15 Minutes: Vietnam, In Fiction


Theasa Tuohy’s novel fictionalizes her reporting from Vietnam at a time when few women reporters were there
By Angela Barbuti

n Oklahoma native who moved to New York after graduation from Berkeley, Theasa Tuohy’s interest in Vietnam was piqued after she found a book on the war in the slush pile while she was writing for Newsday. Her experience as a female reporter at a time when there weren’t many women in the industry influenced her debut novel “Five O’Clock Follies: What’s a Woman Doing Here, Anyway?” It follows Angela Martinelli, a freelance journalist who paid her own place ticket to Vietnam to report on the war. “The AP didn’t assign the first woman to the Saigon bureau until 1972,” she explained. “Angela went in 1967, so there were a few women there, but they were almost all freelancers. They had to make their own way.” We caught up with Tuohy after her appearance at BookCon, which appropriately fell on the same month as the 50th anniversary of Vietnam.

Why did you choose the name ‘Angela’ for the protagonist? She’s a freelancer with an Italian last name, like me.

I have absolutely no idea. Years ago, I wrote a play about this female combat photographer named Angela Martinelli. She wasn’t Italian; she married an Italian. Her background was that she came from this very upper-crust Boston family and all of her grandfathers had gone to medical school at Harvard and her mother intended to, but in those days couldn’t get in because she was a woman. I gave her an ethnic name so the mother would be pissed off about it. [Laughs] Initially I was writing about the war, but I had to keep finding more and more internal conflict. And it was that her mother didn’t approve of her being a reporter because she thought reporters were lowlife. And on top of it, Angela had married an ethnic. That was her inner struggle and what drove her to go to Vietnam and prove herself.

How did you use your experience as a female journalist in this book?

I knew what the environment was like for women in the business. I didn’t have to be in Saigon with these guys who didn’t want to talk to me. I knew what that was like at the Yonkers Herald Statesman for crying out loud. My mother was an old-time pilot, so I came from a background where if they didn’t want me because I was a woman, I’d just try the next place. I didn’t have any feminist idea of, ‘This isn’t fair’ or anything like that, I just went ahead and did it.

When you arrived to the city, you took on lots of different jobs, including being a store detective at Macy’s.

Yes, I worked as a store detective at Macy’s for one day. [Laughs] They were going to train me to go around and watch for shoplifters. I had a criminology degree from Berkeley, so I walked into Macy’s and told the head guy, and he was thrilled to pieces. He sent me out with an old lady with shopping bags and we walked around the store and she was showing me how to look for people. But I had to go back the next day for my routine physical, and couldn’t pass the eye test, so that was the end of that career.

Describe your first apartment in the city.

I lived in a fifth-floor walk-up on Barrow Street. It was one of those shotgun things with four rooms and the middle room we turned into a closet, it was so small. I had two roommates from Berkeley. The back room was the bedroom and we put a double-bed mattress and a single one and they exactly filled up the room. And the shower was in the kitchen and the toilet was down the hall. You had to go out in the middle of the night in your bare feet.

When you were a young reporter, you had written a story about a fallen soldier in Vietnam.

That’s absolutely true and I had forgotten about it. After the book came out, the publicist was asking me to go through and find AP stories and I found this story that still almost makes me cry. I was working for the Yonkers Herald Statesman and they sent me out to cover I think it was the first person from Yonkers killed in the war. He was a lieutenant and I went out to the Catholic church and I’m sitting there trying to take notes, and I was crying. When I got back to the office, I couldn’t read any of them, the ink had all run on my notes.

Later in your career, you found a book on Vietnam.

It was called “Big Story.” It was written by a guy named Peter Braestrup who had the perfect credentials. He had been a Washington Post reporter and also had been in the Marines. As near as I can tell, he decided to prove that the press lost the war, as a lot of people to this day contend. He wrote a huge tome with, “The AP filed this story at 2:37 and then they filed a correction at 2:38 and then at 9:42 the Washington Post said such and such.” So I had the whole thing laid out in front of me. It was like in my lap in terms of the coverage. He had a map that I carried with me when I went to Vietnam. It was the map of the part of Saigon where all the reporters hung out. And then I went and read a million books all written by reporters because the book is about a reporter’s life in Saigon.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a novel about a woman stunt pilot during the first Powder Puff Derby in 1929. Aviation was huge in those days. People thought it was the most fantastic thing under the sun. Women were not allowed to join this cross-country air race until 1929. It’s about the relationship between a woman stunt pilot and a New York tabloid reporter…As I said, my mother was a pilot and learned how to fly in an old open cock pit biplane that was used to train pilots during World War I.

To learn more about the novel, visit: www.thefiveoclockfollies.com