Craig Whitney (moderator)
Good evening. I'm Craig Whitney, and thank you all for coming. I'm up here because Gloria, for better or for worse, left Karen Brudney, Dick Hughes, Mary Jane Nolan Kelly and me in charge of picking up the pieces after her death. I thank them and others, especially Ruth Ansel, who designed and printed the program.
Gloria left a carefully composed obituary, with this note to me: "I send YOU the obit I wrote because I felt that it would bounce to [a critic she named] who did a savage review of my book Winners and Losers in 1977. One reason: I poked him in my introduction - see attached - and he came back. Please do the obit for me."
I've known her since 1971, when we were both in the Saigon Bureau of "The New York Time". She was unsettling, then and later. She did not come to comfort, but to discomfort. I did my best with the obit. I don’t pretend it was anything more than adequate, and it left out a lot of things, as she did.
She left instructions reminding her friends that she had always said she never wanted a memorial service. She didn't say we couldn't have one. So here we are.
Thank you all for coming, from near and far, and on your behalf I thank the New York Quarterly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends for letting us use this very Emersonian place, which turns into a homeless shelter just a bit later this evening.
I know that almost every single person who is here tonight would have things to say and experiences to share, and many who could not come tonight have sent testimonies. Nguyen Ngoc Luong, her friend and interpreter, sent this scripted tribute from Vietnam. "Love and Respect for Gloria Emerson," it says. I spoke to him last night, and he sends his warmest greetings to everyone here.
I wish it were possible for everybody to speak. I hope you will allow some to try to give voice to the feelings and thoughts we all share.
I am Karen Brudney, I am a physician but contrary to what was written in the NY Times, (one of their rare misstatements, I am sure), I was NOT Gloria’s physician. Gloria was my closest and most beloved friend for well over two decades. I wanted you to know that not only was she an inspiration to thousands against the Vietnam war, not only did she endlessly try to help the most damaged victims of wars and violence, not only was she a brilliant and courageous writer, but she was the most generous, thoughtful and giving friend there ever has been. She was my intellectual and ideological soulmate, and the person who cheered me on through every life decision that no friend or family member could possibly, in good conscience, have encouraged. I met Gloria at the home of Vivian Cadden, an old friend of my mother from college, radical politics and anti-Vietnam war organizing days. I was getting perilously close to my thirtieth birthday and showing no signs of interest in marriage, or even a steady romance. I am afraid that my mother nagged at poor Vivian until she finally invited me to dinner, presumably to meet some suitable young man. Although I know there was a suitable young man present, so was Gloria, and I hardly need to tell you who made the bigger impression. It was love at first rant-- and rant we both did, soon pretty much ignoring everyone else present to launch into conspiratorial tirades about Ronald Reagan, Ed Koch, the increase in homelessness and urban poverty and the war in El Salvador.
I was in the middle of my residency at Harlem Hospital and there was not one single sordid detail in which Gloria was not interested. We had endless telephone conversations late at night, occasional dinners and one day she insisted on coming to spend the night with me when I was working an ER shift from 10 PM until 8 AM to see if it really was as awful as I said it was. As I am sure you can imagine, tall gangling Gloria tripping around the ER in her elegant clothing didn't exactly blend in, but of course, she got everyone--patients with asthma, diabetics emerging from coma, nurses, aides, housekeeping staff to talk to her as if it were perfectly normal for this absurdly well-dressed woman with her upper class accent to be chatting with them at 3 AM. I never understood why she was so eager to spend a hideous night in Harlem Hospital. Years later, a mutual friend told me that she wanted me to believe that she really understood how awful it was. When I was taking care of AIDS patients throughout the 80s and 90s, not doing much more than helping them to die, Gloria would call me nearly every night to ask me how things were going in the house of death. She was the only person who could bear to listen and actually managed to convince me that she was interested in the infinite sorrows of the dying. We talked about death quite a bit in those days. She told me about so many of the young men she had known who had died, how their families had reacted, how those individuals and their fate had been seared into her brain and enabled her to remain angry and focus that anger. We talked about the absence of anger among the poor who were dying of AIDS and she listened to countless sad, awful tales of young lives ending in torture. We certainly were a jolly pair.
When I moved to Nicaragua to work for the Sandinistas, it was Gloria who I honestly think single- handedly supported AT&T with her bi-weekly hour-long telephone calls to me in Managua for two and a half years. She wanted every detail of the ongoing political struggle, the contra war, the health care gains being made. She spent hours cursing her former colleagues in the press corps for their failure to cover Sandinista achievements in health and education, tearing apart television journalism long before it became fashionable. She couldn’t stand the fact that I had no access to American television or newspapers and wanted to make sure that I didn't miss a single detail. Every time there was a new revelation or twist in the Iran Contra saga, Gloria would call and rant for 30 minutes without coming up for air. She knew that I was working hard and loving it, but she picked up on my loneliness for intellectual companionship. In typical Gloria fashion, she announced that she had purchased 2 tickets to Miami- hers from NY and mine from Managua- and had booked a room in the airport hotel. We met at the most loathsome airport in the world as she put it, at noon, talked all day and most of the night. I returned to Managua energized and exuberant, with about 14 books to read, fuel for the next thousand dollars worth of telephone calls.
Our times together were often quite wonderful. Gloria was exceptionally happy during her years teaching at Princeton. She loved so many of her students, and spent hours telling me things that they had said in class and reading me essays they had written for her. She was completely enthralled by their energy and potential, and became quite annoyed if I failed to remember exactly what Jennifer had said or Stona had written. Having never gone to college herself, it was almost as if it was she who was in college with all of the kids. She delighted in their most mundane experiences, inhaling every aspect of their daily lives, including where and what they ate- she could have written a Zagats on Princeton’s eating clubs, dining rooms and coffee shops. She remained in touch with many of these students decades after they had graduated, following their marriages, their children, their careers. These were her college friends, as important to her as other people’s contemporary college pals are to them. And she loved Princeton, remaining there long after she had stopped teaching, in part, I think, because she felt hope for the human race when surrounded by the optimism of youth. She herself told me many times that she was happy living there because it was such a perfect Protestant Paradise.
