Who She Was: My Search For My Mother's Life, by Samuel G. Freedman




April 24, 2005

Bronx Bombshell

By Joyce Johnson

My Search for My Mother's Life.
By Samuel G. Freedman.
Illustrated. 337 pp. Simon & Schuster. $25.

Born to a sporadically employed shoeworker father and a mother from Bialystok who fought off Americanization, Eleanor Hatkin grew up during the Depression in a Jewish household in the Bronx so chronically impoverished that meals were often prepared from vegetables scavenged from the refuse bins of local markets. She shared three dresses with her younger sister, which did not prevent her from being elected All Around Girl in her senior year at Morris High School. There Eleanor was a star. She was bright, ambitious, culture-hungry and, by her late teens, voluptuously attractive. In 1941, at the age of 17, she graduated from Morris -- then considered a temple of learning -- as the highest ranking student in her class. As if already sensing her best years were behind her, she shoved a fistful of medals in mathematics, French and government at the mother she was ashamed of: ''Here, take them home.'' She was planning to go to Brooklyn College, as far from the Bronx as the subway could take her, but would end up taking business courses at City College's downtown campus. She had aspirations to become a writer, perhaps a journalist, but the aspirations were never burning, always vague. The one asset she really counted upon was her ability to attract men.

Three months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor would end the Depression and change the expectations of Eleanor's generation, she posed on her tenement rooftop like Claudette Colbert in the famous hitchhiking scene from ''It Happened One Night,'' skirt hiked to midthigh, thumb thrust out, a white gardenia in her long dark hair, her smile broad and alluring. ''She was on her way somewhere,'' Samuel G. Freedman writes in ''Who She Was,'' his biography of his mother -- overlooking the contradictory elements in the snapshot image: the pretty girl has no vehicle of her own; she is counting on having some man pull to a stop and carry her to her destination.

If Eleanor Hatkin had been less popular and less boy-crazy, she might have had more of a chance to define herself, though even for educated women from more privileged backgrounds, career options were very limited. In Eleanor's case, finding a job soon became a necessity when her father once again could find no work. At 18 she became the family breadwinner and downgraded her education to night school. Her mathematics medal from Morris won her a bookkeeping job at Burndy Engineering, a factory that manufactured electric connectors for ships, planes and tanks. She had become one of the seven million women newly entering the labor force in a world that had changed overnight -- a world of women without men. She brought home more money each week than her father ever had, treated herself to a stylish fur jacket called a ''chubby'' and continued to share a daybed with her younger sister and to fight bitterly with her mother.

With few men around to date, Eleanor corresponded flirtatiously with two former boyfriends now in uniform, keeping both options open. The only socially approved way of leaving home was to find a husband. But Eleanor was not enough of a rebel to get a place of her own, and after the war, she was not enough of a rebel to marry Charlie Greco. He was the love of her life, but he was Italian and Roman Catholic. Her mother, who had lost all the Bialystok relatives she had futilely tried to bring to America, threatened, ''If you do it, I jump off the roof.''

Eleanor Hatkin actually did get somewhere -- into the middle class. As a working woman, she accomplished a good deal of this journey herself even before her marriage, in her 30's, to a man who brought her all the suburban accouterments of the American dream. But the mother Samuel Freedman knew -- the woman who ''had settled for settling'' -- was frequently depressed. Her past, which included a disastrous first marriage, was something she never talked about. When Freedman was in his teens, he would find her taking the edge off her pain with Manhattans. He was a sophomore in college when she died at 50 of breast cancer, with her secrets intact. In her will, she asked that her mother not be invited to her funeral.

It was Eleanor's son who would become the journalist. The author of several well-regarded nonfiction books, Freedman, who teaches journalism at Columbia University, fervently believes that there is ''such a thing as truth and that I can achieve it through facts,'' while sternly deploring the ''seeming license'' that terms like ''memoir'' give writers ''to bend, blur or altogether ignore the line between fact and fiction.'' His exhaustive research served him especially well in recreating the texture of everyday life during his mother's youth in the Bronx. And he was fortunate in locating people who still had full and vivid -- though perhaps not 100 percent reliable -- memories of her.

