Ann Birstein

Probably you have seen Mia Farrow reading this book in the movie, Hannah and Her Sisters.


High Praise for Ann Birstein and What I Saw at the Fair


“Moving . . . This work, a kind of cultural history, has a voice that’s . . . assured, experienced and mature. Birstein is a graceful writer, and she’s also very funny.”
- Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week

“A delicious, readable memoir about the fortunes of a beautiful, intelligent woman in an era when beautiful, intelligent women had no rights. What amazes about this book is not only the wonderful writing and passionate honesty, but the fact that it is so much fun to read. Ann Birstein has a genius for redeeming the worst experiences and turning them into pure gold.”
- Erica Jong

“Fans of Birstein’s work in will not be disap-pointed by this memoir, which expands on much of the colorful narrative found in her superb biography of her father, The Rabbi on Forty-Seventh Street . . . Birstein’s heartfelt recounting of the writer’s life, her turbulent marriage, her divorce from(Alfred) Kazin and later emergence as an influential scribe in her own right will elicit readers’ admiration.”
- Publishers Weekly

Ann Birstein grew up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, where her father, Bernard Birstein, was the rabbi of the famed “Actors Temple,” the synagogue that counted Milton Berle and Jack Benny among its members. After the release of her first novel, Star of Glass, Ann Birstein’s editor introduced her to Alfred Kazin, already an esteemed man of letters, twice divorced and a dozen years her senior. On Alfred’s arm, Ann found herself thrust into the height of New York’s literary and intellectual circles, with giants such as Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison as their most intimate friends.

What I Saw at the Fair is a candid account of Birstein’s long, tumultuous marriage with Kazin and of the evolution—and death—of a vibrant generation of intellectuals. Most important, it is the tender, laugh-out-loud story of what she saw as a woman in search of her own life, home, and identity.

My Life is History

October 9, 2013

Tags: E-book, Jet Lag, Kindle

Back to the blog. Why did I leave it for so long? The usual writer’s excuse. I was writing something else. And also inadvertently planting myself firmly in the 21st century. That is, publishing an ebook, which isn’t exactly a book, I’ve discovered. It’s something virtual. Maybe with luck, I’ll find out what virtual is.

To start at the beginning: not long ago, I took a guided trip to Jewish sites in Eastern Europe, stopping at such watering spots as Auschwitz, Majdanek, the Warsaw ghetto, the Vilna ghetto, other ghettos and other camps and killing fields. Hardly a pleasure trip. In fact, a shattering experience. But though I knew doing justice to the subject would be impossible I had to write about it. Self-respect, above all respect for the subject demanded I try. Day after day, I worked on my computer in the scorching summer heat, wearing two sweaters, and shivering with cold. (It was literally a bone chilling experience.) Finally I finished what turned out to be a manuscript of some 90 pages. An award length but so what? This was the length it wanted to be. The problem was, nobody else wanted it to be this length. Jet Lag, as I called it was admired but unloved. Too long for a magazine, too short for a book.

I had bought a Kindle for my own enjoyment. I loved my Kindle. I could access practically anything any time. Since I had hurt my arm, I couldn’t carry heavy books, so there was no guilt involved. And then, mirabile dictu, the 21st century came to me personally. My agent sold Jet Lag to a publisher who published non-fiction e works. Then another miracle came along in the shape of Amazon, which published what it called Kindle Singles. My book had finally found a home, actually two homes. What book? My publisher called it a piece, and to Kindle it remained a Single. The word book was never mentioned. I myself didn’t know what to call it. And so began my foray into the great virtual unknown.

October 3, 2011

Tags: Whitney, Rothko

To move to a recent passing, I am now reading about the old Whitney, which to me will always be the new Whitney. A story in the Times says that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is taking over the old Whitney for extra exhibition space. Which is a shock, not only because of the idea of the Met multiplying itself like an amoeba , but because the old Whitney is to me, always and forever, the new Whitney. (The old one was down in Greenwich Village, along with the bohemian part of my life.) In fact, I remember quite clearly when the present Whitney on Madison Avenue was being built. I even had inside dope on its progress. This is because we knew the architect Marcel Breuer and his wife Connie socially. We visited each other’s homes, and I remember one night when the Breuers invited us to dinner to meet a shy young Chinese architect named Pei. In the summer, our young daughters played together in the Wellfleet woods on Cape Cod, and so my Kate would bring home such news as, “Cheska’s daddy is making a museum.” This sounded as if he was putting it together with tinker toys. but it turned out to be a brilliant building made of stone. (Another daddy, an acoustic genius, was putting gilt on concert walls at Lincoln Center, so we got to play with gilt.)

