Meet Linda Dresner

Location: Birmingham, MI
Age: Over 50
Marital Status: Married
Education: Self-educated

A wife and mother barely into her twenties, Linda Dresner knew the only way to get out of the house in the 1960s was to work, so she headed to the few Detroit modeling agencies to search for employment. “I was considered good looking,” says Linda, still fabulous looking decades later.

“The criteria for modeling were different then.”

Hired for retail runway shows and photographic ad work (“Detroit was important for car advertising in those days”), Linda soon realized she had a natural bent, an eye forfashion and the ability to see clothes in a particular way. So she and a friend opened a little clothing store. “I wanted to distinguish myself and earn my own money,” she says.

“My own style was feminine classic. Geoffrey Beene suits and Pucci. There weren’t many choices,” Linda recalls.

She next became a partner in Hattie, a small shop that sold Yves Saint Laurent from a closet plus other emerging designers with strong signatures, such as Roberto Cavalli and Sonia Rykiel. Parting ways with Hattie Belkin after six years, Linda opened her own store.

Alone in business and in a difficult marriage, but tenacious and determined, she “continually operated from nerves and wanted to prove that I existed and could do it on my own.”

Always the adventurer, Linda championed labels including Comme des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto (“It was the moment of the Japanese”), the oversized multi-colored leather jackets from Claude Montana and later Jil Sander.

Linda Dresner debuted on New York’s Park Avenue five years later, in 1984. “In my naivete, I felt New York needed me,” she says.

It did. During her quarter century in New York City, she became one of the premiere specialty retailers and attracted the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, her daughter-in law Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, many actresses and the loveliest of New York ladies.

Her store lease coming to an end and a difficult retail environment showing no signs of correction, Linda decided to close her New York location. The Michigan shop continues to attract clients who enjoy fashion and look for an independent edge. An edited mix of labels is presented in a calm, beautiful ambiance.

What’s happening to you today?

After two marriages, breast cancer, and more than 30 years in business, I feel more comfortable with myself, who I am and what I want to do. Four years ago, I remarried. He’s a wonderful man, bright, accomplished and respected.

Getting ready for our first date, I was nervous when I thought about our different lives and what he would think of me. When I opened the door, he smiled and said, ‘Just look at you.’

He is my strongest support system in every way.

How would you define your current style?

Off, but not eccentric. I mix things up, day for night and night for day, for example. I wear what I like and often shop in my own closet, mixing my favorites from Martin Margiela, Comme des Garcons and Yohji. Their components always work. I have depended on them for years.

I don’t like tight clothes or shoes. I hate being uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean unfashionable or unattractive.

Do you have a favorite item of clothing?

I wear a Wolford cotton stretch body suit every day to pull everything together. It’s a comfort thing and it eliminates lines.

I also have many lightweight coats to layer over jeans and other clothes. One favorite is an original dark patchwork cotton beauty by Project Alabama.

What about a signature accessory?

My wedding ring and an Hermes rubber envelope bag that I’ve had for years. It goes with me everywhere, even to cocktails.

Sometimes I consider my hair an accessory. It’s long and curly. I don’t comb it, just pin it up with bobby pins. I stopped blowing it out years ago.

Signature perfume?

Frederic Malle’s Dans tes Bras.

Lipstick?

I have full lips that have color. I always try different lipsticks. Lately, I’ve been loving Vincent Longo’s Genasei in sheer pink.

Do you have a beauty routine?

Cetaphil for cleansing. I’ve had non-invasive laser treatments every three months for the last three years. They remove dark spots and build collagen. They also give my complexion an even finish.

Who influenced you?

My mother was very beautiful. I loved the way she looked when she was going out. She wore lipstick even when she went to the market and she looked amazing in hats.

I also adored the movies and was fascinated by the glamorous beauties. Ava Gardner was a favorite.

Who inspires you?

Women who do their own thing, who have struggled to find themselves and have found confidence, women who are free about the way they look and enjoy it, women who can look you in the eye …kind and open people with good manners.

How do you rejuvenate?

Yoga, although I don’t stand on my head and don’t intend to. Yoga releases tension, centers me and is excellent for balance. I’m way over spas.

I try not to be around things that feel toxic, like bad coffee and annoying people.

What about your favorite restaurant in Detroit?

Assaggi Mediterranean Bistro is casual with very good food.

Do you have a secret favorite place in Detroit?

Wherever my husband is.

Great book you’ve read?

An Inconvenient Wife, The Help, The Stone Cutter were interesting. Each book spoke about personal struggle, how one can conquer what feels overwhelming, frightening and difficult.

Passion project?

To continue to challenge myself to do things that are not always like a comfortable old shoe.

Meet Nina McLemore

Location: New York, NY
Age: 64
Marital Status: Married
Education: MBA Columbia University

Nina McLemore, 64, married, no children, MBA Columbia University, founded Liz Claiborne accessories in 1980, creator in 2003 of her own line of clothing… “designed by a woman with fashion and business expertise for smart, confident women on the go.” Nina’s exquisite jackets—from silk to vicuna—are the backbone of her collection, which also includes pants, blouses and tops, skirts and dresses. Her goal is to provide executive women with the fashion they need for work, leisure and evening.

“The baby boomer’s orientation was shaped by the traditional style of the 50s and the hippy burn-your-bra 60s. They think we’re old fuddy-duddies,” observes Nina McLemore, referring to today’s twenty-somethings.

Far from Haight-Ashbury and hip huggers when she was a young girl in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, Nina learned to distinguish herself “as a lady.” She dressed in simple, clean, modern clothes, which she and her artist mother made together in silks, linens and cottons. “There was no great place to shop and you could have great quality clothes and whatever you wanted for less. We used Cardin and Yves St. Laurent fabrics,” Nina says. “Mother was a marvelous teacher and it was wonderful to help her choose the fabrics and the patterns and work with her on the sewing.”

The fundamentals of Nina’s style haven’t changed, she says, choosing the words “understated, architectural and not fussy” to define it. “I’ve always preferred Armani to Channel,” she explains. “I guess my look is a mixture of Southern influence and changes I’ve made as I go through life. I’d say my sense is dramatic.”

Why did you leave the financial world to create a clothing line?

I wanted women to be taken seriously when they walked into a room. Women develop a big sense of well being when they look great. The fashion industry angered me because the clothes weren’t appropriate for anyone over 40.

Who influenced you?

My mother in a very positive way. She was in charge of the family gift and flower shop when I was growing up and she taught me about economic independence and the need to make your own decisions. My grandmothers also worked.

Your collection is colorful and filled with pattern. Tell us why you like color.

I look better and feel happier in color. I morphed into bright color as I got older. Many women realize at around 35 that black doesn’t necessarily look good on them, even though they’ve been wearing it for years. You must test what color is good for you. The wrong one can turn you ashen.

What inspires your fabric design?

I’ve always had an appreciation for global and tribal patterns. I look at lots antique fabric swatches.

Do you have a favorite look?

There’s nothing better looking than a crisp white shirt, Levis and a conch belt. I love the West and prefer Montana to Texas.

