How do you figure those remarkable McPhee sisters?
Martha McPhee was nominated this year for a National Book Award for her novel "Gorgeous Lies," published by Harcourt and a sequel to "Bright Angel Time" (Random House). Jenny McPhee’s first novel, "The Center of Things," has just come out in paperback (Ballantine). Another sister, Laura, is a photographer who collaborated with Jenny and Martha on "Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits," also published by Random House.
It’s a literary clan, and two of them, Jenny and Martha, along with their half-sister Joan Sullivan, author of "An American Voter: My Love Affair with Presidential Politics," a memoir of her involvement in Bill Bradley’s 2000 Presidential primary campaign, are showing up at the Princeton University Store on Wednesday, December 4, to talk about their lives and their work. It’s a literary town, Princeton, with a lot of writers and would-be writers walking the sidewalks. But this is the only family I can think of that has sent a troika of writers onto center stage at one time. It’s the Brontes — Charlotte and Emily — plus one.
You might want to attribute it all to their father, author John McPhee, who has written dozens of books of literary non-fiction on subjects as diverse as basketball, oranges, geology, and the Pine Barrens. McPhee also served for many years as a teacher of expository writing at Princeton University and as a mentor to writers famous and obscure.
Many years ago, when I was starting out as a freelance writer, I made the pilgrimage to McPhee’s office, then located on Nassau Street, just above Tulane Alley and the entrance to the Annex. What advice could he give an obscure guy like me, I wanted to know. I still remember his answer: Try your hand at every conceivable writing form. Someone who struggles forever to write a 3,000-word magazine piece might in fact be a potential Pulitzer Prize winner at the 300-word newspaper editorial — but you would never know unless you gave each form a try.
Just a few weeks ago, I was editing a U.S. 1 story about Tim Lefens, an artist who created a program that developed the creative talents of people with disabilities. When Lefens set out to write a book about his efforts, he sought the guidance of John McPhee. The advice, as recalled by the artist: "Tim, number one, you’re not a writer, but you can tell one hell of a story, so just write the book the way you talk." If this is what virtual strangers glean from John McPhee, imagine the amount of artistic vision that his daughters might have absorbed.
But that doesn’t fully explain the literary light of the McPhee girls’ half sister, Joan Sullivan, that author of the memoir of the Bill Bradley campaign. Sullivan is also an accomplished teacher, friends of the family say, who has taken her students at a public high school in the South Bronx and transformed them into some of New York City’s best and brightest young people.
How do you explain these McPhee and Sullivan girls (the other McPhee sister, Sarah, is an architectural historian). Maybe it’s their mother, Pryde Brown, who 30 years ago joined a handful of other women in Princeton to study the relative portrayals of boys and girls in school textbooks. As documented in their 1972 book, "Dick and Jane as Victims," boys in these books were three times more likely than girls to be involved in a creative or clever activity.
More recently Pryde Brown has become known as the pre-eminent portrait photographer in town. So maybe some of John has rubbed off on these young women, and maybe some of Pryde.
And maybe it’s also some of another adult who loomed large in the lives of all these kids as they were growing up. That would be Pryde’s second husband, Dan Sullivan, who had four kids when he met Pryde — Joan is their mutual creation, the ninth child in this family that blended together in the early 1970s.
Dan Sullivan, who died four or five years ago, is a man I wrote about years ago — he was a legal milestone, the first man in New Jersey to ever receive alimony from his ex-wife. That was an oddity that attracted the attention of People magazine in the mid 1970s, and I was the reporter.
Over the years I encountered Sullivan a few times socially, but my superficial impression was that all those alimony dollars were just yellow bricks on the road to failure. The only money he actually earned, people would say, was from playing poker.
Now I feel as if I know Dan Sullivan better — and he’s a lot more than a freeloader who earned spare change playing cards. My insight is from those two books by Martha McPhee, which I read in succession in recent weeks. The novels are fiction, of course, not biographies of anyone in particular. But Martha’s work, I have been told by friends, is another piece of fiction that mines the break-up of the McPhee marriage. The first was "Shoot the Moon," the 1981 movie based on a screenplay by a 1953 Princeton classmate of McPhee.
