At Home With: For Jenny Allen, She and Her House ‘Were Sort of in This Together’

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At Home With: For Jenny Allen, She and Her House ‘Were Sort of in This Together’

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MARTHA’S VINEYARD, Mass. — Not long after Jenny Allen left New York City to live full-time here, her once-sturdy farmhouse had a nervous breakdown. The pump to the well gave out, the water heater flooded the furnace, the pipes froze and an ancient tree crashed through the roof. It was 2013 and Ms. Allen, the journalist, humor writer and performer, had just separated from Jules Feiffer, the cartoonist and author to whom she had been married for 30 years, when the house began behaving like a kindergartner who had toughed it out all day at school only to have a meltdown at dismissal. You could see its collapse as a proxy for Ms. Allen’s own experience. “It was like the house knew that someone was there to take care of it so it just went …” Ms. Allen paused. “It just went ‘boing’ like a house in a cartoon.”

Ms. Allen, however, kept it together. And with typical vigor, she has produced a coda to the past few years. “Would Everybody Please Stop: Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas,” a collection of essays out last month from Sarah Crichton Books, is a tartly funny and often piercingly emotional ramble through life at a certain age. Now 61, Ms. Allen riffs on insomnia; on the confounding limits of her own memory; on the particular horror of being a houseguest; on hapless attempts with a hat and a wig after chemotherapy for ovarian cancer; on her inability to recognize her own car (all the women on Martha’s Vineyard seemingly drive the same metallic green Subaru Forester); and on the sudden breakup of her long marriage.

“Some friends thought I would go all Ethan Frome-y,” she said of her move, referring to the grim Edith Wharton novel. “But I knew that this was a kind place. That people were rooting for me. Though I did worry they wouldn’t know what to do with a single woman. I worried that I would make people uncomfortable. But they were lovely and asked me to things. And I felt that the house and I were sort of in this together. When the pipes burst and the furnace shut down, I thought, ‘We can fix this, and then it will be warm again.’ That interested me because I would have thought I was the kind of person who would turn it all into a funny story, and then get the hell out of there.”

One Sunday morning in late June, Ms. Allen had delivered her celebrity driveway tour, ticking off the names of those who have lived in splendor at the end of serpentine dirt roads — “Beverly Sills; Diane Sawyer; Katharine Graham, oh damn, I skipped Carly Simon. I’ll make it up to you on the way back to the ferry” before arriving at her own, modest house near Lambert’s Cove. Ms. Allen, who majored in English at Yale and performed in the theater there — Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was an early role — speaks as she writes, that is, with a comedian’s loopy cadence. Every so often she let loose a beguiling, slightly untethered laugh.

Nearly 40 years ago, Ms. Allen landed on this island, and in this house, on assignment from Life magazine to profile Mr. Feiffer, who had written the screenplay for “Popeye,” the Robert Altman film, out in 1980. She was 25 and Mr. Feiffer 52, and when he asked her to dinner, Ms. Allen, hewing to the journalist’s code of ethics, waited until after the piece was published to say yes. (Chronically self-effacing, Ms. Allen was also mystified as to why Mr. Feiffer might have been interested in her.)

When they married three years later, Mr. Feiffer’s island posse — Lillian Hellman, John Hersey, Mrs. Graham, among others — mostly welcomed Ms. Allen, despite the age difference, though Ms. Hellman, Ms. Allen said, took some time to thaw. “Jules was one of the men she flirted with and whose wives she had no interest in,” Ms. Allen said. “She would invite him for dinner, but not me. She’d say, ‘I don’t have enough chairs.’”

It was Mrs. Graham’s habit to invite Ms. Allen and Mr. Feiffer to one lunch and one dinner each summer, events that Ms. Allen looked forward to, for the very rich and very formal French food that other island women would make fun of, and Mrs. Graham’s Old World hostess touches, like the gleaming silver cigarette cups on the dinner tables.

“She was wonderful to women,” Ms. Allen said of Mrs. Graham. “She always asked, ‘How are you doing? How are your children?’ She was interested in the life of women. I think she had a feeling from her years of being a wife that she wanted you to feel seen.”

There was the alcoholic who visited their house almost daily. It turned out he wasn’t paying a social call; he was disposing of his liquor bottles in the pond behind their house so his wife wouldn’t come upon them. One arid summer the pond dried up, and Ms. Allen could see the empties sticking out of the mud like the necks of snapping turtles.

“I was very happy to slip into someone else’s life,” Ms. Allen said. “I didn’t have a better plan.”

She moved into Mr. Feiffer’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where they raised their two daughters. Halley Feiffer, now 32, is a playwright and actor living in Brooklyn. Julie Feiffer, 22, works as a landscaper and at the general store, and lives with her mother. Though Ms. Allen worked doggedly and consistently as a journalist and performer during her marriage — a perpetual freelancer, she calls herself — she’ll tell you her career was just something “on the side.” Her husband, she felt, was also skeptical of the worth of some of her magazine work. “I had the sense that he felt that if you weren’t an artist, you were a hack,” she said.

“Well, that’s a version,” Mr. Feiffer said later. “I was always supportive. It was two writers working and living together.”

In any case, Ms. Allen added: “I am a very ’50s person. I really cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. I felt like I wanted to be available to my family, and I really did enjoy being a mother. I think for a long time I had a failure of courage to write in my own voice. Even though I liked doing it. I’d feel delighted, and then weird and guilty about it.”

