Toni Grant: Taking Her Own Advice

Times Staff Writer

The telephone rings.

"I'm getting married, " the caller announces with girlish giggles, like a teen-ager describing a first date. "I'm deliriously happy. It's sickening. People say, 'Oh, go away, You're making me nauseous. ' But I am so wild about him. "

No, this is not another listener baring her soul on the air to Toni Grant, the nationally syndicated radio psychologist based in Los Angeles. It's Grant herself who's doing the phoning.

And two hours later, the 44-year-old Ph.D. is still gushing about her fiance, a waxed-paper magnate from Indiana, and describing in detail how they met (at the Westin Kauai), how they fell in love (a jet-set courtship of only two months), how they'll live happily ever after (he's moving to L.A. after their June 5 wedding). And how they've had a by-the-book affair.

Or, more accurately, a by-the-book non -affair.

"It happened after we went back to my home one night after dinner in the Bistro Garden and we started to get a bit romantic with one another," Grant recalled. "And, just like in my book, I said, 'John, I do not want an intimate relationship with you unless I know what your intentions are.' And he said, 'Well, my intentions are entirely honorable. I see this relationship as leading to marriage.'

"And I said, 'When?'

"He looked at me and smiled and said, 'How would you like to be a June bride?' "

Grant admits it. She plotted her engagement to multimillionaire businessman John Bell by following chapter and verse of her first book, "Being a Woman: Fulfilling Your Femininity and Finding Love." A best seller, this week, it climbed to No. 4 nationally on the New York Times survey of bookstore sales for advice and how-to books and was No. 6 on the Los Angeles Times' Southland poll.

Now, Grant is allowing an unusually public look at her private life to stimulate sales and to show that she practices what she preaches: Just say no.

"When journalists step into your bedroom, one has the option of getting huffy. But I am a leader of people. I am an inspiration to people," she said. "And when I tell women I don't just give advice, I've lived a lot of this, it's true. I've taken my own advice.

"Furthermore, I know I'm right."

It's no exaggeration to say that Grant--who pioneered call-in therapy on commercial radio 14 years ago, who became syndicated nationally in 1981, who inspired the 1984 movie "Choose Me," in which Genevieve Bujold played a honey-voiced radio psychologist--has written a provocative book.

Its detractors complain she takes an anti-feminist, pro-femininity view of male-female relationships not unlike that of Marabel Morgan, the "Total Woman" author of the late 1970s who recommended that wives swathe themselves in Saran Wrap to reignite a lackluster sex life. But Grant's admirers are praising "Being a Woman" as the late '80s successor to Helen Gurley Brown's "Sex and the Single Girl."

None of the controversy, however, seems to bother Grant in the slightest, not even a three-week book tour she just finished during which "I took a lot of flack on the road," she said.

She boasts about besting Phil Donahue when he interviewed her on the "Today" show ("When I saw the name Marabel Morgan leave his lips, I thought, 'Phil, you're dead . I'm not giving you anything more.' ")

Nor did the hostile reception she received from Oprah Winfrey's audience faze her. "Well, there were a lot of black women," she says. "I felt their sympathies were more feminist."

Even Grant personally is a study in controversy.

While she calls ambitious career women "Amazon ladies" who have forgotten how to be feminine, her best friend, KNBC anchorwoman Kelly Lange, acknowledges, "There's no more dedicated career woman than her."

And while Grant is a nationally recognized adviser on love, she almost gave up finding it for herself. "I've been single eight years. And I confess openly that I was starting to wonder if all I knew how to do was talk about it," she said.

So what's causing all the fuss?

At the heart of the gospel according to Toni Grant--in person, now, instead of by phone--is her assertion that "WOMEN WANT TO GET MARRIED."

She can't help boosting the volume as she warms to her subject. "Women call me up and, God, they're such bimbos, a lot of them," she said in that mellifluous voice that is her trademark on the air and off.

"They tippy-toe around the edge of this, and they say these vague sorts of things like, 'I just want a meaningful relationship.' And then we move a little further into the conversation, and the bottom line is that they simply don't know how to get these men to marry them."

Grant quickly notes that her claim isn't based on a scientific study. "But, goodness me," she said, "when you hear the same thing from thousands of women over a dozen years, I think that counts for something."

