Iris Apfel / Words of Wisdom
Iris Apfel / Words of Wisdom
I’ve always been what would be considered a girl’s girl, and if you’re reading this book, chances are you’re one, too. I live and die at the altar of female friendships. Too much emphasis in our culture is placed on finding romantic love, but I’ve always believed that it’s the platonic love of our girlfriends that is crucial to long-term sanity and success. That’s certainly been the case for me. After lovers have consistently disappointed you, and your family has yet again proved to be impossible or unreliable, your girlfriends are there to hear you out, support you, advise you without judgment until death do you part. My BFFs are as much my soul mates as my lovers have been. Even without the sex part, the connection and love is just as deep and should be honored and valued as such.
For as long as I can remember I’ve always had intense, complex connections with my girlfriends. My first best friend—and first kiss, as well—was another little girl called Amanda. We were nine. She was American, and her family had moved to London for her father’s work. We were inseparable, like Bonnie and Clyde, if Bonnie and Clyde were two little badass tomboys. Amanda had a thick New York accent and the latest American swag. She introduced me to scratch-and-sniff stickers and Hello Kitty everything, which I still have a penchant for all these years later. She saw me and I saw her for exactly who each of us were, in the way that tween girls often do.
I became completely obsessed with Amanda, the first of many codependent relationships I would have. Kiss chase was a popular playground game during the height of our mutual obsession, the UK version of traditional tag. It was challenging when Amanda and I both played because if anyone tried to kiss her or me it caused a problem in our relationship. One of us would always end up feeling upset and rejected, and an afternoon of attempting to “make up” would ensue. This became a dynamic that would play out in all my subsequent relationships, so there must be something about that tension that I enjoy.
I cannot tell you how many times my girlfriends have figuratively talked me off the ledge. They have filled the well of unwantedness at the center of my being in a way that romantic relationships never have, and helped heal my fractured heart in a very special way. At every stage of life, my ladies have held me up when I was going under.
My sanity was restored by women who did not judge me and showed me that there are thousands of us who have stories of abandonment, abuse, and addiction.
When I was shipped off to a boarding school called Benenden at age eleven, the only thing that saved me was the extraordinary sisterhood of my schoolmates. Many of the girls I bonded with came from the kind of so-called privileged backgrounds that commonly meant a lot of money and not a lot of love.
Contrary to reports in the media that Courtney Love and I were lovers, I’ve only kissed two women (both times when I was seriously inebriated), but at boarding school it was the norm to have innocent “crushes” on other girls. I formed very intense friendships at school. It was not unusual to share your bed or bathe with your best girlfriend. It was comforting to lie next to someone else, to feel another heartbeat, to not be alone. Being sent away to boarding school when your parents are in the middle of a heated divorce is comparable to suffering a massive loss. Or at least that’s how it felt to me, the eleven- year-old girl who just wanted to be at home, play with her hamster, and read Enid Blyton books about magic forests. I still think that loss of any kind is one of the hardest things to navigate in life, but the support of your best girlfriends makes it a bit easier to endure.
One of the biggest gifts of friendship is being able to witness my friends live their lives up close, through the celebrations as well as the hardships. I was often alone after my parents’ divorce. I had no one to help me learn how to navigate the world. I learned how to get through life by watching my friends. That, and reading autobiographies about women I admire and asking successful women a lot of questions about how they made it.
My girl Brody Dalle and I have lived through similar traumas (details I won’t go into here) and understand one another without needing to say too much. We’re two peas in a pod, our brains and hearts sync up in both the best and sometimes worst ways. My youngest daughter Ella told me that she feels safe when she has sleepovers or playdates with Brody “because she reminds me of you.”
I met both Amber H. and Amber V. whilst shooting these sweethearts for magazine stories. I call them my sister wives because we all look so similar.
I became friends with Amber Heard when I photographed her for Allure about ten years ago. If I had a little sister, it would be her. I have lived through some super shitty times with her and lived to (NOT) tell the tale, if you know what I mean.
My other Amber I met eighteen years ago, and from the moment we met, we fell in love and often joke that if one of us had a dick we would be set. Alas. Amber is one of the most consistent, reliable, and honest friends I have, and I can always trust she will tell me the truth without judgment, which is invaluable to me. I encourage you to have at least one friend who you know will tell you what’s REALLY up, not just what you want to hear.
