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Fifty People, One Question: New York

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Carla and the City

Mary-Louise Parker on High

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On a recent Sunday evening a snaking single-file line of finely dressed, thirty-something men formed at the box office of the Playwrights Horizons Theater on West 42nd Street in Manhattan. Freshly coiffed and visibly anxious, the gentlemen resembled suitors waiting their turns to court a princess. In truth, they simply hoped to score tickets to a sold-out play that, frankly, wasn’t even all that good.

The first man in line approached the ticket agent unsurely. “I just wanted to check again to make sure my name hasn’t been called,” he said. “Where should I stand to wait?”

The next guy, his hair gelled and his suit pressed, asked, “Can you make sure I’m on the list?” A forlorn-looking man standing outside simply mumbled over and over, “I need a ticket, I need a ticket.” These men were not here because they wanted to see Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a slightly funny play about, as one might suspect, a woman who answers a dead man’s cell phone. No, these men were here for Mary-Louise Parker.

What explains the suddenly ascending sex appeal of the 43-year-old actress who, until recently, was best known for her role in the 1991 chick-flick Fried Green Tomatoes? How did the star of such other family-friendly fare as Boys on the Side and The West Wing transform into one of the nation’s more coveted sexpots, luring scores of men to see an otherwise unremarkable play? Why does Googling “Mary-Louise Parker” and “MILF” pull up 79,100 hits?

Parker calls it sheer dumb luck. She didn’t set out to become a much-beloved sex symbol, she says, it just happened. Her career-changing decision to take a role on Showtime’s Weeds as a housewife-turned-pot-dealer, who somehow always seems to end up splayed across a desk in a lacy bra and black panties, was not strategic. “I always took the best thing that was offered to me,” says Parker.

In person, Parker resembles her TV, movie and theater characters, only more so. The sheen of her signature alabaster skin is brighter, the bulge of her breasts more prominent. On this afternoon, she’s decked out in a black Gucci jacket, black Prada boots, a gray knit dress by Mon Petit Oiseau and knee-high stockings that call out, ‘Hey, I dare you to try to avoid staring at my thighs.’ Her dapper assistant, Jeff, hovers inconspicuously one table away. Parker casually uses a large vocabulary, slipping in words such as “disquieting” when something much less expressive would suffice. She also crinkles her nose a lot, like a genie — sometimes it’s her way of emphasizing a point, sometimes it’s her way of saying, ‘This is a boring, awkward moment.’ And like her character on Weeds, she affects a big-eyed, girlishly surprised expression when something not so surprising transpires — for example, a reporter tells her he doesn’t read much fiction. It’s kind of adorable and makes you want to surprise her.

“I don’t have something mapped out,” Parker says. “A lot of people think, ‘I want to do this kind of movie and this kind of movie so I can achieve this.’ I don’t think in that sense. I take jobs. I gained more success as I got older.”

Indeed, the twin pillars of Parker’s suddenly booming fame — her commercial and critical success, as well as her place alongside the uni-name starlets in the tabloids — trace their roots back to a single, relatively recent and perhaps unlikely event: becoming a mother. Parker’s 2003 pregnancy may be famous for generating some of the more tawdry headlines in recent memory, but it is more notable for bringing the sexy back to motherhood.

This is not to say that Mary-Louise Parker’s career began the moment she got knocked up. In 1990, at the age of 24, Mary-Louise, as her friends do indeed call her, landed a lead role in the Off-Broadway premiere of Craig Lucas’s supernatural romance Prelude to a Kiss. Her star-turn landed her a Tony Award nomination, a number of movie roles and a romance with her co-star, Timothy Hutton.

Though Parker’s first and only love is the “journeyman, blue-collar” world of theater — “With movies it’s like, ‘What are the numbers? Did people come out to see it?’ Nothing about it is the same” — she spent most of the next decade in front of a camera. She played the abused wife in Fried Green Tomatoes, and the mobile-home momma Dianne Sway in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s The Client. You may have also seen her partnered with John Cusack in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. Her most hardcore fans remember her bewigged appearance in Longtime Companion, an early, notable film about the AIDS epidemic. Her highest-profile theater gig in the 1990s was her Obie Award-winning turn in How I Learned to Drive.

