Sep 1, 2009
What I Learned from Older Women
(New York: Crown Publishers, 2000)
Marie Brenner, who has penned the amazing, gripping investigative thriller The Insider among other books, put together one book I found rather misleading. Ostensibly, Great Dames is, according to the subtitle, about women she learned from. A few chapters into the book, however, we readers realize she did not know many of them very well. In fact, she relies heavily on anecdotes from others and from her subjects’s memoirs. Diana Trilling is a good example, and Brenner’s treatment of Whittaker Chambers a good case in point.
After his defection that year, Chambers had met KGB defector Walter Krivitsky, whose denunciation of Joseph Stalin was appearing in serialized form in America’s (then) No. 1 magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. Inspired by Krivitsky (whom he befriended and admired greatly), Chambers tried to find some means to publicize his insider information about Communist penetration within the U.S. Federal Government. His Columbia friend, Herbert Solow, a follower of John Dewey, tried to introduced Chambers to Dewey at a Halloween party later that year.
This is a sketch of the background that led Chambers to “crash” (Hook, Out of Step, p. 286) that Halloween party. And this party just happened to occur in the Brooklyn home of Marie Brenner’s very own aunt, Anita Brenner. (Anita Brenner was a well known Leftist woman writer in the 1930s.) Many of the guests that night were part of what people later called “the New York Intellectuals.”
Marie Brenner skips over any of this background. For her, Chambers was just some “Stalinist agent in hiding… coming above ground for the first time” (p. 88) — you know how such people tend to show up at New York parties…? Ho-hum.
Brenner then cites a harebrained idea that Diana peddled for years: namely, that the Pumpkin Papers came about because Whittaker Chambers hid stolen microfilm in a pumpkin — because he remembered the pumpkins at that Halloween party all those years ago…
Why did Brenner even mention this incident?
She never explains.
However, what she should have done is dig a little into Diana’s claim. The she could have exposed how Diana was just as capable as Lillian Hellman of mucking fact with fiction. Instead, Brenner presents Diana’s version at face value. That kind of treatment makes Great Dames seem skin deep.
Given Anita’s close ties with the Trillings — and Chambers — niece Brenner’s presentation seems ignorant if not disingenuous.
Oh, yes. Consider: Anita Brenner had articles published in The New Masses in 1933, only a few months after Chambers disappeared as editor-in-chief (recruited into the underground).
Not close enough?
Well, then, there is Anita’s fellow-traveling past. In Anita Brenner: A Mind of Her Own, author (and Marie Brenner’s cousin) Susannah Joel Glusker, says:
In the thirties in New York, Anita socialized with the group of Jewish intellectuals who worked at the Menorah Journal, long before they initiated political activities… Last night had dinner at Lionel Trilling’s… They were good friends and participated together in radical organizations such as the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, the Non-Partisan Labor Defense, and the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. (pp. 152-154)
That’s pretty ho-hum, too, right?
Yet the author of Great Dames (she who also penned The Insider) seems to have missed (or overlooked) a wealth of insider information. Can’t get much more “insider” than inside the family.
Frankly, if you want to read about an amazing woman, I recommend cousin Susannah’s Anita Brenner: A Mind of Her Own, over Great Dames.
In fact, maybe the next person to read cousin Susannah’s book should be — Marie Brenner…?