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Embracing the Past, High Heels and All


Anyone meeting Marie Brenner last year would think she had the perfect turn-of-the-century sophisticate's life. As writer-at-large for Vanity Fair magazine, she had a flourishing, sexy career crafting serious and important articles like the one about dirty deeds in the tobacco industry that inspired the Oscar-nominated movie "The Insider." She thought of her second marriage, to venture capitalist Ernie Pomerantz, as uncommonly lucky and stable. Her daughter, Casey, a senior in high school, had applied for early admission to Brown University, and the Ivy League school welcomed the 17-year-old cross-country runner and voracious reader into their freshman class.

Brenner enjoyed a close, supportive group of female friends, high-achieving media queens like herself, who lunched monthly to bitch, moan and solve one another's latest crises, which ranged from the existential to the cosmetic. At 50, she was pretty, healthy, poised and productive.

She had also choreographed for herself a sanity-salvaging work routine. She would spend six to eight months researching and writing complex "testosterone stories," then take a break by interviewing some of the grand divas who helped shape the 20th century. Her profiles of such icons as Jacqueline Onassis, Marietta Tree and Pamela Harriman appeared in Vogue and Vanity Fair, insightful portraits of women who were a dying breed.

The only black fly in her chardonnay, so to speak, was the gnawing sense that she was in hiding. "One of the things that drew me to reporting," she said, "was that, as a witness to events, you are in disguise. Nothing is required of you in terms of self-revelation. As the chronicler, it's like you're wearing a flak jacket, hiding behind a notebook." She increasingly felt that, by avoiding writing about things that were deeply personal, she was a coward.

Carrying Out Her Parents' Legacy

What Brenner failed to see was that while she thought she was escaping into tales of whistle-blowers like Jeffrey Wigand and such underdogs as Atlanta bombing suspect Richard Jewell, then breathing the rarefied atmosphere in the worlds of Clare Boothe Luce and Kay Thompson, creator of the "Eloise" books, she was actually carrying out a legacy bequeathed her as the only daughter of unsung heroes Thelma and Milton Brenner.

Her father had been a crusader in merchants' clothing, dispensing political fliers along with bargains at his south Texas discount stores. Thelma was harder to bring into focus, until Brenner began to understand that all the flamboyant, stylish, larger-than-life women she was drawn to were versions of her own mother.

She compiled nine of their stories in a book, "Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women" (Crown Books, 2000), and added a chapter about the great dame who had raised her. "The hardest story to write was the one I wrote last, which was the chapter about my mother and my life with her."

Writing that intimate coda, she felt very much in the middle, influenced by one generation of women, trying to make her mark on the next. She had lived that scary baby-boomer moment--no, not looking in the mirror and seeing her mother's thighs but hearing her mother's voice come from her mouth when she spoke to her own teenager. As the poet Adrienne Rich wrote, "You put your arm into your sleeve, and your mother's hand comes out."

Brenner said, "My mother was a kind of walking [John] Bartlett's '[Familiar] Quotations.' She would quote philosophers and French poets to me. Of course I would just roll my eyeballs and reject all her odes and bromides. Then she died, and my own daughter turned 17 and was saying everything to me that I used to say to my mother. And I actually heard myself repeating my mother's lines: Pascal says, 'When all else is gone, knowledge remains.' And I began doing exactly what my mother used to do with me--posting big words like 'tautology' in Casey's room, for her to learn. And I suddenly realized, this is all such a personal story of generations. Just as I was so different from my mother and her friends, Casey and her friends are so different from my friends and from me. And I thought, there's some lesson here.

"I looked back at all these interviews I'd done over the years with these fantastic, actressy women, and I wanted to know, what can these lives teach me? How can they show me to be braver and to have tenacity at my age, in a way that will make the next years really powerful?"

One clear message was that, in criticizing and dismissing the ways of the generation that preceded theirs, Brenner and her contemporaries had thrown some smashing babe qualities out with the bathwater. These boomers had surfed into womanhood on a wave of feminism. "We came of age thinking that having an air of grace and civility was phony," she said.

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