Hot Flash : A Survivor of the ‘50s Gains Some Sudden Insight Into Her Generation . . . and a Spot on the Best-Seller List

Times Staff Writer

Joanne once told me she ate half a tube of Dentagard in the bathroom of a new lover’s apartment because she felt faint from hunger but too shy to ask for food. And even then, when reduced to eating toothpaste, she remained nervous enough to carefully observe the direction in which the man had squeezed his tube, so as not to cause him any aggravation the next morning that might turn him against her.

“We were big neurotics. The ‘50s made you neurotic,” said Barbara Raskin, who wrote that scene in her semiautobiographical novel “Hot Flashes,” which has shot up the best-seller lists like Sputnik.

The book is the story of a group of menopausal women, friends since the 1950s, who gather to mourn the unexpected death of one of them, read her left-behind journal with its hideous details of her post-divorce desolation and plan her funeral as they binge on her leftover lasagna; all while their own horror stories keep surfacing. It’s a surprisingly jaunty trek through drugs, divorce, diets, drink, leftist politics, sex, stretch marks, station wagons and wasted talents.

People are crazy about it.

Movie Rights Sold

Movie rights have been sold to Weintraub Entertainment, reportedly for $450,000. Richard Benjamin wants to direct. Book-of-the-Month Club has bought it, and it already is a cause celebre among many people of Raskin’s age group.

“My first husband liked it a lot,” the author said. “My second husband, it reminds him, I think, of his first wife. I mean this is everybody we knew.”

Indeed the book is about Raskin and her friends, who found the menopausal hot flash a metaphor for sudden understanding of all the changes they went through: marrying in the quiet ‘50s, raising kids and feeling stifled in the explosive ‘60s, getting divorced in the ‘70s; finding themselves in the ‘80s. The book contains first-name-only references to Joan (Baez), Gloria (Steinem), Jane (Fonda) and other famous 50ish women, many of whom stayed in Raskin’s Washington town house during the anti-war marches.

“Joan Baez loved this book,” Raskin said, “and then she saw that guy who plays on ‘Miami Vice'--Don Johnson--and she said now she realizes she gets hot flashes when she sees cute guys like that.

“Shelley Winters loved it.”

Everyone wants to know which of the characters is really Raskin, but she says they’re all composites, although many of her own experiences are in the book.

“Everyone says, ‘They’re all you, Barbara! That’s the sickest thing of all!’ ” she related gleefully.

Raskin, 52, is talking 100 miles per hour in one long, high-pitched laugh. She has a ball describing the most horrible things in rapid fire, how just a few years ago she was “lower than whale droppings,” taking boarders in her brick town house to make ends meet. She had published three previous novels, none of them very successful. She was groveling for free-lance book review assignments. She was “between marriages,” her husband having left her after 25 years for a younger woman. She was fat.

She was also, she believes, typical of a certain segment of her generation.

“We’re also survivors, me and my friends,” Raskin said. “I hung in there and gave up the drinking and I got some therapy and I met a nice man and I pulled myself together and I lost 20 pounds and I got the house fixed and I remortgaged it and I started this book.”

It all began with a hot flash.

“I was sitting having a hot flash and I thought, ‘Oh, give us a break, now this for three or four years,’ ” she recalled. “And I was determined to make something of it.

“Or, rather, it struck me as a great metaphor, right? It meant all sorts of things, recognition, insight and then it just carried me.

“I started thinking about us as a generation and I thought, ‘We always looked good at airports.’

“We used to dress up to go to the airport, even for a pickup. We wore high heels and earrings. That was my first sentence and I pulled everything out of that.”

Raskin spent plenty of time at airports. She was a stewardess for Delta Airlines, based in Chicago. She was valedictorian of her stewardess class.

Growing up in Minneapolis, however, she always wanted to be a writer and sold her first piece of fiction to Seventeen magazine when she was 12. But like many young, glove-clad ladies of the 1950s, she married and derailed her career. Barbara Bellman met Marcus Raskin when she was at the University of Chicago obtaining her master’s degree while flying for Delta.

They lived for a year in Europe and then moved to Washington, where Marcus Raskin served in the Kennedy White House and became a prominent anti-war activist, a member of the famous “Boston Five” who stood trial for anti-draft conspiracy. He was acquitted.

When Raskin went into labor before the birth of her first of three children, she asked her husband to call the doctor and he didn’t know the doctor’s name. Later, she told her husband to take the baby for a walk in the stroller, and she claims he returned from the park with a different stroller and baby. (He denies this).

“There was not a lot of daddy participation,” she said. “We were premature Super Moms. It was a nightmare.”

Because they needed the money, she taught in college. George Washington University assigned her to teach remedial English to football players at 7:30 a.m. She had to get there by bus.

“I had a baby and they wanted to show me I couldn’t get there by 7:30. Well, I damn well almost couldn’t,” Raskin said. “I was bitter those years. Nobody ever reached out a hand. A lot of men in this town, I see them around, they’re professors and they were not gentlemen. They were not nice. And I can’t quite forgive them.”

In those days, Raskin said, the husband’s job was the one taken seriously. Many of the men became famous. The women were insecure and frustrated and couldn’t explain why. The men drifted to younger women, married and went to Lamaze class. The first wives had no careers and lots of bitterness.

“We didn’t get the jobs we should have had,” Raskin said. “I wasted a lot of time. I should have written better books earlier. I should have taken myself more seriously.”

Raskin takes her career very seriously now.

“I’m going to be a multimulti-millionaire!” she enthused. “And I’m proud that I didn’t write a commercial, shlocky formula. I am not Jackie Collins. I am not Jackie Suzanne, who I read but I can’t remember.”

Her own book is uplifting for women her age, she said, “because it provides a new kind of self-consciousness that is good for people to have. Now more of us can identify with each other. There’s strength in that. It’s an up thing. I don’t know why.”

Raskin has been married--happily--for three years now to second husband Anatole Shub, a journalist with the Board for International Broadcasting. Grandchildren often scurry about the house, playing golf through the hallways.

Today she was due in Los Angeles, the ninth stop of a 10-city promotion tour for the book, which is No. 7 on the Southern California best-seller fiction list.

Having splattered her numerous neuroses across the pages of “Hot Flashes,” Raskin said she now has a new problem.

“I have feared everything and now I have a fear of success,” she blurted, raising her hands to the heavens. “It’s going to be so big, what will I do with the money? Will it interfere with my marriage? Will the kids be OK? Will I spoil my grandchildren? Can I talk on TV? Will I make it in the Beverly Wilshire lobby?

“Then I’ll fear, ‘Can I do it again?’

“It’s wonderful,” she said, answering her own questions with a grin. “Right to the very end, we’ll be afraid of everything.”