Five Women Emerge From The Shadows of Their “Great Men”

When history discovered Oskar Schindler, a man credited with rescuing 1,200 Jewish lives from the Holocaust, his life was feted with a bestselling novel, a blockbuster film and innumerable posthumous honors, all of which wrote him into a good long stretch of history.

In this fanfare, however, something —and someone — has been lost. “Oskar Schindler was bathed in all the light that history accorded him, and I feel that is not entirely fair,” writes his wife in a quiet new memoir offered up to set the record straight. “Steven Spielberg’s film, Thomas Keneally’s book, and all the rivers of ink spilled fifty years after the facts depict my husband as a hero for this century. This is not true.”

In her book, Emilie Schindler, now 90 and living in Argentina where she settled after the war, launches into a version of the story less savory than previous accounts. She tells of a boldly unfaithful husband, a man more hapless than heroic, and his desertion of her, penniless, after the war. She tells the story of her own role in the saving of the ”Schindler Juden,” not omitting the moments of her own heroism. She does not reject her husband, though she writes that she has both hated and loved him.

“I have lived by his side and under his shadow, but I had my own light. . . . I know that the decision to write my memoir means I have to immerse myself again in the shadows, though this time in the hope of finding the light again, of making my peace with the world, with history, with the truth. To be Emilie again, simply Emilie.”

In Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn Heilbrun marked the watershed in women’s autobiography as 1973, when writer May Sarton “deliberately retold the record of her anger.”

Twenty-five years later we reach a season saturated with these angry texts. Intersecting with the memoir’s current popularity as talk-show material, and with the scholarly drive to recover women’s lives, four memoirs have appeared this year alongside Schindler’s, written by women whose fates were linked to famous Jewish male writers: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer Written by two wives, an agent and an aide, respectively, these books reflect each woman’s’ anger at having sacrificed so much of herself to the overwhelming needs of her more famous man.

But these stories are not of anger alone. They also echo Emilie Schindler’s impulse to reclaim her own story. They record each woman’s loss of self in the shadow of a narcissistic partner, and her reclamation of a place in history, both as helpmeet and in her own right. Adele Mailer concludes in her very last line, “I chose to live and learn to love myself again”; Claire Bloom declares at the end of her saga of life with Philip Roth, “Now begins the rest of my life.”

What marks these many examples of women-on-men memoirs is their psycho-therapeutic orientation. The author, in each case, is seeking to understand her motives and her trajectory through a disempowering and miserable relationship. Unlike angry women’s memoirs and fiction of 20 years ago, they make no attempt at social analysis. For better or for worse, they acknowledge no collective experience and seek no collective solution.

That is left for us to do. These five memoirs follow eerily similar arcs, often from the author’s naive but restless youth to her link, years later, with a man who sweeps her off her feet. For her, he is strong, confident, encouraging — paternal and romantic. He is also promiscuous, suspicious, dependent— very like a child. Throughout, she also vacillates between two impulses — a child’s dependence and a mother’s protectiveness— which keep her focused, even in retrospect, on him rather than on herself. At each book’s climax, when he abandons her abruptly, she is still casting around wildly for whatever weak twigs remain to keep the structure standing. It will take years for her to move away enough to tell her own story.

Tracing each book through this arc, I find the story of a woman giving up power and, later, flexing new muscles. At times these muscles are applied well, wrestling the past into present use; at other times, they are used merely to strike a regressive blow. I write of them here from most savory to least, in hopes that the sympathetic threads of the former will hold the latter in tow.

The rumors of Oskar Schindler’s infidelities are not hidden in Thomas Keneally’s otherwise worshipful book. But the details Emilie Schindler provides in Where Light and Shadow Meet (W. W. Norton & Company) are stunning: Oskar keeping a mistress in his home while Emilie is away; Oskar enlisting the help of the couple’s friends interchanging his liaisons; Oskar asking his wife to speak to an angry mistress on his behalf; and Oskar buying three tickets when the Schindlers escaped Europe for Argentina: one for Oskar, one for Emilie, and one for his Jewish mistress Gisa.

