When Anne Martindell was 18, her father made her quit college for fear she would become too educated to find a husband.
Now, at 86, the former U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and New Jersey state senator is back at Smith College, completing the degree that was interrupted nearly seven decades ago.
“I believe in finishing what you start,” the most senior member of Smith’s junior class says with just a hint of a grin.
Then she speaks more quietly about a lack of perspective, a void, that a lifetime of voracious reading--and an instinctive touch with people--could not completely fill.
“I did a lot of things, but I was always learning on the job,” she said. “I didn’t do badly, because I was good at picking my staff and asking their advice.”
Still, Martindell said she had to lean on her staff more than she would have liked, because she didn’t have the benefit of the theoretical experience they gained in college.
“Even now, one of the criticisms my professors have is that I don’t analyze enough,” she said. “And it’s probably true. All my life, I’ve always relied on my instincts. Many politicians do.”
It was a very different time in the fall of 1932, when the 17-year-old girl arrived at Smith in a chauffeur-driven car with her trunks packed by a French maid.
Her father, a federal judge in New Jersey, had been reluctant from the beginning. But her mother, another self-educated woman and voracious reader, had persuaded him to let her try the women’s college.
“When I came home for vacation I was so excited. I told him I planned to major in government and then go to law school,” she said. “I thought he would be pleased. After all, he was a judge.”
He was appalled.
“He said: ‘No one will ever marry her. She will become overeducated, too serious,’ ” Martindell recalled. And despite her tears, she was forced to withdraw after her freshman year and trade her books for debutante parties.
At 19 she married the first of her two husbands, a stockbroker, with whom she had three children. She had a fourth child with her second husband, the late Jackson Martindell, publisher of “Who’s Who.”
Now it’s decades later, and Martindell, a great-grandmother in neat wool slacks and jacket who never had a paid job until she was 50, is pulling her desk into a circle with a dozen young Smith students in jeans for a class on the environment in American politics.
Her younger classmates have welcomed her. “It’s so cool what she’s doing,” said student Katherine McMullin.
The day’s subject was Henry David Thoreau. Had anyone read anything by Thoreau before the assignment on “Walden,” the professor asked. Martindell’s hand shot up.
She had read his essay “Civil Disobedience.” It was, she explained, “when I was into civil disobedience.”
The 1968 Democratic Convention, and seeing her 17-year-old son and his friends chased by Chicago police, propelled Martindell into politics. She became one of the chief fund-raisers for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign.
A liberal Democrat who had scandalized her first Smith roommate by tacking up campaign posters for Franklin Roosevelt, she moved to New Jersey politics and served as vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.
A scant 36 hours before the filing deadline for the state Senate seat in the heavily conservative Republican district that included her Princeton home, the party approached her.
“They told me, ‘You can’t possibly win, but you might enjoy campaigning,’ ” she said. “Well, I loved campaigning. And I won.”
During her first term, Martindell was an early backer of Jimmy Carter. He rewarded her with an appointment as head of the Office of Foreign Disaster Relief, then named her U.S. ambassador to New Zealand.
It was her longtime companion, the late New Zealand landscape painter Sir Toss Woollaston, who first suggested she return to college. After his death in 1998, she enrolled in Smith’s Ada Comstock program, which is designed for older women returning to classes.
This time she’s majoring in American studies.
Why not government?
“I’ve done that,” she said, sitting in her small off-campus apartment where the walls are decorated with Woollaston’s landscapes and a photo of her with President Clinton.
It hasn’t always been easy returning to classes.
“I even took a course on conservative political theory for the good of my character,” she said. “It drove me nuts.”
Still, her 80s is no time for a woman to stop using her mind, Martindell says. “When all you do is sit around and play golf or bridge, you get bored and forgetful.”
And after she gets that long-delayed sheepskin?
“Maybe graduate school,” she said. “Though my children have suggested that I might want to take a year off to find myself.”