[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Clark: I was fascinated to read your book* and I'm very glad to have it. In the media, I think it's a fabulous contribution to media history.
Hunter-Gault: Thank you.
Clark: It's a great opportunity also to read a book and get a chance to ask someone a few questions about it. I was really fascinated by your description of your family life, the origins of your family life, particularly your mother [Althea Ruth Brown Hunter] and her family. Looking back on your mother's mentorship, at some point in the book you said, "Much of my mixed heritage was kept sort of a secret from me until later." I wonder if you've had a chance to reflect on why that was the case and what impact it might have had on you.
Hunter-Gault: I don't feel it was a big deal. I just don't think it was a big topic of conversation. These weren't like family relationships, in a way. And I heard about this great-grandfather [Ike Brown] of mine without any malice or without any particular emotion although I think that there was some—I wouldn't call it pride but some appreciation for the fact that this man did attempt to take care of his son [Rochell Brown]. That's a complicated relationship so that when I wrote this book, I was trying to get it finished and didn't want it to be, you know, a big, heavy tome because I did want young people to read it and also adults who don't have a lot of time, I was hoping would read it. So I didn't want to make it a long book.
But there are a number of little themes and subthemes in there that I might at some point pursue on their own. And that might be one of them, because I ran into a man in Florida, a white man, in a place where I was speaking. Although I think that it probably wasn't in the same town, the thing I described about the one who got my great-grandmother [Ellen Wilson] pregnant, the son of the white family she worked for, he seemed to think that could have been his grandfather.
Clark: Oh, that's interesting.
Hunter-Gault: But that's sort of—you know, writing and journalism, I've never appreciated the difference so much as when I started doing the book.
Clark: How so?
Hunter-Gault: Well, because, you know, we work in journalism, even when we do long pieces, it's a process that's in a way speeded up. You get your material and information as fast as you can. I don't have to do it, fortunately, for the most part in a heated rush. But it's still a medium that you have to feed like a cookie monster. So you're always anxious to get your pieces done. And I think that part of the juices of journalists are stimulated by the imminent deadlines. I think that's just in the nature of it and if you didn't like that, you wouldn't be in the business.
* Charlayne Hunter-Gault's autobiography, In My Place, published in 1992.
Whereas writing of the kind that I'm thinking about requires significantly more time, significantly more research, and a lot more introspection, even when you're talking about really—I mean, I think I do good journalism, frankly. It's in-depth and I work in a place where I can do it and no problem. But writing that book—well, if I had had—I had all the time in the world on the one hand because the publisher said, "We'd rather you write a good book and take a long time than not write a good book trying to get through in a hurry." And they were happy with the production schedule that I set up for myself. And I'm glad the book got out because it came out at a really good time. And there was just a plethora of other works following in its wake and that's really good to see.
But books are different from journalism. I mean, writing books is different. It's a different discipline almost. I have a luxury of time, unlike most programs on television, but I don't have that much time. To do a really good book, I think it helps to have time and few distractions. I have the world distracting me. That was one of the reasons I—see, I'm covering the world now, in a way. I mean, I get to go on assignments all over the world. So any place that erupts is potentially a place I might go to. So I'm always alert to that.
And I started this book, I got the contract in '88. You know, whenever it was convenient and not difficult, I would record a little memo or record my mother remembering something. Once I was in Lusaka and I met this AME bishop. And he knew my grandfather [Charles "Shep" Hunter] and my father [Charles S. H. Hunter, Jr.] and I recorded him. But I was doing that in a kind of leisure way. But the more I got involved in covering the world, as it were, the less time I had. I could see that crowding in on the time that I would spend contemplatively.
So I started the summer before I wrote the book with a couple of chapters, got a couple of chapters done, and went off to Madrid to the first Arab-Israeli peace talks. I took the computer but, you know, you're running chasing sources, you're eight hours ahead of New York, the States that is, and you're working eighteen hours a day.
