A Model Career: 'Grace' Goes From Runway To 'Vogue.'
In a new memoir, Grace Coddington explains how she grew up on a remote island off the coast of Wales, started modeling as a young woman and ended up as creative director at Vogue magazine. Coddington speaks with Fresh Air's Terry Gross about her life in the fashion industry.
Other segments from the episode on November 20, 2012
November 20, 2012
Guest: Grace Coddington
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As the creative director of Vogue magazine, my guest Grace Coddington is one of the most influential editors in the fashion world. Many people outside of the fashion industry know her from the 2009 documentary, "The September Issue," a behind-the-scenes look at publishing the largest, most influential Vogue edition of the year.
Although Coddington says she didn't even want to be in the film, she emerged as its star. Now she has a new memoir called "Grace." Coddington is Welsh and began her career in fashion as a model. In the early '60s, when London was becoming the center of the emerging youth fashion world, Coddington was a house model for hair stylist Vidal Sassoon and modeled clothes designed by trendsetter Mary Quant.
In 1961, a car accident smashed Coddington's face, interrupting her career for two years. She returned to modeling after several reconstructive surgeries. In 1968, she moved to British Vogue as a junior fashion editor. In 1988, when Anna Wintour became editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Coddington became her fashion editor. They've worked together at Vogue ever since.
Grace Coddington, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start by talking about your earlier life, and then we'll get up to Vogue magazine. Your family ran a hotel, and that's where you grew up. You describe it as a 42-room getaway spot of quiet charm for holiday makers who like to sail, go fishing or take long, bracing cliff-top walks rather than roast themselves on a sunny beach. I have to say that hotel doesn't sound like fashion central.
GRACE CODDINGTON: Oh, it absolutely wasn't, and - but it was utterly, utterly charming, and, you know, I feel very privileged to have had that childhood. I don't know how I would have fared if I'd grown up in a big city, but, you know, up until the time of - when I was, I think, 18, I never - I barely saw anyone except in the summer. It was very deserted for the rest of the year, and I loved it that way.
I really, I mean I liked - I didn't mind being alone at all.
GROSS: And I neglected to mention this little hotel was on an island off the coast of Wales. So you were pretty isolated.
CODDINGTON: It's on an island off an island, even, so it's very, very remote, yeah.
GROSS: So when you were young, growing up on this island off the island and living, you know, adjoining the hotel, you read Vogue magazine. British Vogue, American Vogue?
CODDINGTON: Oh, only British. American Vogue definitely didn't get that far, and even British Vogue barely got that far, and it was always out of date by the time I got it. But it didn't really matter because, you know, not being that fashion conscious at that moment, I guess I didn't notice it was out of date. I just - I just enjoyed, you know, looking at the pictures and dreaming.
GROSS: So what kind of picture did you especially enjoy, and how does what you do now connect to what you loved then about British Vogue?
CODDINGTON: I think...
GROSS: Or I should say about looking at pictures wearing fantastic clothes.
CODDINGTON: I wasn't just looking at the fantastic clothes, and I still don't just look at fantastic clothes, and when I approach my work, it's not just to do with the clothes. It's - you know, the pictures that were really grabbing me in those days were the ones shot on location because they kind of made you dream a lot.
And there was a photographer that I guess his work really grabbed me, and that was Norman Parkinson, who much later on I got to meet and work with, both as a model and as an editor. And he was quite old, and his were the pictures that to me really stood out in that magazine, and he did a lot of trips.
And later on, when I was in that position, I was the one that went on all the trips. So it was the beginning of my life and career, although I didn't know it at the time, of course.
GROSS: Are the kind of fashion shoots that you do and the kind of location fashion shoots that inspired you almost like little movies to you?
CODDINGTON: In my head yes, yes they are. I mean, even in the studio I kind of weave a little idea about what I'm trying to put across to the reader. And, you know, I cast the girl as a character, even if it's a, you know, straight-on fashion picture in the studio on a gray background. So, yes.
GROSS: So when you were 18, you left your island off the island and went to London with the hopes of becoming a model. You went to modeling school. What did you learn in modeling school?
CODDINGTON: Well, I hate to say it, but not a whole lot. I mean, I did - I learned how to do my makeup, and I learned how to do my own hair, because in those days, in - models had to know how to do everything themselves. You know, there wasn't - there weren't these huge teams of people that look after one - or look after a model these days and basically do it for her. So you had to be prepared.