Favorite pieces?

My own ballet-style top and equestrian cotton jeans. I’ve worn the jeans to parties in Aspen in $30 million homes. They’re comfortable and can be dressed up with a great jacket.

Signature Piece?

An Egyptian style Georg Jensen gold necklace from the 1940s. My hair also became a signature because I started going silver in my twenties.

Beauty routine?

I don’t spend a fortune. Dove or Nivea to cleanse; Olay and Neutrogena to moisturize.

Your favorite designers, other than you of course

Ralph Rucci, Zoran, Shamask and Eskandar.

Exercise?

I’m an outdoors person. I hike and kayak.

Secret favorite spot in Washington?

Walking up and down the Potomac.

Favorite restaurants?

Obelisk in Washington. The [Northern Italian] food is extraordinary.The restaurant is simple and understated, like being in someone’s home.

Jean Georges in New York for the view.

Passion Project?

I feel strongly that my role is to be a change agent for women through philanthropy. My company contributes $150,000 a year to organizations that provide services to women, such as In Motion, that offers free legal services to low-income, abused women.

Meet Jackie Talmo

Location: New York, NY
Age: 56
Marital Status: Married
Education: Fashion Institute of Technology, New York

Jackie Talmo, 56, is an interior designer. She’s married; one daughter. Graduate of Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. A bathing suit designer for a dozen years, Jackie always loved doing her home, until her hobby evolved into a full-time profession. “People started recommending me all over,” she says. Now Jackie has her own interior design firm, Jackie Talmo Décor, and she travels across the country turning interiors into works of art, from traditional to contemporary.  Her personal style is consistent: “Easy going, crisp, modern and natural.”

Who influenced your style most?

My mother and her sisters. My mom loved to dress me every time there was a family occasion.  She had good taste and I was her little doll. My aunts let me play in their fabulous closets, which were filled with sparkly dresses and high-heeled shoes.

How has it changed over the years?

I wore Pappagallo preppy in high school in Wilmington, DE.  Now I mix classics with current looks, like a dressy jacket with jeans.

I love cashmere sweaters, scarves wrapped around my neck, shawls, and mixing sophisticated colors.

Favorite designers and shops?

Yeohlee, Calvin Klein Collection, Ports, BGBG Collection, J Crew. Saks, sample sales and Lord & Taylor.

Favorite Items?

I prefer good pieces that I will love to wear for years, like my Max Mara alpaca coat and Chloe cashmere pencil skirt.

My Cartier Pasha watch.  It’s chunky but simple and elegant.

Your inspiration?

My husband centers me when I fly away. He believes in me.

Greatest indulgence?

Diamond stud earrings.

Beauty routine?

Patricia Wexler MD skin care products. A pedicure every three weeks because I walk around the city so much.

Favorite restaurants in New York?

Salt in Tribeca has great fish; upstairs at The Fairway Market for wonderful sandwiches at lunch. Everything’s always fresh.

George and Louise in the Marais in Paris. Tiny, stark and where the locals go. The family that owns it is a little crazy.

Why do you prefer Butterfly Salon?

It’s a girlie salon with great energy. I used to color my hair but I got sick of coloring my my roots every three weeks.  Now my grey hair is a trademark. People stop me in the street about it. Dana does a great job.

Signature lipstick?

Always Armani. They pick the colors that work with my hair.

Signature perfume?

Jo Malone White Jasmine and Mint.

Wise home decorating tips?

Create an interior view by deciding the first area you see when you walk into a room, then arrange your best furniture and favorite accessories in that area to set an excellent tone for the room.

Paint the walls in one room and then use the same color in a fabric or vase in the next room. You’ll get a wonderful flow of color as you move through your home.

Do you have a favorite home décor store?

Mecox in New York because they mix fresh design with traditional and great antiques.  It all comes together in a fabulous cozy look.

Plantation in LA for custom furniture and great accessories including trays and lamps.  Comfortable California style.

Great book you’ve read?

All the books by Alexander Dumas. I’m infatuated with France and they give me some connection.  I just loved The Man in the Iron Mask.

Secret favorite spot in New York?

The Cipriani balcony at Grand Central station for people watching. It’s so majestic since they cleaned it up. I love seeing the quintessential energy of New York there.

How do you rejuvenate?

Look at beautiful shops or spend a day at the beach.

Passion Project?

My current projects and the next new client and the new design that will come out of it.

Meet Stacy Wallace-Albert

Location: Chicago, IL
Age: 51
Marital Status: Married

As a senior at an all-girls Catholic high school, Stacy Wallace-Albert loved her school uniform. “When I put on that uniform; that plaid skirt, (I never went for the jumper) and the white shirt, it just felt really comfortable to me.” Over thirty years later, Stacy, the former Chicago magazine fashion editor turned personal stylist, helps her clients find their “uniforms.” “Once I’m in a woman’s closet, our session is all about them. I am on my hands and knees, grubbing around in the backs of closets to come up with their uniform.”

And that white button down from her Catholic school days? It’s made a huge comeback in Stacy’s life. An article she wrote on her favorite Brooks Brothers’ white shirt for the Chicago Tribune was picked up by The Oprah Winfrey Show. The shirt sold out almost instantly and Stacy landed a gig as a Brooks Brothers spokeswoman.

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Watchung, New Jersey, close to New York, but also I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time at the Jersey shore, where I still go in the summer.

Did you go to high school in New Jersey?

I went to public school until senior year of high school, when I switched to an all-girl Catholic high school, Mount St. Mary’s Academy in Jersey. My parents had always wanted me to go to Catholic school but I resisted until senior year when I looked at my grades and thought, ‘I better get this together or I won’t be able to get into college.’

Were you a wild girl?

I definitely pushed the envelope. As soon as I was old enough to get working papers, I became a waitress. I wanted different clothes than my mother wanted for me. I wanted Peanuts pants, which were the lowest rise jeans that came out at that time. They came in neon colors.

What was your style like when you were younger?

I wore those Peanuts pants, which never looked cute on me because I have a very athletic build. I wore Huckapoo shirts and long, denim prairie skirts with a ruffle at the bottom. Looking back, the shirt and skirt didn’t look so cute.

What were your parents like? Were they strict?

Yes, my mother was. She was a young mom, only 20 years old when I was born. I was the oldest child and the only girl. I was not allowed to get my ears pierced until I was 16.

Did she work?

No she did not. My father worked and I always thought his life was so much more interesting than hers. He sold Caterpillar tractors.

When did you become interested in journalism?

Senior year of high school, I was the editor of the newspaper. I was really good at headlines. I changed the name of the paper from like the Mt. St. Mary’s Observe to Mountain Peeks and they still use it.

Did you go locally to college?

I went away to the University of Maryland and, quite frankly, had a very spotty college career.

When you first started to work, what brought you to Chicago and what did you do?

I went from Maryland to the College of St. Elizabeth, back to Maryland and then quit school. I started at Young & Rubicam advertising agency as a runner for the executive floor. I remember one day the CEO said ‘what are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘Well I thought I could work my way up to being an account executive.’ He said, ‘Not in this industry. You have to go back to school. When you graduate, call me, and I will get you an interview.’