The opening night of the Whitney was thrilling. Nobody had ever been to the opening of a museum before. It was like a cocktail party dedicated to higher purposes. Everybody was there, friends we knew and luminaries we didn’t, wandering about the amazing building. There were giant elevators, one of which opened up directly onto a huge Rothko painting on the facing wall, a magnificent canvas of yellow and orange and red that said more than it seemed to. Rothko, however, wasn’t there. He was claustrophobic in crowds, and in underground spaces too. (In Rome, he had refused to visit the famous Vatican art collection because it was housed below ground.) And so we found him having a solitary drink in the bar of a posh hotel nearby. Where we joined him, to get away from the crowds.

A long time later, when the Whitney was a fixture on Madison Avenue, and Rothko had just died, I paid a solo visit to the museum. And there the elevator door opened to that huge glorious canvas, that medley of bright orange and yellow and red, which unlike the painter was still pulsing with life.

August 4, 2011

Tags: Lou Gehrig, baseball

Sports in the 30's, 40's, and 50's were also popular entertainment, and, like silent movies in the old days, had the advantage for immigrants of not having to know much English to enjoy them. Baseball was particularly popular and had cheap enough tickets to be affordable. I often wonder how kids get to see major league ball games these days, the ones whose parents aren’t in hedge funds. In fact, how does anybody? I’m certainly priced out of the market. The nearest thing to what baseball was like when I was a child now is rooting for the Lynchburg Hillcats vs their arch enemy the Winston Salem Warthogs. The highest priced tickets are about $6 for a box seat, and on special days hot dogs are 25 cents. You don’t need binoculars or strategically located TV to see the players and the action on the field. But the Lynchburg Hillcats play in a local ball park, not a stadium. Though even here teams come to bat with plastic protective helmets and wear tight pants that are a far cry from the homely baggy styles of the old New York Yankees, or the New York Giants. (I won’t mention the Dodgers in this category since in my household Brooklyn didn’t even exist.)

On the baseball scene in those days my father was once again the wizard of free tickets. Thanks to his Press Pass, which happened also to accommodate members of the clergy, he could always get into a game by merely paying a quarter for the federal tax. Nevertheless the two of us always went on Friday, because that was Ladies Day and ladies, even little girls, could also get in for a quarter for the federal tax. However, Friday afternoons (night games, a new invention, were few and far between) presented a special problem for a rabbi. Without going into the matter too deeply, I will merely say that in the height of the summer, we were safe, religiously speaking. But later, when the days shortened and sunset came earlier and earlier, we had to hurry off to the synagogue even in the middle of a hot tie game, my father looking backwards the whole time.

Players didn’t have names on their uniforms, only numbers. Who needed names when we knew them all and their numbers too and they stayed with the same team for years? Oddly, though I was a dedicated Giant fan, I can’t remember their numbers anymore. But I remember who wore them, from Carl Hubbell to Mel Ott. My father, on the other hand, rabidly rooted for the Yankees, which is maybe why, due to strong parental influence, I do remember that Lou Gehrig was 4, and Joe Dimaggio was 5. I guess Babe Ruth was 3, but (at last!) he was a player before my time. (A couple of times to keep peace in the house, we shlepped my mother along to a game-- not successful excursions. She kept inquiring, in Yiddish, who were the little blue men running around.)

Of all the players, Yankee or Giant, I loved Lou Gehrig best. A sweetheart. He was very handsome. He had dimples. He clearly was a nice guy–those dimples were always showing. Also, he was, rare among baseball players, a college graduate–of Columbia! I also sadly remember the day Lou Gehrig retired. (Even my daughter has marveled at this one. “You were there?” followed by a look of incredulous admiration, not easy to come by.) It was the 4th of July, 1939. I remember him standing in the infield, surrounded by mikes. I remember the echoing loudspeakers. I remember the speech, with every word seemingly repeated, “I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” A speech which made no sense to me. I also seem to remember that there was lots of gift luggage, which also seemed odd. People were crying. We knew he was sick. We knew he couldn’t play anymore. I didn’t know he was dying.

