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Fearless, frankly

As she touts a memoir, Erica `Fear of Flying' Jong is as lusty as ever.

April 01, 2006|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — THE caller to the popular Bay Area talk show, Robert from Noe Valley, had just one question for Erica Jong: "I was, in 1979, living in New England with a wife and young child," said Robert. "And my wife read your book, 'Fear of Flying.' She put the book down, she looked at me and said, 'Adios.' She took off. And I've always wondered what your message was in that book."

He sort of chuckled then, as if it was a story that happened so long ago it must have happened to someone else. And then Jong, now a 64-year-old grandmother happily married to her fourth and (one presumes) final husband, chuckled too. She knows the feeling.

It has been decades since "Fear of Flying" and its lusty, conflicted protagonist, Isadora Wing, gave unmuffled voice to a generational shift in women's attitudes toward sex and marriage. But every few years, in timing that coincides with Jong's book tours, we get the opportunity to relive, or rehash, the 1973 autobiographical novel that sold millions of copies (just how many is impossible to determine) and has never been out of print. Despite the fact that Jong has published eight subsequent novels, six volumes of poetry and four books of nonfiction, including a critical appraisal of Henry Miller, everywhere she goes on this long day of appearances, people want to talk about that book.

To her credit, Jong has made peace with the idea that everything else she writes pales in the public imagination next to "Fear of Flying," which, it must be said, is still pretty entertaining. (The idea of a zipless encounter -- in which strangers collide and clothes melt away in the service of sexual ecstasy -- still has zing. Even though women no longer feel obligated to marry every man they love and men are more involved in their children's lives, sexual fantasies and marital power struggles endure.)

To Robert from Noe Valley who had called in to the Ronn Owens show on KGO-AM, Jong simply explained, "I was exploring female independence, female freedom and female fantasy. I had no idea that people would act it out by leaving their marriages."

In some corners at the time, the contempt was barely contained. Paul Theroux memorably called Isadora Wing a "mammoth pudenda," but her book -- which had received a rave from John Updike in the New Yorker and from Henry Miller in the New York Times -- flew off shelves. At least 8 million copies have been sold in the U.S., Jong says, but she and her husband, divorce lawyer Ken Burrows, have tried to track foreign sales over the years. "My books were huge bestsellers in Yugoslavia before the war," she said. "I would walk down the streets of Dubrovnik and people would yell, 'Erica Yong, I love you!' But publishers went out of business. I never received a single zloty." (Which, actually, are Polish.)

Jong's latest effort, "Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life," began as a compilation of advice for fledgling writers but turned into a ribald memoir about Jong's eternal search for personal happiness and professional fulfillment. Along the way, she dispenses writerly advice and summons apt literary allusions, and confesses to a delicious catalog of shortcomings, excesses, disappointments and triumphs.

"I try to cop to all the terrible mistakes that I made in my life, and boy did I make some doozies," Jong told a group of San Francisco swells (including a society columnist, a gossip columnist, a political columnist and clothier Wilkes Bashford) at an invitation-only luncheon in a clubby Nob Hill restaurant.

Among her noteworthy missteps: She slept with Martha Stewart's husband, Andy, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. ("That was really dumb," she said. "If you are going to make an enemy, it should not be Martha.") She disastrously sued Columbia Pictures and the late producer Julia Phillips over the movie rights to "Fear." (They took the battle public: "I satirized her as a crass Hollywood coke addict and she told the world I looked like Miss Piggy," writes Jong. "None of this helped.") Jong also engaged in deeply wounding and expensive legal clashes and custody battles with her penultimate husband, Jonathan Fast, son of the historical novelist Howard Fast. And, not so very long ago, she spent a night in the Beverly Hills drunk tank.

(On the plus side, she has raised a daughter to whom she is very close and has become a grandmother to 2-year-old Max, a role she inhabits comfortably and lovingly. Her marriage to Burrows has lasted 17 years, and she describes him as her best friend and soul mate.)

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