Twenty years ago, Erica Jong fell briefly out of love with her face. “There was a moment during my 50s when I’d look at pictures of myself and I would see my father’s aunts staring back at me,” she says, rearranging for the dozenth time her turquoise scarf, a voluminous item whose artful draping requires more or less constant maintenance. “I couldn’t bear it. Oh, my God, I thought. I can’t do this. But I had a friend who lived in Majorca who’d been to see a particular doctor in San Francisco who did facelifts that didn’t look like facelifts. So I decided to get one too. I was very pleased with the result.” She never lied about what she’d done: she has often written of the experience, and it inspires a vivid set piece in her new book, Fear of Dying. But she never went back for more, either. “No. I feel pretty. No one would say I was 40, but so the fuck what?”
At 73, Jong is not, as she puts it, “going quietly”. The TV networks pointedly failed to invite her into their studios to discuss her first novel for more than a decade when it was published in the US last month – “the problem is HD: they don’t want to display women who look like grannies” – and thanks to this, she finds herself boiling with rage, even though a part of her thinks Miley Cyrus is welcome to the Today show and its crummy sofa.
“I’m not surprised. I always said, we’ve only had one third of a [feminist] revolution. But age is the last taboo, and it’s so wrong because, in a weird way, life is just beginning. You’re confident. You’re good at your work. I’ve more imagination now than ever. I’ve come into my own. I’m not afraid of anyone. Yet the media tyrannises us. It’s a consumerist orgy. It’s just not true that men only want little bitty Vogue models with no flesh on their bones. I know it’s not true. Sometimes, I kid with Ken [her fourth husband, a divorce lawyer]. I’ll say ‘Don’t you want a cute young lawyer who knows everything about the bill of rights?’ His reply is always the same: ‘What in God’s name would I talk to her about?’”
Even those husbands who don’t exchange their loyal wives for a younger model are caught up in this consumerist orgy to a degree. Fear of Dying, with its twin themes of ageing and mortality, gently satirises the fact that the sex lives of the middle-aged are now fair game for multinational corporations. “Oh, it’s vile!” Jong all but shouts, warming to her theme. “Those ads! The side-by-side bathtubs. What are they doing?” (The tubs to which she refers – in one is a man, in the other a woman, presumably his wife – appear in a TV advertisement for Cialis, a drug that treats erectile dysfunction.)
“You can’t show them making love. You can only show them in side-by-side bathtubs. This is America. On the one hand, our vulture capitalism; on the other, our puritanism. I find it hysterical. Also, those warnings.” Rushing her words together, she mimics the sound of the advert’s voiceover – “contra-indications include” – with which US drug ads inevitably end. “While-taking-this-drug-you-may-stumble-off-a-cliff-and-die… Ha! But don’t worry, you can still have sex!”
Sure, the sixtysomething heroine of her new novel – to whom you’ll be introduced shortly – is on the hunt for some casual sex even as her older husband recovers from heart surgery. But don’t be misled: Jong thinks we’re all still far too fixated on “the old in-out”, as her friend Anthony Burgess used to call it. “Men are so focused on their goddamn cocks! Whether gay or straight, they think: I am my penis, and if my penis doesn’t stand up, am I worthwhile? But there are a million ways of making love. You can be impotent and still have wonderful sex.”
Jong lives in an apartment high in a tower on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a home that is so close to what I imagined for her, I might as well have stumbled on to a stage set for a biopic of her life. The doorman has a peaked cap; the bell hop wears white gloves; at the end of a lushly carpeted hall, I’m greeted by a beaming assistant. Inside, the rooms are gracious, the views sweeping, the art expensive (above the sofa on which we’re perched, there dangles an Alexander Calder mobile). There are lots of books, and the powder room’s walls are decorated with erotica. The dining room is mirrored, and in the kitchen there toils a maid. Her only company are her two poodles Simone (after de Beauvoir) and Colette (after the author of The Last of Chéri, one of Jong’s favourite books).
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