June 27, 2011

Movies, when I was young, were affordable for everybody. Except in those big movie houses such as the Strand, the Capitol, the Paramount, where luckily my father again had close connections with the managers and we could get in for nothing. In one of those movie palaces, I thrilled to “Little Women,” which was much better than the book. The movie starred Katherine Hepburn, but I didn’t identify with Jo–I was no tomboy–but with Amy, who was far closer to me physically and in her general girlie view of the world. As to “Gone With the Wind,” I seem to have spent most of my youth, when I wasn’t playing Monopoly, either seeing the movie or writing about it in my diary, For one thing, it opened my mind to the idea of sex, and I suddenly saw kissing not as boring sissy stuff, but something rather more interesting, possible, titillating. This was a very rudimentary introduction, though, and it took many more years to understand why Scarlett O’Hara was dimpling so happily the morning after Rhett carried her up the stairs.

For less epical stuff there was the Tivoli on 8th Ave, where you’d go in the middle of the movie and wait until the part you saw came round, then maybe sit through the whole thing all over again. Which wasn’t to mention double features. Or the Bingo prizes grandly announced from the stage. We ourselves once won a set of white glass dishes with red rims that graced our kitchen table for years. There were great movie musicals at the Tivoli too, which I also saw whether I knew what was going on or not, since there were no baby sitters at the time. I have a dim memory of Gold Diggers of 1933. And much brighter memories of everything with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Forty-second Street also seems to have made a profound impression on me, since when I had a baby I sang her to sleep with Lullaby of Broadway.

And as long as we’re talking show business, I might as well mention a new deli that had opened up across the street from us, the Stage Delicatessen. Sandwiches were named after stars, but I don’t remember any luminaries hanging out there in the early days, except for Nancy Walker, sitting at the counter and saying in a voice like a stevedore’s, “I wouldn’t pay that to see Christ Almighty incarnate!” Pretty rough stuff for the times. Not at all rough, and certainly not Christ conscious, were the two owners, brothers, Max and Hymie Asnas. They were genial guys, and full of wisecracks such as, “I have all my money tied up in cash.” And, “We have an agreement with Chase National Bank. We don’t cash checks and they don’t sell delicatessen.” Which I thought were pretty funny. The author of most of these gems was the younger brother, Hymie. I was hardly tall, but Hymie was considerably shorter. He had straight black hair which he parted in the middle and slicked down on either side. For no reason, Hymie took a shine to me, leaving me speechless, until one day he looked up at me and sadly named the one thing that was keeping us apart. “I know. I’m too old for you.”

June 6, 2011

Tags: Musicals

The play, based on Anne Frank’s diary, opened on Broadway in the year 1954 and in those days theater tickets were still cheap. You could afford to see just about everything, even if your date had to buy standing room, and you ran to an empty seat during intermission to rest your feet. If there was no date--and for years before that from the time I was a child-- owing to my father’s ability to obtain free house seats, tickets didn’t cost anything. And we saw everything. “Tobacco Road” was practically the only play that was off limits to me because it was smutty, but it was so long-running, I expected to see it when I grew up. Meanwhile, I was shlepped to Group theater productions of Odets by my older sisters and brother, products of the Depression who were themselves Odets characters. I was taken to see “Golden Boy” with John (aka Jules) Garfield (aka Garfunkel) in 1937, the same year I walked with my PS 17 classmates halfway through the Lincoln Tunnel. And recently in a public discussion of a film version of “Rocket to the Moon” I had to stand up and be marveled at because I had actually seen the play in 1938. I was even applauded. Another indication that my life had become history. Unnerving,

Anyhow, musical comedies were what I always loved best . My father said that when I was a baby I was taken to see “The Cat and the Fiddle” and that Joe Cook waved to me from the stage. We were in box seats, as my father never failed to point out. I have no recollection of this event, and didn’t know who Joe Cook was either until I found him on the back of an Alma Gluck record. (More history, more rue.) I’m not sure if I got to see Ethel Merman in “Anything Goes” in 1934 when I was seven, though it’s possible, but after that I did see Ethel Merman in practically everything else, including “Call Me Madam,” “ Dubarry was a Lady” with Bert Lahr, “Panama Hattie”, “Annie Get your Gun,” “Gypsy.” Which isn’t even to mention such other great musicals as “I’d Rather be Right” with George M. Cohan as FDR-- I remember that famous strut, “The Boys from Syracuse” with Eddie Albert, “Pal Joey” with Gene Kelly, “South Pacific” with Mary Martin washing her hair onstage at every performance! (I worried a lot about this.) And a young newcomer named Nancy Walker in “Best Foot Forward.” Years later I saw a revival of “Best Foot Forward”, this time very much off Broadway, with another newcomer, a young homely kid with a famous mother. Her name was Liza Minelli, whom I felt sorry for and predicted would go nowhere.

