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Goodbye, Dollface: Remembering Cynthia Heimel

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Cynthia Heimel, who throughout the Eighties and Nineties wrote regular columns for the Village Voice on sex, lifestyle, feminist issues, and more, passed away on February 25, at the age of 70. Below is a remembrance from Peter Occhiogrosso, who worked with Heimel for several years during the Seventies at the Soho Weekly News.

The first time I saw Cindy Heimel, she was sitting at a light table in paste-up at the Spring Street office of the Soho Weekly News, wearing a blue-patterned wraparound dress that looked at once funky and archaic. (Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dress was already on the market at the time, but Cindy’s version — part wrap, part jumper — looked like it came from a Salvation Army thrift shop, and possibly did.) As we got to know each other, it became clear that she wouldn’t be relegated to pasting up ads for long. As Music Editor, I gave Cindy (I called her Cynthia only in jest) assignments for which she turned in unaccountably witty pieces that went beyond what I had imagined for the story. Before long, her acute eye for detail and synesthetic understanding of language led her to be named Features Editor and, then, Centerfold Editor.

Cindy returned the favor by assigning me quirky pieces outside my realm of music. These included an interview with a German-born psychic from Canada who went by the name of Swami Narayana. I was sure that Swami was a con. He wore a huge moonstone ring that he rubbed while he gave me my first-ever past-life reading, envisioning me as an Italian harpsichordist giving out literary-inflected teas — sure to appeal to my extensive fantasy life. But he also knew about a childhood ailment in one of my ears that had almost left me deaf. He advised me to see a chiropractor about my recurring back pain, opening my eyes to alternative healing, and suggested I also take up swimming to help my back. I did both, and continued doing them for many years. Meanwhile, Cindy went on to write riotously funny stuff, including a centerfold series called “Short Pants Romance,” title cribbed from Dylan and enormous fun to read — until you recognized yourself unflatteringly but accurately portrayed in her weekly roman à clef. And she continued to flourish after the paper closed, turning out books with titles so hilarious that you didn’t need to read any further, like Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I’m Kissing You Goodbye!

With her 1983 book Sex Tips for Girls, Cindy predated women’s-sex-life commentator Candace Bushnell — whose columns led to the HBO series Sex and the City — by more than a decade. She was also funnier and sharper-witted. Considered a feminist, she was always a humorist first. She nailed the painful contortions women go through, convinced of their need for male companionship, but she also showed empathy and even compassion for the way men were ensnared in a commensurate addiction to women. And there was always the unexpected, like this riff, from the chapter “I Wish I Were a Lesbian”:

“If I could be a Lesbian, I could have chocolate cake every night and still get laid! Men, who have sex glands in their eyes and centerfolds in their hearts, are strange, deranged, picky, and exacting about women’s bodies. Other women are not! Other women would be empathetic about cellulite and bad-hair days! Plenty of Lesbians are fat and loved!”

Cindy and I lost touch after the Soho News closed and she later moved to Los Angeles. Recent news of her declining health, particularly cruel in the final year, when her mounting ailments appeared to rob her of her acerbic voice, was sad beyond reckoning. I realize how much I owe her, not only for her constant infusions of humor but also for her astonishing enthusiasm in the midst of our often-discordant lives awash in so many forms of overindulgence. After I interviewed that German-Canadian psychic, Cindy sent me to cover a “psychic fair” in a Midtown hotel that turned out to be as enlightening as it was preposterous. But maybe she knew something I didn’t. At the time, I was a recovering Catholic and a hard-core secular humanist; now, forty years later, I’ve been engaged in research about the scientific nature of the human soul, the continuation of consciousness, and proof of the afterlife. I’m not sure what Cindy would have made of the accumulating evidence that consciousness exists separately from the brain and continues after death (sorry, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and all those others who still insist that “When we die, that’s it”). Would Cindy have laughed at the idea of ongoing evolution, or come up with a witty line that acknowledged the possibility — while wondering why someone who had lived the nightlife for so many years was now fascinated by the afterlife?

Indeed, as I’ve learned, what the modern mystic Edgar Cayce called “soul development” apparently escalates after death as we learn how we could have done things differently, and what unexpected potential awaits us. Cindy, who adored the Algonquin Round Table era and film noir, for instance, might now be discussing all this with some of her favorite writers — Margaret Drabble, P.G. Wodehouse, Rex Stout. And chatting with friends who have preceded her, like Sarah Longacre, another key member of the Soho News, who took the characteristic photo above. Practicing for a softball team that rarely won a game in the Publishers League, in an empty lot at Houston and Mercer Streets (now the NYU Coles gym), Cindy’s enthusiasm flowed the same way she created hilarity: by finding the heartbeat underlying the rowdy contradictions of life. “Hello, dollface. Get me Rewrite!” she would sometimes say into the phone for no particular reason, except that she liked the way it sounded. It’s a sound I’ll miss.

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