Clark: It's interesting, though, because I thought that the writing was incredibly—you were incredibly present in the writing. There was almost a sense of it was happening now.
Hunter-Gault: What happened was that I came back from Madrid and then got sent to South Africa. And I came back from South Africa and I could see down the line some other things would happen. So I just took the month of January off and did nothing from nine a.m. till two a.m. the next morning except to stop to eat. So I did remove—I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off.
Clark: No. You're supposed to.
Hunter-Gault: I removed the distractions. It was very intense.
Clark: It must have stirred up a lot.
Clark: I was going to ask you, too, a little bit more about your father, who's a very strong presence in the book, also a kind of absent figure, in and out of your life. I had a certain sensibility about it but again I was wondering what you think the impact of that absence was in terms of your own self-definition, in terms of your own definition of an independent person or how would you describe it?
Hunter-Gault: I don't know. I mean, I said as much as I think I could really say without going into some kind of latrine analysis, psychoanalysis, in the book. I don't know how, for example, my relationships with men and my attitudes about men were affected by his absences or how he was when he was present. But I think that the fact that he was gone—all of the women, interestingly enough, were very independent.
I mean, my mother—one might not describe her, knowing her, as independent because she's soft-spoken and nonplussed and nonchalant and gentle. But in her own way, she's very independent because she ran things, the household and moved two states and three cities; we moved around quite a bit when he was away, she took care of things.
Clark: Oh, yes.
Hunter-Gault: And my grandmother was independent. My father's sister was very independent. And so I cannot attribute my own independence solely to my father's influence though I think that had a lot to do with it.
But one thing I have to say about my father. Well, I can say many things about him and probably will. But I never had the impression that my father had wished I was a boy. And I think that makes a big difference. He loved my brothers but, you know, I never had the impression—my mother told me that she had expected a boy.
Clark: And she sort of named you.
Hunter-Gault: And she was going to name me Charles. But neither one of them ever treated me differently. My father, I can't imagine him talking to a son any differently than from the way he talked to me. He had high expectations.
Clark: What were some of those?
Hunter-Gault: As I said in the book, you know, he told me I had a first-rate mind, he was always telling me that. He wouldn't accept a report card with four A's and a B+. My father set very high standards. And of course, my mother did, too. Everything she did I thought was perfect. I thought her handwriting was perfect, I thought her dress was perfect, I thought she was perfect. As I have gone around the country talking about the book and seeing things, even when I wrote, that I hadn't seen, they just emerged.
The influence of women in my life is very strong—strong, independent women, whole women in many ways except that, you know, my mother and grandmother had to make it a lot of the times without a man but my grandmother had the love of her life, who was my mother's father [Rochell Brown]. So I had good information about women and men, although there were, you know—I think it was healthy appreciation of relationships, even being deprived sometimes of seeing them.
But when my father came home, it was like he had never left. They'd make the space. My grandmother and mother were very close but there was never any—as close as they were for the long periods of time when he was away, she always made space, my grandmother made the space for him when he got back.
Clark: Oh, that's very interesting.
Hunter-Gault: I think my mother probably had a harder time dealing with that than my grandmother. She was much more into having their relationship work. My mother was very attached to my grandmother and they enjoyed each other a lot.
Clark: So there was a sense of real pleasure and connectedness in the family.
Clark: When do you think you first—I know that in ninth grade you decided to become a journalist. But looking back, what do you think may have inspired that?
Hunter-Gault: I don't know. I tried to think about it in doing the book. I know my grandmother, once again, clearly had a lot of influence over me when I didn't even realize it. She used to read three newspapers—
Clark: It's amazing, yes.
Hunter-Gault: They were very alert people, active in the community, listened to the radio and so on. That might have had an influence. But when you think of communications in the larger sense, that's what preachers are all about. Like my daughter is a singer and a performer and my son is now getting interested in the theater. I think it's in our genes.
Clark: [Laughter] That's a good answer.
