A Life in Letters: From the New Republic to Iowa to Knopf…
97-Year-Old Doris Grumbach Looks Back on a Literary Life
“I hear it as it was now and as it is then.”
–Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
In the final years of my life, I acquired a new relative, a great-grandson named Zachary who (to my horror at this number) was 90 years younger than I. At age five, after numerous visits to the Museum of Natural History in New York, very often to the dinosaur displays, he announced that its reconstruction of the prehistoric beasts was incorrect. How could anyone know exactly how dinosaurs looked when none of their skins existed? he asked. Therefore, he concluded, “these dinosaurs are actually only an estimate.”
Now, finally, when I want to put down, at 97, a few bits of my past, what I think I remember from my long life, Zachary’s word is useful. I cannot take trips, or read or hear very much, so I find myself traveling round my head, uncovering small pieces of autobiography, like someone clearing out an attic. What I recall is probably inaccurate, corrupted by multiple tellings, by fictional revisions, and by the failures of an aged memory. The bare skeleton of what remains may be true, and certainly told or written about before, but the skin is missing, and what appears here is nothing but an estimate.
One of the difficulties in narration is the absence of available vocabulary. This is a loss that afflicts the very old. Joseph Conrad said that “words… are the great foes of reality.” So what I will tell is inexact because it is couched in the diminished, approximate language that remains to me.
When I went to college in 1935, the school was called Washington Square College, a branch of New York University in Manhattan. The campus consisted of fewer than eight buildings mostly on the east side of Washington Square in Greenwich Village. (Its uptown branch in the Bronx was called The Heights and was thought to be intellectually superior to “downtown” because it admitted only male students.) A small art gallery occupied part of the ground floor of the ordinary-looking building called Main, which also housed all the administrative offices, classrooms, an auditorium, the library, a small cafeteria, and a lunchroom. Around the corner was the Brown Building, where I had classes in philosophy with Sidney Hook. (It was, I later learned, the same building from which dozens of young immigrant women leaped to their death in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.)
All of my fellow students were commuters; there were no dormitories. They came by subway, bus, and train from as far away as Brooklyn, Hackensack, the Bronx, and Westchester. My best friend rode every day, two hours each way, taking two trains during her commute from Coney Island.
Our campus was Washington Square. We sat on its east railing and talked endlessly of Kafka, Camus, Proust, and Thomas Mann, to whom we were introduced by a brilliant Marxist professor, Edwin Berry Burgum. We debated the imminent war in Europe and vowed (when we took the Oxford Pledge) not to participate in it. In 1939 a friend, fearing he would be drafted, I believe, went up to the roof of the School of Commerce, climbed over the rampart, and fell to his death. I saw him when he landed. It was the afternoon of our last day of senior year.
Some of us tended to be leftists, members of the American Student Union, sympathetic to the little group of communists we argued with about Marx and Lenin and Engels. We marched on May Day and sang “The Internationale” with platoons of fierce union workers. We picketed the Jumble Shop, an upscale restaurant on nearby Eighth Street, when we discovered it would not hire or serve blacks. I sold copies of the Catholic Worker for Dorothy Day in Union Square. It sold for a penny a copy in 1937, and still does. Why do I think back with such nostalgic pleasure and pride to those radical years and to that small college, then considered third-rate, a shabby campus of drab, unmatched buildings? Perhaps because it stood amid a colorful, stimulating neighborhood of bohemian artists, writers, actors, same-sex couples, and booksellers. (Ted Wilentz let us browse the rich shelves of his Eighth Street Bookshop.) Perhaps because of the friends I made there who shared small apartments and lived in rented rooms in private houses and who camped out in tenement buildings and seedy hotels, places to which I was sometimes privileged to be invited. Perhaps because I was lucky enough to be taught by that small but distinguished faculty and to make some friends among a hardworking, proletarian student body. Perhaps because once, when I was studying in Washington Square for my finals, I made the acquaintance of a handsome madam who invited me to her sumptuous quarters just south of the square, an invitation I sometimes regret having declined.Why do I think back with such nostalgic pleasure and pride to those radical years and to that small college, then considered third-rate, a shabby campus?
Now I find myself reviewing that magical past because of what has become of New York University. It has spread and grown and prospered mightily. Academically it is now rated among the first-class universities in the country. It has more than 50,000 students, 4,500 faculty members, 300 laboratories, and 60 buildings—20 of them constructed since 1970—extending as far as six blocks on every side of the square.
