Always a Best Man, Never the Groom:
Interview with The New York Times Wedding Columnist

Devan Sipher has been writing about weddings for The New York Times‘ “Vows” column for five years. His father videotaped weddings for a living, so Sipher had spent his childhood at wedding receptions and swore to never work at any kind of nuptial business. Ironically, his recent book, The Wedding Beat, has been inspired by the countless Saturday nights spent at other people’s marital celebrations.

In the novel, wedding reporter Gavin Greene meets a travel writer who steals his heart. Alas, an obnoxious Aussie steals her – before Greene gets a chance to jot down her number. Forlorn and in love, he keeps searching for his Cinderella all over the city. When he finds her again, he almost wishes he didn’t. He has to write the story of her wedding!

In his prior lives, Sipher attended medical school and rabbinical school, and ran a statewide political campaign. At 40-something years old, charming, witty and fit, he remains mysteriously single.

What is special about your work?

What I write is not a normal news story. I write about couples getting married. They did not rob a bank, they are not running for president, they have no reason to have their lives exposed in a hard, news way. One of the hardest parts of my work is being respectful of the couples and writing a story that my editor will find acceptable and my readers will find engaging and want to read. At the same time, I need to be objective and present the facts. I had situations when people didn’t want the story to say that they were previously married, but I have to include that. When I interview people I really dig in. One of the brides I had written about had a Ph.D. in psychology and she complemented me on how well I had been able to get her to “open up.” I do 10-20 hours of interviews with the bride and the groom – separately. And then interviews with their friends and family. The goal is to get to know these people, to know what their lives were up to the point of meeting each other – their personal lives, their professional lives, their courtship. To create the accurate portrait in a thousand words or less, it requires me to really understand everything in their lives.

What were the most unusual and extravagant weddings you covered?

There was a couple that got married in Dylan’s Candy Bar. They walked down the isle of lollipop trees. The bridal dress was made of candy wrappers. That was pretty memorable. Another one was a wedding where the couple got married at Stone Barns Center in Blue Hills an hour north of Manhattan. They did this potluck meal of organic food. They were farmers and chefs – some famous chefs were there – and they wanted this wedding to represent who they were. I did a Rockefeller wedding, and I have to tell you that when people sit down and eat they all look the same. They take off their jackets and they dance – and on the dancing floor they all look the same. The difference is that flower arrangements are more elaborate, there are more people in the band and the gowns are more extravagant. But the people are same! And also people with more money spend less on their wedding percentage-wise.

How do you choose the wedding stories for your column? What would a couple have to do to get their wedding covered by The New York Times?

A great story is what attracts me. I want to be moved. I want to write about people that I want to get to know. I always tell people, don’t try to impress the Times with your job title or who you are related to. Impress us by the depth of your relationship. Why do you love each other? And some people answer this question better than others. There are always people who will tell you “I love him so much because he loves me,” but that doesn’t make a good story. I did a wedding of this couple who met at the Hong Kong Seventh – a major three-day rugby tournament. It’s like the super bowl. I’ve never heard about that before. People take over Hong Kong and march through the entire city in costumes, it’s a non-stop three-day party. That’s where this couple met – while parading around Hong Kong, and one of them was wearing a Marilyn Monroe outfit. It was an opportunity to take the reader to an unusual place. Another story was – I had a couple who got married at a girls’ orphanage outside of Calcutta and the orphans were their bridesmaids. The bride and groom were both doctors who met during their freshman year in Harvard; he was Greek, her family was Caribbean, and they decided to dedicate some time to public service every year. They were doing volunteer work at the orphanage and felt that their wedding should reflect that, and I can’t think of more beautiful way of celebrating marriage vows. That’s what gets my attention.

Is your book a roman-a-clef where people you worked with and wrote about can find themselves if they try hard enough?

If anything, it’s the opposite: after I wrote the book, I went back and made sure they couldn’t find themselves in there. I was originally contacted to write a non-fiction book about my work at Times. But in writing my column, I worked very hard at not revealing things about people that they may not be comfortable with, so the last thing I would do is to tell stories about them in the book. So I purposely wrote a fiction book – inspired by what I saw. As far as the brides and grooms go, they are completely made up. Even the main character, who is clearly based on me, is not me. Unlike Gavin, I never did pursue a bride and never tried to break into her apartment through the window. So I always say that the book is emotionally true. I did experience what it’s like being single and dating in New York, and always being up at someone else’s wedding on a Saturday night – by yourself. For some reason, the weddings I went to never seemed to have any single people – partially because I tended to choose slightly older couples because they usually had more interesting stories – and their friends were all married.

