Feature writing


Laurie David: The woman making Americans eat their greens

The Times

December 8, 2010


It’s easy to think you know all about Laurie David before you meet her. She was married to the comedian and TV star Larry David for 14 years, and his portrayal of their relationship in his cult series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, means that people often confuse her with her screen incarnation, Cheryl. The night before we meet, I catch an episode of the show in which Cheryl, played by Cheryl Hines, asks her consistently embarrassing, socially hopeless husband to have sex, but Larry wants to secretly watch a raunchy Girls Gone Wild video. It’s a typical, excruciating Curb scene.

And so, the next day, even though we are supposed to be talking about the importance of family dinners, about which she has written a book, I ask Laurie if the story is true. What was it like to be married to David and, as he created and writes the shows, was their marriage like one long agonising episode?

“Don’t confuse TV and reality,” David, 52, cautions. “That scene’s an obvious exaggeration, but all the stories are taken from life. Larry is inspired by life, but has a vivid imagination. Like the ‘Larry’ on the show he is curmudgeonly, like ‘Larry’, to some degree he’s the guy who runs into difficulties. He stopped showing me the scripts eventually because I was always trying to tone it down. I remember after one sexually graphic episode the other mothers greeting me at school with a look in their eyes which I found utterly mortifying.”

She isn’t close to Hines, but refers to her as “Larry’s other wife”. She doesn’t let their daughters, Romy, 14, and Cazzie, 16, watch the show. “It’s not age-appropriate,” she says.

She first met Larry David at a gig at a New York comedy club. “I told him he was really good and he said, ‘Really? Do you wanna sit down? You liked it, huh?’ He started hitting on me immediately.” She laughs. They were friends for years before becoming a couple. She says she wasn’t physically attracted to him at first, “But I’m very attracted to talent.” Larry, however, “worked very hard” to start a relationship. He would invite himself over to watch political debates on TV. “Eventually, he wore me down. A sense of humour is a great aphrodisiac. How can you not fall in love with somebody who makes you laugh?”

Laurie’s daughters and her marriage and divorce from Larry crop up more than once in The Family Dinner, a book of recipes and advice she has written in which she argues that a shared meal is the key to a happy home and a greener planet. During her high-profile marriage she became the leading climate-change campaigner in Hollywood, convincing celebrity friends such as Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Will Ferrell and Jack Black to be green. Her passionate advocacy has included a book about global warming and an online Stop Global Warming Virtual March, headed by John McCain and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. However, she is best known for producing her friend Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (she strongly denies recent rumours that the pair had an affair).

While David’s passions haven’t died, she insists, they have been “redirected” to the table. Her ferocious zeal has moved from carbon emissions to the pride she has in her garden of beans, artichokes, lettuce, broccoli, onions and beetroot. Isn’t it a bit muted after her campaigning of yore? “The Earth’s future and what we eat are connected,” she says stoutly. “I think we should be eating less meat, which will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases, and we should source our food locally and ethically or grow our own. I’m not a vegetarian, but I am a less-meat-arian.”

Her latest “epiphany” came after realising that it wasn’t enough that she had banned individual TVs from Romy and Cazzie’s rooms, “because they can watch TV on their computers”. Since there is so much to tempt family members away from the dinner table, this book is her attempt to get everyone eating together and talking again. “I realised it was working for me when my daughters were still there, long past dessert,” she says. Isn’t that a luxury, I say. A lot of parents can’t marshal all the elements of their families together at night, not to mention family members’ conflicting timetables and the decline in people using fresh ingredients to cook with.

“Sure, I can afford to buy organic food, go to farmers’ markets, have the outdoor space to grow my own food and the time to prepare it,” says David. “But any family, whatever their circumstance, can make some changes. I don’t mind if they’re sitting down to make a peanut butter sandwich together. This doesn’t have to be every night; you could make one evening out of the week the family meal night. Sundays are great: you shop for the food together in the afternoon, then cook and eat it all together later.” Eating in front of the TV, she says, is making us obese. “I know how hard modern life is, but I don’t believe that you can’t make time to prepare food and eat with your kids and connect with one another.”

There is a darker catalyst behind her passion. Growing up as the youngest of three sisters, she found meal times – indeed, all family life – fraught and traumatic. “I spend a lot of time as a mum trying to create the perfect childhood, which I never had,” she says. Her father, Larry, was a pool equipment salesman, her mother, Lola, a housewife. The family would sit down every night, but the food was from cans, or frozen. Around the table was a correspondingly chilly atmosphere of baiting and recrimination between her sisters and her mother, or her sisters and her father or her mother and herself. “Dinner was always about getting back outside on my bicycle,” David says. “I remember it being about anxiety: eating all the vegetables, trying to hide the peas, which I hated, leaving the plate clean. I was constantly giving food to the dog.”

She was a daddy’s girl, and very close to her father; a tomboy, the surrogate son in place of the one he never had. But her father died of a heart attack when she was 12 and her mother became an alcoholic. “My sisters were away, so I became a caretaker of her, which is fine if you’re an adult, but very difficult when you’re a kid. And family dinners stopped.” Boyfriends supported her through the worst of times, she says, but David wanted to please her mother, and would write and leave poems on her pillow. Worried about the harm her mother’s cigarettes were causing, she would hide them, until the day she left for college and all the packets tumbled down from their hiding place in a bedroom cabinet; her mother was furious. Their relationship as adults was “difficult”, although her mother was included in all family events. She died a “terrible and ugly” death from lung cancer.

