Hannah Arendt’s Female Friends
By Kathleen B. JonesNovember 12, 2013
In the tiny set of rooms on Morningside Drive, which Arendt shared with her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, and her mother, and, later, in the larger Riverside Drive apartment that hosted many a New Year’s Eve party, some of the most illustrious political and literary minds of the 20th century would meet — among them Hermann Broch, Paul Tillich, Salo and Jeanette Baron, Helen and Kurt Wolff, Hans Morgenthau, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Lotte Kohler, Elizabeth Hardwick, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, J. Glenn Gray, Dwight Macdonald, W. H. Auden, and Lionel and Diana Trilling. Many were, like Arendt, émigrés from Nazi-occupied Europe. Others, like Jarrell, Kazin, McCarthy, and Trilling, were American poets, writers, artists, and critics whose work shaped the cultural milieu of mid-20th century America: the New York Intellectuals, as they came to be known. All were drawn to, and sometimes repelled by, the argumentative, opinionated, yet unceasingly electrifying German-Jewish woman who held her court in a shabbily furnished apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
With its high ceilings, large rooms, and grand windows, apartment 12A at 370 Riverside Drive in New York reminded its visitors of those prewar buildings in Berlin. From Arendt’s desk, one could look over Riverside Park and the Hudson River to the edge of New Jersey. In the living room, where Arendt received visitors with her characteristic combination of archness and wit, womanly guile and cultivated erudition, stood a high-backed sofa covered in a dismal green vinyl, worn and patched, but serviceable. Scattered across from the sofa was an assortment of armchairs and in front of it, a coffee table, on which she would serve glasses of champagne from her well stocked supplies to closer friends on social occasions. The dining room, whose main table was covered in books, papers, and journals, served primarily as a library.
Helen Wolff described it as “a cheerful apartment but by no means furnished with aesthetics in mind. A philosopher’s home.” It was Arendt’s home against the world, providing, in the language she used in a 1974 speech given at Columbia University, a “place of one’s own shielded against the claims of the public.”
Hannah Arendt loved being in the contentious center of things, whether quoting Goethe and Hölderlin in the original German, lecturing Saul Bellow on the literature of Faulkner, listening to Randall Jarrell reading the poetry of Wordsworth, Eliot, or Whitman to her, being celebrated in stanzas written by Robert Lowell or W. H. Auden in her honor, or debating current events or philosophy with Mary McCarthy, J. Glenn Gray or Dwight Macdonald. Helen Wolff characterized her “very striking [...] and noticeable immediately even to those who met her for the first time, was a very powerful Ausstrahlung [charisma].”
In New York Jew, his memoir of literary New York in the 1940s-1960s, Alfred Kazin attempted to explain Arendt’s allure:
She confronted you with the truth; she confronted you with her friendship; she confronted Heinrich [her second husband] even when she joined him in the most passionate seminar I would ever witness between a man and a woman living together; she confronted the gap, the nothingness, the “extreme situation” of “modern man.” [...] The excitement of being with Hannah was mysterious, for it reached to foundations of thought that she accepted with a kind of awe. “I have never, since a child,” she once said to me, “doubted that God exists.”
With her, Kazin recalled in an interview more than a decade later:
Everything ... was temperament ... What people responded to ... was always the temperamental thing, which was very vivid ... She couldn’t accept criticism ... But she made a very deep impression ... It was this temperamental thing, which was astonishingly passionate ... She was very much a woman in every deep sense of the word ... These deep friendships [...] there’s no question that a lot of the men, poets and others who hanged around, were very much affected by her.
“As a woman?” he was asked. “Oh, yes, definitely.”
Unsurprisingly, this erotic magnetism disturbed some of the women in the circle, such as Ann Birstein (Alfred Kazin’s third wife) and Diana Trilling, whose presence may have been more a function of Arendt’s attachment to their husbands than to themselves. At least that was the impression Arendt gave them, either by ignoring them, or dismissing them with some curt remark.