Is that the reason that after covering so many wedding you are still single?

There are many reasons. I just saw a show, a sitcom, in which there was a line “You don’t want to end up with the person who is almost right. You want to end up with the person who is your perfect match.” It’s a terrible thing to say to people, it’s a fantasy, but someone wrote it because they believed it and because some people would relate to it – and I do. Should I have compromised somewhere along the way and said, “this is close enough?” I don’t know, but I will know when everything IS right. Work also did get in the way. Work didn’t end at five, six or seven p.m. Work never ended!

So is Melinda your “perfect match” – as she is described in the book?

There was a woman at a New Year’s party that did get away without me getting her phone number and I did run out after her – like it is in the book. I did chase out the door after her on the Upper East Side, down the stairs and up and down West End Avenue. But she was gone and I never saw her again. That part of the book is based on reality. I talked to this woman for an hour at the party and I thought she was giving me a brush off. And I had reasons to think so – she was with her boyfriend. It was one those awkward party moments. This guy was sitting on the couch and she sat down on the couch next to him, and I was stuck standing. So I thought if that’s not giving me a hint, I don’t know what is. So I walked away. An hour later she comes back to say good bye while I am talking to a male friend of mine. He says, “Did you get her number?” and I say, “No, I told you she wasn’t interested.” And he says, “Then why did she come back to say good bye to you?” And I was like, “Oh my god, I was such an idiot!”

How would you describe Melinda’s fiancé?

He is not a hundred percent villain, but he is an opportunist, albeit a sincere one. He met this beautiful and wealthy woman – and thought now all his dreams would come true. But he is cheating on her, he is planning to use her for his political campaign – his mother says so. But at the same time, he likes her. I didn’t want to – and couldn’t make him totally sociopathic because it would reflect badly on Melinda. If he were a complete creep, it would make Melinda’s character stupid or unlikely because she chose to be with someone that hideous.

Did your parents give you the inspiration for Gavin’s mom and dad?

There was never any physical ambush with garden utensils in my family – ever! But it’s funny that some people read the book and find the parents unbearable, and other people read the book and find the parents adorable.

Are there new and interesting wedding trends?

Yes – eloping. Eloping is huge. People go off someplace and get married without throwing a big wedding. A wedding is never about just the bride and groom, it’s about a party for other people. So if the bride and groom want just what they want – they elope. New York advertises itself as a place to elope, it’s a huge business – people come to NY to elope. They bring friends and go to expensive restaurants and stay in expensive hotels. There are kinds of versions of eloping now. I interviewed people who specialize in doing weddings for brides and grooms who are coming to elope to major cities such New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Las Vegas people would go to Bellagio and do expensive elopements, but they’re still not paying for a big wedding and are not dealing with the headache of a big wedding. And another trend that has been going on for a few years is that after a couple would elope, each set of parents would throw a party the way they want to throw a party. So people go different places to celebrate: they would have a reception in Iowa where one of them grew up, in California where they went to school together, and finally in New York where they live now.

You have covered weddings for several years – obviously you enjoyed the topic. What do you like best about your job?

One of the reasons I am writing about all these weddings is that men can be romantic. Not only can they be, but they are. You know, in Brazil, they changed the title of my book to The Hopeless Romantic because The Wedding Beat doesn’t translate – and it’s true. Men are also from Venus! Men are just as romantic as women! They don’t deal with their feelings the same way, they don’t talk about things the same way, they don’t start planning their weddings when they are five years old, but when it comes to the nervousness and getting tongue tied, and the fears, men are just as romantic and as desperate to have a successful relationship and just as devastated when it doesn’t work out. When I started writing the book, some people told me that one would want a romantic guy idea, that it’s girly. You know, a guy with the ring burning the hole in this pocket – how on earth is it a girly gesture? He is risking making a fool of himself. Marriage is a statement of making a commitment to the person, to society. And people want to make this vow in front of society – that’s why they want their stories in the paper! Ultimately, it’s two people there, a man and woman, and they are both equally excited and terrified of spending their lives together and living each with other. And capturing that story is important.

The Wedding Beat

Devan Sipher

For more information, see his website.