|So rare is someone like Ann Pyne that there was an almost shocking quality to interviewing her: this is a person who is really going to tell you what is in her heart and in her brain, without any strategic thought for her image or public persona, a person who is going to give you an unadorned but fluidly intelligent answer to your questions. She has none of the girlish charm of her mother, the renowned decorator Betty Sherrill, whom we had interviewed a few days before (see NYSD HOUSE Week 26). She doesn’t need it. She repeatedly referred to overcoming different sets of fears as her way of ever achieving anything, and more than anything, we sensed that courage, and finding it, has always been central to anything she has done – and she has done a great deal.
One of the things that is very interesting about you is that, in addition to being a decorator, you’re a published writer. Do you still write?
I still try.
Your writing in your book of short stories (In the Form of a Person: Stories) was described by one reviewer as bleak, and you were writing about your social class. Are you in some sense both part of that class and in some way, removed from it?
I don’t feel removed, but I had a lot of trouble with that book, with certain social groups like when I went to Jupiter Island for spring vacation, not one person spoke to me.
How did you feel about that?
Well, I was very intimidated. I was embarrassed. And my husband wasn’t very helpful. I mean he didn’t say ‘don’t publish this’ but he really couldn’t understand it, why I would. He couldn’t really get over the hump of ‘this is fiction’. My mother was fine. When these were published as short stories she sat here and said ‘I need to see these stories’, so I showed her one and she said ‘I don’t care about that, that’s about a woman having a nervous breakdown’, and it was her and she did have a nervous breakdown but she said ‘I don’t care. That’s not me.’ And the next one, on the first sentence she said ‘This is about my mastectomy. I don’t want to read that.’ And then she said ‘I don’t care. Publish them.’ And she was very supportive … she dealt with them by saying ‘I’m not interested.’
|Do you think as a writer you can ever really ‘belong’, that you are always an observing outsider?
I never aimed to write any social critique at all. I landed up with that class, with people I love and knew enough to be their persona, to imitate their voice. The class issue was just happenstance. I think the distance issue is created for me by my artistic intent. That distances me from the real topic. I feel pretty good that craft in those short stories is what separates it from closeness to the subject. A very rigorous attention to craft.
Was writing your first love or were there other things you wanted to do when you graduated from college?
I always wanted to be a writer … yeah. But I also wanted to be a photographer and I’ve always been interested in the house and the home and the room, my environment. At college I would spend hours re-painting the dorm room.
|What did it look like?
Pink and orange …everything. It was 1971. I completely designed my college room and it was weird. I mean I didn’t have any friends at Sarah Lawrence … I mean I had some social friends in my ‘class’ if you will … but I didn’t mix very well with the larger school because I was timid and scared. I was surprised to hear that there was a huge line of people who had requested it for the next year … people who were not in my social world at all …and had never been there as a visitor because I didn’t have any friends! I did get a kick out of that … Sarah Lawrence was just so way out there.
But you chose to go there because it was like that, presumably.
It was too sort of wild for me. It was just too big a jump for me, the drug culture, the sex culture … way too big a jump. The first night I was there, there was suite mate, and we were to share the bathroom in between. She came on the bathroom side of the door and locked it. She was a young black woman and she was obviously politically very hostile and I never had the courage the whole year to say ‘Excuse me, this bathroom is mine too.’ So I went to the bathroom in the classroom bathroom …
|It must have done you good in some awful kind of way.
This…really… is …I haven’t thought about this in years…
Are you still shy?
No. But I was then. I was so embarrassed of my class at that juncture. In my group, we all were like that.
I know that at some point your mother [Betty Sherrill] told us that you called her up and said ‘I want to come and work for you and see how I like it’ and she said ‘No’ because she didn’t hire people who ‘wanted to see how they liked it’.
She just made that up. That never happened. I never wanted to work for her. She made that up. I worked at McMillen one summer when I was at college. That was it. I taught at Chapin for seven years and I adored it.
What books did you enjoy teaching the most?