There were, in fact, two types of friendship in Arendt’s life: those that were most like her characterization of friendship in her portrait of Gotthold Lessing in Men in Dark Times, which she called “friendship among citizens,” and those which she called “intimate.” “We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy,” she wrote,
in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands. [...] Thus it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship. [...] But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse. [...] This converse (in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world.
Sometimes, but only rarely, the two types were interwoven in the same friend.
“The tribe” was a circle of friends concerned with that common world, and much less with the intimate topics of face-to-face encounters. A very private person, Arendt shared the more intimate details of her life only with her husband and a few close friends, mostly women, in whom she confided more frequently in letters than in person.
Among her women friends, the unlikely and very long-lived friendship of Arendt and Mary McCarthy has been much documented and discussed, even more since receiving its first celluloid rendition in Hannah Arendt, the new film by Margarethe von Trotta, which opened some months ago to much critical acclaim. What sort of friendship was it?
In a recent post on “Page-Turner,” The New Yorker’s online book blog, Michelle Dean complained that the image of Arendt’s friendship with McCarthy in von Trotta’s film was a “flat portraiture.” Dean argued that it represented the conversations between these two “ferocious minds” as if they had been dominated by exchanges “about men and love.” In reality, she contended, their friendship formed a “close intellectual bond,” serving as a “bulwark against their naysayers.”
All this is true; but it underplays the complexity and intimacy of Arendt’s relationship with McCarthy. In an age when, as Dean notes, “women hunger for models of intellectual self-confidence,” the pair’s friendship can be a source of inspiration, an exemplar of women talking “about ideas among themselves.” But this model also risks a portraiture that is flat, dispassionate, and disembodied, and we should perhaps pay attention to the complex role of the erotic in this and Arendt’s other female friendships as well.
Littered throughout McCarthy and Arendt’s correspondence are recommendations for books to read and write, places to visit, and ways to think about current issues. Their mutual intellectual support did not rule out criticism or alternative insight. “I’ve read your book [The Origins of Totalitarianism], absorbed, for the past two weeks, in the bathtub, riding in a car, waiting in line in the grocery store,” McCarthy exclaimed in a letter to Arendt. “It seems to me a truly extraordinary piece of work.” And then she added an objection: Arendt’s explanation of totalitarianism gave too little weight, she thought, to the role of the “fortuitous” in its development. After finishing McCarthy’s The Group, Arendt similarly wrote:
I liked The Group very, very much, it is quite different from your other books. [...] You have won a perspective, or perhaps rather: you have arrived at a point so far removed from your former life that everything now can fall into place. You yourself are no longer directly involved. And this quality makes the book more of a novel than any of your other books.
Unafraid to judge, both women practiced a form of truth-telling that, in its more strident tones, bordered on arrogance; the kind of arrogance neither begrudged the other.
Yet the undertone of dialogue in the letters exhibits a growing intimacy and fervor. After a 1968 letter from Paris catching Arendt up on the latest news among their friendship circle, as well as events in her own personal life, McCarthy wrote: “I must stop. I miss you very much. More than ever recently.” And Arendt replied: “Each time I receive a letter from you I realize how much I miss you. Times are lousy and we should be closer to each other. I guess I have been depressed all winter.” Not only the “daily news” which was “like being hit over the head,” but also Blücher’s continuing health scares troubled Arendt all the time. And though she didn’t speak of it much, she let McCarthy know.
The most private self-revelations, though, came from McCarthy. Arendt found her too open, in fact, and she disapproved. McCarthy told an interviewer in 1988, “She thought that was all very American and that one should hide things. Actually I don’t think she hid much herself, but that was her principle.” McCarthy held back very little. Flagrantly effusive in public and private about all her excesses, she frequently used her letters to Arendt to unload the emotional consequences of her many romantic liaisons and marriages, or to seek advice, sometimes even engaging Arendt in her intrigues.
Sometime in the fall of 1956, McCarthy began an affair with an Englishman named John Davenport. She was supposed to meet Arendt in Amsterdam in October, but wrote to tell her plans had changed; she was staying in London with her new lover. Then she enclosed several postcards written to her husband at the time, Bowden Broadwater, to create the illusion that she and Arendt were traveling together, and asked her to mail then to Bowden. Arendt complied.
