Shakespeare and Co., at 81st and Broadway in Manhattan, is one of those two-story, book-crammed shops that tempts you from all angles, not only with stacks of the new releases but also with artful displays of paperbacks that you might have been able to leave unbought if they'd been more discreetly shelved. A book season or so ago, feminist writer Carolyn G. Heilbrun, a k a Amanda Cross, wandered in with her friend Nancy K. Miller. Miller, who teaches at City University of New York, wanted to see if the store had her latest book, "Getting Personal." After a bit of searching they found it--tucked away upstairs.
Out on the main sales floor, though, Miller notes with a tone of friendly envy, it was hard to miss Heilbrun's work. "Writing a Woman's Life," her provocative and highly regarded 1988 look at women's autobiography and biography, and the "Hamlet's Mother and Other Women" essays, a solid seller from 1990, were arrayed with the new paperbacks. Up front near the cash registers, tempting impulse buyers, was the latest Amanda Cross mystery. But people brushed unawares by Heilbrun, a gray-haired woman unpretentiously clad in slacks and sneakers.
It's a story that is typical of Heilbrun. She's a pioneering mystery writer, not to mention one of the premier translators of academic feminist concepts into language the rest of us can grasp and use. She's influenced a generation of readers and writers with her belief that it's vital to history to have women telling and honestly analyzing the stories of women. Yet she maintains a low profile. In a hot media age and town, she doesn't do sound bites or Op-Ed pieces, though she has plenty of opinions. She writes books, the latest of which will be a biography of Gloria Steinem, and she teaches.
Or at least she did teach--for more than 30 years at Columbia University. She'd long joked that she would stay on until she was 75, her revenge against what she called the sexism at the university and her English department. But when Columbia decided in December not to grant tenure to a woman who shared her approach to teaching modern British literature, it crystallized all the years of frustration. If she and the university weren't embroiled in a fight over tenure, they were sparring over women's salaries or the content of courses.
She decided that it was unfair to students to mislead them, by her continued presence, into thinking that the university is hospitable to her field of scholarship in particular and to women in general. She decided to retire early.
As women take on the camouflage of age--become invisible to men's stares and less dependent on men's esteem--they gain in freedom to do what they want to do and say what they want to say, she has written. She has watched in frustration as too many older women refuse to take risks in order to avoid problems. "To avoid strain. To watch out. Not to let something bad happen. My God, you live that way--you may succeed but you also never have anything good happen, or exciting," says Heilbrun, sitting in the living room of her spacious, high-ceilinged apartment on Central Park West, where she lives with her husband, Jim, an economics professor at Fordham University, and their cat, Toby, named after Uncle Toby in "Tristram Shandy."
In retiring, then, she was taking her own advice.
Heilbrun, her hair done up in a bun ("to avoid spending time in the beauty parlor"), settles on a couch backed by a wall of books--many of them women's biographies. The shelves used to hold many more biographies of men, but now some of "the men have gone to the country" to the Heilbrun's weekend retreat in the Berkshires. Toby curls up serenely, stirring occasionally to check out my tape recorder.
At 66, Heilbrun increasingly says what she wants to say, and she often speaks about the liberating process of aging. Heilbrun had written essays about women whose literary lives began to flourish only when they were older--like Virginia Woolf or Collette. But it was Amanda Cross, her detective-novel alter ego, who first broached some of Heilbrun's theories on growing older.
Kate Fansler, Cross' heroine, is an amateur sleuth who teaches literature at a university in New York not unlike Columbia, and her adventures bear such titles as "Poetic Justice," "Death in a Tenured Position," or, the latest, "The Players Come Again," after a passage from Woolf's "The Waves." Fansler has not aged as much as mortals do since she appeared in 1963, but she has, over time, dealt with some of the issues of age. In 1984's "Sweet Death, Kind Death," Fansler uncovered a plot that centered on academic jealousy over theories of middle age.