There are also many women I’ve met along the way in my recovery who helped put me back together in ways I could never have imagined. I’m trying to be mindful of the guidelines of my chosen recovery, but I will say that I am 100 percent the product of the many women I met in recovery who loved me unconditionally, taught me about the importance of self-reflection, accountability, friendship, trust, truth, and authenticity. They taught me that a crucial component of friendship is a willingness to be honest and vulnerable. There’s that word, vulnerable. Get to know it, get familiar with it, embrace it! Being vulnerable is the key to freedom and happiness (at least according to Brené Brown and me).
My sanity was restored by women who did not judge me and showed me that there are thousands of us who have stories of abandonment, abuse, and addiction. Meeting others with the same damage as I had dismantled a belief system that somehow I was a bad person because I’d had to deal with a long list of scary life experiences. I also learned I didn’t need to feel shitty about what happened to me or about choices I made in the past. That kind of support is more than friendship; it is lifesaving.
I was twelve the year Kurt Cobain killed himself. I overheard teenagers at the mall whisper a word I barely knew—suicide. Distraught, I spent the summer in my small, Texas town, dressed in flannel, mourning. My parents didn’t understand my sudden withdrawnness. My dad tried, in the only way he knew how to cheer me up. When a popular girl invited me to her birthday party; I shuttered at the thought of being dropped off in my dad’s shit brown, rusty pickup truck. “Kurt would like my truck,” I can still hear him say. I made him drop me off around the corner. Like so many in my generation, Nirvana’s sardonic lyrics made me feel better about being the weird kid in town whose hippie parents didn’t go to church. As I turned the music up to tune my parents out, a divide grew between us. One night my dad had enough and sent my cd player flying into the road mid-Nevermind. My world as I knew it was over.
The summer after the cd player incident, I stayed up late and decided to thumb through my parent’s stack of records. I skipped over most of them. I’d heard enough of The Beatles, Jimi & Janis to last a lifetime. I stopped at Blood on the Tracks for reasons I don’t remember now. Maybe I thought the art was interesting. I knew who Bob Dylan was and his music was present in our house, but with the first note of “Tangled Up in Blue,” I knew I’d never heard anything like it before. The house was quiet, and I sat stunned, goosebumps on my arms, listening to one side before flipping it over until the early morning light. I went to bed with lines I only half understood running through my mind, “old men with broken teeth stranded without love.” Gone was my need for screaming lyrics to soothe my angst. I wanted stories. I wanted poetry. I made my way slowly through my parent’s stack of Dylan records. I’d stay up late, make coffee, steal my mom’s cheap cigarettes, and discover a new album. I’d listen to tales of loves lost, names of places I’d never heard of, and wonder how one man could live so many lives. I kept my newfound interest a secret from my parents in the beginning. I couldn’t let them know I thought their music was cool. After I got my first summer job, I started filling in the records my parents missed, until I had almost all of them. I kept them together like a holy shrine. They were my bible of sorts. When the boy I loved left for the army on my sixteenth birthday, it was again Dylan who consoled me, “You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
My parents took me to see him in Dallas for my high school graduation present. This is how they sent me off into the world. We all sat there mesmerized, each in our own way. I’m sure my parents thought seeing their generations icon couldn’t possibly hold as much magic for me, they were wrong. The truth is, he’s meant so much to so many of us.
Recently at school drop off, after seeing my “Dylan saved my life” bumper sticker, a dad asked me the hardest question for any Dylan fan. Which album is my favorite? Impossible to answer, I thought. I love every album and every Dylan persona, even the sometimes overlooked Christian phase. I hesitated my words and said, “Blood on the Tracks, because it’s the first.” He wanted to wax poetic about possible hidden meanings behind the songs. For me, it means being twelve years old, staying up late, and discovering something that would change my life. My mom thinks Bob would disapprove of my bumper sticker, but I find the sentiment to be true. In many ways, Dylan did save my life. His songs remain a vivid soundtrack to my darkest and happiest memories. His music sent me on a lifelong journey of discovering literature, poetry, and art, things I should have learned in school but didn’t. His music taught me I could love a song for the beauty of the words. Most importantly, it taught me I didn’t have to be so goddamn angry anymore.
