It was opening night of The Martha Graham Company's last season at City Center a couple of years ago. Ronit and I were sitting in the front row, dressed in our finest-but-not-finest-enough, because the house was packed with fashion industry big-wigs and their friends. The woman sitting to my left was a friend and patron of my ballet drawings, so she wanted to see the work I had been doing with the Graham Company.
I pulled out my pad and was showing her the art when the woman sitting to the right of Ronit noticed and asked to see what the fuss was about. She was a short, grandmotherly figure with piercingly intelligent eyes, dressed in black with a fuzzy, fur-like wrap and pearls and she flashed a smile that allowed her to say anything and everything that came into her head. She liked my drawings and she and Ronit began talking while I wandered around trying to mingle. I wasn't having a great night and when I came back, dejected, feeling like my work and I had been taken advantage of, I told Ronit and the kind woman next to her that they were my favorite people at the dance.
This woman then proceeded to give me a critique of my drawings which was razor-sharp and spot-on accurate, and told me I should be working for the New Yorker and how was I going to accomplish that? Then she started to introduce me to everyone sitting around us as if I were an old-friend of hers. She called me a Gifted Artist as she introduced me to a publicist and A Wonder as she tried to get an indifferent friend who worked for Calvin Klein to look at my drawings.
As the lights dimmed for the second act I leaned over to Ronit and asked, "who is that woman?" and she whispered, "I think I own shoes by her."
And that's how I met Joan.
Last Wednesday I was sitting in a class-room over at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University watching this "international fashion leader, designer and entrepeneur" lecturing a group of rapt and attentive students on how to turn a bunch of random circumstances into a succesful business career. Joan was dressed in pretty much the same outfit that she had been the night I met her at the Martha Graham opening. She spread her arms and looked down at her outfit and said, "See? I'm a fashion genius."
This weekend I watched the new Jeff Tweedy DVD. Twice. At one point he quotes Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth who, speaking about Rock and Roll concerts, observed, "People will pay to watch other people believe in themselves."
I have been especially blessed when it comes to mentors. I have a father who's pretty much the best acting teacher out there. I've got an art-historian step-mother who once took Mrs. Pennington, my junior-high art-teacher, to the wood-shed for complaining about the unrealistic elements in my drawings. I had a step-father who once told me "take some time, figure out what you want to do and then figure out how to get people to pay you to do it." I had a Mom who never met a situation she wouldn't go to bed with--I'm speaking (mostly) figuratively here. My college acting teacher cast me in parts I should never have been playing and then took me out for drinks when I failed. And in grad-school I spent eight years as the research assistant for the world's leading theatre historian. When I moved to New York, I got to meet, receive encouragement and become friends with a man who changed my life just by looking at a photo of him sitting in a theatre seat, drawing.
And then there's Joan.
See, Joan was a teacher and administrator and then her life took an unexpected turn and she started designing shoes for the first large wave of women entering the workplace as executives. Without a plan, without a publicist and without any experience in fashion she created a little hands-on empire that became so popular that it was name-checked in the premiere episode of Friends. That career ran its course and now she's a teacher again.
You know, like you do.
Joan sort of adopted me as a protege, so I was excited last week to get to go and watch her in the class-room doing her thing. And I have to say, it was pretty inspiring. I had some important meetings and introductions last week and a bunch of good things happened and God knows where they will lead or what comes next, but sitting there in the classroom with Joan as she looked out at her students I found peace as she said to them, "don't ever think for a moment that you know where anything leads or that the things you learn here are the only things that will carry you forward into a career. The most important thing in the world is to be happy and to do the things that keep you happy. The rest will follow."
OK--I'm essentializing her lecture; those may not be direct quotes. But her main piece of comfort, her mantra and the phrase she's saving for the title of her memoirs I did take down in the precise wording. And last Wednesday wasn't the first time I had heard her say it. "Joan," I sometimes say, "why would anyone allow me to do this thing I've decided to do? Why would the New Yorker hire me? Why should I think I can succeed at this?"
And she tells me what she tells all her students.