The sad news, where I’m concerned, is that every musical now being revived I already saw. With the original cast. But I’ve stopped talking about it. I more or less had to. Though I can’t help pointing out that though I may be somewhat older than the plays, I’m younger than the people who starred in them.

May 3, 2011

Tags: Anne Frank, Otto Frank

Ironically I first ran across the name of Anne Frank in Germany. (What I was doing there is another story.) It was 1952 and I had never heard of her before. Neither had anyone else. But a copy of Commentary had been forwarded to my address, and in the magazine were excerpts from the diary of a young Dutch girl. It was heartbreaking. So totally real, so full of life, though the end was in the beginning. I was living in Cologne, and though seven years had passed since the war ended, it was possible to ride through the center of the town without seeing an entire building left standing. Nevertheless, I heard locals argue about whether Cologne or Bonn, similarly destroyed, was more beautiful. I suppose Germans see what they want to see. Like my amiable landlady, who said of the DP camp nearby, some of whose destitute inhabitants were accused of stealing food, “There are good DPs and bad DPs,” so delighted with her liberal attiude that she never asked herself why there were DPs in the first place, much less why they were hungry. Now, thinking about Anne Frank, I couldn’t even bear to walk in the streets of Cologne. In my mind, I kept asking passersby, “Who are you? Where were you? What did you do?”


These days Anne Frank is back in the news again. She’s always popping up in the news. Recently, a noted female writer has discovered, however belatedly, that there is literary value in the Diary, and written a book about it. Meyer Levin, another writer, a terrible one, keeps making posthumous reappearances in connection with various stage plays. I had hoped we had seen the last of him, since he was famous for suing Otto Frank, Anne’s beloved father. Not once, but many times. It had to do with dramatizations of the Diary. The one that landed on Broadway was too gentile, in Levin’s estimation, as was the movie made of the play. Only his own version was Jewish enough. Levin also maintained that Otto Frank had violated some agreement about having Levin’s play produced instead of the other one, and kept on with his disgraceful vendetta until he died.

Then, not long ago, the whole matter was resurrected along with Levin’s dramatized version of the Diary, and the usual pundits approving the Jewishness of it. There was also another riff on the whole matter. I didn’t go to see Levin’s play or the other one. I did see the gentile versions both on stage and screen years ago and don’t remember either. I will never forget reading the Diary itself, however, and actually meeting Otto Frank. He was exactly what Anne had described him as being, the father one would run to, the father who, if she had known he was still alive, might have given her the will to live too. A gentle, distinguished man. Imagine suing that man, who had lost everything, over a diary written by that man’s own young daughter. If Levin respected the Diary so much–a genuine account of a child’s experiences in that terrible time–why didn’t he respect it by leaving it alone? Surely any dramatization of such a text violates its integrity. But Levin not only dramatized the diary, he sued and hectored the child’s father over whose violated text should have been preferred. This is chuzpah carried to the point of obscenity.

April 4, 2011

Tags: Anne Frank and other refugees

There were less illustrious German refugees in our midst in the forties and fifties, who probably also thought little of us Yiddish speakers, but didn’t make an issue of it. Solid bourgeois types who congregated in pastry shops, and sat like rows of pigeons on benches in Riverside Park wearing persian lamb coats and hats with little veils. They were grown-up versions of the Hertas and Annelieses who had arrived wary and uncomfortable in my high school and wrote about boots coming up the stairs. My brother had married one of them. A very pretty Austrian girl, almost exactly my age, nineteen at the time, and she knew plenty about boots. When she was ten years old, her adored father had been arrested and sent to Dachau. This was still at a time when people were released from concentration camps. One day, months later she answered the door to an old man she didn’t recognize. It was her father. He fled the country and she never saw him again. Dachau. Handsome young fathers turned into old men! She had gone through this, but she was so ordinary now. She sat on a park bench along with her mother and aunt, chatting about whatever. I have a snapshot of it. Nothing deep. She loved pretty hats.

Except for an even crueler turn of fate, Anne Frank might have also been one of those Hertas and Annelieses sitting on a bench in Riverside Park. In fact her real name was Anneliese. In school she would have been a freshman when I was a junior. Yes, I am two years older than Anne Frank. (A year older than Elie Wiesel, as long as we’re in that ballpark.) But long before I knew of her, she or someone like her had always been my doppelganger. My what if. In our house, we used to listen to the radio all the time. In 1935 I heard Haile Selaisse pleading with the League of Nations on behalf of Ethiopia. I felt very sorry for him. We also listened to Hitler’s speeches on the radio. Haranguing like a mad man, scaring the wits out of me. There was no thought of it not being suitable for children to hear. His very existence was unsuitable for children.

