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Carolyn Heilbrun, 77; Feminist Scholar Wrote Mystery Novels

October 15, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Carolyn G. Heilbrun, a distinguished feminist scholar who illuminated the female experience through erudite reinterpretations of classic English literature and in literate mystery novels written under the name Amanda Cross, was found dead in her New York City apartment Friday after an apparent suicide. She was 77.

The pioneering feminist critic had decided years earlier that she would end her life by the age of 70 to avoid the inevitable deterioration of age, but she later explained that she had let the deadline pass when her 60s proved deeply satisfying.

In "The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty," a book published the year she turned 71, she said she would decide each day whether to keep on living. Her son Robert told the New York Times last week that she had not been ill when she decided to kill herself.

Despite her sobering pronouncements over the years, Heilbrun's death stunned longtime friends and associates.

"The loss is inestimable," said Sandra M. Gilbert, a poet, feminist critic and English professor at UC Davis, who had known Heilbrun for 30 years. "To my knowledge, she was healthy and had admirers everywhere and was doing good work."

Heilbrun's suicide, Gilbert said, "is just a mystery to me."

Heilbrun had helped to establish feminist literary criticism in the 1970s with "Toward a Recognition of Androgyny: Aspects of Male and Female in Literature" and "Reinventing Womanhood."

The books charted new ground by holding up a feminist lens to the examination of gender issues in texts by authors from Shakespeare to Jane Austen.

Heilbrun also wrote a well-regarded work on women's biographies, "Writing a Woman's Life," published in 1988. She applied her knowledge of the genre to an authorized biography of women's movement icon Gloria Steinem, which elicited mixed reviews when it was released in 1995.

As Cross, an identity she managed to keep secret from co-workers and friends for several years, Heilbrun wrote 14 novels featuring Kate Fansler, a staunch feminist who, like the author, taught literature at Columbia.

Heilbrun was an only child whose early life was somewhat solitary. Born in East Orange, N.J., she moved to New York with her parents when she was 6. When she wasn't roller-skating by herself, she was devouring biographies in the local library, systematically working her way through the alphabet. She noticed that there were few women to read about, unless they were the wives or mothers of prominent men, an observation that would later inform Heilbrun the scholar.

"I was profoundly caught up in biography," she wrote in "Writing a Woman's Life," "because it allowed me, as a young girl, to enter the world of daring and achievement. But I had to make myself a boy to enter that world; I could find no comparable biographies of women, indeed, almost no biographies of women at all."

Her father, Archibald Gold, was an accountant and business consultant who lost his money in the Great Depression. She once described her mother, Estelle, as a woman who "sat home and was bored out of her mind" but impressed on her daughter the importance of having her own life and making her own money.

Despite her mother's advice, Heilbrun got married when she was 19 and not yet graduated from Wellesley College. It was early 1945 and James Heilbrun, a Harvard graduate, Navy ensign and future Fordham University economist, was about to be shipped overseas to fight in World War II. Though most women her age were focused on marriage and children, Heilbrun graduated from Wellesley in 1947 and spent the 1950s earning a master's degree and a doctorate from Columbia.

Except for short stints at Yale, Swarthmore, Princeton and UC Santa Cruz, she spent her entire career at Columbia, which hired her as an instructor in 1960. She found herself in an academic environment that was often hostile to her interests. For instance, the works of one of her favorite authors, Virginia Woolf, were disparaged and not taught at Columbia. Within a couple of decades, Woolf was standard reading in most major English departments.

This atmosphere did not discourage her from writing what later would be viewed as a landmark paper in the history of feminist scholarship: "The Character of Hamlet's Mother," published in the Shakespeare Quarterly in 1957. The article challenged the prevailing view of Queen Gertrude as silly and weak, instead establishing the character's intelligence and wit.

By the early 1960s Heilbrun was juggling the demands of academia against those of motherhood. She had three children, including twins, in rapid succession. They survive her, along with her husband of 58 years and two grandchildren.

Long a fan of the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, she found one day in 1963 that she had read everything by them and decided to try writing a detective novel herself.

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