Lessons in love: How one Northampton couple shaped the popular New York Times column “Modern Love”

  • Daniel Jones of Northampton edits the New York Times column “Modern Love.” Photographed on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daniel Jones, editor of the New York Times column “Modern Love,” and his wife, author Cathi Hanauer, in Northampton. Photographed on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, with their dog, Rico. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daniel Jones, editor of the New York Times column “Modern Love,” and his wife, author Cathi Hanauer, in Northampton. Photographed on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Above, Anne Hathaway in “Modern Love,” a television show inspired by the newspaper column of the same name that began airing on Amazon Prime in October. Below left, Dev Patel and Catherine Keener in “Modern Love.” Below right, Daniel Jones, editor of the New York Times column “Modern Love,” and his wife, author Cathi Hanauer, in Northampton. COURTESY AMAZON STUDIOS  

  • Tina Fey and John Slattery in “Modern Love.” COURTESY AMAZON STUDIOS

  • Dev Patel and Catherine Keener in “Modern Love.” COURTESY AMAZON STUDIOS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/1/2019 8:10:56 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Daniel Jones has read a lot of love stories. The part-time Northampton resident and full-time editor of the New York Times “Modern Love” column, now in its 15th year, has received roughly 120,000 submissions and edited some 750 essays about relationships.

The immensely popular column has inspired books, a podcast and, in mid-October, a TV show on Amazon Prime Video with a star-studded cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey and Dev Patel. Each of the eight episodes in the first season brings to life one “Modern Love” essay, and already the show has announced it will be renewed for a second season.

As a consulting producer on the show, Jones helped decide what essays to bring to the screen, he said on a recent afternoon, sitting at the kitchen table in the Victorian house he shares with his wife, the writer Cathi Hanauer, and their dog, Rico. “We have love from old age, we have platonic love, we have family love and strife and divorce and that sort of thing.” The advice show creators gave him: “Just send us good, rich essays — don’t try to be a TV director.”

Easier said than done, considering the column’s long history. The story of how “Modern Love” came to be is a good, rich tale itself. In the late 1990s, the couple had been looking to leave their small apartment in New York City for someplace cheaper to live with their two children, Phoebe and Nathaniel, then 4 and 15 months old and now 24 and 21 years old.

“The real genesis,” Jones said, “was us moving to Northampton thinking we’d have this, like, dream life working in this Victorian house together as writers and editors, and pretty soon we were like, ‘This is not an ideal arrangement.’”

One weekend, they were on a trip to upstate New York when a friend from western Massachusetts made a suggestion. “On your way back, go through Northampton. It’s a great town, it’s right along the way,” Hanauer recalled. “Turns out, it was an hour outside of the way. If we had known that upfront, we wouldn’t have stopped here.”

“That was before GPS told you how long it was going to take,” Jones chimed in.

“Thank God,” Hanauer said, laughing with Jones.

The two went to Main Street. “We loved it,” Hanauer said. “He looked and said, ‘This is where we should live.’”

Hanauer had an aunt and uncle living in nearby Leverett, and Northampton “had good schools, good people, a nice vibe. So we moved here and never looked back,” she said.

When Jones and Hanauer moved to Northampton in the fall of 1999 and bought a home — the same one they live in today — they had a particular lifestyle in mind. Both worked as writers and editors — they had met in an MFA program at the University of Arizona — and they planned to continue to work and evenly divide the job of caring for their kids and home. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

“I started thinking it wasn’t actually even,” Hanauer said. “I felt like I held the pieces of the family puzzle in my head.”

“I was frustrated with the demands of working motherhood,” she said. “I felt that women had walked through the doors that other feminists had opened for us thinking we could have it all — and gotten here only to realize, we needed a wife.”

Companion books

Hanauer started talking to her friends, many of whom were also writers. “I found many of them were feeling the way I was — angry and tired and just that life was chaotic,” she said. “These are privileged complaints, for sure, but we didn’t feel it felt the way it should.”

So, she collected essays from writers and edited them into a book published in 2002, “The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage,” which became a New York Times bestseller. “It turned out there were a lot of us angry women out there, a lot of bitches as I like to say,” she said with a laugh.

