An intimate look at Gail Sheehy and Clay Felker’s long-term love affair
By Gail Sheehy
Yesterday my husband walked into our day-old home, a condo furnished with hundreds of boxes from our former house, and he didn’t smile. Moving isn’t easy. We had pulled up stakes from a place we loved. Our roots were still raw.
Clay Felker and I have been through many moves. Painful as they were, some of them saved our relationship. One may have saved his life. This year we will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, a milestone that amazes friends who had to play Rolodex tag with each of us during the 17 years of our turbulent premarital relationship.
We were in diametrically opposing stages of life: Clay led a glamorous existence as the editor of New York magazine and The Village Voice, and had to be on the town night after night courting his first love—New York. I was a struggling freelance writer and divorced single mom who wanted to read bedtime stories to my young daughter. I would move into his imposing apartment, try it for a year, move out. I remember feeling as tiny as an envelope slipped under his door marked “addressee unknown.” Perverse though it might seem, those moves-out were among the most exciting times in my life.
I discovered that I could land on my feet within a few days and in apartments that always had something wonderful to offer. Of the hundreds of women I have interviewed who described moving associated with divorce—even when it meant radical downsizing— most say (in retrospect, mind you) that the benefits in recovered identity and independence made it a peak growing period. In a similar way, I needed to grow before I could fully join my life to Clay’s.
Like all change, moving dredges up strong, often startling emotions: confusion, fear, anger (one spouse is usually less in favor or downright hostile). You give up a familiar structure, and, like a lobster shedding its shell, you are left naked and vulnerable for a time. But I’ve come to believe that we need to shed old shells before they become confining.
By the time Clay and I were ready to move in together for good, we were also ready to adopt a child. And, oh yes,we finally got married. I was in my forties, he in his fifties, and we had entered our settling-down stage. Clay did a massive renovation of that imposing co-op—and “discovered” the kitchen he hadn’t used for 25 years. The political dinner-table conversations with our worldly wise, teenaged Cambodian daughter were sublime.
Seven years later, we faced another move. When Clay was diagnosed with an indolent form of a potentially serious disease, an intuitive doctor suggested that his professional life and our now empty nest weren’t helping him fight the illness. “Open the door to a new life,” he advised us. “You need to make a commitment between the two of you—think about how to find that door every day, just as you would ask, ‘What am I going to wear today?’ Just struggling with the question tells your immune system: I am so important, I am worth fighting for.”
We did think about that door every day. It took us two years to find it. The University of California at Berkeley asked Clay to start a magazine center at their Graduate School of Journalism.
It was his next stage: Clay was now a guru, revitalized. Being connected to a great research university on top of the information technology revolution exhilarated both of us. This move had been for Clay’s health, but it ended up having enormous benefits for me as well. I found I was eager to live on the edge, hike mountains, take new risks.We moved into a small faculty apartment with one bathroom and rented furniture. It was hell indoors, but the outdoors was magical. Every morning we’d walk through a forest of towering eucalyptus and jog around a track with a view across San Francisco Bay past the Golden Gate to the sapphire of the Pacific. When we found a light-filled house in the Berkeley hills, I took up gardening in a tropical paradise.
That was seven years ago, and once again—our version of the seven-year-itch—we have entered a new stage: the stage of simplifying, of paring down to essentials. But I left room for nostalgia as we packed up our house in the hills, ruminating over photos and letters, and pasting favorites into half-filled albums. Then I began moving furniture around in my dreams. “Will you miss the old place?” a friend asked as she drove me to the condo we had chosen.
“No, I’ve dreamt myself into the new place over the last month. Do you know where I can find a pear tree?”
Yesterday evening I beckoned my tired husband onto a condo terrace freckled with shade from the potted transplants of a few favorite shrubs and flowers I’d brought with us.We sat down with a glass of wine and surveyed the greensward of a golf course below. Clay pointed out a hummingbird sipping nectar from our new pear tree. We both smiled.
Later that night, I watched him relaxing in his club chair, with his nose in a magazine and the unread delights of another dozen publications lapping around his feet. That was when I knew it had been a move well made, this time for us both, and that we were truly home, again.