The affair with Davenport continued into the following spring, until McCarthy learned from another friend about the darker, more treacherous sides of her lover’s personality — Davenport was a pathological liar and a drunk, who fabricated his own ancestry to gain entry to British society. This sad story became the narrative thread of a long letter to Arendt. “The truth is,” McCarthy wrote, “I still care about him, just as much as ever, though perhaps this feeling would not last if I saw him in actuality. [...] Oh, Hannah, isn’t it awful? I still would do anything for him [...] but what can I do?” Two weeks later came Arendt’s reply:
He did not want to be saved by you either. And this is the reason why I think you were right not to see him. [...] [Y]ou had to be frightened away; and he must have known that it would take rather drastic measures to achieve this. Certainly, there is a great deal of cruelty in all this; but then you can’t expect someone who loves you to treat you less cruelly than he would treat himself. The equality of love is always pretty awful. Compassion (not pity) can be a great thing, but love knows nothing of it.
One of Arendt’s other close friends, Lotte Kohler, who was also her literary executor for a time, claimed that Arendt couldn’t understand McCarthy’s promiscuity. There’s no question, as McCarthy herself knew, that she and Arendt didn’t see eye to eye about McCarthy’s trumpeting of sexual experiences, as she did rather audaciously in her fiction. But if Arendt couldn’t understand it, she didn’t condemn it, any more than she did her other friends’ extramarital affairs. Instead, she suggested McCarthy simply couldn’t have it both ways — if she wanted to lead a promiscuous life, she ought to accept the choices she’d made and take responsibility for them. Self-pity wasn’t a trait Arendt tolerated.
In 1960, trying to obtain a divorce from Broadwater in order to marry her next, and last, husband, Jim West, McCarthy once again turned to Arendt, complaining about Broadwater’s lingering resistance and asking Arendt to intercede on her behalf. Again, Arendt complied, agreeing to intercede in her own way. But not without chastising McCarthy for her impatience:
You say you cannot trust him. Perhaps you are right, perhaps you are wrong, I have no idea. But it strikes me that you can forget so easily that you trusted him enough to be married to him for fifteen years. [...] You write that it is just “too ridiculous” for the two of you (Jim West and you) to be the “passive fools of other people.” If you want to look at the matter in these terms at all, then it seems to me rather obvious that you both are the victims of your own, self-chosen past. This may be inconvenient but it is not ridiculous, unless you wish to say that your whole past was not only a mistake, but a ridiculous one.
And then, after lecturing her, Arendt closed her letter with this: “Mary, my Dear, I miss you! Much love and the best of luck. Yours, H.”
I confess to having been as much beguiled by the centrality of Arendt’s friendship with McCarthy as anyone. Still, as open and loving as Arendt was with McCarthy, I couldn’t help thinking the intimacy between them was bounded by a margin of revelation which Arendt would not cross. Arendt’s brutally honest mentoring of McCarthy in matters of the heart seemed to be a barrier behind which she kept her most self-revelatory feelings and fears to herself. Even though she talked with McCarthy about her concerns for Blücher’s health and her feelings about her former lover, the notorious Martin Heidegger, Arendt didn’t speak in the voice or with the vulnerability any woman, no matter how intellectual, might use to express her most intimate fears or joys with her “closest woman friend.”
That is, until I researched Elżbieta Ettinger’s archives and drafts of her never-completed Arendt biography, when another woman, an early acquaintance from Arendt’s days in Germany, came into sharper focus: Hilda Fränkel. And so did more angles of Hannah Arendt.
Arendt met Fränkel in Frankfurt around 1930, through the theologian Paul Tillich. Fränkel may already have been Tillich’s lover before both of them left Germany in 1933, he for America with his family and she for Argentina with hers, but by the time Arendt reconnected with the pair they were both living in New York. And, despite Tillich’s marriage, their affair was in full swing. Arendt and Fränkel were worlds apart in background and education — Fränkel worked as Tillich’s secretary at Union Theological Seminary, but otherwise kept her distance from the intellectual world in which Arendt circulated — yet they were drawn to each other.
