Nick Robinson, RIP–Inspired Publisher and a Good Man

Nick Robinson When I was an editorial executive at Carroll & Graf Publishers from 2000 until 2007, Nick Robinson was a frequent publishing partner based in the UK. His company, Constable & Robinson, brought out many books in Britain that we then published in North America. Each publishing season there were between 10-20 titles. Mysteries, solid nonfiction like Jack Holland’s Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice, and lots of books that just balanced our list very well. A backbone of our program with them were the editorially smart, superb value-oriented series of Mammoth Books, with well over 75 titles in the program, some of them shown below. My senior colleague Herman Graf first met Nick in 1983. They worked together very closely, meeting in London and NYC and at the int’l book fairs. When I began attending the Frankfurt Book Fair for my new company I had the good fortune to meet Nick and work with him, too. He liked that I’d been a bookseller before I became an editor. Nick hired people well and so had great colleagues who always attended our group dinners in Frankfurt, including one female executive, Nova. At those dinners, he was always cheerful and funny, showed great knowledge of food and wine, and always called for a toast and set aside time for all to savor our collective moments together.

Another of C & R’s books that C & G published in the US and Canada was The Great Hedge of India: The Search for the Living Barrier that Divided a People, a fascinating book on an entirely forgotten landmark from colonial India that actually figured in 20th century India’s history, though it had been all but forgotten. I still recommend this book to friends interested in the history of the subcontinent and those, say, who enjoyed Richard Attenborough’s film, “Gandhi.” Hedge author Roy Moxham also wrote, Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire, a book I still own and plan to read one day.

After leaving Carroll & Graf at the end of 2006 I learned from Herman that Nick and Nova had gotten married, and I was glad for them. At my new job, Union Square Press at Sterling Publishing, I had little reason to be in touch with Nick or his company, so we lost touch, though Herman kept me informed. He told me once that Nick had become ill, though he didn’t know if it was serious.

When I left Carroll & Graf, its parent company, Avalon Publishing Group, was on the brink of being sold to Perseus Books. Herman stayed around there for a little while, but soon the changes took full effect and Perseus absorbed many of the titles that we had published from Constable & Robinson. The crime books went to Soho Press, but the Mammoth Books stayed with Perseus, at Running Press. From time to time, I thought of Nick but after leaving Sterling in 2009 I had little reason to be in touch with him. But just last week, with August ending and the autumn publishing season commencing, I was planning to email Nick and let him know about a book project I’m developing, focused on classic swashbuckler fiction, that I knew would be of interest to him personally, and which I thought might be suitable for his company. I was so sad to read this morning in Book Brunch, a daily UK publishing newsletter, that Nick had died last Friday. The story (available by subscription only) reads in part:

Widely admired independent publisher Nick Robinson, 58, died on Friday 30 August 2013 following a longstanding illness. He founded Robinson Publishing in 1983, later merging it with Britain’s oldest independent publisher Constable & Co in 1999 to create Constable & Robinson. He brought new life to the Constable name, then propelled it into the 21st century with a series of innovations. Constable & Robinson was named both Independent Publisher of the Year at the Bookseller Industry Awards and IPG Independent Publisher of the Year in 2012….Nick Robinson is survived by his wife Nova Jayne – who also serves as a C&R director and now becomes Chair of the Board as part of the succession plan – and his son and his daughter.

Nick was a very good man and a brilliant publisher. I spoke with Herman Graf today. He told me that he considered Nick “a mensch for all seasons.” I know Herman will miss him very much, as will I, and all who had the good fortune to know and work with him. I extend my deepest condolences to his wife Nova, his two children, his colleagues, and all those among us who knew and admired him. Please click here to see all photos associated with this post.

