Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for the New Yorker, offered the best description of the breadth of Lipson’s interests and judgment. He first met her when she came to speak at Alex Garvin’s city planning seminar at Yale:
She was presenting a study she had done about the gargantuan rocket assembly building at Cape Kennedy, the largest enclosed space in the world. I remember that Eden called the paper ‘How High Is the Sky?’ and that I was struck by the whimsy of that, whimsy being a trait that visiting scholars did not tend to have. It did not take long to discover that Eden had a deep and passionate connection to the spirit of place, to the notion of a kind of poetics of place. She understood instinctively that places, like people, play a critical role in emotional life, and at that stage of her life she was spending a lot of her time trying to make sense of that idea.
We had a drink after the class to talk about it, and that was the beginning of a discussion—and a deep friendship—that lasted for forty years. From Eden I learned to understand Olmsted, and Central Park, and Long Island Sound, and Sea Cliff and the Upper West Side and the Lower East Side, and Los Angeles and London and a thousand other places. Our last extended time together was a long walk around the Lower East Side, which she had helped guide through the last generation of its growth; she saw everything, from the madness of the glass condos and hotels to the joys of the street and the markets, and she saw the bad stuff with a rueful irony, and the good stuff with unbridled joy.
What she never expressed was an outright anger, even at things she obviously despised, not because her standards weren’t high—they were very high—but because she knew how they were part of a larger, organic process, and she knew that we are better off trying to influence that process for the better rather than denying it outright. It was not so different from the attitude she took toward her illness. She was never in denial, but neither was she visibly angry. She wanted her efforts to go to making life better, not to pretending that this world is not what it is. Eden’s love of place did not take precedence over her other loves—for journalism, for children’s literature, for justice and politics and art and theater and music and dance and food and for the people in her life. All of these things coexisted, and they were always framed by realism, by insight, and by laughter, in one of the most sublime balances I have ever seen in a human being.
Two of Lipson’s closest friends were Molly Ivins and John Leonard, and together they formed a triumvirate who devoted their lives to the promotion of great books and progressive ideas. Ivins and Leonard had both been diagnosed with cancer before Lipson was, and they provided one another with extraordinary support.
Two Septembers ago, Lipson spoke at the memorial for Ivins in Manhattan. And what she said about the great Texas journalist applied equally to herself: “Molly was the one who saw America large and clear, who out-reported the mainstream media from Austin, who had a balanced and ultimately optimistic view of the world. Molly’s generosity was legendary, but in addition, she was brave. She went on book tours two and half times while on chemotherapy.”
Then Lipson recalled Ivins’s final counsel to her—and everyone listening recognized that Lipson was modeling her final days on her dear friend’s advice.
“Understanding mortality is entirely personal and you won’t know it until you face it,” Lipson recalled Ivins had said to her. “The cancer will probably kill you in the end, but moving ahead, do as much as you can…until you can’t.”
“And then it’s okay to let go.”
Update: To listen to Neal Conan’s fine tribute to Eden on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, click here.