It was at Princeton that I told her I was going to have a baby, and true to form, she didn't miss a beat. Despite her misgivings about my ability to be a single mother and continue working with AIDS patients, Gloria was carefully and very deliberately enthusiastic- a bit like a cheerleader at half-time when the team is down 18 points. She was unwavering in her support, schlepped in from Princeton in the dead of winter within a week of the baby’s birth, and apparently fell in love. When I brought Benjamin to Princeton at the age of 3 months, I suddenly saw that Gloria might have something of the Jew in her after all. She marveled over this slobbering infant propped up on a table at PJ Pancakes insisting that she could tell from his facial expressions how sensitive he was, what a genius he was. This delusion persisted for the next 17 years, and her love for Benjamin enabled her to have dinner with him weekly last year, even as she became increasingly unhappy and despairing. Knowing that I worried about him as mothers worry about their teenage sons, even though she hated neurotic mothers, she managed to see him during the last week of her life. Apparently they spent the entire dinner raving and ranting about Bush and the war, she egged him on to go to Philadelphia and register voters, and she gave him his marching orders about how to organize the high school yearbook. And of course she telephoned me as soon as he had left to report on how wonderful he was and how irritating neurotic mothers were.
Gloria was at her happiest when she decided to write Loving Graham Greene. Unlike so many of her other books written in pain and anger, this was a work of love and joy, and I had never seen her as happy. Every once in a while she would call me with a desperately important question. If you fell down a flight of stairs and landed on your arm, what were the names of the bones you might break? If you became ill in Algeria, what infection would be most common? After receiving the answer, she frequently became so interested that she pushed for further details. What were the other bones nearby, what was the difference between a tendon and a ligament, what was the difference between a concussion and a contusion? Could you become paralyzed by falling down that flight? Partially so? How? Where? Our running joke was that she would never get out of medical school if she couldn’t memorize all of this and recite it back to me. When I finished reading Loving Graham Greene, I assured her that all medical passages were perfect, she could now graduate and hang up a shingle. The book, as I am sure you all know, is pretty perfect in every way. Bits and pieces of so many of her friends are in there, and, perhaps most surprising to some, so is Gloria- a superbly self-mocking and hilarious presence.
I don’t want to dwell on Gloria’s last year, but I don’t want to pretend it didn't happen. Gloria was unhappy in ways that are very difficult to think about and very difficult to bear. I did not want her to commit suicide, and I begged her for weeks and weeks not to. Of course I have brooded over this for months, and while initially angry at her for not listening to me, I am now left with the most terrible sadness and remorse. Not guilt, as I truly believe that Gloria wanted no one to ever feel guilty about her death. But remorse that I was unable to do anything to help her in her pain or to ease the unhappiness she felt during the last months of her life. I hate the term closure. No matter what anyone says, death is horrible, it can't be fixed and the pain we feel will not and should not be assuaged by platitudes. The Egyptians painted beautiful scenes on the walls of their tombs and built the pyramids. Medieval Christians constructed Notre Dame. Late 20th century Americans invented closure. Maybe these are accurate reflections of the respective civilizations, but somehow, I can't really hear Gloria wishing us all to find closure. Certainly Gloria will remain a part of me and my family forever, and the best that I can hope is that eventually, I will miss her less sorely. For the present, her loss simply has to be borne.
The only sliver of solace I could take from the news of Gloria’s untimely departure was that I wouldn’t disappoint her any more.
I've been disappointing her for a quarter-century, ever since we both washed up at the Meikles Hotel in the spring of 1979 in what was called, for a brief, hyphenated moment, Salisbury, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. I was there for the New York Times; Gloria was on a freelance assignment for Esquire.
She was usually-- but not always-- too polite to express her disappointment in words, but the pained and exasperated expression on her face was all too easy to read, whether I had given the Meikles bellman an insufficient tip -- he, after all, had a sick sister, an aging mother, a deceased father and wanted desperately to go to college to become a translator (How did she know so much about him? We’d only just checked in.) -- or I’d been insufficiently alert to the funeral of a white farmer whose obit she’d just read in the local newspaper, having been up for hours. Never mind that covering such things for a newspaper was my obligation, no longer hers: Lets go, I've hired a car, were going to be late, she commanded-- it was palpably clear that once again, I’d let her down. Clearly, I didn't care enough, didn't try hard enough, didn't want to do the right thing badly enough. I should be smarter, kinder, more professional.
She was never late. In fact, she was invariably early, so even if you met her on time, she was there first and you felt guilty for having made her wait. That look again.
There was also, mercifully, the other Gloria, the one who laughed too hard at your attempts at humor or agreed too enthusiastically with your warmed-over insights and credited you with a wit and perspicacity you never realized you had. And didn't.
She was vain about her hair -- thick brown hair- and spent too much money having it cut and shaped, and in the last few years, I suspect, colored. And she smoked too much, as I was always happy to point out, especially after I’d disappointed her yet again.
More than anything, Gloria was fun to be with. She knew everybody, had read everything. She had opinions. She was witty and had something original to say about everything -- certainly about anything that had been on the front page of the New York Times in the last week, or month, or for that matter, since the Korean War.
She bore her burdens-- a broken leg that never properly healed, some unfortunate investments, her disappointments in her friends and acolytes -- with uncomplaining courage and wry, dark humor. Gloria Emerson was smart, funny, generous, brave-- incredibly brave-- and caring-- far and away the most compassionate person I have known.