Remembering 9/11/01–Running through a Dust Cloud in Lower Manhattan

In May 2001, Avalon Publishing Group–the Berkeley, California company I worked for as an editorial executive with Carroll & Graf Publishers–moved all its New York employees to new offices on 161 William Street in lower Manhattan, near City Hall Park, behind Park Row and the J&R Music World stores, 2-3 blocks east of the World Trade Center. I had enjoyed our original space on W. 21st Street, and didn’t appreciate the longer commute from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but soon got used to the new neighborhood, new restaurants, new sights and sounds.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I rode the train downtown and emerged from the Fulton Street subway station, at the corner of William and Fulton, with a customary single earbud stuck in one ear, tuned in to local public radio station WNYC, alert to what might be going on at street level. I detected uncharacteristic alarm from the on-air voices of host Brian Lehrer and correspondent Beth Fertig. Before I could comprehend the source of their concern, my gaze turned west and up in to the air toward the World Trace Center towers, startled to see flames, smoke, and debris pouring from the structures, against a backdrop of a California-type deep blue sky. The air around me was palpably hot, a weird sensation I couldn’t account for, even after seeing the flames above me in the sky.

What in the world?

Turning the corner and hurrying toward my office building, I focused again on the radio voices, hearing something about an airplane having crashed into one of the towers, and then, that a second such crash had occurred only moments before I came out of the subway. Lehrer’s and Fertig’s alarm was in real time. Any idea I had momentarily entertained, associating this incident with the incident in the 1940s when the Empire State Building was struck by a light plane, was dashed. I ran in to 161 William, took the elevator to our upper floor and found a handful of Avalon colleagues who’d arrived before me. I hustled over to the western side of the floor, joining them as we all took in a clear view of the twin towers, with a valley of lower buildings below and between us and the conflagration. The volume of flame, smoke, and debris were all much greater than when I’d first seen them downstairs. The debris included a fluttering cascade of myriad loose sheets of white paper. Midway between our building and the two towers, I noticed a lone man on a rooftop across the way and below our floor. The figure seemed to be in a prayerful pose, kneeling on a rug, wearing a white skullcap. I never learned what he was doing there, and have in the years since pondered it with colleagues such as Keith Wallman who also saw the man that morning.

In those days, neither my wife nor I owned a cell phone. I rushed into my office, on the east side of the building, and used my phone there to call Kyle. The lines worked the first time I tried our home line. She’d just gotten in from taking our son Ewan to kindergarten; on her way home she’d heard about the events downtown. I told her what I’d seen and she said she had TV on and warned me to leave the office building right away. I said, yes, but I don’t know what’s going on at street level. What if the buildings fall, and topple in the eastern direction? What if people are panicked or trampling each other? Maybe I’d be safer upstairs.  These were some of my thoughts. Kyle said she was going to go out and get cash and drinking water for our apartment, then go back to school and bring Ewan home. We talked a few minutes more and I told her I was going to go back to the other side of the floor to see the latest developments. I stayed a few minutes and finally decided, yes, it’s time to leave. I tried my home line again but now couldn’t get a call through. I would’ve left a message, telling Kyle I was leaving and that I would try to call her again later, but couldn’t get through at all. A colleague and I decided to descend in the elevator together, and then make a run for it when we got out on William Street. My companion was my fellow editor Tina Pohlman. As we were rushing from the western windows in to the open elevator car–I know now it was at 9:59 AM–we heard one of the weirdest sounds I’ve ever experienced, made by the collapse of the first tower. First, came a deeply guttural bass sound, created probably by the tremendous downdraft of air from the vertical collapse–something almost felt more than heard. The next instant, I registered a high, trebly, tinkling noise made up, I think, of breaking glass and splintering metal.

Tina and I descended without incident and saw out the lobby’s revolving door hundreds of people running past our building front, engulfed in a dusty, smoky cloud. Without hesitating more than a few seconds, we pushed out the door and joined the massing throng pushing north and east, toward the Brooklyn Bridge. Tina hoped to head over to the lower East Side, where she lived, if permitted by police. My direction was uptown, all the way to West 102nd Street, my home. We were immediately surrounded by the cloud, a murk that wasn’t pure gray or black, examples that TV footage would later show; this cloud actually had some shafts of sunlight in it. It was more ochre than gray. Still, it was pretty opaque and a specific fear registered that if debris were flying in it, we might not even see it heading at us. We made a right turn on Beekman Street, past New York Downtown Hospital, and turned left on Pearl Street, running together for several blocks until we ran under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Though still surrounded by the blanket of dust, and impelled to keep running till I was clear of it, I was beginning to fear that I couldn’t keep up the pace. I wasn’t so much out of breath–the problem was the shoes I had worn that morning: a pair of newish ankle-high boots. With the beautiful fall weather that morning, I had considered them appropriately autumnal and so decided to don them. But I hadn’t broken them in yet, and they proved terrible to try to run in, or even to try walking fast. I would regret my choice of footwear for many months that followed.

