Who’s Here: Barbara Goldsmith Writer & Philanthropist

Barbara Goldsmith is a celebrated New Yorker who has summered in the Hamptons for more than half a century. She’s well-known in the literary world, not only for her books, some of which have risen to #1 on The New York Times best seller list, but also for her earlier career when as a recent, brilliant graduate of Wellesley College, she began writing about the art world, civil rights and celebrity, ushering in the style of New Journalism. She is also a well-known New York philanthropist.

Barbara has had a wonderful, exciting life, and I was pleased to have lunch with her recently, where we got into a long discussion about it.

Her father’s father emigrated from the Russian-Polish border at the turn of the 20th century to the Lower East, where he sold goods from a pushcart and, according to her father, moved from apartment to apartment with his family of eight kids whenever the rent came due.

Her father, the youngest, while working during the day, spent 13 years studying at night to gain an education. He got a degree in accounting and opened an accounting firm. Then, when the law changed so that he could not give tax advice, he went back to night school and became a lawyer. By the time Barbara and her sister were born, he was extremely affluent. Among other properties, he owned more than 50% of Pepsi Cola and was its chairman. He was also, along with David Rockefeller, able to donate a considerable amount of land he owned on the East Side of Manhattan to make it possible for the United Nations to have its headquarters in New York.

Barbara’s mother, Evelyn, came from more fortunate circumstances. Her father, Reuben Cronson, was Chief of Surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

“Early on,” Barbara said, “our parents told us that if you were privileged, you’re obliged to give back to society. They also talked about the importance of family and a good education. History was often spoken of at our dinner table. It was one of my father’s favorite subjects. I recall, when I was seven, I had to learn Latin. That will give you an idea of how things were for me then.”

One thing her parents could not agree on, however, was where she and her sister should go to school. Her mother had gone to Miss Hewitt’s classes. Her father had gone to public school. Eventually, he prevailed in this argument.

“I went to Public School 93 on Central Park West at 92nd,” Barbara said. “But then, one day when I was seven, I came home with head lice. So that was the end of New York City public school. Soon thereafter we moved to New Rochelle, which had excellent public schools.”

“So head lice was why you moved
to New Rochelle?”

“Well, yes,” she said. We both laughed. “But believe me, there’s plenty of head lice in both public and private schools.”

At the Mayflower Grammar School in New Rochelle, when she was nine years old, something happened that convinced her she should study to become a writer.
“We had been asked to write a composition. I wrote an essay about a character named Jackson the Jester (who made people happy, but wore an iron collar around his neck). When I read it to the class, some of the students were so moved they began to cry. It made a great impression on me.

“I think I didn’t want people to know what I dearly wanted to do was write, so I did every other activity. But I wrote, too. I even edited the school newspaper. One day, my teacher sent a short story I wrote to a magazine called New Directions, and they published it. That did it.”

At Wellesley, she signed up to be an English major, and in her first class, her English professor asked everyone to write what they did over the summer. When she got her essay back, there was a big red C on it. And the comment under it said that there was a dangling participle and she needed work on learning her grammar.

“I went to my class advisor. I was in tears. If I stay in this class, I said, I’m going to lose my writer’s voice. I’m only 17 but I have a voice. If I stay, I might be a good writer, but people will not know it is me.”

The solution was for her to modify her major. She got a joint degree in English and Art History. With a joint degree, she did not have to take the course with this grammarian.

After graduation, she began looking for work at magazines. After several short stints, she got a job as the Assistant Entertainment Editor at Women’s Home Companion, a magazine that was designed to appeal to women as homemakers. She soon found out the magazine didn’t have an entertainment section. She began to try to make one.

“One day the magazine got a call from a public relations person for Clark Gable. They’d like the magazine to do a profile on him. Everybody was excited but upset at the same time. Who could do this? This was a magazine where there were recipes for noodle rings. Somebody said, ‘Let the kid do it!’ and so I did. After that, I interviewed Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, Carey Grant, Joan Crawford, Alfred Hitchcock, and then I thought, ‘I’m good at this, maybe I could interview who I want.’ So I interviewed Picasso, Marcel Bruer, I. M. Pei and Andy Warhol.”

This was in the 1960s. Warhol was not that well-known yet. Barbara wrote that some people said California would be the future of art, but that was not so. The future was Andy Warhol. That got her an invitation from Warhol to come over to the “Factory” he had on Union Square. She got to know everybody. She developed a longtime friendship with Warhol. Now she was writing pieces for Town & Country, Art News and The Herald Tribune and was an accepted New York journalist. Also, for the first time, she began, with a group of other writers, renting in the Hamptons in the summertime, mostly in and around Georgica in East Hampton. She remembers those days very vividly.