David traces her “compulsion to help”, as she puts it, “back to the Beatles”. At 12, she was obsessed with the band and excited by the imminent release of the movie Let It Be, based on the 1970 album of the same name. “But their popularity was waning,” David says, “and I was worried nobody would go see the film and that would upset them.” She took her local Long Island newspaper and cut out every advert for the movie and posted the adverts on lampposts to encourage her neighbours to see the film. “If I believe in something, I want everyone else to believe in it too,” she says. “That is who I am.”

David was “fiercely independent” from a young age. At Ohio State University, as parents unloaded their children’s furniture from station wagons, she walked from the local bus station with her suitcase, guitar and typewriter. Fascinated by news photography, she studied journalism and worked on the student magazine. “Those were tough years: there were only six Jewish students at the university,” she reflects. After graduating, she got a job overseeing advertising copy for a Cincinnati car dealership, then moved to New York to write for a music magazine before becoming a researcher and guest-booker on David Letterman’s chat show. Within ten years she rose to become the influential head of a division within the Fox cable network.

During the 14 years she and Larry were married, she had a “lightbulb moment” about environmentalism, “when I went over to my friend Arianna Huffington’s house and saw her SUV in the drive and thought, ‘We’re all in trouble here if we carry on driving these cars.’” Larry, noting her transformation, said he thought he married “a narcissistic, materialistic kind of princess from Long Island, and it turns out she completely misrepresented herself”. Suddenly, he had bought a Prius and was fronting their commercials. He would come home to find 100 people in the living room having a meeting about green causes. “He was very accommodating and supportive,” Laurie says. “But he didn’t adapt to recycled toilet paper, or me standing outside the shower and telling him to hurry up, or telling him off for keeping the water running when he was shaving.”

Of their break-up, Laurie says, “I love him as a friend now, but we weren’t good life partners.” There was no adultery, she says, “or we wouldn’t be such good friends now”. They tried to stay together, and had therapy. “It was my decision to break up,” she says. “I wanted emotional things he wasn’t able to provide and I wanted to be happy. You’ve only got one life, right? Watch the show. Even his TV wife couldn’t stay married to him.” They will never reunite, she insists, but “he is a huge part of our family – I adore him”. When they divorced, Larry said “ex” sounded too harsh, so suggested that they were each other’s “y”.

Part of David’s book looks at family mealtimes and divorce. After she and Larry separated, she made sure, no matter how difficult it was at the beginning, that sit-down meals continued: she and the girls together (sometimes with friends to break up the “heavy” atmosphere), then Larry and the girls on their own and, when she and he felt more emotionally able, the whole family together. Larry has even joined the table with Laurie’s companion, Bart Thorpe, a farmer from Martha’s Vineyard. They’ve been together for three years. Thorpe has a seven-year-old daughter, and melding the two families has been difficult, says David, but again it is done around the table. She and Thorpe have cows, goats and grow vegetables together. Thorpe has asked her to marry him, she says, but she hasn’t given her answer. “I’m not in any rush to do anything, but I am thinking about it.”

The two of them laughed when they read reports of her supposed affair with Gore in the tabloids this summer. “I’ve known Al and [his wife] Tipper for years. When I saw him deliver the lecture that became An Inconvenient Truth, I knew it had potential, which is why I helped make it into a film. I absolutely deny we had an affair. I wanted to laugh it off originally, but when I saw it on the news, I knew I had to come out and say it wasn’t true.” At the outset she believed that the gossip was the work of anti-environmentalists who wanted to shift the focus from the BP oil spill, then that it was an experiment by “a mad college professor to see how easily a baseless rumour could spread”.

David doesn’t care about ageing (“I just hope I’m getting a little smarter and enjoying life more”) or plastic surgery (“Never. Never. Never”), and only thinks about dying when she’s on a plane (“because I’m not in control when we hit turbulence”). Yes, she does fly (although no longer by private jet). She is not a rigid greenie, but feels passionately about changing the world “in whatever way I can. If we eat more responsibly and eat less meat we’ll have healthier kids and a healthier planet. I put a great deal of pressure on myself to give back.” Unsurprisingly for one so driven, she says impatience is her chief weakness.

“Just this morning I went outside and saw some bug or animal had taken the heads off all my broccoli. But the great thing about growing things is that you have to wait for them to grow.” Is she really so unimpeachably virtuous? What’s your favourite junk food, I ask. “Potato chips and chocolate,” she replies. David watches her daughters growing up and worries about them “constantly”. “But what gives me some comfort is that for an hour a day we sit opposite each other and talk. It doesn’t guarantee anything, or protect them, but it makes the odds a little higher, I think.” As she rises to go, she tells me where she has been happiest this year. On the Vineyard with Thorpe in the summer they retrieved some scallops from the sea, brought them home, cut them open, took the shells and scattered them under an apple tree – “because of the calcium” – gave the scallop guts to the chickens and cooked the scallops for dinner. “To me,” says David, “that is as good as it gets.”