French Leave

updated 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SHERE HITE'S PHONE MESSAGE IS more chipper than shrill: an old recording of Maurice Chevalier's "Why Worry." "It's terribly politically incorrect," chortles a pink-bereted Hite at the fabled Brasserie Lipp on Paris's Left Bank. "First of all, he's a man. And I have a friend in London who keeps telling me, 'Get that Nazi off the phone.' It's not possible not to worry."

Hite should know. Since the appearance of her 1976 sensation, The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality; which concluded that most women fail to achieve orgasm without clitoral stimulation, Hite, now 51, has divided public opinion. Her 1987 work, Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress, was widely faulted by the press for questionable research—she sent out 100,000 questionnaires but based her findings on the mere 4 percent that were returned—and controversial conclusions, including the contention that 70 percent of women married more than five years had had affairs. "The numbers are, to put it simply, a joke," said the Los Angeles Times at the time.

Though feminists, including Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett, rushed to Hite's defense, calling her a victim of antifeminist backlash, the media dubbed her "Sheer Hype," and Playboy called the book the "Hate Report." Miserable, Hite sold her $1.5 million Manhattan duplex and fled to Europe in 1989, though her books continued to sell—now more than 20 million copies worldwide. "I found it impossible to publish in that climate and live productively," she says.

Now, Shere (pronounced Share) is content in Paris but still controversial. Her latest work, The Hite Report on the Family: Growing Up Under Patriarchy, was dropped this year by its American publisher, New American Library, for what were tersely described as "editorial reasons." The Family book, released to mixed reviews in England, Holland, Canada and Australia, supports alternative family arrangements. "A family," writes Hite, "can be made up of any combination of people, heterosexual or homosexual, who share their lives in an intimate way."

Hite, whose semiautobiographical novel, The Divine Comedy of Ariadne and Jupiter, was just released here, has an unconventional family arrangement herself. She lives in a modern two-bedroom apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower, while her husband, Friedrich "Fred" Höricke, 31, keeps house in Cologne, Germany, where he is a classical pianist. "I'm responsible for the housecleaning here; he's responsible in Cologne," she says.

Hite's life, in fact, has never been ordinary. Born Shirley Diana Gregory in St. Joseph, Mo., she was nicknamed Shere to differentiate her from her mother, Shirley, who divorced her father, livestock supervisor Paul Gregory, when Shere was 3. After her mother divorced second husband Raymond Hite, a truck driver, Shere was raised first by her maternal grandparents, then by a maternal aunt and uncle in Daytona Beach, Fla. After graduating from the University of Florida, Hite began Ph.D. studies in history at Columbia University but dropped out. In the early '70s, she modeled in New York, Paris and Milan (even appearing nude in Playboy and Oui). Then, after shooting an Olivetti typewriter ad ("So smart SHE doesn't have to be"), Hite saw the feminist light and joined the National Organization for Women pickets protesting it. Falling in with the feminist Zeitgeist, she came across a pamphlet titled The Myth of Female Orgasm, and the rest is history. "There was no Oprah when I did my first book," she says. "Now we've got everybody talking about heaven knows what."

In 1985 the never-married Hite met Höricke, then 22, at a reception at New York City's West German consulate. Seven months later they married in a civil wedding, followed by a Catholic service in New York to appease Höricke's parents. The generation gap was never an issue. "My parents looked up Shere's age in Who's Who and told me because I didn't know," says Fred, who had never asked.

These days, Hite is busy writing a sequel to her 1976 book on female sexuality, due to be completed in 1996. Back at the Brasserie Lipp, Hite, attired in Armani, turns heads with her striking reddish-blonde curls and offers a send-up of her own research by enthusiastically volunteering, "Do I have sex with my husband? Yes!" She even indulges in some self-analysis. "We have a good marriage, based on my definition," she says, "which is one that makes two people—or 30, or however many are in it—feel good in a real way."

MICHAEL FITZGERALD
CATHY NOLAN in Paris

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