It's late afternoon at the Redwood Room, the bar at Ian Schrager's swank and remodeled Clift Hotel, and Jane Juska, 70, newly famous author of "Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Love and Romance," is matter-of-factly explaining why she has no desire to try out online dating.
"I don't need to be sleeping with any more men right now," she says.
And how many men would that be, right now?
"Just three," she answers, demurely sipping her sauvignon blanc. Despite the calm posture, her eyebrows rise and her eyes widen when she repeats the number, as if to say, "Yeah, can you believe my luck?"
Of course, three men in your bed has nothing to do with luck. In Juska's case it's the end result of an ad she placed a little over three years ago in the New York Review of Books:
Before I turn 67 -- next March -- I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.
Within a few months of placing the ad, the life of Jane Juska, a divorced, formerly overweight, formerly alcoholic, retired schoolteacher living alone in a small cottage in Berkeley, Calif., was turned upside down. Those 32 words produced the tryst of a lifetime, and then another, and then another, and then a mostly inspiring personal memoir.
I say mostly inspiring, because though she certainly succeeds in meeting many men who know how to, er, talk Trollope, she falls for her fair share of chumps, skunks and pervs. As a young female reader, there were times when I wanted to chuck the book across the room in frustration, as Juska succumbed to the charms of scoundrel after scoundrel. There's the first man she sleeps with, an 84-year-old who makes off with both her born-again virginity and her underwear; a hot-and-cold curmudgeon named Robert, who blames her for his impotence; there's a fetishistic millionaire, who delights in grabbing her in corners and murmuring sweet nothings in public like "Touch it with your hand" and "Feel what you've done to me." I couldn't help wondering, shouldn't this woman be old enough to know better?
Before meeting Juska, I had imagined she would look decadent and glamorous, like Anne Bancroft's Miss Havisham, with a bit of Jeanne Moreau in "Dangerous Liaisons 1960," maybe even a dash of late Deneuve. If not glamorous, then I'd assumed she'd be ageless in a Cher sort of way, a hodgepodge of face-lifts and botox injections, salty and well-preserved, like a pickle.
But the woman who stands to greet me looks charming, intelligent, respectable. Not more than 5 feet tall, with a white-blond bob and bright blue eyes behind spectacles. My first thought is Mrs. Claus. No way Mrs. Claus gets more play than I do. She is wearing what in the book she calls her "stock first date uniform" -- a pair of black slacks and a long black sweater, cheerful cranberry red lipstick, and a matching red and white silk scarf around her neck.
Juska starts off by telling me about the recent changes in her life, since the publicity wheel for her book started spinning. She is holding in her hands a Nordstrom bag, because she has been shopping for a perfect dress, courtesy of her publicist, to wear on her upcoming trip to New York, complete with readings, press interviews and television appearances. "This is more money than I've ever spent on a dress!" she says, shaking her head and raising her eyebrows in a gesture that, rehearsed or not, is utterly charming and confident.
In fact, the woman before me seems much more confident than the woman in the book who worries about her weight, about having sex with the light on. She perches on the edge of her seat, eyes sharp behind the glasses, and takes in every detail around her -- oversize illuminated Klimts, restless-eyed stockbrokers from Duluth, the uncomfortably low couches, a hallmark of swank cocktail lounges. We order more wine. My plan is to get her drunk, or else to get myself drunk, so I can work up the nerve to ask her the questions that troubled me while reading the book. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to accuse a 70-year-old woman of being a doormat.
"When I first started dating, especially with Robert" (the book's most certifiable scumbag, and of course, the one who first broke Juska's heart), "I was still using my journal to cry into." But then, realizing she had some good material, she began taking notes on her adventures and bringing them to her writing workshop. When the episodes proved too steamy for the group, she decided to collect her stories into a memoir. One of her worst dates unknowingly gave her the juicy line she needed to kick it all off: "He asked me, 'Do you think you're a nymphomaniac?' and I thought, You're an asshole, but I got my first sentence. So I guess I owe him one."