For Arendt, friendship thrived on equality, but only in the sense of a shared commitment to independent thinking and a willingness to take risks. And despite her comparatively meager education, Fränkel possessed these qualities to an extraordinary degree. Her perceptive intelligence and her ability to talk frankly, though privately, about even her sexual life and erotic encounters endeared her to Arendt.
Arendt’s own marriage was remarkably stable for those of her New York circle. Despite Blücher’s affairs, some of which she knew of and tolerated, their marriage was relatively conventional. Yet she refrained from judging the extramarital dalliances of others, especially in the cases of those she liked. She might criticize her friends’ choice of partners, but not the fact of their having more than one at a time.
In fact, Lotte Kohler recalled that Arendt loved hearing stories about love affairs, fiction filled with adventure and romance. Fränkel was very open about such things. Gifted with what Arendt once called an “erotic genius,” Fränkel employed a matter-of-factness in the narration of her amorous liaisons, which Arendt received with amusement and more than a little admiration for the sexual freedom expressed and the ease with which they were told.
By late fall of 1949, when Arendt left for an extended trip to Europe — her first since the conclusion of the war — their relationship had deepened. But Fränkel had also developed cancer, and by the time Arendt left, she was already in the final throes of a losing battle. Wracked with pain and heavily dependent on morphine, yet dreading the thought of never seeing her dear friend again, Fränkel was determined to hold out until Arendt came back to New York. They wrote frequently, sharing news of their respective “journeys,” and complaining about their “men.”
In Arendt’s absence, Blücher took over the role of Fränkel’s watchful guardian, bearing gifts Arendt sent her from abroad. But he couldn’t match the comfort Arendt could provide when Fränkel grew impatient about Tillich’s inattentiveness. “Yes, men are rather heavy baggage,” Arendt wrote to her. “Nevertheless, one cannot get along without them. That’s true.” For her part, Fränkel goaded Blücher any time Arendt worried about his tardy correspondence.
As death drew nearer, both women began to reflect on the particular meaning this friendship had in their lives. “Darling,” Arendt wrote,
I can hardly tell you how much I owe you, not only for the loosening up which comes from intimacy with a woman like I have never have known before, but for the happiness of closeness, a happiness never to be lost, and all the greater since you aren’t an “intellectual” (what a hateful word), and therefore are a confirmation of myself and my true belief. I so long to talk with you and cannot imagine how I should live without you, incredibly impoverished, as if suddenly condemned to silence about the most important things when I have just learned to speak.
While in Europe, Arendt also reconnected with another old friend, Ann (Annchen) Weil, whom she would stay in contact with for 50 years. Fränkel was gladdened by that news, for she hoped this old friendship might fill the gap left by her own death. “Hannah I am so glad that you saw Annchen and that you could help her. [...] Shouldn’t you bring Annchen [back to America] with you? It would be a rescue for her and for you a close person. Couldn’t she replace me in your life?” Arendt demurred: “No, Hilde, what you are to me she could never be because you and I are close on a level which she doesn’t even know. [...] The happiness that I’ve found with you grew even more intense because you are leaving and because pain too became part of it.”
Hilda Fränkel’s death, in 1950, came only a short while after Arendt returned from Europe. The loss was surely horrific for her.
Two years later, on another European trip, Arendt wrote to her husband about a new depth she had reached in her friendship with Weil, despite a falling out they’d had about Arendt’s portrayal of Jews in her writing. “Spending time with Annchen was simply marvelous. We reached an intimacy in which we were fully attuned to each other; it lay like a warm wrap around our shoulders.” Recognizing the importance of this friendship to his wife, Blücher responded: “I am happy that in spite of everything Annchen and you are so close again, and that in a true friendship everything is reconcilable.”
Still, the intimacy Arendt expressed in her correspondence with Fränkel finds no match elsewhere in her collected papers. Perhaps because the two women had connected first and foremost emotionally rather than intellectually and at a time when Arendt was not yet well known, Arendt had been able to be vulnerable with Fränkel as with no one else. Though she may have exchanged confidences in conversations with other women — notably, Kohler, to whom she entrusted her personal correspondence with Heidegger — I don’t think Arendt ever again had the kind of intimate woman friend she’d found in Hilde Fränkel.
