Read The Widow's Guide to Sex and Dating Online
Authors: Carole Radziwill
Tags: #Fiction, #Retail, #Romance
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Thank you … to the supremely talented team of Michael Carlisle, Lauren Smythe, and Richard Pine for finding a home for this book and for their unwavering belief in it. Barbara Jones, my editor at Holt, for shepherding
through the publishing processes with passion, wisdom, and good grace. Thank you to my publisher, Stephen Rubin, for whom I have great admiration. Thank you to Joanna Levine, Richard Pracher, Maggie Richards, Pat Eisemann, Gillian Blake, and the entire team at Holt, the most dynamic and clever publishing house an author could hope for. The support and sound advice of Alexis Hurley, Lyndsey Blessing, Kassie Evashevski, and Jason Richman continue to be invaluable. Special gratitude to Caitlin Alexander, whose editorial help came at the perfect time. To all the boys I didn’t love, and some I did. And to my friends who make me laugh every day I am truly grateful. Lastly, lifelong thanks to Teresa DiFalco, my confidante and co-conspirator, whose storytelling instincts, friendship, and faith kept it all moving forward. You have all been a great gift.
“Love is like a brick. You can build a house or you can sink a dead body.”
Charles Byrne, Sexologist and Writer, Dies at 54
The New York Times
Charles Byrne, renowned sexologist and author of the National Book Award–winning
, as well as several pivotal studies on sexual norms and morality, died Monday from a head injury incurred at Madison Avenue near 61st Street, according to a statement issued by his longtime publisher, Knopf.
Charles Fisher Byrne grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, the only son of socialite Grace Thornton and the late Honorable Franz Byrne, chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Charles Byrne attended Princeton for both his graduate and undergraduate studies, and held several honorary degrees. He published his first academic paper on sexual paraphilia, called “Erotic Variations on a Theme,” his junior year. It contained the seeds of what was to become his most widely known theory, The Opposite of Sex, and launched the career of what is considered one of the preeminent voices in the field of contemporary sexology.
At 22, just out of college, Charlie, as he was known to his friends, was selected by Robert Rimmer to apprentice at the experimental sexuality retreat known as the Sandstone Institute, in Malibu. He remained close to Rimmer until his death and credits Rimmer’s teachings on polyamory with influencing most of his own work and life. Mr. Byrne took Robert Rimmer’s theories one step further and promoted promiscuity as an ideal state for fostering a stable, family-oriented culture. “Love and sex,” he wrote, “make poor roommates. You may find one or the other in a companion, but never both.” He believed that sexuality is the purest form of artistic expression, a theme that later proliferated in his first book,
Byrne’s career skyrocketed with the publication of
. It won the National Book Award and sold over five million copies worldwide. It made Charles Byrne a household name. He followed it up the next year with
The Half-Life of Sex
, a commercial, if not critical, success.
In 1985, after a disappointing reception for
The Half-Life of Sex,
Mr. Byrne wrote a series of critical essays on what he saw as the existential crisis of the penis, titled, appropriately, “The State of Erection.” His theories of Love and Sex were, once again, a central theme.
Mr. Byrne went on to publish many books in the 1980s and ’90s, including
Sperm and Whiskey
Sex, Sea Songs and Sartre
Driving with Her Head in Your Lap
. He did not publish a book, however, after his collection of essays,
The State of Erection
, in 1999, choosing instead to focus on the lecture circuit and talk shows.
He counted among his friends a colorful variety of artists and intellectuals, from the controversial French
Isadore Isou to the American comedian Paul Reubens.
Mr. Byrne is survived by his mother, Grace, and his wife, Claire Byrne.
A Man Falls Dead
The upshot of the story is this: A man falls dead, the widow gets laid, love is a drag, the end. In the gaps, a woman finds meaning. The man fell dead on a Monday in New York; it was sunny, there was a breeze. Birds chirped in the suburbs, trains were on time, the postmen made their rounds. It was a mild day with a calm blue sky. Thoughts in offices around the city meandered from sex to lunch plans to the e-mail about smells in the break room. The day was ripe for calamity. It was the kind of day when the brakes fail on the tour bus, the leading man falls for a woman his own age, and the elderly pair in 4B shuffle out in handcuffs with the police. It was the kind of day when no one expects anything to happen, so it does. Blue skies can be misleading.
Claire Byrne was in Texas to see a man named Veejay Singh, a doctor, but not the medical kind. He taught sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, and he’d written a book titled
Why Breasts Don’t Matter
. Dr. Singh was popular on campus, both for his friendly manner and for his notoriously easy grades. He was a minor celebrity, too, appearing on the
show now and again to explain his evolutionary theories about mating. Claire was there to interview him. She was writing a profile piece for
, the magazine “for women, like you, who defy definition!” She parked her rented car in the visitors’ section by the admin building and began her stroll toward Singh’s office at approximately ten after nine, weaving through oak trees and sun-dappled shade, her espadrilles marking lines across the dewy green quad. Claire’s husband, Charlie, was at home in New York.
Well, he wasn’t technically
: Don’t screw around on a Monday.
Claire had left the previous day, so Charlie spent the afternoon and night across town with the new publicist at Knopf. They’d spent their time in the girl’s cramped studio apartment humping and screwing like dogs, but now he, too, traversed trees and dapples, crossing Central Park toward Madison to meet with his agent, Richard Ashe. Charlie had a book overdue by two years and Richard was anxious. He had a dwindling number of profitable writers and a heavily mortgaged co-op. Charlie didn’t think much of deadlines.