All this has occurred to the dismay of the residents of Greenwich Village. Many small, elegant townhouses, old apartment houses, and low-story stores, restaurants, and hotels have been replaced by new high-rise classroom and dormitory buildings, housing both students and faculty. The picturesque and human-scaled village is slowly disappearing under the footprint and height of skyscrapers. The village has become an academic city, and the university is still seeking building sites to the north, near Union Square. To me, the greatest indignity occurred when Lüchow’s, the much-esteemed German restaurant on 14th Street, was razed to make way for a high-rise dormitory.
It is an uncontrolled epidemic. I read in the Times last year that the university has now spread not only to Shanghai but also to Abu Dhabi, where it has built a campus with the labor of migrant workers. The university has become an academic construction tsunami. To paraphrase Vonnegut, so it goes on.
* * * *
I got my first job out of graduate school by nepotistical means. My uncle was Arthur Loew, son of the famous theater-building Marcus Loew. Arthur was the head of the foreign division of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, so he managed to slip me into the small department where the captions of the spoken soundtrack were made and then translated into French and German.
I was totally inept at reducing the spoken words to single sentences that fit in one camera shot. My boss, who was not happy at my arrival as a relative, was waiting for my first major slip. It came six months after I started. I was using a machine called a tachistoscope on a reel of Red Dust, a steamy film in which Jean Harlow bathed almost nude in a barrel. Clark Gable gazed happily down at the wet Harlow and spoke some complimentary words, every one of which I recorded in the caption.
It was a grave error. When the caption appeared (in Spanish now) on screen, it completely obliterated the view of Harlow’s lovely bosom. One Spanish audience reportedly howled at this wall of text. My department was reprimanded, the scene was retitled, I was identified as the culprit, and soon after, whether for this reason or some other, my connection to MGM was severed.
* * * *
A short time later, I heard about a job as a proofreader at Mademoiselle. My graduate degree in English convinced the editor, Betsy Talbot Blackwell, that I suited the lowly position. For less than a year, I worked under a scrupulous middle-aged chap, an accomplished proofreader who was kind to me and covered for my overlooked errors. It may have been he who suggested to Mrs. Blackwell (a most fashionable Tuxedo Park socialite) that I might be more suited to writing captions for photographs than to the demanding correction of typographical slips.
One day, the literary editor, George Davis, asked me if I would take a friend of his out to lunch because he had an editorial meeting. Always grateful for a free meal, I agreed. But to my dismay, I discovered his friend was the famous ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee.
We went to Stouffer’s on 57th Street, every Westchester County matron’s favorite restaurant before a matinee. Gypsy, swathed in black satin and a matching hat with a feather, was at least a foot taller than I, in my Peck & Peck tweed jacket, skirt, and penny loafers. I tried to get the hostess to seat us in the back of the vast dining room, but she chose a table in the center. We seemed to be the focus of attention.
We talked about language, for some reason. I said that at the nearby coffee shop an order of toasted English muffins was called “burn the British.” Then, in her customary projecting voice, Gypsy told me about a practice they used backstage. “Before the girls go on, they dip their breasts in ice water to make them firmly protrude,” she said.
“It’s known as ‘icing the Bordens.’” Stunned silence reigned in Stouffer’s.
At Mademoiselle, I found myself (me, who never wore bras, garter belts, or girdles) writing copy that accompanied undergarment photographs. I did this for a while and, as I remember, got bored. Once, I became playful and avoided the usual clichés. I wrote:
“This girdle will make you look positively uncanny.”
My attempted witticism did not slip by the editor’s sharp eye. I never knew whether it had anything to do with the fact that, very soon after, I found myself downstairs at a little table in Stouffer’s, disconsolately sipping coffee and reading the want ads in the Times.
* * * *
After the war, and marriage and young children, I decided to try my hand at teaching. My first appointment was at an august girls school in Albany, New York. I was hired by the headmistress, Miss Harris, a very proper spinster who believed in coaching the girls in such social proprieties as the wearing of white gloves while pouring tea at alumnae and parents gatherings, and curtseying to one’s elders.
My oldest daughter had been awarded a scholarship to the academy. In return for full-time teaching and a modicum of pay, my three other daughters were accepted as students and provided with secondhand uniforms.
