Married to the Gray Lady

The Times of My Life and My Life With The Times
by Max Frankel
Random House, $29.95 

Max Frankel’s new memoir, The Times of My Life and My Life With The Times, is a fascinating chronicle of the last four decades as seen by an astute journalist; it is also an account of Frankel’s evolution from a 10-year-old German-Jewish refugee to, ultimately, a world-renowned columnist and editor. What interested me most, however, was his intermittent depiction of his troubled 26-year marriage to Tobia Brown Frankel, my classmate at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School from 1948 to 1951 and editor of our high school newspaper.

Both Tobi and I attended Ivy League women’s colleges, earned M.A.s in teaching from Harvard and married bright, ambitious Jewish men whose professional lives left them little time for families. But there our paths diverged: I was fortunate, at the age of 41, to begin a satisfying career as an English professor. Tobi, however, was increasingly depressed about her failure to launch her own career in journalism. Over the years she held a variety of positions, finally enrolling in Columbia Law School at the age of 50. She died of a brain tumor before she finished her studies. Frankel, however, makes little connection in his book between Tobi’s disappointments and her life with him.

Frankel describes the three happy years he and Tobi spent on assignment in Moscow after they married. More adept at learning Russian than he, she befriended a number of Russians, and through them he was able to glimpse what life was like for ordinary citizens. In Moscow, he writes, she was “a full partner in the business of foreign correspondence,” one whose observations enriched his own dispatches to the Times. Yet despite the harmonious beginning of their marriage, conflicts erupted after the Frankels had their first child and returned to the United States. Though he had warned her that as the wife of a news reporter she would have to move frequently and live “an unconventional life,” Tobi was distressed by his frequent absences, by her domestic responsibilities, and by her own failure to establish a career while their three children were growing up. She did find part-time work as a history teacher and as an editor of the National Jewish Monthly; she also wrote a book for young people on Russian art. However, what she really wanted was a career in journalism, and she berated Frankel repeatedly for not securing a position for her at the Times. That he failed to do so is not surprising, given the rules about nepotism and the few positions open to women at the time. As Frankel himself acknowledges, the dearth of women at the Times resulted in a successful class-action suit against the newspaper in 1977, when he was editorial page editor.

As a wife, Tobi was hardly a Vera Nabokov, whose self-abnegating devotion to her husband’s career as his typist, business manager, letter-writer and muse is described by Stacy Schiff in her new book, Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage. Frankel credits Tobi with articulating early on many of the concerns that would be voiced by other women in the following decades, but he also deeply resented what he terms her “harsh” confrontational style.

From what Frankel calls the “many tearful monologues” he found written by her on undated scraps of paper, he quotes the following: “In every job I was unhappy, lusting after more—more prestige, more power, more position….Success is what I want in any form!”

Frankel did include in his memoir some discussion of his troubled manage. What disturbs me most about his account, however, is that ultimately he invokes the discourse of psychiatry rather than the discourse of feminism to explain his wife’s recurring episodes of depression. He fails to emphasize that depression was all too common among the thwarted women of his wife’s generation. Frankel observes about his wife that antidepressants at last “kept her mercifully balanced,” making her more “loving and lovable” to her family. “Tobi’s chemistry,” he concludes, “was for too long her destiny.”

We know, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives about women’s lives, their sense of entrapment and the social causes of their depression. I wonder what account Tobi Frankel would have given of her own life had she herself written this memoir.

Charlotte Margolis Goodman is a professor of English at Skidmore College.