A journalist talks about high heels, a liberal arts education, and how to get a six-figure book advance.
In Jennifer’s refrigerator there is a quart of fat-free yogurt, four varieties of peanut butter, and a bottle of champagne from her father, who sends her a case every month to make sure she has people over.
The emptiness of her fridge is nothing to be alarmed by. It is in perfect keeping with her own maxim, one she has memorably and often maintained in the pages of New York’s finer publications:
“The most important thing to be able to make in the kitchen is reservations.”
Somehow everything sounds a little more memorable when Jennifer says it. Her voice has this “send down for caviar” trill that makes you forget about economizing on cab fare and calories and determine instead to take New York up on all it has to offer. It calls to mind an era when the jet set was fodder for Town and Country rather than Us Weekly, and when the emptiness of a lady’s fridge was the sign of her having a full social life.
…As, judging by the photo strips, invitations and magazine notices pinned to the outside of the fridge, Jennifer indeed does.
The posh chaos of her apartment is presided over by a taxidermy peacock. In her bathroom, lines from iconic New York writers are scrawled on the walls in blue and gold paint, their initials–T.C., F.H.–appending each line like signatures on a birthday card.
She despises France and loves Morocco. She doesn’t care overmuch for beach vacations–she’s much more intrigued with how the waves of the desert reveal tiny signs of life. She prefers being told “fuck you” straight to her face, rather than have it implied under a guise of graciousness. New Yorkers, she says, are much friendlier than anyone gives them credit for. Only strangers take this for rudeness.
“In New York, you can’t close yourself off from people the way most people in America can. You’ll always be rubbing up against strangers, sheerly because of the way you get from one place to another–on the subway, walking on the street, in a cab with a cabbie. You begin behaving in public the way most of the country behaves in private.”
Her favorite restaurant in the city is La Grenouille (the upstairs room is better than downstairs) and she picked her apartment so that she’d share her neighborhood bar with the ghosts of the New Yorker Round Table.
She sighs with delight as we enter.
“Every great moment in my life in New York has happened at the Algonquin Hotel.”
It’s not a coincidence–she sets all her appointments here, in spite of the fact that no one really goes here anymore. We’re the only people under 50 in the room, and definitely the only ones in dresses and heels. That’s another thing that happens around Jennifer–you find yourself wanting to doll up a little more, even if it means a charlie horse within a few blocks.
Jennifer, on the other hand, doesn’t even look winded. In four-inch stilettos, she negotiates Manhattan’s cracked, crowded streets like a suburban speedwalker. The rumor around our school was that she wore heels even on the Nordic Track machine, though nobody I know actually saw it. She does, however, confirm another rumor: that she’s been wearing high heels so long that her instep has deformed, causing her great pain whenever she puts on flats.
She started wearing them as soon as she was allowed, Jen explains, less out of a fashion obsession and more because she couldn’t wait to grow up. Being a child didn’t suit her. She related to her parents as a very short business associate who had trouble keep up in conversation. Where other kids brought peanut butter and jelly to school, her lunchbox held fresh fruit and wedges of Brie.
Fortunately, by the time she was ten, she was earning the esteem of adults for what she write. This was the foundation of her ambition to write–an assurance that she could do it well and an instinct for what would make it salable. From that point forward, it didn’t matter how well she fit in among her peers; she knew she would be moving past them soon enough.
“I think a lot of what makes people weird when they’re younger is being unable to disguise their passions very well. Which is the best foundation for happiness later in life.”
Jennifer and I both attended a small liberal arts college called St. John’s. Populated mainly by shambling would-be philosophers, it was a tricky environment for a modern woman. Jennifer in particular stood out like a designer dress in a Salvation Army. I can still remember the sight of her willowy frame in a Peter Pan-collared coat, her stride tilted slightly forward like a swan in Central Park Lake, her hands tucked in front of her like folded wings.
The cornerstone of our college was “dialectic,” a fancy term for discussion that had a way of turning even casual conversation into an intense, textually based discourse. (It’s a hard habit to kick.) Jennifer had a different way of looking at what we learned: as interesting cocktail conversation.
It’s a useful skill, she insists, citing a passage in Bonfire of the Vanities where Sherman McCoy looks back on an education that must have cost his parents hundreds of thousands of dollars and realizes that its principal purpose was to let you know things like, for example, who the great poets are and which of them are dead.
“I think a lot of people at St. John’s were very devoted to the idea that they would sit around and contemplate. I wanted to go out into the world and make money. I think they felt that I did not appreciate ‘the good’ enough.”
She confesses to a tendency, born of instinct, to appraise anyone she’s talking to for how they might advance her career.
“It’s a scrappy instinct, not the gentleman scholar instinct, that just has to do with how you get to the place you want to be.”
It’s actually not that different from what we all do in conversation. Those philosopher types, if they’d thought about it, might have realized that they too were appraising every conversation for how it might get them lauded or laid.
But they didn’t, and Jennifer remained on the dubious pedestal of admiration and scrutiny. She didn’t mind it much; spending four years under scrutiny was as interesting as the books, and turned out to be equally good training for New York’s small, gossipy media world, where the right conversation can get you everywhere.