I was to teach senior high school English to 15 handsome, athletic girls, all well mannered and very patient with me. It must have been apparent from the start that I had no idea what I was doing. I had never taken a teaching course, nor was I qualified under New York state law to teach. Miss Harris must have considered my graduate thesis on Chaucer sufficient qualification.
Because I had recently reread Hawthorne, I decided to assign The Scarlet Letter for reading, discussion, and a weekly theme. Miss Harris had informed me that, in preparation for the state Regents Examination, everyone in public schools was reading The Mill on the Floss. But these girls did not have to take Regents—usually they were admitted to Seven Sisters colleges without them. Since I disliked the novels of Eliot (with the exception of Middlemarch), I happily ignored The Mill on the Floss.
For two weeks we discussed the novel’s characters, the religious culture of the Puritan settlement, and Hawthorne’s beautiful prose. On the last day the class was to discuss the book, Miss Harris slipped into the room and sat down quietly in the back. When Hope finished reading her short essay “The Price of Adultery” and had returned to her seat, the class rose as one, turning first to me and then to Miss Harris. They opened their uniform jackets and revealed, emblazoned on their bosoms, large, red capital-letter As.
I grew very fond of those girls. I once told them that one of my daughters had reported to me that her teacher had called her a scurvy elephant. Indignantly I had asked the teacher why she did that. “Oh, no. I said she was sometimes a disturbing element,” she said apologetically. My seniors immediately formed a little club, naming themselves the Scurvy Elephants.
In June the girls graduated, wearing beautiful long white dresses and carrying bouquets of white carnations. I sat with the faculty wearing the customary black cap and gown and carefully avoided Miss Harris’s eye as the Scurvy Elephants rose to receive their diplomas with elegant, white-gloved hands.
* * * *
Almost 60 years ago, I taught a world literature course at a Catholic women’s college in the same upstate city. I was the only layperson in the English department staffed by six well-educated, black-habited nuns.
The chairman of the department was Sister Rose Bernard, a handsome, middle-aged, rigid-minded nun. I taught an evening course, and Sister Rose insisted that I use the same Norton text that she used in her daytime section. Furthermore, I had to adhere to her curriculum, lecturing on the same subject and on the same page of the text as she. Why this had to be I never understood, but wanting the job, I did as I was told.
Sister Rose never approved of me, but the registrar, Sister Joseph Clare, a gentle, methodical woman who worked all day and well into the evening, became almost a friend. One evening after my class, I stopped in her office to say goodnight and found her at her desk, her hands covering her ears. The noise from the office next door was terrible. Workers were installing the college’s first computer, a machine that would occupy the entire room. We talked through the hammering when a young woman came in and asked Sister Joseph if she might have a transcript of her record; she was applying for a graduate course in teaching at the nearby state university.
“Of course,” Sister said, “I remember you. Class of ’55, I believe. Mary McConnell, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Sister,” said the young woman, looking stunned by this instant identification. (She told me she had graduated seven years before.) Sister Joseph walked to a wall of drawers, extracted a file, and returned to her desk, where she copied, in her fine, minuscule penmanship, four years of courses and grades, signed the transcript, stamped it with the college’s seal, and handed it to Mary McConnell.
The young woman offered to pay, but Sister Joseph waved her off, said goodnight, and wished her luck in the new course. The construction noise continued, and as I left, Sister Joseph was still covering her ears.
On the way to my car in the dark I decided, as I have written and thought many times since: IBM ought to discontinue making computers and instead manufacture nuns.
I took a leave of absence from the College of Saint Rose and in the early 1970s, my partner and her children and I moved to Washington, DC. There, by a miraculous stroke of good luck, I became the literary editor of The New Republic. When in 2014, the media were full of news about the sale yet again of the eminent magazine, I thought back on my lovely two years there. Founded in 1914, The New Republic had a distinguished history, with Edmund Wilson and Walter Lippmann on its board, and a long line of accomplished writers and critics contributing to its pages.
* * * *
Forty-two years ago the little building on 19th Street Northwest was, for me at least, a virtual Camelot. Gilbert Harrison, the magazine’s owner and old-fashioned editor, was a gentlemanly, thoughtful, considerate, competent man who held weekly Friday meetings with his small staff in a jammed office. Walter Pincus, Stanley Karnow, other editors, and I planned the next issue with the production staff. I remember those meetings as civil, well thought out, and brief. (I never encountered the absent columnist who published under the name TRB and who, I was told, slipped his copy under the door at night.) Then we all walked a block to La Provençale for a traditional lunch of bouillabaisse.
