Grace Paley, a Woman of Her Words

The writer:
The writer: "I am interested in a history of everyday life." (1994 Photo: Gentl & Hyers/arts Counsel Inc. Via Bloomberg News)
By Leora Skolkin-Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 25, 2007

My friends and I used to call Grace Paley's West Village apartment "headquarters" because she was the mother of our needy female selves. And we all needed her maternity so much.

I first met her decades ago when I was an insecure sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College. I had, under my arm, my first attempt at a novel -- a 200-page disaster that I had been toting around campus like a shield against the armies of "others." It was 1972, and I dared not let anyone know how frightened, how terribly inadequate, I felt.

I pretended, instead, as I am sure now so many of us did back then, to know everything about art, politics, sex and my "inner" self.

At Sarah Lawrence we had to interview with the teachers with whom we wanted to study. Grace wasn't very famous then. She had written "The Little Disturbances of Man" but had a wonderful, romantic mystique about her. She was real Greenwich Village bohemian. She wore no makeup, a girlish shift that she must have bought on sale somewhere, and bright red Keds. Her long hair was held in a ponytail with a rubber band.

I walked into her office armed with my "novel," and trembling. She looked at me, leaned back in her chair and said: "No kidding."

Then the phone rang and she answered it. "Yeah, yeah," she said into the phone. "I got all these kids I have to interview for my class . . . See ya tonight at the meeting."

I turned redder and redder. When I finally collapsed into tears, I heard the phone slam down. Then I felt the arms of this 5-2 woman, those stocky but solid arms, envelop me. Her face had become suddenly serious, as if redrawn by an invisible painter. "I was [messed] up, too," she said.

"Believe me. At NYU, you know, they kicked me out of my writing class and sent me home. . . . I liked sitting on the stoop a lot instead of doing homework, hanging around the block, talking to my friends a little too much," she continued in a story she would tell many times. "But listen, that's where I got all my stories! Listening to people talking . . . listening, listening, listening."

She had been born Grace Goodside, the daughter of Jewish parents whose surname was Anglicized from Gutseit on emigrating from Ukraine. Grace's father, Isaac, learned English by reading the works of Charles Dickens, she once told me, and later he became a medical doctor. Known for being a charismatic, fiery and quite lively storyteller himself, he ushered their family into what she would later term "America's middle classes."

In the early 1940s, Grace studied with W.H. Auden at the New School for Social Research, and his influence on her was profound. "Find your voice and then the voices of your neighborhood, the voices of your immigrant family, women and men around your neighborhood," he told her.

James Joyce's "Dubliners" was also a great influence, and some say Grace portrayed New York as Joyce had portrayed Dublin, full of multicultural genes and voices and irreverence.

But her life was fodder, too. He first marriage broke up shortly after her two children, Nora and Danny, were born. Grace became a typist, a babysitter, a secretary. It was from these first shocks of struggle and desperately trying to survive, financially and emotionally, that she said she learned to listen to the "stories of women." Women abandoned by husbands, welfare women, housewives, women as lovers. She listened and watched and wrote stories about them and herself. But the rejection of editors was her only reward.

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