If you’re looking for the personification of a modern renaissance woman, look no further than E. Jean Carroll, longtime advice columnist, television personality, and longform magazine writer who once, as a student at Indiana University, won the title of Miss Cheerleader USA and Miss Indiana University.
Born in Detroit to an inventor and a retired local politician, Carroll was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her origins as a writer, she says, date from her “obsession,” as a six-year-old, with advice columnists Ann Landers and “Dear Abbey.”
Much later, in 1993, she would begin writing “Ask E. Jean,” an advice column in the legacy women’s magazine Elle, which ran for more than 25 years. In it, Carroll brought her punk rock twist to “Dear Abbey” on topics such as careers, beauty, sex, men, diet, “sticky situations”, and friendship.
Connoisseurs of literary journalism point to her narrative work as some of the most entertaining and distinctive produced between the 1980s and 2000s. Her direct, informal, and breezy writing style belies a natural columnist; her vivacious personality and gift for storytelling inform her narrative stories. Her celebrity profiles were riotous, smart fun— William Hurt, Lyle Lovett, Fran Lebovitz, and Hunter S. Thompson, about whom she wrote a book, The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson.
Says Bill Tonelli, her editor at Rolling Stone and Esquire: She was always a tenacious, enthusiastic, energetic student of the human condition, and incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence. Her stories ran more or less as she wrote them, because she was able to engage with her subjects at ground zero but also from Olympian heights. And unlike a lot of writers, she was as expressive and explosive in person as on the page.”
Exhibit A: In a 1990 Esquire interview, Carroll described Dan Rather, the longtime TV news anchor, as “the straightest, civilest bundle of ambition you’ve ever met, as gallant as an old riding boot—his very balls wear gloves—as tactful as a whole finishing school full of young ladies, with the vigor of a sled dog, the morals of a stuffed shirt, the zeal of a madman, and a never-ending, consuming passion for news: What’s news, what’s going to be news, what’s not news, what could be news, does anyone else have the same news, and how to keep it clean. He’s a tremendously likable fellow—you just long to dash across the room and pound him on the back—and he speaks in the soft, humble, intimate tone of a Jesuit in the confessional.”
More recently, Carroll’s name has been in the news as a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit filed against President Donald Trump.
In 2019, Carroll wrote in New York magazine that Donald Trump sexually assaulted her in the fall of 1995 or the spring of 1996 in a Bergdorf Goodman store in New York City. Trump denied the allegations, saying “she's not my type” and claimed he never met her.
After Carroll provided a photograph which showed her meeting Trump in 1987, she sued Trump for defamation. Although the U. S. Department of Justice sought to take over the case in September, claiming Trump called Carroll a liar in his capacity as president, a judge denied the motion. The case is still working its way through the courts.
Though she excelled writing about famous subjects, over time, Carroll would become known for focusing her stories on “the heart of the heart of the country,” and on “real people,” she said in a recent interview.
Her reporting skills are on full display in dispatches from the first Gulf War; an up-close look at neo-white hipsters; lesbian pornographers in San Francisco; and, “Cowgirls All the Way,” an indelible 1981 Outside portrait of the Miss Rodeo America contest. Exhibit B:
"I want you to remember that Miss Arkansas is a bull-riding champion and that Miss Wyoming was raised on a 5,000-acre ranch and rounds up cattle; she ropes, wrestles, brands, implants, and inoculates the calves, and runs the buck rigs, hay rigs, tractors, and stackers. I want you to remember that the queens in this contest have won barrel-racing championships, and all-around cowgirl championships. I want you to recall that these queens raise, ride, race, rack, rope, rein, run, rub, reed, and sleep horses. I want you to remember that when Miss Utah was still in a baby-blue bib she took her afternoon nap in the barn on the back of a palomino. “Wasn’t your mother terrified you’d fall off and get trampled to death?” I asked her.
“Well, of course, she’d put a saddle on him first,” said Miss Utah, mortified that anyone would speak ill of her mother.”
Sex and sexuality are recurring themes in Carroll’s work, and rarely has a magazine writer handled the subject with more directness and candor—she’s both unflinching and effervescent. And again, a sense of fun informs her interest, too. In 1988, at the height of the “Sensitive Man” era, Carroll told her Playboy editors, “Modern women run around complaining that they want a primitive man, so I thought it would be fun to come to New Guinea and find a real one.” Carroll hiked into the Star Mountains with an Atbalmin tracker and a Telefomin warrior. She became the first white woman to walk from Telefomin to Munbil in the former West Irian Jaya, and nearly died.
