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A Death of One's Own

There was probably some darkness that bonded them. They talked a little when Carolyn was down. Margaret said Carolyn should watch Cary Grant’s The Awful Truth, which always made her feel better, though Heilbrun would respond, “Oh, I saw that when it came out.” Margaret, addicted to films from the thirties and forties, addressed e-mails to her mother as “JB,” for Judith Bliss, the difficult matriarch in Noël Coward’s Hay Fever. Over drinks at the dive bar around the corner from Heilbrun’s apartment, they quoted their favorite lines from old movies to each other: “Don’t anybody leave the room, I’ve lost my purse!”; “Why else should his grandfather have sent me, as an engagement present, one roller skate covered in Thousand Island dressing?”; and Heilbrun’s favorite, adapted from Blithe Spirit, to bring Margaret back to her point when she digressed: “Then why the hell are we discussing it?”

Each time they saw each other, Margaret would bring along a small shopping bag with a present, like a piano quintet, or strong ginger cookies from a tea shop downtown—she was, she says, on a perpetual hunt for the gingeriest ginger cookie for her mother. After Heilbrun said she was not going to write any more of her detective novels, Margaret suggested that they write one together—she had been laid off from her post as library director at the New-York Historical Society and was looking for a way to fill her days. “I’m 46 years old—it’s a silly thing,” says Margaret. “But she always used to like my writing, and she said all right.” She blinks. “I don’t know if she was humoring me, or if she meant it.”

In the days since her mother’s death, Margaret has been up and down: She is not quite sure what to think. “It’s not that I’m angry as much as I’m mystified,” she says. “She had so many more friends than I did—friends and acquaintances, people who looked up to her, who saw her as a nurturer and role model. Was it that she herself had no one to turn to? Why did she feel so isolated? She must have had fears and other feelings I can’t begin to have known. I know for myself that if you’re scared enough of something, you won’t ever speak of it.” She twists one of her rings. “But,” she says, “it was her plot.”

Plots were not only something that Heilbrun analyzed in scholarly journals or thought about in the context of her own life, but also something that she tackled as a novelist. Heilbrun’s children remember waking up to the sound of the typewriter from the time they were young, and early mornings were often when she worked on her series of detective novels, published under the pseudonym Amanda Cross (her alter ego was secret until 1970, when it was discovered by an amateur sleuth of copyright records). All of the Cross novels, which have a silly, sanitized Sherlock Holmes flavor, feature Kate Fansler, the slender, Waspy, feisty New York City professor of literature who drinks Scotch and smokes cigarettes on the hunt for cold-blooded killers, bemoaning male incompetence all the while. Characters correct each other’s grammar; a dog is named Jocasta, after Oedipus’s mother; chauvinists are ruled out as suspects of female-directed kidnapping because “the woman, even if she is the enemy, isn’t worthy of combat because she hasn’t got a you-know-what, which is the absolute signifier.”

The setting of most Fansler mysteries is, of course, a fictional Columbia, and the books feature thinly disguised members of Heilbrun’s department—university president Jeremiah Cudlipp, murderous professor Frederick Clemance (thought to be based on Lionel Trilling), Middle Eastern studies professor Canfield Adams (Edward Said). Heilbrun’s voice is clearly Fansler’s, especially when she expresses her irritation at departmental meetings with dour male professors, their faces “long trained to hide irritation but not boredom.” She writes, “Kate would sometimes picture her tombstone with ‘The Token Woman’ engraved in the marble. Above the inscription androgynous angels would indifferently float.”

Women’s marginalized status within the university system as gallows humor was good sport for a while, but there came a point when Heilbrun was no longer in a joking mood. The English department was always one of Columbia’s most contentious, and in the late eighties it became a crucial battleground in the culture wars. (Finally, after over a decade of bitter conflict, it took the rare step of entering receivership with regard to its hiring decisions in 2002.) Heilbrun was one of the department’s most volatile presences: Departmental giants like Trilling and Said had had success having their disciples hired, and she wanted feminists hired, junior professors and graduate students specializing in modernism. It was a respect issue, and her efforts met with bitter resistance and a tone that often became personal. “People had negative things to say about Carol, before they realized they couldn’t say such things in my presence,” says Robert Hanning, a Columbia professor and friend of Heilbrun’s. “They said she was a hysterical woman and such things, because she wanted in. She was a powerful woman, and she wanted in.”