The next evening, we’re dashing up to Grand Central in the twilight, on our way to a a book release party at Cipriani. I’m once again wobbling in a pair of borrowed heels–the confidence with which I left her building has already been absorbed by the growing stitch in my calves. The marble-tiled ramp from the street level into the lobby makes me feel like I did as an eight-year-old when my parents took us skiing for the first time.
In typical New Yorker fashion, I’m trying for way too many things at once: to keep the matte finish on my lipstick, to avoid face-planting in the middle of Grand Central, to enjoy the feeling of being a fancy dressed-up girl on her way to a fancy dress-up party in Manhattan.
Descending the stairs to the 4 train platform is another intestinal bender; I white-knuckle the railing, feeling just like I did last weekend when zipping up the West Side Highway on the back of a motorcycle built for one person. Even more miraculous than our accomplishment in getting down the stairs is the accomplishment of finding two seats in the subway car.
I’m thanking God for a chance to rest my aching calves while Jennifer receives compliments on her shoes, which are a marvel of modern machinery—a sort of black suede sheath that improbably holds the sole against her foot, set off by a perilous heel with a toothpick’s circumference.
“They’re Italian!” she explains to the tracksuited woman who has bent over to examine them. “I got them from Bergdorfs. They’re on sale now.”
I watch, charmed and mystified, as their heads lean close in mutual delight over the shoes, until we reach our stop at Wall Street. The smell of Jennifer’s hairspray diffuses as she glides through the closing doors, leaving the car with scented like a Japanese garden.
When Jennifer announced her intention to be a journalist, her parents sat her down and asked her soberly if it was the best plan. “You like expensive things,” they reminded her.
Her first year in New York was spent working as an artist’s model and working as a cocktail waitress at Wicked Willy’s, a pirate-themed lounge on Bleecker Street. In her off hours, she participated in the Accompanied Literary Society, a workshop for aspiring writers.
One night the group was hosting a part for Jay McIhnerney, the bad boy writer of the 1980s. Jennifer was seated next to Isaac Guzmán, the then-editor of New York’s toniest gossip magazine, the Observer. Guzmán was bemoaning the fact that his good time had to be curtailed in interest of getting up early to interview Dominick Dunne, the demiurge of modern society journalism.
This was luck reaching out a hand, and Jennifer had the presence of mind to take it: she offered to go do the interview in Guzmán’s stead, so he could continue having a good time.
The profile was only 500 words, but it turned out to be the last interview Dominick Dunne ever did. The socialite writer died two months later at the age of 83.
“I think it made some people think I had done something significant instead of just being very, very lucky.”
In fact, her article is ballsy, dishy and somehow still ineluctably classy. It’s keenly informed about the big issues, ravenous for the delicious trivialities, and unapologetically salacious about the sordid details. It’s everything that made Mr. Dunne himself the quintessential chronicler of life in high society, and it justifiably put Jennifer squarely within the radar of the New York media world.
This is maybe the luckiest part of all, she says, confessing that the article actually started out as a 3000-word essay that mainly contained her observations on humanity. She laughs it off with a shrug.
“Being overzealous is not a terrible trait.”
The Dominick Dunne piece gave Jennifer the foothold she needed to continue pitching pieces around town. She became a frequent contributor to the Post, which caught the eye of Elizabeth Spiers, who hired her on as deputy editor of a new site called The Gloss. That was her first full-time job writing, and she had the got to do what was essentially a version of her college newspaper column.
A year and several publications later, she wound up full circle back at the Observer. At age 25, Jennifer is the editor of the Observer’s NYO section, which means she writes every day about the very New Yorkiest things for New Yorkers to do that week. Things like Sotheby’s auctions, benefit balls, private viewings of famous photographs and public conversations between artistic luminaries.
She also writes about doing these very things with notable people when they’re in New York: Christmas shopping with Martha Stewart, chatting about old movies with Dita von Teese, exchanging Facebook quips with Salman Rushdie.
There are any number of writers around New York who do this kind of thing for a living. But none of them do it like Jennifer does.
First of all, you can tell she genuinely likes the people she’s writing about. Her tone has none of the envy, worship or ascetic snideness that other writers in her category bring to the job. She knows she is there to set them off to best advantage, and does her job with the care of a Cartier jeweler setting up a window display.
It’s never an accident, she tells me, that whenever you read about Eva Mendes, she’s giving the interview while tucking into a juicy burger, whereas Tinsley Mortimer offers her views over a dainty afternoon tea. Journalists often do this staging in collusion with their subject, who usually has a brand to maintain; they also do it to give the public what they want, which is the feeling that they know the person.
“I’m always fascinated with why we want to like these people. Maybe because we think it means if we like them, they’ll owe us a favor and maybe like us back. And that won’t actually happen. You have to consistently remember that these people are not your friends.”