My father listened with accustomed sorrow. Pogroms were nothing new to him, even though in a different place. I have a photograph of my father and a group of other Orthodox rabbis, many of them bearded and venerable, taken in 1935. They are seated around a table covered with a black tablecloth and bearing a candelabra with black candles. They are declaring Germany and its goods anathema. Sometimes I wonder if, were matters reversed, would a group of German rabbis also sit around a black table cloth with black candles on behalf of suffering Russian Jews. But then, they never did.

March 30, 2011

Tags: Hannah Arendt, German Refugees

Among the recently arrived Jewish population in New York in the fifties were many refugees. Of the Germans the most fearsome was Hannah Arendt, who seemed to have come over to set us benighted Americans straight on everything, from politics to philosophy to the arts. I have never met anyone, certainly not a Jew, who if things had been other was more likely to have been a member of the Nazi party herself. (Her longtime lover, Martin Heidigger, was openly a Nazi sympathizer, but no one knew about that yet.) Arendt certainly had nothing but contempt for Eastern European Jews especially, whom she was accustomed to dismiss with such phrases as, “He’s only a little Jew.” Years later, when covering the Eichmann trial, she narrowed it down by referring to the Israeli lawyers distastefully as “Galicians.” On the other hand, you couldn’t call Hannah Arendt a “self-hating Jew” because she loved herself better than anything.

Curiously, a lot of the New York intellectuals, themselves “little Jews,” were in awe of her and hung on her every word. I kept thinking of my mother’s favorite phrase, “They spit in his face and he thinks it’s raining.” But then in those days and in those circles, Judaism itself was definitely out, cast aside as a way of leaving home and immigrant backgrounds behind. Whereas at that time, Catholicism, regarded as a pillar of Western tradition and worthy of serious intellectual consideration was in. Consequently we heard a lot about brilliant Catholic thinkers, noble priests, a nun born Jewish who died in Auschwitz, and was therefore exalted above all other victims. In fact, one local Jewish intellectual wrote of how he had converted to Catholicism because when he was in the library, a certain book fell off the shelf to his feet, and he regarded this as a sign from above. What book this was or any details of the matter I don’t know. Mainly because I’m afraid to go there. There was also a fascination with a new heroine, Simone Weill, a young French Jew/Catholic, who starved herself to death during the war on principle–a fact much honored in discussions at the lox counter in Zabar’s.

When I had problems with all this I sometimes mentioned–to deaf ears–what it was like to grow up in a predominantly Catholic Hell’s Kitchen, or that after I gave birth in Massachusetts, as a married woman and now the mother of a legitimate child, I was handed a birth control device under the table, as if it were contraband goods, which in that Catholic state, it was. Still to deaf ears. But when I also said that self abnegation to the point of starvation, or any seriously harmful self-abnegation wasn’t admirable, I was pitied as the product of being a rabbi’s daughter. Which somehow brought us back to original sin.

March 10, 2011

Tags: Upper West Side Intellectuals

By 1957, at least in New York, where I had returned to live, a certain degree of sanity had reasserted itself in terms of child raising. You (I) could go to the movies with your child, take her (yes, her!) to a deli, a Chinese restaurant, whatever. Sit in the park and read a book while said child played in the sandbox, and not have to talk to another mother about–you guessed it–Dr. Spock. It was a child friendly world, not child obsessed. The man in the kiddie shoe store said to me by way of a compliment as he was carefully measuring my little girl’s feet for new Mary Janes, “You look very nice today, like you’re going to a bar mitzvah.”

Mainly what had happened to New York while I was away in the academic boondocks was that it was no longer a white Protestant fiefdom. Well, not all of it anyway. The Upper West Side, where we now resided, had been taken over by Jews, or Gentiles who passed for Jews, which was more or less the same thing, and had become the center of what came to be known as “The New York intellectuals.” Zabar’s, the new hot spot among delis, even had a big caricature over the lox counter featuring the neighborhood literati. Women were still in charge of home and hearth, but we were permitted to be professionals also. When they were having a big party (someone was always having a big party), as a matter of course I lent my big coffee urn to Bea Kristol (aka the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb). When it was my turn, it was understood that she would bring over extra drinking glasses, which she had acquired many of. The children of guests were underfoot too, like the little Podhoretzes and the Kristol boy. Some of them, alas, in later years grew up to be mini-cons. But by that time many of the grown ups were not talking to each other anyway. Politics had become too big an issue. But why hadn’t it divided us earlier on, I wonder? Because to Jews argument was simply a form of discussion, and didn’t interfere with friendship? Was it a form of friendship? I guess in time, like so much of America, we all became gentrified. Too gentrified to yell at each other face to face, anyway. Print was another matter.

