Wrapping Up a Week of NY Celebrations & Great Reading

It’s been a celebratory week in NYC and an active one on The Great Gray Bridge, so here is a summary of recent highlights for interested readers who may have missed any of them.

Ruth Gruber & Philip Turner1) Celebrating Photojournalist & Author Ruth Gruber’s 102nd Birthday With Her
2) Word of an Important New Book on Bob Dylan By a ’60s Confidant
3) Celebrating Valerie Plame’s “Blowback”&Recalling Tumultous Events of a Decade Ago
#FridayReads, Oct. 4–Katie Hafner’s Exquisite Memoir “Mother Daughter Me”

Celebrating Photojournalist & Author Ruth Gruber’s 102nd Birthday With Her

LIFE magAs some readers of this blog may know, I’ve had the personal and professional privilege to edit and publish photojournalist and author Ruth Gruber’s books over the years. I’ve done six of her eighteen books. Her first publication was a thesis on Virginia Woolf, written in Cologne, Germany in 1931, while an exchange student there. She was then just 20, a young woman from Brooklyn on the verge of what became an amazing career as a refugee advocate, chronicler of the displaced, humanitarian, and journalist. She met with Woolf in London around 1935, a story she’s told in her book Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman, which I wrote about at this link on The Great Gray Bridge.

In the early 1940s, Ruth was a member of the FDR administration, under Interior Secretary Harold Ickes as his special field representative in Alaska. She is doubtless one of the administration’s eldest surviving staffers. To read Ruth Gruber’s work I recommend any of the six books I worked on, five of which are currently available from Open Road Integrated Media. The titles are Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 WWII Refugees and How They Came to America; Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent (also the title of a documentary on Ruth); Inside of Time: My Journey from Alaska to Israel; Raquela: A Woman of Israel; the Virginia Woolf book named above; and Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation (the only one of these not available from Open Road, it’s currently published by Union Square Press).

There is also this link to a post I wrote when the International Center of Photography (ICP) gave her their lifetime achievement award in 2012. After a stop in Alaska, the ICP’s exhibit of Ruth’s photojournalism is now traveling the country. The picture above, of an Inuit girl reading LIFE Magazine with Ted Williams on the cover, is part of the ICP exhibit. It is one of her most whimsical; by contrast, she also photographed Holocaust survivors in DP camps after WWII. Those pictures are also part of the ICP exhibit. Here are a dozen pictures from a birthday party that my son Ewan and wife Kyle Gallup attended with me yesterday. (Most pictures by Kyle.) You may click here to see all images.

Suzzy Roche’s Sensitive Reading of Edith Wharton

Kyle and I took the bus to Bryant Park yesterday to hear singer, musician and novelist Suzzy Roche* lead a discussion of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth in the Park’s long-running Reading Room series. We arrived just in time to corral two chairs near the front of the outdoor space and settled in as Suzzy was tuning her guitar for what would later be an original song to close the program. Suzzy began by sharing some notes and interesting facts she had learned about Wharton.

She said that 2012 marks the 150th year since Wharton’s birth in to a wealthy family in New York City. The family name was Jones, and some believe their conspicuous upper-class status may be the origin of the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” Early on, Edith’s mother forbade her from reading novels, lest her daughter’s intellect expand in ways that would make it harder to ensure a proper marriage for her. Suzzy reminded everyone how fitting it was to be in Bryant Park with a view of the main branch of the New York Public Library, since the novel we were discussing includes a scene set in the lovely park. From her youthful days, Wharton exhibited a high degree of sensitivity, and Suzzy read a quote she found in Wharton’s autobiography: “The owning of my first dog woke in me the long ache of pity for animals and for all inarticulate beings which nothing has ever stilled.”

Wharton’s first full-length piece of fiction, a novella finished at age 18, was accompanied by several passages of self-criticism where she assessed what she judged to be the weaknesses of her own work. Suzzy quoted this early comment of Wharton’s on the subject of criticism: “After all, one knows one’s weak points so well it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.”

