Keeping up with the Times

Amy Benson sits on a plush red chair against the mahogany walls of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Her chocolate suit is as rich as the wood behind her, and is offset by tinsel-like threading interwoven throughout the skirt and jacket set. The threading reflects a golden-green color that matches Benson’s hazel eyes and blond, tousled hair.

Hers is a look of confidence. She is a professional, independent woman who teaches, writes and lives Uptown – and wears $300 Jones New York suits from Bloomingdale’s.

Well, not exactly. The Amy Benson pictured on page A36 of Sunday, Sept. 26’s New York Times is hardly the one who teaches creative writing classes at the College.

The visiting professor was selected for Bloomingdale’s “Portrait of a Lady” ad series, which takes real, professional women – not models – and has them model designer clothes.

Clothes, that Benson says, she is not necessarily able to afford.

“I’ve never been able to shop in Bloomingdale’s all my life,” she said in her adjunct office in Bliss Hall. She laughed when asked if the ad was true-to-life. It doesn’t accurately capture the youthful, laid-back, unrestrained writer Benson is.

But, like the other women the series features, the ad gives a brief portrait of the lady who poses for it. Benson is labeled “The Modern Memoirist” whose latest project is a memoir, “The Sparkling-Eyed Boy: A Memoir of Love, Grown Up.”

It then quotes her literary ideas about fashion: “I use my imagination to make something completely mine. That’s also my approach to style.”

Benson said she originally wrote a different quote for the company to use, but they called her back asking for “something about fashion” instead.

“It seems crazy,” she said about being selected for the advertisement. “It seems like someone else.”

When Bloomingdale’s asked Benson’s publicist if she had anyone in mind for the series, she called Benson. After sending in a photo and description of her life and work, Benson and one other writer were selected for the photo shoot at the historic Algonquin Hotel.

“They wanted to capture something older, more classic,” Benson said. The Algonquin was the perfect place – a literary landmark where writers like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood drank, dined, debated and set the literary standard for their time. The hotel lobby’s mahogany

pillars, writing desks and antique furniture make the Algonquin look just as it did when these literary giants thrived in it.

Benson entered that lobby via a flight of stairs from the second floor – where the dressing room was located – in a pair of spiky high heels.

“I had to totter down the stairs, holding onto things as we went down,” she said. This was embarrassing, she said, because people were standing around the set of the shoot, trying to see if they recognized the models.

“People were just hanging out, looking to see if they knew who I was,” she said. It was easy to mistake Benson for a famous model, since a makeup artist had worked on her for 20 minutes and a hair dresser had ruffled her short, blond hair into a messy but stylish ‘do.

It was a fast photo shoot for Benson, the other writer and a “real model, not a regular person,” as Benson called the third woman. It took place in June, and the series began running in The Times at the end of August.

The other writer’s ad ran in The Times a week prior to Benson’s ad. Another ad featured a female architect, and Amy Sohn, the sex columnist for New York magazine, appeared in one as well.

“That was my first and last time modeling,” Benson said. She’d much rather write and teach.

At the College, Benson is filling in for professor Cathy Day, who is touring the country promoting her new book, “The Circus in Winter.” She has also taught at the University of Alabama, Northwestern Missouri State University and Rutgers University.

She has never strayed too far from higher learning. Growing up in Detroit, Benson received her undergraduate degree from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Alabama.

She worked three years towards a Ph.D. from Rutgers, but never finished her degree. “I wanted to focus on writing as opposed to academic work,” she said. She felt her family was more disappointed than she was.

“No one in my family graduated high school, except my mom,” she said. “They all quit when they were like 14. Their expectations (of me) were high. I think (the Ph.D.) meant more to them than it did to me.”

Instead, she wrote, and recently published her first memoir, “The Sparkling-Eyed Boy.” In it, she draws upon experiences from her summers on the Michigan Island peninsula that juts over the mitten. The book explores the division between the island’s rural setting and Benson’s urban lifestyle, and how children on the island – one boy in particular – try to fit in to society.

Benson is currently working on something she describes as a mixture of fiction and non-fiction – an account of the occupation forces in Germany during World War II and their relationship with German women. Her uncle was an American who had been a part of the occupation forces, so she is using much of his first-hand experience in the novel.

She writes from New York City, her place of residence for a little over a year. In that short time, she is already living the life that most writers who flock to New York City dream of – a newly published work and publicity in The New York Times.

Still, she says, she can’t believe this is her life. She loves New York City, even though she finds it can be a difficult place to write.

“It can be distracting,” she said. “There’s this sense of history and great writers, but there’s also a pressure that comes with that. There’s just so much going on it’s hard to concentrate sometimes.”

Especially when she is living up to being the poster girl for a portrait of a lady.