The book is rife with references to women in middle age; the murder victim begins "to see that many women's lives particularly were lived by another pattern beginning again just when it was all supposed to end." The novel's ideas so piqued the interest of a psychologist who read it on an airplane flight that she invited Heilbrun to address the section on aging at a conference of the American Psychological Assn. That fueled Heilbrun's exploration of the question, which had begun when she was at the Radcliffe Institute on a Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellowship.
"I discovered, to my amazement, what a really happy time it was, and how happy I was," she says. That's not to say, however that the changes brought by aging have not, at times, been disconcerting. In a talk at USC last year, she recounted an experience at Columbia's annual fall English department cocktail party some time back. As she stood among the new, young faculty members, no one paid any attention to her. They looked upon her, she said, as though she were the woman who set up the room for the party and then didn't know when to leave. Then, she said with a smile that showed she was still savoring the memory, she put on her name tag: Professor Carolyn Heilbrun. And, my, didn't the attention level change. She had been invisible until she showed she had power--power based on her achievements.
Initially, such treatment was frustrating but she came to realize that women "have to learn how to behave when they are over 50." This is part of "getting used to being invisible. If you establish yourself as someone, if you have accomplished something, you can use it. I see it as a sort of magic forest you have to pass through."
This time of life when women are no longer valued for their youthfulness or their appeal to men deserves to be celebrated, Heilbrun believes. At a gathering of Smith College alumnae two years ago, Heilbrun talked about developing "a new rite of passage, perhaps even an initiation for women, into what can be, I'm convinced, the best part of a female life, something worth looking forward to from the passions, the dizzy joys, the careless raptures, the unceasing demands upon us when we are young."
The only comparable ceremony, she said, was the swearing in of a federal judge. "She has ascended to a new position, a new rank, a new chance for effectiveness, and she can remain there until she dies or choose to turn her mind to something else," she told her Smith audience. "No one asks where the male gaze would place her on a scale of one to 10. . . . Her value is not determined by whether she turns men on, whether their eyes light up on beholding how she looks. Their eyes light up when they recognize the person she is."
At a certain age, Heilbrun has found, "there is no longer time for meaningless conversations, for social events where time merely passes, where obligations no longer important are merely fulfilled. One leaves one's space to take part in something that, if ever so slightly, changes the world."
Heilbrun has worked hard to change the world she found at Columbia, so perhaps it was inevitable that she would find, when faced with yet another battle, she no longer had the patience to fight it. She remembers, for example, that when she was in graduate school at Columbia, Virginia Woolf was considered awful and not taught. Now Woolf's work is front and center, and Heilbrun is one of the professors who helped put her there.
Woolfe clearly influences not only what Heilbrun teaches but also how she approaches life. While many other British writers looked backward longingly, Heilbrun explains, Woolf looked forward to another time. Woolf's writing has become part of the re-examination of literature that so absorbs women and men today.
Feminist theory is not, Heilbrun emphasizes, just about interpreting the work of women to women. The feminist approach is restructuring how literature is examined. It shows, for example, that the great male modernists--Joseph Conrad and James Joyce among them--were writing "in a very gendered way," says Heilbrun, adding that they clearly were upset by the voices of women, not only as writers but also as people demanding the vote and other changes in society.
Unlike some of her colleagues in the field, she was never reluctant to talk feminism at academic meetings. In a formal address at Columbia in 1986, for example, she disputed the male definition of the "life of the mind," a term used often in academia about the opportunity to study and contemplate themes of life and literature. Men have held that their view of life is the objective standard, Heilbrun said. Women "particularly have a great deal to contribute to the life of the mind in the university, but . . . they have been prevented from doing so because much of what passes for the life of the mind is, in fact, no more than the politics of mind. The life of the mind is a synonym for what is referred to as the universal--treated, revered, accepted as though it had been engraved somewhere as eternal and unchanging truth," but is in fact whatever the group in charge says it is.
In academia, those are fighting words. "That's what this whole fight, even today, is about--this PC business," Heilbrun says. "Political correctness," as in supposedly kowtowing to women and minorities in everything from curriculum to promotions, is in fact "the white male claim that they were objective and everybody else has an ideology," she adds. "Of course, they had an ideology--it was the one we all accepted. It was literature."
