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Take My Word!

Novelist Remembered as a Champion of Outcasts

March 27, 1986|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

Laura Z. Hobson died on Friday, Feb. 28, at age 85. I'm glad to say I was one of her many friends.

Laura surely will be best remembered for her novels, especially the ones that exposed bigotry for the crippling cruelty it is. Her most famous work was, and perhaps still is, "Gentleman's Agreement," which dealt with the subtle cancer of anti-Semitism and in 1947 was made into a film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Gregory Peck and John Garfield. Her "Consenting Adult" was a plea for public understanding of homosexuality as a natural and unexceptionable fact of life for many people. It was adapted into a fine TV film starring Marlo Thomas as the mother of a gay son. The story grew out of Laura's own discovery that one of her sons was gay and of her resultant exploration of his feelings and his world. The title held a load of irony--the mother's "consent" to an inevitable fact.

Decency and Compassion

Laura was always the champion of the socially ostracized. I don't think she ever thought of herself as a crusader, but decency and compassion lived in her very core, and she wrote powerfully against the ignorance and resulting bigotry she saw.

Like all good writers, she had a never-flagging love for and curiosity about words. I've mentioned in this space that I was for several years the author of puzzles called Double-Crostics for the old Saturday Review. Laura was the puzzle editor for SR. Puzzle editor at the time was a non-paying, anonymous position. She had volunteered to do the job largely because of her love of words and her insistence upon accuracy in their use.

It was she who, back in 1966, chose me as the successor to Doris Nash Wortman, who had authored the puzzles for many years but had become seriously ill and was not expected to recover. Laura told me that she had chosen my work from that of about a dozen puzzle-makers on the basis of what she perceived as an appealing sense of humor coupled with a nice regard for language usage. I couldn't have been more flattered if I'd won a Pulitzer Prize.

That was 20 years ago. I flew to New York to get acquainted with Laura and my collateral new employers, who would also be publishing my Double-Crostics--the New York Times and Simon & Schuster. I had lunch with Laura in her duplex apartment just across 5th Avenue from Central Park. Our conversation was at first tentative, as we sparred a bit, testing each other out. Within about an hour we had both relaxed, and our talk was punctuated by a great deal of laughter, which we continued to share over many years of friendship.

Back then, Saturday Review was a weekly, so every month I'd send in a batch of four or five puzzles, and SR sent them to Laura to solve and proofread. Once a month, Laura phoned me to give suggestions for making the puzzles easier or harder, more accurate, more fair, or just more amusing. As an author, she was very sensitive to the problems that can arise in author-editor relationships. She always said, "Now, Tom, remember, this is just a suggestion. I'm only the editor. You're the author and your name goes over the puzzle; so your decision is final. But I think . . . " and then she'd give me what was always an excellent suggestion and a genuine improvement. She saved me from many an embarrassment.

Hours on the Phone

Those telephone conversations often lasted for an hour or more. Laura was at least as vocal as I, and we never limited ourselves to the business at hand. We'd get into literature, the state of the language in general, any good stories either of us had heard, what was happening in the New York theater, movies, the state of the nation and the world (especially during the time of the civil rights marches, the Vietnam War and Watergate), anything else that came to mind, and we'd continue our conversations over lunches almost every time I got to New York.

Laura jerked the reins of the American conscience as masterfully as anyone. She made us think and learn, and she made us like the lesson. She'd have a lot to be proud of.

I think the country will miss her.

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