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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Barbara Goldsmith

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-02-21

Barbara Goldsmith says she was born to share.

"It was inculcated in me early that if you were privileged, then you're obliged to give back to society," the best-selling author and historian, said yesterday. "My parents made it clear to my sister Ann and me that it was important to think about other people, and not just yourself."

She took their exhortation seriously. Almost as much as her notable books - "Little Gloria...Happy at Last," "Johnson v. Johnson," "Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie," and "Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull," are celebrated, Ms. Goldsmith is herself celebrated for her philanthropy
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"I believe in saving people, and saving books," she said.

The people she "saves" are involved with books. Nearly 20 years ago, Ms. Goldsmith conceived the "PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards." They help focus attention on imprisoned writers. Of the 37 writers imprisoned or missing at the time of her awards, 34 were subsequently set free.

And the books that Ms. Goldsmith "saves" are to be found in myriad places, including the Goldsmith Conservation and Preservation Laboratories at the New York Public Library. She has also donated the preservation and conservation Departments to New York University. And she has gifted a state-of-the-art rare-book library to the American Academy in Rome, and another one to her alma mater, Wellesley College.

But ask her to elaborate on her philanthropy, and Ms. Goldsmith demurs.
"I've been very fortunate to find the trip joyful - full of love and good work," she said. "What more could one ask?"

One could, of course, ask her about the wellspring of her sensibility. The response is to be anticipated: Her parents.

Ms. Goldsmith's father, Joseph I. Lubin, was born as the youngest of 8 children in a Lower East Side tenement. He established himself as an accountant and lawyer, rising to become board chairman of Pepsi-Cola at the age of 40. He endowed Pace University's Lubin School of Business, and also Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Along with John D. Rockefeller 2nd, he donated millions for the purchase of stockyards along the East River in 1946 so that a headquarters for the United Nations could be built.

"His was an authentic rags-to-riches story," Ms. Goldsmith said of her father.

Her mother hailed from more fortunate circumstances than Lubin. Evelyn Cronson's father, Reuben, was chief of surgery at New York's Presbyterian Hospital. Active in social work, Evelyn helped retarded children; during World War II, she prepared bandages for troops - and taught her younger daughter the technique.

"She also taught me how importance it was to have a happy family life," Ms. Goldsmith said. "She would say, 'be careful - you don't want a scrapbook full of honors, but no life.' One of my mother's regrets was that her father, a doctor, never let her be a doctor herself."

That would have been one of the few regrets in an otherwise fulfilling life. Evelyn Cronson Lubin lived to see Barbara Goldsmith develop into an acclaimed writer - one of the most successful practitioners of what came to be called "The New Journalism" - and an Emmy-winning documentary maker.

She lived to see Ms. Goldsmith's three adult children - Alice, John and Andrew - get married and have children.

But she did not live to see Ms. Goldsmith's six grandchildren. Neither did she live to see her daughter organize 2,500 of America's most influential writers to insist that they be published on cost-comparable permanent paper - which lasts 300 years instead of deteriorating in 30. Ms. Goldsmith secured a $20 million grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities for paper preservation.

"This will potentially save billions of future dollars that might otherwise be spent on preservation," Ms. Goldsmith said.

Her work on technical and business matters relating to publishing might suggest that Ms. Goldsmith had commerce in her DNA.

Not so, she said.

"No business was ever discussed in our house," Ms. Goldsmith said. "What was discussed was history. We were given quizzes at the dining table. My father was an American history buff. We had a large library. I read everything that I could get my hands on - Dumas, Thackeray, Proust, Dickens."

It was quite possibly such reading that spawned in her a desire to write.

When she was 9, Ms. Goldsmith created a character named Jackson the Jester, and read her composition aloud before her class at Mayflower Grammar School in New Rochelle. When she finished, she noticed that several of her fellow students were crying because of the pathos in the story.

"That was a 10-minute recitation - 10 minutes that changed my life," Ms. Goldsmith said.

She vowed to become a writer. While she was at high school, she worked summers for Town & Country magazine. Later, she worked for The New Yorker. She gained early notice for her profiles of Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Danny Kaye, and Deborah Kerr. Ms. Goldsmith also interviewed and wrote about Picasso, Marcel Breuer, and I. M. Pei, among other artists and architects.

"I've always been curious - I like to peel the onion," Ms. Goldsmith said. "If something doesn't make sense, then you don't take it at face value," she said.

That could well be a tutorial for today's crop of young writers. But Ms. Goldsmith said that the term "The New Journalism" is a misnomer.

"There's good journalism and bad - that's it," she said.

What she frets about is that there isn't enough of the observation, detail, intuitiveness and understanding of people in much of today's reporting and writing.

"And where has the passion gone?" she asked. "It's so important to have a sense of adventure."

A reporter, who recalled reading her magazine profiles and early books as a young man, asked Ms. Goldsmith how she saw her extraordinary life in the privacy of her mind.

She replied: "The joy has been in the doing."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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