She wasn’t perfect; she smoked too much.
When I've seen Gloria over these past couple years, inevitably we would talk about Iraq and Vietnam and she often compared the two.
"It's absolutely disgusting, isn't it?" she'd say. "There's no hope at all. It'll be just as bad as that was, I can't bear to think of it." Yet she did, a great deal; she followed it religiously, she watched every major network and most of the cable news programs on it, read everything we wrote about it, even had computer-using friends print out web stories on it for her. It wasn't her war the way Vietnam was, of course. The last time I saw her, in July, she said, with some regret, "I'll never be able to go there," and then immediately she changed the subject to Gaza, where she had gone, and having gone, had made it her cause. She wanted to talk about the second intifada and I'm afraid I wasn’t really interested, because I am doing Iraq these days, and not really following Gaza. And she was a bit put off by that in a way that she is sometimes. She had embraced Vietnam and Vietnam vets and Gaza and every righteous cause and every needy or deserving person she had ever come across. Her capacity to embrace so many different issues and hold onto them is amazing and I've seen sides of her, listening to everybody here tonight, that I didn't even know existed, but they all sort of fit. Whenever I saw her she'd pepper me with questions about Iraq, and then browbeat me, saying you mustn't keep going there, and then finally she'd add, "but of course you have to, dear," and just as abruptly she'd change the subject. I think that Iraq and this sense of here we go again, just made her sad. I suppose a lot of things did, though I don't pretend to understand most of them.
Gloria probably knew me, as she knew many of her friends, much better than we knew her. She always changed the subject when one asked after her, but no one could avoid her questions. She was so intensely interested in other people, in almost anyone whose path she crossed. I'll never forget watching her give a talk to a group of long-term convicts at a Massachusetts prison, about literature and great books, and how that could elevate their minds and help to fight the boredom and misery of their time inside. Her talk was brilliant and inspiring, vintage Emerson, but more than anything else, these hardened men responded to this strange, passionate woman because she took them so seriously, honored their intelligence and dignity, whoever and whatever they were. She was a person who always knew the names of the doormen and the waiters, the drivers and clerks and all the little people she came across, and usually knew a lot more than their names.
Gloria had met my two dozen nieces and nephews only a couple times at large gatherings, weddings and such, back when they were young children, but she had focused on each one of them for a few minutes and then remembered all of them, and what to her seemed special about them, for many years to come.
The last time I saw her in July, she said, How is Jarrod, the bug boy?" And it took me a little while to figure out what she meant. She'd seen my nephew Jarrod chasing bugs in our yard when he was seven or eight, and later sent him a bug-catching kit that he used for years. "He's six foot six now, Gloria, and going off to college in September." "No, no, not my little Jarrod the bug boy, it just can't be."
During the two years my mother Lorine was dying of cancer, Gloria became her particular friend. She had almost nothing in common with my mother, except age, yet no one knew half so well how to talk to her at that time. She'd send everyone else away for a private chat, or telephone her when she was alone; they never said what they talked about, but it left my mother happier than almost anything else during those hard times. At my mother's funeral, Gloria delivered a eulogy of such eloquence that it heartened us all. "I've never known anyone," she said, "who was so loved, and Lorine knew that."
And now that Gloria has left us, or at least many of us, without a chance to say a proper goodbye, I can't help but wondering whether Gloria knew how much we all loved her. And it saddens me to think that perhaps she didn't. I can't imagine she would have left us like that if she had known how much it would matter. With Gloria, it was always hard to get a word in edgewise, right up to the end. Now, I wish I had tried a little harder, a lot sooner, to let her know that she too was a woman who was greatly loved.
I was one of the many Vietnam veterans that Gloria took under her wing. When Judith talks of Gloria descending upon people, the image that comes to my mind is when we had gone to the Nixon second inauguration demonstrations. She was with a group of Vietnam Veterans, VVAW and they had shut our demonstration from the inauguration. They wanted to contain that year’s anti-war protest. This annoyed her and out of annoyance I started to cross the road where the actual inauguration was. This annoyed the police, one of whom tried to run me down, and tried to run into my leg many times with a Vespa motorcycle. Which led Gloria to descend on him, and I remember the look on that policeman’s face. He did not understand what he had unleashed that day.
There are so many pictures, images I have of Gloria. She was a mentor and gave encouragement to myself and so many others throughout her life. I was telling Craig earlier, and I will repeat this story because it shows both her sides I think. I had the experience of being with her in Boston when she had decided to stop smoking for a week. And as you can imagine it was Gloria to the nth degree. She was valiant, but she was mourning, at what she called the loss of her oldest friend, tobacco. At one point, the only way I am going to get over this is if you take me to Chinatown, and get me some Vietnamese food. We got in the car and drove to Chinatown, and in the middle of the road, stuck in traffic, she got out and said fuck, fuck. She spotted a restaurant, and went running into it and I found a parking place and went running after her. And I understood what this was all about, because she was in the kitchen, and she had the cook against the wall, and she was smoking one of his Marlboros. Gloria always knew to go to the Vietnamese for help. She always knew where home was.
There are so many stories about her, but what Gloria demanded, of herself, and of you--was to be horrified but not petrified. And never, never to be inarticulate. There were no careless or casual conversations with Gloria; she engaged you, fiercely and completely, and after she'd hung up, usually in the midst of your sentence or hers, you felt drained. You felt she had grabbed a corner of your soul and shook it. And if you were wise enough, you understood you'd received a great and rare gift--the way you felt when you had read her. She had seen what you had seen, all the wasted bodies shredded because of lies, indifference, hatred or greed, and she had seen them broken again in order to fit into comfortable and comforting myths, and she had seen more of it than you, and she was broken by it as well, but she never let that wound erode the clarity with which she saw and told the world. What she understood and valued more than anything is contained in Auden's dictate, that the first job of the writer is to preserve the integrity of the language. She did. Fiercely and well and all else followed.
