As a writer, as well as an actor and a teacher, Alix Strauss knows from audiences, especially Jewish ones. On Aug. 4 she had the crowd of 40 or so seniors at Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains nodding in agreement and roaring with laughter — even if she sometimes made their eyebrows shoot up.
Her talk was one of the final special events of the JCC of Central New Jersey’s summer program for seniors and active adults. The program, which comes to an end this week, brought participants two or three events a week, including concerts, lectures, field trips, and workshops. Barbara Weisbart, director of adult enrichment, said about 200 people took part, including members of communities in Cranford, Somerset, and Whippany.
Strauss homed in on two topics close to Jewish hearts: storytelling and mothers’ desperate desire to marry off their offspring. Storytelling, she said, is something Jews are committed to doing — to commemorate the past, preserve traditions, and celebrate the dramas of our own lives. She does plenty of storytelling of her own, with both fiction and fact, in award-winning books and articles.
Strauss, who has a degree in theater education from New York University, started out as a playwright. “I thought that if I wrote it, they’d have to give me a part in it,” she said. She went on to journalism, writing for publications like The New York Times, New York Post, Time magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Esquire.
“I don’t write about things like Watergate; I write about what’s free and stuff like that,” she claimed, but on a more serious note, acknowledged getting a thrill from her celebrity interviews and lifestyle and trend articles. “It’s like being one step ahead of the world,” she said.
Her nonfiction books include Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious, and an earlier anthology which she edited, Have I Got a Guy for You, a collection of stories about nightmare blind dates organized by the contributors’ mothers.
It would be hard to imagine the petite, pretty blonde having any problems attracting men, but Strauss claimed to have just as many horror stories about her own blind dates. She regaled the Scotch Plains audience with descriptions acerbic enough to make any wise women hide her sons — from the fellow with a black eye patch (“old blue eye”) to the “skyscraper” of a self-proclaimed comedian with a greasy “Jewfro.”
But topping the lot was the guy who — on their first (and only) date — complained about his wife. Clearly, she said, her desperate mother had established only one thing before handing him her daughter’s phone number — “that he was a man.”
Wanted: soul mate
A couple of people shared their own matchmaking stories with her, and shrieks of laughter met some of her comments. But that didn’t stop Strauss from giving the crowd a hard time, like the best of Borsht Belt performers. “You’re a tough crowd,” she declared. “What are we waiting for here — cookies and sedatives?”
When her comment about welcoming the testosterone in the room (there were four men present) was met with a puzzled look by one of the women, Strauss declared, “She’s not getting it — but then neither am I.”
She went on to give a reading from her most recent novel, Based upon Availability, about eight women whose lives intersect in the rooms of New York’s Four Seasons hotel.
While she delights in the “freedom from fact-checkers” that fiction provides, it should read with the veracity of a memoir, she said. To make sure she had her details right, she actually booked into the Four Seasons and put herself through some of what her characters face. However, she didn’t do that for her previous novel, The Joy of Funerals, about a “funeral junkie” who finds cemeteries a great place to bond with the living.
For all her “new woman” tough talk, at times Strauss sounded more like an old-timer than the folks in front of her. She talked with nostalgia about the pleasure of books compared to the new electronic reading devices. Bemoaning the lack of finesse in her suitors, she reminisced about the days when women wore gloves and men took off their hats in the elevator, and people “got all gussied up” for a date — a time long gone by the time she hit puberty.
Despite her complaints about dating hell, when one audience member asked if she still wanted to meet a guy, she admitted she would. “I don’t believe she has any trouble finding men,” he muttered to the person next to him. “She probably has five of them trying to get her attention.”
Strauss, who recently bought herself an apartment in Manhattan, said, “I’m not averse to spending my life as a single woman. Better to be alone than to be with someone who’s bad company. But I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t like to have a best friend — a soul mate — to share their life with.” And at that, you could feel people retrieving their mental files of “nice boys” this charming meidel might like to meet.