As the summer wedding season approaches, mail has already begun to pour in. Lois Smith Brady, who writes "Vows," a popular wedding column in The New York Times, sifts through scores of letters from prospective couples, all intent on having that perfect ceremony.
For Brady, this is the best way to find the consumate love story. Romance, like junk mail, comes in over the transom.Her column, which is surrounded by dozens of short, more traditional wedding announcements in the Sunday edition, is often off-beat and distinctive. She calls it a "bright" style. In only 600 words, she tries to give readers a glimpse of why a ceremony was unique and how two soulmates found each other.
Sitting in an Upper East Side cafe, Brady, 37, brims with energy. Although she is running late for an appointment, it doesn't matter, largely because the conversation turns to writing, love and literature. When she waxes philosophically about romance and marriage, her eyes grow large and then her hands move.
"People are together for all sorts of reasons," she said. "I can never predict with any certainty who is going to make it and who isn't. There are so many levels of love."
Just recently, she received a beautifully written letter from a couple who met on the Internet. Remarkably, although they "talked" in cyberspace for months, they lived only blocks away on New York's Upper West Side. As their love grew on-line, they decided to meet. They will marry this summer, the groom - his legs paralyzed - appearing before the altar in a wheelchair. Brady intends to be there, preserving the moment in print.
"One of the good things about the column is that it is a small-time column in a big city," Brady said. "Every paper used to have a wedding column, but it was done in the old-fashioned way. It was a tradition, then it went out of vogue."
Years ago, the wedding page was as American as apple pie. Newspapers reported nuptials as news, the same way they covered debutante balls and Sunday afternoon society teas. Although often banal and formulaic - usually including the sleep-inducing line "The bride wore a gown of ..." - the announcements were an important facet of small-town life.
For years, The Times printed wedding announcements almost exclusively of the rich and powerful. The page was filled with the daughters of industrial magnates, and then later with Ivy League graduates. Brady concentrates more on a couple's story than on their social standing, although most of the people she profiles are young, upwardly-mobile professionals.
After writing The Times column for four years, she has covered virtually hundreds of weddings. "A lot of guests want to know how much the couple paid me," she said. "But no one has ever tried to bribe me yet."
And being featured under her byline often means lots of exposure. Elizabeth King and Paul Farrell, thirtysomething newlyweds, were profiled in "Vows" in March. They oversee King's Carriage House, a small manor house in Manhattan. "The wedding procession began with six flower girls, all holding ropes of mountain laurel, heather and white lily," wrote Brady. Ever since the story was published, the couple have become minor celebrities with dinner crowds.
"A lot of people read it," said King. "People have come all the way from Europe."
Indeed, the popularity of the column does not escape Times management. "We know it is one of the most-read items in the Sunday paper," said Walter Middlebrook, the Styles editor at The Times. "This has proven to be a success, for it humanizes the page. It really anchors the page."
Despite the success, The New York Times is one of the few major newspapers in the country to carry such a regular feature.
"We have decided that weddings are not news," said Mary Hardar, assistant managing editor of The Washington Post. Still, she said she has read some of Brady's pieces. "It incorporates details that would never be included in the old-style stories. She includes things that are telling moments. She doesn't treat the assignment like a state dinner."
Keeping track of all the dates isn't easy for Brady. The weekends are her busiest time, when she shuttles from one reception to another. One night she might find herself at an ethnic Korean restaurant, the next at the ritzy Pierre Hotel. Brady works almost every Saturday night, while her husband stays at home with their small child.
And what do you wear? Brady prefers to appear in business attire, selected from a closet full of dark business suits at her Long Island home. She frequently carries a clipboard while at work. She says it helps reserved people speak up. "I don't want to look like a guest," she says. "I want to look like a respectable employee."
Times photographer Edward Keating, whose photos give the column an artistic feel, credits Brady for staying low key, taking none of the spotlight away from the proceedings. "She doesn't draw much attention to herself," he said. "She doesn't draw a buzz."
When Brady arrives at a ceremony, she schmoozes with as many people as possible. Until the bar opens for cocktails, however, that may be difficult. Then she tries to find somebody dressed with flair.
"The better-dressed person, the better the quote," she said. "There is always someone in the back of the room who is wise. I try to find them."
These wise souls can be old grandmothers or young children. They can be rich or poor. But they become important to the story, simply because they offer invaluable reflections on the human experience.
"They don't see things like Van Gogh or Walt Whitman, but they see things from another perspective. Once every 15 columns, I find a real quote. It will say everything about marriage, life and love," she said.
Having attended so many weddings, Brady laughs when she recalls her own ceremony in 1987. Although she said she has a good marriage, her own wedding was something of a letdown.
"I wore my mother's dress and it didn't fit right," she said. "I remember feeling this is supposed to be an amazing day, but it was so humdrum. I was glad it was over."