Conservative scholars keep saying "that the feminists, blacks, Marxists--whatever--have taken over. I wish they would point out to me one department" where that has happened, Heilbrun says. Columbia, she adds, "will fight for prominent women with other places, pay a lot to bring them in, but to get the assistant professors tenured is harder, and it's easier if they are not outspokenly feminist."
For some years, Heilbrun has been urging women to use "our security, our seniority to take risks, to make noise, to be courageous, to become unpopular" and supporting them in their attempts to do so. At a corner table in the graduate students' lounge in Columbia's cavernous Philosophy Hall during the afternoon tea hour, Susan Heath, 52, recalled her first meeting with the professor for whom she is now a graduate assistant. Thirty-nine years old when she first read "Reinventing Womanhood," Heilbrun's groundbreaking examination of women's changing roles, Heath was teaching at a girls' school in New York. She had no college degree, but decided she wanted to work with Heilbrun. The headmistress knew the professor--"that was like saying to me, 'I know Virginia Woolf,' " Heath recalls in a crisp British accent.
"It was extremely difficult for me to come here--I hadn't written a formal essay since I was 18," Heath said. "She never went over the professional line, but she has understood the problems of being a woman raising a family and getting an education on the margins."
Nancy Miller, too, remembers benefiting from Heilbrun's outspoken support. When Miller was up for a tenured position at Barnard College before she moved to CUNY, "there was resistance to taking feminist scholarship seriously," she says, arranging a vase of fresh flowers and brewing tea in her West Side apartment. "Carolyn testified on my behalf and because she was already so well known, they took her seriously." Miller got the position.
With Joan Ferrante, a former chair of the Columbia English department, Heilbrun fought a losing battle this winter with the university administration after a department committee declined to vote tenure for Susan Winnett, who taught modern comparative literature. A young man whom they feel was not as good as Winnett got tenure at the same time, prompting Ferrante to say, "Everything was done to make him look wonderful and no such care was taken with her. The normal reservations that any serious person would have about anyone" were overlooked in his case and magnified in hers. With Winnett's departure, Heilbrun says she was left without a second person in her field who not only could read with insight the master's degree essays and doctoral dissertations but also raise the new questions that need to be raised about Joyce, Conrad and the rest. In addition, she said, the department badly needs more people "willing to welcome another point of view."
Heilbrun will continue to work with the six doctoral students completing their dissertations under her guidance, but she won't be teaching about Joyce or Woolf anymore or lecturing on women's biographies. "I had no idea of retiring," she said. But after the tenure fight, after an unsuccessful appeal to the university administration and after an examination of the family finances, Heilbrun decided, in essence, to call it quits.
Ferrante believes that Heilbrun's departure will create an "enormous" void. Many of the department's graduate students are women who are interested in feminist theory, as are many of the bright young men because, Ferrante says, it is currently the most powerful force--"and I think one of the most enduring,"--in academia. Without Heilbrun, she adds, many of the brighter students are not going to come to Columbia or are not going to stay.
David Kastan, chairman of Columbia's English and comparative literature department, said that losing anyone of Heilbrun's stature hurts, "but I don't want to leave the impression that her early retirement leaves the department without a major feminist commitment." Kastan declined to discuss publicly any tenure cases because they are confidential. While he thinks that Heilbrun is demonstrably wrong about the department and the university's hostility to feminism, he said that he didn't want to deny that over the years she has had a "legitimate and earned frustration." Today's Columbia English department, he said, is very different from the one to which she came. "I think she underestimates her own impact."
Heilbrun the biographer talks freely about herself, though she is reluctant to write about her three grown children--Emily, a lawyer who lives in Eugene, Ore., and is director of Shanti, an AIDS support group, and the twins, Margaret, the DeWitt Wallace manuscript curator at the New-York Historical Society, and Robert, a criminal defense attorney with the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan. All are in their mid-30s. It's not for lack of love--she's obviously close to them--but she says they do, after all, have their own lives to lead. She's more apt to discuss her parents, now both dead.