Even so, he did not have enough material to fill in all the blanks. Unwilling to exercise his imagination, Freedman finds himself at a loss whenever his narrative requires him to write from his mother's point of view. He mistakenly falls back upon a sort of fictitious literalness -- a you-are-there device that kept reminding me of those boots that plod across the television screen whenever an episode of ''American Experience'' runs out of authentic footage.

Freedman tells us his mother ''died unfulfilled because she lifted her vanity so far above her intellect.'' But was she truly gifted, uncommonly smart? We have to take his word for it, since he fails to evoke that side of her. Nor do we ever understand why she gave up every fight for what she really wanted with so little struggle, apart from being a victim of circumstances beyond her control. In the end, we are left less with a memorable portrait than with an all too familiar American type: the person who could have been a contender but peaked in high school.





Jul. 17, 2005

Before I knew you


Who She Was: My Search For My Mother's Life
By Samuel G. Freedman
Simon and Schuster
339pp., $25

To write a biography of one's mother is a delicate task. In this instance, the task was further complicated by the fact that the son was only 19 when she died, and her death occurred in 1974, 26 years before he decided to write the story of her life.

As a former reporter for the New York Times and an academic teaching journalism at Columbia University, Samuel Freedman took upon himself the task of researching his own mother; he conducted interviews, examined photographs and films, went through back issues of newspapers and magazines, studied archives and medical records, and visited relatives in Uruguay. He also drew on his own limited recollections, spurred by his recognition that he knew little about his mother.

In 1924, Eleanor Hatkin Freedman was born in Brooklyn to Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Her father worked in a shoe factory, earning enough during the 1920s to move the family to the Bronx - then considered an upward achievement. Once the Depression began, however, he had trouble finding work, barely eking out enough to keep off public welfare.

Eleanor excelled in school; she was popular, pretty, and the recipient of many scholastic awards. After graduating from high school in 1941 as valedictorian, she began working while attending college. A year later, burdened by a sense of obligation to help support her family, she switched to full-time employment, taking courses at night. It took her eight years to complete the degree. Until she married in 1948, she was the family breadwinner.

The tragedy of Eleanor's life was her failure to realize the great potential she demonstrated in high school. She had several romantic attachments, interrupted by World War II. One relationship, with an Italian, was broken up when Eleanor's mother threatened to kill herself if her daughter married a non-Jew.

Resenting her mother's interference and aware that her friends were all married, Eleanor reluctantly agreed to marry Lenny Schulman, a podiatry student. That ill-starred match, during which her earnings were their only income, ended in an annulment after four years. A year later, in 1953, Eleanor married David Freedman, who eventually became a successful manufacturer of scientific instruments.

The author was the first of their three children. They lived a moderately happy life until Eleanor learned she had cancer, the disease that killed her in 1974 at the age of 50.

FREEDMAN, a skillful writer, relates his mother's story with considerable creativity and warmth. His research led him to new-found admiration of his mother, evidenced by his affectionate depiction of her joyous years in the Bronx as a teenager and during World War II.

His thorough research enabled him to paint a vivid picture of what life was like for young Jews during that era. A few insignificant errors creep in, however. For instance, Freedman places Townsend Harris High School on "the top two floors of the 23rd Street building" of City College. In fact, the school occupied the ninth to the 12th floors of the 16-story building, and those who were students there (as this reviewer was) will resent his characterization of them as "pale and frail as yeshiva boys."

This book is an auspicious addition to Freedman's four previous ones. He attracted attention in the Jewish community with Jew vs. Jew, published in 2000 and winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Nonfiction. A carefully drawn series of vignettes demonstrated polarization among Jews. The author argued that the intra-Jewish conflict he described was tragic, ignoring the possibility that it is preferable to apathy, and that such vigorous engagement helps to assure Jewish continuity.

No such contentiousness applies to the new book. It contributes significantly to our understanding of the American Jewish experience before, during and after World War II. At the same time, it presents a loving attempt by a son to preserve and enhance the image of his mother, so that his own children can appreciate their background, and so readers can enrich their knowledge about the impact of the Great Depression, World War II and the post-war years.

The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University.