But other women also managed to get close to Arendt, at least up to a point. And that was no simple thing to do, since her standards for companionship, and her notorious impatience with the women she considered to be mere appendages to some of the men in her circle, were extremely high and not infrequently off-putting.
In 1961, a 37-year-old scholar of Renaissance history and literature named Rosalie Colie was teaching at Wesleyan University when Arendt became a visiting fellow that fall, at its Center for Advanced Studies. It was only a few months after Arendt had covered the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, and her report on it was yet unwritten. Still, her reputation already well established, Arendt cut an imposing figure among the scholars on Wesleyan’s campus, where she gave a seminar on Machiavelli and revised her manuscript of On Revolution for publication.
Colie attended Arendt’s public talks and wrote her an adulatory note in January 1962, including a poem by Yeats she thought related to The Human Condition. Although the note began with the formal salutation “Dear Miss Arendt,” its conclusion indicated the seeds of a friendship had planted that term: “It surely was fine to have had the luck to hear you and see you this term. I look forward to next year, and before then, to dinner in NY, which I shall make good on.”
For her part, Arendt was impressed with Colie, whom she later described in a 1967 letter of recommendation to Oxford, where Colie was to be appointed as a Talbot Research Fellow in a program specifically designed for women, as “one of the most erudite women I have ever known.” Two years later, in a letter attached to Colie’s appointment at Brown University, she added to this assessment, noting that besides Colie’s “profound erudition, she was an excellent teacher [...] rather strict in her demands and still very much beloved by her students. [...] She is very civilized, sophisticated, extremely well-read in all branches of literature, witty, full of spirit. I am sure you will be glad to have her as a colleague.”
When Arendt returned to Wesleyan in 1963, the friendship between them had deepened, and Arendt began integrating Colie more closely into her circle. Colie soon counted both Arendt and Blücher among her close friends. The two women began to correspond more consistently, sharing insights on books, interpretations of literature and history, observations on politics and the general state of the world, gossip about academia, and details of their personal lives. Colie’s letters included the following:
Kierkegaard is my most unfavorite author of all authors of any age ... [He] strikes me as just plain sick and rather emotionally scrofulous at that ... Is existentialism a real thing? I find I don’t know what anyone means by existential. I just don’t see what the word means. A severe limitation, on campus.
With all the desperate family conclaves and babysitting, I haven’t done any work, read any books or thought any thoughts.
I went to give a bad lecture at Vassar and there discovered that you, Hannah, were the object of praise for the courage of the Eichmann articles ... My lecture was on the failure of revolutions in 17th century Holland. [...] It got me started on thinking about something that “comes next” namely 17th century republicanism and its failures. [...] The climate here for three days has been heavenly: the willows, whether weeping or plain, are saffron yellow and lovely; the weeping willows are like fountains of gold.
She had also begun to sign her letters “Much love” or “Love from Posie.”
Like almost everyone in literary New York in 1963, Colie followed the publication of Arendt’s controversial series about the Eichmann trial in The New Yorker, and with great enthusiasm.
Well, another week, another Eichmann chapter. It is still very good: the only thing of course — this didn’t happen to me until this one, the third — is that it is really difficult to read about such a subject while meandering through the jewelry, etc., ads in the back of the New Yorker.
By mid-March the Eichmann essays were causing quite a stir, much more than Arendt had anticipated her thesis about the “banality of evil” would generate, though both her husband and some colleagues had already sent warnings to her in Europe of the brewing crisis.
Arendt left for a much-needed vacation after the intense work of the Eichmann trial and On Revolution, which was published later that same year. Colie intended to travel to Europe later that spring to meet her. “No sure news yet on my flight, but I will let you know. Then we have to figure on renting a little car and tooting around in it. Can you imagine?” But those plans were interrupted by Colie’s acceptance of a new job at the University of Iowa’s comparative literature department. As she wrote to Arendt on March 19, 1963:
I am going to go to Iowa: it is a good job. Full professorship, in both English literature and history, which is ideal. [...] I feel a thousand years younger all of sudden, as if the albatross had gone off my neck and I could start to be a human being again instead of such a fake. [...] The Iowa thing may ruin our summer plans. [S]han’t get paid until September and have no dough.