Her mother would have loved to have been a nurse, Heilbrun says, "wanted desperately to work, was accepted for training as a nurse, but "whose mother wept that she would be ruined" for marriage by working.
Heilbrun, born Carolyn Gold in East Orange, N.J., on Jan. 13, 1926, was an only child. Her mother had few responsibilities; "the less she had to do, the less she did. . . . Even now, I cannot think of the emptiness and futility of my mother's life without pain." Out of that futility came strong, explicit messages from mother to daughter. "She said to me over and over again, 'Don't make the mistake I did. Have your own life. Earn your own money.' "
Her mother was a reader, picking up Virginia Woolf very early, fascinated by Gertrude Stein. Young Carolyn was a reader, too, and after her family moved to Manhattan when she was 5, the child spent hours at the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library on Amsterdam, not far from where she lives now. "There was, of course, no television. And I wasn't encouraged to listen to the radio, so my life was spent reading. Also, I was very active as a child. I roller-skated everywhere I went, and I went everywhere and I went alone from a very early age."
She still loves to walk, but she's doesn't feel driven to exercise, like some fitness fanatics. She makes it emphatically clear that she's decided that she would not "jog around in little silk pants"--even, as she says, if she looked good in little silk pants--just to stay slim. "Look, I made a decision that in order to stay thin after the age of 55, you literally can never eat again. I mean, you have to eat a teeny bit every day. So I say, the hell with that. I'm not thin any more.
"That doesn't mean that I don't feel sometimes that I don't look right, that I'm not still struggling with this. It's the price. It's never easy. I don't mean to say that anything we do is easy, but not being easy is the most important part."
This is the way a conversation with Heilbrun goes. One topic suggests another; it's an elliptical chat, sometimes without transitions, but it always comes back to the point, in this case, her upbringing. Her mother "was often unhappy and disturbed." Her father, an accountant and business consultant, "was the total supporter of my life." Born in Russia, he came to the United States as a child. America gave him a chance, Heilbrun says, and he "bought the American dream" so thoroughly that father and daughter split ideologically late in his life, though they never ceased to be fond of each other. His daughter simply had more questions about American society than he would ever have raised.
Despite her mother's admonitions, Heilbrun married at 19. It was February, 1945--World War II--and Jim, who had just completed Harvard in two years, was an ensign in the Navy based in Boston. She admits trying for years to keep secret the fact that she had married early "because I didn't want young women to imitate me."
Heilbrun graduated from Wellesley College in 1947, then received a master's degree in 1951 and a Ph.D. in 1959 from Columbia. She describes herself in those days as "an absolutely besotted Anglophile," loving the way the English wrote and indeed everything about the country. "It took a long while to wake up to how really moribund that society was."
What, I asked her, pushed her into feminism?
From childhood on, "I never liked the life of women set out for them," she says. "And against enormous odds in the 1950s, I didn't live it." In the 1960s, she read Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," and "the book certainly spoke to me"--as had Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" a decade earlier.
But, more than books, it was the 1960s that liberated her. "Something happened then--and I know this happened to many of my friends, most of whom are men my age. Something happened." Students used to talk with her about all the dangerous activities of the government, especially the Central Intelligence Agency. "And I said, 'That's silly. You're listening to a lot of leftists.' And they . . . were . . . right," she says slowly, emphasizing each word.
Then the women's movement flowered, and Heilbrun says she discovered who she was. All these ideas about the way she had been living, the thoughts she had been thinking, even the work she had been doing, had a name: feminism. "There was so much discovering occurring, so much strength developing, and it was glorious."
Heilbrun now not only had a focus for her personal ideas, she had a core around which her work in literature could coalesce. In 1957, she had written an essay for "Shakespeare Quarterly" challenging traditional scholars' attitudes toward Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude. " . . . Gertrude, if she is lustful, is also intelligent, penetrating, and gifted with a remarkable talent for concise and pithy speech," Heilbrun concluded. But in the 1960s and early 1970s, she was publishing books and essays on other subjects--"wandering in the wilderness" she says, a "feminist waiting for a cause to join."
