When I met Cynthia Heimel, I brought her peanut M&M’s.
She documented her predilection for those in her writing, alongside her fondness for Betsey Johnson dresses, orange juice, cowboys, cheeseburgers, her diaphragm, Nick Nolte, cigarettes, and dogs. Always dogs. Her loyalty to those soulful, wet-nosed dummies seemed to scratch an itch that was emotionally adjacent to her lifelong affection for men. And her affection for those dummies, even in the face of romantic frustration, was compassionate and boundless. In her columns and books, Cynthia reassured smart 1980s women, all of them certain they were victims of a sociopathic patriarchal conspiracy, that “with all these sex-role upheavals, men are a mess. They’ve been taught all their lives to act one way, and suddenly they’re told they must act completely differently.”
But as generous as she could be to men, Cynthia Heimel demonstrated in every word she wrote a love for her fellow women that could reverse the tides, confuse smoke alarms, crash aircraft, burn omelets. Her books are bear hugs and face palms from your cool big sister; reading them for the first time is like meeting the best friend you’ve had your whole life.
Cynthia’s writing was sparkling, stylish, and humane. The title of her first book, 1983’s Sex Tips for Girls, parodied Cosmo decades before Jezebel took women’s magazines to task. Her tips were both tongue-in-cheek and sound advice, never nagging or rigid, always funny. “The head of the penis,” she wrote, “when licked in a swirly motion, will feel extremely cheerful.” As an addendum: “Some girls spit sperm out, but this is not considered sporting.”
She warned us not to get so infatuated with a guy that we forgot who we were: “You’re the one who likes clams casino and Monty Python.” She taught us to differentiate between a crush and an obsession, and assured us that, contrary to what those women’s magazines claimed, the only things we needed to be good in bed were manners and enthusiasm. When we were feeling sorry for ourselves for being single, she’d remind us that the guy of our dreams would only show up if we got on with our lives, and that he’d appear “when he’s good and ready. And when the stars are good and ready. And when your friends are good and ready to break your kneecaps if you don’t stop moaning about being lonely.”
All of her counsel to girls was in the service of female camaraderie and happiness without strings. “Stand up to fear” was her party cry: She’d tell us that “God protects drunks, infants, and feisty girls, girls who are up for anything.” We were reminded to be shamelessly frivolous, even when our love lives made us want to die. She was a funnier, smarter version of the voice in your head they tell you to use when you’re being hard on yourself.
In 2008 I reached out to Cynthia and fangirled out on the phone. We talked about boys and baths and books and who in comedy was worth a lick, and who could suck it. We were phone friends! A dream come true. When she traveled into New York from Pennsylvania, we met up for french fries at Pastis. I brought her those M&M’s, but she said she couldn’t eat them because she was in the throes of a “no sugar” situation. I remember her huge smile, thick hair, and that she wore all black, naturellement. We walked around the West Village, and I asked her about writing, dating, everything in the world.
Me: “Does the chapter on overcoming obsession actually work?”
Cynthia, smiling: “I don’t know. I just wrote that stuff for myself, to help me stop obsessing over guys.”
Me: “Where do you get the questions for your ‘Problem Lady’ column?”
Cynthia, shrugging: “I make them up.”
Our time together was comfortable, haimish—though I guess the kids today say “hygge.” Like her writing, her company was energizing, cozy, and brazen.
I stayed in touch with Cynthia on Facebook, where she was transparent, outspoken, funny, vulnerable, and occasionally unhinged. She reposted every missing dog, decried every Republican affront to humanity, live-blogged every Oscar ceremony. She moved to California, and her health worsened. Her friends learned from her son last week that she had died.
I’ve spent the past week rereading her books—Sex Tips, plus her later best-sellers with those unmistakable Lichtenstein-y covers and titles like Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I’m Kissing You Good-Bye! and If You Can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?!—and I must confess, I’m misty as I type this. Not because she is gone, but because she was here, and what she wrote is so comforting, so affirmative, so smart and good and cool and funny, that I insist you read every word of it.
And when you’re done, why not give her books to a girlfriend who will benefit from her company? After all, Cynthia would want us to lean on each other. She’d remind us that competitiveness between girls was just a toxic notion designed in a 1950s lab to manipulate us. She’d point out to us mopey lonely hearts that love takes all forms, from romance to friendship to the look in a big black lab mix’s eyes when you meet him in a shelter. Remember, Cynthia wrote: “If you’ll just let them, people will be there when you need them. Heartbreak is horrible, but the dancing girls will always just keep on dancing.”