Arts & Culture
The Journalist as Memoirist: A Modern Tale
By Allison T. Hoffman
April 29, 2005

Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life
By Samuel G. Freedman
Simon & Schuster, 337 pages, $25.

Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop
By Joseph Lelyveld
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 226 pages, $22.

My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family
By Steven V. Roberts
HarperCollins, 254 pages, $23.95.

For journalists trained to bear dispassionate witness to history as other people make it, the terrain of memoir is a treacherous one: Memory, they fear, can be a quicksand of hazy reminiscence and wishful thinking into which objective facts disappear, never to be recovered. Reporters traffic in verifiable truth, and instinctively recoil from the subjective world of personal narrative, where the writer's perspective and emotional experience so often trump the details of what actually happened.

"I have grown troubled over the past several years about the seeming license that the terms 'literary journalism,' 'family history,' or 'memoir' give for an author to bend, blur, or altogether ignore the line between fact and fiction," writes Samuel G. Freedman, a professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism and a veteran New York Times reporter, in his new book, "Who She Was." The book is a meticulously researched account of his mother's East Bronx youth, one that hews fiercely to documented biographical fact — an anti-memoirist's memoir, a history of himself written from behind the journalist's impassive veil, in accordance with the catechism of objective reporting he has taught to generations of students (including me).

Joseph Lelyveld, formerly the executive editor of the Times, is also a journalist of the old school, and his "Omaha Blues," a chronicle of his childhood, belies no less discomfort with the idea of writing himself into the story. He bills his book neither as memoir nor as autobiography, but rather as a "memory loop," an effort to untangle the knots of his own past by exploring "things I half understood or never grasped at all while they were happening in my boyhood."

That sort of untangling — which to succeed on Lelyveld's own terms required him to be as ruthless as he was in, say, exploding South African apartheid-reform policies — is difficult, painful and possibly hurtful to close friends and relatives, which is perhaps a reason that most memoirists choose to scribble warm, dimly lit histories in the vein of "My Fathers' Houses," by Steven V. Roberts (another one-time Times reporter), a book is unapologetically subtitled "Memoir of a Family."

"Most of my early childhood is a series of snapshots, pasted randomly in a mental scrapbook," Roberts writes, and from it he pulls 254 pages of yarns about his grandparents' youth in Bialystok, Poland, his parents' courtship in heavily-ethnic Bayonne, N.J., and his own rise from a single Bayonne block to Harvard and beyond. Unlike Lelyveld, who asks his readers' indulgence of "the urge pathetic old folks baffled by life's swift passage sometimes feel to find out what actually happened when they were too young or too stunned to take it all in," Roberts charges ahead, writing the story of three generations — from Rogowsky to Rogow to Roberts — entirely through the prism of his own life. His parents appear as "Mom" and "Dad" throughout; his grandparents, pictured in Bialystok before they were even married, are described as "gazing off to the right at something I can't see. Their future grandchildren, perhaps?"

Freedman, in painstakingly reconstructing Eleanor Hatkin's adolescence, seems determined to go as far as possible in the opposite direction, painting a portrait of a girl who lived to be herself, not to become someone's mother. The story begins in 1938, on Eleanor's first day of high school; the man who will become Freedman's father, Dave, doesn't appear until page 268, after several other beaus and one husband have been disposed of, and the narrative breaks off abruptly with Freedman's own birth, in 1955.

The story is compelling, but in the same way that reality television is — it's a voyeuristic pleasure — until suddenly, in the last 40 pages of the book, the perspective shifts, and Eleanor is no longer an arbitrary character, but the author's mother. A teen-age Freedman is driving home after his freshman year of college in Wisconsin to New Jersey, where Eleanor, at age 50, is dying of breast cancer.

Filial guilt throbs in these pages; Freedman abjectly confesses that he didn't like the way his mother mounted the college newspaper clippings he'd mailed home, that he wasn't close enough to steady her wheelchair as it wobbled on the bleachers at his sister's high school graduation, that he was young and careless and 19 years old as his mother faded. "If I understood even back in 1973 how selfish I was to have pretended my mother was a stranger when she sat in on my classes," he writes, "then I now recognize in such a gesture the full measure of my capacity for emotional brutality."