And I also learned how to walk the runway, but it was in that very old-fashioned, stylized way where you walk up and down, and you kind of slope backwards, slink along the runway, and you carefully take your coat off while you're doing a twirl, and you kind of smile at everybody in the audience. I mean, it's a very formal way of modeling runway that doesn't exist anymore now.
And everybody these days just walks in a dead straight line and keeps looking ahead, but in those days it was - it was the '50s, you know, it was the late '50s, so that's what I learned there. Oh, I learned to curtsy, as well, actually.
GROSS: So you started modeling in the late '50s, but you became an important model in the '60s, when fashion was really changing, and London became a center of the new fashion. What were the first fashions that you felt were really about you and your generation?
CODDINGTON: I think it was Mary Quant, you know, she - I really felt I identified with her and her whole approach to the youth quake, if you like. Her designs were so modern, and, I mean, they're kind of modern even now, and people are copying them now.
GROSS: Describe them.
CODDINGTON: We kind of - I don't know. I guess you - she's attributed with inventing the miniskirt. I don't know if she invented it, but somehow she did these clothes that were very, very short, and they were very simple and comfortable to wear, which clothes of the '50s had not been. You know, up until that time, everything was kind of with a very cinched-in waist, probably a big, huge kind of ballerina-length skirt or very, very slim skirt that you could barely walk in.
And, you know, you had a little high bust, and then she came along, and everybody ripped off their bras and took off their wait cinches and their girdles and things, and, you know, there was a freedom. And also, the look was just young. It was really young, and no one up until that point had designed clothes for younger women, you know, girls.
GROSS: So when you were a model, there were styles that you helped popularize and create. I mean, you were one of the first or the first to have the Sassoon five-point hairdo, the very geometric short hairdo. The first?
CODDINGTON: Yes, he actually created it on me. I don't know if I'm the most famous person to have it, Mary Quant had it also, and famously the model here in America, Peggy Moffitt, and I think still has it, and she's probably my age. But it was actually created on me because I worked a lot with Vidal.
And the one thing I do have that's good is my hair, I must say. If I didn't have my hair, I don't know what I'd do. So - and hairdressers like good hair. So he liked mine. It was perfect for that cut.
GROSS: And you also created that look under the eyes of lashes in thick clumps that are separated, and you say - go ahead.
CODDINGTON: Actually it's more about painting little lines under my eyes that look like lashes rather than actual false clumps of lashes stuck on. That's more a Marisa Berenson thing.
GROSS: Aha, OK, and was that related to your car accident messing up your eyelid or maybe not doing that was stopping you, the car accident?
CODDINGTON: No, I think what's related to my car accident is by necessity I had to apply more makeup around my eyes because, you know, I had this - I have this patch on my eye, and it's a slightly different color. So in order to hide it, camouflage it if you like, you had to put quite a lot of makeup on. So it kind of grew out of necessity, so I put on this thick, black, smudgy stuff, yes.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Grace Coddington. She's the creative director of Vogue magazine, and you may have seen her in the documentary "The September Issue" about putting out the September issue of Vogue. And now she has a new memoir, which is called "Grace." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Grace Coddington. She's the creative director of Vogue magazine. You may have seen her in the documentary "The September Issue" about putting out the September issue of Vogue. Now she has a new memoir that's called "Grace," and it's about her life as a model and as a fashion director and the creative director at Vogue.
In your memoir you describe a car accident that you were in when you were young. Your boyfriend - you were in the car with your boyfriend, he went through a red light, and you smashed your face. Your eyelid was sliced off. Did you go through the windshield?
CODDINGTON: I didn't actually go through the windshield, but I think the windshield went through me. I think I was unconscious. But when I woke up, I was lying on the sidewalk in the arms of a policeman, and I always wish I could find that guy again to thank him because he was uttering me, sort of, calming words of don't worry, it's not as bad as it looks and things like that.
And I was pouring with blood all over him, and the driving mirror was actually protruding out of my head. So - but I didn't fly - I mean, I flew, I think I flew out of the car but probably through the door.
GROSS: What was protruding out of your head?
CODDINGTON: The driving mirror.
GROSS: Oh my God.
CODDINGTON: The mirror on the - yeah.
CODDINGTON: It kind of broke off. My head broke it off. I've got a very hard head.