What did you do? Did you go back to school?

Yes and I graduated on the dean’s list in a year and a half.

Did you go back to Young & Rubicam?

I called the CEO, got an interview but declined, because everyone remembered me as a runner there. So he got me an interview at Ogilvy & Mather and I became probably the worst assistant media planner in the history of Ogilvy & Mather advertising.

So I guess you didn’t stay there long?

No. From there, I worked for Billy Joel’s agent. I helped Christie Brinkley and Billy Joel apartment hunt. That’s how I got into real estate…

Wow, from advertising to temping for Billy Joel’s agent to real estate… So how did you get into fashion?

I was 22-years-old when I started becoming aware of style. For me, shopping was not buying, it was research. I went to Bergdorfs and I went to Bendels. I was very picky because I couldn’t afford much.

FOF: What did you like to wear at the time?

Oh those hideous Gunne Sax things. I had streaky brown hair and freckles and hazel eyes and I was wearing horrible greys and blue. Some of the women at the real estate company I worked for started giving me their hand me downs, like a Sonia Rykiel knock off.

So tell me how you segued into everything. You moved to Chicago, then what?

I made a list of all I had done: advertising, copy writing, media planning, sales, printing and then my passion, shopping. I found my calling. I published a shopping guide to speciality stores in Chicago called The Source. That little guide morphed into a magazine called The A List. When I decided to close The A List after three years, during which I made no money, the editor of Chicago magazine called said were looking for a fashion editor, do you know anyone? And I said yeah, how about me? And I became the fashion editor of Chicago magazine.

Do you still work for Chicago magazine?

I’m still a contributing editor. I do events for them and fashion show commentary.

So what else are you doing?

I am a personal stylist and a spokeswoman for Brooks Brothers.

Tell me about the personal styling.

I edit my client’s closets. I prefer to edit their closets with them than to shop with them. I started shopping women’s closets five years ago. I found that the women who I started to work with doing their closets were busy, were on the cusp or just graduating to something new. None of them wanted more clothes.

What do you do for Brooks Brothers?

A couple weeks after the Oprah segment hit about their no-iron white shirt, Brooks Brothers called me and they said, ‘let’s have lunch, we’d like to thank you in person.’ They told me they wanted me to be the spokesperson for their white shirts. I love this company and I love this product. I just did a QVC segment for Brooks Brothers on Super Saturday.

What is your personal style?

Quotidian elegance. Everyday, plain old elegance. Or maybe more approachable chic.

Favorite designer?

I like Maria Pinto. She doesn’t do disposable fashion. I have pieces of hers that go back over ten years and they’re not cheap, but one of my mantras is have fewer, better things. Her clothing does the work for you. And that’s what I tell women, ‘let your clothes do the work.’

Do you have a fashion inspiration?

Millicent Fenwick, she was an editor at Vogue and a congresswoman. She always wore the most amazing suits that showed off her figure. She always wore pencil skirts.

What perfume do you wear?

Fleur Orientale by Miller Harris. It’s scrumptious and sophisticated. There’s nothing fake about the scent.

Do you have a favorite skin care product?

The Olay Pro X SPF30. It’s not harsh; it doesn’t burn my skin, and it protects me. I like my skin to feel moist. I don’t like that dried out, chalky feeling. I have been sent an unbelievable amount of product as a fashion editor, but I love this one.

What is your single most important thing you’ve learned in your career?

That if you do what you truly love and don’t care about the money, you will end up making a living that way.

Meet Sandra Bricker

Location: Wesley Chapel, FL
Age: 53
Marital Status: Divorced
Education: University of Cincinnati, Hollywood Scriptwriting Institute

In her novel The Big 5-OH!, FOF Sandra Bricker tells the story of Olivia Wallace, an Ohio woman who survives ovarian cancer just before turning 50. The combination of events causes Olivia to re-evaluate her life and escape with her best friend to Florida, where she encounters several adventures and falls in love again.

The book is one of Sandie’s wildly popular Christian romance novels—she’s published over a dozen—but her books are not filled with flowery paeans to the Lord. They’re about normal women whose lives are filled with—but don’t revolve around—love and faith.

Perhaps that’s because Sandie is just such a woman. An ovarian cancer survivor herself, Sandie started a whole new life and career in her mid-40s. And her uniquely hilarious approach to women, God and aging has gained her a cult following among FOFs of all denominations.

How did you get to writing Christian romantic comedies, specifically?

They had to be spiritual, because my faith is as much a part of who I am as my red hair or always battling a weight problem. I’m not a buttoned-up kind of Christian—I worked in Hollywood for twenty years. At first, I thought I’d write typical romance, Harlequin-type novels with voluptuous bodies and steamy sex scenes. But Abingdon Press, my publisher, prefers books that are more understated. So instead of coloring my books with luscious sex, I use comedy.

Is faith a big theme in the books?

Faith—or lack of faith. But, I don’t write the kind of books that are typical of the Christian market. I don’t want to preach. I want to create characters like me—whose spirituality is so important to them, but it doesn’t stick out like a smashed-up thumb. It’s in the natural, smooth flow of who they are. Their faith would be a part of them making a decision, or finding a mate, or choosing a career. It would be part of their decision-making process, rather than a big, shining neon light that says, “I am a Christian.”

You said you worked in Hollywood for 20 years. How did you end up in Florida writing novels?

I lived in Dallas for a short time in my twenties, when I was married. Then that marriage broke up and I moved with a girlfriend out to LA. First, I was a personal assistant to actors. Then, I took over publicity for one of my clients, and I loved it. In the next few years I took on over 17 clients, but I always had a yearning to write. I went to film school and wrote some romantic comedies, but they didn’t go the way I wanted. Then my mom got cancer in Florida and I flew here to help her out. One day she said, ‘if you can’t write screenplays in Florida, write something else.’

And the rest is history?

I wrote my first romantic comedy in Florida, and it was picked up by my lovely and talented editor at Avalon in 2001, when I was 43. My mom got to see my first published book before she passed away.

It must have been gratifying that she got to see you publish a book—a little preview of a big career.

Three weeks before she died, she said to me, ‘I can see you have a life, and you have these books going. I don’t have to worry about you anymore.’ It was awful and terrible and wonderful at the same time.

But soon you became sick yourself?

Less than a year after my mom died, I was diagnosed with stage 1 uterine cancer, which is very treatable. There aren’t supposed to be many repercussions after you’re treated. But when they went in to treat it, they also found out I had stage 3 ovarian cancer, which is a whole different animal because it’s very hard to diagnose. The symptoms are so generic, that by the time most women are diagnosed, they’re almost gone. It was a miracle, and it impacted me both as a person, and a writer.

In The Big 5-OH!, the main character, Olivia, is diagnosed with cancer in addition to turning 50. What inspired you to combine the two challenges?

I’m not 20 anymore. I can’t write about a twenty-year old looking for a hot guy and starting a career. After the surgeries, treatment and chemo, when they tell you you’re cancer free, you’d think that you’d feel like dancing. But what happens to most of us—we’re just stunned. After I was told the cancer was in remission, I went to my car, stared out the window for 45 minutes and thought, ‘Now what?’ I wanted to put that into a character.

