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The friendship between a first lady and a ‘Firebrand’

Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt bonded during civil rights movement

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Pauli Murray, gay news, Washington Blade
Pauli Murray, gay news, Washington Blade

Patricia Bell-Scott explores the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray in her new book.

Most of us would be proud to have earned a degree, written an acclaimed book of poetry or memoir, worked tirelessly for civil rights and have been part of a friendship that fostered human rights.

Pauli Murray, the groundbreaking African-American activist, lawyer, writer and priest, who lived from 1910-1985 and was attracted to women, did all this and much more. For nearly 25 years, Murray the granddaughter of a mixed-race slave, was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose privileged background entitled her to belong to the Daughters of the American Revolution. (Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in 1939 when the group prohibited the renowned African-American singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.)

In her compelling new book “The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice,” Patricia Bell-Scott, editor of the anthology “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave,” tells the story of this extraordinary relationship. Bell-Scott is professor emerita of women’s studies and human development and family science at the University of Georgia. Her previous books include: “Life Notes: Personal Writings by Contemporary Black Women” and “Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters,” which won the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize.

From 1938-1962, their friendship was sustained by some 300 postcards and letters as well as personal visits. The relationship began when Murray, 27, working for the WPA, a New Deal agency, sent Eleanor Roosevelt a letter protesting a speech Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made at the University of North Carolina. (The university had refused to admit Murray as a student because she was black.) The friendship continued until Roosevelt, 26 years older than Murray, died in 1962.

Murray earned three law degrees, organized sit-ins in the 1940s while a student at Howard University against eateries that discriminated against people of color, participated in bus boycotts 15 years before Rosa Parks and created the legal strategy that ensured that sex discrimination was included in the Civil Rights Act.     

A co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Murray wrote the memoir “Proud Shoes,” the well-regarded poetry collection “Dark Testament” as well as numerous essays and books. In 1977, she became one of the first women to be ordained as a priest by the Episcopal Church. Though Murray hadn’t been involved in writing it, in 1971 Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in an homage to Murray’s work, listed her as a co-author in her first brief before the Supreme Court.

Born in Baltimore, Murray didn’t use her given name “Anna Pauline.” Her father was a teacher and her mother was a nurse. At age three, after her mother died, Murray went to Durham, N.C., where she lived with her grandparents and two of her aunts, one of whom became her adoptive mother. In her childhood, Murray’s father, after contracting what was thought to be encephalitis, suffered from “unpredictable attacks of depression and violent moods.” Murray wasn’t ashamed of her sexual orientation and was in a long-term relationship with Irene, “Renee” Barlow. Yet, because of homophobia and her race, she was often denied employment in the government and the private sector.

It’s no wonder that it took Bell-Scott 20 years to write “Firebrand.” Recently, she talked with the Blade about the book and the friendship between Murray and the woman, who Murray called “Mrs. R.”

“This was not something I intended to do,” Bell-Scott said of “Firebrand.” “I was working on another project at the time.”

Then in 1983, Bell-Scott asked Murray to serve as a consulting editor to “SAGE: A Scholarly Journal of Black Women,” of which she was a co-founding editor. Though Murray couldn’t do SAGE, she wrote a letter of “encouragement” to Bell-Scott. “Pauli wanted to work on her autobiography,” she said.

In a follow-up to this letter, Murray wrote to Bell-Scott, “You need to know some of the veterans of the battle whose shoulders you now stand on.”

She didn’t say, “know me better,” Bell-Scott said, “but she did say she took great pride in her work as a member of the subcommittee on legal rights of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. (President John F. Kennedy appointed Eleanor Roosevelt chair of the commission.)

Bell-Scott made notes of what she wanted to talk about with Murray when her writing project was finished. “But I didn’t get the chance —18 months later, she died of pancreatic cancer,” she said. “Her letter haunted me. Quite a few years later, I decided I was still so haunted by her comment about knowing the veterans on whose shoulders you’re standing on.”

After examining the collection of Murray’s letters at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University and the collection of Roosevelt’s letters at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Bell-Scott said, she “immediately recognized that their relationship deserved attention.” Their friendship is mentioned only briefly by historians and biographers.

Despite the fact that Murray and Roosevelt came from very different backgrounds, they had a lot in common, Bell-Scott said. “To begin with, Anna was the given name for both of them and they never used it,” she said. “They both lost their parents before their teens and were sent to live with elderly kin.”