I tried to ignore the nascent pain and resumed my nervous, awkward jog, continually hitching and hauling up the knapsack slung over my shoulder. Surrounded by earnest and fearful strangers, all of us still shrouded by the murk, my route passed through unfamiliar parts of Chinatown. Approaching Canal Street the cloud began to thin a little. Finally, we crossed Canal Street and burst into patches of clear air. Tina and I said goodbye and wished each other well as we headed off in our separate directions. I was relieved to be in clearer air and thought, Now I just have to get home. Problem was, I still had a long way to go. Any city buses that passed were insanely overcrowded, and moving at a crawl anyway. Yellow cabs and livery taxis were also full and barely moving through the dense surface traffic. Continuing to listen to the radio, I learned that the second tower had fallen, at 10:28. With both towers now down, I was now confirmed in my horror that thousands of people had died this day. Meantime, the subways had been halted, and it was unknown when they would resume operation. I had no choice but to walk all the way home, about 8 miles.

I pushed up Broadway, through Soho, past Union Square, the Flatiron Building, Madison Square, Times Square, the Theater District, Central Park, Columbus Circle, and Lincoln Center. Every now and then on this odyssey I’d stop and try Kyle on a pay phone. The lines were all dead. She didn’t know when or even for sure if I had left my office. At last, I hit 72nd Street and was on the Upper West Side. It felt good to be back uptown, but I still had thirty blocks to go. I kept pushing, increasingly hobbled, eventually ringing our bell and announcing I was home. It was around 3PM, about five hours since I’d left William Street. Kyle and Ewan were waiting for me and I collapsed into their open arms. I sat down and removed my shoes and socks. Both feet were raw and blistered, from ankles to toes. I tuned in to TV for the first time all day and saw with my eyes the enormity of the loss that everyone else had been viewing all day via the visual medium. Not wanting to disturb Ewan any more than he might be already, we shut off the set until he went to bed.

Avalon’s offices would remain closed for about a week and a half. I tried to stay off my feet and let them heal, but the need to be ambulatory prevailed and I resumed walking around. Unfortunately, my gait was much altered by what I’d endured, which led to a series of foot, ankle, calf, hamstring, and leg injuries over the next couple years. Damage to the #1, 2, and 3 subway lines in lower Manhattan was so serious that my longer commute was lengthened further; a trip that used to take 30-40 minutes often ran to 90 minutes or longer. It was a horrible burden every day to come to work in the same neighborhood with the toxic brew a few blocks west that was already making recovery workers on the pile ill. For some reason, cold air seemed to magnify the odor that drifted eastward in the neighborhood. On winter evenings, I would leave the office and rush down in to the subway station, covering my mouth with a handkerchief to cut the horrible, vile crippling smell that I knew contained a mix of plastics, circuit boards, burnt upholstery, carpets and human remains.

A new normal kind of took over, but nothing really seemed normal anymore. I read about and followed the 9/11 Commission and was appalled at what had been the Bush administration’s failure to heed urgent warnings from counter-terrorism officials, as we were reminded again this morning with Kurt Eichenwald’s NY Times Op-Ed, The Deafness Before the Storm. I was deeply and personally offended when Bush held his 2004 convention in NYC, using the still-healing city as a backdrop for his bogus triumphalism. He and Dick Cheney claimed to have kept us safe–except I always hastened to add–when they had failed, big time. I was enormously relieved when Avalon moved offices again, back into Chelsea, a welcome removal from the still-stricken neighborhood downtown.