Hunter-Gault: It manifests itself in different ways but it is things that cause you to want to: a) be out front, but; b) not just for the sake of being out front but for reaching out and connecting to people. If you grow up in a church, you have to be connected to people because that's the preacher's life, people coming in your house all the time, you going into people's houses. It's a people-centered activity. And so, you know, we all kind of grew up with that.
But my children have been exposed to it though not in the same heavy doses as I was. They were out of that environment, which I have a lot of regrets about. I mean, I love the way my children were brought up. I only got to have the regrets as I have gotten older, in fact even as I got into my book, that I didn't take them down South more when they were growing up. But I guess you can't—as much as I used to think you can have it all—and I guess that's what propels me, the notion that I could have it all.
And now I kind of look back at this point in my life which, I mean, I'm still trying to have it all. But I realize that you can't have it all because there I was, simultaneously starting a career and a family and something had to give. And I think that part of it was not maintaining to the degree that I would have liked a connection to the South and to my relatives there and to some of the institutions in the way that I knew them. I mean, my children went to church, they went to Sunday school, et cetera, et cetera.
And I may have been still unappreciative of the importance of those rituals because, as I say in the book and I've refined even more in the lectures that I give about the book and about the time and about the thing, those rituals were not self-conscious. They were as natural as breathing. You got up on Sunday and you went to church and you stayed there until church was over. And you wore your Sunday clothes and you did certain things at church. And if you did certain other things, you got punished for it because you were supposed to behave. And you came home. And this was a very different day from the rest of the week.
I see things that formed my character in those things that I didn't particularly like at that time.
Clark: Yes. I was interested that you chafed a lot in the church service—and who didn't—when you were growing up.
Hunter-Gault: Yes. Yes. All of this by way of answering somewhat this question as how I got interested in journalism. You know, that kind of ritual and that kind of environment gave me without my even realizing it a real connection to love for people and dealing with people. My father was a real people-person, too. My mother wasn't so much of a people-person. My mother's kind of shy and really kind of a loner. And I have a little of that in me, in spite of everything. But she was the least of the people-people in my environment.
But I think it's people, one. And then two, somehow I was blessed early on with insight into my own personality, because I couldn't sit still in church, I couldn't sit still in school, I couldn't sit still anywhere. And when I got to high school and found this outlet—the school newspaper—that got me out of class, legitimately, it was something I enjoyed and it was something that people respected, too. Here it all was, something that I
enjoyed, something that kind of scratched that itch that I had, and also was something that people paid attention to. It was kind of a power in a kind of a way that I liked, because power was a big thing, too, in my family. My father was powerful, my grandfather was very powerful. And I guess you kind of want to be what they are, you know, what you see in your environment.
Clark: You mean powerful in—your grandfather was clearly quite powerful in the traditional—
Hunter-Gault: In influencing people.
Clark: Influencing people. And how would you describe your father's power?
Clark: Same way?
Hunter-Gault: Oh, yes. My father had a capacity—I remember when my brother's first wife's mother was killed in an automobile accident when they were driving back from a visit with me. And they called and everybody was trying to decide who should call and tell them when they got home. And my father stepped up and he said, "I'll do it." And he was the right one because, you know, he dealt with so much death. There are few men like that in the world who have this power. It's an extraordinary thing. It's a gift, I suppose. But it's the power to move people, and he had it. I guess maybe he got it from his father. His father, apparently, was more dynamic in many ways than he was. That's what the older preachers tell me. But that may be just—there was this other young minister that I met in Zambia, who told me that, too.
But I guess it sort of depends on what his style is because my father was very sophisticated. He wouldn't be getting down on the floor and crawl around on his knees in praise of the Lord. But he was strong. They were each strong in their own way. And his mother, whom I might have described as a little bit like my mother, you know, not that assertive and everything, but my aunt—and that's how a child sees that, in a way. But maybe I didn't. Maybe I saw the real her because my aunt told me that she really did come and run things quietly behind the scenes.
Clark: She seems like a woman who really had a plan and was able to execute it.