Martha’s novels not only allude to the marriage’s demise, but also to Pryde’s subsequent free-form marital life with Dan Sullivan. The novels are brimming with telling details that have some people in town trying to sort out the fact from the fiction: Who is that architect with the French name, that lawyer who is also a private pilot, and the duck lady — who is that duck lady? From "Bright Angel Time:"
Our father had left the summer before, on the day the men landed on the moon. He had made a promise with us that morning: He would bring the TV out to the yard on the end of a long extension cord so that we could stare up at the moon while watching the men walk on it. He was going to tell us about the geology of the moon, but instead he walked away with the wife of his childhood friend to make a life of his own.
From "Gorgeous Lies:"
It was the mid 1970s and this interest in blended families was a trend that had begun with the divorce boom, and then the "Brady Bunch, and now everyone, everywhere wanted to know how it was really working out . . .
They were famous for many reasons. They were famous because they lived on a vast piece of property that was supposed to be a farm but was not a farm at all . . . They were famous because Anton [Dan] was a Gestalt therapist and in town he had a reputation for holding therapy sessions on his front lawn . . . They were famous because Anton did not have a traditional job and Eve [Pryde] did, and it was Eve who brought home the money. "Anton is a good feminist and a wonderful mother," Eve would say.
That’s what brought me — a struggling young freelance writer for People magazine — out to the Sullivan-McPhee homestead a few miles north of Princeton in the mid 1970s. Here’s how it plays out in "Gorgeous Lies:"
There was Anton big as day on the cover of People Magazine (actually it was Marlon Brando, but it looked so much like Anton that even the kids, even Eve, at first thought Brandon was Anton). Inside that issue was a five-page spread on the family with pictures, covered by a famous reporter. Anton, for real, on page sixty-five with his bright, electrifying smile, a dustpan and brush in hand sweeping up the kitchen floor . . . All of the kids laughed when they saw that picture; they’d never seen Anton before with a dustpan in his hand.
A little lie apparently conveyed by me and People magazine — part of a bundle of gorgeous lies told and lived by the characters in the novel.
Of the two novels I found "Gorgeous Lies" much more compelling. "Bright Angel Time" was centered on the process of the two families coming together — life is the journey, not the destination, the novel instructed. But while that may be a wonderful way to live, I’m not sure it’s a great structure for a novel.
"Gorgeous Lies," in contrast, follows a path toward an inevitable destination — the death of Anton. One of the gorgeous lies may be Anton’s insistence that he is an extraordinary philosopher, at work on a revolutionary treatise:
Sometimes Anton would drive. Mozart or Beethoven or Chopin or Bach or anyone classical on the radio. His car gliding over the roads. . . Somewhere. Anywhere. It gave him time to think. . . I just need a little time, he would say to himself — a bargain. Just a little more time and I’ll get it finished. That "it," that little "it" was his book. . .
Rolling down the window, he practiced his title on the air. "To Deny Our Hearts: Contemporary Attacks on Sexual Passion." He was a philosopher. He had his doctorat d’etat from the Sorbonne. He had worked beside R. D. Laing — taken acid with the man — and studied with Paul Ricoeur and Norman Brown. He had published plenty of articles. All he needed now was a book.
But of course that book never is written. At the end the man who has given his kids and her kids and their kid hope and optimism in the face of one debacle after another turns to the kids as he faces his own fears:
He cried because he had no purpose. He cried because he was a philosopher pregnant with ideas that he could not birth. . .
At his death he would have produced fifty-four outlines and no book. Thousands of index cards with scrawled notes and no book. Thousands of index cards with quotations from famous men who had produced books. Ten collages and no book. His mind would be an archive of knowledge but no book.
So now three of the sisters are showing up together at the Princeton University Store, to talk about their books and how they came to be writers. The drive may well spring from all the literary accomplishments of John McPhee and the artistic endeavors of Pryde Brown. But maybe it’s also inspired by the dreams — unrealized dreams — of the other man in their lives. Go figure.