BOOKS | Barbara Kate Repa
“I was facing the stereotype that all women over 70 look like that picture on the See’s candy box,” laments San Francisco author Barbara Rose Brooker.
That led Brooker to write The Viagra Diaries, a novel chronicling the life and times of Anny Applebaum, an older woman pursuing a writing career, financial independence and undying love — after divorcing her husband when she discovered Viagra in his pocket clearly intended for extramarital escapades.
While not every detail is strictly autobiographical, a painful number come directly from life imitating art. Brooker says men she dated would offer backhand compliments: “You look good — for your age.” And some would make unsubtle age-related inquiries: “You sound like fun. How old are you?”
She was writing a column called “Boomer in the City” for JWeekly, a local Jewish paper, and looking for fodder about finding companionship and love. Her research extended to online dating, although the first service she contacted informed her it didn’t deal with people over age 50. Eventually, her cursor landed on JDate, a site for the Jewish singles community — with a home page peppered with pictures of smiling couples trumpeting their engagements or marriages.
Through JDate, Brooker met Marv Rothstein — almost his real name — who wined and dined her on their first date at Harris’ steakhouse at Van Ness and Pacific. At first blush, there was much to recommend Marv, an impeccably dressed 75-year-old diamond dealer with a beautifully coifed head of silver hair and a honeyed voice. She felt a powerful attraction.
“He really wanted a size 2, 30-year-old who played tennis,” Brooker says. Still, their relationship lasted for a year. During that time, he revealed himself as a sad stereotype, complete with a Brazilian facelift, a Mercedes convertible with heated fur-upholstered seats and a tiny fuzzy white dog he insisted on bringing along on dates. Soon Brooker discovered Marv was back online on JDate not long after kissing her good night at her door.
Brooker was also hustling back to her computer, turning dates with Marv into grist for her column and a larger project that was beginning to percolate in her mind.
“I was sick to death of being called ‘Sweetie’ and being told I should just be content with my life the way it was,” she says. “I wanted to write a book about a woman who was 65 to 70 who doesn’t want to be age-appropriate.”
She struck a chord.
“I still get emails from people saying, ‘I have a Marv in my life — someone who thinks I’m great for sex, but not for love,’ ” she says.
The Viagra Diaries was originally self-published. “Publishers told me, ‘No one cares about older people. Who wants to think about a 70-year-old having sex?’ ” she recalls. Now they’re eating her words. The book has since been published in 16 countries, most recently Bulgaria.
While working on the book, Brooker also began performing a one-woman show that recounted her dating debacles. A crowd of 200 or so attended her first performance at the city’s Commonwealth Club, which turned out to be both a challenge and a deliverance. “I just got out there,” she says. “It’s such a shift of gears to get on stage — and such a rush. I used to lie about my age a lot. Now I say: ‘I’m 76 — and I want to be a movie star.’ ”
The performance also sparked a confluence of activities destined to launch Anny from Harris’ to Hollywood. “Producer and talent manager Marty Tudor got hold of my performance tape and said he wants to take it to Broadway,” she marvels.
Six months later, there was a call from a New York literary agent, who started a bidding war on the book. Simon & Schuster won the war, and Booker’s editor was understanding but urged that the main character, Anny, must be younger than 70, as originally written. “I told her, ‘I can’t go younger than 65. She must get Medicare.’ ”
The Viagra Diaries was optioned for an HBO series with Goldie Hawn slated to play Anny, repackaged as a 56-year-old interior designer. That deal fell through, but the book was recently optioned again, this time by CBS. Brooker says she’d like to see “someone offbeat” cast to play her doppelganger Anny — perhaps Diane Keaton or Helen Mirren.
Brooker, who detests the term “senior,” prefers to be called a “boomer hottie.” While her book is filled with spot-on humor, she is also seriously dedicated to fighting what she calls “the disease of ageism.”
As one example, she’s the founder of the Age March. “I came up with the idea that we have marches for everything — gay rights, free choice, peace,” she says. “So why not Age Pride?” The goal was to have march participants wear their true ages around their necks in protest of ageism.
About 400 people and a great number of dogs attended the first Age March in 2011 at San Francisco’s Fort Mason. Most marchers wore T-shirts proudly underscoring their ages, although one shirt proclaimed simply: “I’m Older Than Mickey Mouse.”
There have been three Age Marches so far — two in San Francisco and one last year in West Hollywood. Brooker hopes to orchestrate another march, but finds it tough to secure funding. “I first called AARP and they hung up on me,” she says.
Brooker is also an artist, with painting as her first love and a newer yen to break into photography. Many of her paintings take on the anti-ageism theme. “Women in hats and shoes — and lots of older women in seductive dresses with high slits,” she says. “The work is part of the statement that aging is okay.”
Brooker recently finished two more novels her agent is currently shopping around: Should I Sleep In His Dead Wife’s Bed? and Love, Sometimes, a sequel to The Viagra Diaries.
She has written other books, too, covering matters that have captured her heart. God Doesn’t Make Trash, published in 2001, is a collection of stories about people with HIV and AIDS and their caregivers. “I keep trying for that one book that will resonate,” she says, “so that when I leave the planet, I will have helped people. I’m hoping that Anny might be a catalyst for that.”
Brooker hasn’t had contact with the real-life Marv in about four years — although she did spot him once. “He was shuffling around the aisles at Walgreen’s. He got old,” she says — something she is refusing to do.
She says she hasn’t dated much in the post-Marv years. “After that, I went on one or two dates, but I lost my eagerness,” she says.
But she quickly adds: “I still think it’s very special when you have a partner.” Brooker has been married twice. Her first marriage ended in divorce; her second husband died 28 years ago. “I’ve actually started to think about dating again — maybe even through JDate.”