Hunter-Gault: To be married at twelve years old. She was very well-respected among the women and men and the church. She was the saint. My grandfather was no angel.
Hunter-Gault: But she was a saint.
Clark: What do you mean by that exactly?
Clark: That she was a saint.
Hunter-Gault: Well, she just was a good person. I never heard her say a bad word about anyone, have an unkind thought. Everything that was negative, she always could see a reason for, which is how good Christians think, I guess approach the world. She was a very positive person. And I guess the reason for that was because of her deep faith and belief.
Clark: Did she talk a lot about that or was that kind of understood?
Hunter-Gault: I think she talked about it, you know, and it was also understood, a combination of the two, because she'd go to church every day at twelve and pray.
Clark: Every day?
Hunter-Gault: Every day she went to church and prayed. And she would fast.
Clark: Was that typical in your community?
Hunter-Gault: I don't think so. I think she was—my mother says she was close to even being a mystic. My father was pretty religious, more than I realized, also. My brothers tell the story of him—I tell this in the book—taking them fishing and they'd be fishing and he'd be standing there reading the Bible. I never realized that about him.
Clark: Maybe that was one of the things that connected them?
Clark: Your mother and your father.
Hunter-Gault: Yes, I imagine it was. But I think that he was much more intense about it than she was, because my mother liked having fun, she liked having a drink every now and then. She wasn't like me. I mean, I'd have a lot to drink, wine every night and all this. She wasn't like that but I don't think they drank—she drank on special occasions, she'd have a glass of wine or a beer when people would come over. My father didn't approve of that. He would rather it not have happened.
Clark: How were you disciplined?
Hunter-Gault: Oh, my mother used to spank me, switch me, you know. She didn't spare the rod. My father was more of a word disciplinarian. That was when I was a little girl. But I didn't get much punishment after that because I was a good girl. I was a really good little girl. My mother never had to tell me to go practice my piano. I used to practice for hours. She never had to tell me to get my lessons. I'd run up and down in the neighborhood sometimes to a fare-thee-well and I'd get punished for smoking rabbit tobacco or something. [Laughter.] My cousin lured me into that. I wouldn't have done that on my own.
Clark: You wouldn't have done it. The devil made you do it.
Hunter-Gault: No, I really was a good little girl. I guess part of that comes from being the only child and having rules. My mother had rules. That's why I think I got to do so much and they allowed me to have my own head, as they say, because I didn't—
Clark: Abuse it.
Hunter-Gault: Abuse it. And the same was true in high school. And I remember when the movement started, we would stay out late at night, working on the newspaper that the students put out. And my mother didn't quite get it for a while and she would raise hell when I'd come home at one and two o'clock in the morning, although she knew where I was.
Clark: That you were actually working on—
Hunter-Gault: That we were over to Carl Holman's house working on the paper, or at least I had told her where I was. And then we'd come in late like that and she would be upset. And then I think when the first
edition of the paper came out, that was the end of that. I mean, I still had rules where I had to be in at a reasonable hour. But she didn't bother me too much after that.
The other thing that was wonderful about that period was that the students and the adults were often in the same—like the students were either always at my house or some—and there would be adults there or there would be a student movement party and there would sometimes be adults there. As she got to know more and more of the people who were involved, she became more and more comfortable with me being out.
So we didn't have any frictions for the most part when I was growing up, because I did everything I was supposed to do, everything that they expected me to do. She was very good to me. I mean, if it was time for me to buy my clothes, she'd give me the charge plate and sometimes she'd go with me and sometimes she wouldn't. But I don't remember ever wanting for anything, in a serious way.
Clark: It didn't sound like it. She really took great care to make sure that your needs were really satisfied.
In terms of the movement, I was thinking back myself and I was thinking about the impact, wondering about the impact—I know you mentioned it briefly in your book—of the picture of Emmett Till* flashing throughout the newspapers, and I suppose on television, too—not as much on television.