Her career “snowballed,” she says, with back-to-back successes in 2001 — one on the stage, one on the small screen. First, Parker won a Tony for her starring Broadway role in Proof — the second time her acting contributed to Hollywood’s decision to adapt a play, then casting a better-known actress for her role. (Meg Ryan got the nod for Prelude to a Kiss, Gwyneth Paltrow for Proof.) Next, she won the heart of most every American male between the ages of about 20 and, say, dead, with her all-too-brief Emmy-nominated turn as the flirtatious feminist Amy Gardner on The West Wing.

Parker’s roles have had little in common, other than Parker herself. She plays a Southern-fried girl one day, the Chief of Staff to the First Lady the next. Each time, though, a bit of Parker shines through — the crinkling nose, the surprised looks, the undeniable smarts, the ineffable hotness. Parker was well on her way along the same approximate career track as maybe Joan Allen or Helen Mirren — a respectable track, to be sure, but one that would have been wholly devoid of the photo shoots and magazine covers and starring roles that have marked the last few years of Parker’s life. And then Parker got knocked up, and everything changed.

Motherhood complicated Parker’s career in ways traditional and ground breaking, predictable and novel — the changes began, however, not with her son’s birth in January 2004, but with the scandal that erupted two months earlier, which Parker famously (and understandably) refuses to discuss. Nearly every profile of Parker opens with a line about how much the obsessively private Parker hates to be interviewed. Reporters do this for two reasons: First, they hope to appear brave and to make clear why they were unable to elicit anything particularly interesting from their meeting with Parker. And then second, because it’s true.

“A lot of the people who have interviewed me have said at the end of the interview, ‘Oh, I thought that was going to be so hard, I was so scared, I was so nervous,'” Parker says. “I just did this interview with The New York Times, and it’s valid, because I did say to him I didn’t want to do the interview, and now I wish I hadn’t, because he made it all about that, when we went on to talk for almost two hours, and we had a nice talk and we were laughing and I know all about his life.”

As much as it pains all of us — particularly Parker — the incident that brought Parker’s private life so much undesired attention (“Mary-Louise Parker” and “scandal”: 489,000 hits), one can hardly make sense of her distinctive career, or her pained relationship with the press, without it.

In late 2003, when Parker was seven months pregnant with the fetus that would soon become the uncommonly cute William Atticus Parker, Parker’s longtime partner, the heartthrob Billy Crudup, left her for a younger, blonder woman — My So-Called Life‘s Claire Danes. Crudup instantly became one of Manhattan’s more reviled villains for his apparent lack of gallantry; Parker became a folk hero for her astonishing stores of resilience. Though neither Parker nor Crudup has ever publicly discussed the specific circumstances, one clue suggests that the separation may not have been as hostile as many believe: Parker still gave their son, William, his father’s name.

Ironically and Oedipally though not coincidentally, motherhood has transformed Parker into a pinup girl. Her naked rump can be found in the pages of Esquire, her bare torso in ads for Weeds. And thanks in part to a rap by Weeds guest-star Snoop Dogg, Parker is also now perhaps the world’s most famous MILF (if you have to look it up, you probably shouldn’t)


Parker began filming Weeds, which enters its fourth season in June, about a year after William’s birth. Parker plays Nancy Botwin, a suburban soccer mom who turns to selling — you guessed it weed — after her husband dies while out for a jog. The show is notable on many counts. It ranks as the first prime-time (cable) show to portray pot the way that millions of Americans perceive it — not that big of a deal. It has also further established the idea that smart television can in fact gain an audience and survive (if only on cable). And, in a nod to Freud, Weeds marks the return after an extended absence of Mother as sex symbol. In an era where many cover girls have yet to develop hips, Parker takes distinct feminist pride in having her sexy moment while standing at the precipice of middle age.

