eyes staring straight ahead. "I think I'm lost and wandering around," she said. "I feel ashamed, and I don't know why I feel that way. But I try not to think about that. I think, I'll be busy all morning, and then I think that I'll be busy all afternoon. Everything is so nicely planned for me."
She didn't seem to be in much of a hurry to find out who she was, or whether she belonged to anyone, and I liked her for that.
"I'll be happy, I guess," she said. "I used to be depressed that I would never remember, but now I think maybe my mind knows what's good for me."
It was strangely soothing to be in her presence, perhaps because Jane Doe distilled the confusion in which my friends and I sometimes floundered. Identity was fluid then, unhinged from the past, unconnected to the future, as if we lived in an entirely new tense, the present problematic.
The women I knew improvised, making themselves up as they went along. They careered around corners, sailed off cliffs, went walkabout. Gone was the stately procession of changes that marked their mothers' way: daughter to wife, mother to widow. They left the cadre, left the country, gave up meat. Joined a Zen monastery, the police force, AA. The redhead in San Francisco became the brunette in Paris. The yogi became a bartender. The painter went to law school. There were so many ways to be.
Those of us who attempted more traditional careers hid within a sort of souped-up version of our own personalities, tougher and shinier than we trusted ourselves to be. But the effort was exhausting sometimes. It took so much effort to brandish bravado and hide uncertainty, to exaggerate one's eccentricities and pocket the parts that didn't fit, to make up a character in which to hide, only to find that she threatened to overwhelm the rest. To ricochet between delight that anyone bought the act and a loneliness like no other. "People who have met me only three times are taken in . . . ," wrote Colette. "If I were a man and knew myself profoundly, I wouldn't like myself very much. . . . I say that today, and then tomorrow, I'll find myself charming."
A few days after I got back to Washington, the sad, simple truth about Jane Doe was discovered. She was a former secretary from Minnesota who had drifted down to Lauderdale looking for a new life and found instead a boyfriend who beat her–she had been running away from him when something happened to her on that scruffy patch of beach that sank her memory beyond recall. Her family came to claim her, the mother and father with whom she had cut all ties five years before.
At the press conference, she was asked how it felt to be reunited to her true identity. She hesitated, seemingly ambivalent toward the old and unremarkable reality. She said she thought Jane Doe was a beautiful name.
It was late in the afternoon. The deadline for the first edition, the bulldog, was approaching. Around the corner the metropolitan, foreign, and national editors had begun bellowing for copy, reporters were typing madly while hunched still further into their phones, and the enormous fluorescent newsroom was humming with a distinctly sexual heat and energy, the air dense and heavy the way it is before it rains.
But in Style, where most of the features were edited ahead of time, it was pretty much business as usual. In a nearby cubicle the classical music critic waxed indignant over the pretentions of the latest operatic ingenue. He sputtered into the telephone, outrage illuminating his pink cherub cheeks: "And she calls herself a mezzo! With that puny little cadenza?"
Across the way one of the best and easily the most neurotic writer in the section reached for another paper napkin. He stuffed it into his mouth and chewed it thoughtfully as he filled a manila file folder with microscopic runes that would eventually morph into a dazzling lede. At the central editing desk the section's canniest political writer heaped invective on the copy editor who had changed a verb without her consent.
More interestingly, the two most glamorous writers on the paper–both of them stylish, smart, and wickedly talented–were standing outside the editor's office exchanging smiles and compliments, the extreme insincerity of which could only mean that a major fight was brewing over who would write the profile of the new White House chief of staff.
By the end of the day I had written nothing worth keeping. I told myself there was still hope of turning in a good story, something more than a patch job. I would work all weekend. I promised myself a quiet evening of chamomile tea, a proper dinner, an early bedtime. I packed up my things as unobtrusively as possible. With luck, I would be able to slip away unnoticed and escape, at least for the moment, that little chat the editor had mentioned.
I'd almost made it to the elevator when I heard Shelby's voice. "Could you stick around?" It wasn't a question.
The editor-writer relationship, like any other intimate intersection of personalities, is essentially a neurotic one. In the newsroom the templates tended toward the classic: predator and prey, dominant-submissive, codependent, victim-perpetrator, or as in my case, parent-child.
The Washington Post, my Washington Post, was a conclave of fathers, glamorous, iconic, Zeus-like, to flirt with and taunt, to prove myself against, to defy and yet to please, always always to please. They brought out the mischief in me, and they cuffed me when I went too far. They knew where to draw the line, so I never had to. They were the only ones who could tell me if I was any good.
Best of all was Ben Bradlee, the editor in chief, the man who had shepherded the paper through the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Handsome, aristocratic, possessed of charm and ruthlessness in equal measure, he raised the bar high, roaming the newsroom swinging an imaginary tennis racket, asking his favorite question: what have you done for me lately?
To waltz uninvited into his office, to beard the lion in his den, to make him laugh, was exhilarating, scary fun, like walking into a haunted house. Of course I had a crush on him, but then so did every reporter in the newsroom.
But most important in my immediate world of worship was Shelby Coffey.
The assistant managing editor for Style was in his early thirties then, young for a job of that importance and still boyish in appearance, a good-looking Tennessean who dressed in an endless supply of rumpled khakis and pastel cotton button-down shirts whose frayed collars gave him the appearance of a wayward college boy. He had a thatch of unruly black hair, a cadenced drawl, and a charm he wielded with the deftness of a stiletto. A formidable writer himself, he had apparently read every work of literature worth reading and brought to good writing the purity of a lover's passion. There was more to him, of course: his own ambition was the vein of iron that underlined the graceful contours of an easy smile; and the anger that coursed when he was crossed ran deep, betrayed only by the throbbing of a small blue vein on his left temple.
In the end he would teach me everything about writing except how to claim it as my own.
Some Style reporters–particularly those who were disciplined, unpretentious, and consistent in their work–considered Shelby manipulative, a consummate courtier to those in power at the Post, but he charmed me from the day he gave me my first assignment for Style: a profile of an upper-crust society bandleader. I was fresh from the Metro section, where marching orders rarely went beyond the advice to keep it short and make it sing. I was thinking of the number of inches of copy he wanted when I asked him what he had in mind. "What I'm looking for," he said, "is an elegiac tone poem." As if it were a standard genre for a newspaper, like breaking news or obits.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Necessary Sins by Lynn Darling. Copyright © 2007 by Lynn Darling. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.