Hunter-Gault: I don't know about the TV too much. I don't remember television being at the center of our lives, somehow.
Clark: How did it affect you?
Hunter-Gault: I don't think it did.
Clark: You put it aside?
Hunter-Gault: Yes. It was a long way away and we were doing other things. Some of us it affected probably more than others, I don't know. But I don't remember it any kind of—I think it was probably a defense mechanism kind of thing.
Clark: Too scary.
When you decided to become a journalist, did you think that there would be many obstacles in your way?
Hunter-Gault: No. I didn't think about it. And of course, the reality was that there would be obstacles for all people of color and women. But I didn't think about it, you know. That was one of the beauties of the kind of background that I had. I guess part of it came from my father and it was reinforced by my mother, that I could be anything I wanted to be. If we hadn't had Brown v. Board of Education,* I think there would have been some severe limitations on it. But that was again—and I don't know if this was conscious on their parts—but they didn't teach me that there were limitations. And I guess, you know, in a way, the way in which I was prepared if I came up against limitations, then I would deal with them when I got there rather than cutting it off at the pass. And because they didn't cut it off at the pass, at each rung of the ladder, I was able to go to the
* Emmett Till, accused of whistling at a white woman in a grocery store, was shot, mutilated and dumped into the Tallahatchie River in August 1955.
*U.S. Supreme Court ruling on May 17, 1954, that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.
next one because I had been taught that my options were limitless so there was no barrier in my brain that told me to stop there because I wasn't supposed to go any farther. And I think that's real important.
I listen to kids today and I could sometimes cry. They have such limited expectations of themselves. I heard a young kid the other day in elementary school say—this is one of the good students, one of the best students in the class, and she wants to be a—I think she said a secretary. Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with being a secretary but you would think that in 1993 with so many options for young people, that wouldn't necessarily be the only one that would fuel her dreams. But that's what she wants to be. And I suspect—this was in a very poor housing project in Newark—it's because she doesn't know of any other. That's the exposure that's she's had. And while she may know that there are astronauts and chemists and doctors and lawyers and investment bankers and you-name-it, journalists, it may be that she doesn't see people who look like her or any of the people coming out of her neighborhood.
Clark: One must not underestimate that. That's very powerful.
Hunter-Gault: So she was quite proud to tell me that she wanted to be a secretary. Now, again, as I said, I loved being a secretary. I did that some summers. My mother was a secretary and she moved up and became an office manager. So that is not to deprecate being a secretary. It's just to illustrate a certain point.
Clark: On the other hand, you didn't really see people out there that were like you, did you?
Hunter-Gault: No, but I was making the contrast between the kind of support that I got and the kind of vision I was allowed to have. No, I didn't see anybody. I saw Brenda Starr* in the news funny paper and that's my favorite story.
Clark: I loved that story.
Hunter-Gault: But that's what did it for me, identifying with this character.
Clark: What were you going to report on when you were Brenda Starr?
Hunter-Gault: I don't know. I didn't get that far. I don't know, I was always turned on to adventure and she always seemed to be having adventures. I don't know which ones I would have—I don't know. I never thought about it. And then by the time I graduated from high school and then spent—the one thing I did think, and maybe this came after I started writing, but I always thought I would be a feature reporter. I was never interested in hard news. And I think it was a feature writer because I thought that's where you could really get into people, you know. The hard news was so spare and the feature writing was fuller and more developed, and I also thought more challenging, give you more room for creativity. Nowadays, you know, you see hard news stories and many of them start with soft leads and stuff. But essentially the most creative, I thought, of the journalistic writing forms was the feature story.
And then the summer of '61, I went to the Louisville Courier-Journal for the summer to work as an intern (I worked for the afternoon Times). Norman Isaacs was then the editor of the Times and he sent a letter asking me if I would interested in coming. And I did not realize it at the time but this was the first black hire they had ever made at the paper and apparently it really sent some waves through the paper. And I'm told that one guy was fired because of it. But I never knew any of that.
