Q&AThe Mother of All ‘Housewives’
By Philip Galanes, The New York Times
- Jun. 16, 2013
It all began with “An American Family.” Without the dysfunctional Louds and the riveting real-life drama of their household, televised by PBS in 1973, there may never have been an MTV “Real World,” any “Real Housewives,” “Bachelors” or other inescapable figures from the reality TV landscape.
Recently, The New York Times invited Pat Loud, the matriarch of that family and the lightning rod for many of the show’s viewers, to share a lunch with Carole Radziwill, a journalist and the author of “What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship and Love,” and the most recent cast addition to the “Real Housewives of New York.”
Ms. Loud, now 86 and living in Southern California in a relationship that might surprise viewers of “An American Family,” remains close to her surviving children: Grant, a production executive on “Jeopardy”; Kevin, an investment banker; Michele, a fashion designer at Vince; and Delilah, a senior vice president at Sony Television. Ms. Radziwill, 49, currently filming her second season of “Real Housewives” after a brief contract dispute with Bravo, is also about to publish her first novel, “The Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating.”
The conversation at Il Cantinori in Greenwich Village touched on the vagaries of fame, the loss of loved ones (Ms. Loud’s son Lance, whom she celebrates in her recent book, “Lance Out Loud,” died of complications from AIDS in 2001 at age 50; Ms. Radziwill’s husband, Anthony, died of cancer in 1999 at 40), and the bizarre experience of having the mundane moments of your daily life watched, scrutinized and judged by millions of Americans.
Philip Galanes: O.K., Pat, you’ve got some serious explaining to do. Duck dynasties and Kardashians and horrible housewives — thousands of hours of reality TV — all thanks to your terrific program, “An American Family.” Did you have any idea you were signing up for revolutionary television?
Pat Loud: No inkling. Ray Bradbury gave a cocktail party, and one of my best friends, the Style editor of The Santa Barbara New-Press, was there. She’d met this producer who told her he’d been in Santa Barbara for ages and couldn’t find a family for a show he was making. So she brought him up to our house. But nobody had ever heard of anything like this. It had never been done before.
PG: Did you and Bill [her husband at the time] watch documentaries?
PL: Documentaries weren’t like this. They were Margaret Mead and Africa. And anybody who knows anything about families knows a lot of what you say and do is totally mundane and totally boring.
PG: Did they say, “We’re going to be with you for 300 hours over seven months”?
PL: Oh, no. They said, “We’re going to do four families, and you’re going to be the West Coast family.” We asked the kids, and they all agreed. It seemed like a fun thing to do.
PG: Now, Carole, you, on the other hand, had the benefit of seeing four or five seasons of “Real Housewives.”
Carole Radziwill: I can’t say I watched all those seasons — —
PG: You wouldn’t have to. What on earth made you say: ‘Yes! Sign me up for that parade of vulgarians!’? You don’t seem the type at all.
CR: That’s a good question. I think what got the best of me is that I’m a journalist, and like many journalists, I’m curious about all sorts of things in life. So whether it’s politics or war, or a cultural phenomenon such as this franchise, there was a hunger for experience.
PG: A hunger for standing around with five women yelling at each other?
CR: I made a promise to myself that I was not going to do anything on camera that I would not do in my real life.
PG: Probably easier said than done. Any slips?
CR: No, I’ve been O.K.
PG: One of the big differences between you two — the alpha and omega of reality TV — is that you’re getting paid, Carole. And when people pay you, it’s more complicated. Do you feel obliged to go along with what the producers want you to do?
CR: There’s no amount of money that would make me humiliate myself or my family on television. It’s an ensemble cast, and it takes all kinds to make a village. It takes all kinds to make a reality show. And I knew my specific role was going to be the voice of reason, not the one who becomes unhinged.
PL: Do they tell you what the plot should be?
CR: There’s a lot of talk about the show being scripted, and it’s absolutely not. Sometimes I wish it were scripted because it would require less work from me. But I work with the producers to create story lines, like this is what I’m doing this week: I’m meeting with my publisher, I’m taking my author photo. Do you want to film it? And they say yes or no, and I’ll invite one of the other ladies.
PG: Was there that approach with you, Pat? Did the producers ask you to do anything?
