Gully Wells, features editor for Conde Nast Traveler, knows a thing or two about travel. But the place she knows best is her late mother’s home in the south of France, which she captured so well in her recent memoir: The House in France. Over a glass of red wine, Gully recently talked about her family, the memoir, and travel writing.
In her book, Gully reminisces about her life with her mother, the late television commentator, Dee Wells, and her stepfather, the Oxford philosopher, A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer. The Ayers eclectic set of friends ranged from British Labor Party leaders, to London’s intellectual elite including Iris Murdoch, Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchen’s is a close friend of Gully’s and when asked how he’s doing she mentions that he’s currently receiving treatment at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Hospital for his well-documented battle against cancer. “ My stepfather and Christopher were great friends, similar intellects and so clever.”
Gully smiles when talking about her late stepfather, Freddie Ayers: “ He was the kindest, sweetest man and generous in every way. Freddie was always looking out for me and helping me with my essays at Oxford.” Gully left Oxford with a degree in history and a serious romance with the then aspiring writer, Martin Amis. The two remain friends today.
Gully certainly had what would seem an unconventional childhood and adolescence. Her parents, both American, divorced when she was four, and remarried other people. “All four of my parents taught me that love affairs were fun.” Freddie Ayer was hardly good-looking in the classical sense, but he certainly held sway with the opposite sex. He and Dee Wells had an open marriage and Ayer eventually left Wells to marry Vanessa Lawson, the mother of well-known cook and author, Nigella Lawson. Dee Wells does Freddie a good turn by taking up with a much younger man. There’s more to the story but you’ll have to read the book.
Gully’s father, a former diplomat, is now 95 and living in Connecticut. Dee Wells died in 2003. Gully says what she misses most about her mother is her cleverness and her funniness. “ When she wasn’t shouting, my mother was more fun than anyone on earth.” Since Gully spent her childhood and adolescence in England—and summers at the house in France—does she consider herself English or American? Unhesitatingly she says, “Half and half. My father’s very American and my mother was kind of English.”
Gully moved to New York with her husband Peter Foges in 1979, when he came to run the New York office of the BBC. Moving to New York opened opportunities for Gully too. Friends for years with Harold Evans and Tina Brown, Evans asked Gully, “Do you want to come work for me?” Evans was at the time the Editor for Conde Nast’s then- new travel magazine: Traveler. It turned out to be a good fit for Gully. She writes four to five pieces a year for Traveler. The October issue features a story on the English and their love of eccentricity titled: “The Importance of Being Bonkers”. In the feature Gully visits the haunts of England’s Bloomsbury Group and examines both past and current English eccentricity in all its glory. As Gully writes, “The English honestly believe that being called eccentric is a compliment.” If you’re planning a trip to the land of Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Gully’s piece is full of fun ideas to experience haute Bohemia at its best.
So what makes a good travel writer? Gully reels off the following: “ Don’t use clichés. Bring a fresh perspective to what you’re writing about even if it’s a place you’ve been to often or that’s been written about often. And, you better speak the language or have someone who can help you speak the language. “ She also points out that it’s best to write about places you know something about. “ I never write about Asia because I don’t know Asia. “ Gully did, however, write a recent feature on Old Shanghai and felt comfortable writing about it because of its European heritage. One of her favorite pieces is a story she did on the medieval towns and Kremlins, the “golden ring”, that surround Moscow.
Her next feature is on Paris with an interesting twist: Where to buy great lingerie in Paris. Cadolle, one of Paris’s most famous lingerie shops, will feature prominently in the piece. Gully cites an interesting statistic: French women spend approximately 20 percent of their clothing budget on lingerie. And they take it very seriously. They have their lingerie made to measure—haute couture. And, it doesn’t change with age. The French ladies take the view that the “older you get the more important it is to have beautiful lingerie.”
She relates a scene in Cadolle comparing an American woman shopping for lingerie with her husband to a French woman shopping for lingerie with her husband: The American husband is reading the Herald Tribune, completely disinterested while his wife is trying on lacy, sexy lingerie. His French counterpart can’t wait to see his wife in her lingerie.
And, so we come to the topic I’ve been wanting to ask Gully after living in New York all these years: What does she think of Americans? “There’s much I like about Americans, especially their openness and can-do spirit. It’s a very attractive quality.” But she misses London’s beauty. “ London to me is a more beautiful city [than New York] with its parks and wonderful architecture. Living in Park Slope (Brooklyn) I love being surrounded by old houses and trees.” Gully lives in a brownstone there with her husband and younger child, a son, who is a senior in high school. Her daughter lives in San Francisco where she works for a company that encourages companies to go green. The environment is a concern of Gully’s and is cause for pessimism: “It’s going to be hard to reverse global warming and developing countries like India and China aren’t going to do what is needed to reverse what’s happening with the environment.”
Without wanting to end the meeting on too serious a note, we end where we started, talking about books. Gully’s just finished reading Tad Friend’s autobiography, Cheerful Money, about the decline of Friend’s WASP family’s fortune, and something her mother would have enjoyed reading: Harry Belefonte’s new memoir. As Gully playfully puts it, “ I just spent the weekend in bed with Harry Belefonte.” Gully clearly shares her mother’s premium for fun.
Purchase on Amazon The House in France by Gully Wells.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions:
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Favorite Place to Shop: Bergdorf Goodman
Favorite New York Moment: First time I went to Ellis Island in 1979
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What You Love About New York: The people and their openness
What You Hate About New York: Ugliness