In memoir, 52-year-old author tempers a bit her trademark zip Forever Jong

July 23, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

New York -- Erica Jong, who has always had a way with opening lines, walks into her light-filled study 27 stories above the Upper East Side and instinctively provides the place to start.

"What can you possibly have left to ask me," she says, "after reading my book?"

Indeed. What can anyone have left to ask this 52-year-old writer, who seemingly told us everything in her unabashedly autobiographical novels, from "Fear of Flying" through "Any Woman's Blues"? The fact she has written a memoir, "Fear of Fifty," and is now on tour to promote it, already has prompted some to ask: What did she leave out?

Short answer: a lot.

There are the stories behind the stories readers think they already know -- the privileged girlhood, the four marriages and three divorces, the countless lovers. There are digressions, on fame, feminism and Venice. There are the literary allusions and gleanings, from Lord Byron to J. D. Salinger, and Ms. Jong's punning wordplay. There is sex, expectedly. There is monogamy, unexpectedly.

And, at the center of it all, is Erica Mann Jong, still saying those things a woman isn't supposed to say, or a feminist isn't supposed to say, or a mother isn't supposed to say. But she wouldn't let men censor her when she began, and she won't let women censor her now.

"If women are not allowed to speak the truth in our writing, we still are not free," says Ms. Jong, who champions young writers such as Susie Bright, Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe.

Still, she has changed a few names and left things out. "I didn't write anything that would embarrass my daughter," she says of 15-year-old Molly Miranda Jong-Fast. "But all her best one-liners are in there."

Ms. Jong made her reputation on a notorious one-liner, a famous phrase about zippers, or the lack thereof, which she now expects to be her epitaph. But sex is not the only forbidden

ground Ms. Jong has invaded. She also has dared to admit to ambition, confidence, even vanity.

"So there I am at the spa with Molly, facing my 50th birthday, and feeling hideously depressed," she writes in the first chapter of her autobiography. "I am no longer the youngest person in the room, nor the cutest."

However, she quickly sees the advantages in that. "But the great compensation for being 50 in a culture that is not kind to older women is that you care less about criticism and you are less afraid of confrontation."

She wants to be, has always wanted to be, Ms. Jong says, "a brain and a body." In her 20s, she read her poetry dressed in purple hot pants and a see-through blouse. She wrote poems full of yearning, many inspired by her teacher, Mark Strand.

Almost 30 years later, Mr. Strand, who this fall joins the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, is a bit surprised to find he inspired Ms. Jong's "The Man Under the Bed." But he is not surprised at her success.

"It was clear she had a great future," he says. "She was very bright, very enthusiastic. She had no doubts. She is one of the most gifted students I have ever had, the one who became more famous than all of my students combined. And much more famous than her teacher."

Just as she wanted to be a brain and a body, Ms. Jong also wanted to be a poet and a novelist. After publishing two well-received volumes of poetry and trying a novel inspired by ZTC Vladimir Nabokov, she wrote "Fear of Flying." To date, it's sold more than 10 million copies in 27 languages.

"It's been reissued as an American classic -- everywhere but here," Ms. Jong says, reeling off a list of countries.

"Fear of Flying" was supposed to be a brain thing -- a literary, comic first novel of limited appeal. But in paperback, the body, specifically the body on the cover, overtook the brain. People who have never read the book still remember that torso, lush by 1970s standards, revealed by a zipper sliding diagonally down a length of khaki-colored fabric.

"The first one was worse," Ms. Jong says dryly, describing a woman in a negligee, her finger in her mouth. "She looked like a tart." A beat. "It wasn't my fault. First novelists don't have cover approval."

A defensive tone creeps into her voice, a tone found in "Fear of Fifty" from time to time. "Note to reviewer," she writes. "I'm not comparing myself to Proust, but am I allowed to have read him?" It seems a little paranoid -- until one takes a quick trip through the dozens of articles written about Ms. Jong over the years.

Since "Fear of Flying," Ms. Jong's weight, hair and clothes have drawn more attention than her prose. She has been dismissed as the Cosmo girl chronicler, merely transcribing her life. The reaction has been so virulent, Ms. Jong says, that a university is publishing a book examining reaction to Ms. Jong's book in the context "high feminism" and "low feminism."

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