Q&A: 'It's My Party': The Story of a Glittering Life, with a Few Demons

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Jeannette Watson was born into a dazzling family.  Her father, Thomas Watson, Jr., headed up IBM, and built the company into a major force in the business world, and her grandfather, Thomas Watson, led the company before him. Her mother, Olive, dated John F. Kennedy and Howard Hughes.  Watson’s own life has been a glittering one – opening an acclaimed bookstore, Books & Co., on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, enjoying the company of famous writers and poets, marrying the grandson of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger – except when it wasn’t. Those times included some serious bouts with depression and self-doubt. Watson talked with The National’s Eileen Hershenov about growing up with privilege, fighting demons, and her memoir, It’s My Party, coming out soon in paperback.

Q.  You have written a memoir about growing up in a remarkable world – your father was the head of IBM, following in his father’s footsteps, your mother was a glamorous socialite who dated JFK and Howard Hughes.  Some readers may come to your story, even with all its considerable difficulties and challenges – your strict upbringing, your battles with anxiety and depression – thinking “poor little rich girl.” Were you concerned about avoiding that dismissive characterization, and how did you go about it?

Some people looking at my life would have thought I had an enviable life. I tried to convey in my book that I realized what fortunate circumstances I was born into. However, all the money in the world does not make up to a child for not feeling loved or valued. It was not easy being the daughter of a legendary beauty! As a teenager I felt my life could never measure up to hers: I wasn’t beautiful or pursued by glamorous, powerful admirers. I didn’t even know how to ‘talk to boys.’

My father was an extremely successful businessman but a family cannot be run like a corporation and he would get extremely upset if the household and children were not run with military precision. I think it must have surprised him that the deference he got at the office was not duplicated at home.  Unlike at the office he couldn’t really fire any of us although from time to time he may have wanted to.

Q.  You write that your father, despite having so much, was “funny about money” and once told you that your family was not rich, but had “some money” and that he felt he lived modestly – yacht, houses, apartments and Learjet aside. Do you think at some level he was worried it could all disappear (perhaps because his father had come from modest circumstances and he himself had lived through the Great Depression) or that he was trying to inculcate certain values in you?  Do you think he was so driven because of anxiety, including financial anxiety?

It is hard for me to really explain my father’s attitude about money. I do know that in the beginning my parents were on a fairly strict budget. My father suffered from being the boss’s son. Even though he was a legendary businessman part of him wondered whether he could have done it on his own. I think Daddy was worried about the future of the company.  In the late 40’s and 50’s other companies were selling computers and IBM was only one of them. My father decided to risk it all on system 360, one of the largest private ventures in U.S history, at a cost of $5 billion. This was extremely nerve wracking because if it failed he and the company could have lost everything.

I think Daddy did want to give us good values about money. Oddly enough he never talked about it. Money was almost a dirty word and none of us knew what our finances would be like or had any training about how to handle our inheritance -- not a great system!

Q.  One senses that there might have been a lot more you could have written that was negative and critical –- say, about your father’s temper, your mother’s preoccupation with looks, or even your own depression.  How did you arrive at the tone and balance you wanted to use when you wrote about negative things?  Did you have a model? (For example, several prominent people who have written memoirs have said that they were influenced by the way Katharine Graham wrote about her husband’s illness and the difficulties in their marriage.)

When one writes a memoir there are many ethical decisions involved along the way. For instance, would I write about my children or my siblings? I ultimately decided not to, as I thought those would be their stories not mine. You are correct: there is a lot more I could have written but chose not to. Over the years I have come to have better understanding and appreciation for my parents. Susan Cheever mentioned to me the other day that what you leave out of a book is as important as what you leave in. I am hoping that a sensitive reader can read between the lines. I showed the book to various agents and they all suggested I go deeper. At a certain point I decided that I had gone as deep as I could go and still feel good about myself.

Q.  You come from a family that founded an iconic American business, IBM.  Your husband, Alex Sanger, is the grandson of Margaret Sanger, and he became the head of another iconic American institution, Planned Parenthood.  Do you feel that there’s a connection in your and Alex’s backstories or something that appealed to you in that?

There certainly are many similarities in Alex’s and my background. He was born in a nearby suburban community and our lives intersected at various places but I didn’t notice him as he was and is two years younger. He was from a family of six: as I am, his five boys and a girl, and I from a family with five girls and a boy. Growing up with a famous relative is bound to have an impact one way or the other. I was and am proud of what Alex’s grandmother had done and also what Alex has done.

Q.  We know each other a little from summering on the island of North Haven, Maine. I wonder if you could speak more about the island and the social changes you’ve seen.  When you were younger, many of the year-round island residents constituted the “help” for the wealthy summer people. Would it have been inconceivable for you and your sisters and brother to socialize with islanders when you were younger? How real do you think the breakdown of the class structure really is now?

Thinking about North Haven I realize there was more of a dark side than I had realized. A man from North Haven told me that in the old days, 55 years ago, a summer girl had invited him to a casino tea and the hostess of the tea would not allow him in. I should think and hope that now any child would be allowed in for ice cream. I think 55 years ago I did not really know any island girls beyond playing basketball with them. Although I believe the class structure has changed I imagine a lot of things remain the same. There is however more cooperation between summer and winter people. A good example of this would be the joint effort to raise money for the new school and the Eldercare Facility.

Q.  Your book is about a journey from feeling powerless and like a victim, to becoming the hero of your life -- a healer who can support other people, a person who can create “a habit of happiness” for herself. You credit analysis, Buddhism, and Shamanism for helping you.  Can you say a bit more about what broke the cycle of depression and how you deal differently when your anxiety and depression presents now?

I am really lucky that I have learned so many techniques for dealing with anxiety and depression. I always joke that my husband wakes up positive and happy and it takes me a bit of work to get there. When I wake up I go into my healing room and do my Buddhist prayers, then I meditate. Sometimes I might work with my energy body and connecting my chakras (or energy centers). I also do shamanic prayers.  Then I might read a bit of some inspirational book by Wayne Dyer or Marianne Williamson. If I need pepping up I might listen to the Rolling Stones and dance around my room. All of this contributes to my confidence and sense of wellbeing. I am a Laughter Yoga leader and it gives me great pleasure to encourage groups of people to laugh. I know exercise is very important and I make an effort to be out in nature and walking. I carefully calibrate my feelings each day as I want to catch myself before any downward spiral occurs. If I am feeling fragile I might pamper myself and not push myself too hard. I would be especially careful not to be around negative people, only loving and supportive ones. If I am feeling a lot worse I might discuss it with my psychopharmacologist and consider changing my medications.

Q.  So, since we’re book people, I’d like to end with a question about books.  With your famous New York City bookstore, Books & Co., you were trying to create a salon.  Do you think it would be possible today, in the age of e-books, Amazon and Barnes & Noble and a more fragmented literary culture, for someone to start something like Books & Co.?  I’ve read that independent bookstores are coming back, or at least doing better and some authors have opened their own bookstores. Would you encourage a young Jeannette to open a store like Books & Co. now?  How might it differ from the store you opened and ran from 1977-1997?

I think there has been a resurgence of the independent bookstore. Many bookstore owners are being extremely creative about having a café and many events to really make their bookstore a magnet for the community. I have noticed that in many long-lived bookstores the bookseller owns the building, and then one is not at the mercy of a landlord raising the rent. I would definitely encourage my young self to open a bookstore as it is such a satisfying career. I am not sure how the bookstore would be different but I believe people will not give up the physical book -- or the pleasure of browsing in a bookstore.