At first glance, her would-be suitor's question seems quite reasonable. At the time, Juska was 67 years old, and most women her age don't just walk around saying that what they really want is "a lot of sex." Not even in the New York Review of Books. But Juska is clearly not most women. When I ask her about her current paramours, she mischievously tells me that they all "look wonderful naked." One is a charmer in his 70s, the other an 82-year-old on the rebound, and the third -- ah, the third is a fellow writer whom she will describe as her soul mate several times throughout the evening. He's 33.
As she continues to work on her wine, the twinkle in Juska's blue eyes is getting even brighter. She is licking raw fish off her tiny hand, grinning. This is what Mrs. Claus would look like if she were getting porked regularly, by Santa, an elf or two, and at least one of his reindeer.
"One person is dangerous. Three --" She reaches for more salmon. "Three spreads it all out. It's rare to find one person who can speak to all parts of you, and you can love more than one person at a time, you know."
I ask her to explain the difference between "love" and "sex with someone you like," since it was the latter she was claiming to be seeking in her ad. "Sex with someone you like is much, much more fun. I mean, with one of these men, we're great friends, but I'm not in love with him the way you think you're supposed to be in love with someone you have marathon sex with, but --"
"Wait -- you have marathon sex?"
"Oh yes, oh yes, it's amazing. We go all night."
I gulp down the rest of my wine, perhaps more quickly than would be prudent.
A true voyeur, Juska is easily distracted by the other people in the room. "What do you think of that man, walking in right now?" she asks me, pointing to a beefy, ex-football player in a too-small gray suit, with a thick neck and flat eyes.
Before I have a chance to respond, she answers her own question. "Now see, that's not what I want; I think that man looks feral. Who needs a guy who's on the hunt?" Her eyes light on a smiling man in his mid-20s, dressed casually. "But ooh, what about that one over there? Is he your type?"
I confess that my type generally doesn't frequent hotel bars, Ian Schrager-owned or not, and suggest that we move on to the Tunnel Top, a hip split-level former mah-jongg parlor, from which one never need go home alone.
Somewhere in the stumble from one bar to the next, I launch into a best-forgotten soliloquy on the meaning of fidelity, and the universal search for true love. I point to the times in the book when she seemed lonely. When men turned their backs on her, when she boarded planes back home, rejected.
We grab seats at the Tunnel Top, and halfway through the first Chimay, I have enough alcohol coursing through my veins to ask her my question: "Are you sure it's not really love you're looking for, not sex? Maybe you just want a soul mate?"
But Juska is distracted. Standing behind us is a fabulous young couple, the boy in large pink tinted sunglasses and the girl in blue ones, both wearing skintight slacks and huge velvet porkpie hats. Juska turns around and looks them both up and down, before she remembers my question. "Oh wait, I'm sorry, about soul mates?" She crosses, then recrosses her legs, smiles. "Look, I'm in a much different place than you are at your age. Maybe it's an evolutionary thing. I've done marriage and kids. I'm not into nesting. I don't have much time left. And I have these lovely interactions with these men -- maybe it's because for me, and for other people my age, there's a certain poignancy and sweetness that comes from being so close to the end."
Juska certainly doesn't look like she's anywhere near the end. Tipsy and giggling in the late afternoon light, she looks positively radiant. In fact, the 20-something bartender has been watching her from the corner of his eye since she came in, and I don't think it was because he wanted to card her.
"So casual sex has a different meaning for you?"
"Oh lord!" she exclaims, sounding shocked for the first time so far. "My dear, this is not casual sex at all! Sex is very intimate -- you come out of it changed. I don't care how free you think you are. Sex is not one bit casual. Wonderful, yes, and worth it."
"Even with Robert, the chump?" I ask.
"Well, yes. Even with Robert. I mean, I did get hurt in the course of writing this book. Because I took chances. If you live your life in order to protect yourself, then you're not going to live life."
It's early evening by now. She smiles at me. Her eyes dissolve into a thousand tiny wrinkles.
"What was the biggest risk you took?" I ask. She takes no notice of the bartender leaning in to hear her answer. "Well, I guess going to the airport to meet the first fella who answered my ad, the one who stole my underwear."
The round-heeled woman laughs, and lifts her glass for a toast. "And you know, even he had his high points. I mean, we had fun."