And that summer I got there and it was very exciting because initially they had planned for us to do these advance obituaries of people. And I thought, "This is not what I came here to do." So I went downstairs
* Woman journalist character in a newspaper comic strip of the same name.
and found myself—well, they had some kind of service that provided ideas for features, that kind of went around the country, I guess. I don't know whose service it was. So I was down there rummaging through that and I saw a couple of ideas I liked and I asked them if I could pursue them and I did.
And the next thing I knew, I did something I think that was unheard of for an intern, I had a whole what I guess what we would think of today as a second front. It was a great, big piece about—I remember the copy editor wrote the headline, and I had never used that term before and I liked it, I've always liked unusual words. And it was about these artists, people who did other things whose main occupation was something else but they were like amateur painters and stuff. And I went around finding them and finding out how they combined their work with their love, you know.
Clark: Oh, yes.
Hunter-Gault: And it was really nice because I found a black—you know, that in those days also they didn't put black people anywhere in the mainstream part of the paper. It was either the black news page or nothing. And one of the artists that I picked was a black guy. Let's see if they still have that piece.
Clark: That would be nice to have, yes.
Hunter-Gault: But anyway, the headline on that was "Amateur Daubers Around Louisville," or something like that. I love it—"daubers."
Clark: That was a fabulous word.
Hunter-Gault: And it was art. They sent a photographer out. Well, you talk about feeling big time and power. And I did another one that summer—oh, I know, it was about kids in what do you call them? Delinquent homes—that's not what you call them.
Clark: Juvenile delinquents?
Hunter-Gault: Juvenile delinquents in these homes. And I probably got taken in a little bit, I don't know, because this guy on the copy desk—I had written about this little girl. And I don't know what her problem was but at any rate, I had written about her and he said, "Oh, boy, she sold you a bill of goods." But you know, I remember that somebody told me that about the first little short story piece I wrote which was a little piece about Harlem that was just a childhood reminiscence of Harlem, which was fun. This person, whom I respected a lot, said to me, "This isn't what you need to be writing about Harlem. You should be writing about all the things that need to be fixed and all of it." And it was true. I mean, the social conditions were appalling. But I wasn't writing at an adult level. I was writing through the eyes of a child. And also, a lot of people who live in Harlem see this as their home.
Clark: They have a life.
Hunter-Gault: They have a life. So that in retrospect, probably nobody ever talked to those little girls the way I did. Now, they were not innocent. They were in there because they had done something bad. But I talked to them like little people. So that was the prevailing wisdom. But I think I stuck by it. I think because the child was—I don't know, I don't remember what she was saying. I don't think she was necessarily—oh, I know what it was. I described this one's room. As I say, she was a juvenile offender. But in her little room were dolls and other little frilly, feminine things, you know, that he somehow felt was an act on her part. But he hadn't been there. He hadn't talked to her. This was an editor sitting back in the newsroom, making a judgment—the child is a juvenile delinquent so she couldn't possibly be serious about something as gentle as a doll. We'll see. Looking back on it, I was right and he was wrong. And I never got dissuaded from that. I listened but—
So that was the second piece about this juvenile home. I learned a lot that summer. I got into a big fight with the editors. I mean, imagine an intern challenging an editor. But I was very racially conscious and wrote this story about this schoolteacher who was retiring—I tell this one in the book. The editor—you know, I wrote this long thing and then he cut it down to what we call an M-head, you know, this is a couple hundred words. And he got real upset that I had challenged him. And oh, we had it out.
One of the older men on the paper—not older at the time but, you know, senior political reporters—came over, looked at it, Richard Harwood. He dug the carbons out of the garbage. And Harwood was hard to get along with. I mean, people either loved him or hated him and I think most people hated him because he was kind of an arrogant, old, crusty bastard. I hadn't had a whole lot to do with him, one way or the other, didn't have any particular feelings about him one way or the other. He went over and—that's in the days you wrote on ten-packs, and he dug the carbons—
Clark: Ten-packs. Could you describe that for the audience?
