Obituary for Edith Efron: The Woman Who Saw Through Walls
Dynamist.com , April 19, 2001
After his speech at the American Enterprise Institute's banquet in February, I introduced myself to Clarence Thomas. His face lit up when he heard my affiliation with Reason, asking whether I was the woman who had written the article about him. No, I said, Edith Efron wrote it. I was the editor who published it (and, I didn't add, typed it). He then told me what he had told several mutual friends since 1992: that Edith had been the only person to understand what was going through his mind during the hearings that made him a household name.
Edith knew exactly what Thomas was thinking not because she was a well-sourced reporter—she had never met Thomas and didn't talk to any insiders about the hearings—but because she paid attention to history and to details. Everything she wrote had a Big Idea, an integrated concept that made sense of a welter of facts. Structure, she believed, was everything, and she wasn't happy until she had found the perfect synthesis. She was uncannily perceptive.
In this case, she knew that Thomas' favorite book was Richard Wright's Native Son, she reread the book for the first time in 50 years, and the rest followed. "One finds many things relevant to Thomas and to his roots and his lifelong concerns in this book," she wrote. "But in this particular context, one finds one crucial thing—his limits. The one thing Thomas would not, could not, permit, whatever else might be at stake, the one stereotype that it would be downright dangerous to paste on him, leaps out from those pages."
From that insight, she created a sympathetic and searing portrait that turned Thomas the symbol back into Thomas the man. Her article was so powerful that it overcame its political incorrectness to be named a finalist for a National Magazine Award, the magazine world's highest honor.
Edith died April 20, at the age of 79. She has been remembered for her association with Ayn Rand (which inevitably ended badly, given Edith's free-thinking temperament) and for her 1984 masterwork, The Apocalyptics, which was the first book to question the "regulatory science" allegedly linking synthetic chemicals and cancer. The Apocalyptics was the devastating antithesis of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Both books, wrote Cancer Research in 1987, "should be read by cancer investigators, and their lessons should be considered by cancer specialists and those reaching scientific conclusions as well as those responsible for framing government regulations." Edith was enormously proud of that endorsement, and of those she received from other scientists.
She also wrote two New York Times bestsellers—The News Twisters (1971), under her own name, and A Time for Truth (1978), as a ghostwriter for William Simon. After The News Twisters was published, she was twice invited to the Nixon White House and, determined to stay independent of an administration she found morally suspect, twice declined. In recent years, she was best known for her famous analysis of Bill Clinton's psychological problems, published in the November 1994 issue of Reason. (The article enjoyed a brief resurgence of interest during the unseemly end of Clinton's term in office, when it was cited by Andrew Sullivan, among others.)
For all her many accomplishments, I think the Thomas piece was, in many ways, truest to Edith's talents and passions. She was a profile writer, she was a pattern finder, she was deeply read in literature, and she was passionately concerned about race in America. Before she was hit by a serious stroke two years ago, she was working on a book on the past and future of the country's racial caste system. The more history she read, the more appalled and angry she became. She believed the book would be explosive and, knowing Edith, it would have been. It certainly would have been original, iconoclastic, and rigorously researched.
Edith cared about race for personal reasons: In 1947, she married a Haitian businessman, with whom she had a child. After living in Haiti and working as a Central America correspondent for Time and Life, she divorced and returned to New York. She thus faced the challenge of raising a black son in the segregated America of the mid-1950s. That concern influenced her work and, after she became a writer for TV Guide in the early '60s, her work influenced the nation. She wrote for TV Guide in two stints: as a jack-of-all-trades in the '60s, penning often-devastating celebrity profiles—Joanne Woodward's politics were "as standardized for her circle as is rolling for holy rollers," Barbra Streisand owed her success to "one traumatic fact: her ugliness," Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens were "lovely barbarians, 20th century style"—and a political columnist in the '70s, after the publication of The News Twisters.
In Changing Channels, their 1993 book on TV Guide, Cornell professors Glenn C. Altschuler and David I. Grossvogel declare that "no writer...did more to shape TV Guide," a publication that reached 40 million readers. Among her other influences, she was, they said, "the quintessential TV Guide voice on race relations."
All the positions she took on race in her articles, Efron told us, "were determined by what I thought would be good for a young, vulnerable black child." Disturbed by the changing strategies toward achieving racial equality in the sixties, Efron remained the same on her position: "Always, I was in favor of equality of opportunity and meritocracy. Meaning, among other things, that I was as critical of crap from blacks as I was from whites, and used the same standards to judge both. That is the definition of not being a racist. One judges individuals, not their color!!!" Thus, Efron was as passionate about black power as she was about theories positing the genetic inferiority of blacks because each accepted the group instead of the individual as the appropriate unit of analysis and action: "Essentially I was always protecting my child from two kinds of racism: the bestial kind common in the South and the inverted kind characteristic of the North. Both contempt for all blacks and glamorization of all blacks are detestable, and both damage blacks."
Edith began her journalism career in the waning days of World War II, when a newly minted female graduate of Columbia Journalism School could still get a job at The New York Times Magazine. As the magazine was warning readers that "career women" would be unwanted by postwar businesses and shouldn't waste their time studying science or math, young Edith reported on such topics as peacetime conversion in a Connecticut town and whether mustered-out servicemen would be looking for colorful fashions once they escaped their uniforms. (They were conformists above all, she concluded, ready to wear purple and green but only if everyone else did.) Her report on bare-legged women is classic enough to appear on a Smithsonian history site.
She had stories about all sorts of New York movers and shakers: how Alan Greenspan used to come and go from Ayn Rand's circle "as if he were going to a secret mistress," how those who worked for Mike Wallace worried about his depression (Edith was a staff writer for his show in the late '50s), how she once got into a knock-down-drag-out argument with Irving Kristol in which she accused him of "telling young people to believe in ghosts." (Edith was a third-generation atheist.)
Written in her early 20s, Edith's NYTM articles capture a side of her that somber eulogists omit—her playfulness and whimsy. She had a taste for the absurd, which you can see in this TV Guide piece on Dick York. She was a deeply intellectual woman who found nothing odd about alternating between C-Span and the Home Shopping Network. She described herself, quoting a friend, as a "sociable hermit." She almost never left her house but had devoted family and friends. "We used to alternate bringing her Chinese food," says the eminent economic historian Stanley Engerman, one of her closest friends. He calls her, quite aptly, "remarkable."
I have often wondered what sort of career Edith would have had if she had been born later, into a world that fully valued the talents of women. She was the most brilliant woman I've known. But she was also a perfectionist who completed articles for only one reason: because she needed the money. She wrote for TV Guide to support her son and for Reason to supplement her Social Security. (A chain smoker, she had depleted her limited retirement funds because she expected to die at 68, the median age of death for smokers. "Edie," her brother said, knowing she knew better, "what does median mean?") I loved her, but I was brutal enough to exploit her financial need. In a more just world, she would have gotten the think tank sinecure she deserved, and we would have never known what Clarence Thomas was thinking.