Three years ago, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger were a middle-aged married couple co-writing Furious Love, a book about Liz Taylor and Richard Burton's scandalous extramarital affair on the set of Cleopatra.
Turns out Kashner, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is a method writer: While working on Furious Love, he furiously wooed high school sweetheart Leslie Camhi, who left her son's father to be with him. Or so claims Leslie, in a thinly veiled account of Sam's "elaborate web of semitruths and obfuscations" in this month's Vogue. The result: a tale of love and lies that skips across multiple Condé Nast publications, and another line in the tradition of writers calling former lovers to task with memoir.
In "An Old Flame Flames Out," Camhi achingly recalls the affair that ended her 12-year relationship with the father of her 5-year-old son. Three years ago, her "first love" called her "out of the blue" and set up a coffee date. As Camhi tells it, the relationship quickly turned romantic. He said he'd been separated from his wife for five years. He rented a New York apartment near Camhi's. He was working on a "nonfiction account of a legendary love affair," and inspired her to leave her significant other. He acted as a father figure to her son. He proposed. With a ring on her finger and nascent wedding plans, Camhi moved into a new apartment and prepared for married life with her new old love.
And then she found out that her high school sweetheart had been lying to her. A lot.
While he was supposedly out of town caring for multiple sick relatives—and sending supposedly in-the-moment text messages about their "progress"—Camhi called her lover's "favorite hotel in Los Angeles" "on a hunch." He was there, and so was his wife:
I checked his publisher's Web page. The book he had told me he was writing alone was announced there for later that year, coauthored by my fiance and his wife.
According to a well-placed source, that book was Furious Love. Leslie's fiance was Sam Kashner, and his wife was William & Mary professor Nancy Schoenberger.
But don't take our source's word for it; take Leslie's, and the many identifying details she coyly includes in her essay. (Though she uses her son's real name, she never use the boyfriend's.) Leslie and her lover grew up "alienated teenagers in neighboring suburban towns." The Camhi family is from Bellmore, NY. Kashner went to high school in Bellmore.
Years before the affair, Camhi writes, "a memoir he'd written had reached me at a work address." Kashner's memoir came out in 2005. "I was mildly disappointed to find in it no mention of myself," Camhi writes. "The memoir had ended with his marrying and moving to a small town where his wife's career had led them."
Public records suggest that Kashner and Schoenberger have shared a home in Williamsburg, Virginia—the small town where William & Mary is located—since 1995. It's unclear if either still lives there. Neither Kashner, Schoenberger, nor Camhi responded to repeated requests for comment. David Kuhn, the literary agent who represents all three of them, also failed to respond to calls and emails.
If Camhi's essay is true, then Kashner is well-practiced at ignoring phone calls. At his "house in the forest," her lover had "no land line (forest animals were continually gnawing at the wires, he said) and limited cell-phone reception. But if I texted him he would almost always manage to call me back while roaming the grounds."
Later she wondered whether the house without phones even existed:
I Googled the mailing address he'd once given me for the house in the forest. It came up as an art gallery belonging to friends he'd mentioned but whom I'd never met. There was no record that I could find of his divorce, or of his owning property anywhere in the state, except for the house he had shared with his wife in the small town where she worked.
According to Camhi, her fiance panicked as she "wrestled out of him" "the dribs and drabs of half-truths." Eventually they stopped talking and the relationship went cold. The essay's most telling passage, though, is from when the romance was hot:
"It's such a great love story," I said, as if offering my professional opinion on our love as material. "I would rather live it than write it," he replied, leaning in to embrace me. Behind his poor posture and neurasthenic demeanor was the body of a man, fully formed.
Telling, not only because it demonstrates how badly Kashner and Camhi wanted to live a literary love story, but also because the next sentence is the cruelest description in the piece.
And so Leslie Camhi joins that long tradition of writers taking hits at former lovers in first-person musings. Modern Love does it. Elle does it. Microfamous bloggers do it. Taylor Swift's songs do it in musical form. And now, the ritziest titles at Conde Nast have contributed to the no man's land of secrets that aren't exactly open, but aren't closed either. Secrets that leave the door unlocked and slightly ajar.
Image by Jim Cooke