Gail Sheehy, a journalist and author whose work examined racism, menopause, drug addiction, and whose profiles ranged from fading high society doyennes to power brokers, died Monday from complications from pneumonia. She was 83.
As a reporter for New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, and other outlets, Sheehy profiled the likes of George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher, and Edith Beale and Little Edie Beale, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who were later featured in the famous documentary “Grey Gardens.” In a 2014 interview with NPP’s “All Things Considered,” Sheehy said she relied heavily on research when it came to writing about famous figures, and was less concerned with their seminal achievements than their personal struggles.
“I’m looking for their character, which is not about policy,” she said. “Character is what was yesterday and will be tomorrow. What I do is — or I did when people were affording it — was to interview no less than 40 people who knew the person I was writing about, and they would provide incredible insights into a person’s habitual behavior. So that by the time I got to my quarry, I could collaborate with them on trying to lay out the themes of their life and they were much less resistant than they would be if I just walked in and started hammering them with difficult questions.”
She also wrote penetrating investigations of amphetamine abuse, transcendental meditation and prostitution. She was known for applying literary techniques to her work, and was perhaps most recognized for “Passages,” a best-selling examination of the perils and possibilities of adulthood. Psychiatrist Roger Gould sued Sheehy for plagiarism, and the case was settled out of court with the author agreeing to share a percentage of royalties from “Passages.”
Sheehy’s other works include “Sex and the Seasoned Woman: Pursuing the Passionate Life,” “The Man Who Changed the World: The Lives of Mikhail S. Gorbachev,” and “Hillary’s Choice,” a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton that was controversial when it was published in 1999.
Sheehy didn’t always aspire to a career in journalism. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont, her first job was at JCPenny. There, she began penning articles for the department store chain’s magazine, marking her first foray into professional writing. She eventually went on to become a writer at New York Magazine, where one of her first pieces was covering Robert Kennedy on the 1968 presidential campaign trail.
During the pandemic, Sheehy wrote articles for online publications about how coronavirus is causing millennials to have earlier mid-life crises and honoring nurses and other frontline workers risking their lives.
Sheehy was pre-deceased by her husband, New York Magazine founder Clay Felker, who died in 2008 from throat cancer. She was previously married to Albert Francis Sheehy, her husband of eight years before they divorced in 1968. She is survived by two children, daughters Maura Sheehy and Mohm Phat.
On Facebook, Maura Sheehy wrote, “In a terrible swift unexpected spin of the wheel, my mother died this afternoon, of a raging pneumonia, possibly Covid, that came on wildly after a lovely evening with her partner, Robert, and friends.”