THE SPINSTER SISTERS: The New Face of Single
TALK TALK MAGAZINE
By Bethany Jacobs
Jodi and Jill Spingold know a lot about being single. In fact, these siblings have made a career out of it. Jodi (34, with a degree in journalism), and Jill (32, with a degree in marketing and business), are riding the very lucrative self-help wave, and their mission is to empower single women everywhere. Their four-year old corporation, Spinster, Inc. is in fact made up of several different smaller business ventures. Their noon-to-two satellite radio show, “Lunch with the Spinster Sisters,” keeps women all over the country glued to their XM radios every Thursday. Their lines of t-shirts, office accessories, and gift items are sold nationwide. The Spinster Sisters Seal of Approval stickers on everything from pajamas to wine in a box has become a coveted marketing tool, and companies vie for their products to be one of the select few. (They choose just one item per month, and the products are always items that the sisters themselves use and enjoy.) And last, but certainly not least, their books are bestsellers in eight languages.
In the “New Conservatism” era, when the average age of newlyweds is on the decrease, and 3 children has supplanted 2 as the ever-increasing norm in the middle class, the self proclaimed “Spinster Sisters” are touting empowered singlehood, and women all over the world are listening. I’ve been invited to meet with the moguls in their offices in Chicago. Their Director of PR sends me an extensive press kit before my visit, which includes everything from copies of their coverage in Chicago Magazine’s Most Eligible issue, to a joint bio, which reads almost like a Grimm’s fairy tale.
Nothing in my independent research deviates at all from what is iterated for me in the press materials. And the story is a compelling one. In a spectacular understatement, it hasn’t always been easy for the Spingold girls. At the tender ages of six and four, they lost both of their parents in a tragic car crash. Their mother had no family to speak of, but their father had two older sisters, neither married, who lived together in a ramshackle house in Palmer Square, a quiet residential neighborhood on the near Northwest side of Chicago. These women, in their early forties at the time, took in their nieces and raised them well, if unconventionally. Ruth and Shirley Spingold, referred to as the “Original Spinster Sisters” by Jodi and Jill, are a throwback to another age. Never married, the two lived with their elderly parents until their deaths six months apart, and then assumed joint care of the house they had grown up in. Neither had ever moved out of her childhood bedroom. After the tragedy, the master bedroom was converted into a little girl’s paradise, with canopy beds, pink carpeting and clouds painted on a blue ceiling. Jodi and Jill would remain together in this room, altering the décor as they aged, until Jodi left for college. Their parents had left a small amount of life insurance and savings, and their deceased maternal grandparents had established education trusts for them both, but the girls were mostly supported by income generated by Ruth and Shirley.
Ruth earns her unconventional, but by no means negligible salary by serving as a self-proclaimed “curator of Chicago”. She can tell you the place to get the best Chicagostyle hot dogs and the finest five star meals. She knows the urban legends and the proven history, and is hired by wealthy visitors to guide them around the city, helping them explore the less touristy attractions, and serving as a sort of private concierge. Entirely based on word of mouth, and apparently with no set rate for her services. According to Jodi “Oh, whatever you feel appropriate…” is her only acknowledgement that she is supposed to be paid. And apparently this tactic works very well, with the flustered clients desperate to not appear cheap by offering too little. She takes the month of July off every year to travel, noting that her type of clientele tend to be at their own beach houses and cabin getaways that month anyway, and admitting to not completely adoring the weekly festivals that Chicago celebrates in the summer.
Shirley serves as a cookbook recipe tester for several publishing houses, who send her galleys of new cookbooks and have her try out the recipes to see if they are suitable for a home kitchen. She is quoted as saying “There was much less Joy in the Joy of Cooking before I fixed it.” The elder pair of Spingold sisters hold a monthly salon of local artists, writers, intellectuals, and a smattering of paying guests, who gather to eat and talk, and participate in everything from traditional Native American drum circles to lessons in self defense, and one misbegotten snake charming experiment. (About that incident, all that the elder and younger Spingold’s will say is that both an ambulance and Animal Rescue had to be called in, but that neither human nor reptiles were seriously injured.)
Sitting in the large office Jodi and Jill share in the west Loop area of Chicago, I ask them about their upbringing. Aunt Ruth and Aunt Shirley are, according to the girls, the perfect pair of surrogates.
“Aunt Ruth has always been full of adventures and wild ideas and grand plans,” Jodi reminisces. “And Aunt Shirley is calmer, more logical, with excellent organization skills and a mean hand in the kitchen. Aunt Shirley was like having a stay-at-home mom, she was always there when we got home from school, and Aunt Ruth breezed in and out a little more haphazardly.” Apparently Ruth took them to strange, exotic restaurants, introducing them to the cuisines of Vietnamand Ecuador, and Shirley taught the girls how to make delicious and nutritious meals at home, and trained them in the recipes of Bubbe Spingold, their great-grandmother. Ruth planned outings to tea ceremonies at th eMidwest Buddhist Temple, and Shirley took them to high tea at the Drake Hotel.