GROSS: So you had five plastic surgeries in the next two years. How did that affect your ability to model? You must have been...
CODDINGTON: Well totally, obviously I couldn't model for that time.
GROSS: And you never knew if your face would get better at that time. I mean, you must have been heartbroken.
CODDINGTON: Oh, you know, I just assumed it would. I'm, kind of, a positive person, so I just assumed it would, and I just went about my business and helped people around studios meanwhile, you know, biding my time until it was OK. But it was a bit of arduous process because every time I had an operation, they had to wait and see until it settled down and it was totally healed, to see whether it was healed correctly and that, you know, I could just go on from there.
And a couple of times, it didn't heal correctly, and I had to go back and start again, and they did skin grafting and things, which I must say is quite painful, not so much where they sew the skin, but where they take it from. So - and then they have to wait and make sure it's taken, you know. So it's a long process.
GROSS: How did that ordeal affect your idea of your face, of the importance of the face and of what facial beauty is?
CODDINGTON: I don't know. It didn't really affect me. I mean, I didn't want to look like a freak, and I realized that, you know, I had a little insight into how it must be for people who have disabilities and things like that because for the two years while it was healing, I walked around with huge, dark sunglasses on so that you couldn't see the patches and stitches and stuff like that.
And a couple of times if I was indoors, you know, at night or something, people would come up to me and say, you know, oh, you're so affected, why are you sitting there wearing dark glasses. This is - you know, take those glasses off for God sake.
And so just to upset them, I would take the glasses off, and then they'd see why I had them on, and then of course they were terribly embarrassed and retreated to the other end of the room.
CODDINGTON: But, you know, it made me realize that, you know, it must be really hard to live with a disability. And that wasn't a big one.
GROSS: You say in your memoir that one of the reasons why you haven't had cosmetic surgery as a woman in her 60s or now early 70s is - relates to the car accident.
CODDINGTON: Well a little bit. I mean, I've had enough surgery on my face. But also, you know, I don't mind to look older. I don't. I don't have this urge that so many people have that they've always got to look young all their lives. You know, I think you should be the age you are and enjoy it. So - and I think there's a lot of people that have plastic surgery who quite honestly looked better before.
So that's just my feeling, but, you know, if you want to have it, go ahead and have it, but take a good look before you do because just maybe you look absolutely beautiful the way you are.
GROSS: Can I just say thank you very much for not having cosmetic surgery because I really think that, like, the more people do it and the more it becomes the norm, the more people see their real faces as being unnatural and that they have to do something unnatural to get what it's supposed to look like by what social norms are becoming.
CODDINGTON: I think it's sad because, you know, people are having plastic surgery so early, so young in life now. It's crazy. It's crazy. And they're blowing up their lips and doing what have you, and, you know, I don't know, maybe I should have - maybe everyone says oh my God, she could do with a nip and a tuck. I don't know, but I don't really care. I'd rather be the way I am.
And it's not entirely because I'm too chicken to go and get it done, although I am, but I'm perfectly comfortable looking 70, like I do, you know, 70-nearly-two.
GROSS: Now how does that relate to who you shoot, like the models that you work with? You don't work with older models, do you?
CODDINGTON: Well, it depends what you call older. I mean, I - we don't work with very young girls at Vogue. We just don't. We don't encourage girls of 14, 13, 14, whatever, to get into the whole modeling field at such an early age because, you know, it can mess with your mind, it really can.
And also it takes time for your character to develop. So it's unlikely - I mean, there's a few exceptions, you know, people like Twiggy and those - they started modeling very, very young, but they were exceptions. So generally, people's characters don't start forming until they're 18, 19, 20 or even later.
And I think, you know, they are just much more interesting when they're older. I mean, actually we've been going back and using, over and over again, the same girls that we've been working with for 10, 12 or more years. I worked with a beautiful girl the other day, Carolyn Murphy, and I know she just had her 40th birthday. So - she's never looked better. She's never looked better.
And I was really happy to work with her, and she's just started working fulltime again. I think she had a little downtime in between, but she's back living in New York, and she's looking totally gorgeous, and her mind is in a very good place, and she's very calm, and she's a great model. You know, she's just one of them.
So I don't mind the older ones. I mean, I'm not talking about 60-, 70-year-olds obviously, but...
GROSS: What would be wrong with 60-, 70-year-olds, since they get dressed, too, and like nice clothes and like to look good?