After Arendt returned from Europe, Colie spent a week with her in August 1963 before moving to Iowa. “It was a wonderful week. You were as always hideous about money. I have a thing too, but you must build up my ego by letting me pay! Important morale-builder.” They visited together again in December. But the drive back that winter in her Volkswagen convinced Colie she had moved too far from the East Coast. “As you said all along,” she wrote to Arendt the following March, “it is too damned far away. And winter, when one is frozen in, is not a good season to come to that realization in.”
Colie felt herself to be a pariah, a fact she attributed in part to “growing up in a socialist and French household in the thirties, amidst men [her father included] who had spent four of the very worst years of their lives at the front.” She undertook a study of the Thirty Years’ War as part of her background research for her cultural studies of 17th century. But she was having a hard time of it, she wrote Arendt:
The true fact is I do not like German. [...] But it somehow has stuck with me, malgré tout, and the occupation did not help. Furthermore the whining of those pigs about the bombardments did not cheer me much during the summers when I worked in Munich in the DP camps. Not the people in the camps, the pigs who lived and worked and ate and drank beer in and about Munich. And this I am ashamed of too, you know, but it is so damned hard to get out of.
But though nearly a generation separated Colie and Arendt in age, it mattered little to their friendship, except perhaps in one important regard: Colie appeared to rely more on Arendt for emotional support than the other way round.
During her first fall semester in Iowa, Colie had managed to get some modest work done on her manuscript on the use of paradoxes in Renaissance literature and art. But by spring, she felt more overwhelmed by her schedule. And, she confessed to Arendt in mid-March, 1964, another development interrupted her concentration on work:
I am falling in love, as usual, most inappropriately [to a married man], though a pretty wonderful person (naturally — my rule: never fall in love with anyone you don’t like). This lends piquancy to the season, but also interferes with straight thinking, hard work, and all that.
Another letter followed in April, reporting Colie was busy again “refurbishing [...] old stuff, but at least the thing [her poetry] is functioning again. A relief: in all senses (I think, damn it, it has to do with LOVE. This offends me somehow).” She also invited Hannah to lecture “on a subject of your choice (preferably, if it still is preferable to you, on civil rights) in the autumn.”
Arendt replied: “What I really would like to know about is ‘Falling in Love.’ I am constantly thinking about the poet problem [...] let’s discuss it, but in person.”
The occasion came in May 1964, when they met in Chicago, where Arendt then held an appointment at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. By then, the Eichmann controversy had become quite heated and widespread, and Arendt felt the consequences personally. With the exception of Hans Morgenthau, most of the Chicago faculty shunned her. She must have welcomed Colie’s visit as an additional relief in an otherwise stressful setting.
In advance of their May get together, Colie sent Arendt a short letter, which, in retrospect, proved an ironic commentary on the later course of Colie’s life: “Am working like mad. [...] [H]ave recomposed Locke and am bursting to do the whole thing, but PARADOX must come first. Am now on the horrible paradoxes of love. Then suicide (a natural progression, I frequently think).”
Such topics must have littered their conversation. While only fragments of their letters over the next year survive, they indicate Arendt began to worry for Colie’s health, and did whatever she could to help her friend find much-needed stability in her life. These indications, however, remain significant and provide insights into the complex roles Arendt assumed in her friendships with women, roles far more emotionally resonant than portraits of her as a cool, somewhat distanced observer of human behavior have represented her.