They were sensitive kids who grew up to be compassionate women with a thirst for justice, Bell-Scott said. “Even though she was first lady, people made fun of Eleanor’s appearance and ridiculed her teeth,” she added. “Pauli was boyish looking. People poked fun at how she looked.”

Murray and Roosevelt loved their fathers who suffered from mood disorders and alcoholism respectively. Though they were outspoken and highly energetic in their quest for social justice, “people were often surprised to learn that Pauli and Eleanor were both shy,” Bell-Scott said. “It took them tremendous psychic energy to overcome their shyness.”

Both were voracious readers and avid writers. Though she was a committed social justice activist, lawyer and priest, writing was what was closest to Murray’s heart, Bell-Scott said.  “Pauli couldn’t turn away from activism,” she said, “but if there were any regrets – she would have liked to have written more.”

Roosevelt, too, was committed to her writing, Bell-Scott said. “Eleanor wrote her ‘My Day’ column even when she was first lady,” she said. “After FDR’s death, she reported on Russia and pursued other writing projects.”

Their sense of well being was dependent on having meaningful work and exercise, Bell-Scott said. “They had a talent for friendship. And they loved dogs. Eleanor liked Scotties and Pauli liked mutts and strays.”

Murray would work herself into exhaustion and crash, Bell-Scott said. “She suffered from mood swings which weren’t properly diagnosed as a thyroid disorder until Pauli was in her 40s,” she said. “Eleanor suffered episodes of depression.”

Their friendship was the context that allowed Murray and Roosevelt to grow into the “transformative leaders that we know them as,” Bell-Scott said. “When they first met, Pauli was an impatient young radical … Eleanor felt it was important to always consider taking social justice action with great caution – to always follow the muted action on civil rights of the Roosevelt administration.” (FDR never publicly pushed Congress to speak out against lynching, Bell-Scott said.)

Later in their lives, Bell-Scott said, Murray had moved from radical left to left of center – voting for Lyndon Johnson as a registered Democrat after decades of voting for Socialist candidates. By the 1960s, Roosevelt had put her life on the line at civil rights workshops and demonstrations.

“When I look at the issue of Pauli’s sexuality, I think of the social context of the time. Here is a woman coming to adulthood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s,” she said. “Homosexuality is defined as a mental disorder until the 1970s. Pauli, a very bright woman, reads the scientific literature.”

Added to this, Bell-Scott said, was the homophobia of McCarthyism, which considered LGBT people to be a security threat. “Pauli was a black woman lawyer,” she said, “ that’s an unconventional career for a woman. There are rumors about her sexuality and her mental health.  She is living with discrimination on so many fronts.”

But Murray wasn’t ashamed of who she was, Bell-Scott said. “She was raised as a child by elder kin with Victorian values. You didn’t talk about sexuality.”

From reading Murray’s letters and sermons from later in her life, “it seems to me that Pauli began to publicly embrace herself,” Bell-Scott said.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Clarinda Harriss

    April 11, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    I read this review with great interest and will certainly read the book. IWolfe does here what a great reviewer should do: give the reader enough solid background information about the subject of the book so that s/he doesn’t come to the book “cold.” Thanks, Kathi.

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Books

Six books not to miss this fall

Memoirs, love stories, and ballroom await

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‘Unprotected: A Memoir’ by Billy Porter is out next month. (Book cover image courtesy Abrams Press)

Staying inside and curling up always seems like a great idea but in the fall, it almost feels urgent, doesn’t it? The great news is that there are a lot of good reads slated this fall for the LGBTQ reader.

Not your normal coming-of-age tale, “A Tale of Two Omars” by Omar Sharif, Jr. is the story of the author’s youth during the Arab Spring in 2010. But that’s only the launching point for the rest of the story: Sharif, the grandson of the great actor Omar Sharif, writes of his grandfather and the rest of his scattered family, and visiting them on various continents. He also writes of danger: a job he took that wasn’t the kind of work he thought it was, and the threats he received for speaking out about his homosexuality in homophobic Egypt. It’s a thrilling book, salted with memoir and you’ll love it. (October)

If you’re obsessed with the most recent incarnation of “Cinderella,” then you’ll likewise want to have “Unprotected: A Memoir” by Billy Porter on your shelf. This is a story in the author’s own words, about growing up Black and gay, raised by parents who hope to change the latter, and seizing the strength to stay use your talents and stay the course. (October)

