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


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."

Presumably, this example from 1990 would be an example of low feminism: "Erica Jong has opened her fictional legs so many times over the years one loses count." Asked if she remembers that particular description, Ms. Jong widens her already wide blue eyes. "Oh." Pause. "I had managed to miss that one."

Apparently, she hasn't missed many. In "Fear of Fifty," she describes publishing books as "a Shirley Jacksonesque lottery in which every reaction is a hurled stone." She sees this as a peculiarly misogynistic exercise, in which women who cannot be neatly categorized must be punished.

Her critics counter that she has hurled a few stones herself through her novels. Ex-husbands have not fared well, nor did Julia Phillips, a Hollywood producer who bought the rights to "Fear of Flying," but never got the movie off the ground. (Ms. Phillips had her say in her autobiography, "You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again," with several snide references to Ms. Jong's appearance.)

Given this history, "Fear of Fifty" is notable for its lack of rancor. Old targets appear, but Ms. Jong tries to be gentle with them, with varying results. "It is not my business to be his scourge," she writes of ex-husband Jonathan Fast, father of her only child, "though I was just that in a few books." Two chapters later, recounting their divorce, she is less conciliatory.

But her affectionate tone never falters when talking about her father and mother. A midlife autobiography allows one to declare a truce with one's parents -- while they're still alive. That's its charm, Ms. Jong says.

"When you are young, you have to steal your life and overthrow your parents," she says. "Now we're beyond that."

The memoir done, Ms. Jong plans to return to a futuristic novel she was writing before she decided to contemplate her own life. She also wants to write more plot-driven books. "I'm pretty good at plotting," she says, "although people say I'm not."

What she will not do is apologize -- for her success, her ambition, her confidence. The criticism she has received over the years feeds her in a perverse way. "I think if I got a lot of praise, it might silence me," she says.

But it is doubtful she will ever write again about Isadora White Wing Ace, the character presumed to be closest to her creator. Ms. Jong feels closer to Fanny Hackabout-Jones, the heroine of a 1980 novel, written in the style of the 18th century.

"Fanny was me in a corset," she admits. "It was like a costume. I felt very free."

And, as she wrote in "Fanny," a woman of lively parts is likely to be slandered.

Gently, Ms. Jong corrects the misquote: "A woman of lively parts is as likely to be slandered as she is to be praised."


Erica Jong will read from her autobiography, "Fear of Fifty," at 3 p.m. tomorrow at Borders near White Flint Mall, 11301 Rockville Pike, Rockville, and at 7 p.m. Monday at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Washington.

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