Colie came to Chicago in spring 1965 to lecture as part of her application for a position there. The experience proved disappointing and demoralizing; she wrote to Arendt asking for any enlightenment as to what had happened. “I find myself thinking about it and puzzling it out, and feeling cross (God knows, at myself, as much as anything else, for thinking of it so gloriously, and then for being let down). But above all, curious.” Arendt wrote back quickly. Unable to get any clear information, she speculated as to why Colie had been rebuffed, cautioning Colie not to let the matter overwhelm her:
It still seems pretty clear to me that S [probably Leo Strauss] is the culprit — which is especially nasty as he had ample to time to protest before you even knew anything about it, and throughout this time was quite enthusiastic. Probably all calculated. Such things happen everywhere as we both know. Universities are like monasteries, full of intrigues. For S, it was probably a way, his way, of getting even with me for what? I have not the faintest idea but suspect for not having read his books. But Posie, please, I understand how unpleasant the whole business was and I couldn’t be sorrier, but now forget it. Don’t worry the little wound until it grows into something monstrous, which it is not.
But the “little wound” did worry Colie. And by 1966, Colie’s three years in Iowa had convinced her she needed something different.
The following summer, the tragic death of a colleague’s young child, combined with the deterioration of her relationship with Curt Zimansky, alluded to in her letters two years before, made Colie feel all the more miserable about life in Iowa. “The summer has revealed that my feelings about Curt, though very deep, were not the sort that really wanted to share life as married people must.” She’d been much more deeply affected by the child’s death, she confessed to Arendt, than the loss of Curt; in some ways, she admitted, she must have contributed to the love affair’s demise:
I think I told you: there was trouble brewing anyway, because I was at work and he was not, and probably never will be. You said, don’t urge him. I did, though, whenever he expressed — it was fantasy — notions of writing this or that: and he did mind, because he knows he isn’t going to do it.
The next year Colie landed a visiting position at Yale, which was “very good. Very therapeutic,” she told Arendt. And the summer after that, partly through Arendt’s support, she won a fellowship to Oxford, giving her a year of research support, free from teaching, and, most importantly, freedom from the depression she experienced at the thought of having to return to the Midwest.
Just before leaving for England, in 1967, Colie wrote an enthusiastic letter to Arendt, thanking her for support and providing details of her upcoming trip, along with continuing a conversation about Locke generated by an essay Colie had written and sent to her.
She also seemed buoyed by steps she’d taken to improve her brother’s health (he was an alcoholic), “stick[ing] him into a hospital to be dried up, first of all, then to be ‘treated’ ... for the longest possible time ... three months.” As for the relationship with Zimansky, although it had apparently limped along, Colie reported “Curt” to be withholding of any expression of
what he thinks and feels, so though he does lovely things (like fix the doorbell and so forth) from dawn to dark, he keeps that part of him away. [...] I nag, too: and have fallen foul of the worst of my habits ... which is fatal. I’ll not do that when I get back from Europe! Or I’ll try not to. [...] Love to you both, as usual. And see you soon, in Europe somehow.
But what she didn’t admit to Arendt, until some months into the Oxford appointment, was how she’d faced a serous health challenge and spent most of the summer recuperating from an operation before leaving for England. And then, meandering across accounts of her Yale experiences, her letter landed on the following announcement: “Also fell in love: I think for real. Certainly a real person. Unexpected, Genuine grown-up man, for a change; not self-doubting intellectual of the sort I meet a lot, and certainly no parasite — the opposite.” Although he was still married, Colie claimed there was:
No chaos and counterclaims from the wife. [...] If the arrangements go through, then life will alter, and it may be absolutely heavenly. If they don’t then life will still be patchy, but okay. You once said, Hannah, about another thing, that things arranged themselves. This will, I think; it seems to be doing so.
The man in question was Willis Lamb, a theoretical physicist who had won the Nobel Prize in 1955, and was 12 years older than Colie. “When possible, may I bring him around? He will be scared, but not scared, nice, that.”
After berating Colie for not being more forthcoming about her health — “Please write about your health in detail [...] such things are important and one should know about them” — Arendt replied: “[Y]ou always can bring around whomever you wish. As for being scared, I am scared to death of theoretical physicists.” And she closed the letter with Christmas and New Year’s greetings, and a poem, an old German carol, which she thought appropriate:
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,
aus einer Wurzel zart,
wie uns die Alten sungen,
von Jesse war die Art
Und hat ein Blümlein bracht
mitten im kalten Winter,
wohl zu der halben Nacht.
