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My Mother’s Voice

I see Joan’s diaries as her oral history from the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Her interviewing career started when she was a teenager.

Once she starts at sophisticated U-High (connected to the University of Chicago), interviewing is not exactly what she expected.

Joan's interviewing a callow youth.

Joan’s interviewing a callow youth.

Wednesday, November 9, 1938

I got to school early this morning. . . . I planted myself in front hall and pounced on everyone who came in saying, “Describe your ideal U-High girl” . . . One of them wanted a “glamorous blonde with a slinky walk.” Hmmmm.

I think my mom found that boy quite amusing!

She became an well-respected oral historian with two books.  She was the co-author of American Mosaic: The Immigrant Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It (1980), recognized as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Dramatic readings from the book have been performed on Ellis Island, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and in an “In Performance at the White House” program broadcast nationally on PBS. Her second book, From Camelot to Kent State: The Sixties Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It (1987), became the basis for a popular course on the 1960’s at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

One of her most famous interviews was with Pauline Newman, the labor activist who lost many fellow workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire,  March 25, 1911

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, March 25, 1911

She worked with Frances Perkins, who later become Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, to improve conditions for laborers.  She ultimately took the role of educational director for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Health Center, knew Eleanor Roosevelt, and consulted with the U.S. Public Health Service.

Pauline Newman

Pauline Newman

One family joke is that my mom interviewed Pauline Newman twenty times in NYC, when in reality it must have only been twice.  Why this overblown reckoning?

My children chastise me that I never went to high school. That isn’t true. What is true is that during my high school years, Joan had to go to New York periodically to interview various people, not just Pauline Newman. We lived in Morristown, NJ, about one hour from New York.  So my dad and mom and I would drive in about 1:00 in the afternoon to “the city.” While my mom conducted her interviews, Daddy and I would indulge in our favorite: double features of old movies at various movie houses in Manhattan.

Carnegie Hall Cinema

Carnegie Hall Cinema

Then we’d meet Mom for dinner (the Copehagen, anyone?) and drive home.

morristownLogo2013But to get to New York in time for the cinema and interviews, I had to miss school.  My parents would shamelessly write letters excusing me from school to see the “dentist.”  I must have gone to the “dentist” more than anyone else at Morristown High School in the mid-1970s.  I’m not sure the administrators caught on. And I did fine in school despite my dental “woes” (aka cinematic delights).  Surely only one or two of my illicit trips to NYC with my parents involved the notorious Pauline Newman interview!

Recently, I found Pauline Newman’s voice.  Imagine how shocked I was to find…my mother’s voice too.  My dead mother suddenly speaking there.  It was so eerie–and beautiful.  Here is Joan’s interview with Pauline, made in the late 1970s.

Mom’s interview with Pauline Newman, Joan’ s voice.

Happy Mother’s Day!


2 responses »

  1. How amazing for you to come across Joan’s voice like this! Lovely!


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