Close Encounters: A night with Nancy Aronie

To know her is to believe yourself unaccountably lucky.

Nancy Aronie, NPR commentator, author, columnist, and founder of the Chilmark Writing Workshop. —Lexi Pline

Nancy Aronie, 78, NPR commentator, author, columnist, and writing workshop doyenne, is to be my subject for a night spent in the sipping of butternut squash soup straight from my slow cooker, and conversation that will run the gamut from coarse guffaws to philosophical meanderings, to those special moments — they come at least once when tight friends take time to talk, really talk — when your throat squeezes tight and tears fill your eyes. 

I’d originally invited Nancy to the house I’m sharing on Pond View Lane in Oak Bluffs, but she asked if I’d motor to Chilmark. “I’m having cataract surgery, but at the moment I can’t see my way to drive at night.”

Who could refuse a request like that? On a recent frigid night in early January, I bundled up a terrine of soup in a basket, added some artisanal rolls, and headed up-Island. 

Nancy’s little cabin off the main road is a dazzlement of tiny outdoor lights. Indoors the ceilings are high, a pile of burning logs is present in the brick fireplace, no screen, no hearth, so the impression is of sitting around a caveman’s — cavewoman’s? — fire.

A continuing decor of tiny lights flickers all around us. We settle around a large, round coffee table, and soup is served. Nancy loves it: “Is there ginger in there?” she asks. 

“Yeah! Also cumin, turmeric, and apple juice.” 

She’s already on fire with her first story: “I want to tell you about writing for Frances Lear!” 

“Oh man, Nancy, I wrote for her too!” How does synchronicity play such a large role in our daily interactions? I did two freelance articles for Lear, one of which recounted the time I imbibed testosterone to become more pugilistic in the Hollywood writing scene. It worked.

A cultural tip here: If you’re under the age of 50, you will know nothing of Lear’s magazine. In the late ’80s and early ’90s it was a proper sensation, nationally revered as a woman’s answer to Esquire. But then, after Frances, ex-wife of Norman Lear, creator of “All in the Family,” pulled the plug on her own magazine to free herself up to make movies with her driver/lover, the finely crafted rag disappeared.

Nancy regaled me with her story of going to meet Lear, venturing into New York from her home in West Hartford, Conn.

“The city was always a challenge for me. I was such a bumpkin! If they were wearing miniskirts, my legs would grow. My hair frizzed! That day I went to see Frances, I’d borrowed my sister’s briefcase. I stuffed inside an article from the local paper about taking an AIDS test, my column in McCall’s, both of which I’d been warned not to show Frances.”

And the big boss lady was indeed scary. Her first question to Nancy: “What do you think you can do for me?”

When she learned about Nancy’s two teen boys at home, she asked, “If you work for me full-time, what’ll you do with your children?”

Nancy couldn’t resist. “Sell them!”

Frances treated her to a frosty glare. “I don’t understand humor.”

For all her gruffness, she kept reaching out to push Nancy’s curly hair off her forehead. “She was motherly.”
Lear offered her a weekly 200-word column to write for the magazine, and a salary of $75K. Nancy had no idea what K stood for, but later when she called her scientist husband Joel at work in Philadelphia, he was elated. They’d dug themselves into a deep hole financially, and this would fill it right up again.

Nancy said, “I asked a girlfriend in the city to put me up. For my first day at work, Joel ironed my outfit.” 

She was surprised by the mysteriously unfriendly staff. “They didn’t give me a computer, just a typewriter missing the L.”

Frances sent her to interview Giovanni Agnelli, founder of Fiat, at the Waldorf Astoria. She found herself in a receiving line standing beside Henry Kissinger — another artifact from another age. Both she and Kissinger morphed to the buffet, where they glommed edibles as grease ran down their chins.

And then one day, early on, Frances fired her. 

A staff person consoled her, “Don’t take it personally. She jettisoned eight other people today.” Turned out that Lear, who died in 1996, had a serious bipolar disorder, and her hirelings had to hope the upside would present and carry the office from day to day. Nancy’s upside came later, in an article about the experience she penned for her local paper. It received so much favorable attention, a movie company optioned it. 

Nancy told me, “One morning Norman Lear himself phoned to tell me how well I’d caught his ex-wife’s, uh, quirks.” 

We could not, of course, stop yakking, like a couple of happy participants on Johnny Carson’s couch — another cultural reference you need to be old enough to remember. 

Nancy made three phone calls to the cottage Joel and his brother share on White Pond in Concord. Why three calls? Because I’d had recent business in that hometown of my favorite naturalist and social agitator, Henry David Thoreau.

“Paul!” she exclaimed to her brother-in-law, “Do you know Holly’s friend Margaret Carroll-Bergman? Head of the Thoreau Farm Institute? She also lives on White Pond!”

We couldn’t help but spend an hour or two or three marveling over Nancy’s renowned Chilmark Writing Workshop. It started decades ago in a writers’ circle in West Hartford, after the participants mauled each other’s material like brush cutters going over an arborvitae hedge. Nancy was so mortified she resisted writing another word for two whole years.

Her own workshop has a single protocol: “Only talk about what you love.” The franchise has gone international. “This year we’ve got Feb. 1st in Costa Rica, then in April it’s Santa Fe.”

I gasped, “You’re having a great life!”

‘I KNOW!” she cries. Then, on a calmer note, “I don’t want to travel to a lot of places. That’s why Joel comes with me. He keeps me company. And he carries all the stuff!”

For some time Nancy has steeped herself in a memoir about the many years she and Joel dealt with the illness of their late son, Dan, who, at age 22, was diagnosed with MS. 

Nancy says, “We lived frozen in fear. And he, in reaction to us, turned manipulative and angry.”

Her long, darling face under the thatch of curls grows thoughtful in the amber firelight as she says, “In his final years he became really beautiful. He started to surrender. He became our teacher. Toward the end I asked him, ‘Why you?’ and he said ‘Why not me?’” She pauses before she tries out her special word on me: “He guru-ed.”
And this is where I had my convulsive try-not-to-sob moment.

We’ve talked for hours, hours in girl-time meaning 15 minutes per. I was too entranced by Nancy’s stories to notice her feeding the fire, but it stayed lively with russet flames, casting its warmth about the cabin which has, in fact, no heat source. Before bedtime she — or Joel when he’s on hand — wanders into the bedroom to switch on a heated blanket. Off it goes for sleep under a few duvet layers.

We talked about a lot of things, and Nancy chatted about getting stoned: “I didn’t start smoking weed until I was 30. It dropped me into my heart. It slowed down the world. It made me a better listener. A better observer. Nature became God. I talked to trees, and they talked back to me.” 

“Wow!” I said, genuinely impressed.

I myself can’t handle pot. When stoned, when I talk, I sound, to my own ears, like Minnie Mouse. And the new, stronger strains of marijuana make me curl up in a fetal position waiting to fall asleep or have the world spin to an end — whatever comes first, and neither outcome can arrive soon enough. 

Before my hostess can drive me out with a baseball bat, I pack up my soup pot and prepare to push off through the black hinterlands of Chilmark to the several lights of Oak Bluffs. 

I stare back at the tall woman in the softly lit doorway. “Bye, Nance!”

“Bye, darlin’,” she calls with genuine-sounding regret, as if I hadn’t burned the last of her midnight oil. 

She waves and gently closes the door. 

The dazzlement of white lights stays on.

This is the second piece in a series of “Close Encounters,” where author Holly Nadler will share her visits with interesting Islanders.