Each year on 9/11 our UWS neighborhood welcomes mourners, firefighters, police, and families to the Fireman’s Memorial on Riverside Drive at 100th Street. Last year, on the tenth anniversary, the day’s observances drew firefighter crews from all over the U.S., anglophone and francophone Canada, Scotland, France, and Australia. I’ll conclude this personal remembrance of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath by sharing nine of the photographs Kyle and I took at the special day last year. I will close by saying I hope your 9/11 anniversary this year, 2012, has been a soothing day. Shalom.
Please click through to read entire post and see all photos  . . . //more//

Herman Graf in 2012, Celebrating 51 Years in the Book Biz (now with a Bob Wietrak 2018 update)

February 6 2018 Update: With the sad passing this week of Bob Wietrak, longtime bookseller and publishing executive—with whom I was a colleague at Macmillan from 1987-1990—I want to point out to friends and readers of this blog that Bob was involved in a harrowing episode at one of our annual book conventions, at an ABA in the 1980s, the one time the trade show was held in Las Vegas. A key figure in the incident was Herman Graf, the longtime publishing pal whose surprise birthday party I wrote about below in 2012. Bob was at that party, too, seen in the background of the photo below.

In a phone call tonight Herman reminded me of some of Bob’s best qualities. Herman told me, “He had an uncanny talent for predicting what books would work big. He also had a knack for making publishers feel generally satisfied about the ordering and marketing decisions that the national book chain made about what books to feature, while also keeping B&N’s upper management satisfied.” Bob was laid off in a big B&N purge in 2011, when 40 people were let go, and went on to later jobs with online book sites Bookish and Zola. (I know about B&N’s corporate purges first-hand as in 2009 I was let go in a twenty-person layoff from Sterling Publishing, B&N’s publishing division, where I worked as Editorial Director, V-P of Union Square Press.) Nearly seven years after the party for Herman, I’m really glad that Bob Wietrak was there that night.


Last night Kyle and I were delighted to join a group of several dozen well-wishers who sprung a surprise party in honor of Herman Graf and his 51 years in publishing. Herman walked in on the hushed throng which had assembled in the living room of Tony Lyons, founder of Skyhorse Publishing, expecting to join Tony for dinner, when in unison we let out with our “Surprise.” More than a bit stunned, Herman said, “It’s not my birthday.” It’s not even my Bar Mitzvah.” We took the photos accompanying this post in the first few minutes after he walked in to find a party had been laid for him.

Herman began his publishing career in 1961, doing stints with McGraw-Hill, Doubleday, Arco Books, and then Grove Press, where he worked in sales and marketing during the indie press’s 60s and 70s heyday. This was the time when Grove was bringing writers like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Mikhail Bulgakov to American readers, even while founder Barney Rosset was frequently in court, accused of distributing “obscene” literature, like D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Herman rode that tiger with Barney, and other key Grove executives, such as Kent Carroll, Fred Jordan and Richard Seaver. That era is covered well in the 2007 documentary “Obscene,” made by Dan O’Connor  and Neil Ortenberg, also old colleagues of Herman’s, and mine.

The ride was so rollicking that in later years Herman liked to say, “I was the Billy Martin of publishing; Barney fired me three times, and rehired me twice.” There was something to this George Steinbrenner-Billy Martin analogy, as Herman, like the brawling, ill-fated Yankee manager, could handle himself in a tight spot, having been a fair boxer when he grew up in the Bronx. Once, at a Las Vegas ABA in the early 80s—the annual convention of the book industry—Herman found himself defending a number of bookseller friends including the genial Barnes & Noble executive Bob Wietrak. Bob and other B&N people found themselves on the wrong side of some ornery Vegas bouncers intent on vacating an after-hours club at an early hour, even though B&N management had secured the room for the night to host a publishing party. These bouncers were attacking the B&N people, slamming them and pushing them. Herman stepped between Bob and the bouncers, and over the next few minutes bulled, brazened, and punched his way out of the club with Bob and others in tow. I know this story is true—I heard about it not only from Herman, but from my late brother Joel, a bookseller—who happened to also be at the venue that night.

