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Oh, the stories longtime author Jean Gollay could tell

Jean Gollay, 90, is pictured next to a portrait of herself and her husband, Benjamin, at the Museum of Fine Arts. The work is among those on display in the “Art, Friendships, and the New York School’’ exhibit.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Jean Gollay, 90, is pictured next to a portrait of herself and her husband, Benjamin, at the Museum of Fine Arts. The work is among those on display in the “Art, Friendships, and the New York School’’ exhibit.

VENICE

As rain pours in curtains on each side of the covered walkway, Jean Libman Block Gollay strides from her retirement complex's clubhouse to her apartment, several buildings away.

Gollay (pronounced go-LAY) wears a T-shirt and soft pants from her morning exercise class. Talking with a visitor, she sounds maybe 60. She looks maybe 70. She can't be 90.

But she is, and she offers her visitor endless stories across the decades of her life and her career, writing for Reader's Digest, Good Housekeeping and the old Coronet, Pageant and Charm magazines.

In retrospect, Gollay says, she thinks she should have pursued a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University. Classes were small then and she might have ended up working at the New York Times or editing a magazine.

Instead, after majoring in French at Barnard College, off she went in the autumn of 1938 to Tours, France, to work in a school as an English tutor. With Adolf Hitler "rampaging all over Munich," Gollay recalls, her mother kept cabling her to come home.

"I'd say, 'Not yet,' '' Gollay says.

She finally left after Benito Mussolini's Italian troops invaded Albania in April 1939. Back in the States, she was soon selling articles to the New York Times.

In the 1940s, her first husband, Frederick Block, was stationed with the Army in Little Rock, Ark. Actor Melvyn Douglas, then a leading man, had enlisted and was in basic training there. Gollay sold an interview with him to Town & Country magazine.

Freelance writers often fret that times used to be better for them, and Gollay concurs. She started in a golden era before television. General-interest magazines proliferated and their editors hungered for material.

"It was easy to break in. You could sell almost anything," relates Gollay, sitting in an apartment that displays her interest in modern art.

In the late 1950s, she met Revlon founder Charles Revson at a party in Westchester, N.Y. He soon hired her as product information coordinator. She wrote a white paper on every product, as well as some copy for the retail packages. "It was fun," she says. "I had a veto on every written word in the company, except for advertising."

She stayed two years, leaving when she thought it was time to keep a closer eye on her two teenagers. (Gollay has a son, a daughter, a stepdaughter from her second marriage, and two granddaughters.)

After leaving the cosmetics firm, she co-wrote a novel, Toujours Forever," which spoofed life at Revlon. That was one of "10 or 11 books'' she says she authored or co-authored, as well as working as a "book doctor" for at least six more.

She was also selling freelance articles to several national magazines. Soon after its 1948 founding, Gollay joined the Society of Magazine Writers, now the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She went on to serve as its president in 1966 and kept her membership until about three years ago.

Her son, Fred Block, author and sociology professor at the University of California, Davis, recalls that growing up in New York City suburbs during the baby boom, it was unusual to have a working mom, but he was proud of it.

"When I was about 8, she wrote a piece for a Sunday supplement called 'I Refuse to Chauffeur My Children,' and they came and took pictures of my sister and I walking to school," he recalls.

"As I grew older and started to think about gender inequality, I was very proud that she had done that — it was a feminist statement well before Betty Friedan had written The Feminine Mystique. And, in fact, Betty was a friend of hers who had also been a working mother during those very different times."

In the mid 1960s, Gollay wrote a profile for Reader's Digest about Ethel Percy Andrus and an organization Andrus founded in 1958: the American Association of Retired Persons.

"I don't have any exact numbers,'' Gollay says, "but after the article, membership in AARP suddenly zoomed and kept right on zooming, thanks to word of mouth from readers. So I've always considered myself at least the stepmother of AARP."

She says Bantam Books hired her to "doctor'' a manuscript by two flight attendants about their "uninhibited" adventures. She says the original was amateurish but had potential, and she did a lot of work to shape it for 1967 publication.

"I asked for a tiny percentage of sales but was turned down. To everyone's amazement, Coffee, Tea or Me was a runaway bestseller."

It turned out that the airline attendants didn't exist; a man, Donald Bain, had written the original manuscript. (He since has written about 75 books, including a number based on the Murder, She Wrote TV characters.)

By the late 1970s, Gollay had done dozens of stories for Good Housekeeping and had become articles editor. She wrote about presidential and vice presidential family members, interviewing Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Muriel Humphrey, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan.

Gollay says that Patricia Nixon would never be interviewed but because her photo on the cover would boost sales, the magazine editors created reasons to print it.

At Good Housekeeping, Gollay hired Toni Gerber Hope, now the health editor there. Hope describes Gollay as a prodigious worker:

"I can picture her still, leaning over — believe it or not — a typewriter. And she always had a pen in her mouth. She would just turn out" the articles.

Hope said Gollay was direct, quick and enthusiastic.

"The women's movement was very new then, and the readership was not exactly out there burning bras. But she was very able to travel in both worlds," Hope recalls.

"Now everything we do in women's magazines assumes they work at least part time, they're busy, they're not 'housewives'. I would say the era that Jean was working here was kind of the beginning of that."

Gollay retired in 1981 from Good Housekeeping. Her second husband, Benjamin Gollay, died in 1983. She later spent 20 years as a companion to architect Edgar Tafel, an early apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Gollay and Tafel traveled the world, leading what she calls "a gypsy existence," as he lectured and wrote about Wright.

Now, she swims, reads, takes long walks, knits and sews — and she says there's hardly time for all of it.

"I do have good stories" still to tell, she says. But she is not writing them anymore.

She says that editors now "all seem about 11'' years old, and it's hard to relate. "Look, I'm 90. I can't chase around the country to interview people."

Gollay describes herself as a realist. "I know I'm not going to live forever. I think you go into the ground, and that's it."

Juli Cragg Hilliard is a freelance writer living in Bradenton. She can be reached at www.julicragghilliard.com.

>>IF YOU GO

The Benjamin Gollay Collection

Jean Gollay's late husband, Benjamin, a New York attorney, was adviser to numerous artists who gave him paintings, sculptures and other works.

About 40 of those pieces are on temporary exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. "Art, Friendships, and the New York School: The Benjamin Gollay Collection" is on display through Sept. 28. For information, call (727) 896-2667 or go to www.fine-arts.org.

Oh, the stories longtime author Jean Gollay could tell 08/25/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2008 7:50am]

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