Susan Orlean

Born: 1955

Ohio connection: Birth


Susan Orlean is the daughter of Arthur and Edith Gross Orlean. In 1976, she obtained her B.A. from the University of Michigan. From 1983-1986, she was a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix. After a year spent with The Boston Globe as a columnist, she has been, since 1987, an editor for Rolling Stone Magazine, a New Yorker staff writer, and a freelance essayist. In 2001, she married John Gillespie, a writer and a chief financial advisor for a health care company. Their son (Orlean’s first child), nicknamed “Mr. Baby,” was born when she was forty-nine. Orlean’s first collection of essays, entitledRed Sox and Bluefish: Meditations of What Makes New England New England (1987), was a tribute to that region’s culinary and snacking proclivities, distinctive colloquialisms, driving habits, politics, and recreational activities. Saturday Night, which followed three years later (1990), looked into what people across America were likely to do on any given Saturday night. Gleaned from interviews conducted across the country in such diverse cities as Portland, New York City, Miami Beach, and Elkhart, Indiana, Saturday Night revealed that when not dating, dining or gambling, many people could be found during the sixth day of the week either bowling or watching television.

On a flight in 1994, Orlean happened to read an article in the Miami Herald on John Laroche, a self-taught botanist who was arrested, along with three Seminole Indians, for having violated the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve by despoiling it of endangered orchids. Laroche had been stuffing pillowcases with the precious plants, later selling them on the black market, where single plants could bring prices ranging from $50 to $5,000. Traveling to Florida, Orlean interviewed Laroche, and collected enough data for a short New Yorker article entitled “Orchid Fever.” As her fascination with the illegal traffic in orchids increased, Orlean developed what became her first-book length narrative, The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (1998). Although the film Adaptation (2002) was based on her book, the screenplay by Charlie and Donald Kaufman, which featured herself as the principal character, deviated from the truth to such an extent that Orlean has had to refute her portrayal as a drug addict and a lover of Laroche (as was depicted in the film). In 2000, Random House published Orlean’s The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Ordinary People. Quarried from a series of profiles destined for the New Yorker, the book featured candid conversations with such notables as Bill Blass, Tonya Harding, and the King of the Ashanti nation, whom Orlean had encountered driving a N.Y.C. cab. Orlean continues to work on new publications while she lives in Columbia County, New York with her husband, son, dog and two chickens. 

PEN/New England Discovery Award, PEN American Center, 1984; New York Times Notable Book, 1990, for Saturday Night; six Sigma Delta Chi distinguished service awards for reporting, Society of Professional Journalists; Book of the Year designation, New York Public Library, and Book of the Year selection, American Library Association, both 1998, both for The Orchid Thief. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2003, and she also received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014.

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