ERICA JONG LOVES TO THINK THAT Fear of Flying—her racy 1973 novel in which a woman’s sexual fantasies ran riot—provided other women with a sense of libidinal license. So it was with some dismay that she heard from one male fan recently in San Francisco. While traveling in Italy, he had stayed up all night with two gorgeous female strangers talking about Jong’s controversial best-seller. “So I asked, ‘Well, did anything happen?’ And he said no, nothing.” Jong crosses her legs and lets out some girlish squeals of laughter. “I mean, I just couldn’t believe it!”
As the champion of loveless, guilt-free sex for women—a notion she popularized with an infamous zipless phrase in Fear of Flying—Jong became a symbol during the ’70s of what seemed a healthy new hedonism. Now, with the publication of her latest book, Fear of Fifty (HarperCollins), the 52-year-old author hopes once again to be the distaff voice of her now-older-and-mellower generation. Part confessional, part cocktail chatter and part intellectual cant, the memoir chronicles Jong’s childhood, her career, her marriages and numerous affairs. “It tells the story of where we have been and where we are going, especially as women,” says Jong, who seems as open, engaging and fiercely self-centered as ever. “It seems to have a very emotional charge for people.”
Perhaps, but many critics missed the spark. “Two decades is a long time to go on playing the naughty girl who can sling dirty words and sleep around just like the guys,” a New York Times critic observed. “What might have been outré at age 30 seems passe at age 50.” Jong admits the criticism hurts. “There’s not a lot of sex in the book, but that’s what gets talked about,” she says. “And yet if you get people’s attention with sex, then maybe you’ll be able to tell them about everything else.”
A self-described “left-leaning Jewish feminist and devout pagan,” Erica Mann was born in New York City, the second of three daughters of a vaudeville-musician father turned antique doll importer and a mother who was an amateur painter. At Barnard College, Erica planned on becoming a doctor—a notion she ditched after her first experience with a pig fetus. She switched to English literature and later earned a master’s in 1965 at Columbia. Her first marriage, at 21, to market researcher Michael Werthman, was annulled after six months when he was found to be schizophrenic. At 24, she married child psychiatrist Allan Jong, and they were divorced nine years later—though she kept his name (and trashed him in Flying) after the book made it a household word. Her third marriage, in 1977 to writer Jonathan Fast, led to the birth of her only child, Molly, now 16, but that marriage, too, fell apart in 1983. Jong resolved to stay single after that, she says, “fearing the boredom and entrapment of something not accidentally called wedlock.”
During the next decade, when she worked on four novels and two volumes of poetry, Jong says writing took priority over both motherhood and men. Still, there were torrid romances, including a booze-and pot-laced affair with an American and an on-again, off-again relationship with an Italian—both described in heavy-breathing detail in Fifty. Then came a turning point. On a blind date in 1989 she met divorce lawyer Ken Burrows—a man who had “the feel of a friendly animal sniffing the air.” Later that summer, while taking a cooking course in Rome, she was forced to choose between a weekend with Burrows in Paris and a weekend with her lover in Venice. She chose Burrows. “The hottest thing is the person who flits through your consciousness, but the Italian wasn’t going to hang curtains and build bookcases,” she says.
Married for five years, Jong and Burrows, 53, divide their time between a Manhattan apartment and a country home in Connecticut with Molly, a feisty, articulate high school junior. “It wasn’t until my fourth wedding day that I admitted to myself I’m a mother,” says Jong. Molly may not be a fan of Jong’s sexually explicit writing (“She isn’t supposed to think such things—she’s my mother!”), but she is a best friend and a booster. “There were people with nose rings at one book signing,” says Molly. “I thought, ‘Wow, my mom is cool.’ ” For his part, Ken accepts his wife’s flights of fancy. “It’s important for Erica to have a free fantasy life,” he says. “That’s her.”
These days, when Jong isn’t visiting France or sitting down with Molly to one of Ken’s sumptuous home-cooked meals, she is hard at work on her next book, a futuristic tale in which puritan feminists take over America. Jong says her naughty-girl days—both as writer and woman—are over, but she’s resigned to the fact she’ll always be known for just one thing. “The zipless thing,” she says, “will be on my tombstone.”
KURT PITZER in Los Angeles