Charles Byrne was the world’s most famous sexologist—more mainstream than Kinsey or Masters ever were. As much sexual object as academic, he wrote on a subject that everyone likes to read about, and he looked like someone you could easily imagine in the act. At fifty-four, in fact, he bore a passing resemblance to Warren Beatty—in
—and possessed a rough-edged but overpowering charm. He was crafty with words, engaging on many different levels, so that his appeal spread wide. When he wrote about the penis, he managed to be both educational and downbeat, couching bawdy locker-room humor in intellectual wit. When he wrote about vaginas, he wrote with the appreciative and admiring eye of a collector. His writing made even coarse men think of symphonic productions as they bedded their irritable wives. It made sophisticated men think fondly of their wives as they bedded their steamy lovers.
Charlie was thinking fondly of his own young wife as he interrupted his walk for coffee at a diner on Madison, and this is a good place to play
he hadn’t stopped, or not stopped for so long, or
he’d been distracted by some small thing that slowed his pace.
In the diner, Charlie skimmed the sports page and phoned Richard to say he’d be late. He ordered a second coffee to go (
he hadn’t?), put four dollar bills on the counter (
he’d fumbled and only put three?), then left to resume his walk.
While Charlie was perusing pitching stats—Wang and Hughes out of the Yankees rotation, Pettitte in—Claire was taking in cowboy-booted coeds in sundresses, thinking how she’d describe the scene back to him. (Russ Meyer directing a commercial for the Gap? No, more like a Playboy production of
.) She’d been tempted to buy him one of those T-shirts in the airport: a buxom cowgirl riding a cactus, below the slogan
S BIGGER IN TEXAS
. It was the sort of thing Charlie might wear under his suit coat to the theater just for laughs.
Charlie enjoyed causing a scandal; he relished the attention. Claire, on the other hand, preferred anonymity. She was a petite woman, size 4, not tall—in heels she reached Charlie’s shoulder. She had dark hair that she wore long and loose, youthful skin, pale brown eyes, and what Charlie called complicated lips—they could be plump and sensual one day, and the next day nondescript. She was attractive, yes, but she wasn’t fooling anyone. She wasn’t a girl who lounged around uninhibitedly, slugging whiskey from the bottle. She wasn’t like the women Charlie wrote about. She didn’t know how to produce cigarettes for randy men to light; she wasn’t boozy or dramatic, her necklines didn’t plunge. She was ordered and neat, in contrast to Charlie’s flair. She was the ingenue to his rogue. Charlie was the main act. Sasha, Claire’s closest friend since college, called Charlie “Sundance,” to Claire’s Butch Cassidy. “He cheats at poker and shoots up the room,” Sasha liked to say, “while you collect the chips and tidy up.” Charlie cast a long shadow. Claire had learned early on with him that one of her better qualities was knowing where to stand in it.
* * *
S ASSIGNMENT IN
Texas that day was dull, but drama was waiting in the wings. By the time she reached Singh’s office with its view of the tree-lined South Mall, her husband was dead. A Giacometti—a large and very expensive piece of bronze—had dropped on top of him, in an unlucky twist of fate.
Days later, looking back, it seemed inevitable. Claire couldn’t imagine it playing out any other way. One minute Charlie was strolling down Madison working out sound bites in his head for the Nobel speech he was sure he’d eventually have to give. The next minute—poof—he was dead. One minute off to a postcoital meeting with Richard, the next instant, gone. Life changes in less time than it takes to say, “Fuck.”
He’d been preoccupied. He didn’t see the thing drop from the sky. How could he? There was no warning, no fear, no panic or pain; for Charlie, it was over quickly. Elsewhere, though, there were ripples. There were witnesses, for instance, like Mona Glisan, who were affected. Reporters converged, then multiplied like flies, mining stunned tourists for sound bites. There was a noise, “a loud crack,” was how Mona described it. The bronze had been hanging from a crane and the cable holding it snapped, and she described it like that—a
—followed by a hollow-sounding jingle like an enormous key dropping to the ground. It made Mona’s ears ring. She put her hands over them reflexively while she described it.
The sculpture that dropped was over six feet tall. It weighed three hundred pounds and fell from twenty stories up. It had cost Walter White—his is another story altogether, we’ll come back to it—millions of dollars and was supposed to be lowered onto his terrace. Instead, it dropped on Charlie’s head.
Mona Glisan’s account was the first of many. Steve Johnson saw it, too. He was an art major at Columbia, and he spoke about the motion of the object and the illusion of weightlessness. “The absence of nothing,” he said, “is something in itself.” No one knew what he meant, but he spoke very slowly, which gave people the impression that they should. He was too slow, however, for the sergeant taking statements, who quickly moved on, leaving the lingering crowd at Steve’s mercy. “The serene elegance and grace,” he continued, “of this exquisite piece of art, floating on air…”
Alberto Giacometti, who’d made the bronze, was dead, too. A large and brooding man, he’d been known for colossal bouts of depression. He would disappear into his studio for months at a time, whittling obsessively and shunning visitors, until he emerged with clay prototypes of the unwieldy, thin, and rutted works that made his name. Charlie’s piece was called
: a tall, skinny man formed into a walking motion with his head down, absorbed in thought the way Charlie had been until the two collided in mutual distraction. The sexologist and the statue were an unusual pairing, to say the least. Their introduction was made possible by Evelyn White, Walter’s wife. Her cursory pretentions in art, coupled with the discovery of her husband’s affair, had set the whole thing in motion. But we’ll come back to that, too.