A few more tales from the amazing life of Ruth Gruber


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Ruth Gruber in Alaska, looking more fabulous in the freezing cold than you could ever dream.
  • courtesy Illinois Holocaust Museum
  • Ruth Gruber in Alaska, looking more fabulous in the freezing cold than you could ever dream.
Ruth Gruber, the 102-year-old photographer whose work goes on display this Sunday at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, has had an amazing life. Some of it has been described in a preview of the exhibit, called "Ruth Gruber: Photojournalist": her travels in the Soviet arctic and through the Alaskan frontier; her stewardship of 1,000 Jewish refugees who traveled from Italy to upstate New York in 1944 aboard the ship Henry Gibbins; her photographs showing the deplorable conditions aboard another ship of refugees, the Exodus, which had been denied entry into Palestine by the British and was eventually sent back to Germany.

Amazingly, Gruber never studied photography formally. Her only professional instruction came from Edward Steichen, who told her, "Take pictures with your heart."

Gruber's life would still be remarkable, though, even if she'd never had her adventures as a photojournalist. Here are a few more stories from her life that she never photographed.

As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, Gruber was always in a hurry; she could barely stand to wait for the subway. She started college at NYU when she was just 15; by the time she was 19, she already had a masters from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Then in 1931, the year she turned 20, she won a scholarship to study at the University of Cologne in Germany.

"This was before Hitler came to power," says Maya Benton, the curator at the International Center of Photography who created the exhibit, "but she could see the writing on the wall." (A point probably reinforced by Gruber's romance with a young German man who became a Nazi. Gruber's memory is still extraordinarily clear, Benton says, "but she did not want to talk about it.")

Her dissertation adviser, meanwhile, was excited to have an English-speaking student who he could assign to work on the novels of Virginia Woolf. At the time, Woolf had already produced most of her life's work (including To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway), but she was still virtually unknown in the United States, and Gruber had never read any of her books. Nonetheless, Gruber agreed to write her dissertation on Woolf, provided she could finish within a year and get the hell out of Germany. She did, in the process becoming, at 20, the world's youngest PhD.

(Benton has read the dissertation, which was published in 1935 and was the first academic work ever produced about Woolf. "It was unbelievably good," she reports. "I told Ruth, and she said, 'What did you expect?'")

Woolf and Gruber had an interesting relationship, which Gruber discussed in this 2005 interview with Bookslut. Although it was mostly chance (and her professor) that led Gruber to Woolf, she was greatly inspired by A Room of One's Own, which happened to be the first of Woolf's books that she read. "It told her she should think as a woman and act as a woman," says Gruber's friend Patti Kenner.

The admiration, however, was not mutual. When Gruber sent Woolf a copy of her dissertation, Woolf wrote back that she hadn't read it. It wasn't "laziness or a lack of interest in the subject," she explained, "but the fact is that I try to avoid reading about my own writing when I am actually writing. I find that it makes me self-conscious and for some reason distracts me from my work."

The two women met in 1935 when Gruber interviewed Woolf for a study on women and democracy. Woolf had initially declined the interview, claiming it was a subject she knew nothing about, but Gruber never received the letter. During the hour they spent together at Woolf's house in Bloomsbury, Woolf was outwardly gracious, but, as she wrote in her diary, inwardly grumpy from a bad day of writing and resentful at having to answer questions from "an importunate and unfortunate Gerwoman."

Many years later, Gruber looked up Woolf's diary in the New York Public Library and found several unflattering references to herself, but also evidence that Woolf had, in fact, finally read the dissertation.

"Virginia Woolf never gave [Ruth] the satisfaction of letting her know she'd read her dissertation," says Benton, "but she wrote about it in her diary, and it made an impression."

* * * *

When Gruber returned to New York, PhD in hand, she discovered that although she was a minor celebrity (world's youngest PhD!), no one wanted to give her a full-time job as a writer. She did, however, find work as a translator for Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an arctic explorer who, despite his name, was actually Canadian. (He'd changed it from the more mundane-sounding William Stephenson.) She also became friendly with Helen Reid, the publisher of the New York Herald-Tribune, and when in 1935 she got a Guggenheim grant to go to Europe to study women and democracy—or, as it turned out, women in countries where there was no democracy—Reid named her special correspondent, her first job as a journalist.

Gruber returned to Germany and sneaked into a Nazi rally to hear Hitler speak. She traveled to the Soviet Union and, thanks to her connections with Stefansson, secured a meeting with Otto Schmidt, a government official who had also been an arctic explorer.

"She tells Schmidt about her study of women," says Arielle Weininger, head curator of the IHM, "and, this is the typical story of Ruth's life, he says, 'You should go there yourself.'"

Thus Gruber became the first American to travel to the Soviet arctic. She visited the gulags in Siberia. She traveled mostly by single-engine plane. By then she had acquired her first camera, and she took her first photos. The trip became the subject of her first book, I Went to the Soviet Arctic. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was so impressed with the book that he offered her a job studying living conditions in Alaska—then a territory—for the U.S. government. A few senators thought that Gruber shouldn't be paid because might be a communist—she had written that someday she'd like the bathe again in the Lena River, which they interpreted as insufficiently critical—and there was a debate on the Senate floor to reinstate her.

It was the arctic, Gruber said in Ahead of Time, the documentary Kenner produced about her life, that taught her how to "live in time."

She always wore lipstick. When Benton marveled about this, Gruber looked at her and said, "How hard is it to put on lipstick?"

* * * *

Gruber didn't marry until 1951, when she was 40. Benton once asked her if she'd ever worried that she'd never marry or have children. Her answer was a simple "No."

"She has no neuroses," Benton says. "It's very strange."

She and her husband, Philip Michaels, took a working honeymoon to North Africa. She taught him how to take pictures. Even after the births of their two children, she continued to work. She kept her own name. She continued to travel well into her 80s.

Benton spent five months with Gruber in early 2011, the year Gruber turned 100, going through Gruber's personal archives in the apartment where she'd lived for 60 years. She'd kept meticulous notes, and her memory was still very clear.

"We watched the news together every day," Benton remembers. "It was the Arab Spring. Watching her watch it—it was like she was going to be in the world for another 100 years."


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