“I remember Arthur Penn built a movie theater in his basement, and we’d watch films there. I recall seeing Paul Newman in Left Handed Gun. I remember this shop run by Art and Bessie, where you could get pâté. They’d make their own, and you had to get there early in the week because later the pâté wouldn’t be good anymore. I remember the girls going to Anita Zahn’s Ballet School in what is now John and Jodi Eastman’s house. I recall this shop on Main Street in East Hampton where the woman would make your clothes. We’d walk the beaches and meet new friends. It was all so informal, I recall someone would say ‘wear a dress tonight because my mom is coming for dinner and didn’t want to see us in jeans.’”

Back in the city, Barbara worked for the New York section of The Herald Tribune and volunteered at the Museum of Modern Art. She reviewed a book written by Andy Warhol called From A to B and Back Again. She wrote about museum curator Henry Geldheizer in an article called “How Henry Made 40 Artists Immortal.” At the New York section of The Herald Tribune (the newspaper which would soon lose its struggle to stay in business), Goldsmith worked for Clay Felker, and when the Tribune collapsed he asked her to help buy the title “New York” from the newspaper. She did. In 1968 the magazine began with Goldsmith as one of the founding editors.

“I wrote a very controversial piece for New York about Viva, one of the superstars at the Warhol factory. We published a glamorous photo taken by Diane Arbus for Vogue. But, as the lead photo for the article, we had another Arbus shot of her nude, unkempt, and surrounded by bottles of alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs everywhere. There was this big outrage. People wanted me fired. Of course, I wasn’t fired. Tom Wolfe said the article was “too good not to print.”

For several years, Barbara was the Senior Editor at Harper’s Bazaar. She wrote for it and did a lot of editing for it. There was a huge amount of work to be done every issue, and there was that big deadline looming all the time.

“I began to think, what am I doing? Do I really want to make a career out of being an editor? I am re-writing everybody. What about my writing? I decided to give notice, and I did. I quit to write.”

And so, in 1973, shocked at how some people in the art world treated artists, Goldsmith embarked upon writing her first book, a work of fiction called The Straw Man. It was about a mythical billionaire who in his will left his vast collection to a museum in New York City that would house it in a new wing he would pay to have built. It was a work of fiction, but real people recognized themselves in it. The plot involved this billionaire’s son who, feeling he was short changed in the will after the rich old man died, tries to have the will overturned. It shot straight up to #2 on The New York Times Best Seller List.

“After it came out, I met with Henry Gelzheizer who said ‘I knew a lead character was me, but I would never answer the door with my shirt off.’”

Another astonishing thing happened as a result of this book. Seven weeks after The Straw Man was published, she attended the dedication of a new wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to house the art collection of the late Robert Lehman, who had willed it to the museum.

“Tom Hoving, the then-Director of the Met, rose and began to speak about Mr. Lehman and his great gift, not only for the artworks but for the wing to house it in, and I am listening to this speech, and I suddenly realize it is virtually identical to the speech I had written at the end of my book The Straw Man. In my speech, the Director extols how great the donor was. Had my book come after Mr. Hoving gave the speech, it could have been said I had stolen it from him, not the other way round.”

Barbara Goldsmith has, since that time, besides selling articles to The New Yorker and The New York Times, written five books, all works of nonfiction, all best-sellers. They are Little Gloria…Happy at Last, about the struggle for custody of Gloria Vanderbilt, from the time she was born until she was 10—made into a motion picture starring Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Plummer and Maureen Stapleton. The next was Johnson v. Johnson, about the longest and most expensive legal battle over a will in American history. The next was Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, the remarkable story of Woodhull and other early feminists in the Gilded Age. And the latest is Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie, which has already been translated into more than 23 languages. She’s won many literary awards and has been the recipient of two Emmys.

And throughout all these times, she has been an active philanthropist in the City of New York, so much so that she’s counted as one of the 10 most prominent philanthropists in the city. She has been also named a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmark Conservancy.

Barbara Goldsmith’s contributions have led to the Goldsmith Conservation and Preservation Laboratories at the New York Public Library, the creation of the preservation and conservation departments to New York University, to the founding of a state-of-the-art rare books library in the American Academy in Rome and another at her alma mater at Wellesley College. Also, she has created the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards, which annually focuses attention on imprisoned writers. She’s made 39 awards to imprisoned or missing writers. And after the awards were made, 34 were subsequently set free.

Perhaps her most extraordinary achievement, however, has been in the creation of an organization that sought to require that publishers print the first edition works of writers on cost-comparable, acid-free paper so these physical works would last 300 years instead of 30. In this attempt, with the signatures of 2,500 writers and about 60 publishing companies, she was able to secure a $20 million grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities for paper preservation and a law that all Federal documents must be printed on acid-free

Barbara Goldsmith lives today in Manhattan and in a 100-year-old house in Georgica. She was married to the late film director and writer Frank Perry. She keeps up with many friends and often sees her three children and six grandchildren.

More from Our Sister Sites