Married; children: one son.
Home—MD. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
Writer. Washington Post, Washington, DC, staff writer.
The Buddha from Brooklyn, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
My Last Movie Star: A Novel of Hollywood, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to periodicals, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, and the New York Times (magazine).
Martha Sherrill is a journalist whose first book, The Buddha from Brooklyn, is a study of the life of Alyce Zeoli, born in 1949. Zeoli escaped from her abusive, working-class family, married twice, and had children before she became the highest-ranking woman in Tibetan Buddhism. She was in North Carolina when she met Michael Burroughs, and as Catharine Burroughs, she became a successful psychic consultant at their Center for Discovery and New Life. Two years after their first meeting in 1985, Tibetan lama Penor Rimpoche proclaimed Burroughs to be a tulka, or enlightened being, and a reincarnated seventeenth-century saint. In 1986, Burroughs, now having taken the named Jetsunma Akhon Lhamo (a variation of Jetsun, the name of the Dalai Lama's sister), founded Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Choling (KPC) in Poolesville, Maryland, which grew to be the largest Tibetan Buddhist center in the United States. In 1997, she and a group of her closest followers left to establish a new community in Sedona, Arizona.
Sherrill first met the charismatic spiritual leader in 1993. She draws on interviews with the nuns and monks of the monastery to demonstrate their devotion to Jetsunma, in spite of her behavior and proclivities, which seem out-of-place in Buddhist life. She took a large salary while her students became indebted to her, had sexual relations with both male and female followers, accepted lavish gifts, and failed to follow Buddhist ethics, including the taboo against killing any living thing. When Rimpoche visited Poolesville, he was outraged to find that bug zappers were being used on the property. Sherrill also notes that Jetsunma wore fake red fingernails and black leather.
Robert A. Orsi wrote in Commonweal: "Sherrill hangs tough through all of this, never turning it into a freak show. Then she panics. Religion is democratic, she asserts, although on what grounds is not clear; maybe someday the KPC will be democratic; right now, it's a cult, she concludes." Orsi finished by saying that Sherrill "tells us a very good story about an Italian-American woman from Brooklyn who becomes an incarnated Buddha."
Los Angeles Times contributor Maria Jaoudi felt that "Sherrill's account of this community would have been improved had she spent more time on the historical development of Tibetan Buddhism. The Buddha from Brooklyn is a gripping story in itself, but comprehending the Tibetan tradition is not as important to Sherrill as depicting Jetsunma's oddities. The book consequently becomes a biography of sorts, which paints Tibetan Buddhism in America in a somewhat unfavorable light. Given the cultural accomplishments of the Tibetans and the role they play in helping to define the boundaries of spiritualism today, this seems a curious and unfortunate decision."
Austin Chronicle reviewer Robert Bell remarked that "what she ended up uncovering was a veritable Charles Foster Kane of the New Age set: a young lama who once held great promise and possessed the best of intentions, but whose steady decline into self-absorption and megalomania have ultimately acted as a corrupting influence on all those around her." Bell concluded, "What she comes away with is an impressive snapshot of the contemporary search for spirituality in the West. Sherrill refuses to be mired in journalistic cynicism and is clear-headed and objective throughout." Booklist's Donna Seaman wrote that "ultimately, this mesmerizing portrait reveals that Jetsunma is as much an invention of her followers as she is of her own ego." Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat reviewed Buddha for Spirituality & Health online, noting that "Sherrill's investigative reporting shows how zeal can turn religion into a cult. She also reveals how American-born Buddhism can be a world apart from Tibetan Buddhism."
A Publishers Weekly contributor called Sherrill's My Last Movie Star: A Novel of Hollywood a "popcorn parody for the soul, with plenty of butter." The New York Times Book Review's Ihsan Taylor wrote, "Sherrill's entertaining if loosely plotted meditation on celebrity is smart and affectionate."
The protagonist, entertainment writer Clementine James, fed up with her editor at Flame, quits to settle down with her boyfriend on his Virginia farm. But when the magazine offers her triple her usual fee to profile up-and-coming actress Allegra Coleman, she accepts. While the two women are on a road trip, Allegra crashes her Porsche, and the accident costs Clementine an eye. Allegra walks away and disappears. The beautiful star shines even brighter in her absence. She is nominated for an Oscar and her adoring fans hold a candlelight vigil for her. Flame really wants Clementine's article now, as they are planning an all-Allegra edition. Clementine, in the hospital waiting for a new bionic eye from Switzerland, is visited by deceased Hollywood stars, including Gloria Swanson, Dorothy Lamour, Loretta Young, Myrna Loy, Marion Davies, Tallulah Bankhead, and Natalie Wood, all of whom teach Clementine lessons on fame and stardom. When Clementine leaves the hospital wearing an eye patch, she is quickly spotted by reporters who have made her a celebrity by association.
Time critic Pico Iyer observed, "Sherrill, a longtime writer of magazine profiles, knows all the hard, disillusioning details of the media and movie worlds and has great fun imagining magazines called We, You, Speak, and Gas. Yet what makes her book stronger than a generic Hollywood satire is that even as it sees through the tawdriness of the system, it cannot help acknowledging the dreamy pull of its products." Iyer continued, asking, "How can such flawed and flighty people touch us so deeply? The stars who drop in on Clementine come across not as great heroines or guardian angels but more as friends stopping off for a sleepover—the kind of friends who affect us more than any wise man could."
Los Angeles Times critic Susan Reynolds felt that My Last Movie Star "is not trite. It is not silly. It is warm and serious and funny and imaginative. The writing is cool, the plot fantastic. To live here is to be haunted by these icons. Sherrill lets us live easily with them for a little while."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, April 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of The Buddha from Brooklyn, p. 1416; December 15, 2002, Meredith Parets, review of My Last Movie Star: A Novel of Hollywood, p. 734.
Commonweal, October 6, 2000, Robert A. Orsi, review of The Buddha from Brooklyn, pp. 21-22.
Esquire, May, 2000, Mark Warren, review of The Buddha from Brooklyn, p. 36.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2002, review of My Last Movie Star, p. 1565.
Library Journal, March 15, 2000, David Bourquin, review of The Buddha from Brooklyn, p. 88.
Los Angeles Times, August 12, 2000, Maria Jaoudi, review of The Buddha from Brooklyn, p. B2.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 12, 2003, Susan Reynolds, review of My Last Movie Star, p. R15.
Newsweek International, April 21, 2003, Dana Thomas, review of My Last Movie Star, p. 61.
New York Daily News, February 21, 2003, Sherryl Connelly, review of My Last Movie Star.
New York Times Book Review, March 9, 2003, Ihsan Taylor, review of My Last Movie Star, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, March 13, 2000, review of The Buddha from Brooklyn, p. 79; October 21, 2002, review of My Last Movie Star, p. 53.
Time, March 17, 2003, Pico Iyer, review of My Last Movie Star, p. 73.
Austin Chronicle Online,http://www.austinchronicle.com/ (May 19, 2000), Robert Bell, review of The Buddha from Brooklyn.
Spirituality & Health,http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/ (July 10, 2003), Frederic Brussat and Mary Ann Brussat, review of The Buddha from Brooklyn.
USA Today Online,http://www.usatoday.com/ (February 26, 2003), Deirdre Donahue, review of My Last Movie Star.
Washingtonian Online,http://www.washingtonian.com/ (March, 2003), Nandita Khanna, review of My Last Movie Star.*