Cynthia Heimel: 1947–2018

A look back at the trailblazing Village Voice columnist whose extraordinary life had several volumes' worth of events, people, and locations


Cynthia Heimel died on February 25, 2018, in Los Angeles, her son Brodie Ransom reported, of dementia. I first met her one summer day in 1973 on a street in Soho.

She was with Stephen and Joanna Saban that day in ’73. We had rendezvoused for a Lower East Side shopping trip. Photos from the day suggest we went to Orchard Street, a legendary bargain spot for decades. Cynthia was staying with the Sabans in their Soho loft — back when artists of average means had lofts in Soho — after returning from three years in London with her three-year-old son.

She’d up and left her husband in Philadelphia, baby in arms, when she decided the marriage was a bad fit. She knew the Sabans from having been a nude model in their art classes at the Art Institute in Philly, which was her hometown. They were very excited she was back in the States — couldn’t wait for my wife, Sarah, and I to meet her. Cynthia did not disappoint: She was entertaining, hilarious, ready to be an instant buddy if you could keep up with her banter. By 1975, she’d started working at the Soho Weekly News — a scrappy downtown weekly that saw itself as the next Village Voice — doing pasteup of ads, then editorial layouts. She was proficient, if uninterested, the point being foot in the door to meet the editors (including her boyfriend, Peter Occhiogrosso, the Music Editor). She and Peter were the cool kids of the staff. She was devoted to Toots and the Maytals, a rollicking Jamaican reggae band, who she profiled in her first music cover feature, in which she leveled a pointed dig at the Voice’s lauding of Bruce Springsteen.

She became a star feature writer, interviewer, and lifestyle reporter, but for a year or so kept doing layouts: Production workers got (usually) paid on time; freelance writers and artists, not so much. She brought first Stephen Saban, then me, into the art department. He followed her into editorial, eventually becoming Movie Editor. I became an unusual hybrid, with the title of Creative Director | Managing Editor.

Cynthia was a star in the downtown arts universe, but restless. She had great clips but wanted to be paid real money: She was, after all, a single mom. She left the Soho News and landed a job at Penthouse, the raunchier competitor to Playboy, which mostly involved writing boring captions and answering letters to the editor (after writing the letters to the editor). But she managed to work with several other smart beautiful young women while avoiding Bob Guccione, the publisher, when he appeared in the office.

She was soon hired back to the Soho News by a new regime that actually paid decent salaries to writers. But that was a really bad fit, and she quit quite dramatically. (More on that later.) Then she got a gig with the Daily News Sunday Magazine, another terrible fit, but one, she’d be reminded, that exposed her to 2 million readers. She did work for New York magazine, which sent her on weeks of travel with Rosalyn Carter during the 1980 election. Then she landed her soon-to-be must-read columns at the Voice, collaborating with legendary fashion editor Mary Peacock.

All that editorial adventure happened between 1975 and 1980.

At the Voice, Cynthia suggested to Mary Peacock that I illustrate what would be alternating columns: the fashion-oriented “Tongue in Chic” and the “Problem Lady,” a downtown take on Ann Landers, et al. Mary agreed based on Cynthia’s say-so that I was fabulous. Mary was, Cynthia told me, a superb editor, the best she’d ever had for focusing and sharpening her work without damping down her personality. The result was the consolidation of her style that would become so well known. The columns mostly alternated biweekly. She and I worked on them for much of the Eighties — we did over one hundred together. During that decade, she also started columns in Vogue and Playboy, at which point a woman having a column in Playboy was a big deal. At the time it seemed a breakthrough: Playboy was regarded quite seriously as an editorial platform, even given its dominance by men, to say nothing of men’s sexual preferences.

Which leads us to — oh, right, Sex Tips for Girls. The frequency of Cynthia’s Voice columns quickly suggested to her that a book could be made from them. Her proposal was just that — reprinting columns — but her Simon & Schuster editor had other ideas. The intense back-and-forth of melding the material from the columns into chapters took a while, but, by 1983, a complete work was born that crafted her themes, wit, and one-liners into what was basically a long-form analog to her columns.

Other recent homages have focused on the debt Candace Bushnell and others had to Cynthia’s pioneering sassy, sex-positive persona (not to mention her love of lingerie). But no one so far has mentioned that the voice of Miss Manners, the pen name of the popular columnist Judith Martin, was strikingly similar to the voice Cynthia displayed in her Problem Lady personality. It should be noted that much of the Problem Lady’s advice was not simply about sex. A lot of it focused on shoes, or being polite, or how to be fabulous (black clothing being the first step).

Sex Tips turned out to be a sensation — just the title itself was optioned repeatedly for movie rights. It stayed in print for twenty years in English, and some foreign editions ensued. (She told me only two years ago that she still got occasional checks from Germany.) Barbara Cartland, a reigning British romance novelist, who was a fan, invited Cynthia to stay with her, which she did more than once. In 1986, she did a play at American Place Theater called A Girl’s Guide to Chaos, based mutually on Sex Tips and her second book, But Enough About You. I did the artwork, which became a book (and a book cover). The piece, widely performed in the U.S and in the U.K., starred Debra Jo Rupp as one “Cynthia,” who contemplates the horrors of dating in conversations with the apocryphal girlfriends Cynthia had created from her actual personal girlfriend pool.

Cynthia had become a brand.

The Voice and her columns for the paper were her home base for seventeen years and a foundation for her books. But she also pursued TV writing, working on Kate and Allie and then moving to L.A. in the early Nineties for Dear John. The Voice column ended in 1997, when she and the new editor, Don Forst, ended up in a high-profile Page Six spat after she reportedly called him an “old fart” in a Well post. Cynthia had bought a first-generation IBM PC computer and was an avid participant in the precursors of social media, such as the Well, originally a dialup bulletin board. She ultimately hated TV writing and moved to Oakland to be near her Well buddies.

Bouts of serious depression had started. A head injury in Oakland, when an elevator didn’t level properly on a ground floor, resulted in a lengthy hospitalization for severe disorientation. This century was hard for Cynthia. Perhaps without the structure of the column deadlines to keep her moving forward, she couldn’t keep her focus together to produce much writing. It’s unknowable if the head injury had permanent effects.

Her last book, Advanced Sex Tips for Girls: This Time It’s Personal, finished in 2001, was delivered years late. She wrote few pieces after that for print or online media, but the spark was still there when she did. She would tell me during the last few years that she was working on an autobiography. I never saw any pages, though she would promise to send parts I was in. Of course, her life had several volumes’ worth of events, people, locations.

When she quit the Soho News the second time — despite being paid enough money to live on, so big a risk for a single mother — the issue was the editors being too straight-laced for her idea of a hip “downtown” publication. Her quitting memo was scathing and hilarious; I wish I still had a copy. It ended, allow my paraphrase, something like this: “You told me you wanted me because I was ‘outrageous,’ but then you complain that I am too outrageous. I find it impossible to be just a little bit outrageous.”

I Find It Impossible to Be Just a Little Bit Outrageous would have been a great title for that autobiography.