From that single admission flows the heartbreaking logic of the whole book, in which the writing was as much an act of penance for Freedman as it was soul-searching. It emerges that, just before Eleanor Freedman died, she had bought a tape recorder and intended to start dictating her life story to leave as "an inheritance, of sorts" for her children; so, a quarter-century after his mother's death, Freedman set out to find the woman cancer stole from him and to write the autobiography she never had the chance to.

Unlike Freedman, Lelyveld did not set out to write what British photographer Michael Holroyd has described as a "vicarious autobiography"; at the outset, shortly after his retirement in 2001, he intended to write about a historically obscure friend of his father's, Ben Lowell, a protιgι of Stephen S. Wise who may have been a Soviet agent. But that project turned out to require reporting into the life of his father, the rabbi and Zionist activist Arthur Lelyveld, and then into the history of his parents' troubled marriage, and ultimately into his own lonely childhood.

"Daddy, Daddy, Daddy..." is the cry Lelyveld heard echoing in his head as he sat listening to the eulogies at his father's funeral. Boy Lelyveld continues to haunt "Omaha Blues," first as a child sent from his home in Omaha — where his father had a congregation — to spend the summer with a family of Seventh-Day Adventists in Tekamah, Neb., while his mother returned to her glamorous city life in New York; then as a waif shuttled between his grandparents' one-bedroom on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn his parents' new apartment on Manhattan's Riverside Drive, and summer camp in Maine. Through it all, the grown Lelyveld writes, "the absence of parents meant the absence of explanations for what was happening and not happening in my life."

In his hunt for explanations, half a century later, Lelyveld unflinchingly separates the necessary fictions of his own life from the facts of his parents' lives. "I'm a reporter," Lelyveld writes. "I could only write about my dad as part of a narrative of my own." But of course it is in the field of narrative, behind the gauzy scrim of personal recollection, that lie what Saul Bellow called "the themes that collect and hold the memory." Lelyveld manages to pull those themes out of his tangled memory loop and weight them down with the ballast of assiduously reported history, so that in the end, he can split the difference between what happened in his past and what he felt about it at the time, and say that everyone involved "meant well."

"Suppose I were to talk... about the roots of memory in feeling," Bellow wrote in "The Bellarosa Connection," about "what the retention of the past really means." Well, what does it mean, especially to Jews, who, as Bellow's narrator reminds readers, ask God to remember the dead in Yizkor prayers. Freedman writes about his mother's unwillingness to tell him about her past while she was alive, and his own unwillingness to uncover it in the decades following her death; "she and I," he writes, "had been complicit in the sin of forgetting."

The biography that Freedman produced might not have been the story Eleanor might have left her children, but as Freedman writes, "I cling to a fundamentalist's faith that there is such a thing as truth, and that I can achieve it through facts. So the reporter in me feels somehow defeated to admit that... I never can know with absolute, 100 percent certainty what was happening inside my mother's head and heart at every second of her young womanhood." But, he adds, "I can weep unshackled from thirty years of regret. I have given all I could give, the best I had in me, this imperfect, impermanent reincarnation."

Allison T. Hoffman is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.



Northbay.com presents





Uncovering the meaning of one life

Special to The Press Democrat

WHO SHE WAS: My Search for My Mother's Life
Samuel G. Freedman
Simon & Schuster

To Socrates' assertion that an unexamined life is not worth living, a current crop of authors is adding a corollary: Life isn't worth living without examining one's parents' lives, either.

Former New York Times editor Joseph Lelyveld, Francine du Plessix Gray and Sean Wilsey all have written new books that excavate the lives and characters of their parents. Each of those writers proved wise enough to be born to compelling, book-worthy subjects, either by virtue of admirable characteristics (Lelyveld), glamorous lives (du Plessix Gray) or outsized loopiness (Wilsey).

Journalist Samuel G. Freedman did not have nearly so much to work with. His mother, Eleanor Hatkin Freedman, did not offer her son a life that was rich in accomplishment, excitement, influence or even longevity. For the longest time in Freedman's "Who She Was," Eleanor's primary attribute for biographical treatment appears to be nothing more than the accident that a writer happened to emerge from her womb.