This is a hard thing to remember, of course, after talking with someone intimately about their lives for an hour or more. But the truth is, the “intimacy” of the conversation is as staged as the setting. People in her stratum will be vulnerable only up to a point, and not just with a journalist. Jennifer recalls the advice of her ex-boyfriend when she indulged in a moment of self-doubt about her work:
“I remember he told me ‘You should probably never tell anybody that, including me. If anybody asks you how your work is going, you say Fantastic.’ To this day, whenever I ask any mutual acquaintances we have of ours ‘Do you hear from X? How’s he doing?’ they always say ‘My God, he is fantastic.’”
She shrugs gamely.
“And that’s why he got a six figure book advance.”
Jennifer was raised by parents who have “done nicely”—her father is the head of a midwestern bank, Harris Nesbitt, and her mother did PR for Exxon.
“They were down to earth in a North Shore kind of way.”
“I know we had a Picasso? I feel like it was kind of surprising to me later in life that those aren’t pictures that people readily acquire.
Hastily she adds,
“It was small, a drawing, really very minor. I know someone now who has a Picasso sculpture they use as a change bowl; it kills me. We’ve had words about it.”
North Shore and Picasso aside, the down-to-earth quality Jennifer brings is just enough to bring her other standout quality to her society writing: the knowing wink behind every sentence that lets you know that while she enjoys it, she is wise to its inherent absurdity. There’s an anthropological bent to her fascination with the upper crust that makes her laugh with delight when she comes across a man who, when asked where he’s staying in any given city, answers “The Ritz—I know of no other location.” Or the woman commenting on the social downfall of smoking in the West, as opposed to its prevalence in Africa, which she noticed during her second safari that year.
“And you kind of go back and think, ‘Your second safari that year—one wasn’t enough!’ I think it’s so fabulous. They live in their own delightful, delightful world.”
She laughs again.
“You just wanted to make sure people knew you weren’t one of those one-safari-a-year people.”
When I was a kid dreaming of big city romance, I used to read Talk of the Town and the Dining Out section of the Times. I didn’t understand them or have any point of reference, but I loved the feeling I got from them. It was the feeling they gave me of, as they say in the song, being a part of it.
It’s a far cry from how I felt when I actually moved to New York. I learned through living there that just being in the city does not make you a New Yorker. But Jennifer’s sidewise wit makes even the most rarefied activities feel relatable.
This is the magic of a good writer charged with the right subject. Not that they make you believe that what they are saying, but that they make you believe what they are saying is important. I realize this more vividly when we get to the book release party, in the wine cellar room under Cipriani. She walks in and people flock to her. People in dress more modern than hers, with faces firmly etched in that myopic grimace of where they want to get, take her hand and chatter and beg to introduce her to other people.
This, I realize, is Jennifer’s success as much as anything she’s written. She’s established herself as someone who can do something that, for people in New York, rapidly disappearing commodity. She can make them feel fabulous. Not only reading her work, but being around her, makes you believe in the power of frivolous things like champagne and couture and cleverly constructed sentences.
Tipsy on Bellinis, swag bags swinging from our fingers, the return climb from the subway up to Grand Central doesn’t feel quite as onerous. The station’s cavernous echo has quieted to a church-like stillness. I’m about to say something when Jen says it for me:
“This is my favorite building in New York.”
She points out to me the dirty tile in the northwest corner of the ceiling, just under the pointing claw of the crab. When Jacqueline Kennedy oversaw the station’s restoration, the builders left one tile covered with grime so that future generations could appreciate the difference.
Forget about dead poets; I wonder how many New Yorkers of her generation know this fact. I wonder how many of them have ever visited the Algonquin Room, or eaten at La Grenouille, or stood in Grand Central and reignited their inspiration by watching the people come in and out, the way Nora Ephron advised in Esquire.
“I’m a true believer! I love this city. Everybody who comes into New York seems sort of radiantly hopeful. They’re there for a reason: to find true love or a great job or the best cupcake in the world.”
The problem, I guess, is that they come in and immediately set to work on those radiant hopes. New Yorkers spend so much time doing stuff that they forget to appreciate what has been already been done by people before they got here, the determined dreamers who built the romance into this city.
The waiter at the Algonquin stops by our table, though our drinks are fresh. “Hello dear,” he says. “Good to see you again–how are you?” She greets him with the effusion of an old friend:
“I’m fine! I’m always so happy to be here.”
The final thing with Jennifer, I realize, is encapsulated in that sentence. She brought not only the requisite self-confidence, but an instinctive ability to see New York’s fundamental romance above all its upper layers of cynicism and profiteering banality.
This is “the good” of New York: its history of romancing dreamers. And I’m starting to wonder if those are the people whom New York finally rewards in the long run–the steadfast romantics who do the hard work of maintaining their dreamy affection for this city in spite of how demanding it is and say, at the end:
“I feel like New York has been very, very easy on me. I feel incredibly grateful to the city. The lucky circumstances in my life that aligned only aligned because I was in New York. “
This, I think, is what makes Jennifer’s writing not only fantastic, not only six-figure book advance-worthy, but significant. She actually sees the New York that the rest of us come here to find.