But Parker feels no need to clear up misconceptions, or voice her take on her life, as most clearly demonstrated by her total embargo on ‘The Breakup’. She disdains that so much of what already gets published is wrong. Contrary to published reports, she is not a Southerner, she says — spending the first six months of her life in South Carolina hardly qualifies her as a Dixie chick. (She’s more like a traditional military kid, with layovers everywhere from Thailand and Germany to Tennessee and Arizona.) She’s not engaged to a Weeds co-star, she says, contrary to what you might have read (“Mary-Louise Parker” and “engaged” and “Jeffrey Dean Morgan”: 37,600 hits.) Indeed, she says, she is quite single.

Parker hates that once the media fixes on a particular story, that’s the one story reporters will continue to tell, as if it’s a bad habit. She cites a Daniel Day-Lewis interview in which he claims that he could drink until the wee hours of the morning and bond with a reporter and still come out, as always: looking like an undertaker. Reporters have an attitude of, “‘this is what we already know, and let’s perpetuate it,'” she says. In her case, it’s the simple story of a Southern girl, wronged by a Hollywood Lothario, who moves on to find love with her co-star. Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Therefore, already inclined to a privacy that borders on obsessive-compulsive, Parker never shares more than the little details on the edges — the candidate she favors (Obama), her current reading (a book of short stories edited by Jeffrey Eugenides), her unrequited crushes (that “sexy prick” Campbell Scott). She wonders why reporters even ask. “Maybe you think I’m going to go, ‘Congratulations, you’re the one, I’m finally going to [really open up]. It’s just not going to happen — ever,” she says. “So I don’t know why people ask certain things. Because I’m never going to answer them.”

By Mark Fass for Papermag
Photographs by Marcelo Krasilcic
Styling by Christine De Lassus


In an homage to New York‘s recent nude Lindsay Lohan photo spread, the Village Voice columnist decided to stage his own version. He painstakingly re-created each pose, which Lindsay had, in turn, re-created from the original Marilyn Monroe series. (Bert Stern, who photographed both Lindsay and Marilyn, did not work with Musto.)

“I’ve long lived quite dangerously myself, and so, anxious to share my desperate man-tits with an audience beyond Chelsea, I gleefully agreed to star in an homage to an homage: Musto as Lohan as Marilyn. That’s three generations of loveliness, and I prepared for it by not shaving or waxing a thing, just letting it all hang in the wind as both a nod to history and a means of reclaiming control. Just like with Marilyn and Lindsay, people have always grabbed at me, wanting a piece of my piece and a slice of my soul, but usually with more pepperoni and less cheese.”

When a Hasidic Jew becomes the principal of a Latino-populated school with a history of violence…

Another school day starts: Shimon Waronker, the principal of Junior High School 22, on station outside school, which is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. Attending to the details Mr. Waronker was greeted with near disbelief when he arrived in 2004 after his training in the Leadership Academy. In the classroom Mr. Waronker has helped attendance rise to 93 percent.

Published: February 8, 2008

Junior High School 22, in the South Bronx, had run through six principals in just over two years when Shimon Waronker was named the seventh.

On his first visit, in October 2004, he found a police officer arresting a student and calling for backup to handle the swelling crowd. Students roamed the hallways with abandon; in one class of 30, only 5 students had bothered to show up. “It was chaos,” Mr. Waronker recalled. “I was like, this can’t be real.”

Teachers, parents and students at the school, which is mostly Hispanic and black, were equally taken aback by the sight of their new leader: A member of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism with a beard, a black hat and a velvet yarmulke.

“The talk was, ‘You’re not going to believe who’s running the show,’ ” said Lisa DeBonis, now an assistant principal.