Emilie, in a deeply reflective book that traces her life from childhood to old age, admits her husband’s seductive powers. Indeed, they are the same charming qualities that drew her to him when, as a young woman living restlessly on the family farm, she first saw him. “I always felt his deep blue eyes caressing me,” she writes of their courtship. “It was a virile look, dark and penetrating, that I could not get out of my mind for days.”

What is shocking, in her tale, is how long this seduction would last. Now, at 90, she recalls her thoughts traveling to Argentina, her husband and his mistress in tow; “As absurd as it may seem, I clung to the hope that once in Argentina, I would again be Oskar Schindler’s only woman.”

In the end, Oskar returned to Germany to collect reparations for property lost during the war. Emilie was left to work their ten acre farm alone, sickly, with no income, a million pesos in debt. Wrote Oskar from Germany, “My dear Emilie . . . I am gaining weight every day eating a lot of lobster and drinking a lot of good wine.” It’s a much older Emilie who wonders at his behavior, and at her own dogged devotion, “Why such cruelty? I never did understand him. . . .Only God knows how often I tried.”

The injustices here, however, are not only marital. History — in the sculpting hands of Keneally and Schindler — has neglected Emilie’s public role. When Schindler’s original enamelware factory was closed down, permission was needed from local authorities to reopen in a munitions factory in Brunnlitz. “If the permit was not granted, Oskar would be sent to the front and the Jews would be murdered,” Emilie recalls. It was Emilie who negotiated for the permit. It was also Emilie who, watching the workers starve, risked her life to arrange for the limitless supply of grain from a local aristocratic lady.

These scenes appear neither in book nor film. They are brought to light here by Emilie Schindler, perhaps in part to remove a laurel from the head of “a hero for our century.” But the project is not only about public vindication. It is also about her acknowledging her own responsibility for the tragedy of their marriage, and her return to being “Emilie, simply Emilie.” One feels that her writing of this sometimes lyrical book has been a remarkable journey, one in which, for the first time, she has been able to see herself purely through her own narrative.

“Emilie turned out better than I had thought, after all,” she writes about the process of revisiting her past. “I often feared that when getting to the last chapter of my memoirs, everything would be colored by some of the bitterness and despair off are wells. But that’s not the way it is. . . . to reencounter the hardworking Emilie . . helped make me realize that, in spite of all my mistakes, my life has not been in vain.” This book indeed reflects Emilie’s light, and no shadow of anger or betrayal darkens its glow.

“There were three female archetypes in [Isaac Bashevis Singer’s] novels and stories. The devoted wife, the fiery lover, and the innocent girl,” writes Devorah Telushkin in her new book, Master of Dreams: A Memoir of Isaac Bashevis Singer (William Morrow & Company, Inc.). “Very often there is an untimely death for the young and innocent girl. . . . Isaac is killing off the young girls while they still have their innocence, making sure that they die before they will ever have the chance to grow up and betray.”

These words are written with an unwarranted is passion. Telushkin began working as Singer’s right hand, first as a secretary, later as editor and translator, when she was in her 20s — one of the very innocents he so adored. He cannot prevent her from growing older, as he does in his fiction, but he does his damnedest to stave off the betrayal.

“‘Promise me on your mother’s grave,'” she recalls his saying, “‘that you will never leave me even if I will become old and senile, that you will never take another job.’ I promised…  I promised everything.” It’s a lot for a young woman to promise.

But it was not only selfless loyalty that kept this aspiring writer so close to Singer, whom she met when, auditing a class he was teaching at Bard College in 1975, she offered to drive him every week. Singer dangled before her the possibility of her greatness. “I am only trying to prevent you from being a nobody,” he tells her. She concurred, recalling that she “considered him a way to retrieve an unseen and dormant chamber within my soul.” She also bought his caveat; “No matter what you will do! No matter what you will accomplish in your lifetime. They will always say, ‘It’s because she works for Isaac Singer.'”