In 1978, my sibling and I with our parents began operating our Cleveland indie bookstore chain, Undercover Books, and like many stores of the time, we were glad to have an obscure bestseller land in our laps, A Confederacy of Dunces, the posthumous novel of John Kennedy Toole. The book came with a star-crossed and tragic pedigree–the author had killed himself after failing to get it published, whereupon his grieving mother managed to get it into the hands of Walker Percy. The great southern novelist championed it and convinced editors at the University of Louisiana Press to publish it in hardcover. However, that wasn’t the end of the story. Meantime, Grove Press had acquired rights to publish a paperback edition, but the university press edition, though attracting much critical attention and press, had not really sold a lot of copies in hardcover. Herman, though working for Grove, took it upon himself to sell many thousands of copies of the LSU press edition to national wholesalers, such as Ingram where Cathy Hemming ordered copies. The market was seeded for the paperback edition. When Grove published it some months later it sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and millions since, in part owing to Herman’s work for the hardcover of another publishing house.

Herman told me that story sometime after 2000, the year he hired me to work with him at Carroll & Graf, the company he started in the mid-70s. Last night it was great seeing old C&G colleagues, Peter Skutches, Failey Patrick, Tina Pohlman, Bea Goldberg, and Claiborne Hancock. One of our authors, Stan Cohen was there, and his agent, Peter Sawyer. Agent, Laura Langlie, a friend to C&Gers, was also there. Norton execs Bill Rusin and Dozier Hammond also gave their best wishes in person, as did Bob Wietrak.

The seven years I spent with C&G were among the most productive, fun, and successful years of my publishing career. I learned so much working with Herman and got to hear some of the best–and often the funniest–stories about the business. Together we acquired many terrific books and published them creatively and energetically, including Susan MacDougal’s The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk: Why I Wouldn’t Testify against the Clintons and What I Learned in Jail and Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity, both of which became NY Times bestsellers. The years there finally confirmed me on an editorial path I had begun to hew to by 2000, but had not yet fully embarked on–of publishing truthellers, whistleblowers, muckrakers, authors of such singular witness that only they could write the book in question.

Herman now works with Skyhorse Publishing, for whom a book he acquired, The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved by Jonathan Fenby, got a great review in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. He is not stepping back or slowing down.

Thanks to Tony Lyons and Jennifer McCartney of Skyhorse Publishing, and Claiborne Hancock, who after leaving Carroll&Graf started his own company, Pegasus Books. They did a great job of hosting and organizing the surprise party for our friend and colleague, Herman Graf.

Talking “The Cornbread Mafia” over Breakfast

This morning I met an author whose work I really admire. My breakfast mate was Jim Higdon, author of The Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate’s Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History, which is officially released tomorrow. I’d never met Jim, though I had a role in insuring that his book had a chance to get published. When I read the draft manuscript I wasn’t in a position to publish it myself, but I really enjoyed this gonzo true-crime narrative, and so recommended it to longtime Carroll & Graf colleague and friend, Keith Wallman, now an editor at Lyons Press. It was precisely the sort of book he and I combined to edit and prepare for publication many times, with books like David Pietrusza’s Rothstein: The Life, Times, and and Murder of the Criminal Mastermind Who Fixed the 1919 World Series; Barbara Raymond’s The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption; Alan Bisbort’s “When You Read This, They Will Have Killed Me”: The Life, Redemption, and Execution of Caryl Chessman, Whose Execution Shook America; and Chuck Kinder’s Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Outlaw Honky-Tonk Life, to name only four of many dozen books we published together.

I was pleased when Keith did sign up Jim’s book, and awaited word of publication plans. Turns out, I was to be involved with the book again because Keith asked if I would be willing to receive a galley, and spread some good words about the book. A month ago, I posted my full blurb ** on this site, which reads in part,

Higdon has written a speeding bullet of a book that turns [pot] grower Johnny Boone into one of the most fascinating characters I’ve encountered in years. If Hunter S. Thompson were still with us I believe he’d be praising The Cornbread Mafia and telling his pals to read it.