In fact, the young Eleanor emerges as vain, shallow and narcissistic. Eventually, though, Freedman's skillful narrative reveals that the poignancy in his mother's story has nothing to do with achievement, fulfillment or grand tragedy. The haunting meaning of her life is prosaic if unalterably sad -- her depleting realization that the promise of a vivacious youth was no promise at all.

"The story of my mother's life is the story of someone whose life peaked at 17," Freedman achingly writes. "And if there's anything sadder than dying at 50, then it's having peaked at 17 and living to 50 with that knowledge."

He was just 18, a sophomore in college, when Eleanor died (with grace, we learn) of breast cancer in 1974. The distance that he, as an independent adolescent, insisted on maintaining became permanent with her death. Or it did until decades later, when, nearing 50 himself, he tells us in his prologue, he was seized by a desire to do penance to the mother that he had neglected in life and death, by using the tools of his craft to reveal who this indistinct figure really was, to finally "see my mother true and clear."

Freedman, author of "Jew vs. Jew," delves into his mother's scrappy upbringing in a Jewish immigrant home in the Bronx during the Depression and World War II. The 17-year-old Eleanor he discovers was high-spirited, pretty and curvy -- attributes of which she was well aware -- the smartest student in her high school, and deeply resentful of her selfish, Old World mother, who rightfully obsessed about family left behind in Hitler's Europe.

Eleanor, with the self-absorption of youth, was less interested in ghastly world events than in her own dramas. For one thing, because of her father's lackluster performance, she was forced to become the family breadwinner (and curtail her college studies in the process).

She also was preoccupied with finding a love who would deliver her from a drab, constricted existence. The book follows her pursuit of a husband like a contestant on "Let's Make a Deal," always wondering if a better prize doesn't lie behind Door No. 2.

Freedman unsparingly portrays Eleanor at her most dishonest and manipulative (not to mention in moments of intimacy that sons generally would pay any price not to imagine). But he also exposes traps -- of family, of history, of religion -- that close off a passionate, talented young woman's options. Eleanor falls short, in love, in career. She does what people do, she settles (Freedman inescapably observes that Eleanor's children are not thorough compensation in that bargain). Without overlooking her part in her own disappointment, Freedman, in his touching conclusion, also realizes that he doesn't need to. He finally sees his mother whole, if flawed.

Love, he shows us, does not require a sentimentalized version of its object. The real thing is quite enough.




Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2005

Prize-winning journalist  Freedman  reconstructs his mother's biography.

Freedman's mother died of breast cancer more than a quarter of a century ago--indeed, his stepmother has been a part of his life longer than his mother was. And now, in middle age, he decided to learn what he could about Eleanor Hatkin Freedman, her life before marriage and motherhood. The result is terrifically intimate: a son growing up in Jewish New York at mid-century, and a son, decades later, coming into his grief through a process of research. The account of Eleanor's mother's efforts to get her relatives out of Nazi Europe is heroic, harrowing, and heartbreaking--though not intimate to the point of myopia. There's also American history here, as when  Freedman  explains about Eleanor's following the model of Rosie the Riveter, or about the pre-rationing runs on stores. And there's the transfixing undercurrent of soap opera.  Freedman's mother fell in love with a gentile and would have married him had her own mother not reacted histrionically. Instead, she hastily married a good Jewish boy, only to have that marriage annulled not long after the chuppah. Her subsequent courtship with  Freedman's father is summarized in a few paragraphs, and the entirety of Eleanor's second marriage is skipped--until the chapter about her death. This large omission, surprisingly, works. You get no sense of being cheated of mother-and-wife, since  Freedman  (Columbia Univ./Jew vs. Jew, 2000, etc.) has so clearly established that his purpose has been to uncover an earlier Eleanor, an earlier era. Nor should anyone skip the concluding note on sources. There, Freedman  throws down a gauntlet: he is concerned, he says, by the trend in memoir and family history to blur fact and fiction, to invent what you can't remember. His reconstruction, he insists, is history, and as factually accurate, and historiographically informed, as possible.

A son's story, a Jewish story, an American story.