For some time before her death, she had been sending me books she loved-- "uncluttering" she said, though I didn't know how she meant that until after her suicide. A week before that act, I called her, worried because another friend had said he hadn't been able to get in touch. "Nonsense," she told me, "I'm perfectly fine. Don't call me this week. I'm writing. " And then she hung up. It was a typical Gloria phone call, cut off in the middle, and it was only after her death that I realized that she was insuring we would never say goodbye.
Like a substantial proportion of this audience here tonight, I met Gloria as a student, when she taught a class called Politics and the Press at Princeton. Years passed, and remarkably -- though much changed for both of us -- we remained in touch, often every day.
It’s important to remember that although she was serious in many ways, Gloria could be extremely funny. And my brief anecdote focuses on that side of her.
I wanted to take Gloria out to dinner a couple of years ago, and picked out a nice restaurant that had, in retrospect, two flaws - it was vegetarian, and it wasnt 92, the restaurant downstairs from Glorias apartment, where, I think she would have eaten every meal if given the chance.
A vegetarian restaurant, my dear boy, she said, in that semi-doomy vernacular of hers that I liked to call Desperanto. We won't go there. There will be two sad women perched at a rickety table eating cauliflower. We’ll go to 92.
I disagreed. My wife Ann and I sat on one couch, having a glass of wine with Gloria, who sat opposite us with my two young daughters. I noticed that Gloria was whispering to them, and I overheard her say - tell him you want to eat at 92. Eventually, I noticed money changing hands. There was a conspiracy afoot.
We walked downstairs and loaded Gloria and her leg - always a challenge - into a cab. It skidded to a stop a few blocks south on Madison, and the cabbie held up a note that Gloria had shoved through the cash slot. What does this mean? he asked, confused. The note read, “Help, I am being kidnapped!”
We continued ahead. At the restaurant, my wife got out first, then ran back, shaking her head. I looked in the window of the restaurant, where two sad-looking women sat at a table. Apparently, they were eating cauliflower.
We headed back uptown. "I told you. We’re never eating at any restaurant again except 92." And we never did.
So, this brief journey says much about Gloria, who was difficult, hilarious, and - in the end - right. She could be difficult to live with, but unimaginable to live without.
Her spirit was both dark and light. Her message was simple - summed up in a piece she wrote not long ago about Larry Burroughs, the photographer whom she so admired in Vietnam. What Gloria learned from Larry Burroughs, she said, was to keep looking. Not to turn away from the boring or the terrifying. Not to turn away from an ongoing struggle, from inequity, and injustice. Not to turn away from life in its manifold incarnations, beautiful and tragic.
And that is what we all learned from Gloria, in our own ways: to keep looking.
I first met Gloria on Tu Do Street in Saigon in 1970, when I was then in town for three days, as the Village Voice’s first reporter in Vietnam. I saw this extraordinary figure bearing down on me, and for all the years I knew Gloria, I never felt that I approached her, or she approached me, she was always just bearing down on me. Waving her arms, I was looking around, seeing who she could possibly mean, and it turned out it was me she had her eye on. She jerked me by the arm and brought me into a coffee shop, and she said sit down, which I did. She said, Village Voice, you're here from the Village Voice. And I said, yes. She said, I'm Gloria Emerson. And I said, yes. So, she said, no one is going to tell you how it works here. And she ordered some ice tea and began talking about her experiences.
I remember dodging the ice tea, because she was gesturing with her spoon and gobs of ice tea were coming out. Finally, I actually managed to get a question into the conversation, and I said, "Well, so what’s it like out there? The war, covering combat." I sort of knew you weren’t supposed to ask anybody this directly, but I thought maybe Gloria would tell me. She looked at me and said, "Judith, there is only one thing you have to know about combat. When you get out there, all you are going to have to know, is where you are going to have to go to the bathroom." I didn't say anything. She said … "The story is what is happening to the Vietnamese. Don’t get into that bang bang stuff, that’s what the boys are doing."
Gloria is right, she wrote about the old people that the rest of us didn't write about really. The prisoners …who came out and couldn’t walk because they were in cells so small they couldn’t stand up. She wrote about street kids, she went to the graveyard in every city of Vietnam and wrote about what it was like in the graveyards, and about a family that was burying her son. She really taught me a lot about journalism. She also said, that whole thing about being an objective reporter, I mean, the number of times I saw her during the five o’clock briefings, growling at the military briefer, as if he was actually, was finally going to admit Vietnam was a complete disaster. And she would stand there when Mike and Richard of the Dispatch News Service had their visas pulled … and she said to the briefer that day, "Why are you taking Mike’s visa away, Mr. Win?" And Mr. Win said, "Well, it’s the policy of the immigration department." "But Mr. Win, why are you doing this, you didn't answer my question."
And I also remember her, along with those of you who were in Saigon, with Larry Stern, and they were quite a pair. Larry was working for the Washington Post and he was a sidekick to Gloria, and I would always see them going down the street with Larry sort of trailing along, running his hands through his hair …. He told me one time that he and Gloria were going down the street and she said, "Larry, Larry, why does that woman have a dead body in her arms?" Every time Gloria would be overwhelmed by the hideousness of the war she would mutter, "Larry, Larry, why does that woman have a dead body in her arms?" … Then when we got back from the war, everybody was like, what do you do with the war after? And Gloria was the Ancient Mariner.
We were always trying to get away from it for five seconds, but Gloria would [never let it go]. She would call me in California and start whipping me into shape for the next war that I was supposed to go and cover, she would call and it was always three in the morning. The phone would ring and I would think either it was a heavy breather, wrong number, or family emergency. But no, I would pick up the phone, and she would say, "You have to go to El Salvador, tomorrow! And the Village Voice, I'm sure, will send you. Or maybe the Los Angeles Times. Ill fix something up, Ill fix something up." "And I would say, “Gloria, it’s three oclock in the morning.” Gloria didn't believe in standard Pacific Time, everybody was supposed to be on her time. It’s 3 oclock in the morning." "It is?" she would say.