Despite hearing from the author from time to time over the months since the book was put on a path to publication, Jim and I had never met, so today’s meeting took care of that. He’s a Kentuckian, where his book is set, but the book is not merely a product of his local knowledge. He’s a graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism where he took Samuel Freedman’s demanding course on writing narrative nonfiction books. Cornbread Mafia is deeply reported with dozens of sources, featuring a protagonist who’s a fugitive from federal justice. Jim’s a big guy with a good sense of humor and a keen focus on his work. We talked about the book’s publicity campaign and story ideas that Jim may explore for newspapers and magazines in coming months, and I snapped a photo of him before he headed up to Columbia to see former colleagues. It was fun meeting Jim, a writer I’m proud to have encouraged in his work.

** Worth noting that after I posted my blurb on March 16, I got this comment from reader Kurt Mattingly: “This book is, without a doubt, the most rivetting account of central Kentucky history anyone has ever written. Being a native Marion Countian and growing up just a few miles from Raywick (between St. Mary and Lebanon), almost completely oblivious to the “counter-culture” that was inherent basically all around me, I cannot put this book down.”

Virginia Woolf and Ruth Gruber, Driven to Create as Women

When I last wrote about my longtime author Ruth Gruber—who in May 2011 received the International Center of Photography’s Cornell Capa Award, a few months before turning 100—it was to honor her during Women’s History Month. Now I’m delighted to see that Open Road Integrated Media has picked up another book by Ruth for their ebook program.The latest title, coming after four earlier ebook editions, is Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman. I published the printed book in 2004, when I was editor-in-chief of Carroll & Graf.

The book on Woolf is a remarkable document—the core of it being Ruth’s 1931 dissertation, “Virginia Woolf: A Study.” Her first chapter, “The Poet Versus the Critic” opens with lines that lay down a new marker setting forth the idea of women’s studies in literature decades before the term would have widespread salience:

Virginia Woolf is determined to write as a woman. Through the eyes of her sex, she seeks to penetrate life and describe it.  Her will to explore her femininity is bitterly opposed by the critics, who guard the traditions of men, who dictate to her or denounce her feminine reactions to art and life.

An understanding of how Ruth Gruber, a Brooklyn-born Jewish woman came to be in Germany during the early days of Nazism where she would write and publish the first known feminist interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s work is inseparable from her biography, so for readers of this blog who may be unfamiliar with Ruth’s life and career, here’s a sketch.

Born in 1911 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Ruth was always precocious. She received her B.A. from NYU at age sixteen; an M.A. in German language and literature from the University of Wisconsin at eighteen; and at twenty was offered a fellowship to participate in an exchange program at the University of Cologne. Early in her studies there, she was asked by a professor if she would consider reading the work of Woolf, and embark on a doctoral thesis about her. I’ve imagined that Ruth’s professors must have realized they had this bright female student in their midst, a reader of English and German, and when might they again have such an opportunity, especially with international exchanges precarious? Ruth demurred—she had not yet read Woolf’s work, she could afford to be in Cologne only one year, her parents would not let her stay longer, the work would surely take longer—but soon she said, “I’ll try.” Taping a picture of Woolf above her desk, she began reading all of Woolf’s books published to that point, pondering their meanings and the significance of Woolf’s creative enterprise.

Ruth did complete the work in less than a year, successfully defended her thesis, and was awarded a Ph.D. Upon her return to the U.S. in 1932 the New York Times wrote: ” When the gangplank went down on the St. Louis [the same ship that seven years later would be denied sanctuary at ports in the US and Cuban] an attractive Brooklyn girl of twenty years stepped ashore bearing a coveted degree of Doctor of Philosophy  . . . She is now the youngest Doctor of Philosophy in the world.” This period of her life is documented in two of her nineteen books, both available from Open Road, the Woolf title just added to their list, and Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent,** which is also the title of a recent documentary on Ruth’s life and career up through the years immediately following WWII.

Despite the notoriety of her youthful doctorate, the Depression had begun and Ruth found little work upon her return to the States, so she continued traveling and trying her hand at journalism and photography. In 1935, the thesis was published as a book in Germany by the Tauchnitz Press, which had a list of English-language titles, including Woolf’s The Waves. Ruth sent a copy of the published book to Woolf in London, thus beginning a lengthy correspondence between the two women that culminated in Ruth paying a visit to Woolf at her Bloomsbury home that year.