During the 16 years they worked together, Telushkin divorced, remarried, began her own career as a story-teller, had a child. None of this appears in the book, so focused on Singer is she. The child in fact, arises only because Singer did not want her to bear it. “Was it fair of me,” Telushkin wonders to herself, “to have a child if Isaac felt so imposed upon? If our work had been so compromised?”

How could a talented young woman endure such an overwhelming relationship long past the insecurities of her younger years? Clearly, despite Singer’s efforts, she could not, and the dramatic tension in this warm and honest book comes from this struggle; between his powerful, infantalizing desires, and the inexorable press of time and maturation on a young woman.

In her developing confidence, a year after she begins to work for Singer, Telushkin asks for a raise. “You are beginning to behave like a man, not like a woman at all,” Singer reprimands her. “In all these years you behaved in the right way. You behaved just like a secretary. And this is how it should remain.” Around the same time, he also shouts at her for wearing lace stockings, calling them an “abomination” and demanding she change. “I’m not a child anymore. I can wear whatever I want to . . . I’ve grown up,” she fights back. His retort; “Tell me! What did you need with so much growing?”

Indeed this tug-of-war takes place in Telushkin’s own heart as she is torn between maintaining their mutual dependence and knowing that she has to break free. Perhaps it is fortunate that in his last months, terrified of death. Singer turned against her, calling her evil, a thief after his money, a failure as a writer. They were groundless accusations, but they drove a wedge between the two. Though Telushkin ends with high praise for Singer, one has to wonder whether she would have managed to write this book at all if the final betrayal had never come.

Reading Harriet Wasserman’s memoir of her years working with Saul Bellow, no one but those who follow the ins and outs of publishing would imagine that a betrayal must have been her jumping off point. As in Telushkin’s bookHandsome Is: Adventures With Saul Bellow (Fromm International Publishing Corporation) is replete with praise for the famous writer Bellow’s decision to leave Wasserman for a “hotter” agent, after 25 years working together, receives no mention until the last 20 pages.

But Wasserman’s devotion, like Telushkin’s, is complicated, a hybrid between a daughter’s adoration, a mother’s protectiveness and a sometimes jealous lover’s passion. Her daughter-like dependence started early, when she, an assistant at the Russell & Volkening literary agency, caught Bellow’s eye. “When Saul told Henry [Volkening], ‘she’s got something there,'” Wasserman recalls of the spark that started a nearly career-long relationship, “it became a call for me to rise to his expectations. That was the basis of a lot of my feelings for him.”

As their relationship developed and got past the initial sexual stirrings, Wasserman records Bellow’s increasing dependence on her in both literary and personal ways. Perhaps the least attractive feature in Wasserman’s book is the mothering possessiveness with which she tries to prove her sympathetic heart. “People who don’t know Saul well usually think he’s very self-possessed, very self-assured. But for Saul, every book is his first book, and he is always the first time writer welcoming reinforcement.” There’s nothing suspect about these empathetic words, until you consider that at the time of writing, author and agent no longer speak. She’s the last person to trust for an innocent reading of the man.

Indeed, her comments are about as innocent as those of a lover spurned. By the time an emissary tells Wasserman that she’s “officially terminated,” we’ve read nearly two hundred pages on her unending loyalty. Like Schindler and Telushkin, she’s told the story of her contributions to the work and life of this great but difficult man. Unlike Schindler and Telushkin, she hasn’t grown past it. When the axe finally falls, we are to understand that a martyr has been made.

Claire Bloom, in Leaving a Doll’s House: A Memoir (Little, Brown), momentarily captures our sympathies as she recalls the outrageous demands of her husband-to-be, Philip Roth: Bloom must ask her daughter to move out or Roth will be gone.