Oh my God, I loved them all …[teaching] Fifth Grade the Greek myths, and I loved Hamlet in the Upper School, I loved Huckleberry Finn, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird …it was before they got too politically correct and you could teach the way you wanted. At Chapin, Mrs. Berenson, the legendary headmistress, kept parents at the door. And in the seven years I was there, that eroded. Once the parents are in the classroom, you’re sunk.
|It seems that when you do things, you do them. You write, you publish, you teach for seven years full time …you don’t dabble.
Well, over the course of my life I’ve dabbled …look … teaching, writing, design …
But you produce something each time.
Yeah but then I run away from it … I mean with the writing I was weeping and wailing about all my social problems because of this and I wasn’t going to change a word because I was an artist, and I was thinking I was going to go on but I wasn’t doing it … I think I’m a dabbler …I must tend to being a dabbler …the days started getting a little sloppy …. bridge on Wednesday mornings, golf on Mondays …and then I started buying all this furniture that I have in Southampton.
So, we must talk about your decorating career …
The shift into decorating was partly gradual because of buying that furniture. I’ve always been a collector … compulsive … anything, stamps, baseball cards, Barbie dolls, plastic horses …and I still have all of those things, and every letter I got. My nurse threw out my baseball cards and I’m still angry.
|How did you get to McMillen in the end?
I’ve always felt the only reason I didn’t work at McMillen was because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to get business. Fear. And so around 50, with writing sort of … and I thought I have to do this. I’ll feel like a coward. I was petrified about [so many things], public speaking, and I overcame that, I was petrified about French and I learned to speak French, I wanted to learn to surf and at age 40, I buy a new surfboard, so I feel like decorating was like the big thing I hadn’t [overcome].
What is like having a mother as well-known decorator?
Well, I don’t know what it would have been like if she had been in her fifties, but now she’s in her eighties … it’s really not an issue.
She was very flattering about you in our interview. She sung your praises.
That’s what she does. She says ‘Stop second-guessing yourself’ and I say ‘I wouldn’t second-guess myself except that all of you criticize me all the time!’ I remember I was trying to get some pillows for here, this was 20 years ago, … and she picked up this sample pillow and she was going ‘Ugh!’ and I was so hurt and I mean tears came in my eyes and so maybe that’s why I didn’t start sooner … it was just too much because she’s very, very critical.
|You must have wanted to forge your own identity …
Yeah, but it doesn’t take people 30 years.
Well, I’m certainly going in the opposite direction of my friends now. They’re all retired and I’m starting something all new that has, I think, high risk.
Because you’re trying to bring McMillen to a different place?
Yes. I’m trying to bring it to the next generation.
Is there anything that is catching your eye lately, perhaps something that you might not have expected?
Well … we could go back to that college room I did … I’m trying to answer your question … what I don’t like particularly is this [gets up and returns with a book of Christian Liagre’s work] …the reason I don’t like it is because I think it’s dull, boring, page after page looks exactly the same. The bigness, the simplicity, I think it’s dull. There’s no range of scale, no finesse to it and very little conversational … big, blocky things. It has no humor, it has no detail ... I’m not saying I want a fringe on everything but there’s no range. It’s boring, boring!
|What other books are you reading at the moment?
Well on the airplanes I’m reading Proust. And … what am I reading? I’m reading Cynthia Ozick, this new book [The Din in the Head]. I’m reading a bridge book from the 1950s, The Play of the Hand. I think if something is too much fun to read, it’s trash. I like hard work. It should confront you with things you don’t understand or know … look at this. And the other book I spent forever reading, and I now know it’s not well-written, in spite of the fact that it was thousands of years on the bestseller lists, was A Brief History of Time [by Stephen Hawking] … [her worn copy is heavily annotated] … you can see how hard I tried to read this book. [She then shows us a long handwritten list in the flyleaf of one of her books] This is a list of people who I thought were brave.
You mean your friends, people you knew? You suddenly decided to write a list of people you thought were brave?
Yes. And the first four have died.
So what you do to just relax completely? Not think.
Weeell … I drink.
— Lesley Hauge and Sian Ballen; photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch