The great historian Gertrude Himmelfarb died yesterday at her home at the age of 97. Known to those who knew her best as Bea Kristol, she was an intellectual giant who managed always to be warm, generous, and deeply humble.
Getting to know that personal side of her just a little was a privilege I’ll always cherish. Over a period of nearly a decade, until last year when her health made it more difficult, my friend Pete Wehner and I would meet her for lunch every few months. We relished the chance to seek her opinions and to ask about the extraordinary life she had lived, but we actually spent most of the time engrossed in conversation sparked by her questions. In passing, by way of raising these questions, she made it evident that she was reading online voraciously, taking in essays and commentary from the Left and the Right and following young writers with keen interest. She was in her 90s, but had a better sense of the pulse of our intellectual culture than we did.
But great a privilege as these conversations were, I certainly didn’t know her personally as well as many others who will surely be reflecting on her character in the coming days. I knew her better through her work, an amazing seven decades of historical scholarship of the highest caliber, focused on Victorian Britain, but always with an eye to deeper lessons that still resonate.
Along with books and academic publications, some of this work took the form of essays in her favorite venues. The editors of Commentary (where her byline could be found by the late 1940s) have gathered it all together in one place today. Several fine contributions to The Public Interest can be found here. At the Atlantic, David Brooks offers a beautiful remembrance.
And over on the NRO homepage, I’ve got an essay of my own, offering some reflections on her scholarly work—its ambition and range, and its significance and influence.
Great historians are essential to the health of any free society, and ones as great as Gertrude Himmelfarb are vanishingly rare. Our country was lucky to have her. RIP.