Agony aunts are born, not made. Irma Kurtz, Cosmopolitan‘s agony aunt since 1976, was a magnet for people’s problems even before she was getting paid for the gig. This, plus a great number of other things, becomes clear from reading her latest book, My Life in Agony.
“I’ve always been driven by curiosity,” Kurtz confirms. “What drives the curiosity I’m not sure but I really, genuinely wanted to know.”
She got her wish. For almost four decades, the American-born writer has been the listening ear to successive generations of young western women: the best seat in the house for observing social and cultural change. So how do the contents of her postbag differ from when she began?
“What’s changed is that we now have so many more choices. As Helen Gurley Brown [editor in chief of Cosmopolitan] said: ‘We can have it all.’ Well, yes, but not at the same time. Women agonise over their choices now because they have so many of them. And, of course, when you make a life choice, you’re rejecting something too.”
The swift development of technology has also brought disruption. In the book, Kurtz tells how the letters used to help her formulate her advice. “I became a self-taught graphologist. My intuition had material to work with: it could spot frames of mind in the tilt of script, personal characteristics in the chosen colour of ink, and the stationery.” These clues to the anguished have disappeared with the advent of email, a “speedy, samey style of telling”.
“I’m not a Luddite,” she says now. “I think machines are great. They’ve taken women out of the kitchen and the laundry room, and we have reason to be grateful. But we do pay a price for everything and we have to make sure the price isn’t too great.”
I wonder what has been the impact on Kurtz’s postbag of internet dating, a sort of shopping-for-people that would have been unimaginable back in the seventies.
“You cannot fall in love with a man you’ve never smelled.”
“Well, that’s okay,” she says. “When you go out to the local pub you are shopping for Mr Wonderful – that’s been going on since the year dot. But the thing about internet dating is it’s so easy to lie online, to yourself and to the other person. Your intuition can’t work – you are confronted only with the image of the other person.”
“That’s not to say that I don’t think it is a good way to meet people, why not? But just make sure the investment is practical.” She laughs. “I think I say in the book ‘You cannot fall in love with a man you’ve never smelled.’”
This quirky but astute observation is typical of her latest book. Beautifully written, wise, wry and irreverent, My Life in Agony deftly interweaves autobiography with the issues of career, self-image, sex and love that have plagued young women for the last 40 years.
It’s like a long, cosy conversation with the woman herself, whose style is all the more appealing for its lack of dogma.
“What I do say about anything is ‘don’t slam the door,’” Kurtz agrees. “Always be prepared to change your mind. I mentioned to a friend of mine the other day that I hate beetroot. But every once in a while I give beetroot a try. I still don’t like it but the day could come when I say” ‘Hey, you know what, I’ve been missing out on beetroot.’”
It’s a simple example that conveys a profound point. “The word belief… well, ‘lief’ in middle English means preference,” says Kurtz. “And so a belief is ultimately what you choose to think is correct. That’s not to say it is wrong, but it isn’t a blanket solution for everyone.”True enough. After all, it was only by rejecting her own society’s ‘blanket solution’ for women that the New Jersey-born writer laid claim to the life she wanted. Expected to “marry a lawyer or a doctor and live in Connecticut and have two cars and three children”, Kurtz had other plans.
“When I got out of university I worked as a waitress for two years because my parents wouldn’t support my plan to live in New York. I knew I had to get away, not because I was in flight, but because I was filled with curiosity about the world.”
Her curiosity took her from New York to Paris and then to the UK – all by boat. If it seems brave now, it must have been almost unthinkable for a young girl in the 1950s.
“I don’t know how I did it, looking back,” she muses. “I just knew I had to. I knew who I was – or, I didn’t know then but I knew that I had to discover myself.” A free spirit all the way, Irma settled in the UK, decided at 36 to have a child with her artist boyfriend, and landed her job at the brand new Cosmopolitan magazine, continuing to scrape a living as a writer whilst bringing up her son alone.
More than just a job, she argues, the role of agony aunt is a calling
Now 78 and the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction, Kurtz is still faithfully answering her readers’ letters from her small flat in Soho. She still loves to travel and go to the theatre alone. “If I could give a gift to every reader of Cosmopolitan it would be one ticket to the cinema, so she could learn that you can enjoy yourself alone.”
For Kurtz, the road to becoming an agony aunt was seemingly one of happy accident combined with hard-won wisdom. More than just a job, she argues in her book, the role of agony aunt is a calling, a crucial societal role whose roots go back to “the old white witch who lived in a cottage at the bottom of the lane”.
Like so many things, it’s a role that’s under threat.
“Increasingly we are losing individuality. I think in print and online too we are a dying breed. Because people want the pill. They want the way to get over this – they don’t want to find it themselves.
“And the agony aunt in print is not the creative she was before. They’ve started using celebrities who have had an incident in their own lives that they have, quote, survived. Which is a hell of a lot easier to do when you’ve got a million pounds and an agent.
“But the agony aunt who is sitting next to you on the train or the bus? She will be here forever.”
Irma Kurtz on…
“Was love a mistake because it did not last? Love is vast and phenomenal. It is central to family, to charity, to faith and to friendship. Without our ability to love, life would be a wasteland.”
“Friendship can be based on no more than proximity, and raised like tents in the desert for shelter in a place that would otherwise be arid and scary.”
“One of the most important freedoms new to women, although hardly yet the most exercised, is the emerging freedom to be honest about her hopes, her opinions and her appetites – honest first of all with herself. Only then can she be honest with others.”
“You know that your jealousy is unfounded and illogical, so your own lack of self-worth must be where it originates… Start creating reasons to feel pride in yourself… Cultivate yourself, not to hold his interest – that’s up to him – but to keep you interested in yourself.”
“The inveterate agony aunt never graduates from any school of thought. She just keeps on learning.”
Irma Kurtz, Sat 12 July, 4.30pm-5.30pm, £10, Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton Festival.
My Life in Agony (Alma Books, £14.99) is out now
Like the Big Issue North on Facebook