modern love

Cheaters, Fighters, and the Country-Club Set: A Q&A With Lois Smith Brady, ‘Vows’ Columnist

With the commencement of Memorial Day, weddings season is officially upon us. Last weekend, the “Vows” column, a weekly feature within the “Weddings and Celebrations” announcements section of the New York Times, celebrated its twentieth anniversary; longtime “Vows” writer Lois Smith Brady offered up a lovely catchup with several memorable couples from that first year, 1992. We were curious to hear more meditations on marriage and covering the wedding beat from Brady, so we called her up to chat. Below, her favorite couple, her beef with Greenwich, and why she thinks people want to be in “Vows.” (It’s not just narcissism!)

How did you start writing the column?
I started writing about weddings at Seven Days many years ago. It was a little downtown magazine, an offshoot of the Village Voice run by [New York editor] Adam Moss. When he went to the Times, he brought along the idea for this offbeat wedding announcement column. In those days, “Weddings and Celebrations” was like a country club. You had to have certain qualities to get in, but we blew that apart. The first wedding that I covered for the Times was this couple who got married in Queens. I think he was a janitor. They had a wedding that, like, five people attended. And the bride was wearing curlers in her hair for the ceremony. It was just beyond different — for the Times, anyway. Giving the big box to other people was part of the goal and part of the pleasure of the column.

You must know that it’s become sort of an urban sport for people on Sundays, to pick them over with friends.  Some people say, “Oh, they just look for quirk; you can clearly tell why a couple made it in the Times.” Is that true?
Well, “Vows” is a big box on the page, so it has to be something in some way that stands out because it sort of stands out in every way. I personally always go for the underdogs or people for whom things have not always come so easily. People like that often lead more colorful lives. And they’re so much less guarded!

Twenty years ago, when it started, the world was much more conservative and also much more compartmentalized, and there really were country-club people. They didn’t want anyone to be inside their club at all, especially not a reporter. The old-school, social register families hated “Vows” in the beginning. The hatred was exacerbated by one particular column. It was this really old Greenwich family and they had their reception at Round Hill Country club. The theme of their wedding was Yes, yes, yes!, because when he proposed to her she said “yes, yes, yes,” so they made that the theme of it. The buses had these billboards on them that said yes, yes, yes the napkins said yes, yes, yes, the matches … It was an overload of yes, yes, yes. So I wrote over the top about the yes, yes, yes. The bride was absolutely furious. She called me; her parents called me. After that, I had trouble ever convincing any Greenwich family to be in it.  And as a part of that, that made it easier to find the artsy, funky downtown couple.

Have you ever read Katie Baker’s scorecard that she does in Grantland [and formerly for Gawker]?
I saw it so briefly. I get so uptight and depressed about criticism.

I think it’s somewhat admiring, actually.
But also she has a point. For sure, there’s a scorecard aspect to it. But we try to change the scorecard a little bit. It’s not as obvious as they have to have an Ivy League education. The number one most important thing is whether they’re articulate or funny, not where they went to college.

So what do you do if you find the couple ridiculous?
I don’t really ever purposely bash couples, but for sure there are plenty of couples I don’t like for a variety of reasons. Some are kind of difficult, or difficult with me. If I don’t like a couple, or if I feel like I’m not going to be glowing, then I do like to write the kind of sentences that if you wanted to you could read into them. [Ed note: We were particularly impressed by this column, containing the sentence “The persistent, Type-A sunshine was perfect for Ms. Stephens, 27, and Mr. Lloyd, 28.”]

I have people asking all the time, “Does she love them or hate them?” and I think it’s good to have that ambiguity into there. Once, there was a couple on the other end of the spectrum, and you know, I’ll never forget them. They were getting married in Newport, Rhode Island, and I just thought they were the coolest people ever. Their family was full of all these literary people and everyone was a poet or a writer and cool and beautiful and interesting, and they got married in some groovy church, a church that wasn’t really a church, it was just called a church, but it was this loft space. And everything was so cool about it that I just went really over the top about it.  The bride wrote me and was so upset that I had been so positive about her, just gushing. And she was right, I just kind of got snowed by them.

What’s been your favorite one to cover?
The best columns come from the wackiest circumstances. That’s the great thing about New York City. I now live in Colorado, and nobody seems to fall in love in these completely weird and strange ways here. My favorite all-time couple was a couple who got married in 1995. She had just broken up with her boyfriend, and she was crying, while walking down the street in the pouring rain. His brother had just died, so he was melancholy and sad and in a taxi cab stuck in traffic in the pouring rain. He was watching her for a really long time and eventually he just thought she was so beautiful that he jumped out of the cab and followed her for a while and tried to introduce himself. He finally convinced her to giver him her name. Those are the best stories, not the planned ones when you’ve been groomed since kindergarten to meet this Wall Street guy.

What about the people where it’s clear that they left a spouse or were cheating? How do you handle that?
The New York Times editors are sticklers about facts and figures and dates, but people never want to really say in print, ‘oh, I was cheating’ but you always kind of know, so that’s another one where you write it so that when people read it who might want to really figure it out could. You can hardly ever get anyone to admit it, though. I have interviewed several people where I assumed they were having an affair. Sometimes they would go to great lengths to say ‘Oh, we were just these really good friend,s and we’d have these great long talks’ and you know, maybe they were. I’d say 50 percent of the time it’s not true. But I don’t think I’d ever want to break anybody’s heart too badly. So even if I had that information, I don’t know that I’d print it because I’d always be thinking about the one who was being cheated on.

Or if you think it’s clear that they’re not going to last, as you mentioned in your retrospective piece last weekend … How can you tell?
When I started writing the column I was newly married myself, and all of the couples were around my age, and I was just thinking, Oh they’re so madly in love; God, they’re perfect. There was a couple that seemed like that. They’d just bought this farm in like upstate New York or something, the right place to buy a farm. Everything  just seemed so awesome, but during the ceremony he could not look at her. The minister even said “you have to look into her eyes.” It got more and more pronounced as the ceremony went on and she kept trying to make eye contact with him. It was like he was on a subway and she was just a stalker. It was weird. And they did end up getting a divorce soon after.

In the beginning I used to think I could tell with everyone, but now twenty years later, I’ve seen that often the couples who were fighting in our interview  over who did the dishes and not really seeming like they had anything in common stayed together. It’s the fighters, often, who are the ones that stay together. It’s the couples who are syrupy, the PR couples — ‘we’re SO in LOVE ’ — those are the ones who turn me into a cynic.

What do you think is the impulse that makes someone want to be written up in Vows?
Of course a lot of it is vanity. Some people are like, Of course you’re calling me. I deserve all that real estate. There are certain people that you can tell have been waiting by the phone because they are a “Vow” couple in their own mind.

But for a lot of people it’s not ego. It think there’s a community aspect to it. People with great love stories want to tell them. Especially about finding love in New York. It seems different now, but twenty years ago, before people met online, there was all this tension about finding love. For lot of people, especially single women who have found love like that, it’s like a sisterhood. That might sound kind of corny, but I think there’s an information aspect to it. This is how we did it. Or, this is how it happened to us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A Q&A With Lois Smith Brady