Readers of Suzy Gershman's best-selling Born to Shop guidebooks know her as the savviest of travel companions—a wisecracking connoisseur of bargains and detector of rip-offs the world over, from Mexican flea markets to Hong Kong tea parlors. But when her husband, Mike, then 60 and a dot-com businessman, died in 1999 after a four-month battle with lung cancer, she found herself at a loss. Along with her grief, she had to deal with undertakers, lawyers and financial managers. "The only thing that helped me keep my sanity was writing everything down," says Gershman, 53. "I have notebooks of raw emotion."
And so a new sort of travel manual was born: C'est la Vie, a guide to the daunting territory known as widowhood. Gershman, who finished the book last month and plans to publish it in 2003, sees it as a sibling of her Born to Shop series, whose 16 titles have sold 3 million copies. Her new work chronicles her first year alone and offers irreverent tips on everything from funerals (fight back on the price) to dating (accept every invitation). "I've told you what's out there," she says. "I feel strongly that you can prepare for this."
Six weeks after her husband's death, Gershman herself disregarded one common piece of advice to the recently bereaved: Don't make major life changes. Completing a project she and Mike started, she moved from Westport, Conn., to a two-bedroom flat in Paris. Their son Aaron, now 22 and a record company intern, was in college in Boston. "When Mike died, I had nothing to hold me together but this dream," she says. "My aunt would say, 'You need a support group,' and I'd be picking out colors for my apartment."
"It can't be easy for Suzy, but she's making it as happy as it can be," says Gershman's friend Karen Fawcett, 54, director of the Web site Bonjour Paris. "She deals with stress through laughter."
And shopping. Gershman honed her skills as the oldest child of Dr. Seymour Kalter, 83, a virologist, and his homemaker wife, Gloria, who died in 1981. (Brother Steven, now 50, is a physician in San Antonio, and sister Debra, also a doctor, died at 38, in 1994.) Though she was born in Syracuse, it was in Venezuela, where her father was posted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, that Gershman, then 8, began her career as überconsumer. "My father would give me a quarter and say, 'See what you can buy with this,'" she says. "Then he'd send me off to the local market."
In 1961 the family relocated to San Antonio, where Gershman dreamed of escaping to New York City. "All I ever wanted to do was go to work and be clever," she says. She got her wish in 1969, when she graduated from the University of Texas and was chosen as a Mademoiselle guest editor. She stayed on in Manhattan after the three-month appointment ended, working as a copywriter for a string of employers. Then, on a blind date in April 1975, she met Michael, a PR guy who counted Jim Morrison as a pal. "It was a done deal," she recalls. "I knew we'd marry that first night."
The couple wed eight months later and moved to Los Angeles the following year. There, Gershman became a reporter (she was a stringer at PEOPLE for nearly eight years). Though she ghostwrote Richard Simmons's bestselling Never Say Diet Book, her real breakthrough came when she and three friends invented Born to Shop—"as a joke," she says—in 1984. The first few books were collaborative efforts, but by 1990 Gershman was on her own. "Shopping is the best way of understanding a culture," she says. Her own favorite buys include handbags in China, haircuts in London and instant coffee in Milan.
Writing C'est la Vie has left little time for retail therapy. But Gershman has another project in mind. "I want to start a Widow University," she says, "where you could learn all the things a middle-aged woman doesn't know how to do—like use a power drill. For me, this has been an amazing education."
Cathy Nolan in Paris
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