My thirteen-year-old daughter’s first concert was Dylan in Florence, Italy. She’s not impressed by this at all. Her current favorite band is Rancid. I took her to see Dylan again last year, just the two of us. As he sang, I watched her facial expression on her perfectly shaped face, outlined with a Mohawk, change from complete boredom to that of peaked interest. We sat close enough to see him crack a smile. By the end of the show, she was smiling too. After the concert, she insisted on a forty-dollar tee-shirt, which I happily bought.
Sometimes I worry about her. Our fights are becoming reminiscent of the years my mom and I stood toe to toe, fist clenched, tongues always on the verge of eruption. I swore things would be different for me, but then I find myself screaming at her through the thin wood of her door. She slams it in my face again after I plead with her her to turn the music down. She instead turns it up, just as I did. “You can only hear “Ruby Soho” so many times before you hate it,” I yell at her. How did we even get here?
I still have my parents Dylan records. I run my fingers over the worn covers that bear my last name in my dad’s handwriting. I picture him long haired, young, in his fringe jacket and my mom in her bellbottoms, listening to “Blowin’ in the Wind” for the first time, full of hope about their futures. Maybe they thought their lives together would be easygoing and their children, despite their own upbringings, would be free from bouts depression and anger. Surely, they thought they would do things differently too.
When my daughter gets in the car on the way to school in the morning, rolling her eyes at my everything, I smile at the sight of her Dylan shirt. I put on Modern Times, and I hear her singing under her breath. She begs me to turn it down before she slips out of the car. I oblige her request; I remember the embarrassment. On days I have no idea what I’m doing with her, I remind myself that music can crack the code into her world, just as it did for me. In this moment I think to myself, she’s gonna be alright.
i push him and his bruised legs begin to pump. the bruises of a four year old boy who plays hard. the summer of learning the two wheel bike. crying because he wants a skateboard. doing tricks now on his scooter and looking for more adventure. a summer of new independence. getting himself ready for bed, picking out his outfit for the next day, teaching his baby sister little lessons and making his voice deeper than it actually is. and yet every night still asking that i lay with him, and then still wrapping his little arms around me and breathing into my neck. the other night after he was asleep i snuck out of his bed. he woke up an hour later and started crying, something he hasn’t done in over a year. when i opened the door he was sitting in his bed, “why did you leave me all alone” he said.
i push him and see the sun tan on his neck. from our adventure at the beach, the last grand finale of the summer vacation. the nights in that big beach house with our family, and the mornings when he would find his little cousin and they’d walk down to grammy and papa’s room. their feet echoing through the halls and laughing.
i push him. each push he comes back to me. the start of the school year when he walks into the building i went to school in. the preschool teacher who taught my baby brother now teaching my baby. he tells me he doesn’t want to leave me. like a kick in the gut. i don’t want him to leave me. and yet i give him the extra push he needs to walk into the building alone.
the last summer of pushing the small of his four year old back
you’re as much theirs as you are mine now
nothing lasts forever
but you’re still mine more
I was confident that Bill would be great at parenting. His father died before Bill was born; he knew how lucky he was to have this chance that his own father never had. Still, a lot of men are thrilled to be dads but not so thrilled about all the work that a child requires. The writer Katha Pollitt has observed how even the most egalitarian relationships can contort under the strain of child rearing, and all of a sudden the mom is expected to do everything, while the dad pitches in here and there. She calls it becoming “gender Republicans”—a nifty phrase, if perhaps a little unfair to all the feminist Republicans out there, who really do exist.
I knew that I had enough energy and devotion for two, if it turned out that Bill wasn’t a co-equal in the child-raising department. But I really hoped that wouldn’t happen. Our marriage had always been a true partnership. Though he was governor and then president—jobs that would seem to “beat” a lot of others, if you were the kind of person who ranked jobs like that—my career was important to me, too. So was my time and, more broadly, my identity. I couldn’t wait to become a mother, but I didn’t want to lose everything else about myself in the becoming. I was counting on my husband not just to respect that but also to join me in guarding against it.
So it was a wonderful thing when Chelsea arrived, and Bill dove into parenting with characteristic gusto. We went to the hospital with Bill clutching the materials from the Lamaze classes we had attended together. When it turned out that Chelsea was breech, he fought to be in the operating room with me and hold my hand during the C-section. Being governor came in handy when he asked to be the first father ever permitted by that hospital to do so. After we brought her home, he handled countless midnight feedings and diaper changes. We took turns making sure the parade of family and friends who wanted to spend time with Chelsea were looked after. As our daughter grew up, we both read her good-night stories. We both got to know her teachers and coaches. Even when Bill became president, he rearranged his schedule as much as he could to have dinner with us nearly every night that he was in Washington. And when he was somewhere else in the world, he’d call Chelsea to talk about her day and go over her homework with her.