Have you gotten a positive response from the book?

Fantastic. When I do book signings, women come out with their bald heads and the scars the pale faces and those big smiles because they want to tell their story to someone who’s been through it.

Your books have so much mainstream appeal. Do some people bristle when the subject of your faith comes up?

It happens all the time. People I run into will say, ‘What are you writing?’ As soon as I say it’s for the Christian market, they say ‘Ohhh,’ almost like they’re saying, ‘Sorry.’ In the beginning it made me feel lesser. But when you’re fab over 50, if you have a calling to do something, the criticism doesn’t carry weight anymore. You don’t sweat the same things you did in your twenties and thirties.

Who inspires you?

Filmmaker Rob Reiner—everything he does. I love Garry Marshall’s wit, the way he looks at things. He can take a bag of fluff and really make it into something. When I was young, I loved Rob Petrie on The Dick van Dyke Show. One time I met Dick van Dyke and I told him that Rob Petrie formed the idea of the man I wanted to marry. He started laughing and said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ I also liked how Marlo Thomas ended the That Girl series—not getting married. She took that stand that marriage doesn’t have to be the goal for every woman.

How do you relax?

I close the doors, turn off the phone, and spend time at home with my dog. I’m very much a homebody, so I love, love, love to be at home alone. I turn on some music, or rent a movie, and curl up on the couch with my dog, Sophie—a strawberry blond collie.

How do you rejuvenate?

I go to the bay or the gulf and sit outside and pray. Music is always great. I love entertaining. Or I’ll watch a movie, have a bottle of wine and sit and talk to a friend.

Meet Karen Giblin

Location: Riverton, NJ
Age: Over 50
Marital Status: Married
Education: SUNY at Stonybrook

When she was 40, in 1991, Karen Giblin had an emergency hysterectomy with the removal of her ovaries and went into surgical menopause. Serving her third term in public office at the time, she returned to work experiencing all kinds of disconcerting symptoms night and day, from hot flashes and night sweats to lack of sleep, irritability and moodiness. She felt like she was “Lost in the Bermuda Triangle,” she says now. “It took a year for me to adjust to estrogen therapy. I was highly symptomatic until we determined the proper dosage,” Karen said.

She quickly realized she wasn’t alone. “Many of my women constituents in Ridgefield, Connecticut, started calling and asking me questions about their menopause. They were sharing intimate details about their experiences, and, for many of them, it was a confusing time. Their questions were not being addressed. In my heart, I felt that providing the answers would make a difference in their lives. I wanted women to have the latest information about menopause, and that was why I designed Red Hot Mamas Menopause Education Programs.” Today, Red Hot Mamas North America has become one of the largest menopause education programs in the United States and Canada.

How did you get the idea off the ground?

I contacted the local district nursing association and created a program to give women medically sound information by tapping into the resources of local hospitals. They provided speakers for Red Hot Mamas monthly meetings. Hundreds of women started showing up at my lectures. When a fire marshall told me I couldn’t host a meeting with so many women, I worked with a nearby hospital which began hosting the program. Other hospitals showed interest, so I started licensing hospitals all over the United States and in Canada.

We have worked in over 200 hospitals and health organizations to provide our free monthly educational programs. Our website, redhotmamas.org, has won numerous health E-awards and provides medically sound information to women. We’re part of the Vibrance Network of health-related websites.

How did you choose the name Red Hot Mamas?

My daughter, who now is 30 and works for me, used to say, ‘Mom, you’re a red hot mama.’ I thought that was apropos, so that’s what I named the program.

Besides the hospital programs, what else does Red Hot Mamas do?

We’re advocates for women and we do research on women’s health. We recently partnered with Sunovion Pharmaceuticals to sponsor a sleep survey conducted by Manhattan Research. More than 900 women shared their sleep problems in depth. Sleep is an important aspect of a woman’s life and we found that it could seriously impact her quality of life, as well as her relationships with her spouse, significant other and business associates. And women just aren’t communicating their sleep issues to their healthcare providers. In my opinion, sleep is an under-recognized and under-treated symptom of menopause.

[To read an interview with Karen all about menopause and its effect on sleep, click here]

Are you married?

Yes, my husband of two years is a physician who works on clinical trials. In fact, I met my husband when I was presenting research on women’s sexual dysfunction and menopause.

Do you have children?

Two daughters. They live in Rhode Island and Montana.

Are you still taking hormones?

Yes, I’m on estrogen therapy. I still get hot flashes, especially if forget to change my patch. I believe taking hormone therapy should be based on an individual risk-benefit assessment, and it requires an in-depth discussion between a woman and her clinician. On a personal note, it has has quelled my menopause symptoms and improved my quality of life. It also may help prevent osteoporosis and colon cancer, both of which I have risk factors for. Bottom line, all women need to be an integral part of the decision-making process to take or not to take hormone therapy. There needs to be ample time scheduled with your doctor to have a meaningful discussion about it, to control individual symptoms and to assess personal risk factors. The discussion should also include ways to prevent disease by making healthy lifestyle choices. Then if a woman chooses to take hormone therapy, she should be provided with individualized treatment. There is no one-size-fits-all management plan for menopause.

Do you worry about getting breast cancer?

Of course. Like most women, I worry about developing breast cancer. But, I have regular mammograms, regular medical checkups, and I evaluate my decision to take hormone therapy regularly with my clinician.

Why is there suddenly an overwhelming amount of interest in the subject of menopause?

Because so many baby boomers are entering menopause–approximately 6,000 women a day in the United States. These women don’t sit back and accept the things their mothers did. They’re asking questions. We want to take charge of menopause before it takes charge of us.

Where did you go to school?

SUNY at Stony Brook in New York.

Where did you grow up?

In Baltimore’s Little Italy section; the same area as Nancy Pelosi. In such a small area, our families knew one another. Nancy’s father and brother were both Mayors of Baltimore. Nancy’s mother came from Sicily, and so did my family. My grandparents opened several bakeries, and my aunt and uncle owned De Nitti’s Restaurants in Little Italy for over 60 years. The restaurant is now closed. And my father was a manager of several supermarkets.

Were you friends with Nancy?

Our families knew and always supported each other. Nancy is an honorable and well-respected woman and I’m certainly proud of her achievements.

If you had to give a woman just one piece of advice about menopause, what would it be?

I would tell women to shift their outlooks and discard old myths that surround menopause. Know your body and be able to identify any changes that happen. Become educated about what you can do to help yourself, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and develop a plan of action with your clinician. And last but not least, keep a sense of humor and stay connected with other women. Social support is a key element to maintaining good health and even promotes longevity. That’s why we encourage women to attend Red Hot Mamas programs and log onto redhotmamas.org.

Meet Joyce Jones

Location: New York, N.Y.
Age: 69
Marital Status: Married
Education: Two years of art school for fashion illustration.