I will definitely miss Gloria, I know she wanted to be involved and I thought she did her best work for the New York Times, in spite of all these stories about her not being exactly objective. I did write this, the New York Times has recently gotten off its knees on the war on Iraq and decided to kick the administration and I applaud them. But there is no Gloria there, and I don’t feel that I know from anybody what Gloria would have written if she had been there. She wanted to go there, I saw her a week before she killed herself, and she said "Judith, you must go to Iraq. I can't go to Iraq. My damn leg. I can't do it." But you have to go there. At this point, the waitress came up, "What will you ladies have for lunch?" It was about 90 degrees in New York and so I ordered some ice tea. Gloria said "I’ll have blueberry pancakes and a double order of bacon." The waitress looks at me and says, "What are you having?" And Gloria said, "She’ll have the blueberry pancakes and double order of bacon." And I said, "Gloria, it’s so hot, really all I want is some ice tea." And she looked at me, over the top of her sunglasses. I had the blueberry pancakes.
Sue Anne Steffey Morrow
The morning after Joan Whitman called
To tell us that Gloria had died
I found myself with a lumpy file in hand
I spread its contents
Across our counter
With a candle lit and a small vase
Of black-eyed susans and cinnamon ferns.
There were articles with instructions
In her bold hand
“Read and be outraged!”
“Wait to read until January when you have time!”
There is a letter with a map stapled on the top
“It worries me that you are unclear
about where the refugees from Kosovo are going
Here is a little map to see what countries border Kosovo.
And then underlined and in capitals
HUNGARY IS NOT ONE OF THEM
I have drawn arrows to make it clearer”
And so she did.
There are proclamations in the file
“I have gone underground.”
“The veal stew was sublime”
“I hit rock bottom and am slowly rising’
“The soup was crowded,
needs more broth.”
There are pictures
Of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (always all four names)
And one of Nan Robertson
A picture of Gloria and Nicky Cull on our wide porch
And a picture of Gloria with Lamin Jusu Jakka from Sierra Leone
Paper clipped with a note
“I took Lamin Jusu Jakka
to Saint John the Divine last Friday
for a tiny communion service
a young minister named Storm Swain
gave him a blessing before the altar
I cried and forgot 2 lines of the Lord’s prayer
I am over my head as you know.
And there are at least one dozen letters (all dated)
Written on Smythson’s finest writing paper
One of them begins
“Sue Anne, dear chum,
This is the last of Smythson’s Nile Blue
As the firm is no longer selling
Its wares in New York
I am not pleased!
That letter closed
“How I wish we might sit on the porch
and be girls”
We met Gloria in May of 1982
She had moved to Princeton in the fall of 81
To teach at the University
As a Fellow Through the Humanities Council
To teach Politics and the Press.
We had come that same fall
I as the newly appointed Assistant Dean of the Chapel
We had seen her before we met her
Through the fall and the winter
Seen her walk down Mercer Street and return
A tall elegant figure, cigarette dangling from her mouth
Carrying groceries from Davidsons
Lipstick or mascara from Marshes Pharmacy
A shirt or a pair of trousers
From the English Shop
(all establishments gone now and I hear her voice again
I am not pleased!)
Then one late spring afternoon
I came home from work
And she was in her kitchen having a cup of tea with David
And smoking up a storm “Where is an ashtray?”
I was 38 weeks pregnant.
We were neighbors. There were three doors between us and
Our friendship was in good measure a domestic one
Built on the leftovers, she called nursery food
“the shepherd’s pie sustained me for days!”
the macaroni and cheese, the best yet!
She called our first born “my favorite boy”
Our second “the sweet one”
And when we asked her to be Godmother to our daughter
Ruth, she responded, “But I don’t believe in God” We allowed how we believed that the work she did
Was the work of holiness
She’d leave Mercer Street for weeks on end
Go off to El Salvador, Algeria, or Palestine.
She befriended a number of our nannies
Knew more about their lives sooner than we did.
She never knocked
She simply entered
And one time startled a modest house sitter
Who was in the shower
When Gloria came up the stairs
And through the bathroom door
“Sue Anne?” “Is that you?” It was not.
She called us Perfect and Happy America
Sitting in our garden
Waving a cigarette like a magic wand
Watching the children swing or slide
And eating up Ena’s rice pudding.
The night she had her accident
David called me from the Emergency Room
At Princeton Hospital.
It was the winter of ‘94
And we had had terrible storm upon terrible storm
I was actually up at Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center
With a colleague who was desperately ill.
“If Kathleen wouldn’t mind, could you come down here
as soon as possible.
I am with Gloria in the Emergency Room
And could use a little help.”
That's when I heard the ruckus in the background.
The foundation of the friendship shifted
From something other than leftovers
And her world wide commitment
There was her nobility coupled with her fury
And she was in need of us.
No remembrance would be complete
Without mention of her opinions
You need lipstick
That haircut is horrible
I will not read another page
The writing is pedantic
Nor would any remembrance be complete
Without mention of her generosity
A perfume from Paris
A fashion magazine for Ruth
A necklace from Tiffany’s
Flowers sent for no reason at all
A bouquet as wide as her arms stretched around.
We shared a secret, Gloria and I,
Neither of us like Christmas
I suspect for different reasons
But she was a great comfort to me each December
As we staged Christmas for the children
As I staged Christmas at the University Chapel
Yet how she relished Christmas dinner, the roast beef, Yorkshire pudding
And my mother’s gravy.