Our daughter adored her father more and more. As she entered adolescence, I wondered if that would change at all. I remembered how my own dad and I grew somewhat distant from each other once I became a teenager. I provoked him with a lot of fiery political arguments. He was at a loss to navigate the occasionally stormy seas of teenage girlhood. Would that happen with Chelsea and Bill? As it turned out, no. He lived for their debates; the fiercer the better. He didn’t leave me to deal with the “girl stuff”: heartache, self-esteem, safety. He was right there with us.
Did I handle more of the family responsibilities, especially while Bill was president? Of course. This was something we’d talked through before he ran, and I was more than up for it. But I never felt like I was alone in the work of raising our wonderful daughter. And I know a lot of wives of busy men who would say otherwise. Bill wanted to be a great president, but that wouldn’t have mattered to him if he wasn’t also a great dad.
Every time I see the two of them laugh over some private joke that only they know . . . every time I overhear a conversation between them, two lightning-quick minds testing each other . . . every time I see him look at her with love and devotion . . . I’m reminded again that I chose exactly the right person to have a family with.
My marriage to Bill Clinton was the most consequential decision of my life. I said no the first two times he asked me. But the third time, I said yes. And I’d do it again.
I hesitated because I wasn’t quite prepared for marriage. I hadn’t figured out what I wanted my future to be yet. And I knew that by marrying Bill, I would be running straight into a future far more momentous than any other I’d likely know. He was the most intense, brilliant, charismatic person I had ever met. He dreamed big. I, on the other hand, was practical and cautious. I knew that marrying him would be like hitching a ride on a comet. It took me a little while to get brave enough to take the leap.
We’ve been married since 1975. We’ve had many, many more happy days than sad or angry ones. I know some people wonder why we’re still together. I heard it again in the 2016 campaign: that “we must have an arrangement” (we do; it’s called a marriage); that I helped him become president and then stayed so he could help me become president (no); that we lead completely separate lives, and it’s just a marriage on paper now (he is reading this over my shoulder in our kitchen with our dogs underfoot, and in a minute he will reorganize our bookshelves for the millionth time, which means I will not be able to find any of my books, and once I learn the new system, he’ll just redo it again, but I don’t mind because he really loves to organize those bookshelves).
I don’t believe our marriage is anyone’s business. Public people should be allowed to have private lives, too. But I know that a lot of people are genuinely interested. Maybe you’re flat-out perplexed. Maybe you want to know how this works because you are married and would like it to last 40 years or longer, and you’re looking for perspective. I certainly can’t fault you on that.
I don’t want to delve into all the details, because I really do want to hold on to what’s left of my privacy as much as I can. But I will say this: Bill has been an extraordinary father to our beloved daughter and an exuberant, hands-on grandfather to our two grandchildren. I look at Chelsea and Charlotte and Aidan and I think, We did this. That’s a big deal.
He has been my partner in life and my greatest champion. He never once asked me to put my career on hold for his. He never once suggested that maybe I shouldn’t compete for anything—in work or politics—because it would interfere with his life or ambitions. There were stretches of time in which my husband’s job was unquestionably more important than mine, and he still didn’t play that card. I have never felt like anything but an equal. Bill is completely unbothered by having an ambitious, opinionated, occasionally pushy wife. In fact, he loves me for it.
Long before I thought of running for public office, he was saying, “You should do it. You’d be great at it. I’d love to vote for you.” He helped me believe in this bigger version of myself. Bill was a devoted son-in-law and always made my parents feel welcome in our home. Toward the end of my mother’s life, when I wanted her to move into our house in Washington, he said yes without hesitation. Though I expected nothing less, this meant the world to me. I know so many women who are married to men who—though they have their good qualities—can be sullen, moody, irritated at small requests, and generally disappointed with everyone and everything. Bill Clinton is the opposite. He has a temper, but he’s never mean. And he’s funny, friendly, unflappable in the face of mishaps and inconveniences, and easily delighted by the world—remember those balloons at the convention? He is fabulous company.
