Irma Kurtz, Cosmopolitan magazine’s agony aunt for the past 40 years, talks to Alex Galbinski about her own worries and new autobiography.
Many young people might balk at revealing their innermost feelings to a 78-year-old Jewish grandmother – but Irma Kurtz is unlike most older women.
As the agony aunt for Cosmopolitan magazine for the past 40 years, people have sought out her words of wisdom – and still do. A quote on the jacket of her new book, My Life In Agony: Confessions of a Professional Agony Aunt, describes her as “the unshockable Queen of advice”.
Doesn’t anything surprise her? After all, doesn’t the older generation get shocked by what goes on nowadays?
“No,” Kurtz says, adding she doesn’t think she’s ever been shocked, despite reading more than one million letters.
“[But] one thing that makes me very angry is racism,” she admits. “There are times when I’m worried by an attraction to celebrity culture or girls occasionally who write to say they want to be celebrities. But shocked? No. Nothing surprises me about what we can get up to,” she chuckles.
Indeed, she writes about trying to comfort a friend who finds her boyfriend’s stash of porn by asking her: “Can’t you consider the stuff to be a snack? Like a packet of salted nuts, say, he nibbles between banquets with you?”
Kurtz is not your average grandma. Born in 1935 in New Jersey, her mother was a second-generation American (who was herself born in a small town in Indiana run by the Ku Klux Klan) and her father’s parents were immigrants to Manhattan’s lower East Side.
When I ask where her grandparents were from, Kurtz exclaims: “Heaven knows – or Hell. Hell knows! I said to my grandfather: ‘Grandpa Joe, why do you have such a funny accent?’ and he said ‘Irmele, it’s better you shouldn’t know’. It must have been Cossacks who chased him. Many Americans of my generation left Europe in fear and they wanted their children to be American, safe.”
Indeed, Kurtz’s parents, who were liberals and read Karl Marx, were worried about what lay ahead for her and wanted her to lead a settled life. “I should have married a nice Jewish boy who was going to be a lawyer or a doctor, in Connecticut, maybe New York,” she says.
“Mind you, my parents both had eccentric backgrounds in a way and I think they longed for normalcy. They were worried for me. It wasn’t easy to be an eccentric – and especially an eccentric woman – even on the relatively sophisticated east coast of America.”
A single mother to Marc, now a television director, she explains: “I never married his father [an artist, with whom she remains in contact]. I’ve been an eccentric and a bohemian all my life.”
Kurtz describes her “early attraction to bohemia” and says that after studying English literature at Columbia University, she “fled” to Paris in the 1960s. “I escaped my destiny and they never thought a girl would do it,” she explains gleefully.
“But no one was watching me like my unfortunate brother was watched!” But, after nearly a decade, Kurtz became disillusioned with Paris and, by then in her thirties and broke, she arrived in London.
“Financially, I had a dreadful time – I was living in a B&B – but my English friends invited me to dinners and I met other people, and they got me work.” One friend got her writing scripts for the Central Office of Information, but it wasn’t long before she became involved with Fleet Street “and then I was away”, she says.
A journalist with solid news experience – she reported on Vietnam as well as other countries in the 1970s – she gained more security with the Cosmo column. Things remained financially difficult, even after Marc was born. She describes her struggles with a nice turn of phrase: “Money was tighter than a Victorian corset, laced up most mornings by incoming bills.”
The grandmother-of-four describes herself as “an old busybody,” and “a professional ear with a big mouth”. Is that really how she sees herself? “Yes, why not? I’m not a councillor – what I have is common sense,” she says, before adding: “I know I say I have a big mouth, but I’m also a listener. I love going to the theatre alone and have it overwhelm me.”
While billed as her ‘confessions’, the book is not a straight-up autobiographical work. Snippets of Kurtz’s life are interspersed with details of the stories she has heard and the advice she has given. “It’s about agony, darling,” she tells me from her studio flat in King’s Cross.
“I knew I had common sense from an early stage. People approached me in need of it. I think it’s because I liked being on my own and, when you’re on your own, you’re open to people. Nowadays, no one is on their own as they’re travelling with a headset and texting.”
Indeed, she says the nature of the problems she is sent has not changed much over the years, but the medium by which they are has. “Problems depend on the person telling them. Now they come on emails rather than letters, they’re harder to get into.
“Because they’re short, they’re looking for an aspirin for heartbreak; they set out the problem as if it’s one in general and should have a general answer. Letters used to be many pages long, have a patina, a colour of ink, tear stains sometimes, and you knew that person.”
Warning of the dangers of social media, she adds: “I believe in intuition and I’m worried about losing it because we’re relying on machines to do it for us. I’m not saying technology is bad, I’m just saying maybe it’s gone far enough into our private lives.”
My Life In Agony does contain personal confessions about Kurtz’s own life. She writes about how she had looked forward to meeting her soulmate and would live with them – without marrying.
I ask if she made a conscious decision not to marry and she replies: “I never wanted to marry because I’m a romantic. I’m not saying that it’s right for everyone [but] for me, as a bohemian from the start, I believed in love.
“I didn’t think love needed a contract and that’s how marriage seemed to me. It still surprises me that I didn’t find my soulmate, but that’s life.”
As for what Judaism means to her, Kurtz admits: “It’s strange, as I grow older I find it means more, not less, and I’m not a religious person. I am as much a Jew born as I am an American born. What it is to me are brethren – I feel a kinship.”
Kurtz is a free spirit, a “wanderer”, who describes her “lifelong dream of exploring the world inch by inch to make all of it my neighbourhood and its inhabitants all my neighbours”.
She has certainly explored the world, but there as yet undiscovered topics she would like to delve into. “The loneliness of the aged is becoming an interesting area – it needs exploring,” she says.
But for the meantime, Kurtz is turning her hand to fiction. “It’s a holiday,” she says. “And it’s the only way you can tell the absolute truth. You can’t get sued by fictional characters.”
Indeed, they’d probably ask for her advice.
• My Life In Agony by Irma Kurtz is published by Alma Books in hardback, priced £14.99.