Her revealing 1992 Esquire feature, “Love in the Time of Magic” explores the sisterhood of beautiful women—groupies—who pursued star NBA players in the post-AIDS era of HIV positive superstar Magic Johnson. And in “The Loves of My Life” (Esquire, June 1995), Carroll tracked down her old boyfriends and moved in with them and their wives.
No matter the subject, light or dark, Carroll’s prose remains snappy; she has an ability to be present in her writing—there is no mistaking her voice—yet is also able to move out of the way and concentrate on the characters in her story. If we are aware of Carroll at all it is in her interest in the people she writes about.
Carroll’s first collection, Female Difficulties: Sorority Sisters, Rodeo Queens, Frigid Women, Smut Stars, and Other Modern Girls, was published in 1985. She has since written four more books, most recently the provocative and radically funny, What Do We Need Men For?: A Modest Proposal.
Perhaps the greatest narrative story of Carroll’s career was “The Cheerleaders,” which surveys an upstate New York community cursed by murder and suicide on their high school football team.
Carroll came to the piece in the early 2000s because her nephew—her sister’s son—was dating Tiffany Star, the young woman at the center of the story. Carroll followed the series of tragic misfortune that plagued Dryden, New York and eventually brought it to the attention to Tonelli, then at Rolling Stone. Once she got the assignment, Carroll loaded her Bouvier des Flanders, named Fuzzie de Farquar, into her truck, drove to Dryden, and set up camp.
When she handed in the story Carroll says, the owner and editor of Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner, said the story was “too bloody” and spiked the piece. The New Yorker told Carroll it was “too grisly.”
The piece was rescued by then-upstart Spin—who, under features editor Biz Mitchell did some terrific work during this time. The story was selected for The Best Crime Writing 2001. Today it is considered a classic.
As fate would have it, Carroll’s nephew, Berry, eventually married Tiffany Star. According to Carroll, the couple lives with their six-year-old son, Reid, on a lake in the mountains of upstate New York, thirty miles from Carroll’s own cabin.
“The Cheerleaders” was the first True Crime story Carroll ever wrote.
It was also her last.
CLICK HERE to purchase the book, or read an excerpt below.
WELCOME TO DRYDEN. It's rather gray and soppy. Not that Dryden doesn’t look like the finest little town in the universe—with its pretty houses and its own personal George Bailey Agency at No. 5 South Street, it could have come right out of It’s a Wonderful Life. (It’s rumored the film’s director, Frank Capra, was inspired by Dryden.) But the thriving, well-heeled hamlet is situated on the southern edge of New York’s Finger Lakes region, under one of the highest cloud-cover ratios in America. This puts the 1,900 inhabitants into two philosophical camps: those who feel the town is rendered more beautiful by the “drama” and “poetry” of the clouds and those who say it’s so “gloomy” it’s like living in an old lady’s underwear drawer.
If you live in Dryden, the kids from Ithaca, that cradle of metropolitan sophistication 15 miles away, will say you live in a “cow town.” (“There’s a cow pasture right next to the school!” says one young Ithacan.) But Dryden High School, with its emerald lawns, running tracks, athletic fields, skating pond, pine trees, and 732 eager students, is actually a first-rate place to grow up. The glorious pile of salmon-colored bricks stands on a hill looking out on the town, the mountains, the ponds, and the honey-and-russet-colored fields stretching as far as the eye can see. In the summer, the Purple Lions of Dryden High ride out to the fields and the ponds and build bonfires that singe the boys’ bare legs and blow cinders into the girls’ hair.
In the summer of ’96, many bonfires are built. The girls are practicing their cheerleading routines and the boys are developing great packs of muscles in the football team’s weight room; everybody laughs and everybody roars and the fields around town look like they’ve been trampled by a pride of actual lions. In fact, the Dryden boys display such grit at the Preseason Invitational football game that fans begin to believe as the players do: that the upcoming season will bring them another division championship. This spirit lasts until about 6:30 P.M. on September 10, when Scott Pace, one of the most brilliant players ever to attend the school, the unofficial leader of the team, a popular, handsome, dark-haired senior, rushes out of football practice to meet his parents and is killed in a car crash.