She completely loses patience with those women who have been sleeping with the same man for as long as two or three years and then admit that they're afraid to ask him what his intentions are. "That's why I say that uncommitted intimacy has been an extraordinary problem for American women."

Her solution is as simple as it is simplistic. "If you're looking for continuing in a meaningful relationship with a man, I think a woman is very well-advised to form a friendship first. I'm not saying that she shouldn't have sex at some point before marriage if she feels that it's important to do.

"But I also think that today's woman should be given back the right not to."

Is she turning back the clock? Or simply moving on?

Carole Hemingway, a talk-show host for rival station KGIL-AM and an outspoken critic of Grant's virginal view, believes Grant's message to women is "to use sex to manipulate men. This is nothing new and it certainly is destructive to women as well as men. Because one of the worst things it really teaches is that sex is not something that's wonderful and loving, but a tool you use as a weapon."

To have or have not sex was the "hardest, most agonizing" question Grant had to answer. "I confess that I kept changing it," she noted. "But the reason that women have been disappointed so many times in love is that the giving of a woman's body is the ultimate commitment while for a man it is marriage. So by postponing sexual relations, a woman is holding onto her feelings and her heart."

Holding on to a Man

Can she also hold onto her man? Grant isn't sure.

"But a man who cares for a woman will grump and groan and carry on a lot about not getting it. If he really cares for her, he'll stay. And if he doesn't, he'll go."

Instead of sex, Grant advocates that women use their femininity to hold a man. "Because the easiest thing in the world is to hold a man with your body. But to hold a man with charm and warmth and tenderness and the other elements of your feminine personality is one of the greatest challenges of your being a woman. Ultimately, this is what we were born to."

As Grant sees it, the reason why so many career women in the 1980s feel unfulfilled and unhappy is because they've swallowed "the big lies" of women's liberation and therefore downplayed the feminine side of their personality.

"I define a liberated woman as a woman who gets what she wants and feels happy and satisfied with herself," she said. " Not as an imitation man. Not as an Amazon woman."

George Green, KABC-AM's general manager and Grant's former boss, has high praise for Grant as a psychologist but calls her Amazon lady theory "boring."

"It was boring then. It's boring now. I'm not much into psychology," he added, "but I would hope there's something newer in the world than Amazon women."

Told that Grant's book is a best seller based on that theory, among others, Green breaks into surprised laughter. "Oh my goodness," he chuckled. " What people will buy."

Grant admits that she, too, was an Amazon lady once upon a time. Then the transformation started three years ago and felt like "an enormous relief." Even her boyfriends began noticing the change--and liked it, she claims.

On this particular afternoon, sitting with her immaculately coifed poodle, Loretta, amid the feminine flourishes of her home above Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood--all those cherubs, those candelabras, those chandeliers--the psychologist sighs with exasperation at those women who still haven't discovered the joy of "being a woman," as she has.

Supports Feminists

"Gosh, this stirs up a lot of feelings," Grant admitted. "But, really, I'm not anti-feminist. I certainly support the feminist movement. But it has created this attitude that's very unloving."

Born into a wealthy New York family, raised in a 22-room, 5-acre home in Bayport, Long Island, by her dentist father and her teacher mother, Grant claims that all the women in her family were feminists of sorts. "They were not only highly professional," she said, "but highly feminine and highly stylish yet powerfully strong-willed."

Including the psychologist's own mother, who "was the best example of the Amazon I write about in my book," Grant said.

Like mother, like daughter? Grant as a girl was a scholarly loner with thick glasses and a long braid, as well as a bookworm. By age 18, she claims, she'd read most of the 2,000 books in her family's 40-foot library.

At Vassar, she entered as a premed student, then switched to English literature but still couldn't decide on a career. "It was a given in my life that I would get married and have children and I would also have a career. It was not an either/or thing," the psychologist recalled. "It didn't occur to me that it might be difficult to do both."

While a senior she settled on clinical psychology. She also married Long Island neighbor Neil Hollander, a premed student whom she had met at 13 and dated off and on and then followed around the country as his wife. "I thought it was important to make the compromise," Grant remembered.

While he went to medical school in Albany, N.Y., she taught school. Later, they both enrolled at Syracuse University, where she received her master's and doctorate in clinical psychology. She also gave birth to their first child, Kimberly, now 18.

After her husband was drafted during the Vietnam War, Grant followed him to Sioux Falls, S.D., and interned at a Veterans Administration Hospital while he examined inductees. When their two years were up, she told him, "Let's go to California. I've had enough of the cold."