Two years later, Jones edited a companion book, “The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom.”

As Hanauer put it on her website, “we officially became The Bitch and The Bastard.”

Soon after, the New York Times wrote a story about the couple and their books, and they got a call from Trip Gabriel, then an editor of the style section of the Times, asking if they would want to edit a column inspired by their books.

Both Hanauer and Jones commissioned and edited the first batch of essays, but Hanauer later dropped out of the project to write. It was really a one-person job, they said, and Hanauer wanted to focus on writing books. The first draft of her latest novel, which has the working title “Responsible,” sat on the kitchen table as she spoke.

“I feel like it was a really good thing for the column, too,” Hanauer said of the decision. “All the essays in my book, they’re all about women, and they’re all kind of about the division of labor and the solitude and all that kind of stuff. He’s much more like, ‘Well, what do you have to say?’ I’m like, ‘I want to talk about me.’”

“I’m just interested in a good story,” Jones said.

“He’s not as jaded as me, and he was able to broaden it in ways that I’m not sure I would have,” Hanauer said of the column.

“I would have made it all about angry women,” she said, and they both laughed, “which would not have lasted 15 years, I don’t think.”

15 years of wisdom

For four days each week, Jones stays in an apartment in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan and works at the New York Times office in midtown. He now has a staffer, Miya Lee, who helps him read essay submissions and who also runs the “Tiny Love Stories” series, pieces 100 words or less submitted by readers. Lee flagged a mini story written by Jenny Fleming-Ives — who happens to be Jones and Hanauer’s neighbor — about finding love on July 20, 1969, the day man walked on the moon.

Pieces that catch Jones’ eye have common qualities. “It’s a combination of realizing quickly that someone really has a story to tell. Usually, a lot of that is often about tone — it sort of feels like this generosity of telling something that’s very vulnerable,” he said. “And flat out, do you want to find out what happens in this story? The harder piece is, what do you make of the story, what do you make of the experience? That’s usually revealed near the end, and a story is either made or broken by whether it is able to sort of resonate more broadly … ”

Of the 750 or so published essays, he has some favorites. One is “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” an essay written by Mandy Len Catron that details how two people can fall in love by asking each other a series of 36 questions developed by a psychologist and then staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes. For instance, “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” and “What is your most treasured memory?”

“They are questions that equalize and force vulnerability on the couple,” Jones said. “It’s a brilliant gimmick with integrity.”

He continued, “Every year, that essay and its sidebar that I wrote that included the questions still get just millions of page views … that’s just fun as an experience and to be a part of it and see it sort of ripple out there.”

Another memorable essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” was written by author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who was dying of ovarian cancer, and is the second most-read “Modern Love” piece in the column’s history, he said.

“She wrote it in the form of a dating profile for her husband, encouraging him to find love after she died. Not only did that have a huge impact … she died 10 days after it was published,” Jones said.

What would his “Modern Love” essay be? “It’s a popular question,” Jones said, and the answer is, he’s kind of already written it. It was an essay he wrote for his book, “The Bastard on the Couch” about “wrestling with chivalry in an age of equality.”

“I just applied it to the early days of our relationship, and how I failed in Cathi’s eyes in not being chivalrous enough because I so respected her strength to take care of her own problems,” he said.

Reading thousands of love stories over 15 years, he has absorbed some wisdom.

The experience of editing the column “honestly makes me want to be more brave,” Jones said. “You feel like all these lives and choices are swirling past you, you immerse yourself in it. It’s interesting to see how the most inspirational essays are people who did not consider themselves to be brave.”

For instance, there’s the theme of what happens when one has a devastating loss and must decide what to do next, he said: “The fear of vulnerability is universal. But are you going to give in to the fear, or are you going to face it and open yourself up to that possibility of loss again?”

Referring to the latter, he said, “You see the people who do that live joyful lives — it doesn’t mean they aren’t going to get hurt again, it doesn’t mean they aren’t going to have loss again.”

“That’s how it’s enriched my life,” he said of the column. “And it’s like a lesson, a lesson in the volume of behavior — these are the choices people make that lead to full, happy lives.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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