“It was like being raised by Auntie Mame and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle!” Jill says. “But it was also a place of security and great love. They were both amazing about keeping our parents alive for us, we celebrated their birthdays and kept loads of photos around, and they would tell us as many stories as they could remember. Aunt Shirley even made each of us a small quilt with scraps from their clothes.”
“And they showed us how to rely on each other and ourselves.” Jodi offers.
“True.” Jill nods in agreement. “They made it very clear that they liked their independence and were self-reliant, but they also allowed themselves to depend on each other. Clearly we took that lesson to heart.”
I ask about their Aunts attitudes about relationships, wondering if it might have influenced their own ideas regarding matrimony.
“Aunt Shirley was engaged to be married when she was in her early twenties.” Jodi says, twirling a piece of hair around her forefinger. “But she called it off because she didn’t feel deeply in love with him. I think she dated here and there, but never anyone that seriously.”
“And Aunt Ruth is a total player!” Jill jumps in. “She has always had a small stable of regular beaus, and seems to manage her time with each of them with Swiss precision.”
“But they were always very conscious of being honest with us about their opinions while encouraging us to have our own. And they have always been very supportive of our relationships.” Jodi says, presumably to dispel the myth that the Aunts might have encouraged the girls to stay single.
“That’s very true.” Jill nods emphatically. “It didn’t matter if it was about politics or personal choice, they always told us to follow the path that made the most sense for us.”
It is clear from the way these women interact, that the bond between them is extraordinary. The energy that comes from them is unified and clear, and while one starts to get the idea that Jodi is more of a creative big picture idea gal and Jill a savvy and organized business woman, without a doubt, this is a partnership of loving equals.
Growing up, to hear them tell it, they were just as devoted. Jodi was offered a double promotion from the fourth grade to sixth, which she declined, telling Ruth and Shirley that she didn’t want to be more than two grades ahead of Jill. Jill dropped out of the high school yearbook committee when Jodi was passed over for copy editor. More than sisters, best friends and help-mates, the girls stayed together through thick and thin. Jodi chose the University of Chicago, so that she could be close to home for college, and Jill joined her there two years later, passing up a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.
Their entrepreneurial spirit became apparent when they were still in college. Surprised at the girls in her classes, who all seemed bound and determined to find one steady boyfriend, Jodi started writing a weekly anonymous column called “The Spin” for The Maroon, the campus paper, a fun series of essays on the joys of dating lots of different people, including, shockingly, University staff, assistant professors, and visiting dignitaries. Jill, meanwhile, studying marketing, recognized a potential business opportunity amongst the young women of the campus, and began selling note pads, t-shirts and other paraphernalia with tongue in cheek ‘girl power/boys are stupid’ phrases. Jodi shocked everyone, including herself, when she fell for the quiet guy computer services sent to fix her system when it crashed in the beginning of her senior year. They moved in together right after her graduation, and were married within the year.
“Jill never really liked Brant much,” Jodi says. “But she supported me in all things, even if that included suffering an irritating brother-in-law.”
“I wanted her to be happy, and while Brant was making her happy, I had to support that.” Jill shrugs.
“And when he stopped making me happy, she supported me in my decision to divorce.” Jodi admits.
Five years ago, the spunky sisters were in very different places in their lives. Jill was tackling the world of marketing from the bottom, leading focus groups for a research firm. Jodi was cobbling together a living from free-lance writing for local Chicagoprint media, and teaching journalism at Columbia College. Jodi’s marriage to her college sweetheart had crumbled, and she found herself suddenly single before her 30th birthday.
“It was frightening.” Jodi says. She is a short, curvaceous woman with wild brown curls and piercing blue eyes, and she is simple and frank in her delivery. “I’d never expected to be back out in the dating world. But I found that while I had no regrets about my marriage, I significantly regretted the feeling that I had lost my twenties focused so exclusively on a relationship. I felt perhaps I would have made smarter choices had I been more independent.”
Jill is a taller, slimmer version of her older sister, with hair more wavy than curly, and eyes a shade closer to green than blue, but with the same porcelain skin, and the same wide smile. There is an identical cadence to their speech, Jill’s voice a hair deeper in tone. “We went to a family friend’s wedding, the bride and groom both twenty-five. Jodi looks at me during the reception and says that she feels like grabbing them and telling them not to do it, to live twenty-five first.”
Jodi interrupts her sister. “So Jill asks me what I meant by that, and I started this mini rant about what I would have done differently. By the time the reception was over, we had outlined the idea for a book.”