Hunter-Gault: Well, a ten-pack—in those days they didn't have computers and you didn't have Xerox copier machines. This was a pack of ten pieces of paper that were held together, you know, corrugated and held together at the top. And you could pull off the top piece and that would be the original. And then you would have ten carbons automatically because between each of the other sheets was a piece of carbon. And you also always got carbon all over your hands. But that would be the copy for the copy editor and for the this one and that one, and you'd have one.
So he pulled them out of the garbage. And he came over and he sat on the edge of my desk. And he said, "I heard all of that, so I went and got your stuff out." He said, "This is a piece of shit." [Laughter.] He said, "Listen to this: Happy and sad, Mrs. So-and-so." He said, "Happy and sad? How does she?" I said, "That's because she was both happy and sad." Well, it was a bit of a sophomoric lead. I mean, I could have said, "In a bittersweet moment," but I was—you know, I was a sophomore.
Clark: You had gotten the complexity of her feelings, anyway.
Hunter-Gault: Yes, but his point was I shouldn't have automatically accused the guy of racism just because he cut the piece down. My point was, if he was going to do it, he should have been sensitive enough to tell me why. Now, editors, I can hear a "Uh-h-h-h!" Who has time for that? But you know, that's why so many people of color are alienated in newsrooms today. You cannot pretend that they walk in there like every other white person, every other reporter who's ever lived because they don't. They walk in as black people and no matter how gracefully they carry their baggage, they carry the baggage of an oppression that has given them a particular sensitivity to all manner of things. And for people to think that you could just kind of open the door and say, "Come on in," and then just keep doing business as usual is what has caused a lot of the friction in newsrooms and in corporate American today.
So I'm not trying to make that big of a deal out of it because it was, as Harwood said, it was a piece of shit. But an editor who was trying to teach you something would have come over and said, "Look, the way you've written this story now." See, that's the difference. Shawn, William Shawn, who gave me my first job after college—
Clark: Let me turn the tape over.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Hunter-Gault: What Shawn did, the first piece I ever wrote for him, he published virtually as it was. It was a little reminiscence piece—and it's included in the book—called "A Hundred-Fifteenth-between-Lenox-and-Fifth."
Then I got real excited and wrote a second piece. And I was sort of looking at what everybody else in the magazine was writing and they were all writing reminiscent pieces and so that's what I started doing.
He called me in. The New Yorker had the gentlest way of letting you down when you had written a piece of shit. He wouldn't say it was a piece of shit. And you never knew just how much of a piece of shit it was because they always say, "Well, this doesn't quite work." But that's the way you nurture a writer because I think that most writers have very gentle and sensitive egos. [Tape Interruption.]
Hunter-Gault: Shawn knew how to nurture writers. He would say it doesn't work. And I had done this one about my grandmother. It's a wonderful story. And he said, you know, "Miss Hunter," he's a very gentle, soft-spoken man, he always called you with the use of an honorific, he said, "This is a wonderful story about your grandmother but right now it just doesn't quite work." He said, "Would you mind if I made a suggestion?" Now, here was the editor from God, you know, the editor of life and would I mind?
Clark: Oh, wow.
Hunter-Gault: I said, "Well, no, Mr. Shawn, I wouldn't mind." And he said, "Well, if I were you, I would try—your grandmother is a marvelous character. And if I were you, I would remove everything from this story that doesn't build that character." Simple, direct, to the point. And I just went out of there like I was a vacuum cleaner and sucked out all that.
Now, to answer the unnecessary writing, one of the reasons why I had it all in there like that was I had been studying how the writers in the New Yorker wrote pieces. And it was all this curlicues and frills and things. I don't know how they got away with it because a lot of it was totally just tripping, writer's tripping. I think I had revised that piece in about forty-five minutes and he bought it.
Now, that wasn't the purpose of that story. I started to tell that story for another reason.