Who doesn’t want it all?  In the memoir “Greedy: Notes from a Bi-Sexual Who Wants Too Much” by Jen Winston, the author humorously examines what it means to be bisexual, why coming out as bi is fraught with landmines; dating, pronouns, sex, and more. Yes, you can have it (almost) all. (October)

Nightlife in Seoul is the backdrop for “Love in the Big City” by Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur. It’s the story of a young gay man and his best female friend, and the fun they have exploring the clubs and bars in Seoul. As with many friendships, they both change and he is left to look for the love of his life alone. Fun, sassy, and poignant, this was a big best-selling debut novel in Korea. (November)

If something on the light side appeals to you, look for “The Coldest Touch” by Isabel Sterling. It’s a novel about a young woman who knows how someone will die, just by touching them. Understandably, she’d love to lose that power, until a young vampire is sent to help her, and they fall in love. Can the two thwart the danger in their town that’s coming from another, more sinister, paranormal figure? This is a book for young adults, but grown-up readers who love vampire stories will love biting into it.  (December)

And finally, for the reader with creativity and movement in their bones, “And the Category Is…: Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community” by Ricky Tucker is what you’ll want this fall. Go into an “underground subculture” for Black and Latinx trans and queer people, where marginalized LGBTQ individuals find acceptance, family, and help. With its roots in Harlem more than a century ago, you might not think you know much about ballroom, but you’ll be surprised… (December). Season’s readings!

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Books

Sullivan’s new book a cornucopia of wit, provocation

‘Out on a Limb’ offers queer cultural history with a point of view

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(Cover image courtesy of Avid Reader Press)

‘Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021′
By Andrew Sullivan
c.2021, Avid Reader Press
$35/576 pages

Gay writer and political commentator Andrew Sullivan’s first day in journalism began on a Sunday afternoon in 1984 in London at the Daily Telegraph.  The paper was housed on the “original Fleet Street,” Sullivan writes, “the place Evelyn Waugh had made eternal in his satirical novel Scoop.”

The editor that day, “a high Tory intellectual,” was completely blind, chain-smoked and “wore a patch over one eye, like a pirate,” Sullivan writes.

He was told to write an editorial on a topic he knew nothing about. Using, “all the skills my Oxford training in extemporaneous bullshitting had given me,” Sullivan writes, he wrote the piece.

Sullivan, who was instrumental in bolstering support for mainstream equality and for dismantling “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military, hasn’t stopped writing since.

Sullivan’s writing is as colorful as the Fleet Street editor with the eye patch.

I’m a blind lesbian. Reading “Out on a Limb” (on Audible and Kindle), there were times when I rolled my blind eyes.

At other moments, I marveled at Sullivan’s bravery and compassion.

But, whether I disagreed with or applauded Sullivan, I couldn’t stop reading him.

I’m betting this will be the case with you.

An Irish Catholic gay man, Sullivan is one of our most provocative and fascinating writers.

The essays in “Out on a Limb” cover everything from the death of Princess Diana to AIDS to “Brokeback Mountain” to Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality.

Sullivan, a self-described small-c conservative who was one of the first to bring Barack Obama to the attention of the mainstream press, has angered many.

“I have been criticized for abandoning the right,” he writes, “and for criticizing the left.”

Sullivan’s voted for, among others, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in Britain, and Ronald Reagan, Obama and Joe Biden in America.

The causes he has supported over 40 years include: marriage equality, the legalization of recreational drugs, welfare reform and, as he writes, “a very expansive concept of free speech.”

If you didn’t disagree with Sullivan on anything, you wouldn’t be human.

But, if you didn’t agree with him on some things, you wouldn’t have a heart or a brain.

The essays in “Out on a Limb,” are a time capsule of Sullivan’s career from his time with The New Republic (where he was the youngest editor in the magazine’s history) to his current perch with “The Weekly Dish.”

The collection shows how Sullivan’s views have evolved over the years. Sullivan, who with “The Dish,” was a blogging pioneer, is a refreshingly honest writer.

Some writers never want to cop to a mistake. This isn’t true with Sullivan, who says he was wrong about supporting the Iraq war.

It’s hard to remember how brave it was for Sullivan in 1989 to pen the essay “Here Comes the Groom: A Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” for The New Republic.

Then, when sodomy laws were on the books in many states, it was courageous to be out as Sullivan was.

