Thursday, April 21, 2011

Obsessive Genius

Cherry blossoms abound in Central Park. 4:45 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, April 21, 2011. Semi-sunny, yesterday in New York with temperatures hovering in the slightly chilly low 50s.

I went down to Michael’s to lunch with Barbara Goldsmith. Michael’s was its Wednesday-jammed although Barbara and I quickly fell into an intense conversation about books, the state of the world, the President, the occult (she wrote “Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull”), and writing.
Park Avenue flora.
I’ve been a fan of Barbara’s since her book “Little Gloria Happy at Last” was published in the late 1970s. A page turner that you can’t turn fast enough, about the childhood of little Gloria Vanderbilt.

Since then I’ve also come to know her personally, and her interests and her generosity. Barbara is one of those people who quietly goes about living a very full life of philanthropy, work and literary activism while appearing to be stress-free. She “shares” her know-how and her talents, and does so as a matter of course.

She’s long been an active member and contributor to PEN where she endowed the PEN Freedom to Write Awards, given annually to spotlight writers imprisoned for expressing their views. Of the 37 writers imprisoned, missing or tortured at the time of her award, 34 set set free.
DPC and Barbara Goldsmith after a very busy lunch and cappuccinos at Michael's.
At the New York Public Library she funded the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation and Conservation Divisions while also organizing the country’s writers to be published on cost-comparable permanent paper (which last 300 years, instead of disintegrating in 30). She helped effect a $20 million annual increase in the budget of the National Endowment of the Humanities for paper preservation.

So when we do get together, the talk covers a lot of territory. Furthermore she travels often as well as dividing some her time between homes in Aspen and in East Hampton. She’s now reading “The Hare with Amber Eyes” which I recently finished, and finds it every bit as provocative, effecting and alarming as I did.

We talked about her most recent book, “Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie,” part of the Norton paperback series on lives of people in the sciences. The idea had been presented to her by her friend Robert Darnton a few years ago on behalf of Norton and their special series.

Click to order Obsessive Genius.
Madame Curie’s private papers had recently been released after 70 years under lock and key because their levels of radioactivity. The papers were considered too dangerous to handle for decades (something Madame Curie was unaware of in her work with the material – and which would eventually kill her). Time had dissipated the radiation and Barbara being the scholarly woman found the challenge fascinating.

The papers, notes, and letters turned out to be a treasure trove for the curious Barbara who is also a tireless researcher. She found the key to and the core of the woman who coined the term radioactivity, discovered polonium (which she named for her native Poland) and radium. She won two Nobel prizes, was the first female professor at the University of Paris and the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Paris Pantheon, after a rich and emotionally full life.

The finished work, “Obsessive Genius,” was published in October 2005. Because it was part of a rather scholarly series in paperback, there were no special expectations in terms of sales. But: it became a New York Times bestseller, has been published in 23 languages and sold out of its printings. Even more surprising to Barbara who has also written screenplays in the past, is that the book will be adapted and presented in a partnership between HBO and Sony with a script by Nigel Williams, screenwriter for “Elizabeth I” with Barbara as co-producer.
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