PL: I was coerced into doing the divorce scene.
PG: The scene in the restaurant where you and Bill break up?
PL: Yes. I was probably drunk. There’s a little bit of drinking that goes on in our show, too.
PG: But tell me what you mean by coerced.
PL: The producer said how important it was, and how WNET would protect me if I did that scene.
CR: Did you have an idea going into the filming that you were going to separate?
PL: When we went into filming, we thought they were only going to be around for a couple of weeks. They were there for seven months. And do you know what? I live with Bill Loud again. We never remarried, but we live together.
CR: You do?
PG: You got back together? Like right after the show?
PL: No, much later. Lance was dying. He was crazy about his dad, and Bill was living in Houston, old and retired. We’re both old and retired.
PG: Pat, you look sensational.
CR: You must never have sat in the sun.
PL: Oh, I was a big sun lover, and I drank a lot of vodka. I’m pioneer stock. My parents were the second wave of pioneers to come into Oregon. We’re tough people.
PG: So set the stage: Bill is living in Houston, old and retired, and you’re gorgeous and living where?
PL: I was taking care of Lance in Los Angeles. And when it was clear that he was not going to make it, Bill came over, and Lance asked that we get back together. And of course, all the other kids wanted that, too. And I thought: Holy mackerel, this will never work.
PG: When was this?
PL: I’m 86 now, and that was 12 years ago.
CR: That’s incredible.
PG: When the show aired, the reaction was strong. Were you prepared for it?
PL: Stunning. You know, we had an ego. We thought we were pretty good. We had all these terrific kids, and ours was a house where all the kids came. It was just a great, happy house. But WNET did not support us in any way.
PG: You mean in terms of media?
PL: Protection of any sort. Their press kit, WNET’s own press kit, gave us bloody hell, and that’s when we knew we were in for it.
PG: You were on the cover of Newsweek magazine: “The Broken Family.” But weren’t you just like every other family?
PL: We were California airheads as far as they were concerned.
PG: What was the response after your season, Carole: lovely or lots of eye rolling?
CR: My group, the people I grew up with, my journalist friends who are working hard, they were the first ones who said, “I get it.” They weren’t judging or eye rolling. They understood.
PG: Having the experience?
CR: I’m a little bit of an experience junkie. So, yes.
PG: And then there’s the money. We all do things for money.
CR: I’ve been working since I was 13, all through my marriage, when my husband certainly could have paid my bills. I got very good advice from [the Hollywood agent] Sue Mengers, when I was offered this job. I said: “Sue, I’m thinking of doing this. It’s strange, but I’m curious, and maybe this will help with my book.” She looked at me and said: “Who are you to walk away from a deal? You’re just another single girl with bills to pay.” I thought: OK, you’re right. And I don’t pretend to be anything other than what I am on the show. I think that’s why I’m fine with how I’m portrayed.
PG: You’re clearly the reasonable one. Has your mother-in-law, Lee Radziwill, called you up to say you were sensational — or an embarrassment?
CR: No, she would never do that. I don’t think she’s watched the show, but she knows me, and she knows I have integrity in whatever it is I’m doing.
PG: You became a working woman too, Pat, after the show?
PL: I did. I came to New York in 1974. I had a friend who was the editor in chief of Delacorte Press, and I said: “I need a job. I have to do something.” He sent me to an agent friend, Ron Bernstein. So I went to see Ron, and I said: “I’ve never done this before, but I will work for you for a week for free, and if we don’t work out, no problem, no harm done. How about it?” He said OK, and I was with him for a long time, until 1983.
PG: Did you become a literary agent yourself?
PL: I did. I didn’t do huge books, but I did some really, really good ones. I did Andrew Holleran’s “Dancer from the Dance.” I did Ruth Warrick’s book, she was Phoebe Tyler on “All My Children,” which was a very big show at that time, and Faith Stewart-Gordon, who owned the Russian Tea Room. I did “The Russian Tea Room Cookbook.”
PG: But no TV people came to you for a follow-up to “An American Family”? Pat Loud: Single Gal in the City?
PL: No! For one thing, the press was pretty unanimously hard on us. But we started getting thousands of letters from people who got it, and they said: Thank you. I got a lot of letters from gay guys, and that was nice because we helped a lot of people.