One last item from the file
A pink phone slip undated
I think it may have been from the first Gulf War
The secretary wrote
To: Sue Anne
“never so dark”
was all it said.
Gloria was never too afraid to face the dark
She faced the dark in Vietnam
She faced the dark in Palestine
She faced the dark in her family
She faced the dark on the Lower East Side
Gloria was never too afraid to face the dark
Rather she would grip it in her fine hands
With her intelligent mind
Her vulnerable heart.
And so she has.
I didn't meet Gloria in Saigon in 1971, I was in grammar school then, but I met her at a dinner party in 1999; I thought at first I must have met her before somewhere. She immediately pushed a chair over, leaned forward and spoke to me as a kind of co-conspirator. “You work at Human Rights Watch. Thats wonderful! When are we going to Kosovo and who should we take with us?”
Gloria loved to conspire. She once told me, and she was right, that the best parties have a little sub-party to them, a separate room or a semi-secret cabal of a few people who sit and argue, or gossip about the others at the party, or smoke, or in her case all of the above. She liked to make mischief, at parties as in life, always wanting something to explode, some great drama - a passionate love affair should reveal itself, or great friends should have a terrible falling-out.
I never knew Gloria in her days as a newspaper reporter, but it’s frankly impossible for me to imagine her as a neutral observer. She was far too opinionated, a kind of walking Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, changing the weights and measures of the things she observed, distorting the scene by the force of her personality. If Cartesian logic says I think, therefore I am, Emersonian logic said, I think, therefore I have an opinion, therefore I am alive and worth talking to.
Her opinions extended, of course, to us, her friends. There were a few people I heard her speak of -- Craig Whitney, Bob Simon-- about whom she never had an unkind word. But all the rest of us, she said mean things about us at one time or another, behind our backs, and sometimes to our faces. For a woman whose life was marked by intense pity for people whom she’d never met, she could be remarkably pitiless in her judgments of those she loved.
But Gloria’s passionate opinions about your life, whether positive or negative, were how you knew that she cared about you. If you confided in her about some problem, she never said never. “I think you should do whatever you think best.” Neutrality and love were mutually exclusive.
At Gloria’s core lay the Imp of the Perverse, as Edgar Allen Poe called it - the urge to do just what you knew you shouldn’t. In her novel, Loving Graham Greene, she laid out in wrenching detail all the perverse and bitter and wholly unintended consequences that flow from the charitable act of a woman who reaches out to the victims of a distant war. But bizarrely, in her own life, Gloria did the same thing. She collected from her friends and then bestowed thousands of dollars upon a double amputee named Lamin Jusu Jarka from Sierra Leone. (I put up a marvelous picture I took of Gloria and Lamina at the door of the meeting house, if you want to see it. )
Lamin was very grateful for Gloria’s charity, and nothing disastrous came to pass as a result of it. But the question remains, why did she intentionally recreate in her own life the fraught acts that she had described in her fiction? In part, this reflected her sense of human life and human tragedy- that all of us are careening helplessly toward precisely those fates we should be trying hardest to avoid.
And in part, this was Gloria’s answer to the central question of her life, at least the latter part of her life, when we became great friends because it was my central question, too: what is the responsibility of an individual born into in a wealthy, lucky society, to an individual born into a poor and unlucky one? What is to be done? Gloria felt that the sufferings of faraway strangers were a matter of our urgent personal concern.
I think she thought the real job of journalists, at least journalists worthy of the name, was to tell these big important difficult stories so compellingly, that the reader cannot look away. And she wrestled with the question that all of us former foreign correspondents, and there are plenty in this room this evening, wrestle with: after you’ve seen what you’ve seen, after you’ve owned a big and tragic story and been owned by it, what do you do with the rest of your life? How are you to occupy yourself appropriately and satisfactorily?
The question of “What is to be done?” weighed on her with growing heaviness toward the end of her life. In fact, I think I hold the Bush administration at least partially responsible for Gloria’s death. Why not? They’re responsible for fucking up everything else. The war in Iraq, the second intifada, the assault on civil liberties at home - these things really upset Gloria. And they coincided with her physical deterioration, her entrapment in that little apartment on upper Madison Avenue. Increasingly, the answer to “What is to be done?” was just, Nothing.
There was nothing Gloria felt she could do. And that was just too hard.
You know I can just hear Gloria saying, “Oh Carol you are so lachrymose.” (I've almost gotten to the hardest part).
I have a daytime answer to the question of what is to be done -- give money to Human Rights Watch! But in the nighttime, the hour of hard existential truths about our own fundamental helplessness in the face of suffering, I have no answer. I just miss Gloria.
If Gloria had been determined that we not hold a memorial service, she certainly would have had the language to say so, which makes me wonder whether this is the one chance where she would be able to be watching this thing, listening with her blue pencil. I don’t know, but I know that in my minds eye, she is there, with a slightly bemused expression, listening to what we say, and far more to the point how we say it. And that image is very intimidating.
I've never believed in an afterlife of any sort. Gloria is dead, gone, disappeared- she is nowhere. I'm convinced of that. And yet, is it possible that she left this window open thinking there was one chance in a million that she might be able to watch us and listen. I loved Gloria. I miss her desperately.
I had a bit of a rough time this summer when I was home in Israel. I was rather dreading the idea of coming back to New York. But, at least, I knew, Gloria will be there. We will dine together at l’Absinthe, as we always did, and she will get there before me, and I will find her sitting on the terrace outside smoking a cigarette, even in January when she would be bundled up in layers of sweaters and overcoats and she would convince me to sit with her while she could smoke one more.
I knew in July that I would tell her what was bothering me when I got to see her in August and I would seek her counsel as I have for the last thirty-four years. And I knew she would not tell me to relax or get some sleep or take some time off, or look at trees, or anything else my other friends might tell me. Her advice was always outrageous. And on the rare occasions when I could muster up the courage to follow her advice, my life invariably became more interesting.
