ELLE (February 7, 2011)
by LORRAINE CWELICH on FEBRUARY 7, 2011 —
Ruth Gruber in Alaska in 1941. Photo: Ruth Gruber A group of fierce women gathered at the Paley Center for Media last week to celebrate pioneering journalist Ruth Gruber, who turns 100-years-old in September. Two-time Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener, journalist Ann Curry and author Naomi Wolf—all trailblazers in their own right—joined Patricia Duff, the founder of The Common Good, in honoring Gruber with the American Spirit Award. Gruber, who was born in Brooklyn and attended NYU, earned a fellowship to study in Cologne, Germany and at age 20 became the world’s youngest Ph.D (in German Philosophy, English Literature and Art History).
Gruber wrote her dissertation on Virginia Woolf, with whom she corresponded extensively. Woolf’s essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” inspired Gruber to challenge societal expectations of women’s roles, and to become a writer. When she returned to the U.S., Gruber embarked on an astounding journey as a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune, during which she not only witnessed history but impacted it.
Just a handful of years after the invention of flight, Gruber became the first journalist—male or female—to fly into the Soviet Arctic. She gained the trust of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, who dispatched her to Alaska during World War II to report on relocation opportunities for returning soldiers. While a student in Germany, Gruber had witnessed Hitler’s rallies and she became passionate about helping refugees from concentration camps relocate—undertaking a dangerous mission for Ickes, to bring a thousand immigrants from Nazi territory to New York. Gruber’s reports and photographs from the Exodus 1947 ship, which carried Holocaust survivors attempting to enter British-controlled Palestine, would become stuff of legend. At 40, Gruber married, had two children, and continued her career. “My mother would ask when I was going to settle down,” said Gruber. “I always said I’d get married when I wanted to.”
Following the screening of Ahead of Time, the documentary chronicling Gruber’s life, Curry presented Gruber with her award. We asked Curry, the longtime host of the Today show (she is currently working on a story about Gruber to run next month), what lessons today’s journalists can learn from Gruber. “Ruth reaffirms a fundamental idea, that to truly empathize with the people you’re interviewing is one of the key ways to really get the truth that you need for a story,” Curry told us. “The dilemma is that journalists are so focused on the 5 W’s and H [who, what, when, where, why and how] that they’re not thinking about the human being. Half the time people speak to us when they’re suffering and they’re uncomfortable and vulnerable. Ruth emphasizes being mindful as to what it takes out of people to be interviewed by the press.”
“Young women can learn from her to never give up or take no for an answer,” said Curry. “She’s a woman who, even in a time of rampant, systematic, seemingly intractable sexism, accomplished so many firsts when women weren’t supposed to accomplish anything.” We asked Wolf, the author of the groundbreaking 1991 book, The Beauty Myth, about the challenges that contemporary feminism faces. “Dominant media images are still sexualized,” said Wolf, “but I see women breaking ground in every area, all over the world. Young women may still feel like they have to look like a porn star in the bedroom, but that’s not occupying the center of their lives; they’re being prosecutors and doctors and advocates. And what’s exciting is how women in the developing world are creating new forms of feminism, which I think Western women should listen to, support and partner with. There’s a new generation of young feminists that the media doesn’t pay attention to.” Gruber said that her advice to young journalists is, “Read, read, read; write, write, write. Rewrite 14 times if necessary, until you get it exactly right. Don’t let rejection deter you.” Keener, easily the coolest actor on the planet (Being John Malkovich, Capote), has the same kind of beautiful free spirit as Gruber. “It felt crazy that the first time I’d heard about Ruth Gruber was when The Common Good asked if I’d participate in their event honoring her,” she said. “Her life story is one of a great patriot in our time.”
The Common Good, which presented the event, is an extraordinary, non-partisan organization that encourages civilized, unifying dialogue to bridge this nation’s increasingly shrill political divisiveness, in an attempt to find common ground. Duff said, “In the fullest measure of the greatness of the American Spirit, Ruth Gruber is courageous, deeply compassionate and fiercely independent. She bravely took on not only what she was called to do by her government, but what her conscience also compelled her to do.” Gruber, who still wields her razor-sharp intellect in her daily writing and lives independently in her Central Park West apartment, told us that all the women in her family had long lives, with her mother passing shortly before her own 100th birthday. We asked Gruber the secret to her long, healthy life:
“Four easy words: NEVER NEVER NEVER RETIRE!”