At a time when the Bloomberg administration has put principals at the center of its efforts to overhaul schools, making the search for great school leaders more pressing than ever, the tale of Mr. Waronker shows that sometimes, the most unlikely of candidates can produce surprising results.

Despite warnings from some in the school system that Mr. Waronker was a cultural mismatch for a predominantly minority school, he has outlasted his predecessors, and test scores have risen enough to earn J.H.S. 22 an A on its new school report card. The school, once on the city’s list of the 12 most dangerous, has since been removed.

Attendance among the 670 students is above 93 percent, and some of the offerings seem positively elite, like a new French dual-language program, one of only three in the city.

“It’s an entirely different place,” Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said in a recent interview. “If I could clone Shimon Waronker, I would do that immediately.”

Not everyone would.

Mr. Waronker has replaced half the school’s teachers, and some of his fiercest critics are teachers who say he interprets healthy dissent as disloyalty and is more concerned with creating flashy new programs than with ensuring they survive. Critics note that the school is far from perfect; it is one of 32 in the city that the state lists as failing and at risk of closing. Even his critics, though, acknowledge the scope of his challenge.

“I don’t agree with a lot of what he’s done, but I actually recognize that he has a beast in front of him,” said Lauren Bassi, a teacher who has since left. “I’m not sure there’s enough money in the world you could pay me to tackle this job.”

Mr. Waronker, 39, a former public school teacher, was in the first graduating class of the New York City Leadership Academy, which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg created in 2003 to groom promising principal candidates. Considered one of the stars, he was among the last to get a job, as school officials deemed him “not a fit” in a city where the tensions between blacks and Hasidic Jews that erupted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991 are not forgotten.

“They just said he may be terrific, but not the right person for that school,” Chancellor Klein said.

Some parents at J.H.S. 22, also called Jordan L. Mott, were suspicious, viewing Mr. Waronker as too much an outsider. In fact, one parent, Angie Vazquez, 37, acknowledged that her upbringing had led her to wonder: “Wow, we’re going to have a Jewish person, what’s going to happen? Are the kids going to have to pay for lunch?”

Ms. Vazquez was won over by Mr. Waronker’s swift response after her daughter was bullied, saying, “I never had no principal tell me, ‘Let’s file a report, let’s call the other student’s parent and have a meeting.’ ”

For many students and parents, the real surprise was that like them, Mr. Waronker speaks Spanish; he grew up in South America, the son of a Chilean mother and an American father, and when he moved to Maryland at age 11, he spoke no English.

“I was like, ‘You speak Spanish?’ ” recalled Nathalie Reyes, 12, dropping her jaw at the memory.

He also has a background in the military. Mr. Waronker joined R.O.T.C. during college and served on active duty for two years, including six months studying tactical intelligence. After becoming an increasingly observant Jew, he began studying at a yeshiva, thinking he was leaving his military training behind.

“You become a Hasid, you don’t think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to suppress revolutions,’ ” Mr. Waronker said. But, he said, he drew on his military training as he tackled a school where a cluster of girls identifying themselves as Bloods stormed the main office one day looking for a classmate, calling, “We’re going to get you, you Crip.”

He focused relentlessly on hallway patrols, labeling one rowdy passageway the “fall of Saigon.” In an effort to eliminate gang colors, he instituted a student uniform policy.

He even tried to send home the students who flouted it, a violation of city policy that drew television news cameras. In his first year, he suspended so many students that a deputy chancellor whispered in his ear, “You’d better cool it.”

In trying times — when a seventh grader was beaten so badly that he nearly lost his eyesight, when another student’s arm was broken in an attack in the school gym, when the state listed J.H.S. 22 as a failing school — Mr. Waronker gathered his teachers and had them hold hands and pray. Some teachers winced with discomfort.

At first Mr. Waronker worked such long hours that his wife, a lawyer, gently suggested he get a cot at school to save himself the commute from their home in Crown Heights.

He also asked a lot from his teachers, and often they delivered. One longtime teacher, Roy Naraine, said, “I like people who are visionaries.”

