Meet Your Westchester Neighbor: Pound Ridge Author Robin Lamont
Re-imagining Robin: From actress and singer to private detective to lawyer to novelist.
Pound Ridge’s Robin Lamont with her first reader—and husband—Ken Swensen
photo by John Rizzo
“We couldn’t believe she’d been on Broadway,” says Robin Lamont’s friend Karla Packer, “because when we met her, she was an attorney in the Westchester District Attorney’s office.” Sure enough, in the 1970s, Lamont appeared in Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, most notably in the ensemble show Godspell, where her recording of “Day by Day” was a big hit. She sang it at the Grammy Awards, on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and on Today with Barbara Walters. She reprised it when Hollywood made a movie version, and did more Broadway shows, including Grease, in which she played Sandy. Yet when we meet for coffee at City Limits Diner in White Plains, near her old office from her prosecutor years, she does, in fact, look, as Packer implies, like a typical Westchester woman: attractive without glitz, sophisticated, and with a friendly expression.
Lamont, who lives with her family in Pound Ridge, tells me she had met stars such as Roddy McDowall and Cyril Ritchard when she was a child visiting her former-actress grandmother’s home in The Dakota on Central Park West. “I was awestruck,” she says. Lamont was so taken, she became a drama student at Carnegie Mellon. In her junior year, she was cast in another student’s master’s project, which eventually became the show and movie Godspell.
Marley Sims, another friend, knows about the show-biz days. Sims, who would eventually write for Home Improvement and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, met Lamont when both were in Godspell. “We lived up the street from each other on the Upper West Side when a brownstone was only $275 a month,” she says. “We wound up being each other’s ‘You want to go to dinner? Okay.’” Sims recalls that Lamont was also a songwriter, sometimes performing her own songs in clubs, and says it was “breathtaking—her music was just beautiful.” She describes Lamont’s abilities as “like stuffing something into a sieve—it just oozes out; the talent is there. It comes out, whatever she decides to do.”
While delivering a tape of her songs to her moonlighting “manager,” who was also the mâitre d’ of a restaurant/bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Lamont happened upon a businessman out for a beer with his friend. Ken Swensen, soon to be her boyfriend and, eventually, her husband, was also a great tennis player, Lamont recalls. “It was serendipitous,” she says. Their first date was on a Central Park tennis court, and tennis is now a passion shared by the whole family.
Making a living as a performer can be tough, so Lamont took a day job in a private investigations company investigating manufacturers of counterfeit goods, “working stings and undercover operations,” she says. She liked the work, stayed with it for several years, and was very successful. “We worked with attorneys,” Lamont says, “and I was fascinated by intellectual property law. I worked for one attorney whose name was Sonia Sotomayor, and she was the one who encouraged me to go to law school.” She went to school at night and kept her detective day job until she needed a more manageable schedule when she gave birth to her first child, Matt.
After Lamont got her degree in 1993, she spent almost eight years as a prosecutor in the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office. Eventually, she and Swensen adopted daughter Jaqui, who, at 2½ years old, was the survivor of a difficult start in the Philippines. Now 17, she’s a junior in high school and, says her mother, a “spunky kid” with a talent for cooking. Matt is now a 20-year-old rising college junior, a “powerhouse” tennis player, and a young man with a practical bent who may be a future businessman.
“Robin is a terrific mom,” Packer says. “She has patience, she’s disciplined, and she’s very caring. She coaches and she guides.” To make this possible, after Jaqui arrived, Lamont switched from working in the DA’s office to writing at home, still using the knowledge and experience from her earlier careers. She works in an office converted from the dining room. “I try to get my errands out of the way first thing in the morning,” she says. “I walk the dog, do my shopping, get the laundry in.”
Lamont says that her husband has been not only a source of tremendous encouragement and support, but is also a live-in editor for the novels she has written. Professionally, he’s a salesman, and, personally, he has an avid interest in such subjects as politics and animal rights. “He has a wonderful eye and a wonderful ear,” says Lamont. “I can show him bits and pieces, talk through a storyline, and bounce things off him as I write.”
Swensen is “the person who tells her if something doesn’t work,” he says. “I don’t tell her what to do. I love to edit her books because I enjoy them so much. Even when I’m reading her book the sixth or seventh time, I still enjoy it.”
Swensen has been encouraging Lamont’s writerly instincts since her private investigator days, after he recognized Lamont’s special awareness of people in the true stories she would tell him each night when she came home. “I would be floored by the complexity, the humor, and the real-life people that she had a way of capturing in a few sentences,” he says. “It’s a deeper knowledge of people, like when she talks about cops. Most people think policemen are tough guys, but she would understand the real sort of kid side, the gentle side.”
Lamont gives me copies of both books. Her first, If Thy Right Hand, is a suspense novel about prosecutor Ilene Hart, who is trying to get sex offenders off the street and rear her own two boys, one of whom has been diagnosed with autism.
She’s found inspiration in the Nancy Drew books she loved as a girl, noting that their heroine was “a very balanced girl. She had friends, she had her dad who adored her but never got in the way, she had a boyfriend. She always found the truth. She was clearly an idol for me.” Lamont’s creation, Ilene Hart, is also a multi-dimensional woman with courage, intelligence, and persistence.
Wright for America has a different tone, with serious subject matter but a satirical approach. The title character, Pryor Wright, is a right-wing radio host. “In order to get the voice of the character,” Lamont says, “I began to listen to a lot of ultra-conservative radio.” Eventually, she came to see this type of show as “just a form of entertainment, but, at the same time, their message was really rather spiteful and juvenile.”
Next up, she says, is the first in a series of books about an animal rights investigator. Both Lamont and her husband are passionate about animal welfare issues. While bringing the reader into various harrowing situations, such as “puppy mills or dolphins being slaughtered, or drugging racehorses to conceal injuries,” she hopes to help the animals, possibly in the form of legislation, while also creating good, suspenseful novels. As her friend Marley Sims says, “She has a stick-to-it-iveness about her that doesn’t quit.”
You’ll find a link to the movie clip of her performance of “Day by Day” on robinlamont.com, on the “Biography” page. Her talent as a performer is clear. Much less obvious are the many other abilities this fresh-faced, young girl would develop into a rich and varied life in the years to come.
Ronnie Levine is a freelance writer and artist. She has just finished writing a mystery novel, set in Tarrytown, about an artist who helps a charismatic cop investigate phony masterpieces—and murder.