A most unusual book by a most unusual woman was published last week. The author is Ruth Gruber, who was born in 1911, and the book is her Ph.D. thesis, “Virginia Woolf: A Study,” which was originally published in 1935 by the Tauchnitz Press in Leipzig. This 75th-anniversary edition of the dissertation now published by Carroll & Graf as Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman is the first time the book has been published in the United States
Ruth, who says that from the age of five or six she wanted to be a writer, was born in Brooklyn. “Brooklyn,” she says “was my shetl.” She went to Germany to study in 1931 and earned her Ph.D. from Cologne University at age 20, becoming the youngest person in the world, at that time, to be awarded a doctorate. “Hitler was coming to power. There were brown-shirted students at the university already at the time.”
She was asked to write her thesis on Woolf by the professor who was the head of the English department. “Virginia Woolf’s books were not very well known at the time,” she recalled. “He felt because I was English speaking I would be the right person to write about her work.” After the war, she learned that when the S.S. came to that professor’s door, he committed suicide.
Jane Marcus, a professor of English at CUNY and an expert on Woolf, in assessing the book, has heaped praised on Ruth’s long-ago effort. She writes, “The recovery of this brilliant book demands an instant rewriting of literary history. For now we know that Virginia Woolf’s work found the critic she deserved in a 19-year-old Brooklyn Jewish girl.”
After writing her thesis, Ruth wrote to Virginia Woolf and had a brief meeting with her. Just last year she found in a forgotten file Woolf’s letters to her. “They were very warm and affectionate,” she says. But in Woolf’s diaries at the time she wrote about Ruth with a disparaging anti-Semitic tone. “She was a manic depressive,” Ruth says, “and all I can say is that when she was manic she behaved very badly.”
Ruth went on to become an author, a foreign correspondent, and a photographer. Perhaps her most famous deed was escorting one thousand Holocaust survivors from Italy to America in 1944. She wrote about this in Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 WW II Refugees and How they Came to America, which was recently made into a TV miniseries.
But at 94 she is not resting on her laurels. First of all, she celebrated her book’s launch with not one but two book parties. At one party, a hundred books were sold and all the proceeds went to the Scholar Rescue Fund of the Institute of International Education.
The Fund provides fellowships for scholars whose lives and work are threatened in their home countries. These fellowships permit recipients to find temporary refuge at universities and colleges anywhere in the world, enabling them to pursue their academic work and to share their knowledge with students and colleagues. “The Fund has established a Ruth Gruber chair,” she told me. “It is very thrilling since when I was 19 I received a fellowship from the Institute of International Education which allowed me to study in Germany.”
She is also working on two other books. One is a book of her photographs that Schocken Books is publishing. The other is the third volume of her autobiography. The first volume was called Ahead of My Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent, and was also published by Carroll and Graf. The second is Inside of Time: From Alaska to Israel, and the third will be titled In Spite of Time: How to Live at 93.
I have known Ruth for several years. Once I was at a party where a woman who headed a writers’ group that Ruth joined when she was in her late 80s talked about her. “At an evening session, she came and read from a book she was working on and, to be honest, everyone in the group ignored her age and really criticized what she had done. She listened and didn’t say much. Afterwards I was very upset and couldn’t sleep, thinking about how much she had achieved and how disrespectful we had seemed. So I called her first thing the next morning and she said, ‘You were all so right in your criticism. I was up all night working. Thank you so much for being so honest.’”
When I asked Ruth her advice for how to continue to flourish in one’s 90s she told me: “Proper diet, exercise every day, never, never retire, keep up your social life, and do everything, everything from the heart.”
And how is she going to celebrate July 4? “I love this country,” she says, “America is my land. The English language is my home. I love New York and I live near Central Park. I am going to walk in the park and watch the young lovers, the babies in their carriages. Watching people enjoying themselves, what better way is there to celebrate?”
–Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.