Intersections: A memoir that’s hard for the author to read

Share via

In January 1969, when Wendy Lawless and her sister were living in New York’s famed Dakota building, their mother swallowed a bottle of pills and called her husband — their stepfather — at his hotel to say goodbye.

What followed was a troop of firemen entering their apartment building and breaking down the door to her mother’s bedroom with axes in an effort to revive her, as Lawless and her sister watched.

This is just one of the many fascinating stories from Lawless’ new book, “Chanel Bonfire,” a charming and heartfelt memoir chronicling her childhood with her unstable New York socialite mother, Georgann Rea.

Rea is described as a “real-life Holly Golightly, who constantly reinvents herself as she trades up from trailer park to penthouse,” and in the process suffers from breakdowns and suicide attempts while her two daughters grapple with the aftermath.

Lawless, a Glendale resident, began writing the tragic yet humorous memoir six years ago, mostly at the Pasadena Public Library in between dropping off her kids at school, and then picking them up.

At first, she thought about self-publishing.

“I thought I would put it on the Internet,” she said.

But after a literary agent called her eight months after she had sent out her manuscript for possible publication, things changed. Publisher Simon & Schuster bought it and catapulted her status to bona fide author.

They even kept her original title, “Chanel Bonfire,” which refers to the London nights when Lawless and her sister would throw wild parties, put on their mother’s couture and start fires in the backyard.

Though she called writing the memoir “very liberating,” that’s not to say it didn’t come with significant challenges of revisiting traumatic childhood memories, such as the time her mom tried to run her over with a car, or set the house on fire, and many other stories from her time in New York, London and Cambridge that often became conversation pieces at dinner parties.

“It was hard because I had to go back there, to lots of painful stuff, there’s still parts of the book that I can’t read. They are just way too upsetting,” she said. “I have a really hard time reading them because I would just cry.”

Despite the emotional toll, Lawless, who said she never really had anything she could relate to when she was growing up, felt compelled to write the memoir in an effort to help others.

“One of the reasons I wrote the book was to try to show people that they’re not alone,” she said. “When you’re growing up in a situation like that, there’s a lot of shame.”

After reading many memoirs, she was determined to make hers more comedic than depressing, including a very simple message to readers through its pages: “You can overcome these things and your past doesn’t have to define you.”

A sequel is forthcoming.

Wendy Lawless will be discussing “Chanel Bonfire: A Memoir” at 7 p.m. on April 15 at Glendale’s Central Library Auditorium. 222 E. Harvard St. For more information, call (818) 548-2042 or visit


LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at