Her ultimate view of life, which she repeated to me again and again when she thought I was wavering was: “Remember Bob, this is not a dress rehearsal. This is it.”
Well, the curtain has fallen. And we can only applaud, in sadness, what her life was because she never wavered. And there is and was nobody else like her.
Gloria met my daughter Tanya in Saigon when Tanya was about six months old, crawling all over the place and the minute Gloria saw her she said, “She’s a baby lion.” And Gloria continued to call Tanya that to the very end. Well, when the baby lion called me this summer to tell me Gloria was gone, I was in France and I really couldn’t deal with the idea that she wouldn’t be here when I got back. So I was angry. How could Gloria do this to me?
But then the next day, I picked up the paper and read the obituary, which she was kind enough to write, with Craig’s help, and I saw the word Parkinsons. She never told me that. And then I found out a few days later that she had already known about it for close to a year. And then of course I understood. She wasn’t going to let some horrible old man named Parkinson lead her off shaking and trembling.
Of course Gloria did what she did. Of course, being Gloria, there’s nothing else she could have done. It was the courageous way. I've often had the impression most people have no idea how much courage it takes to commit suicide. I'm only sorry she didn’t tell me because I would have wanted to be with her and held her hand that night she slipped away.
I met Gloria in 1971 in Saigon, just days after I got there. I was surprised, flattered and honored that she befriended me. In fact, she gave me a story right away. It was a story about a home in Saigon for paraplegic Vietnamese children who’d been wounded in the war. It was only when I got there that I learned how deeply Gloria was involved with the home: that she visited the children regularly, knew all their names, and did everything she could to help them.
Gloria had used me, for the first time, and not the last. And every time she did, it was a privilege. The home in Saigon, which we did air, got some contributions, and I think some other stories that we conspired on, about some people who needed and deserved help. A few weeks after that story, she called me one evening and said simply, ”Meet me at Tong Son Nhut at six in the morning. Were going to Camh Ran Bay.” She didn’t tell me why. She didn’t ask if I was free. She was, as difficult as that may be for some of you to imagine, imperious.
The story there was four GIs who were being court-martialed because they refused to get haircuts. We were given access to them. This was, after all, Vietnam. And when we got there the men were brought in to us by a young, officious lieutenant, a public relations officer. Gloria asked the lieutenant if there was any way to get a cup of coffee. The lieutenant said “Yes, how do you take it?” Gloria said, “Black,” and then she turned around and asked the four GIs how they took their coffee. Obliged, the lieutenant went to fetch and serve coffee to these four disgraceful young men with long hair. Not long after our stories appeared, the charges against the four were dropped.
For the last ten years or so, Gloria continued to recommend stories to me from time to time but she became more of a critic. She always called me after one of my stories aired and gave me her extremely frank and candid opinion. Last year some people talked me into doing a story that I knew Gloria wouldn’t like and once it aired, I dreaded her reaction. But, it never came. She didn’t call. After a few days went by I couldn’t take it any more, so I called her, talked about this and that for a while, and finally asked her point blank: “Did you see the story I had on a few days ago?” She answered, “Yes I did, but I refuse to discuss it.”
Well, Gloria, I’ll never go back to l’Absinthe. The next time I'm in trouble, I wont be able to figure out what advice you’d give me because I don’t have your imagination. All I can promise is that I will try desperately never do a story again that I know you would refuse to discuss. Because you may be gone but you are part of me and I’ll recognize those stories from a million miles away.
It really is a treat to be in a room with so many friends of Gloria’s. We must be among the most caring and outraged people in New York and in the United States. This room seems like a little tiny church for Gloria, but here we are.
I was among those, and will say it freely tonight, like so many of you, who really loved Gloria, but never got a chance to say it, because our culture doesn’t quite allow it, and because I would be slapped all over the place if I had. Gloria was not sentimental, but she was a very dear, dear friend.
At age 26, I walked into the New York Times Bureau in Saigon, with a few clips and the ability to speak some Vietnamese. … I was taken on as a stringer in about 1969, I think it was, and I remember her, vividly early on, one morning around 10 o’clock. [I was on] one of the old typewriters, making my best efforts to produce a story that might or might not appear, and usually without a byline. And Gloria walked in behind me and looked over my shoulder, like this, and she grabbed the paper right out of the typewriter and threw it up into the air and [makes a high-pitched laughing sound]. Then she walked out over to the trash can.
That was the first time I met Gloria. What I didn’t really know, but really it was Gloria's way of saying that she really did care about what I was trying to do. I soon learned that the price for friendship with Gloria was de-masculation. Some people understood that, and others didn’t make friendships. But it was worth it. She was really different.
We spent lots of time running around Saigon together and sometimes she would get on my blue Vespa, and grab me around the waist…. I remember so many times that I would be with her and the Vietnamese themselves would be wondering what is this all about, and would ask me, “Is this your mother?Is this your wife? Who is this?” And I have to say it was difficult to explain. I would say, no, she is a correspondent here for the New York Times. And they would be shaking their heads as you can well imagine. Her concerns were cross cultural, but she certainly didn’t pay attention to the culture itself.
I have many stories, but one of my favorites Gloria stories -- and Alison for the next couple minutesmyou can just close your ears-- but late one night, it was about 10 o’clock at night, and I think some of you may know where I am going with this, but I want to tell it first hand. It had been one particularly outrageous day, and we had returned from the Five O’clock Follies and … the US Army had just announced they literally had 75 Viet Cong and another 38 North Vietnamese soldiers, and it was just going so wonderfully. Well, we started talking, and to this day, I cannot tell who thought of this idea, but we decided that together we would make some sort of statement about that day, about the egregious nature of what was really going on in Vietnam. So we went back to this place right in the very center of Saigon where they had briefings at 5 o’clock each day, and of course there were a lot of soldiers standing in front of it. The conspiracy was, or how it got started, was I would get the attention of this soldier, speaking to him in Vietnamese in conversation, and she would sneak in around the back, without him seeing, and that is exactly what she did. It was a quarter of the size of this room, with three white walls and a stage, and so she took a large black marker and in letters that were about three feet tall, she wrote, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” And then she sneaks out, and I waited until she came out, and she was beyond herself, she thought this was a great, great moment of being a correspondent for the New York Times.