Ruth was greeted at the parlor door by husband Leonard. The meeting is covered in detail in both of the above books, but suffice it to say that a somewhat awkward conversation followed, with Virginia stretched out on a rug in front of the fireplace. She offered an ambiguous comment about whether she had read the thesis, and denied that she had anything to say on the subject of Ruth’s latest undertaking, a fellowship to make “a study of women under democracy, fascism, and communism.” Though Ruth hadn’t intended to come as a supplicant, that’s how Woolf interpreted her visit. Smoking a cigarette in a long holder, Virginia said, “I don’t know how I can help you. I don’t know a thing about politics. I’ve never worked a day in my life.” Ruth was “startled” that “she did not think publishing ten books, countless essays, and brilliant book reviews was work.”

In 1989, Ruth was startled again when she discovered that Virginia had written about her in her letters and diaries, in disparaging and anti-semitic terms, including in this diary passage: “Must get up and receive Miss Grueber [sic] (to discuss a book on women and fascism–a pure have yer . . .) in ten minutes.” In Eric Partridge’s books on slang, Ruth read that “a pure have yer” referred to a 1) wanton, kept woman; 2) dog dung; 3) a swindle, or deception. Ruth wondered, Is that what Virginia Woolf had thought of me? Ruth pondered this over the years, until in 2005, at the back of an old file cabinet, she discovered the letters she’d received from Woolf, and read them for the first time in decades.

With the discovery of this new material, Ruth and I began to discuss reissuing her thesis, surrounding it with the letters and a new Introduction in which she would grapple once and for all with the meaning of her long-ago encounter with Woolf and its aftermath. Later in 2005, once we’d made digital facsimile reproductions of the letters and other pertinent materials in Ruth’s archive she donated all her Woolf materials to the New York Public Library, whose holdings of Woolfiana surpass any institution in the world. Also in that year Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman was published in the expanded edition we had envisioned. Like the letters, the thesis was reproduced in facsimile, which in this case meant we were able to reprint the gorgeous letter-press typesetting that Tauchnitz had struck for the book in 1935. Carroll & Graf was dissolved in 2006, but for the record the 2005 paperback edition is widely available from second-hand booksellers.

Ruth’s new introduction ran to nearly forty pages. In it, she details a correspondence she’d shared with Nigel Nicolson, son of Virginia’s lover Vita Sackville-West. He wrote, “I fear that you may have been hurt by her references to you, but she was like that in her diary and letters, though perfectly courteous in conversation. It’s one of the things I deplore about Virginia, her cattiness, contempt for almost everyone who were not her friends, an occasional touch of anti-Semitism, her snobbishness and jealousy.” Ruth continues, “In those seventy years since I sat worshipfully in her parlor, I learned more of her violent manic depressions, her wild helpless swings; by turns critical, nasty. . .moving to exquisite warmth and generosity. I learned of her constant fear that she was going insane. . . .” Ruth recalls, “In 1941, when the pain of living had finally become too great for her, she wrote two final loving letters to Leonard before she walked into the river. . . . Those two love letters. . . and her three letters to me, helped me work through my own anger and disillusionment, which now seem trifling in comparison to the agony she endured. They helped restore the admiration I had for her when I was nineteen and just discovering her genius. I realized that she had lived her entire life with a will to create as a woman. That was the most important lesson she taught me. In 2004, I reread my dissertation in the light of that new understanding, underlining paragraphs that mean as much to me now as they did when I wrote them more than seventy years ago.” Then Ruth ended her Introduction by quoting the first paragraph from her thesis that opens “Virginia Woolf is determined to write as a woman,” cited above in the third paragraph of this recollection.

In future writings about Ruth Gruber for this blog, I will chronicle many of her other achievements. For now, let it suffice to say that after 1935 Ruth would continue her worldwide study of women. She would also take photographs everywhere she went—including in Siberia, Alaska, and above the Arctic Circle; in post-WWII Europe, when she would become the foremost chronicler of the thousands of displaced persons (DPs); and in the Middle East, where she would travel with the international committees tasked with resolving the future of Palestine and the fate of the Jews who’d survived the Holocaust—always remembering the inspirational message that her photographic mentor Edward Steichen instilled in her: “Take pictures with your heart.”