And, after various jobs from department store buyer to technology sales rep to cosmetics training director, she’s settled on her favorite job of all: modeling (she most recently modeled Cool Jams sleepwear for the FOF Shop). “My relationship is fabulous, I have some really nice friends and I’m healthy,” says Joyce. “I love what age has done to my head but I’m not thrilled with what it’s doing to my body.” We beg to differ.

Where are you from originally?

Trenton, NJ, but I’ve lived in many places–Philadelphia, New York, Arizona and Colorado. I even sold everything bought a boat and lived on it for awhile. I lived in Florida, Key West, Virginia and then moved to Oman in the Middle East. When I got back from Oman, I lived in New York, Costa Rica, Florida again, and, finally, back to New York.

Why did you travel so much?Image

I don’t know – it seemed like a good idea at the time.

So when someone asks where you’re from, what do you say?

I consider myself a New Yorker. I even considered myself a New Yorker when I lived in Trenton, New Jersey.

What were you like as a child?

My parents were very strict, especially my father. He was born in Hungary. My mother was first generation Hungarian in this country. I was a good kid but was always pushing the envelope.

Did you go to college?

I went to two years of art school to be a fashion illustrator. After school, I marched off to Philadelphia with my portfolio. I found out I could work for $62 per week, so instead I ended up working for the now-defunct department store, Dunham’s in Trenton. Later I worked for Stern’s in Philadelphia, Lit Brother’s in Philadelphia and Macy’s in New York. Then, I got out of retailing. I became the national training director for Love Cosmetics in the mid-70s. It was my dream job. I absolutely loved it.

How come?

It was really creative. The line was all water-based and up to that point cosmetics were oil-based. They were very light and natural looking. The whole idea was less is more. I was with them for a couple years.

Do they still exist?

No. I left before they went defunct. That’s when I started selling telecommunications hardware.

What a switch. Beauty to technology?

It was just a matter of being able to sell. It’s kind of funny because I’m such a non-technical person. I don’t Twitter or blog, I check my e-mails and that’s it. My husband jokes that my phone is gasoline driven. But I like it.

Do you have kids?

Yes, one son. He lives in Pennsylvania in the house where he was born and manages a Christmas Tree farm.

Is your son from your first marriage?

He’s actually from my second marriage. The first marriage lasted only eleven months. My current husband and I have been married twelve years. We got married the day after Thanksgiving so we wouldn’t forget the date.

How did you meet him?

On a mushroom hunt. I had just gotten divorced and was living in Arizona. Friends of mine invited me to come with them on the hunt. I hadn’t washed my hair, had a cap on and no makeup. This gorgeous man came to the door and I thought, ‘Oh no I look terrible!’

He tells the sweetest story about it. He said he heard this voice that had so much life, he had to see who it was…and it was me.

After the mushroom hunt, when did you see him again?

That night, when I got back to my apartment, I called him and said, “this may be really forward, but I’d like to see you again. He said, ‘Me too, when?’ He came for dinner the next day and we haven’t been separated since.

How old were you when you two got married?

I was 55 when we met and got married a couple years later. It was just me, him and the two people who introduced us at the wedding.

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So you’ve been modeling more recently. How did you get into it?

When I lived out in Littleton, Colorado, I was at an event with my husband and they were auctioning off a walk-on part for the local production of Bye Bye Birdie. My husband won it for me for $200. I joke and say my husband “bought me into the business.” I was only supposed to be in the play for opening night but I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding, I love this. I’m here for the duration.’ It ran for 6 weekends. I needed a headshot for acting; I got one done, and that’s when I found out I really didn’t take a bad picture.

Were you discovered as a model from that headshot?

Well, my husband got transferred back to Phoenix. There wasn’t much opportunity for theater there at the time. So I sent my new headshot to three modeling agencies. One of them called me, I went in for a test and they hired me. This was 10 years ago, I was 59 at the time.

What do you model for?

I did a lot of work for retirement places, golf courses and casinos because Phoenix has a lot of those.

Now that you live in New York, are you still modeling?

Yes. I just came from a casting for Oprah magazine, now I’m modeling Cool Jams sleepwear for the FOF shop and next I have a casting for pharmaceuticals. I’d say 80-90 percent of what I do now is pharmaceutical. After that, it’s a bit of fashion, some home goods and cooking products. Grandmas always cook, and that’s what I’m cast as, a grandma.

Do you think there is ageism in the modeling industry?

Yes. They seem to think my age group doesn’t do anything else but take medicine, move into retirement facilities and take an occasional vacation. You rarely see over-50 models cast in advertisements for cars, furniture or fast food. If you went by the ads, you’d think we almost never buy things like washing machines or dryers or cleaning supplies. For that, young moms are cast, the 30-36-year-old demographic.

Do you think it’s fair? Do you think the advertising just reflects what people are buying?

I’ve asked this on sets with clients. One of the answers I get is that they are following statistics which say people over fifty have brand loyalty, so advertisers don’t market to them. One client I worked for said the industry was starting to understand that people over fifty have disposable income and are not necessary brand loyal. Everyone is pinching pennies now and looking to make the switch to products that are more interesting or cost less.

Do you model full time?

Yes. I wish I could say I was earning a wonderful living but this industry took a beating through the recession. Over the last two months I’ve had way more auditions, things seem to be picking up a bit.

Do you have any passion projects or hobbies?

I’ve started taking horseback riding lessons in Van Cortlandt park. I’m enjoying it. I’ve also been taking tap dancing lessons at the National Arts Club. I did them as a kid and now I understand why my mother took me out. I’m not very graceful but I’m having fun because it’s all seniors and none of use are good.

What’s your exercise routine?

I do yoga three to five times per week at NY Yoga on 86th St. and York Ave.

How would you describe your style?

Eclectic. I have certain clothes I wear only on auditions. Usually I try to wear blue because there was a study that said people wearing blue are most often cast.

Where do you shop?

Occasionally thrift stores. I recently bought this marvelous black two piece outfit by Escada Couture. The bottom is a full skirt made of it’s lace and tulle. The top is silk, has a little sleeve and gold buttons down the front. I also shop at H&M and Macy’s. God bless Macy’s!

What’s your skin care routine?

Right now I’m using Dove and Aveeno moisturizer. If I’m wearing makeup, I use the Aveeno. If I’m not wearing makeup I use Dove because it is richer. I use a night cream by Dr. Sobel which is fabulous. He is my dermatologist and has his own product line. I slather myself with creams and I try desperately to sleep on my back, so I don’t squish my face.

Do you have a signature fragrance?

Je Reviens. It has a light floral scent. I have used it for 40 years and it’s probably in my marrow by now. If I’m going to be in the house all day, I’ll wear it just for me.

Do you have a favorite book?

My favorite author is Alexander McCall Smith. He writes all the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency books. I’ve read almost all of them. I’ve been to Africa a few times now and the books really give the spirit of the country.

Do you have pets?

I have cat named Kitty. I’ve had him for about 5 years now. He never claws anything – he’s the perfect apartment cat and he’s so sweet. I’ve never breathed a moment of my life without a cat.

What advice do you have for other women over 50?

Exercise, take good care of your skin. Visit a dermatologist regularly. Eat healthily, but treat yourself every once and awhile.