PG: Lance was the first gay guy on TV.
CR: Do you think that PBS edited the show in a way that didn’t really represent what was going on in those six months?
PL: The thing is, we did all those things. We can’t deny that we did them.
PG: But Carole’s point, 300 hours of film down to 12. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
CR: There’s a lot of talk about the edit on our show, too. But they’re fair in the edit. We film many, many more scenes that you don’t see, but as a producer, I understand that.
PG: Do you watch “Real Housewives,” Pat?
PL: No. I’ve seen small segments, but that’s about it. Because to me, maybe I just hit the wrong time, but it just seems like all these beautiful blond girls, all made up, with stem glasses of white Chablis, and they’re all just fighting at dinner somewhere.
CR: They’re very loud, my friends on the show. They talk loud, and they talk fast.
PG: You just said “my friends on the show.” But these aren’t your friends, are they? They can’t be your friends. They’re delusional.
CR: Let me just back up there. I’m going to be honest. I didn’t know everyone before I did the show. I didn’t know anyone. But I approached it with an open mind, so I developed whatever friendships I was going to have with them separately, and you see some of that on the show.
PG: Was there anyone affiliated with “An American Family” that you became tight with, Pat?
PL: We were friendly with everybody involved. It was afterward, when they edited the children out — all the kids just fell off the screen, except for Lance. They just went for the sensational stuff.
PG: They also went for you. You were clearly the star of that show.
PL: Well, now you tell me.
PG: I’m stunned that nobody asked you to do a book or a talk show or a scarf line? But I guess it was 1974, that wasn’t what people did.
PL: I would have tried it if I had known about it.
PG: I Googled the top shows in 1973, and there was a definite schism. There were modern shows like “All in the Family” and “Maude,” but also these really old-fashioned shows like “Here’s Lucy” and “Bonanza.” You were part of a cultural moment that was just starting. Ten million people were watching your show by the end of the 12th hour. That’s huge.
CR: That’s incredible. To think it started out on public TV like an experiment, and now it’s an industry at every major entertainment company.
PG: I hate to ask this because I think I know the answer. Did you get paid anything, Pat?
PL: Not a thing. I think they gave me something like $432 to repaint my kitchen because they put gaffers tape up on the top.
PG: But if this experience was not a positive one for the family ...
PL: It is now.
CR: It was then, you just didn’t know it.
PL: I like that.
PG: But when Lance was very sick with AIDS, PBS came back again. What made you get back into those perilous waters again?
PL: I was so shocked. Lance called the people who had been the main photographer and sound person for “An American Family.” I didn’t know that he did that. I didn’t know about it until I saw Alan [Raymond, the cameraman for “An American Family”] standing there with his camera.
PG: And everyone in the family agreed to do it?
PL: Everyone except Grant.
PG: Because he felt burned the first time?
PL: No, because it just seemed so crass to do. I don’t know why Lance did that, but he wanted to do it.
PG: You were accommodating Lance?
PL: Only. I felt so uncomfortable doing it. I just felt terrible.
PG: Like those reunion shows that you Real Housewives do.
CR: That was hard.
PG: They’ve got this guy, Pat — Andy Cohen. And he sits them all on a sofa and restarts all the fights you were talking about. It’s the saddest, tackiest thing that’s ever been in the world.
PL: And totally riveting. I’ve seen him do it with those Atlanta Housewives.
PG: But the difference points up something important about “An American Family.” The camera keeps coming back to the family, because that’s the way life is. Family is always in your face. But what they do with you, Carole, is keep throwing you together with these five irrelevant women. They leave all your important relationships out of the show. Right?
CR: Right. Well, Russ [Irwin, a musician and touring member of Aerosmith], who I was dating at the time, was in the show a little bit.
PG: Do you think the cameras hastened the end of that relationship?
CR: No, no, it had nothing to do with it. In fact, the show was something we did together. We were kind of in cahoots together. The breakup had nothing to do with it. But I know a lot of relationships end on reality television.
PG: It could have helped his career. Did the show increase sales of your book, “What Remains”?
CR: That book was mentioned twice on the show, once in my introduction, and then in one of the scenes, one of the other women had read it and she came over and started talking to me about it. But the book, which has been out for six years now, went back on The New York Times best-seller list during the run of the show. I was completely shocked by that.