CODDINGTON: Well no, I know, and we certainly photograph women of that age, and when we have an age issue at Vogue, I mean, an issue of Vogue, I mean, we don't have an issue with age.
GROSS: Right, no, I get it.
CODDINGTON: And when we do those issues, we do address women of all ages, and it's kind of interesting. It's a little more difficult to photograph slightly older people because, you know, everybody wants to look perfect, and then they want their face retouched if they haven't actually had it cosmetically retouched. Or, you know, maybe they're a little bit larger. I mean, I'm certainly a lot larger.
And also, you know, you need - sometimes you need your fresh new face to inspire you, that's for sure.
GROSS: Grace Coddington will be back in the second half of the show. She's the creative director of Vogue and author of the new memoir "Grace." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Grace Coddington, Vogue's magazine's creative director. She has a new memoir called "Grace." Coddington started her fashion career in the late '50s as a model in London. At Vogue, she's become known for the movie-like scene she creates for fashion shoots. She chooses the clothes, and sometimes has them made expressly for the shoot.
One of the things that I'm really not sure of is who pays who, or does anybody pay anybody? Like, if you're showing the clothes of a designer in Vogue, are they going to pay you for the privilege of getting their clothing in Vogue? Are you paying them for the privilege of renting their clothes for Vogue, or does nobody pay anybody?
CODDINGTON: No. Absolutely not.
CODDINGTON: No. That's the whole point of editorial is that, no, nobody pays anybody. That's what makes it editorial, and that's what gives you the freedom to photograph whatever you want. You know, if you were paid, you would be obliged to photograph something that perhaps you didn't think was that good. But the only way you can have freedom is if you are not paid. And in advertising, that's when everybody's paid. But for editorial, no, you, there's no money that passes between designers or manufacturers or whatever, and Vogue or any of the magazines. It just doesn't work like that. No.
GROSS: So all designers want to be in Vogue. So...
GROSS: Yes. So how - what's the process of, not only of deciding, but what's the process that the designers use to try to convince you that their line or that, you know, this dress really belongs in Vogue?
CODDINGTON: It doesn't really work like that. I mean, you know, twice a year, there are big - there's the collections, and there's many small collections in between. But twice a year, there are the very big collections that decide the mood of the season. And you go through all the shows and sit for hours watching all the shows and having discussions afterwards with, in my case, Anna and the other editors, and you decide, you know, what direction you're going to take this season.
GROSS: And a lot of those fashions at the big fashion shows - and I can say this just from looking at them in newspapers, as opposed to actually being at the fashion shows where, which I haven't been to. But it always seems like, at those fashion shows, the clothing that's being showed is clothing that normal, you know, like, ordinary people would absolutely never wear, because the clothes are just so, like, artistically outlandish. Do you know what I mean? Like you wouldn't - like I can't - I can't imagine people actually wearing that, except on the runway.
CODDINGTON: No. I know. I know. But, you know, you have to have a bit of fun in life, and that's why they do it, and they do it, you know, to get your attention. They do the extreme ones. You always, you know, when you go back to their showrooms, you'll find the more commercial versions of that, but it's to get across a point.
I mean, you have to say it in a strong way to get across a point. So if you want to go short, they go very, very, very short on the runway. And - but you'll find in the showroom, it'll be a reasonable short, you know, that you can wear. So there's always the commercial version.
And equally, we photograph both. We photograph the more commercial things, and we photograph the extreme things because - for the same reason. In order to make the point, you have to say it strongly, so people can see the difference between this season and the last season, and, you know, you have to feed them the information. If you're too subtle about it, you're not going to get it, you know.
GROSS: Sometimes the clothes that are featured in Vogue are clothes that are made especially for that edition of Vogue. And I think this is particularly true of some of the shoots that you do that are kind of like fantasy scenes. I mean, it might be like scenes inspired by "Alice in Wonderland," or scenes inspired by Edith Wharton's fiction or scenes of, like, women in diaphanous silk gowns in a beautiful garden holding hands and circling a tree. I mean, just - they're like fantasy scenes. So when you are asking a designer to do something that's just for a scene in Vogue, what's that process like? Who - how do you approach them...
CODDINGTON: Oh, that's the most fun.
GROSS: Yeah. Uh-huh.