So, in 1992, at 66, Heilbrun resigned from the university in protest—at the time, she said, the men “behave like little boys saying, ‘This is our treehouse club, no girls allowed.’ ” Heilbrun’s detractors, of which there were many, whispered of an undeserved Carolyn Heilbrun myth, and said that she had little to lose by departing Columbia and only publicity to gain: She had received a large advance for her next project, a biography of Gloria Steinem titled Education of a Woman. But a friendly article about her departure ran in The New York Times Magazine, and that fall an assembly of 500 scholars gathered at the Graduate School of the City University of New York for a rousing symposium in her honor, with speakers spanning generations of feminist thought. Several spoke of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ summer seminars on “Woman as Hero” that Heilbrun had led in the seventies and the eighties: “Looking back, it seems to me that my life began in that seminar,” said Patricia Smith Yaeger, a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “Before then, I was non-feminist, non-tenured, non-published, a Romanticist, Yale-trained, deviously expert in worshiping the great males and great whales of the nineteenth century.” Feminist scholar Sandra Gilbert puts it this way: “There’s a Gertrude Stein opera about Susan B. Anthony called The Mother of Us All. Well, that’s the way we feel about Carolyn: She was the muse, nurturer, and mother of us all.”

The next time many of these women came together was for Heilbrun’s memorial, just over a decade later, and the turnout, at the spare, cavernous Unitarian church next door to Heilbrun’s apartment building, was almost as large. There was poetry by Adrienne Rich, a passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and, oddly enough, a vocal performance of “Danny Boy,” Heilbrun’s favorite song. Friends struggled to give closure to an important life: Steinem, her long, wild mane graying but possessed of the same statuesque presence, spoke of how Heilbrun’s death reminded her of an African queen she had once met—a queen “whose job is to keep the peace and make rain”—and who ends her own life after she passes down her wisdom to young women. Others expressed anger, guilt, and confusion, but an ultimate acceptance of Heilbrun’s decision to author her own life, even its ending. The last reading was from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the final meditation of painter Lily Briscoe: “ . . . yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”

Sometimes Heilbrun saw promise in getting older. She wrote, “Neither rocking on a porch, nor automatically offering her services as cook and housekeeper and child watcher, nor awaiting another chapter in the heterosexual plot, the old woman must be glimpsed through all her disguises which seem to preclude her right to be called woman. She may well for the first time be woman herself.”

But there were also pitfalls to age: stasis, puttering, becoming a “useless person,” sinking “into the ancient sin of anomie when challenges failed.” To be inconsequential, for Heilbrun, was to die. She had said so much about women, their lives, and writing; she wanted to focus on something else. She turned in the last few years to the biographies of scientists, taking solace in the fact that science had tests, and answers. She did not understand their theories—“my comprehension is best expounded by Chaim Weizmann, describing a transatlantic crossing with Einstein: ‘Einstein explained his theory to me every day; by the time we arrived, I was finally convinced that he understood it.’ ”

For someone in the throes of this kind of creative crossroads, suicide can have a distinct appeal. So is that how hers should be read? As always, the textual evidence is conflicting. On one hand, Heilbrun was clearly casting about for something new to do. She writes, “Here is Hopkins, perfectly conveying what is these days my chief despair: ‘Birds build—but not I build; no, but strain, Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes. Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.’ ”

On the other hand, Heilbrun’s suicide was part of the plan she had all along, perhaps an essential component of her feminism. She writes, “We women have lived too much with closure—there always seems to loom the possibility of something being over, settled, sweeping clear the way for contentment. This is the delusion of a passive life. When the hope for closure is abandoned, when there is an end to fantasy, adventure for women will begin. Endings—the kind Austen tacked onto her novels—are for romance or daydreams, but not for life.”

And suicide, while on one level is closure, is a kind of freedom on another. “The thing about suicide is that it is indeterminate,” says Susan Gubar, Heilbrun’s friend and a professor at Indiana University. “The only person to testify with any authenticity is God. Everyone else is bullshitting.”

In Heilbrun’s apartment, over the fireplace, there is a self-portrait by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. The Heilbruns bought the piece over 25 years ago, along with another portrait of Bell’s (homosexual) lover, Duncan Grant, at a time when Heilbrun had curly brown hair and, she writes, “was hardly a beauty, while Vanessa Bell’s beauty was widely celebrated.” In the painting, however, Bell appears in a serious pose, wearing glasses, her gray hair fastened in a bun. As the years passed, Heilbrun took to wearing her long gray hair pulled back in a bun as well, and she began to resemble, if not Bell, then the portrait, at first faintly and then strongly. She took pleasure in this.

“Many visitors assumed it was a portrait I had commissioned of myself,” she once wrote. “Such are the tricks and mockeries of time.”