Brief Encounters

Short reviews of Anonymous in Their Own Names and At the Fights

Anonymous in Their Own Names: Doris E. Fleischman, Ruth Hale, and Jane Grant | By Susan Henry | Vanderbilt University Press | 294 pages | $35

What did Doris E. Fleischman, Ruth Hale, and Jane Grant have in common? According to their biographer, Susan Henry: they shared an era, the early-middle decades of the 20th century; they were talented media professionals; and they were married to men more famous. Most important, each sought in her own way to maintain an independent identity. The symbol of that struggle was their involvement with the Lucy Stone League, devoted to winning the right for married women to use their birth names, both unofficially and on documents such as passports and marriage licenses. That relatively simple-sounding gain was far from easy.

The three of them chose men who depended on them as collaborators and at the same time failed to give them room to develop their own public identities. Fleischman married public-relations pioneer Edward L. Bernays, in 1922, and was from the beginning half-owner of their thriving business. But she chose to let Bernays remain the public face of the enterprise while she applied her considerable skills to behind-the-scenes planning over their many years together.

Hale in 1917 married Heywood Broun, who would soon become New York’s most popular newspaper columnist. An independent-minded woman with a formidable wit of her own, she became in essence her husband’s professional manager, keeping the disheveled Broun’s obligations in order and steering him toward more socially conscious work. When she could, she produced her own sporadic writing. Ultimately, they divorced and both died relatively young, she first in 1934, he in 1939.

Grant married Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, in 1920. A talented singer in her youth, she became a co-founder of the new magazine, which began publication in 1925, and returned nearly 20 years later to help untangle its business side. They divorced in 1929, but unlike the other two women Grant had a happy second act. She married William Harris, editor of Fortune; the union lasted until her death in 1972.

The work of many years, Susan Henry’s finely detailed biography of these women represents extraordinary research—extended interviews with the superannuating Bernays (who lived past 100), and with Heywood Hale Broun, who changed his name to honor his mother. She also tracked Jane Grant’s papers to the University of Oregon, which benefited from an unsolicited gift of $3.5 million from her second husband; the gift included a million dollars’ worth of Grant’s New Yorker stock.

At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing | Edited by George Kimball and John Schulian | Foreword by Colum McCann | A Special Publication of The Library of America | 517 pages | $35, $19.95 paperbound

In its role as “the only organization ever chartered to safeguard our country’s literary heritage and to foster greater appreciation for America’s best and most significant writing,” the Library of America has added to its list At the Fights, a compilation of American writing about professional boxing, an activity that has lost much of its popularity in recent years.

The anthology begins with Jack London’s account of the racially charged Jack Johnson-James Jeffries match in 1910. “ ‘Don’t let the negro knock [Jeffries] out,’ was the oft-repeated cry,” London writes. But the focus is on mid-century—the era bookended by the championship reigns of Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali. Here is where the literary heavyweights enter the arena and come out looking a little lightweight. James Baldwin on Patterson v. Sonny Liston; Norman Mailer on Muhammad Ali v. George Foreman; and Joyce Carol Oates on “Rape and the Boxing Ring”—these are all serviceable stories, but they lack the flashes of insight one expects from major writers. The large welterweight class comprises a group of younger writers who typically have come up by way of Sports Illustrated and/or ESPN. Their narratives are often small-scale sociological novels of race, class, and ethnicity, portraying the rise from poverty, all-too-brief celebrity, and decline into obscurity—or worse—of figures already half-forgotten.

However, I give my personal decision, because their work speaks to both insiders and outsiders, to two old favorites—the wry and economical A. J. Liebling, who was a skilled enough avocational boxer himself; and Gay Talese, who profiles a gloomy, reclusive Floyd Patterson after his defeat at the hands of Sonny Liston in 1963. Almost 50 years later, the piece still captivates.

The book contains a brief memorial by John Schulian for his co-editor, George Kimball, late of the Lion’s Head and other precincts, who died in 2011.

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.