CODDINGTON: I mean, those huge shoots that I do are the most fun, because you can really go to town. You can forget about being commercial. You can use all your creative juices, you know. And it's like - yes, it is like making a movie or a little play. And it also - it connects you with each designer, because when I do that, I call them up and have these long chats about what I'm trying to do, like "Alice in Wonderland," which is one of my favorite things - shoots. And I just decided that they could do whatever they wanted, but the dress had to be blue so that there was a connection, and you always knew that the girl was Alice.
And so I had endless discussions. And they go away, they think about it a bit. They send me drawings. They send me swatches of fabric, and I say that's lovely, but make it shorter or longer or bigger or smaller, or maybe more ruffles or not or what, you know. And it's a sort of work-in-progress, and it goes on right until the minute I'm going to photograph it.
GROSS: I recently interviewed a couple of models who were in that HBO documentary about models who had been supermodels and are now older. And they both complained that so many of the covers of magazines now are celebrities instead of models. And what they thought was that, you know, actors - celebrity actors are great at acting, but they don't really know how to model. They don't really know what to do in a still photograph, and that models are really best that that. And I'd loved to hear your take on that.
CODDINGTON: Well, you shouldn't really get me started on that one. But, I mean, referring to covers, you don't really have to model, I don't think. You just have to be some - have a strong personality that really comes through and basically says buy me. And you have to have a - you have to be interesting to such a wide variety of people. And I guess right now, actresses just do it better. You know, they certainly sell more magazines than models, sadly. I'm very sad about it. I wish it could go back to models, but I don't think it will, just because that's what the people demand. And the general public find that more interesting than a model. And also, there are not so many very strong models that could hold a cover right now - again, I say sadly, but there just aren't.
GROSS: Why would you rather work with models than celebrities?
CODDINGTON: Oh well, they're a whole lot easier, you know.
CODDINGTON: They probably have a better figure, and they don't make so many demands, you know. I mean, there are some actresses that are very, very nice, and there's a few that I work with and I adore. But - and they come with an entourage of people, which does make it difficult, you know. And everybody has an opinion. And, you know, so if you have an idea and you want to take the clothes somewhere and they don't agree with it, they're going to tell you, and that's a bit tough if you want to get across your point.
GROSS: You recently did Lady Gaga. And I'm thinking, like, what do you do with Lady Gaga that's going to attract attention, considering there's nothing more outrageous and attention-getting than what she's already done? So...
CODDINGTON: Well, I think you do less, you know.
CODDINGTON: You probably get more attention if you do less, because you certainly can't do more than she does. I mean, she's extraordinary. She's such a character. And she's a great woman.
GROSS: So describe what you ended up doing, which was - you know, I mean, there's one where she's kind of naked. You don't see anything, but in each of the photos, she has this, like, huge, bizarre hat on her head. Was that her idea? Your idea? I know that's - those headpieces are a part of her trademark. But...
CODDINGTON: Well, I took all these hats. They actually were from a Marc Jacobs show that had just happened, where he had many girls in the show - 45, something like that - and each one had one of these giant hats on. And I just thought they were so wonderful, and it gave her a character. And she doesn't have the easiest of hair, I can say, so I was kind of dreading dealing with her hair. So I thought the hat was the answer to that. So they sort of turned up in all the pictures, or - although, not on the cover.
GROSS: Yeah, there's one photograph where she's wearing this like really gorgeous red sweater, but there is this, like, huge thing on her head.
GROSS: And so...
CODDINGTON: Oh, did not look good? I'm sorry?
GROSS: No. No. Well, they're just so outlandish. But I was thinking like...
CODDINGTON: But she is. She's outlandish.
GROSS: She is. No, that's for sure.
CODDINGTON: She's larger-than-life. And...
GROSS: It's about - the cardigan - the sweater isn't going to be the first thing that you notice.
CODDINGTON: Well, good, you know. You're supposed to notice her, you know. So...
GROSS: Right. Right. OK.
CODDINGTON: ...I guess I did the job.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
CODDINGTON: It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Grace Coddington is the creative director of Vogue. Her new memoir is called "Grace." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coddington is one of the people featured in the new documentary "In Vogue: The Editor's Eye," which debuts on HBO December 6th.