It is strange. It is sad. But sadder still is the fact that Scott’s older brother, Billy, a tall, dazzling Dryden athlete, as loved and admired as Scott, had been killed in a car crash almost exactly one year before. The town is shaken up very badly. But little does anyone dream that Scott Pace’s death will be the beginning of one of the strangest high school tragedies of all time: how, in four years, a stouthearted cheerleader named Tiffany Starr will see three football players, three fellow cheerleaders, and the beloved football coach of her little country school all end up dead.
At a home football game, Friday evening, October 4, 1996, three weeks after the death of Scott Pace, townspeople keep talking about the team and the school “recovering” and “pulling together,” but the truth is, nobody can deal. To the students of Dryden High, it just feels as if fate or something has messed up in a major way, and everybody seems as unhappy as can be.
The game tonight, in any case, is a change. Tiffany Starr, captain of the Dryden High cheerleaders, arrives. The short-skirted purple uniform looks charming on the well-built girl with the large, sad, blue eyes. Seventeen, a math whiz, way past button-cute, Tiffany is on the student council, is the point guard on the girls’ basketball team, and has been voted “Best Actress” and “Class Flirt.” She hails from the special Starr line of beautiful blonde cheerleaders; her twin sisters, Amber and Amy, graduated from Dryden two years before. Their locally famous father, Dryden High football coach Stephen Starr, has instilled in his daughters a credo that comes down to two words: “Be aggressive!”
And right now the school needs cheering. Though her heart is breaking for Scott, Tiffany wants to lead yells. But as she walks in, the cheerleading squad looks anxiously at her, and one of them says, “Jen and Sarah never showed up at school today.”
“What?” says Tiffany.
Tiffany taught Jennifer Bolduc and Sarah Hajney to cheer, and her first thought is that the girls, both juniors on the squad, are off somewhere on a lark. Tiffany knows Sarah’s parents are out of town and that Jen spent last night at Sarah’s house. For a moment, Tiffany imagines her two friends doing something slightly wicked, like joy-riding around Syracuse. “But then I’m like, ‘Wait a minute….’”
“Being a cheerleader at Dryden is the closest thing to being a movie star as you can get,” says Tiffany’s sister Amber. “It’s like being a world-class gymnast, movie star, and model all in one. It is fabulous! Fab-u-lous! It’s so much fun! Because we rule.”
The Dryden High girls have won their region’s cheerleading championships 12 years in a row. The girls’ pyramids are such a thrill, the crowd doesn’t like it when the cheer ends and the game begins.
“I’m like, ‘Hold on, Jen and Sarah would never miss a game,’” Tiffany continues. “So the only thing we can do is just wait for them to arrive. And we wait and we wait. And finally, we walk out to the football game and sit down in the bleachers. We don’t cheer that day. Well, we may do some sidelines, but we don’t do any big cheers because you can’t do the big cheers when you’re missing girls.”
Jen Bolduc is a “base” in the pyramids (meaning she stands on the ground and supports tiers of girls above her), and Sarah Hajney is a “flyer” (meaning she’s hurled into the air). At 16, Jen is tall and shapely, a strong, pretty, lovable girl with a crazy grin and a powerful mind. She is a varsity track star, a champion baton-twirler, and a volunteer at Cortland Memorial Hospital.
“Jen is a great athlete and a wonderful cheerleader,” says Tiffany. “Really strong. And she’s so happy! All the time. She’s constantly giggling. And she’s very creative. When we make Spirit Bags for the football players and fill them up with candy, Jen’s Spirit Bags are always the best. And she’s silly. Joyful. Goofy. But she’s a very determined person.”
“Jen is always doing funny things,” says Amanda Burdick, a fellow cheerleader, “and she’s smart. She helps me do my homework. I never once heard her talk crap about people.”
Sarah Hajney is an adorable little version of a Botticelli Venus. She’s on varsity track and does volunteer work for children with special needs.
“She’s a knockout,” says former Dryden football player Johnny Lopinto. “I remember being at a pool party, and all the girls, like Tiffany and Sarah, had changed into their bathing suits. And I was walking around, and I just like bumped into Sarah and saw her in a bathing suit, and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, Sarah! You’re so beautiful!’”
As the football game winds down to a loss, and Sarah does not suddenly, in the fourth quarter, come racing across the field with a hilarious story about how Jen got lost in the Banana Republic in Syracuse, the anxious cheerleaders decide to spend the night at their coach’s house.
And we go there, and we begin to wait.” says Tiffany. “And we wait and we wait and we wait and we wait.”
Copyright (c) 2021 E. Jean Carroll
CLICK HERE to purchase the book.