Every morning, Nancy Paulsen and David Friend drive to Manhattan to conquer the literary world. Paulsen, president and publisher of Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, is responsible for putting out 15 children’s books a year. One of her more recent masterpieces, Brown Girl Dreaming, about an African American teenage girl living in South Carolina and New York during the civil unrest of the ’60s and ’70s, won the National Book Award in 2014.
Friend, her husband, has been at Vanity Fair, where he is editor of creative development, since 1998. His most recent project is editing a Q&A with President Obama that will appear in the magazine’s November issue. Over the years, he helped launch the magazine’s website, co-edited nine Vanity Fair books and created a number of award-winning TV documentaries. He’s already written one book that analyzes images of 9/11. He has another that will launch in September 2017, titled The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido, which will explore the sexual history of the 1990s.
While the power couple work hard to make their impact on the world from New York City, their real inspiration comes from the place they call home: New Rochelle. They live in an attractive home built in the 1930s, in Larchmont Woods, that they’ve inhabited for almost 30 years. “New Rochelle has it all; I absolutely adore the community,” says Paulsen. “It’s a place where the diversity of life is celebrated.”
The couple met in a legendary Greenwich Village establishment, now shuttered, named the Lions Head. “It was back in the days when you met in a bar and not online,” recalls Paulsen. Fittingly, the bar was literary-themed. Book jackets lined the wall, and it was famous for being the home to Irish American writers, poets, and musicians.
When they met, Friend was churning out stories about the war in Lebanon and Afghanistan as a reporter at LIFE magazine, a publication he adored since childhood. When he graduated from Amherst College, the magazine was re-launching, and he competed against thousands of eager journalists for one of the new jobs there. He won by sending the recruiter a rose after his interview — “He didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that,” says Paulsen — and slowly made his way to the top. Paulsen, on the other hand, was just out of college and looking for a job in publishing. Friend put her in touch with a friend who worked at Viking-Penguin, as the company was called then, and she’s been there ever since.
They were married in 1985, at the stunning Orienta Beach Club in Mamaroneck, a private beach club not far from where Paulsen grew up. She spent her childhood in Hartsdale, a place not unlike the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, where Friend grew up. Wanting their children to have a parallel upbringing, the newlyweds moved to New Rochelle to be closer to family; fraternal twins Molly and Sam were born in 1988.
The family lived an idyllic life. They occupied a street where the neighborhood kids played together, and families took walks on the many trails in the area. An older gentleman named Mr. Pond lived on the corner and would elaborately decorate the street for the holidays. “On Halloween, they would block off our street,” remembers Paulsen. “I would give out at least 800 pieces of candy.”
Both children attended public schools, Davis Elementary and New Rochelle Middle and High Schools, and were involved in many activities. Molly danced in PAVE, a magnet program for the performing arts, and made art featured in the public library. Sam played in the high school jazz and funk bands and participated in the school’s Cafe Saturnalia concerts.
“Both our kids benefited greatly from New Rochelle High School’s art programs,” says Friend. Sam, now 28, is a jazz musician and composer. Though he lives in Brooklyn, he often plays at Alvin & Friends, a soul restaurant in New Rochelle, and Turquoise, a Turkish and Mediterranean Restaurant in Larchmont. Molly, who passed away tragically last year, taught at preschools throughout the county.
It wasn’t only the children who cherished living in New Rochelle. Their parents befriended several neighbors, many of whom also work in publishing and whom they are still close friends with decades later. (The editor responsible for current literary sensation Me Before You lives behind them.) Paulsen said it is the children of New Rochelle who inspire her to create books that have diverse characters and upbringings. “Growing up, my friends were of every nationality and color,” she notes. She remembers reading to classes at Davis Elementary and seeing the enthralled looks on the faces of children, many of whom didn’t have books at home, when they identified with characters.
For Friend, New Rochelle is a peaceful place where he can unwind with the people he loves. “My favorite daytime activity is to bike along the Larchmont waterfront and sometimes into New Rochelle, to visit a tree planted in our daughter’s honor at Davenport Park,” he says. Paulsen’s work colleagues donated a reading corner and book collection to the public library in Molly’s honor.
They take advantage of their weekends in New Rochelle by exploring new restaurants or eating at their favorites. The list of places they recommend is lengthy: Modern in New Rochelle, Massa Coastal in Mamaroneck, Turquoise in Larchmont. Plus, “We are huge Walter’s supporters,” says Friend. “I have dreams about
the curly fries and double dogs and
Paulsen raves about New Rochelle’s Alvin & Friends as “a cool soul-food place and great restaurant.” She takes her writers there, and the couple helped host a fundraiser for the New Rochelle Library Foundation there in June.
Now that they are empty-nesters, they might move out of their family home, but there is no way they are leaving Westchester. “We might get something in Northern Westchester; that’s what my parents did,” says Paulsen, almost thinking out loud. “Or maybe on the water in New Rochelle. Or maybe in White Plains. White Plains is woodsy and has creeks and streams.”