Ms. Allen’s distinct talent is to investigate the indignities and irritations of modern life and late adulthood — and the attendant rabbit holes of the mind — with goofy precision. How, for example, you might recall the name of Barbie’s nerdy friend in the Barbie board game (Poindexter) or the fact that the mother of Mike Nesmith (of the Monkees) invented Liquid Paper, but be utterly perplexed by the point of a trip to Duane Reade (to buy shampoo). Though many of her essays were inspired by some very dark events, Ms. Allen said that in rendering them on the page, “I found that anger just really isn’t that funny.”

Writing about living relatives is tricky business. Writing about a divorce, even more so. Comedy helps (cf. Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn”), especially if you make yourself the butt of the joke, said Halley Feiffer, who knows a thing or two about the genre. Her 2015 play, “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,” unsparingly examines the relationship between a vicious, narcissistic, prizewinning playwright and his daughter, an actor, in a night of binge-drinking and drug consumption in their Upper West Side apartment.

Ms. Allen and Ms. Feiffer quit drinking nearly a decade ago. Of her ex-husband, Ms. Allen said: “We had fun together. He was a fun guy to drink with, which is not that important unless drinking is a really big thing in your life. But after I got sick, I didn’t see it going anywhere good. I never understood the point of having one glass when you could have, say, five. And then another when everyone goes home and you’re doing the dishes. I did love it for a really long time. Though I kind of think it kept me treading water.”

On her way to a court date with Mr. Feiffer in Manhattan, Ms. Allen belly-flopped on a sheet of black ice on 57th Street, the third person to do so, as she learned from a traffic officer who vowed to order some salt. Ms. Allen was charmed by the officer’s concern, but her husband, with whom she shared the tale, pointed out that ordering salt after three wipeouts was hardly a speedy reaction. “Our responses, so different, said everything there was to say about our relationship,” Ms. Allen writes. “Of course we would be going to trial. Any fool knew that. Except, perhaps, the kind of fool who thought it was ‘nice’ for a traffic cop to wait until three people nearly broke their backs before she decided to correct the situation.”

The actor Polly Draper, a friend since Yale, said: “Jenny sees the ridiculousness of every moment of life. She finds what’s ironic and funny about it, and also what’s touching. As a performer, she is irresistible.”

In his review of her one-woman show, “I Got Sick Then I Got Better,” a toothsome comic monologue, out in 2009, about the ovarian cancer that nearly killed her, Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote that Ms. Allen “asks us, politely and engagingly, to look on life when it is directly threatened.”

Mr. Feiffer moved out the next year, and the couple divorced in 2014. He is now married to J .Z. Holden, a freelance writer.

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Enormous bank accounts and investment portfolios do not accrue to most magazine writers, and Ms. Allen’s divorce has drained what savings she had. “The correct translation of ‘divorcée,’” Ms. Allen writes, “is ‘person with no money.’”

But she was grateful, she said, to have a roof over her head when this house became hers. On the island, Ms. Allen happily joined a cohort of women her age, many of them postmarriage and postchildren, seeking modest work there. She is proud to be a substitute assistant teacher at a local preschool, which she particularly enjoys because of nap time, when even the teachers are allowed to stretch out on the nap mats. Another tempting job was as a secretary at a local church, Ms. Allen said, “but no, oops, computer skills required; one of the other divorced ladies did that.”

Ms. Allen eventually joined the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, the community theater in Vineyard Haven, as its literary manager. And she knew she had been fully accepted as a year-rounder when the women at the local hardware store began to soften. “These women are not too entranced with the summer ladies, and who can blame them?” she said. “The ladies who come in with their flip-flops looking for citronella at closing time. But one day I left my keys on the counter, and one of the women there who’d never given me the time of day ran out to return them.”

Ms. Allen burst into tears at the memory.

Then there were “the Men in Boots” — “I’d like to make that the title of my memoir,” Ms. Allen said — like her plumber, Chuck Lewis, and Jim Sharp, the guy who rebuilt her rotting stairs and then threw in a deck of his own design for good measure, both of whom she thanks in the acknowledgments to her book. “Men of action and not that many words who show up to fix things,” she said. “Sometimes we break bread together.” When her radiators began leaking black sludge, Mr. Lewis replaced them. “Where’d you get the radiators?” Ms. Allen recalled asking him. “‘Well, I dunno,’” he told her. When she rented the cottage on her property to a landscaper, he began, unasked, to gussy up her yard. He carved out a parking area with cobblestone pavers, and edged it with plantings, leftovers from his day job. For weeks, she watched him lug boulders into the cottage, where, as it happens, he was turning the bathroom into a Flintstonian grotto. “Maybe not my first choice,” Ms. Allen said, “or even my second.”

But she appreciated the effort.

“You always feel that Jenny values you,” said Rose Styron, the poet, journalist and human rights activist, and another year-rounder. Of the particular life chapter that Ms. Allen now finds herself in, one that Ms. Styron negotiated a decade earlier when her husband, the writer William Styron, died, she added: “She fully and deeply feels the sorrow or the backpedaling or whatever it is we are doing in those stages, but then she cheers up and laughs. And makes me laugh with her. If you’ve got a sense of humor, you can stand anything.”

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