Coming up, our rock historian Ed Ward tells us about the short-lived band from the late '60s, Insect Trust, that featured music critic Robert Palmer on clarinet and saxophone. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: One of the great fantasies of the hippie era was that new combinations of music would emerge from the experimentation that was going on. But our rock historian Ed Ward says that in practice, all that really happened was that a few blues bands stretched out more and a few short-lived bands made weird noises. There were a few exceptions, though, and Ed is going to tell us about one of them: Insect Trust.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
THE INSECT TRUST: (Singing) Sun shines in the country, and it lights up the sky. Sun comes to the city, and it goes right on by. Everything is tall here. Nothing is high. Peel another layer, find out what's inside. I hear you walking...
ED WARD, BYLINE: They were an odd group of people: free jazzers, hippie rockers, old-timey and country-blues musicians. The guitarist, Bill Barth, had been one of the re-discoverers of Skip James, while one of the saxophonists, Robert Palmer, had grown up next door to a black kid named Ferrell Sanders, who went on to call himself Pharoah. Partially, at least, the band started in Arkansas, where, calling themselves The Primitives, they made a little splash by recording a 45 that was immediately taken off the market because Thomas Pynchon sued them. They'd taken the lyrics from his novel "V" without asking permission.
The band, such as it was - Barth, Palmer and vocalist Nancy Jeffries - drifted to Memphis after that and named themselves after a sinister group in a William Burroughs novel, "The Insect Trust." A baritone saxophonist, Trevor Koehler, joined up, as did Luke Faust, who'd made a name for himself around New York as a banjoist. Despite not having a rhythm section, the band played around town, and somehow got a recording deal with Capitol in 1968.
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THE INSECT TRUST: (Singing) Be wary of the ground you walk. Be cautious of the words you talk. There's burning coals along the way. Tread lightly, or you'll have to pay. Walking on nails will be as light as can be. Nails sharp as daggers hurt you and me.
WARD: Their album featured an odd mandala painted by Faust on its cover, and a bunch of songs that sounded like nothing else: mostly originals, with a nearly eight-minute rave-up on Skip James' "Special Rider Blues" that brought the free jazz right out front while flavoring it with some Memphis soul feeling.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPECIAL RIDER BLUES")
THE INSECT TRUST: (Singing) Hurry, sundown and see what tomorrow brings. Hurry, sundown, and see what tomorrow brings. It may bring my man, may bring most anything. Got no special rider here. Got no, no, no, no special rider here. I ain't got nobody to love and feel my care.
WARD: Predictably, the album did nothing, sales-wise, although a friend of mine who'd grown up with Robert Palmer alerted me to it, and I reviewed it in Rolling Stone. The fact that so many styles of American music could coexist so peacefully and creatively seemed to me to be a goal that musicians should be working for. It was a remarkable album, and it seemed a shame not many people got to hear it.
What was really remarkable was that, somehow or other, The Insect Trust got a second chance a year later, thanks to a new manager who got the band signed to Atco Records. By this time, the band was squatting in an apartment building in Hoboken, New Jersey, with a commanding view of the New York skyline from its roof. Barth, Jeffries and Palmer got together and wrote the album's title track, a celebration of their new home.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOBOKEN SATURDAY NIGHT")
THE INSECT TRUST: (Singing) Living down in Hoboken. I'm playing in a game I can't win. Heavy gray skies, time keeps slipping by. I'm living out and I'm trying to get in. Make it to the corner for a beer. We might as well get down as long as we're down here. Spanish music fills your ears with light. Good enough for Hoboken Saturday night.
WARD: "Hoboken Saturday Night" was even better than their first album. They were stretching out, finding new ground, and they recorded the Pynchon song again, this time with permission from its author.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EYES OF A NEW YORK WOMAN")
THE INSECT TRUST: (Singing) The eyes of a New York woman are the twilight side of the moon. Nobody knows what goes on back there and where it's always late afternoon. Under the lights of Broadway and far from the lights of home, with a smile just as sweet as a candy cane and a heart all plated with chrome.
WARD: Robert Palmer's recorder solo in this song is his finest moment on record, in my opinion, and Nancy Jeffries gives the lyrics all she's got. The band had a bigger budget on this album, too, and among the additional players are bassist Bill Falwell, who'd recorded with Albert Ayler, and one of the greatest drummers of all time, Elvin Jones.
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THE INSECT TRUST: (Singing) To lie with you on a rolling windy hillside, peacefully watching the clouds dancing across the soft sky, I love you. Our sister the sun says it too. I love you. I love you. I do.
