Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See
by Naomi Wolf
Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $24
IN HER HOARY BOOK The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf argued that being a great looker is not the result of fine genes and high-quality lip gloss, both of which the author appears to possess in abundance, but "the choice to do whatever we want with our faces and bodies without being punished by an ideology that is using attitudes, economic pressure, and even legal judgments regarding women's appearance to undermine us psychologically and politically."
It was, interestingly, precisely this sort of patience-enhancing exposition that turned the book into a 1991 bestseller and, eight years later, Ms. Wolf into a $15,000-a-month image adviser to presidential aspirant Al Gore.
That was a difficult and, perhaps, counterproductive alliance, more the result of Ms. Wolf's friendship with Gore's daughter, Karenna (a relationship described at the time, naturally, as "bonding"), than any actual value she might have had for the campaign. The Democratic candidate was ordered, for example, to wear earth tones because, in the public eye, they are "more reassuring"--than what, Ms. Wolf never quite said: possibly than Mr. Gore.
She is not, in other words, a woman who is easily defined or always right. To take just one more example, one reason (aside from her breathtaking salary) most Gore confidants so distrusted Ms. Wolf is that she appeared in their midst shortly after the release of Promiscuities, her third book. Well, you can probably divine its contents. In it the author argued that heavy petting and oral sex should be "something schools should teach teenagers." She wanted, she said, "to explore the shadow slut who walks alongside us as we grow up."
So imagine my consternation on being told to write a review of Ms. Wolf's latest oeuvre, which is not at all concerned with sluts, oral sex, or the beauty industry that penalizes furry legs and court-orders mascara. It is called The Treehouse, and it is not about the figurative "phallocenctric patriarchy" the author openly despises but about Ms. Wolf's own actual father, who is 80 years old, very nice, and named Leonard. Yes, just like Virginia's husband, except even more literary and understanding. Also, he spells his last name right.
I'm very much afraid that Leonard is the kind of father Ms. Wolf does not deserve. He helps build a treehouse for his granddaughter. He writes poetry and he teaches it. Like most of the universe, he doesn't think Naomi should have ever dispensed advice to Gore. But not because Gore dresses badly or is, as Naomi so rudely phrased it in internal memos, a beta-male who has to work overtime at alphasizing himself. No, Leonard thinks Naomi shouldn't have abetted those presidential ambitions because . . . hmm . . . "such a thing seemed like a kind of prostitution of whatever gifts I had." In fact, Leonard argues to his daughter--legitimately, one feels--"No one else has your particular voice."
Naomi couldn't agree more. "I saw exactly what he meant. But children always need to overthrow their fathers, especially when the fathers are right."
Another thing that divides the child from the father, the author informs us, is that she, Naomi, is a raging "commercial success with my first book--the world of greenrooms and TV sound bites . . . " And guess who isn't a raging success? Time and again, our gal decries her own "arrogance" and the "little peace" she is allotted thanks to her incredible celebrity. But really, all she wants the reader to know is how bone-rattlingly FATIGUED she is to be "besieged by e-mail, CNN headlines, phone calls."
(This is, as it turns out, a favorite theme of hers. I once called her myself, only to get cut off in mid-introduction by a loud voice, stiff and angry with outrage: "HOW DID YOU GET MY NUMBER?" By way of reply, I think I said something snippy and Warholish. Twenty minutes later, Ms. Wolf phoned back, apologetic in her fashion. Due to the immense avalanche of fame and publicity that threatened to engulf her, she was being, she said, "stalked." At first, she hadn't caught my name. Now what was it I wanted?)
As for Leonard, he wrote 20 books. ("Some have done well; others were ignored," his daughter writes helpfully.) He shows Naomi how to hang brackets for curtains and gives her friends excellent advice on romance.
He says, "The God I don't believe in and I get along very well," which is an extremely polite way of dealing with eternity. Delmore Schwartz, who was very crazy and alcoholic, once threatened to kill him, after erroneously fingering Mr. Wolf as the seducer of his wife.
What can one say? He's a peach. Hanging brackets and hanging out. Now that's a legacy. I cannot tell you how envious I am. Or how unhappy. I wish he had written this book.
Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.