This ideal journalistic existence ended abruptly. Harrison sold the magazine to Martin Peretz, a diminutive, long-bearded, long-haired, wealthy Harvard lecturer with an obsession with the State of Israel. He promised Harrison three years of editorship but fired him shortly after Harrison refused to publish Peretz’s articles. In one day Harrison cleaned out his desk and left the premises. Soon after, Karnow resigned to join the Carnegie Institution, and Pincus left to go to The Washington Post.Forty-two years ago the little building on 19th Street Northwest was, for me at least, a virtual Camelot.
My departure came about when Peretz phoned me from his office upstairs and demanded that I have two books on Israel reviewed in the next issue. One of them was to be sent to his friend Irving Howe. I protested and hung up. He came down to my office, red-faced, furious, shouting at me, pounding his fist on my desk. Whether I quit or he fired me at that moment I cannot remember.
I do remember thinking that Rumpelstiltskin had managed to stamp out Camelot.
The following year, and for five years after that, I taught English at American University in Washington. It was a congenial, undemanding place to work, with a few classes or seminars a week, and a faculty of intelligent, amiable peers. But from the beginning there were, for me, far too many department meetings. We were constantly, it seemed to me, coming together to debate trivial procedural matters. Everyone felt compelled to speak; everyone had an opinion on every subject, differing only in their choice of words. The interminable discussions always ended with the same words:
“It’s only a matter of semantics.”
In June of my sixth year on the faculty I heard that sentence for the last time. I got up, packed my books and my Hogarth print, left a resignation letter on the chairman’s desk, called the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, and drove home.
* * * *
I should add here that three times during those years, I took a leave of absence to spend a semester in Iowa City at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The 15 graduate students whose work I read were accomplished writers; a few of them had already been published. All I had to do, I realized, was to hold their coats while they went at it.
The custom in the Workshop was to submit a short story to everyone in the class, note their criticisms and comments, and then resubmit the rewritten story later in the semester. I came away from those three sessions with a great respect for the collaborative way the Workshop operated, and with one favorite and perhaps apocryphal story. Paul Engle, the director of the Workshop, told me that Flannery O’Connor shyly submitted her first story and sat behind the class circle, taking down all the criticisms that were offered. When that story, “The Geranium,” was resubmitted, it was exactly in its original form. Not a word had been changed. It appears as the first story in her famous collection, The Complete Stories.
* * * *
Remember when, years ago, the waiter in an upscale restaurant would come to the table between courses and clear the cloth with a little plate and brush? Now I am doing this between memories, and the crumb I find there concerns a book I never wrote.
I had signed a contract with Aaron Asher at Harper to write a biography of Willa Cather, a writer whose novels I had admired for years. I had boxes full of notes and once researched the enormous volumes at the British Museum for reviews of her English editions. (I found very little there, but I did bring home a souvenir from the ladies’ room. Each square of toilet paper was stamped “Government Property.”)
Two years into the project, however, I gave it up. Like Lawrance Thompson during his three-volume authorized life of Robert Frost, and Margot Peters in her biography of May Sarton, I began to dislike my subject. I had many reasons, but my decision to return the advance and resign the enterprise may have been hastened by the publication of the excellent biography of Cather by Hermione Lee, who clearly had a more balanced view of the subject.
I like to think my decision may have come to a head the day I visited Cather’s longtime, retired publisher, Alfred Knopf, at his country house in Purchase, New York. When I remarked that he seemed always ready to do everything his star writer wanted done, he agreed, hesitantly, and then showed me a file of letters that contained one from her. In it, she complained about the planned copy for the jacket blurb of her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Clipped to the letter was the text she preferred, typed with her customary purple ribbon.
She wrote that the theme was “moving and dramatic; and it is treated with the sensitiveness and imagination of a master.” She ended with this: “Here again is the calm dignity of her beautiful style—matchless among those of writers of today.”
I quoted this piece of autobiography in a piece 15 years ago. Now I see that it has stuck, indelible and unforgettable, in my dusty attic. I wrote 13 books; this unwritten one about the “master” was swept away with the crumbs.
How much of all these remains is fact or merely estimate? William Kennedy’s hero in Ironweed, Francis Phelan, tells his pal Rudy, “Every stinkin’ damn thing you can think of is true.” And, in the words of Gabriel García Márquez, “It was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true.”
Feature image: detail from 1944 Mademoiselle cover.