Guy Trebay’s New Book Captures More Than New York City’s 1970s Sizzle

As an established voice in fashion, culture, art and style, Guy Trebay’s insightful articles often invoke further questions or conversations. But this summer he has upped the stakes, turning the focus onto his life with the release of “Do Something: Coming of Age Amid the Glitter and Doom of ‘70s New York.”

In the Penguin Random House-published book, the longtime New York Times reporter details his Long Island childhood, his Hawaiian Surf founder father’s rise and fall, his enchanting yet unmoored mother, a sister’s armed robbery arrest and more. By his own account, Trebay barely stumbled through high school without bothering to collect his diploma. In 1975, an ice storm triggered an electrical fire that set his family’s home ablaze. “Whatever the fire spared was carried off [allegedly] by firemen…”

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With his descriptive lines, Trebay transports readers to his childhood beach days, short-circuited school days, unpredictable family life, thrifting at Bogie’s on East Tenth Street, working for $40 a night at the Tenth Floor (despite being “patently nobodies”), couriering moneybags for a Lebanese bank and other grittier days finding his way in New York City. In the process, he encountered such creatives as Andy Warhol, Charles James, Candy Darling, Horst P. Horst and Valentine Crawford (who was better known as “Nicholas”). Trebay explains in his tome how he was drawn to people like Darling because he shared her “desire to metamorphose, without knowing into quite what.”

During an interview last month, Trebay said, “There definitely was a moment where I thought, ‘I have just taken off my clothes and I am walking through Times Square. What am I doing? It’s your life.’ I’m not so sure that it’s the kind of thing if you thought of in advance you would do again.”

His words disclosed how James’ “at home uniform was an oversized white Oxford Brooks Brothers shirt, the collar popped and waist tightly cinched with a wide leather belt, chunky Candie’s platform shoes from a 14th Street discount store and Jockey briefs. Charles was always vain about his legs,” Trebay writes.

When Trebay wanted to photograph his younger sister Dana wearing what was then James’ ’”most celebrated work in his archives,” the designer agreed once to loan the quilted satin evening jacket circa 1937. But that decision deep-freezed their friendship, after James learned his loaner had traipsed across the West Side Highway.

Not a glory days kind of read, “Do Something” offers fragments of the hardships, challenges and rewards of a once wayward but now purposeful life. In the interview, Trebay said, “My goal in the book was that it would have a powerful, emotional freight.”

The award-winning columnist said, “At this point, I’m aware of all the stunts that writers pull to affect readers. I respect that we all have customers, and that readers should be entertained. But it’s the emotional resonance of a book [that stays with you.] A friend said to me early on, ‘If the book succeeds at all, nobody will be reading your story. They will read themselves into your story.’”

Trebay first decided to write something for himself after the sudden death of his younger sister in 2012. Six years later he used some of that seed material to write a chapter that his agent shopped around and sold. Never dialing back from his day job at The New York Times, Trebay wrote the book on weekends and during vacation time. Despite a decades-long career, there was a learning curve. “I made a miscalculation going in, because I thought, ‘I’ve got this. I’m a writer. I know how to do this,’” he said. “Except there was an entirely new set of skills that I had to learn that I hadn’t calculated for.”

From his point of view, the memoir isn’t so much about him as it is about describing worlds. “Generally, speaking in journalism, we’re in real time. The skills that are required to migrate back and forth through time, which is kind of the way that consciousness works — anyway mine does, I think most of ours does — were not that easy to make work on the page at first,” Trebay said. “And of course, processing things about your family and your past is going to be challenging. I went in knowing that part would happen.”

After getting started in 2019, he wrapped up the page-turner last year. “If nothing else, I’ve always had an iron-clad work ethic. I’ve needed to, because I have been on my own since I was 17. The one thing that I do understand is work…” he said. “I love my job and never want to feel like I was stealing from my job to do this.”

“For multiple reasons, one of them being real estate,” New York City in the 1970s was “super-populated with creative people, who found a space here or a toehold,” he said. Having started out as a painter, Trebay said doing Q&A’s — which were then novel — at The Factory made him realize that he wanted to be a writer, which until then had never been a life goal. “I wanted to make narratives. I realized that pretty quickly.”

There, he was among the first to hear Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame prediction — albeit secondhand from Rosemary Kent, who shared that remark upon returning from lunch with Warhol, Trebay said.

“[Author] Judith Thurman referred to it as a ‘freeport for creative spirits.’ It was that with no doubt. And I don’t know if it ever can be that again,” Trebay said. “That’s why people started moving first to the outer boroughs and then L.A., Berlin and other cities where there was affordable space to pursue your life creatively. The thing I feel less comprehending about is how we have culturally managed to more or less forget the memory of the AIDS pandemic,” Trebay said. “It is sort of a cultural forgetting. I think there is a willed part of that.”

A sign of how the book tries to reverse that is the portrait on the cover, which was shot in Trebay’s Bronx apartment (that cost $78 per month at that time) by Scott Heiser, a largely unsung photographer who died in 1993. “The choice was made as a reminder that he, among many other people did exist and create this work,” he said.

From the outset, there was always an important current in the book being somewhat of a testimonial. “A great, great many things that we benefit from now originated then from these people, who had these very short lives,” said Trebay, who has written about the evolution of masculinity. “Some of the objects of inclusion now also proceed from the politics of those years. There was a basis, an origin and there were these renegades living very gender various lives. They hadn’t been formalized quite, because gender studies didn’t really happen until the ’90s in academia in a broad way, which was the beginning of the formalization of this stuff. I don’t know that people can draw the line. Also, Google killed memory.”

As for any cynics, who might question the glory days of that long-lost New York City, Trebay said, “The one thing I will say is I am not nostalgic — aggressively not nostalgic. It is more repertorial — this did happen. The book is very candid. Nobody had a five-year plan or a five-minute plan. It was magical in ways that I’m not really sure that I knew at the time. My job in this was to conjure the magic, not to say this was the only magic that ever happened.”

Guy Trebay
Guy Trebay

To attain the technical skills needed to write the book, he amped up his reading, especially memoirists like André Josselin and Gabrielle Hamilton. Acknowledging how a lot of people like to say they can’t look at other people’s writing when they are working, Trebay said, “I do, but not in any sense of wanting to be imitative. I always think of it like being a cabinetmaker. If you can’t figure out how to do a dovetail, you look at how somebody else built that drawer.”

As an introvert, who has become an extrovert, the author said of his book tour, “I am not a performer naturally, but I’m going to give it a go. I do like to talk.”

And once the fanfare subsides, Trebay might just catch a break, “It will be really, really nice to have an actual weekend,” he said.

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