Clark: You were comparing it to the experience that you had at the—
Hunter-Gault: Oh, yes, how an editor can nurture. I realize that the New Yorker was a very special place. In fact, that was one of the reasons I left. It was too good. I felt that I could get so spoiled that I might not be productive. I saw that happening with a lot of the young people who didn't have to produce. I mean, the New Yorker didn't make great demands on you. You wrote, it was a wonderful—somebody said it was like having two foundation grants. Nobody ever said, "You haven't written in two or three weeks." And I saw a lot of people dissipate because they weren't required to have the discipline to turn it out. And I felt at twenty-two that I needed that discipline for the long haul. And I was afraid that even in this wonderful nurturing environment I wasn't going to be able to handle that kind of freedom.
So I took a fellowship that took me out of there for a while to study in the social sciences at Russell Sage, a Russell Sage fellowship. And that's how I got into daily journalism. I wanted to have that kind of what-is-this-shit also experience so that I could test my mettle.
Clark: How long were you actually at the New Yorker?
Hunter-Gault: From '63 to '68. And then, you know, over the years I've contributed a few pieces, not a whole lot, some notes and comment things and stuff. But I never got back. And I had always planned to go back. And I didn't get back but fortunately, for the sake of completing circles, when I got ready to write this book, Shawn had left the New Yorker and was serving as a consulting editor to Farrar Straus Giroux [publishers].
They asked me to do the book and I asked them, if I did it there, could Shawn be my editor. And he was. It was the last thing he did before he died.
Clark: Oh, I didn't realize that.
Hunter-Gault: And it was just wonderful, because for one thing, he already knew my family, in a way, through the pieces that I had written. And it was like coming back to an acquaintance with them, except getting to know them even better. He had that sensitivity to me.
So what I was saying, I guess the larger point that I was making was that while that editor had every right to do what he did, there's another way and a better way, especially if you're dealing with—now, many journalists have come through that school of hard-assed, cigar-chomping, bourbon-drinking, fuck-you editors, you know, and have been better journalists because of it. But you have to treat everybody differently, I think. I mean, I think that a good editor sees the unique needs of his staff and works with them. When I was at the New York Times, there are writers who've won Pulitzer prizes who couldn't write their way out of a paper bag, but they were good reporters. And so the good editors—and some of these are very famous people. I know who they are—
Clark: I know a couple, too.
Hunter-Gault: Yes. That's the problem with letting us on the inside. We get to see all the secrets and some of them are dirty little secrets. But I know how much editing was done of certain individuals. But the bare facts were there, if not more than the bare facts. So that I know that all along, you know, they do that with some people.
Clark: That's right. They do.
Hunter-Gault: It may have had to do with the fact that I was black, that I was a woman, that I was a kid, or none of the above. What's good about it is that I was so confident about who I was, even though I was learning, that it didn't destroy me and didn't keep me from going on the next day and starting all over again. I think that's been real important, having a center and a core of the value of myself that has been important to staying alive in this business—or in this world, for that matter, because, as a minority or as somebody—I hate that word—as somebody who's different from the mainstream people, you're always having to walk a fine line in your consciousness when something happens, where people are critical or treat you in a different way, treat you in a way that you think just might not be because of fair judgment.
And I think it can be real tough because everybody needs an editor, everybody needs somebody to kind of look over their shoulder. Nobody's perfect, you know. And yet there is so much baggage in racism that you don't—to stay sane, you just have to constantly reassess and reevaluate and play things through in your head: How come they did this and have they done this? And unfortunately, many of the times people as a class—or even as a single individual—never stopped to take a critical look and bothered to take the time to dig out the facts. More often than not, there has been racism. So it makes it real hard to just be a person. It is a double burden, in a sense.
But again, growing up the way I did, with the values that I had, that were passed on to me and nurtured, you try to deal with every negative situation in the most positive way possible because that way it ends up, you know, what is that phrase? Don't get the bear before the bear gets you? The bear will get you and it's the bear. So, why should I allow anybody to do that to me?
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