Marriage equality wasn’t on the horizon – let alone on a magazine cover.

Sullivan writes movingly about seeing the AIDS quilt in 1992 on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

The collection includes some controversial pieces such as “When Plagues End: Notes on the Twilight of an Epidemic.”

It’s true that for many AIDS is no longer a deadly plague.

But AIDS is still a death sentence for many who don’t have health insurance or access to care.

Sullivan’s essays on gender and campus life such as “The He Hormone” or “We All Live on Campus Now” made me want to throw the book across the room.

I wish Sullivan hadn’t published a symposium on Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book “The Bell Curve” in The New Republic. (The book says there is a connection between race and intelligence.)

But I was moved by the essay “Dear Ta-Nehisi,” in which Sullivan explains why he felt compelled to air writing of, as he writes, “sometimes painful topics.”

“Out on a Limb” is a cornucopia of wit, queer cultural history and provocation. Enjoy the feast.  

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Books

‘All In’ a riveting biography of Billie Jean King

A fascinating story of a living, larger-than-life legend

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‘All In: An Autobiography’
By Billie Jean King with Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers
c.2020, Alfred A. Knopf
$30/482 pages

I know nothing about tennis except that I love Hitchcock’s thriller “Strangers on a Train,” in which a charming, sociopathic murderer enlivens the game.

There are no murders in “All In,” Billie Jean King’s memoir, co-authored with journalists Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers. But King’s candid autobiography is as exciting, as suspenseful, as a Hitchcock flick.

“All In” is a fab read not only for tennis aficionados and readers interested in LGBTQ history and women’s history but for anyone who enjoys a fascinating story of a living, larger-than-life, but very human, down-to-earth legend.

Some athletes, even the most acclaimed ones, are mainly known to sports fans.

Their achievements are important, sometimes record-setting, in their sports. But these sports figures aren’t cultural icons.

This isn’t the case with King. Like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, King, who was born in 1943, is iconic.
You likely remember where you were in 1973 when, along with 90 million other riveted viewers, you watched King beat self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.”

If you weren’t born then, you’ve surely heard how excited your mom or grandma were to see male chauvinism taken down. Then, when women often had difficulty obtaining a credit card, let alone fighting workplace discrimination, beating the pants off Riggs was no small matter.

King, a feminist and lesbian, is believed to be the first woman athlete activist.

In 2009, King received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work for LGBTQ and women’s rights and equality.

Then there is King’s stunning record in tennis. She was the top United States tennis player – winning 39 Grand Slams and 20 Wimbledon titles.

Often, the memoirs of famous people are bland, unrevealing. They are as exciting as Velveeta.

“All In” is a feast of flavors. Most memoirs, no matter how good, have some dull stretches.

This isn’t so with “All In.” From the get-go, it grabs you by the lapels.

The memoir is so revealing that, as you read it, you feel as if you’re reliving King’s life. King tells us about the people she loves.

Her family, like most people at the time, were homophobic when she was growing up. Yet King loved and respected her parents. They taught her, among many things, to “respect and never underestimate” her opponents, she writes.

Her brother Randy Moffitt, who was a pitcher in Major League Baseball has given her, King writes, “a lifetime of support.”

King writes of her love for Ilana Kloss. The couple, who have been together for 40 years, were married in a private ceremony in 2018. David Dinkins, the former New York City Mayor officiated the wedding.

“To Ilana, my love, my partner, to the moon and back,” King writes in the memoir’s dedication.
It took decades for King to become open and unashamed about her sexuality.

She grew up in a working class family in Long Beach, Calif. Her father was a firefighter. It was a timwhen women were expected to get married (to men) and have children.

Middle-class and upper-class women, even if they’d been to college, weren’t supposed to want to work.
The idea that you could be a gay tennis player wouldn’t have been on the horizon when King began playing the game as a kid.

King married Larry King (not the broadcaster) in 1965. Though they divorced, they are still close friends.
Some of the most gut-wrenching moments of “All In” are where King writes of being outed in the 1980s by a former female lover who filed a palimony suit. Though the former lover didn’t win in court, the outing nearly derailed King’s career.

King writes movingly about how, after much therapy and self-reflection, she became comfortable about her sexuality.

She tells us how she dealt with an eating disorder and other health problems. Above all, King challenges us to work for social change. She dedicates the memoir “to everyone who continues to fight for equality, inclusion, and freedom.”

Who wouldn’t be “All In” with that?

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