Meet Joan Benedict Steiger

Location: Malibu, CA
Age: Over 50
Marital Status: Widowed
Education: Royal Opera Ballet School, Hofstra University, NYU

At age 9, FOF Joan Benedict Steiger became a member of the prestigious Royal Opera Ballet School in Great Britain. In her teens she studied with legendary acting coach Stella Adler. Joan even doubled for Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Butterfield 8, released in 1960.

Today, she has more than 80 films and at least 40 plays under her belt and has worked alongside stars such as Henry Fonda and John Forsythe. In addition to credits in dozens of famous films, Joan also had a few famous husbands, including actors Jeremy Slate, John Myhers and Academy Award winner, Rod Steiger. With a career like this behind her—wouldn’t you think it’s about time Joan hang up her hat?

Not a chance. Despite all of these accomplishments, Joan has no intention of retiring anytime soon. “I’m still dancing three times a week,” says Joan, “I’m still acting and auditioning. Acting is my relaxation.”

Where do you live?

Malibu, California.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Brooklyn, but I grew up in Rome and Paris.

Do you have siblings?

One brother.

What did your parents do?

My father died when I was very young. My mother was a real estate broker.

What was your childhood like?

I started dancing lessons when I was 7. My mother sent me to Europe when I was 9 to study dance. I was a member of the Royal Opera Ballet School. I started my drama lessons when I was 15. I studied with Robert Lewis, the great director, and Stella Adler, the great drama teacher, who were both founders of the Actor’s Studio.

Where did you attend college?

Hofstra College on Long Island, which is now Hofstra University.

When did you start acting?

I started acting in NY when I was 17.

Are you married?

I was married for 30 years to my first husband, John Myhers, in 1962. He was a great actor who was picked to star in the first national company of the Sound of Music as Captain Von Trapp. He died of cancer in 1992. Then, I married academy award-winning actor Rod Steiger in 2000. Rod and I first met when I was 18 in New York. He died of cancer in 2002. Three years later I got a call from Jeremy Slate, an actor that I had known when I was a teenager. We lived together for about four years, and then Jeremy passed away in 2006.

What was your first big role?

My first big roles were on The Steve Allen Show, Candid Camera, and as the spokesperson for Hazel Bishop, which was a big cosmetic company at the time. On Candid Camera I did one of the classic skits where I engaged a stranger in conversation at a bus station and pretended I was lost. I was wearing this hat with a huge feather and was supposed to get that feather in the stranger’s nose and ears and eyes. It was really hilarious.

You were Elizabeth Taylor’s double in Butterfield 8—how did you land that role?

I was acquainted with the casting director for MGM, who called and told me that they were looking for an actress to double and stand in for Elizabeth Taylor. When I tried to turn it down, he told me that this was the most unique job I’d ever have, because Elizabeth Taylor does not want to do this movie, but she has to, otherwise MGM won’t let her star in Cleopatra. So they needed another actress to rehearse her part and stand in for her, as well as double for her in a few scenes. I agreed, and I worked on the project for about six months. We had a wonderful time, and she was terrific. Towards the end of the film they gave me a line—I played the secretary to Elizabeth’s psychiatrist. My line was “She’s here doctor,” and I bring Elizabeth into the office. That movie keeps playing over and over again on TV, and I’m still getting residuals for that one line!

What other stars have you worked with?

I’ve worked with celebrities like Henry Fonda and John Forsythe, but my favorite star that I worked with was my late husband, Rod Steiger. He was incredible. He was such a fantastic actor. He would say to me before a scene, ‘Just react,’ which is one of the basic principles of acting.

What’s been your favorite role to play?

I’ve done over 40 plays all around the country, but my favorite was a one-woman play I did a few years back called “Leona” in Hollywood. I played Leona Helmsley, who was one of the largest hotel owners in the world. She was a tremendously powerful woman. She was in the papers because she and her husband were indicted for tax evasion, which wasn’t true. I really worked hard. I was on stage for an hour and 10 minutes without leaving the stage because there was no intermission. It was quite a challenge.

Do you prefer stage acting, or screen acting?

I prefer stage acting. You’re doing it live, so once the curtain goes up, that’s it. You’ve got a beginning, middle, and end. You get to do your role from beginning to end. You have a live audience, and that is the most fantastic feeling. I enjoy film acting too, but not as much.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on this web series called “Rita, Moby, and Tippy.” I play Rita, the off-the-wall grandma with a thirteen-year-old granddaughter.

How do you relax?

I take tap class three times a week. Dancing has always been a love of mine. I’ve done it since I was seven.

Describe your style.

I’m a clothes horse! Everyone who knows me can’t wait to see what I’m wearing. I’ve got about three huge closets full of clothes. I like mostly classic clothes. I have a million jackets and jeans. I’m usually in some kind of leather jacket, jeans and boots. I love Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren, but I think the most amazing designer is Valentino.

How do you stay in shape?

I’ve been blessed with excellent health. I exercise every day. I eat all the right foods, but it happens that I love all the right foods. I’m a size 8, which I’ve been my whole life. I couldn’t even think of being fat—I love clothes too much!

What advice do you have for women over fifty?

Never think about age.

Meet Lisa Scottoline

Location: Philadelphia, PA
Age: 55
Marital Status: Divorced
Education: B.A. in English from University of Pennsylvania, J.D. from University of Pennsylvania Law School

Lisa, whose books have appeared on the New York Times Bestseller list seventeen times, is Francesca’s “cheerleader,” inspiration, confidant and now… coworker. This fall, the two released a book, My Nest Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space, a collection of 70 sassy essays about family, love and womanhood, compiled from the “Chick Wit” column they wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“When Francesca began writing with me, it made everything kaboom,” says Lisa. “It ended up being about generations, which is unique in the marketplace. There aren’t many mother-daughter writer teams.”

And unlike television’s Gilmore Girls, which was cancelled after several seasons, there’s no stopping this mother-daughter team. The two have three more books like My Nest in the works.

How did you two start writing your “Chick Wit” column together for the Philadelphia Inquirer?

LISA: It just kind of evolved organically. I went to the newspaper originally, they didn’t approach me. Do you recall Erma Bombeck?

Oh, of course.

LISA: I loved her. I thought, ‘The newspaper today, it’s all grim news. Where are women’s voices?’ I wanted to be that voice, and they let me. A lot of my writing was about my daughter and my mom. I said to Francesca, who was still in college at the time, ‘you should tell your side because the readers are e-mailing me and asking me.’

FRANCESCA: I started contributing to her columns while I was still in college. Since I’ve graduated, I contribute more regularly.

How often does that column come out?

FRANCESCA: It’s a weekly column and I probably contribute about every fifth week.

Francesca, what was it like growing up with a best-selling mother? Are you two close?

FRANCESCA: She and I–that’s been the core relationship in my family for all of my life. I hardly remember she and my dad living together. And then my mom was remarried to my stepfather. They’re not married anymore.

Francesca, you went to Harvard and studied English. Did you want to be a writer? Is it in your genes?

