An enchanting tale of courage echoes remotely from the past

On Books

August 11, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

One day in 1992, a woman named Bernice Michael told me I should meet someone named Betsy Carter. Nothing romantic, she said. "Betsy has a perfectly functional husband, but you have a lot to offer each other as comrades-in-arms."

We talked on the telephone. In common, we were out of a job, utterly unexpectedly. Not long before, Betsy had been the editor of New York Woman, a bright, sophisticated magazine she had founded almost six years before. A bit more than a year earlier, I had been editorial page editor of the New York Daily News and -- at the same time, crossing the Atlantic perpetually -- executive editor of the Sunday Correspondent, a smart weekly newspaper based in London. In between, I had spent a very interesting year as executive editor of the magazine Spin.

Betsy's magazine had been closed by its owner, American Express; the Daily News had been effectively killed by a bitter, violent labor war, left in the hands of a man I would not work for; the Sunday Correspondent had gone bankrupt.

Bernice Michael was the top counselor in the New York office of a company Betsy Carter would describe, more than 10 years later, as "an expensive day care for burnt-out former executives." We were there for "outplacement" -- job hunting -- on the tabs of our former employers. Bernice was expertly professional, and also thoroughly decent and caring, a marvelous woman.

Betsy and I talked on the telephone three or four times at considerable length. She was tough and ironic and open. We were strangers discovering each other on a lifeboat. I liked her. We set a lunch date. That morning, she tracked me down. She couldn't make lunch, she said, her voice very, very steady. She had just left the office of a doctor who had told her that she had advanced breast cancer and should move toward almost immediate surgery.

I went into the men's room and wept. Life seemed very, very unfair. We had never met, and I haven't talked with her since that day. But just before beginning to write these words, I finished reading Nothing to Fall Back On: The Life and Times of a Perpetual Optimist (Hyperion, 304 pages, $24.95). That optimist is Betsy Carter. This memoir is where she wrote the line about "expensive day-care" and a lot of other very funny, very brave stuff.

I have come to detest contemporary memoirs. Mostly, when they are not gloatingly self-important they are whiney or proselytizing for some fad or fancy -- diets, success trickeries, ideologies, angels.

Not this one. From the first page, she is a wonderful reporter -- concise, moving fast, with arresting, sharp-edged bits of information and description. Her stories are graced by disarming candor -- unashamed, frank about failures and successes. There's much misery and much joy and both could be cloying, if the narrative were not so purged of self-pity or self-importance.

"Some people keep personal disasters a secret," she writes. "But sharing misfortune calms me. The bigger the disaster, the more people I tell. It normalizes things and makes me feel less alone."

From the seventh grade, she had wanted to be a journalist, and in New York, where she was born. Her parents had fled Germany as the Nazi horrors grew more obvious. They were from prosperous, cultured backgrounds, and her father was not well fit for earning a living in a strange country. Her family moved to Miami when she was 10. Betsy became more American than the rest, including her older, also American-born, sister. "In our family, anything American was regarded with a mixture of awe and suspicion," she writes. "That included me."

She shifts scenes and time, jumping from 1968 to 1955, and back again into the early 1990s. She does it cleanly, weaving causes and effects in counterpoint.

Her growing gumption as a kid parallels her hard-fought assertiveness as a reporter and then as an editor. She went from high school in Miami to the University of Florida in 1966 and then to the University of Michigan, where she pushed herself into a writing job on the college daily. She got a job as an editorial assistant on Air and Water News, a newsletter.

Her stories of bad jobs and good ones, of inappropriate ones and ones she outgrows early on are engaging and some are riotously amusing. Their effect is to build her as an ambitious, principled, hard working, slightly whifty, and gradually irresistible personality.

She worked at the Atlantic Monthly, then Newsweek. After nine years, she felt she had done everything she was going to there as a reporter. Her last Newsweek interview was with Phillip Moffitt, who with fellow Tennesseean Christopher Whittle in March 1979 had bought Esquire. He hired her as an editor.

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