Sometimes teachers balked, as when Mr. Waronker asked them to take to rooftops with walkie-talkies before Halloween in 2006. He wanted to avoid a repetition of the previous year’s troubles, when students had been pelted with potatoes and frozen eggs.

“You control the heights, you control the terrain,” he explained.

“I said, if you go on a roof, you’re not covered,” said Jacqueline Williams, the leader of the teachers’ union chapter, referring to teachers’ insurance coverage.

Mr. Waronker has also courted his teachers; one of his first acts as principal was to meet with each individually, inviting them to discuss their perspective and goals. He says he was inspired by a story of how the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitch spiritual leader, met with an Army general, then inquired after his driver.

“That’s leadership,” he said, “when you’re sensitive about the driver.”

Lynne Bourke-Johnson, now an assistant principal, said: “His first question was, ‘Well, how can I help you, Lynne?’ I’m like, ‘Excuse me?’ No principal had ever asked me that.”

The principal enlisted teachers in an effort to “take back the hallways” from students who seemed to have no fear of authority. He enlisted the students, too, by creating a democratically elected student congress.

“It’s just textbook counterinsurgency,” he said. “The first thing you have to do is you have to invite the insurgents into the government.” He added, “I wanted to have influence over the popular kids.”

These days, the congress gathers in Mr. Waronker’s office for leadership lessons. One recent afternoon, two dozen students listened intently as Mr. Waronker played President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, then opened a discussion on leadership and responsibility.

When an etiquette expert, Lyudmila Bloch, first approached principals about training sessions she runs at a Manhattan restaurant, most declined to send students. Mr. Waronker, who happened to be reading her book, “The Golden Rules of Etiquette at the Plaza,” to his own children (he has six), has since dispatched most of the school for training at a cost of $40 a head.

Flipper Bautista, 10, loved the trip, saying, “It’s this place where you go and eat, and they teach you how to be first-class.”

In a school where many children lack basic reading and math skills, though, such programs are not universally applauded. When Mr. Waronker spent $8,000 in school money to give students a copy of “The Code: The 5 Secrets of Teen Success” and to invite the writer to give a motivational speech, it outraged Marietta Synodis, a teacher who has since left.

“My kids could much better benefit from math workbooks,” Ms. Synodis said.

Mr. Waronker counters that key elements of his leadership are dreaming big and offering children a taste of worlds beyond their own. “Those experiences can be life-transforming,” he said.

So when Emmanuel Bruntson, 14, a cut-up in whom Mr. Waronker saw potential, started getting into fights, he met with him daily and gave him a copy of Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

“I wanted to get him out of his environment so he could see a different world,” Mr. Waronker said.

Mr. Waronker has divided the school into eight academies, a process that has led to some venomous staff meetings, as teachers sparred over who got what resources and which students. The new system has allowed for more personalized environments and pockets of excellence, like an honors program that one parent, Nadine Rosado, whose daughter graduated last year, called “wonderful.”

“It was always said that the children are the ones that run that school,” she said, “so it was very shocking all the changes he put in place, that they actually went along with it.” Students agree, if sometimes grudgingly, that the school is now a different place.

“It’s like they figured out our game,” groused Brian Roman, 15, an eighth grader with a ponytail.

Back in Crown Heights, Mr. Waronker says he occasionally finds himself on the other side of a quizzical look, with his Hasidic neighbors wondering why he is devoting himself to a Bronx public school instead of a Brooklyn yeshiva.

“We’re all connected,” he responds.

Gesturing in his school at a class full of students, he said, “I feel the hand of the Lord here all the time.”

En français

When Grand Central Stood Still

A strange sight at Grand Central.

A couple of hundred people, indistinguishable from the 500,000 commuters who pass through the midtown station each day, suddenly freeze. They were part of an improv group which has put on this public event before, but never in such a theatrical space. A cop was asked what was going on: “I have no idea! That is the craziest shit I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’m a cop!”