With these details of Wharton’s life in our minds, Suzzy turned the discussion to the novel itself. After reviewing contemporary critical reaction to the book, which often emphasized Wharton’s gender, she asked “Does this book have something to say to us right now about the place of women and money in society? She pointed out that just this year, Jonathan Franzen ignited a controversy when he wrote in the New Yorker about “Edith Wharton’s looks.” Suzzy continued that Franzen wrote “it was hard for him to warm to her novels because she had every advantage of wealth and privilege and was extremely socially conservative. But, he said, ‘she did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty.’  On the surface, there would seem to be no reason for a reader to sympathize with Lilly; she’s profoundly self-involved and incapable of true charity.  She pridefully contrasts other women’s looks with her own. She has no intellectual life to speak of. She’s put off from pursuing her one kindred spirit because of the modesty of his income. She’s basically the worst sort of party girl, and like Wharton, she didn’t even try to be charming.” There was a gasp among the Bryant Park crowd as Suzzy read the remarks of the award-winning novelist, which whether said about Wharton or Lily Bart, struck many of us as chauvinistic. Please click through for rest of post and all photos

The Recorded Voice of Virginia Woolf, 1937

This is an amazing audio recording of Virginia Woolf, as heard on the BBC in 1937, with her speaking about the properties and subtleties of the English language. Thanks are owed to whoever put the pictorial slides together. This was recorded two years after she and Ruth Gruber met in London; Ruth had earlier written her doctoral dissertation on Woolf, the first feminist interpretation of her work, with an essay called “Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman.” I wrote about their relationship in April, with a blog essay called Virginia Woolf and Ruth Gruber, Driven to Create as Women. H/t to Suzanne Marie Queen-komerous for sharing the audio on Facebook.

Ruth Gruber’s Photojournalism at Soho Photography

To mark Jewish American Heritage Month, Open Road Media–which has recently brought out five ebooks by my longtime author Ruth Gruber–has published a celebratory post on the Open Road Blog. In addition, Ruth’s photojournalism, for which she’s received the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award, is on exhibit through June 2 at the gallery Soho Photography on White Street in Tribeca. Among Ruth’s mentors was Edward Steichen, who exhorted her to “Take pictures with your heart.” I recommend you read Ruth’s inspiring books and go see her photographs, including the two accompanying this post. The image above was taken when Ruth was sent to Alaska in 1940 by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, her boss in the FDR administration; the one below was taken aboard the prison ship Runnymede Park, on which the refugees from the Exodus were forcibly sequestered during the summer of 1947, a chronicle that Ruth tells in her book Exodus 1947: The Ship That Launched a Nation, which is illustrated with more than 100 of her photographs. I published it with Ruth in hardcover in 1999, and in trade paperback in 2008. It is still only available in hard copy, and is not yet among the ebooks from Open Road. For the record, the titles available as ebooks are Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 WWII Refugees and How They Came to AmericaInside of Time: My Journey from Alaska to IsraelRaquela: A Woman of Israel; Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman; and Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent (also the title of an excellent documentary covering mostly the first four decades of Ruth’s life). For readers’ handy reference, I’ve previously blogged about Ruth Gruber, here and here.

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.”

My Friend Ruth Gruber, Pioneering Photojournalist

Since 1997, when I began working with my remarkable author Ruth Gruber, I’ve had the privilege of bringing out six of her books in hardcover and trade paperback. Over the past year, it’s been really exciting to see four of those books–Ahead of Time: My Early as a Foreign Correspondent; Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 WWII Refugees and How They Came to America; Inside of Time: My Journey from Alaska to Israel; Raquela: A Woman of Israel–be published as ebook editions by Open Road Integrated Media. Now, in honor of Women’s History Month Open Road is making it very easy for new readers to discover Ruth’s work by placing excerpts from each of those books on its blog.

In addition, to observe Ruth’s 100th birthday last October Open Road posted a brief video of her reflecting on her life and career. That video is pasted in above this blog post. I urge you to watch and listen to Ruth, read the free excerpts, and go on and buy her books. I’d suggest you begin with Ahead of Time, which is also the title of a fine documentary film about Ruth. In addition to the recognition that film has brought her, the International Center of Photography mounted an exhibit of Ruth’s photographs last summer, as the ICP gave her the Cornell Capa Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions as a photojournalist.

I am really excited to spread the joy I’ve taken over the years in working with Ruth and share it with you.