Tama Janowitz, Author
10.1.16 Schuyler County, NY
With her latest book 'Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction', Tama Janowitz ultimately proves, with humor, exasperation, tears, and a vibrant spectrum of other emotions, that she, like tungsten, could be thrust into white-hot fire and emerge even stronger. She's basked in the glow of an accomplished author – her short fiction having appeared in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, and with a dozen books to her credit, including the iconic Slaves of New York (1986).
Review by Chris Hartman
'Scream' is Published by Harper Collins
She was friendly with Andy Warhol; Lou Reed and his wife Sylvia; and, while living in London in 1976, attended what was likely the first gig of the Sex Pistols – where photographers crowded about her, flash bulbs popping – and becoming an early "Punk" icon. She also once attended, but was somewhat repelled by, the scene around the fabled Manhattan nightclub Studio 54 – a monument to gilt-encrusted 1970s hedonism.
But for all her hard-won literary success, where Tama impresses so very much – and exemplifies the ordinary, anonymous heroism so many people perform each day – is when she moves to Ithaca, New York to care for her aged mother, who had become incapable of caring for herself. Phyllis Janowitz was an accomplished and respected poet who taught creative writing at Cornell, attended the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and was a recipient of numerous awards for her writing.
Phyllis was a tower of support for Tama during her formative years – underwriting Tama's trips to Europe where, while in France, she became the platonic companion of novelist Lawrence Durrell; serving as "first reader" for Tama's manuscripts; and always encouraging her daughter to write – while simultaneously suffering a selfish and vindictive ex-husband: a philandering psychologist who had affairs with his secretary, patients and just about anyone else. He was an abusive parent right out of a Dickens novel: he lived in wealth while Phyllis had to scramble to pay bills; he'd beg his daughter and son to come for visits, only to require them do manual labor in and around the house – all while berating them as "worthless;" and, after Tama had enrolled in a Master's program at the Yale School of Dramatic Arts, he refused to help with her tuition so that she was forced to drop out after a year.
After attending Barnard College, where she was inspired by Elizabeth Hardwick's writing seminar, Tama became a guest editor of Mademoiselle, toiling under its ruthless editor, Mary Cantwell. Her first big assignment was a photo shoot at the home of a Manhattan socialite where, upon being instructed to iron the woman's blouse, she burned off one of its sleeves. It was traumatizing for Tama, but after being let go, she wrote to the magazine pleading her case. She never heard back, but years later, as a successful author, Tama revisited that floor in the Condé Nast offices, where veterans of her brief tenure "kept a wide berth" – one even sheepishly asking if she was the author of "The Letter."
Enrolling at Hollins College, which offered her a year's scholarship, Tama wrote her first novel, American Dad. After getting a commitment (later pulled) for publication, she sent chapters to The Paris Review. Rejected. She then invented a persona, "Tom A. Janowitz," and re-submitted the chapters. This time, they were accepted. Not long after her excerpt appeared, The New Yorker published her short story "The Slaves of New York" and her book of the same name soon followed. With Slaves, Tama entered the limelight with writers Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, collectively dubbed the "Literary" Brat Pack. And following the success of Slaves, it became a film starring Bernadette Peters.
When her mother became infirm, Tama moved upstate into Phyllis' ancient home in Ithaca, overseeing a migration from nursing home to nursing home – only to be thanked with a lawsuit by her malcontent brother Sam for alleged malfeasance with Phyllis' estate. The indignities Tama shouldered – swarmed by a hive of lawyers, accountants and spiteful relatives while toiling to sort through her mother's financial records – was a labor worthy of Hercules. Her physician brother was a millionaire many times over, but was intent on breaking Tama over half of their mother's modest estate. Tama quotes at the end of one chapter: "I've got a lawsuit in a month – he's trying to sue me because my mother left two small accounts he wants half of. Me, the life of a writer? I'm broke."
Tama's daughter Willow, by this time in high school, was, in Tama's words, "Sharp, smart and charming," and a tower of support for her mother. But after all she'd endured with Tama's harrowing and increasingly unpredictable existence, she became depressed and asked to see a psychiatrist.
But after all the trials and tribulations of growing up in several different homes in Israel, New England, and New York City, with as dysfunctional a family as could be conceived by Chekhov or Ibsen, Tama has finally settled into a restored Greek Revival farmhouse in central New York. Here, she rides horses, dines on wild game at the local sportsmans club, and has fallen in love with a "cute" guy with tattoos who smokes Kools, wears Carhartts and work boots, and drives a big GMC pickup with "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" blaring out of the radio. Contentment it seems, on an unpaved detour off the "Road Not Taken." But as Tama asks plaintively in Scream's concluding passage, "Is there a moral to any of this? None that I can think of. Fiction has morals; fiction has a point. Life? I guess not."