Starting in 1963, she was also writing detective fiction. Heilbrun remains convinced that it would have been "goodby Charley"--no tenure--had her colleagues known then what she was doing. She started the mysteries for "psychic space," she said in an essay--that is, "more space, less interruption, more possibility of adventure and the companionship of wise women through these adventures, greater risk and more fearless affronting of destiny than seemed possible in the 1950s and 1960s."
One destiny that Heilbrun decided not to affront, to put it in her words, was a life in Hollywood for Kate Fansler. Actress Dixie Carter of television's "Designing Women" was interested in the detective--not in Heilbrun's plots, as Carter's agent was frank to admit. But Heilbrun had misgivings about the way television and the movies make characters over to fit their own images. Fansler might not survive intact in front of cameras; her charm is not so much how she tracks down killers, but in the literate (but not snobby) observations she drops along the way.
Heilbrun liked Carter when the two met, but then through an article in TV Guide, of all places, she discovered that Carter was uncomfortable with some of the liberal-sounding outbursts she delivers so convincingly on TV. That did it: Feminist Heilbrun decided that Kate was well off where she had always been--in the pages of a book.
Heilbrun is regularly invited to speak about feminist issues, and tries to persuade women to take more risks. Even before leaving Columbia, she had decided to take one of those risks herself by agreeing to write a biography of Gloria Steinem, one of the stars of modern feminism. Heilbrun says that would never have occurred to her in a million years, but Steinem asked her to do it.
Steinem had read "Writing a Woman's Life," Heilbrun's slender volume examining the way women's stories had been told in books. To Heilbrun, too often those stories reflected male ideas of what should be important to women, and her book argued that those tales can and should embrace women's independence and ambition.
The two had never met, Steinem said in a telephone conversation from a phone at LAX while en route to vacation in Mexico. With flight announcements as background noise, Steinem said she had greatly admired Heilbrun and "had quoted her, as so many had." The fact that some other writers had made noises about doing a biography convinced Steinem that "either you cooperate with somebody you respect or somebody else will do it." Steinem has no say over the final product.
Heilbrun has long been a reader of biographies, but until recently they were mostly about men's lives. Now, sitting in her living room, two women working on biographies of women (plus a cat alternately pretending we're not there, then cozying up), we discuss what difference it makes that more women now write women's lives. "We have to a great extent stopped internalizing the (patriarchy's) idea of what women's lives should be," Heilbrun says. "Women biographers have stopped feeling anxiety in the face of their subjects' ambition. They no longer hide the suffering that they once might have avoided because they feared showing a flawed or frail person."
Women biographers tend to look for breakthrough incidents that prodded their subjects to change their lives. "We look for bravery. We look for self-esteem . . . . Some of us can face the fact that biographies of a woman not having children, not wanting children, does not mean that somehow her life has collapsed in a great sad but damp heap. We look at marriage differently. Just very simply, if women work, they are much readier to leave marriages that don't work."
After one visit with Heilbrun, I attended what has now turned out to be one of her last Columbia graduate seminars on writing biography. The class, meeting in an odd little low-ceilinged seminar room, offered a chance to see Heilbrun the teacher at work. The students were critiquing their works-in-progress. The seven women and one man settled at the table amid stacks of photocopied papers, backpacks, briefcases, raincoats and umbrellas. Heilbrun sat at one end of the table, graduate assistant Heath at the other.
Heilbrun let the students do most of the talking, but it was clear that she was establishing guideposts for biographers, herself included, as the afternoon moved along. Know more than you write, she said; even what you don't use informs what you do use. Context is essential, she added, for without it how can readers understand the forces at work on your subject? Allow your own voice to enter the story. You are the authority on your subject's life; you can state your view.
Near the end of the class, she told the students that one of the main guidelines for writing any book was to weigh all the advice received from well-meaning friends, but to remember that you can use as much or as little as you yourself want. Take what fits; discard the rest. It's your biography.
That's Carolyn Heilbrun--instructing us how to use what we've got. Telling us to celebrate ourselves, no matter our age. Take what fits; discard the rest. Move on when you must. It's your life.