Their first literary collaboration, Living Twenty-Five, was written in the evenings and on weekends and celebrated being young, adventurous, and playing the field, encouraged devotion to one’s career but not one man, and suggested that women put matrimony on the back burner. They gave it to their Aunts for content advice (Ruth) and editing (Shirley). When the elder Spingold’s gave their final approval, Jodi and Jill put together a proposal and sent it to a publishing magnate who had spent a week in Chicago under Ruth’s tutelage some twenty years earlier, and had stayed in touch ever since. The publisher jumped on the book, and the sisters embarked on their new adventure.
The real whirlwind began when they were invited, shortly after the publication, to appear as guest speakers for a local Jewish twenty-something charity event. One of the attendees was a well-connected socialite visiting from New York, who upon returning to the East Coast touted the sisters as her own little discovery to all of her wealthy and powerful friends. Within weeks there were invitations to appear at similar events in New York,Boston and DC, and the word of mouth began to take hold.
Their easy banter and complementary public speaking styles made them a hot ticket on the lecture circuit and landed them the radio show with a small Internet station. A call to fill in last minute for an AWOL celebrity on the Oprah Show did what it does for any book— sent it rocketing up the bestseller charts, and selling out at bookstores. The business grew exponentially over the next two years, with the second book debuting at number 7 on the New York Times best-seller list. “No new Harry Potter book that week.” Jodi makes a point of noting. The show got picked up by satellite radio, Jill’s merchandising fetish returned with a lucrative vengeance, and Spinster, Inc. was quickly an industry to reckon with.
The second book, The ‘Thirty’ Commandments, became a bible to single women in their thirties. The company name is both alliterative (Spingold/Spinster) and a way of reclaiming the moniker and taking the negative connotation out of it. Jodi and Jill are having the time of their lives. “Chicago is a great playground for two successful women in the prime of life.” Jodi says, with a wink. And things are only looking up. There is some discussion of a possible television show, and the third book, Facing Down Forty (targeted at women in their mid to late thirties and encouraging them to create a list of forty things they want to do before turning forty, and then finding ways to do them), is coming together smoothly and will be out in time for the summer. Both sisters were listed in Chicago Magazine’s annual “Most Eligible” issue last summer, but are closed mouthed about their romantic lives.
“You’ll just have to see if we’re in there again next summer!” Jill says, with a twinkle in her eye.
They were able to purchase a gorgeous three-flat up the block from the house they grew up in and, after an extensive renovation, moved everyone into the new digs. Jodi on the top floor, Jill on the second floor, and the Aunts, now in their early-seventies, on the first floor. It is a house full of independent women, depending on each other.
I accept a coveted invite to meet the Aunts at thePalmer Squareresidence, and find myself immediately drawn to these very different women.
“We couldn’t be prouder of them.” Says Ruth, a tall, slim, elegant woman with short spiky red hair, and strands of chunky beads over a long black dress. “We know their parents are watching over them.”
“Goodness, yes.” Pipes in Shirley, a good six inches shorter than her sister, with a grandmotherly air, and silver hair in a neat chignon. “They work harder than you can imagine, sometimes twelve, fourteen hours a day. Frankly, I don’t know how they do it.”
We don’t know how they do it either, but their fans are sure glad they do.
“They give you permission to put yourself and your need for personal development ahead of creating your identity in relation to other people, especially romantic partners.” Says Paige Andrews, who started as a shared executive assistant for both sisters, and has moved up within the organization and now serves as the Director of Operations for the company. Paige approached the sisters after hearing them speak shortly after the first book was released, and offered her services. The sisters took a chance on the young woman, who was just a year out of college. Now twenty-eight, and in a position usually reserved for people with both graduate level educations and years of practical experience, the pretty red-head is humble about her meteoric rise.
“They took me at my word when I promised to work very hard, not just for them, but also true to the spirit that the company was started with. They have supported me, encouraged me, and inspired me.”
This sort of loyalty seems par for the course. Everyone one encounters with even the smallest professional connection to the Spinster Sisters has shown a fierce respect for both women. Their primary business philosophy, to hire strong intelligent women and then let them do their jobs without micromanagement, seems to be paying off. The fact that they pay at the high end of the industry scale for all positions, offer full benefits to all employees, tuition reimbursement for continuing education, and a healthy bonus structure doesn’t hurt their reputations as good employers.
For Jodi and Jill, it seems that they are taking the whole thing in stride.
“We are so blessed.” Jill says. “We do what we love, there are constant new challenges to keep things interesting, and we get to do it as a team.”
“We wonder sometimes if we’d have ended up here if the accident hadn’t happened.” Jodi says. “But we like to think that we would have! As it stands, we know we have pretty powerful guardian angels, and we just hope we’re doing them proud.”
I think there’s little doubt of that.
For information on their speaking engagements, to read excerpts from the books, or to check in on the Spinster Blog, log onto their website, www.spinstersistersinc.com.
Reprinted from THE SPINSTER SISTERS by Stacey Ballis by arrangement with Berkley, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2008 by Stacey Ballis.