FRANCESCA: It’s something I always enjoyed but growing up with my mom and seeing her go through her earlier struggles of trying to become a writer, then finding her stride and finding success gave me the courage to try.

LISA: Francesca has been writing since she was little and I don’t take credit for her ability. She has developed her own voice and has worked hard.

Is Francesca working on another book on her own?

FRANCESCA: I am working on a novel that I hope one day gets published. Fiction is my dream… but this fun little jaunt of memoir writing about family has been such a joy.

Do you think the relationship between moms and daughters existed this way years ago?

LISA: Well, I was close with my mom but definitely, nobody was writing about it. Until it’s written about, you can’t get the commonality of experience. As soon as I write ‘Oh my mother has a 30-year-old bra,’ a lot of women will say, ‘I totally get that, and my mom has one that’s ten years old.’

FRANCESCA: I’m very close to my mom, I speak to her on the phone everyday and it’s actually not that unusual. A lot of my friends–boys and girls–are very close to their moms. I don’t know if its the new technology or if it’s just a different style the way we were raised.

What’s the greatest thing you’ve done for each other and what’s the worst error you made with each other?

LISA: Wow, that’s hard. I think the best thing I’ve done is to get out of her way. Maybe because it was a single parent situation, but we didn’t have a lot of the control fights that some people have. If she wanted to wear a Cinderella outfit when she was two, that was fine with me. She was allowed to make her own decisions from an early age, and with more practice she got the better. I haven’t needed to be all over her with rules, and she turned out great. What’s the worst thing? I would say the flip side of the same coin. When you don’t give rules, you have more anxiety.

What have you had anxiety about?

LISA: Here’s an example. I got an email from her the other weekend saying, ‘Don’t worry, but I’m not feeling that great.’ She was having pretty severe stomach pains. I said to her, ‘Do you need to go to the hospital?’ She said, ‘I’ll keep you posted.’ And I’ve got to tell you, I sat for an hour thinking, ‘Please, please, please decide to go to the hospital.’ She didn’t end up going, the pains passed. I stepped back a little and gave her the authority, but it makes you anxious as a mom. If you’re not going to be a control freak, you’re not going to be in control.

FRANCESCA: I agree. It is the best thing that she did for me and I feel incredibly fortunate that she didn’t try to control me. When I was in college, I felt anxious that she would be alone in the house. But she has always kept boundaries so it hasn’t become a codependent relationship. I think that’s difficult and brave of her.

Francesca, tell me what you learned from your mom.

FRANCESCA: How to find and create your own happiness. When I was born, she fell on hard times–got divorced from my dad. But she said, you know what, I’m gonna pursue my dream now. And I saw her write an entire first novel that didn’t get published and then just sit down and write a second one. She persevered. That has been so empowering because I know that if I experience bumps along the way, it’s not the end of the story.

Lisa, tell me what you’ve learned most from Francesca.

LISA: I’m learning a lot from this interview.

What about from your own mother, Lisa?

LISA: Perseverance. My mother came over from Italy and worked as a secretary at a time when women were not supposed to be in the workplace. I always saw her work really hard and struggle. She had a hard life but those setbacks never defeated her. And at 86, she’s kind of invincible now.

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Has she inspired your writing?

LISA: Absolutely. We don’t really revere moms the way we should. We talk about the power of Fortune 500 companies, but I think real power is at a kitchen table. Your mother influences you in ways that you probably are still figuring out, just as mine did, just as Francesca will figure out too.

Francesca, what’s the greatest thing you’ve done for your mom?

FRANCESCA: I accepted her as an aly early on. Sometimes the teenager phase is about viewing the parent oppositionally, and I just didn’t experience that. I understood from a young age that she was on my side. Not that she was my best friend, letting me do whatever I wanted, but we were on the same team.

LISA: Right. Before I released the book, I wanted to go on Twitter and say ‘the new book is coming out tomorrow.’ And I said, ‘Ugh, I don’t know how to edit my profile.’

FRANCESCA: When I was in high school I would’ve been snippy about it like, ‘Oh come on! You know how to do it.’ But now I say, ‘Okay, I’ll do it for you, Mom.’

Lisa, why you think you’re successful as a writer?

LISA: My mother’s advice always in my life was ‘be yourself.’ And I think I am. My voice, like the voice I’m talking to you now in, is the voice you hear when you read my novels and my memoirs.

Your writing is so funny. Do you consider yourself a funny person?

LISA: I think most women are funny. All of my girlfriends are funny and Francesca is really funny. I think smart women tend to have a good sense of humor.

Why do you think most women are funny?

LISA: Women have to get everything done, whether it’s grocery shopping, going to the office or making sure the kids bathe. You know things are going to go wrong, so humor becomes a coping mechanism. I listen to what women are joking about; that they can’t fit into their jeans, that the roots of their dyed hair show. We have a great ability to laugh at ourselves and we have a great ability to use humor to get through our hardships.

Of all the books that you’ve written, what’s your favorite?

LISA: I like the one I just wrote called Save Me, a story about mothers and daughters that’s not even out yet. I really take the craft of writing seriously and I try to improve it. Seventeen novels in 17 years — I always think the newest one is the best.

Another book about mothers and daughters?

LISA: It’s ironic in a way, now that Francesca has moved out and is on her own, I think about our relationship more.

Francesca, do you have a favorite book of your mom’s?

FRANCESCA: I used to love Vendetta’s Defense, because it’s historical, but I think my new favorite is Look Again. It’s about a relationship between a mother and her adopted son. It was just really interesting; it was emotional; it touched me.

There’s no question, your literary voices are different.

LISA: That’s an important point about Nest, because we both wrote those essays. We do not edit each other’s work at all. So all of her work, it stands on its own. She has her own voice.

FRANCESCA: I know that you can always find a critic and you can’t always find a great mom. When I call her and go, “Ugh, I suck,” she says, “No honey, no you don’t,” instead of saying, “But on page 38…” I like the support.

Lisa, what are your favorite books that are not your own?

LISA: I love memoirs, so I loved Angela’s Ashes. It’s beautifully written. It’s really about a mother’s devotion. She wasn’t perfect but she was a perfect mom in a way.

And what about you, Francesca?

FRANCESCA: I love the short fiction of Graeme Greene. His short stories have a prose style that I admire so much; so simple but such emotional punch. The Sound and the Fury is one of the most remarkable books ever written and all of the women in it are so damaged and damaging to everyone around them. So many of my favorite books are about really bad mothers, maybe because I didn’t have one!

Lisa, I love the idea of the annual book club dinner party you throw at your home. What made you think of that?

LISA: I noticed a lot of book clubs were reading my stories. I wanted to reward and encourage that. I don’t know how to do that other than throw a big party and feed them. That’s what I do. I’m an Italian mother.

Meet Joanna Herman

Location: New York, NY
Age: 57
Marital Status: Married
Education: BA, English, Boston University; MA, American Studies, City College of New York

I often say that I was born in 1944 but raised in the 15th century, because although I was born in Waterbury, CT, a New England factory town, post-WWII, I grew up in a large southern Italian family where the rules were absolute, and customs antiquated. My sister and I were doing the jitterbug to Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” coming from the radio on the kitchen counter, my father was singing Nat King Cole songs in the shower and my grandfather was singing “Vicin’ ‘O Mare,” and “Non sona più la sveglia” under the grape arbor.

