Formidable women

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An elderly woman fallen on hard times. Photo: JH.

Friday, June 9, 2023. The polluted air from the fires in Canada continued yesterday, although literally lightening up by late afternoon. Although there are predictions that it will continue through tomorrow. The temps daytime in the Sun were into the mid- to high-70s by afternoon.

A near apocalyptic view of Manhattan’s skyline.

Last week when I was researching a subject of interest, I accidentally came upon my version of an obituary which we published here almost 20 years ago about Gloria Emerson. I met her once when she spoke at an anti-war rally in Stamford, Connecticut in 1973. She had a very impressive personality, both hospitable and staunch. She was smart and straightforward. She had returned from Vietnam where she had been covering our war over there, and it turned out she had been very much against our being there. But that’s another long story that’s history now.

Re-reading this memory, I was struck how the field of journalism has changed dramatically in the past couple decades. Far more women are employed on-camera, many of which are TV and movie attractive. Gloria would not have rated in that category and yet she was one of the smartest women I’ve ever known, and a brilliant journalist.

Yet, she was a leader in her manner of communication. Like a mother really. She had a soft tone of voice but spoke with clariety and annunciation, like a good teacher at the head of the classroom. That was peppered with a good sense of humor.  However, after knowing her briefly — I saw her a couple of times after the rally — I am left with the thought that she was entirely right about Vietnam. She saw it all, and reported much of what she could report, but she got the message and spoke it loudly and clearly. It’s a message that still falls on deaf ears.

Here’s my recollection of the woman, first published on the NYSD in August 2004:

Gloria Emerson by Dorothy Marder, End of War Rally, Central Park, May 11, 1975.

Formidable women. Gloria Emerson died at the beginning of the month, of her own hand. Some may have seen her obituaries in the Times, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune. She was 75 and suffering from Parkinson’s, sensibly fearful that she would soon be unable to write, the only way she had to support herself.

I met her 30 years ago (ed.: 50 years ago today) when she came to the fore as the first woman correspondent for the New York Times in Vietnam, from 1970 to 1972. She was the first of all of the correspondents (that I know of) who lambasted the military establishment mercilessly in her dispatches. They were with such power — the kind of power that only a woman possesses — that her reportage had a profound effect on the opinion of many, as well as altering the way some things were done in the conduct of the war.

I met her in late 1973 at an anti-war rally in Stamford, Connecticut to which she had come to speak. She was a very magnetic creature. Tall, willowy, bone-skinny, delicate fair-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed with a most elegant manner of speaking and comportment. Wearing an army surplus jacket and jeans, sometimes glasses, she was not pretty with a noticeably receding chin, yet so powerful a feminine presence that she had her own beauty. She reminded me of a very patrician woman who had chucked it all to devote herself to getting a fateful message out to the world.

Her message was that the war in Vietnam was a dreadful, stupid, wrong-headed, corrupt endeavor that sapped the vitality and youth of this great country. She liked to tell the story of coming back to New York and being invited to a dinner at the home of Iphigenia Sulzberger, the dowager of the family which owned the Times; mother of the then publisher Arthur Sulzberger and grandmother of the present publisher. Mrs. Sulzberger, a very elegant and formidable woman herself, coming from another age, asked Gloria at this dinner what she thought of the military balls in Saigon.

Richard Avedon’s portrait of Gloria Emerson with photojournalist Denis Cameron and interpreter Nguyen Ngoc Luong in Saigon, South Vietnam, April 19, 1971.

“In Saigon, Mrs. Sulzberger, the American military have no balls,” was Gloria’s proudly caustic reply.

She was a very compelling figure to listen to. 
Her recounting of her experiences, of what she had seen, the violence, the horrendous deaths, the hideous injustices of warfare were painfully articulated. She was a woman with a mission. A mission to stop the killing. She was also a woman whose righteousness was beyond question, angry but sainted.

I knew very little about her life although it was evident on meeting that she was from a very cultivated, most likely upperclass, probably WASP-ish background. She didn’t give a fig for any of it and had no respect for those who didn’t see things her way. She was married twice, albeit briefly. She’d secured a job writing about fashion for the New York Times when in her thirties — something which she dismissed almost contemptuously, and was assigned to Saigon when she was 41.

After coming back from Vietnam, she was on a tear. She stood up in Professor Dr. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s lecture hall at Harvard and shouted out her questions on his stand on the war in Vietnam. And unsatisfied by his attempts to avoid the affront, she continued with more hard, unrelenting (and you might have thought — unforgiving) questions.

She was so fiercely independent in her thinking that it was hard to imagine her involved in a personal relationship. Although. She was, as I said, not a pretty woman, but with a most definite allure, the kind which seems at once needy and yet witheringly dismissive. I could only think the men who fell for her probably didn’t know what hit them after it was over.

She was a woman who was deeply humanitarian, who cared about the people who were victims of humanity’s terrible war machine that was grinding up lives on the other side of the planet. All in the name of stopping the Red Chinese “domino theory” from eventually taking over the world. 

That meant, as it often seems to with those who have a greater cause, that no one was excluded from her intolerance of ignorance, or what she so righteously regarded as ignorance. How ironic it must have seemed to her that three decades (ed.five decades) later, this “mortal” enemy has transmogrified into a flamboyantly capitalistic financial system which invests its mega-surpluses into the securities of the U.S. government.

“I didn’t write to be famous; I wrote to keep a record,” she told an interviewer with the Washington Post years after her Vietnam experience. Indeed, after that she wrote several books including a novel (Loving Graham Greene) and frequently for magazines and periodicals. I never saw her after our brief encounters during the months after her speech at the rally. I would like to have seen her again but felt that I had nothing to bring to her table of important world affairs. Her eloquence and elegance intimidated this young man. There was also a powerful feeling of futility about her passionate quest. I couldn’t disagree and yet had nothing to offer by way of agreement.

What she was, was smart, and powerful, and way ahead of most of us in the department of human courage;  raw, but not unwise, futile but graced by brains of loving kindness. The life, it seems, personified the struggle she wrote about so compellingly and brilliantly.

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