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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Arbiter of Culture

May 15, 2009

Amanda Linnell
New Zealand Herald
May 14, 2009

Judith Thurman is sitting in her New York home
sharing a glass of wine and discussing Buddhism
with a friend when I ring. They've just been to a
four-hour teaching by the Dalai Lama, "A truly
extraordinary experience just to be in his
presence," she exclaims in dulcet New Yorker
tones. "He spoke about compassion, the middle way
... It's very esoteric ... It's kind of like
sunburn, it will develop. I will see how I feel tomorrow."

The ability to liken a teaching by the Dalai Lama
to sunburn is typical Thurman. She takes a
subject and leads you, as a reader, on a journey
that is compelling, telling and personal. It's
the reason why, for 20 years, she has been
contributing to The New Yorker - a publication
which every aspiring writer fantasises about being part of.

"We celebrated the Dalai Lama's message of
emptiness by going to a thrift store after the
teaching and buying Armani jackets," Thurman
chuckles down the phone, giving away another clue
about herself - her passion for fashion.

Thurman has, in fact, built her reputation on
writing in-depth essays about fashion and the
world's leading designers and couturiers - from
Yves Saint Laurent to Rei Kawakubo. For years she
covered the international fashion collections -
not reporting on each collection, like most
media, but looking for a deeper more intellectual
theme to comment on. (This is a woman, after all,
who packs a copy of Roberto Calasso's Literature
of the Gods as her escapism while covering the spring/summer shows in Paris.)

"People say fashion is frivolous - and it does
seem that way - but it's also not. Fashion goes
back to the dawn of time, people have always
adorned their bodies, it is a language and
language of any sort interests me. Fashion has an
important place in culture - as a social critic
or cultural critic - which I think is neglected
by serious writers; that slightly neglected
stepchild aspect of fashion interests me. Plus
there is the sensuous aspect of it. It is a
beautiful spectacle and a great designer or couturier has a kind of eloquence."

But Thurman's wide-ranging curiosity and sharp
intellect sees her exploring people and subjects
far beyond the world of fashion. Hillary Clinton,
Cleopatra, Anne Frank, Jackie Kennedy, tofu,
performance art, pornography, paleolithic cave
art - they've all been given the Thurman
treatment. As a full time writer for The New
Yorker, she writes around seven pieces a year,
spending months (nine months in the case of
performance artist Vanessa Beecroft) hanging out
with and researching each subject. The result:
amazing insights, woven finely with her own
story, that take the reader on an entertaining and informative journey.

"I think of myself as a reader," Thurman explains
when asked what tickles her curiosity. "I like to
read people, read situations, I like to read
other people's work ... And a reader is really a
student. I think I am an eternal student. It's
taking a subject, finding a focus and going as
deep as you can. Part of the problem," she laughs
again, "is, to paraphrase the Dalai Lama, 'the
more you know, the more you know you don't know'."

Thurman left college and moved to Europe, where
she "wasted plenty of time writing wine-dark
[Sylvia] Plathian poetry in a bedsit" and worked
as a cook and barmaid, before returning to New
York. After publishing a series of profiles
entitled Lost Women, she captured the attention
of Gloria Steinem - "an incredibly glamorous and
fierce woman" - who encouraged her to write what
would become the award-winning profile Isak
Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller and the
biography Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Collette.

Her most recent book, Cleopatra's Nose: 39
Varieties of Desire. is a selection of her essays written for The New Yorker.

"As I read through 20 years of work, I realised
the underlying theme of all my subjects was this
avidity or hunger or desire - you can call it by
different names - particularly in my profiles of
women, and it is this desire which attracts me to
a subject. It is desire as it is broadly
understood, but sex is definitely a part of it."

She laughs about a column she wrote last week for
The New Yorker about former Cosmopolitan magazine
editor Helen Gurley Brown getting her "due as a pioneer of libidinal equality".

"Everyone jokes that I am The New Yorker's sex
columnist, it's a sub-specialty of mine."

Her writing does have a sexy sparkle, never more
so than when she's writing about fashion, which
cracks along at an intriguing pace ... She
describes Hollywood femme fatale Joan Crawford
wearing Italian designer Schiaparelli as a
"sinewy, chain-smoking, man-eating,
social-climbing, scarlet-clawed screen temptress of the 30s" .

Thurman has a self-deprecating humour that puts
everything in its place, like when she wrote at
the end of New York Fashion Week about " ... the
shock to my dulled receptors, moral and
aesthetic, when I picked up the New York Times
Magazine and realised that I had mistaken the
cover photo of a heroic African nurse in the
Ebola ward of a hospital in Uganda for one of
[designer] Miguel Adrover's models".

She takes no prisoners - men's fashion is
"militantly prosaic" - and can weave with charm,
into a profile on the retiring Yves Saint
Laurent, how back in the 70s she blew a week's
wages on a skirt and joined the ranks of women "addicted" to his label.

"A lot of fashion journalism today is service
pieces, and I don't do that. I was asked to write
a piece for Vogue and they said what we do is
"celebratory journalism", and I just have a
problem with that. At The New Yorker we are very
super-conscious about not writing anything puffy,
most other publications are aimed at the
advertising, it's not critical. Fortunately, I don't have to do that."

Roberto Calasso's Literature of the Gods Tickets
are still available to hear Judith Thurman speak
at The Auckland Readers & Writers Festival on
Sunday, 11.30am-12.30pm, at the ASB Theatre,
Aotea Centre, Queen St. $23. Ph: (09) 357 3355.a
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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