February 23, 2011

Tags: Babies, Dr. Spock

These days little children dress very differently from the time of the Kennedy children, and of my own. For the most part organdy is banished, little boys’ short pants too. Instead we see sporty outfits straight from the Gap, with snaps when necessary to allow for diaper change. Instead of baby carriages, there are designer strollers that nip at your heels if you’re walking down the street ahead of them, and block the aisles in clothing stores while the nannies shop. Of course, it’s the children, not the clothes or the strollers that are the real designer accessories. When I first moved into my building on the Upper East Side some years ago there were almost no children among the tenantry, but many airline attendants and people who worked for the UN. Now the halls swarm with these little creatures and they’re utterly enchanting and remarkably intelligent. (But what if they’re not? Can the parents return them?)

Children now also frequently appear in multiples not only on reality TV but in real life too. This is all very startling to me since, for many years before this, my only connection to multiple births was the Dionne quintuplets. And they were hardly routine sights but five little miracles. It was impossible to imagine how they had come about, jostling each other to be born at the same time. Everything about the Dionne quintuplets was described and recorded in detail. No newsreel was complete without them. Quintuplet dolls were all the rage. I personally had a little set of five of them in five little cribs. So unbelievably cute. Until they grew up and became stout, pie faced middle aged women, one, I believe, a nun.

But by then, I and almost everyone I knew had babies of our own. Baby boomers, as this crop was known, and a whole generation of women was expected to be devoted to them body and soul. The overlord and scourge of all this was Dr. Spock. I don’t suppose Jackie labored under his tyranny, but the rest of us did, even when, like me, your dearest wish was to assassinate him. So many rules, regulations, theories, which violated what your heart told you-- my heart, anyway–when all the while he was firmly instructing you to obey your instincts. To compound this outrage, the baby in Dr. Spock was always a “he.” Whereas my baby was a girl. But even before her birth, normal feelings concerning pregnancy and birth were banished, certainly in the smug little college town where we were living then, and as I understand it, in middle class suburbia everywhere. There were rumors of something called “natural childbirth,” but that was dismissed as a New York affectation. In time honored tradition, husbands were banned from the labor room to the waiting room, there to comically sweat it out. In fact everyone was banned from the labor room, except for the occasional nurse, whom you were not to give any trouble. The understanding was that you were to be laid out like a lox, obediently put to sleep, and wake up surprised you had a baby. If you refused to be put to sleep, as I’m afraid I did, you were treated as a lunatic rebel, and suffered alone for hours, until at the last minute His Majesty the Doctor-- always a man-- washed up and relieved you of your baby, more or less as a favor.

Thus began the baby cult, and the motherhood cult, and the wife cult. The husbands had professions, the women had cooking and laundry, including washing diapers, which were cloth, not paper. In the kitchen, meals and snacks were made nonstop, since TV dinners hadn’t yet been invented, and there was no take-out because there was no place to take out from. A famous cookbook writer, recently deceased, claimed she got started when she returned to her college town (the same town ironically where I was) after a trip abroad and found “young...faculty wives who were scared to death of cooking and had to live on a nickel, poor things.” Despite of, or because of her intervention, they continued to live on a nickel and were now even more on the ropes about cooking. Their own, often excellent educations, and any possible professional aspirations were cast aside indefinitely. I was always surprised that these young women so easily betrayed their abilities and accomplishments for a mess of pottage, as it were. I’m less surprised that many in this dedicated group were eventually discarded and became what is now known as “first wives.” Including an outraged Mrs. Spock whose husband left her for what she called “a hot number.” Plus ca change.

Selected Works

Nonfiction
Fiction
It's the mid-1970's, a time of political and social turmoil. Watergate is on everybody's mind, and the women's movement is the subject of much contention.
"Ann Birstein writes with such fluidity that her novel seems to end only moments after it has begun." --New York Times
Autobiography
"A delicious, readable memoir about the fortunes of a beautiful, intelligent woman in an era when beautiful, intelligent women had no rights." --Erica Jong
Biography
"A delightful biography of the author's father." --The New Yorker