For a long time I have believed that the most important question one person can ask another is, “How did you get to be the way you are?” Hoping to find the answer, I read autobiographies obsessively. Specifically, what I have wanted to know is whether real change is possible.
When I read Laura Z: A Life about three years ago, I knew I was onto something. I had read Gentleman’s Agreement, had seen the movie; that was my only reference point as far as Laura Z. Hobson was concerned.
I had thought obsessively, too, on Muriel Rukeyser’s famous question; “What if one woman were to tell the truth about her life” and its answer: “The world would split open.” Of course, it never does. And now here was Laura Zametkin Hobson determined to do nothing less than answer Rukeyser’s question, vowing to omit nothing. I loved it. I believed her. I wanted to know more.
First Papers, her fourth novel, published in 1964, chronicles her life with her parents and her radical childhood. Her other novels are also based clearly upon events and circumstances in her own life. Untold Millions (1982) is about the dying marriage of an advertising copywriter, The Tenth Month (1970) tells the story of an unwed mother, The Trespassers, her first novel, published in 1945, shows the human cost of fascism and the heartbreak of emigration quotas. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) examines the significance of “polite” anti-Semitism; Consenting Adult (1975), a mother’s coming to terms with her son’s homosexuality. Like characters in these books, Hobson has been a copy writer, an unmarried mother, a political activist, mother of a homosexual son. As she said in a 1983 interview “When I write fiction I take a part of my life and create a whole other creature around it.”
As I prepared a lecture on “The Life and Art of Laura Z. Hobson” one December evening, I took my half-filled sheet out of the typewriter and wrote her a letter, explaining I would be in New York the following March, I had read and admired all of her books, and I had called a course I was teaching “From Lilith to Laura Z: Selected Jewish Women Writers.” I wanted to meet her, tell her how much her work had meant to me. I sent the letter directly to her publisher; to me it was a message in a bottle.
Within a week I received her response. She thanked me for writing and said she had liked the course title; “quite a bouquet,” she called it and then she set me straight:
…my own perception of myself is definitely not as a “Jewish Woman Writer,” but as a writer, a woman and a Jew.
Remember Saul Bellow’s interview after the Nobel Prize when he said he was not a Jewish American writer, but a writer who was an American and Jewish? I feel quite strongly that he was right in making the distinction.
She went on to say she could not make appointments as far ahead as March (this was December):
I am in a storm of work, trying to finish Volume Two, and barely let myself make dates with my close friends, except on the spur of the moment.
She suggested I call when I arrived, gave me her unlisted number: “If it is possible I’ll set a date for a visit.” I was certain no visit would take place.
Monday. When I arrived at her apartment, I understood that the doorman and elevator man had been warned of my arrival; they greeted me warmly and gave me the apartment number immediately.
When the elevator arrived at her floor, she opened the door to her apartment and was at the elevator almost before I was out of it.
She acted glad to see me, could not have been friendlier.
She took complete charge, directing me to a chair near her circular red leather-topped desk, close enough for me to see the pile of manuscript pages on top, backs of pictures, a piece of something that looked like Plexiglas, inscribed: “Laura Z. Hobson: Literary Lion.”
It was a huge comfortable room, perfect setting for a cold night and for drinking the sherry she offered.
I glanced at my watch as she seated herself in a chair opposite me at the side of my desk. Eight o’clock on the dot. I had an hour. Where to start?
She told me she had had surgery for cancer, but was now cured. She told me she had had cataract surgery, which I had guessed from reading Eugenie’s story in Over and Above (1979). I asked if her eyes bothered her now: “Only when I’ve worked 15 or 16 hours a day and they get a little gritty.”
I asked about the long hiatus between the publication of The Celebrity in 1951 and First Papers in 1964. She said, “Let’s check my calendar,” and proceeded to open the door to a closet hidden in a corner of the living room. It contained floor-to-ceiling shelves holding copies of all her books—and the famous little red logs from 1929 to the present, their dates on the spine in gold. Before she shut the door to the closet, she said, “I want them to take a picture of this for Volume II.”
We looked through a couple of the red log books, but they didn’t reveal much, other than minor illnesses and the deadline for paying Harvard tuition.
I asked if she considered herself a feminist, and I heard what I probably deserved to hear. “Well, I did what I did because I had to do it. And I had learned that I could do whatever I wanted from my mother and father. I didn’t use the word because we didn’t have the same vocabulary then.” She told me of a visit from Marlo Thomas, presumably before production for Consenting Adult began.
Thomas told her that she and Gloria Steinem had not “discovered” feminism, that women like Hobson, had been the real pioneers—and she seemed to like that very much.
She talked then about how important she felt it was for her to tell the truth in her autobiography, even when it meant saying she was wrong. For example, she said, when Gentleman’s Agreement came out, she was offered an award for “best Jewish book of the year” by the Jewish Book Council. But she turned it down:”I thought that if a book was a good book, it was a good book period, not just a good Jewish book.” She had, she said, recently phoned the Jewish Book Council, wanting to review the 40-year-old correspondence. Of course, they did not still have it. But she knew she had been wrong to turn down the award and wanted to say so in Volume II.
Later I realized that she wanted the JBC to offer the award again, and this time she would have accepted it.
I had told her in my letter how much I liked Over and Above: what I did not tell her was why—that the ideas expressed by Amy, especially in regard to Israel, represented an about-face from those in Gentleman’s Agreement concerning “Jewish nationalism.”
Shortly before ten she said she was beginning to feel tired—but she was still in control: “Now. Let’s summarize. What can you say about me now that you could not say before you met me? What are you going to say next time you go around giving talks about me?”
I knew there was a right answer, and I wasn’t at all certain that I had it. What I said was, “You have showed me, by writing so honestly in your novels and autobiography, that change is possible.” I was afraid to be too specific so late in our visit, that I might not be able to substantiate the ways in which her attitudes towards women, Judaism, Israel, had changed. But I meant much else besides.
And that was it. I never saw her again. I wrote and reiterated how important our visit had been to me. I compared the visit and its significance to the yellow box, which Tessa (in Consenting Adult) keeps to contain articles on changing attitudes towards homosexuality; I said I kept our visit in a metaphorical box like that.
I sent her a copy of The Woman Who Lost Her Names, an anthology of women who are writers and Jews (she would approve of the terminology). I sent her the fiction issue of LILITH. I never heard from her again. I rationalized her lack of response in several ways: she was busy finishing Volume II, she had not liked me much after all, she wasn’t interested. It did not occur to me that she might be sick. I had believed her when she said she had quite a few good years left. I had begun to fantasize other visits.
Now I think that she agreed to see me not, as she had said, because I was from Texas and “that’s so far away,” but because she knew she did not have long to live.
I said Kaddish for her on the Friday night after I learned that she died. It might not have mattered to her. But I had to do it. I did not know how else to bear witness to the fact that she had lived and died. Perhaps my act was unnecessary; we weren’t, after all, close. And that’s true, and also false. Like so much else.