[Lo, how a rose e'er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung;
It came, a flow'ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.]
As it turns out, Lamb’s divorce from his wife, Ursula, did not proceed without incident. Colie reported to Arendt how Ursula had made trouble and threatened to inform “the authorities” of Colie’s transgressions, including writing to her father about the “sins of his daughter,” which nonetheless amused Colie. While admitting that the political situation in the United States — the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the racial riots in American cities, the assassination of Martin Luther King — made it “awful to have been so far away when so very much was going on,” she underscored that personally, she felt fine; despite difficulties, the divorce was being finalized and Colie felt happy — “and I want to record that” — and hopeful that, after the next year in Toronto, she and Willis would land in a place where they’d both have academic positions. She only hoped it wouldn’t be driven by the institution wanting him more than her. “I mind being part of a package: would rather just be me, if that’s possible. [...] I’m more rigidly feminist than I had realized.”
As it turned out, Willis remained at Yale and Colie was hired at Brown in 1969, where she held an endowed professorship and, in January 1972, became the first woman to chair an academic department there. Yet a mere six months later, Colie was dead, the result of what published obituaries called a “boating accident” on an offshoot of the Connecticut River near the house she shared with her husband in Old Lyme.
In fact, her death was a suicide.
Lillian Bulwa, a colleague of Colie’s, wrote to Arendt in Switzerland to inform her of Colie’s death, enclosing the London Times obituary. Yet Arendt sensed immediately the real circumstances of Colie’s death:
[I]t was suicide, wasn’t it? [...] Needless to say — I am more distressed than I know how to say. I had not heard from her in years; she must have been many times in New York without coming to see me.
Although Arendt claimed she hadn’t heard from Colie “in years,” in the Library of Congress I found two letters from her papers during Colie’s time at Brown, written nearly two years apart — one in October of 1969, and the other in March of 1971. They reveal Colie struggling to make sense of a world gone awry, wanting to become excited again about teaching, but concerned how her students seemed withdrawn “from political action, political life and — in some quarters — even from thinking about politics.” And, she admitted, she worried she, too, was somehow avoiding “thinking about what is happening.” Although Colie referred to public events, the passages could easily be read as a gloss on Colie’s private life.
Had Arendt worried for her friend’s stability or tried to reach her in any way? Having only recently experienced a major loss in her own life — Blücher died in October 1970 — it might have been more difficult for her to perceive another’s pain. And yet, when she heard about Colie’s death, it was suicide that came immediately to mind.
“Yes, it was suicide,” Bulwa wrote back to Arendt, “but, it seems to many of her friends, avoidable.” Perhaps avoidable. But, for Arendt, not having been able to help her friend prevent such an end would now become one more loss to which she would have to reconcile.
Stories of Arendt’s female friendships such as these reveal a side of her not usually captured in more traditional portraits. Yes, her intelligence was intimidating; yes, she was judgmental, arrogant, and not easily moved from an opinion once formed — whether on ideas or people. But she was also a person of deep feeling, with an appreciation for the vagaries of the human heart. Those she allowed to come closest saw and came to depend upon that.
This essay is an excerpt adapted from Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt (in press). [email protected] for permission.
The published letters between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt can be found in Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975. London: Secker and Warburg. 1995.
Letters between Hannah Arendt and both Rosalie Colie and Hilde Fränkel are found in the Hannah Arendt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Interviews with Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, and Helen Wolff are from Elżbieta Ettinger Papers, 1922-2001; Interview with Alfred Kazin, March 27, 1990, MC 579, folder 20.11; Interview with Mary McCarthy, June 25-26, 1988. MC 579, folder 17.13; Recollections of Helen Wolff, n.d., MC 579, folder 26.27. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Kathleen B. Jones is a writer and scholar of feminism and the women’s movement.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Assholes as important subjects for moral inquiry...
RESEARCHING, VEGGING, LURKING, OBSERVING, trolling — whatever you call it, artist, author, and auteur Miranda July exploits that ever-uncomfortable desire of the modern individual to know the intimate, seemingly mundane details of the lives of those around her. In “We Think Alone,” ...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.