So begins Joanna Herman’s memoir, The Anarchist Bastard, which chronicles her coming of age in an Italian immigrant family on a farm in Waterbury, Connecticut. The ensuing 244 pages paint a portrait of her iron-worker father, homemaker mother, and an extended family overflowing with legends, customs, food, animals, wisdom, comedy and tragedy. The writing is so rich and the stories so colorful that you have to remind yourself you’re reading about events in New England, and not in the “backwater” towns of Tolve and Avigliano, in Basilicata, Italy—where the clan’s routes can be traced. We chatted with Joanna about the incredible push-pull she felt from her family—and how she learned to negotiate it and make her life her own.

One of the most prevalent themes in the book is how tight-knit your large family was—almost like the Marines. How would you describe it?

Your family is crucial. If somebody needs you, you run at the drop of a hat. That is the work of your life. To be a cohesive unit. You have a beautiful social group when you’re relaxing, eating… That’s the appeal of it; you’re never lonely. The thrill of human communion is always there.

What is the main drawback to all this family closeness?

Ambition is frowned upon. You’re not supposed to want for yourself—only for the greater good. I’d arrive home from college, and my mother would immediately go, ‘My hairdresser’s daughter just had a baby; we have to go over there.’ I mean, ‘What?!’ When I was in grad school, working on a paper about my family’s culture, I found out my dad had had a heart attack. He was okay, but my mom expected me to drop everything and tend to him, even if it meant failing out of school. Here I was, studying the roots and drawbacks of that mentality, and it was being impressed upon me at the same time.

Why is the culture like that?

Our ancestors were constantly being invaded. Basilicata is this peninsula that sticks out in the middle of the Mediterranean, with ports everywhere and a road up to Europe. It was the perfect place for everyone to invade. The Pheonicians, the Carthiginians. The Greeks. The Etruscans. Everybody came, took all their goods, married or raped their women… So the indigenous people turned inward, further and further, to protect themselves from their new bosses. They sacrificed their individuality to find strength in numbers.

Would your grandparents have shared that theory—on why the culture is so insulated?

They’d say: ‘[We’re like that] because we’re poor. We’re real low. The most remote, most isolated, and poorest.’ They would have stopped there, without looking for the deeper roots of it. Whatever you grow up doing, and continue doing your whole life, is so close to you. You don’t think about it in the same way you might if you stepped back from it. It took me a long time to discover why my family was like that.

When did you begin to realize it?

I went to Tolve and D’avinagno with some of my family in 1964. We walked into that town and I thought, “Oh! I see! I see why my mother does that.” We couldn’t walk ten yards without a dozen people accosting us, asking who this person was, what that person was up to. In New York, I might have thought, ‘I don’t know these people. What business is it of theirs?’ And it was like that all day, every day. That was the beginning of being able to see it all from a distance. Seeing how deeply connected we were to the customs of this old country, where there was no individualism.

Is it still so old-fashioned over there?

Not totally. Today in Italy, you see these little old ladies, then you see their granddaughters with punk orange hair, and they’re walking arm in arm. Italy is able to incorporate both old and new and keep them integrated. But here, we didn’t know how to integrate it. We came with our ancient ways, and everything was ancient, modern, ancient, modern. Bringing the old customs over and integrating them at the same time was too much for the first generation.

Like how your mother wanted you and your sister to go to college, but your father wasn’t as enthusiastic.

My mother was not allowed to go to college and she wanted to go desperately. My grandmother wouldn’t even let her go to Hartford overnight for bookkeeping training. But my father had made some good money, and she saw an opening. ‘My girls are going to college,’ she told him. Then her brothers would say, ‘Why are you sending those girls to college? They think they’re so smart? They don’t even know how to milk a cow.’ My father assumed that as soon as we graduated, we’d come back home. He sat down with my mother one day and said, ‘When are the girls coming home, Rose?’ She had to tell him, ‘Peter, they’re not.’ He sobbed for hours and hours.

What was it like when you finally left Connecticut?

After I moved to New York in the late sixties, it took me a long time to even figure out how disoriented I was. Decades. At first, I was living in the village, soaking up the sixties. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. I started working, I became a teacher. But the whole time, I didn’t notice that underneath it all was this thing that was confusing me. “Why doesn’t this work? Why doesn’t that work?”

What do you mean? What didn’t work?

At a certain point, I began to realize I didn’t have the same chops my friends all had. My way of moving in the world was skewed. For example, if I wanted to move up at work, my first thought was to have the right people over to dinner. That should work, right? Shouldn’t that be the way networking worked? I didn’t have the sense that it more about me, what I accomplished alone. My world was all about family—not about ambition. Raising [my son] James gave me so much perspective, because looking at him, I knew I wanted different things for him. My life did not belong to me, until my mother died.

How did you pass the family values to your son, without letting him fall into that trap?

It was tough, and I don’t think I did at first. My son loves my family, he loves that culture. But it’s caused him trouble. It pulls on him. And I have to bear in mind that I don’t want it to suppress him. He’s the next generation of trying to figure it out. He still runs to my husband Bill and me when we need something—but, too much so. Sometimes I have to tell him, ‘No, James. You need to focus on your work.’ Ironically, it took James growing up for me to finally gain the full perspective that I needed to write this book.

How’s that?

This joyous, delicious, complicated center of my life was preparing to leave the harbor. And all I could see was the empty slip. I had been reading and playing with writing all my adult life. But it was the fear of his leaving and feeling totally emptied out that made me say, ‘Get back to that machine and start writing now.’ I started spending twelve hours a day at my computer. Hours and hours. I had this new ambition.

Do you ever miss it—being so wound up in a large family like that?

Sometimes. I’ve never had that same pulsing life again. The thrill of the day-to-day. You could be laughing, you could be crying, but you always felt fully alive. There’s a loneliness to my life here in New York. I get together with friends, but it’s arranged. Life is arranged in New York. Back there, it was provincial. But I like my life like this, no question.

What would your old school relatives have thought of this book?

They would have been appalled. Maybe not all of them. At one of my readings, my aunt Antonia told me, ‘Your mother would have been so proud.’ For her to say that was such a huge deal to me. She didn’t even like my mother.

What is your favorite book?

War and Peace and The Odyssey. Both are epic. And Tolstoy is emulating Homer.

How do you rejuvenate?

I swim. There’s a pool in Riverdale I try to get to three times a week.

Do you have a favorite New York doctor you’d recommend?

Dr. Iris Sherman, on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. She cares about her patients. She calls you herself, not her assistant.

Beauty salon?

Ada Ballen at Tipaz, on West 57th.

Restaurant?

Pisticci. The food is sensational. Or New Leaf in Fort Tryon Park. When you sit down there, you might as well be in Italy or France.

Please visit www.joannaclappsherman.com for more information on readings and other events, and to order The Anarchist Bastard.