But even the most kindhearted reader hardens when we hear Bloom’s choice: “It was the choice between the security of a companion and the welfare of a daughter Anna [her daughter] was asked to move out. She was eighteen.” Bloom’s explanations— “I wanted desperately to keep what I knew could be the first complete relationship of my life,” “I was unable to oppose him” — must fall on deaf ears. Whatever else she might tell us about the cold-hearted manipulations of her former husband. Bloom has lost the right to complain.

Caught in Roth’s increasingly dramatic mood swings, Bloom soon finds herself jumping through impossible configurations of hoops, trying to cope with his “need to escape from a woman at the moment when he realizes his affection makes him vulnerable to her.” Bloom’s response? Like a good-natured dog, she cooperates. She sneaks around behind Roth’s back to see her daughter; she agrees to move out of their home while he works through his depression; she signs an agreement two days before the wedding granting her nothing in case of divorce. “So committed was I at this point to becoming Philip’s wife, I accepted the insult offered, and chose to ignore it. I know that had I objected, there would have been no marriage.”

In the end, there was hardly a marriage at all. As the relationship deteriorated into divorce, Bloom records how Roth focused his depression and fury on her, demanding repayment for everything from household expenses to “$150 per hour for the ‘five or six hundred hours’ he had spent going over scripts with me.” And she recalls meeting, sympathetically, with the lover who replaced her, “a friend who had been so cruelly coerced by my husband.”

Bloom has clearly spent the three years since the couple’s break-up trying to understand how she could have been so thoroughly acquiescent. She wonders whether she would ever break her life-long patterns of dependence and she ends by rejecting the man who had been “the custodian of my heart and mind.” Whatever we think of Bloom’s choice to hand herself over to a “custodian,” I think we must at least recognize the strength it took to retrieve it.

The same might be said for Adele Mailer, whose memoir The Last Parry: Scenes From my Life With Norman Mailer (Barricade Books), recalls the couple’s turbulent years together.

Adele Mailer’s report is a shameless, terribly written tell-all, in which the tales of bohemian 1950s literary life, orgies, drugs and alcohol are put to no greater narrative use than shock value, drawing its readership no doubt from the name “Mailer” that appears twice on the spine. However misguided her efforts, though, even Adele was praying to a larger god than the Tabloid. She writes of her emotions in 1953 — nine years before he would stab her and their relationship would end, “I was becoming less clear about who I was. . . . With Norman, most people were an extension of that all-encompassing ego.”

So strong was his public draw that as she lay in a hospital bed, stabbed just near her heart by her drunken husband, “so called intellectuals and writers” waved a petition under her nose asking her to help them protect Mailer from the “tragedy.”

As with all our other subjects, Adele too recalls her child-like dependence — even on the morning when Mailer announced he had been keeping a mistress for the past year. “I felt fear, the same fear, that same lostness I had as a child. Despite everything going on with what had been passing as a marriage, I still lived in that terrible fear of being left alone.”

What can we make of this “terrible fear of being left alone” that in each of these cases bound a woman to a clearly unhappy relationship? What can we make of her willingness to put herself in the service of a man— albeit a great one — at her own expense?

“It isn’t healthy to live or work with a world-renowned figure unless one is active and absorbed in one’s own life,” reflected Telushkin. Without another focus, the famous man’s world “begins to sap the existence and energy of the second person. One even lives with the illusion that the great man’s success is [her] own.”

But it’s not only fame that draws them in. Theirs are exaggerated versions of many women’s lives, and they reflect the cultural imperative that even today, a quarter century after the feminist movement peaked in this country, demands that a woman put herself second. The consciousness that inspired women two and three decades ago to write angrily of their lives in hopes of changing society is not present in these books. They are not politically motivated, nor are the writers concerned with the larger significance of their stories. Indeed, these women are not models for the next century. Their growing took much too long. But as I watched them stepping out of the shadows, I was impressed with the courage they showed in revisiting pain and sharing it with others.