We’ve certainly had dark days in our marriage. You know all about them—and please consider for a moment what it would be like for the whole world to know about the worst moments in your relationship. There were times that I was deeply unsure about whether our marriage could or should survive. But on those days, I asked myself the questions that mattered most to me: Do I still love him? And can I still be in this marriage without becoming unrecognizable to myself— twisted by anger, resentment, or remoteness? The answers were always yes. So I kept going.
On our first date, we went to the Yale University Art Gallery to see a Mark Rothko exhibit. The building was closed, but Bill talked our way in. When I think about that afternoon—seeing the art, hearing the stillness all around us, giddy about this person whom I had just met but somehow knew would change my life—it still feels magical, and I feel happy and lucky all over again.
I still think he’s one of the most handsome men I’ve ever known. I’m proud of him: proud of his vast intellect, his big heart, the contributions he has made to the world. I love him with my whole heart. That’s more than enough to build a life on.
The morning after the election, Bill and I both wore purple. It was a nod to bipartisanship (blue plus red equals purple). The night before, I had hoped to thank the country wearing white—the color of the suffragettes—while standing on a stage cut into the shape of the United States under a vast glass ceiling. Instead, the white suit stayed in the garment bag.
After I delivered my concession speech, I hugged as many people in the ballroom as possible—lots of old friends and devoted campaign staffers, many of their faces wet with tears. I was dry-eyed and felt calm and clear. My job was to smile, be strong for everyone, and show America that life went on and our republic would endure. A life spent in the public eye has given me lots of practice at that. I wear my composure like a suit of armor, for better or worse. In some ways, it felt like I had been training for this latest feat of self-control for decades.
After delivering hugs and smiling so long and hard that my face ached, I asked my senior team to go back to our headquarters in Brooklyn and make sure everyone was OK. One final wave to the crowd, and Bill and I got into the backseat of a Secret Service van and were driven away.
I could finally let my smile drain away. We were mostly quiet. Every few minutes, Bill would repeat what he had been saying all morning: “I’m so proud of you.” To that he now added, “That was a great speech. History will remember it.”
I loved him for saying it, but I didn’t have much to say in return. I felt completely and totally depleted. And I knew things would feel worse before they started feeling better.
It takes about an hour to drive from Manhattan to our home in Chappaqua. I absolutely love our old house. It’s cozy, colorful, full of art, and every surface is covered with photos of the people I love best in the world. That day, the sight of our front gate was pure relief to me. All I wanted to do was get inside, change into comfy clothes, and maybe not answer the phone ever again.
I’ll confess that I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. I put on yoga pants and a fleece. Our two sweet dogs followed me from room to room, and at one point, I took them outside and just breathed the cold, rainy air. The question blaring in my head was “How did this happen?” Fortunately, I had the good sense to realize that diving into a campaign postmortem right then would be about the worst thing I could do to myself.
Losing is hard for everyone, but losing a race you thought you would win is devastating. I remember when Bill lost his reelection as governor of Arkansas in 1980. He was so distraught at the outcome that I had to go to the hotel where the election-night party was held to speak to his supporters on his behalf. For a good while afterward, he was so depressed that he practically couldn’t get off the floor. That’s not me. I keep going. I also stew and ruminate. I run through the tape over and over, identifying every mistake—especially those made by me. When I feel wronged, I get mad, and then I think about how to fight back.
On that first day, I just felt tired and empty. The reckoning was still to come.
At some point, we ate dinner. We FaceTimed with our grandchildren, two-year-old Charlotte and her baby brother, Aidan, born in June 2016. I was reassured to see their mom. I knew Chelsea was hurting for me, which in turn hurt to think about, but those kids are an instant mood boost for all of us. We quietly drank them in, that day and every day after. After sleeping hardly at all the night before, I climbed into our bed at midday for a nice, long nap. I also went to bed early that night and slept in the next morning. I could finally do that.
I avoided the phone and email that first day. I suspected, correctly, that I was receiving a virtual avalanche of messages, and I couldn’t quite handle it—couldn’t handle everyone’s kindness and sorrow, their bewilderment and their theories for where and why we had fallen short. Eventually, I’d dive in. But for now, Bill and I kept the rest of the world out. I was grateful for the one billionth time that I had a husband who was good company not just in happy times but sad ones as well.
Originally published on VOGUE.com