She could not, and did not pretend, as you all know, to control her outrage when faced with outrages. She became the godmother to our youngest child and each time as we moved to different places over the last thirty years, every time she would come visit. So, I just say that Gloria was a mentor, a colleague, a soulmate, I just have this picture in my mind of a great cloud in heaven, and this guy is thinking about her at this time.
I'm Kevin Buckley, and I met Gloria in Cambodia in 1970 when I was working for Newsweek.
I've kept letters from Gloria over the years, and tonight I want to share part of one with you. For me, this message, from over a dozen years ago, conjures up at least a part of our very brave, loyal, and un-sentimental friend.
She sent me a newspaper clip, with a dateline familiar to many people here, with this headline: “Old Indochina Hands of the Press Gather Again (in Haunted City of Phnom Penh)”. Across the top Gloria wrote, “Oh I am so grateful not to have to be there.”
Dear Gloria - rest in peace, and please never let any of us have any peace, if you see us becoming indifferent to dishonesty and suffering around us. Thank you.
If you will allow me a few final words, most of them are Gloria’s own. The obituary she wrote does not speak of many things: Her marriages. The stories she wrote in Belfast. Her reporting in the Nigerian civil war in Biafra in 1967, when she hired a car and a driver in Lagos and got to the front 600 miles away, something her male colleagues had been unable to do. How you get the story is not the point, she told her colleague Lloyd Garrison later. It’s what you do with it once you get it.
She left out of her obituary the reason why she made her first trip to Saigon in 1956, to see someone she called an original and romantic man of a certain impeccable eastern background, which meant St. Paul’s School, Harvard, debutante parties and the New York Social Register. This from Winners and Losers: “In the Fifties I was always beguiled by men who could make me laugh - it seemed a special American talent – so his humor and bravado caught and held me for years. In 1956 in that hot city of yellow and green, both of us read the American edition of The Quiet American,” she wrote. “It was a first warning for me, but I dismissed the book as brilliant but cynical, until it came back to haunt me more than I ever thought such a small, light book ever could.” She told of lending the novel many years later to a Vietnam veteran who wanted to write. “He did not see what could still be learned from The Quiet American or the conversation in the watchtower between Fowler and Pyle. ‘Almost everything,’ I said.”
Men, some of her colleagues and some battle-hardened soldiers in Vietnam, sometimes dismissed her either as an eccentric, or as a self-hating American antiwar activist. Gloria was relentlessly critical of America, true. As she writes of Molly, the main character in Loving Graham Greene:
”She did not like money or trust its power. Her inheritance made her feel uneasy in a country where the poor were so easily humiliated and seen as morally inferior. There was always the need to distance herself from a culture she abhorred, a society deformed and contaminated by money, sickening itself, insatiable and pathetic. No one could repudiate this except by abnegation, by sharing, and by a strict refusal to consume or to yield to any frivolity. Of course, Molly doesn’t have children or it would be a different story, some friends liked to say, and were right.”
Nobody could be more objective and critical of herself than Gloria was. Listen to this passage, where Molly has just seen prisoners being brought, bleeding and disheveled, into a police station in Algiers, where she has come to try to rescue some writers from the terrifying violence between the government and Islamic fundamentalist opposition and terrorist groups that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Algeria in the early 1990s.
”Molly, who passionately felt that all decent people must interfere to save the helpless even if it put them at risk, began hollering and running toward the group. The men turned their heads at the astonishing sight; even the policemen stopped shoving and stood there. What made Molly certain, although she had no experience in these matters, that the prisoners were innocent was their cringing appearance, the disbelief on their faces. She thought guilty men would be prouder and more defiant, carrying themselves differently to the beatings that would come and the long hours of interrogation ahead. She was so fast that she was even able to grab the arm of one of the prisoners, as if to pull him free. One of his bedroom slippers had come off, so he was limping. He was not grateful to Molly, it would be worse for him inside if the police were worked up. … [T]hen Ahmed, the driver, spoke, as if he were addressing high-strung children.
”You are in good hands with me, he said. But I must ask you to behave correctly. He would certainly have to keep an eye on the tall, skinny woman so she did not get all of them in trouble. What a spectacle she put on, he thought.”
In the end, Molly’s well-meaning attempt to help brings down disaster on Ahmed and his family. Molly weeps bitter tears over her failure to make a difference.
But Gloria Emerson did make a difference. She dismissed the stories she wrote from Vietnam as ice cubes that would melt in the sun compared to the photographs they ran with. But all Gloria’s stories - the one about the American private who told her he had been forced to invent the facts in his general’s citation for a Silver Star, the one about the Vietnamese hootch maid in Tay Ninh who shined boots for GIs as old as her children, the one about the seven women Vietcong prisoners who were waiting for interrogation - many of her stories were about the courage it takes to do what conscience insists on when all the pressures are to not look foolish, to give in, to go along. Gloria did not give in. Gloria did not go along. So, as we go out from this place, let us lift up our hearts, be grateful that we were privileged to know Gloria for a little while, and remember what she would say: Don’t just sit around moping. There is too much to do, right out there on the street, in Darfur, in West Africa, in Haiti, in Baghdad, all around us. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, she used to quote.
Good night, Gloria; angry, funny, complicated, crazed, beautiful Gloria, good night.