At 101 years old, Ruth Gruber greeted us at The Living Gallery with perfectly placed hair, an outfit that looked like it came straight from Chanel’s very own runway and electric pink eye shadow. At 25 I still can’t manage any of these things, so I’m already feeling her hustle. This Bushwick native has made the most of a century.
Born in 1911 in Brooklyn, New York, Gruber knew very young that she wanted to be a writer. And not only did this Bushwick dreamer do just that, at 20 she became the youngest Ph.D in the world after receiving her doctorate at the University of Cologne in Germany. Gruber was able to visit with Virginia Woolf, the subject of her thesis (Virginia Woolf, people!!). She was a journalist and a photographer, writing her own feature series for the New York Herald Tribune and so many other places. You gotta hand it to her. Her motion is dope. (1)
And while just from this shortlist we could go on and on about how crazy-cool Gruber is, the story of how her work in Alaska under Harold Ickes ultimately made her a General is a particularly grand tale. We sat down with her daughter, Celia Michaels-Evans who told us the story alongside Ruth.
When she got back to Brooklyn, [my Mother] couldn’t get a job…it was the depression. She finally sold one article on Brooklyn to the New York Times, then she went to do some translations. She got a grant to study women under Socialism, Democracy and Communism. She was going to go to the Soviet Arctic, and she got a letter of introduction from Stephenson to Schmidt, who no reporter could get an interview with, and my Mother got one! The Moscow correspondent from the Herald Tribune said, ‘You scooped the world!’
So she got to the Soviet Arctic – were you the first journalist mom? Probably the first western journalist. She saw women under the Soviet system. There was a woman Mayor. Women were really running this town in Siberia, and my Mother wrote a book about it which impressed Harold Ickes, who was the Secretary of the Interior under Franklin Roosevelt. So my Mother went to interview him for the Herald Tribune, and at the end of the interview she had a job.
He decided to send her up to Alaska, just to live there, to see what it was like, to see if they could open it up and have people move up there. I think a lot of people thought he was making a mistake and that he shouldn’t open up Alaska. It had been referred to as ‘Seward’s Folly’ when a previous Secretary of State bought it. So Harold Ickes wanted to make something of it, sent my Mother up there, and I think you had a lot of fun, flying around and meeting all the people stationed in the army.
There’s a funny story because in the era where people were accused of being communist (all the undermining spin we see now in Washington they had then), one of the Senators wanted to stop paying my Mother when she was on her way to Alaska. They said, “She wrote this book! She’s a communist! The Republican head of the Herald-Tribune, Helen Reid, was my Godmother, and my Mother’s mentor and supporter. She said ‘Don’t worry, they’re not trying to get you. They’re trying to use you to undermine Harold Ickes.’
So the Senate was trying to deny her pay because at the end of my mother’s book called ‘I went to the Soviet Arctic,’ she says, ‘I want to come back to Russia and go into the sea and say ‘Drasvaja.’ They said, ‘Look she’s a communist! Look she wants to go back there!’ So Senator Bullwinkle stands up in front of congress and says, ‘This woman is just saying she wants to take a bath!’ So they decided to pay her which was nice, and she went on to Alaska.
She was still working for Ickes when she read that America was prepared to save 1,000 refugees from Hitler, so she went to Ickes and says, ‘Look Boss, you gotta send me!’ And I think he thought about it and immediately said okay. My Grandmother who lived very close to here, on Harman Street, was very worried about my Mother going to Europe. My Mother said, ‘Come down and meet my boss,’ and she brings my Grandmother to meet Harold Ickes. My Grandmother says, ‘You’re sending my daughter to Europe! She can get killed!’ So Harold Ickes looks at my Grandmother and says ‘Don’t worry little mother, We’re gonna make her a General.’ That way if she was captured they have to treat her right by the Geneva convention. So this is General Mom.
(Video by Cat Agonis and Sean Alday)
In an NPR article, Gruber recalls her two-week stay on the Henry Gibbins, the ship of 1,000 refugees: “Some of the men said, ‘We can’t tell you what we went through, it’s too obscene. You’re a young woman!’ I said, ‘Forget I’m a woman, you are the first witnesses coming to America.’ So they talked. Nobody refused to talk.” (2)
So while Bushwick has been called home by some pretty incredible residents, such as Mae West and Eddie Murphy, it also birthed a game-changing gal over a hundred years ago. Bushwick, in your name you have a General, the youngest Ph.D to receive a doctorate, a pioneering photographer and a writer of great influence. You have Ruth Gruber!!
(1) Pulled from Ruth Gruber’s Wikipedia page.
(2) Quote from NPR.