The couple moved to Pasadena, where Grant became licensed and started in private practice. When they moved to West Hollywood, she was seeing patients two days a week in her guest house-turned-office. "There were, of course, gratifying moments and great victories. But I can't say that I ever really loved it," she said of her private practice.

Met Bill Ballance

In 1974, while attending a New Year's Eve party, she met Bill Ballance, then a popular KABC-AM talk-show host who invited her to be a weekly guest. By 1975, an educational radio station in San Francisco was featuring a psychiatrist taking call-ins, and Grant persuaded KABC's general manager to start a similar program on commercial radio starring herself.

For two years, she worked the graveyard shift every Sunday and read Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials (she also had a second daughter, Courtney, now 13). Then, in 1977, she was moved to a more desirable time slot and soon after given a shot at prime time five days a week.

Four years later, she became nationally syndicated on the ABC radio network. But it wasn't enough. In 1986, she created waves when she left KABC in a contract dispute and jumped to Mutual Broadcasting System via Los Angeles station KFI-AM.

There was some talk at KABC that Grant's ratings had fallen due to the advent of shows offering more explicitly sexual advice, like that pioneered by New York radio personality Ruth Westheimer, and that the five-day-a-week schedule was too burdening.

But Grant, who admits to earning "in the six figures," won't discuss the situation. "I'll talk about my sex life," she noted coquettishly, "but not about my employers."

She is much more open about the breakup of her 14-year marriage. In fact, she blames the women's lib movement.

"I talked about my own marriage in my book--although I didn't say I was--when I said that many women left perfectly good men in the '70s seeking adventure, self-gratification and sexual excitement. I truly believe that in another time in history, my husband and I would still be together."

She and her ex-husband are "still friends," she said. "If I'm sick, he's the first one to call and worry about me."

Does his new wife mind? Grant laughs uneasily. "It's difficult for him, really. By the way, if you phone him for comment and he doesn't take the call, that would be the reason."

Did Not Return Calls

Sure enough, Hollander did not return repeated calls.

For years after her divorce, Grant dated mostly wealthy, often powerful, men--among them, Rogers & Cowan founder Warren Cowan and Hollywood writer/producer Steve Sohmer. "Nothing worked," she recalled.

She became socially reclusive while writing "Being a Woman," she said. But by the time it was finished, "I'd really opened my heart to love and at the same time expected nothing. I really do believe that love is there for all of us, but we have to be open to it."

Then she met Bell--the 46-year-old chairman and chief executive officer of Bell Packaging Corp., a family-owned company based in Marion, Ind.--at a Young Presidents Organization conference in Kauai on Jan. 29.

She was serving as faculty adviser to the meeting; Bell was her host. "I thought she'd be one of those raging feminists, dressed in blue jeans, sneakers and old sweat shirts with horned-rimmed glasses," he said. They fell in love and soon were flying around the country together and keeping in constant touch by telephone.

Looking back at their courtship, Bell believes his fiancee "played it exactly right" from a sexual standpoint.

"I would have been very skeptical of someone who would have come on to me really physically strong," he said.

And when he didn't know how to handle the romance from his end, he says he only had to read his fiancee's book.

" Twice ."

Now, Bell is selling his 10,000-square-foot, 55-acre home in Marion, Ind., and preparing to move with his two sons, John III, 22, and Robert, 16, into Grant's home. "I did offer to go live with him," Grant said. "I was true to my own philosophy. I offered to follow my man."

Instead, she took him to Spago, to Jimmy's and to Melrose. Then to Harry Winston, Van Cleef and Arpels and Tiffany to look at engagement rings. "John said I could basically have anything I wanted. But he didn't think I should get gauche. I said, 'This is Beverly Hills , dear. Forget about low-key here.' "

The ring on order is a 5-carat pear-cut solitaire.

One place she didn't take him: the bedroom.

Well, not at first.

"People don't have to know every nuance of my life," Grant said hesitantly. And then she spilled the beans. "We waited until two weeks after our engagement to begin our intimate relations. After all, this is nothing to be ashamed of. We have conducted ourselves with dignity."

They originally intended to wait until the wedding but had second thoughts. "I said it might show tremendous resolve," she said, unable to stifle another girlish giggle, "but it might not be too much of a testimony to our passion."

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