PG: There are plenty of viewers.
PL: I was going to say that. You say to people: Do you watch it? And they say no. But everybody does.
PG: One of the things you two have in common is that you’ve both experienced terrible losses much earlier than we’re supposed to. Pat lost a son, and children are not supposed to die before their parents. And Carole lost her husband much too soon. Does death figure into what you’re doing, Carole? Did it figure into the rest of your journey, Pat, after “An American Family”?
PL: There’s a quote in “Flaubert’s Parrot” that says, you don’t come out of grief cleanly like from a dark tunnel into the bright sunlight, you come out of it like a sea gull coming up through an oil spill. You are tarred and feathered.
CR: I love that quote.
PL: That’s how it is.
CR: I think for me the death of Anthony followed so closely after the death of one of my closest friends, Carolyn [Bessette, wife of John F. Kennedy Jr.], that I was in that dark for a long time, and when I emerged, I found an incredible sense of humor about life.
PL: You have to.
CR: You just think this is all crazy. It helped me with the show because I think: yeah, this is crazy, but life is crazy.
PL: You know, old as I am, all my family has died. My mother, father, brother are dead. Bill knew all of them. I knew his mother and father. I’ve known Bill since I was 6 years old. I tell you this to show you what common memories we have and how much we share. The things that he did, I don’t even care about that anymore, it doesn’t interest me.
CR: You can divorce a man but you can’t divorce your life.
PL: Like somebody said: I’m only mad at his face.
CR: If you hadn’t done your show, Pat, what do you think your life would be today?
PL: I’ve often tried to figure that out. I would have been up in that house, and my kids would have all gone, and I would have the empty nest syndrome. So I beat them to it. I got out of there before they did.
CR: In a way, the show probably allowed you to live your more authentic life.
PL: When you’re divorced, all your friends invite your ex-husband; they’ve all got a girlfriend who needs an escort. But they ruffle their fans at you and look the other way because you are now competition. You go from friend to competition.
CR: I felt that way when I was widowed because the same people that I was friendly with as a couple now see you as single. It’s the first time many of the men see you as a woman, and not a wife.
PL: Oh, yeah, it’s there. That is definitely there.
PG: Do you think they’re waiting for you to find the next relationship? So you can all go out for dinner for four?
CR: No. That’s why I asked Pat. I feel like I’m living a more authentic life now. You know when you’re married and young. I was 29 and you go through something, and it blows up and then you have a chance to rediscover who you are: who I am, what I want and not in the context of being married.
PL: You begin to realize who you are.
CR: Women do, in their 30s.
PL: Yeah. That’s when we start. Of course I had a lot of kids. I had five kids.
CR: My mom had a lot of kids, too.
PL: They’re wonderful people, my kids.
PG: Are you still tight with all of them, Pat?
PL: Absolutely. We’re joined at the hip. The closest family you’ve ever seen.
PG: Tell me about the time that Lance appeared on “The Dick Cavett Show.”
PL: Lance was 20 years old, very young. Lance was brilliant, but Dick Cavett said to him, “Didn’t it bother you when everybody knew you were gay?” And Lance said something like: “Yeah, it did, but I took a couple of aspirin and it went away.” But so much aggression toward a young kid.
PG: But Lance deflected it so well.
PL: Because he had been bullied when he was a kid, he knew how to deflect that. But he also was just ... he had such a quick wit. He was funny.
PG: Did he have a partner?
PL: No. I don’t know much about his sex life, but I assume it was rather promiscuous. In the ’70s it was.
CR: Did he tell you he was going to come out on the show?
PL: None of us had any idea.
PG: I don’t think anyone even knew what that meant then.
PL: Not only that, Lance was just being Lance. He had no idea that people would interpret it as coming out. He was just being himself.
PG: When your shows came out, did you watch them episode-by-episode with the rest of America, or do you watch them early?
PL: Ours aired on Tuesday and WNET would take big ads in The Los Angeles Times, and they would say, “Would you want to live next to these people?” Or about Lance: “He dyed his clothes purple and his hair white.” It was extravagantly outrageous. They definitely broke our trust with that.
CR: Was that a surprise?