WARD: The band toured, and I got to see them twice - once at a disastrous concert I promoted at my college. They were even better live than they were on the record, although people still didn't get what they were trying to do. Back in Hoboken, the band quietly fell apart bit by bit.
I was able to get Robert Palmer some writing work at Rolling Stone, and he went on to become a star at The New York Times and he wrote a couple of excellent books about music before dying in 1997. Nancy Jeffries got a job at Elektra Records, where she eventually rose to vice-president.
Trevor Koehler battled drug abuse and killed himself in 1976, and Barth was living in Amsterdam when a heart attack killed him in 2000. Luke Faust continues to live quietly in Austin. To this day, though, nobody has come close to the heart of American music traveling from the direction The Insect Trust did. I wish someone would try.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in France. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel about a woman who can't stop eating. It's called "The Middlesteins." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Food, glorious food, is the villain of Jami Attenberg's new novel, "The Middlesteins" about a Midwestern Jewish family whose matriarch can't pass a Chinese restaurant, a pizza place or a McDonald's without making a pit stop. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: At first glance, a novel in which the main character eats herself to death may not seem like the most felicitous pick for Thanksgiving week, but "The Middlesteins" turns out to be a tough-but-affecting story about family members putting up with each other, even in their most unlovely chewing-with-their-mouths-open life moments.
If you have a Thanksgiving family reunion looming before you that doesn't exactly promise to be a Norman Rockwell painting, "The Middlesteins" may just be the perfect literary corrective to overindulgence in high calorie holiday expectations. The main character of Jami Attenberg's black comedy is Edie Middlestein, a woman in late middle age suffering from diabetes and other complications of a lifelong addiction to food.
From a husky girlhood filled with thick liverwurst sandwiches and salty pickles to her obese present, Edie has thought of food as joy. In fact, it's been the only dependable happiness of her life. When the novel opens, Edie's body is falling apart and so is her family. Husband Richard, a pharmacist in suburban Chicago, has decided to slink away from their 30-year marriage while he still has a shot at love with a more active partner.
Single adult daughter Robin, who's a battle-scarred escapee from the Teach for America program resents being cast in the role of her ailing mother's caretaker. Meanwhile, the Middlesteins' dope-smoking son Benny and his glamorous wife as so consumed by their own twin teenagers approaching b'nai mitzvah that initially they can barely tear themselves away from visions of caterers, chocolate fountains and hip-hop dance lessons to attend to the family crisis.
Attenberg's novel hip hops around a lot of itself and that fragmented narration adds to its emotional punch. We simultaneously hear different characters' perspectives and the consequences of events fan out from their beginnings. For instance, the novel takes us back to Edie and Richard's first date. Edie was then in law school and upset because her own father was dying. Listen to how even this quick flashback to Richard's entrance into her life jaggedly jumps around in time.
(Reading) There he was in a suit. It was his only suit but Edie didn't know that yet. And he was smiling. His happiest days were behind him the minute he met Edie but Richard didn't know that yet. As her father hovered on the edge of something terrible, as he dwindled down into a pale, bony version of his former self, as he threatened to disappear entirely, here was a man who was tall and healthy and full of something Edie found herself wanting to devour.
Edie's hungry heart will turn out to be her and Richard's undoing as a couple, but "The Middlesteins" leavens the minor tragedy of their fate with satiric social observations about, for instance, the various humiliations of the senior citizen dating scene as well as the peculiarly high emotional burdens of modern parenthood. Here's Richard briefly reflecting on his relationship with his angry daughter Robin.
(Reading) He didn't get her. He knew that much. He didn't know why he needed to get her anyway. His father had never gotten him. Why did people need to be gotten so much?
As the Middlesteins muddle through, continuing to misunderstand, abuse, and even disgust each other, the novel culminates in a glorious celebration, an explicitly Jewish spin on the traditional wedding scene that closes Shakespeare's comedies - namely, a b'nai mitzvah extravaganza.
Attenberg's stroke of comic genius here is to narrate the party through a yenta-heavy chorus of aging couples who were once Edie and Richard's lifelong friends. They're broadly critical of all they survey and at the same time clearly terrified that heartbreak and mortality may soon be tapping them on their collective slumping shoulders, too. Ironically, for a novel about the fallout of one woman's food addiction, "The Middlesteins" is a slim volume. But it sticks to your ribs.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Middlesteins" by Jami Attenberg. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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