Jenny Allen Talks About Life and Other Bad Ideas

Jenny Allen is mid-sentence when there’s a commotion in the living room. Sarah Crichton, her house guest and editor, has answered the back door and admitted a woman in beach attire. “It’s Ronna,” a new voice calls out. “Can I use your bathroom?”

Apparently, this is one of the quirks of living in West Tisbury near the banks of a popular swimming hole. “Of course you can,” Allen responds. “My toilet is your toilet!” Ronna visits for a few minutes post-pit-stop, then insists that we return to our conversation. “Come back and pee anytime,” Allen suggests, sending her friend on her way with a hug and an invitation for a future Chilmark beach outing.

Allen’s wit and sharp eye for contemporary life are on full display in her recently published collection of personal essays, Would Everybody Please Stop? Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas. The cover of the book, published by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, features a single blurb from The New Yorker political satirist Andy Borowitz referring to Allen as “One of the funniest writers in America.”

Jeanna Shepard

Dipping in, it’s easy to see why Borowitz, who has himself been called “the funniest human on Twitter,” and “America’s funniest political satirist,” is amused. The thirty-five essays that make up the book reflect Allen’s wry, but unflinching take on topics ranging from driving her teenage daughter and pack of friends around (and around) the Island for such necessities as twelve-dollar bottles of shampoo and Nair Hair Removal Cream to coping with her newly single mid-life. But as is so often the case with humor, there’s a backbone of pensiveness to the material.

In the summer of 2013 Allen found herself living full time on Martha’s Vineyard after her thirty-year marriage to cartoonist, author, and screenwriter Jules Feiffer came to an unexpected end. Feiffer, twenty-seven years her senior, had purchased the unassuming vintage house in the 1960s. He and Allen, now sixty-one, summered on the Island as they raised their two daughters, and she acquired the home as part of their divorce settlement.

“I had a choice,” she explains. “Sell the house or keep it. I found myself unwilling to give up this beautiful spot. The house and Island have become dear to me. It accepted me as a divorced person.” But when she first moved back to the West Tisbury house during the summer of their separation she had no idea it would become her permanent base. “I thought of it as a way station while Jules and I had settlement discussions,” she explains. “I loved summers here and saw it as a place to alight.”

Although Manhattan’s Upper West Side had been her home for more than three decades, she ultimately decided that the cost of maintaining even a small apartment of her own in the city would be too steep and stayed on the Vineyard, surprising, and in some cases horrifying, off-Island friends. She remembers one friend from the city who visited and said, in a shocked tone, “This is so not you. You have to sell this place, buy an apartment in New York, and resume your life. This is SO NOT YOU!”

Settling in instead, Allen weathered her home’s sudden mutiny: a flooded basement, frozen pipes, a well pump failure, and a fallen tree that caused serious roof damage. Yet she remained steadfast in her plan. With her house now in working order, Allen notes that winters can be long. “The day gives up the ghost after lunch. It’s pitch dark by 4:30. When you live here you study winter,” she says. “In New York you just order Chinese food.”

During the 1970s and ’80s Allen was a freelance magazine writer living in New York whose celebrity profiles, feature stories, and columns were ubiquitous in The New York Times, Esquire, New York Magazine, and other national publications. “I wrote a piece about Sam Shepard for Esquire,” she says. “I pretended to be interested in his work but I really wanted to know about Jessica Lange.”

Over the course of their long marriage, Allen allowed her once-flourishing journalism career to take a backseat to that of her husband’s. But after a life-threatening bout with endometrial cancer and then ovarian cancer in 2005 she wrote a one-woman play called I Got Sick Then I Got Better that she first read at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse in 2007 and later performed in New York before being invited to venues across the country and in Canada.

The eighty-minute monologue provides a condensed chronicle of her marriage, career, children, mother, cancer, physician callousness, fear, depression, anger, and rebound – all with candor, sardonic wit, and self-deprecation. Informed that she has not one but two types of cancer, she writes that she couldn’t process the dire diagnosis, instead observing, “I should probably think twice about renewing my gym membership.” To the glib adage offered by some acquaintances, “You never get more than you can handle,” she responds: “That is just not true. People get more than they can handle all the time – that’s why people jump off buildings; that’s why people become Scientologists.”

As she continues to rebuild her writing career she works occasionally as a substitute teacher at a preschool on the Island. “I’d love to do more,” she says, “but it’s rare that the teachers get sick.” So she fills her time with writing, reading, seeing friends, frequent visits to her
older daughter Halley in New York City, practicing meditation with a group, and participating in some church activities. She also serves as literary manager for
the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, reviewing plays for possible production. Her younger daughter Julie lives with her on the Island.

Her sense of humor was inherited from her father, she says, and honed over the years through high school and college (Yale) theater, as well as stints as a stand-up comic in a troupe comprised of fellow New York City journalists. It is, she says, the “life force” that keeps her going, and it’s on full display in Would Everybody Please Stop? The essays make you laugh aloud and draw you in with a difficult-to-pull-off blend of wit and pathos. She comes across in print as she does in person: candid, ironic, and earthy yet worldly.

But there’s also something about her that seems vulnerable. She’s not embarrassed to admit that the sudden divorce and resulting economic adjustments, on the heels of potentially lethal cancer, left her reeling.

“Life is full of pain. But there’s poignancy in everything,” Allen says. “I write at the intersection of poignancy and humor. It’s the only perspective for me. On some level, I think, this is funny. Or it has to be funny someday.”