Susan Orlean

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Susan Orlean
Orlean at the 2018 Texas Book Festival.
Orlean at the 2018 Texas Book Festival.
BornSusan Orlean
(1955-10-31) October 31, 1955 (age 63)
Cleveland, Ohio, United States
OccupationJournalist, author
EducationUniversity of Michigan
  • Peter Sistrom
    (m. 1983; div. 1999)
  • John William Gillespie, Jr.
    (m. 2001)
ChildrenAustin Gillespie

Susan Orlean (born October 31, 1955) is a journalist and author. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, and has contributed articles to many magazines including Vogue, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Outside.

She is best known as the author of the 1998 book The Orchid Thief, which was adapted into the film Adaptation (2002). Meryl Streep received an Academy Award nomination for her performance as Orlean.

Personal life[edit]

Orlean was raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio[2], the daughter of Edith (née Gross 1923-2016)[3] and Arthur Orlean (1915-2007). She has a sister, Debra, and a brother, David. Her family is Jewish. Her mother's family is from Hungary and her father's family from Poland. Her father was an attorney and businessman.[4][5]

She graduated from the University of Michigan with honors in 1976[6], studying literature and history. After college she moved to Portland, Oregon, and was planning on going to law school, when she began writing for the Willamette Week. She married lawyer Peter Sistrom in 1983, and they divorced after 16 years of marriage. She was introduced by a friend to author and businessman John Gillespie, whom she married in 2001, and she gave birth to their son Austin in 2004.

She is also step-mother to John's son from his previous marriage, Jay Gillespie.[1]


She later went on to publish stories in Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vogue, Outside and Spy. In 1982, she moved to Boston and became a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix and later a regular contributor to the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. Her first book, Saturday Night, was published in 1990, shortly after she moved to New York and began writing for The New Yorker magazine. She became a New Yorker staff writer in 1992.

Orlean authored the book The Orchid Thief, a profile of Florida orchid grower, breeder and collector John Laroche. The book formed the basis of Charlie Kaufman's script for the Spike Jonze film Adaptation. Orlean (portrayed by Meryl Streep, who won a Golden Globe for the performance) was, in effect, made into a fictional character; the movie portrayed her as becoming Laroche's lover and partner in a drug production operation, in which orchids were processed into a psychoactive substance.

She also wrote the Women's Outside article, "Life's Swell" (published 1998). The article, a feature on a group of young surfer girls in Maui, was the basis of the film Blue Crush.

In 1999, she co-wrote "The Skinny: What Every Skinny Woman Knows About Dieting (And Won't Tell You!)" under her married name, Susan Sistrom. Her previously published magazine stories have been compiled in two collections, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People and My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere. She also served as editor for Best American Essays 2005 and Best American Travel Writing 2007. She contributed the Ohio chapter in State By State (2008). In 2011, she published a biographical history of the dog actor Rin Tin Tin, and October 2018 saw the release of The Library Book, on the 1986 fire at the Central Library in the Los Angeles Public Library system.

Orlean was also a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2003. Orlean received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Michigan at the spring commencement ceremony in 2012. She was given a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014.[7]



  • Saturday night. 1990.
  • The Orchid Thief (1998)
  • The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People (2001)
  • My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere (2004)
  • Animalish (Kindle Single) (2011)
  • Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (2011)
  • The Floral Ghost (2016)
  • The Library Book (2018)

Essays and reporting[edit]

  • "The American male at age ten". Esquire. December 1992.
  • "Life's Swell". Women's Outside. 1998.
  • "The It bird". Popular Chronicles. The New Yorker. 85 (30): 26–31. September 28, 2009.
  • "Walart". Onward and Upward with the Arts. The New Yorker. 89 (1): 46–50. February 11–18, 2013.[8]
  • "Man and machine : playing games on the internet". Popular Chronicles. The New Yorker. 89 (48): 33–39. February 10, 2014.[9]
  • "Growing Up in the Library". Personal History. The New Yorker. October 5, 2018.


  1. ^ a b Shattuck, Kathryn. "WEDDINGS: VOW; Susan Orlean, John Gillespie Jr". Retrieved 23 July 2018.
  2. ^ Orlean, Susan (5 October 2018). "Growing Up in the Library: Learning and relearning what it means to have a book on borrowed time". The New Yorker. Retrieved 27 October 2018.
  3. ^ Edith Orlean Obituary accessed 10/30/2016
  4. ^ Susan Orlean's parents marriage certificate retrieved 3/20/2015
  5. ^ [1] Arthur Orlean obituary
  6. ^ USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences[2]
  7. ^ Guggenheim Fellows announced accessed 3/20/2015
  8. ^ Brendan O'Connell.
  9. ^ Online version is titled "The surreal comedy of internet art".

External links[edit]

Olrean joined Brendan O'Meara on The Creative Nonfiction Podcast for Episode 61 to talk about the entrepreneurial nature of a writing career.