PG: Did the family sit down and watch together?
PL: Yes. We clutched one another.
PG: Were there tears?
PL: No. Those kids are so strong. When most people would laugh or cry, they would laugh.
CR: Sense of humor will save you every time.
PG: How about you, Carole?
CR: I probably wouldn’t have watched myself just because you become self-conscious, but I had to write a column every week for the Web site. So we would get a copy of the show a couple of days ahead of time and watch it. It was like seeing everything for the first time because you don’t know what happened in the other scenes, obviously. I wasn’t there.
PL: So you didn’t know what the story line would be until you saw it?
CR: No. Scenes that I thought I knew, even scenes when I was at the party ...
PG: It’s lots of parties, Pat. It’s not family dinners. It’s somebody is having a party to launch a toaster-oven business.
CR: Pat, were you expecting the press to be so negative?
PG: Does it feel like redemption now that “An American Family” routinely makes the list of the best TV shows ever?
PL: It doesn’t matter to me anymore because I live a very quiet life. Never in the public eye or very seldom.
PG: Do you regret the missed opportunities that Carole has, for instance? Real Housewives with juice lines and blender drinks. You could have made a boatload of money had you come 20 or 30 years later.
PL: That’s right.
PG: Do you regret that?
PL: It makes me madder than hell.
CR: No one is making a boatload of money. Let me just throw that out there. If you look at all the Housewives, there are 67 of us in the course of the last seven years, and I don’t think a lot of them have made a boatload of money. I think we’re paid a fair wage to do a job, and some of them, yes, they go on to do other things.
PG: They do brand extensions. But other than the book “Pat Loud, a Woman’s Story,” you didn’t get to cash in at all.
PL: No, and the book didn’t even do that well. I wouldn’t have needed a boatload, but I would have appreciated a dinghy-load of money.
CR: A rowboat.
PL: A canoe of cash.
PG: Is that what people come at you with, Carole?
CR: Maybe I’m feeling sensitive about it.
PG: Was the whole thing last week about everybody standing together, and we’re not going to sign a contract because you’re not getting paid enough? Was that all tabloid nonsense or was there truth in that?
CR: This is what I think, and I think Pat you would agree. Whether it’s teachers or management or TV personalities, women are used to being called demanding and difficult when they ask for a pay raise. None of that has changed. Whether it’s teachers or middle management or TV personalities, at the end of the day ...
PL: Any artist needs to get paid for their work, and in the art world, you don’t see that very often.
PG: Do your kids, Pat, at the Christmas table or Sunday dinner, do they ever say: God, look at all this reality television that is flowing pretty directly from Pat and Bill Loud?
PL: My kids are very diplomatic.
PG: They didn’t get angry with you in the aftermath; like Mom, what did you do to us?
PL: They really could have got off on me. No, they didn’t. I didn’t get that.
PG: But you must have had some knockdowns with them.
PL: No, because we all decided to do it. They were young, yes, but it was all our decision.
CR: What did you think of the HBO movie [“Cinéma Vérité” in 2011]? Who played you?
PL: Diane Lane. She was beautiful, she was so great. I loved her.
PG: Did HBO make you a part of the marketing of the movie?
PL: I wasn’t going to do it, but they had this incredible party. I did go do that. Why not?
PG: What if they called you right now, Pat, and said, “We’re doing a ‘Real Housewives of Los Angeles,’ and we really want you to be the centerpiece housewife”? Would you respond to that call or just hang up the phone?
PL: My dear, I am such a whore, I would say, “How much?”
CR: Why don’t you come on the New York show?
PL: I’d love that.
CR: Oh, my God, that would be meta. So meta.
PG: That would be the episode I’d want to watch.
PL: But it’s just so funny. You know, the thing I think both of us said: life is mundane, it’s truly you get up, you put your clothes on, you have your breakfast, you read the paper, you clean the house. You do all this stuff that’s just rote, and you just keep doing it. Then something enters your life that gives you a shot at something entirely different than you’ve ever done, and you don’t know where it’s going to lead, but if you don’t take it, you’ll never know. So you do.This interview has been edited and condensed.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/fashion/the-mother-of-all-housewives.html?ref=television&_r=0Edited by dad1153 - 6/18/13 at 3:32pm