Edith Iglauer Explained Canada to Americans

Posted by howard on Feb 13, 2019

By Tom Hawthorn

Few outsiders have so profoundly captured the Canadian spirit as Edith Iglauer, an American who wrote about eccentric geniuses and rough-hewn laborers.

She profiled the artist Bill Reid and the architect Arthur Erickson, though was best known for her memoir, “Fishing with John,” about her unlikely romance with a salmon troller on the Pacific coast. The book was turned into a forgettable movie, but it is not every magazine writer who can claim to have been portrayed on the silver screen by Jaclyn Smith.

In 1969, after the publication of a memorable profile of Pierre Trudeau for the New Yorker magazine, she spontaneously invited the prime minister to dinner at her Manhattan apartment. He accepted, arriving to announce he had invited a guest — Barbra Streisand.

After a career lasting nearly eight decades, including a stint as a war correspondent in the final weeks of the Second World War, Ms. Iglauer has died at 101 in Sechelt on the British Columbia coast, an area where she spent much of the last half of her life.In the pages of magazines such as Harper’s, The Atlantic and, particularly, the New Yorker, whose staff she joined in 1961, she chronicled a vast land and its peoples for an American audience often indifferent to “the strangers next door,” a phrase used as the title for her collected works of journalism. She was an unsentimental writer with a gimlet eye, rendering her pieces with prose as bracing as the geography in which many of the stories were set.

She wrote often of the Canadian North and expressed a sympathetic yet unromanticized view of the hardships faced by indigenous inhabitants whose centuries-long survival in a pitiless landscape had become perilous with the arrival of interlopers.

In the book “Denison’s Ice Road,” she described the harrowing business of carving a route across tundra and frozen inland seas, where truck drivers kept their right hand on the wheel and their left on the door handle, lest their heavy rig punch through the ice, leaving them mere seconds to abandon what would otherwise be an icy tomb. The book, set in the Northwest Territories, inspired an episode of “Suicide Missions,” a program airing on the History Channel, and, later, the reality television series “Ice Road Truckers.”

Her works were informed by a Chekhovian attention to detail, perhaps no surprise as she had devoured the Russian classics not long out of grade school after the school librarian provided a copy of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” at age 12.Ms. Iglauer displayed the standards of an upper middle-class upbringing — elegant blouses, a confidence about etiquette, and an attention to coiffure, which, late in life, was rendered as a gloriole of silvery hair framing a fine-boned face. She was blessed with a journalist’s most useful quality — a curiosity for which there seemed no satisfying.

Edith Theresa Iglauer was born on March 10, 1917, in Cleveland, a second daughter for the former Bertha Good and Jay Iglauer, a comptroller and later executive for the upscale Halle Bros. department store. Both parents were American born from German Jewish families. His salary afforded the daughters a comfortable upbringing in a large, three-story home in the leafy University Circle neighbourhood. The household included two maids, one of them a 49-year-old widow from Canada. The family later moved to a larger home on a half-acre lot in suburban Cleveland Heights.

Summer weekends were spent at a cabin on the Chagrin River in the Ohio countryside, where Edith rode horses and developed a passion for rural life. Her mother devoured books and displayed exquisite taste, while her more adventurous, free-spirited father exulted in the natural environment.Late in 1933, even as many struggled through the deprivations of the Depression, the family enjoyed a week-long cruise aboard the ocean liner Mauretania from New York to Halifax and back, likely her first visit to the country she would interpret for her countrymen.

Jay Iglauer had abandoned a university scholarship as a young man to work to support his family after his father’s death, so he encouraged both daughters to pursue higher education. Midway through high school, Edith was sent to Hathaway Brown School for Girls, a private institution in nearby Shaker Heights preparing the social elite for a liberal arts college education. “I missed the boys,” she once said, “but I had two great teachers.” The courses included rigorous language instruction, as lessons about Virgil in Latin by Anna Blake “taught me to listen to the music in words.” The headmistress and English instructor Mary E. Raymond once told her, “Edith, never stop writing.” For the rest of her life, she would recall those four words every time she sat down at a typewriter.

Literature classes at Wellesley College in Massachusetts paled in comparison, a disappointment for a young woman hungry to improve her craft. Instead, she threw herself into club work, serving as president of the Student Forum in her senior year, during which she introduced prominent lecturers, such as professors from Harvard Law, and met students from war-torn China and Loyalist Spain. In December 1937, she attended a conference of Canadian and New England students to discuss the deteriorating global situation.

After graduating with a degree in political science, she attended Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York, selling articles to the Christian Science Monitor in Boston and to the Cleveland News in her hometown, whose editor, Nat Howard, almost immediately spotted her talent.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ms. Iglauer joined the Office of War Information, where she worked on the religion and Scandinavian desks for the radio newsroom, relaying news to those surreptitiously listening in Norway and other Nazi-occupied countries. She convinced a senior officer to include Eleanor Roosevelt’s weekly White House press briefings in her work routine, forging a friendship with the First Lady.“

As the newest and youngest reporter there,” she said, “I kept my mouth shut, learned a lot and loved being part of her intimate circle of reporters.”

On Dec. 25, 1942, she married the journalist Philip Hamburger, who was also serving with the War Information Office. They had met by chance in the library at Columbia after matchmaking grandmothers from both families sought to introduce the pair. The ceremony was performed by a judge in the home of Major Robert Kintner, a former White House correspondent and columnist with the New York Herald Tribune. (Mr. Kintner became a television network executive after the war, landing on the cover of Time magazine when he testified before the U.S. Congress about the rigging of quiz shows.)In 1945, Mr. Hamburger was dispatched to Europe as the New Yorker’s correspondent in the Mediterranean Theatre, where he covered the execution of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Ms. Iglauer, who continued to use her maiden name for professional purposes, traveled to Yugoslavia via Casablanca, filing stories to the Cleveland News, whose readership included many who traced their ancestral roots to the Balkans. Even a short time in a war zone convinced her of the folly of armed conflict.“The shocking destruction from bombings that I saw everywhere, especially in London, made a confirmed peace marcher out of me,” she told a convocation audience while accepting an honorary degree at the University of Victoria in 2006.After the war, they set up housekeeping in railroad apartment (small rooms connected in a row without a separate hallway) on the third floor of a walk-up tenement. Mr. Hamburger resumed his career at the New Yorker. After the couple announced a pregnancy, Harold Ross, the magazine’s founder, asked their landlord, who happened to be a friend, to find the couple a larger apartment. The landlord was Vincent Astor, millionaire head of the famous aristocratic family.

The young family fell into traditional roles with Mr. Hamburger as the breadwinner and Ms. Iglauer alone to raise two sons, as well as responsible for organizing dinner parties and other social occasions. Ms. Iglauer once told the writer Annabel Lyon that her husband, a man of great intellect, was so unfamiliar with the daily rigors of childrearing he had once placed the rubber pants next to the baby’s skin with the cloth diaper overtop.

After both boys were in school, Ms. Iglauer endeavored to revive her own career. She arose each morning at 4 a.m. to write for three hours before returning to domestic chores. By then, her husband was a critic and she often accompanied him to concerts and recitals, only to fall asleep midperformance.

She proposed story ideas for the “Talk of the Town” section of the New Yorker. Other writers were then assigned the story. In time, she was allowed to report and write them herself. In 1961, spurred by a sense of adventure, she journeyed by train and dogsled to Northern Quebec to write about an economic co-operative being formed by Innu families whose nomadic life was coming to an end. Other expeditions to remote places in the Arctic followed. She liked to say she discovered Canada from the top down.

Ms. Iglauer displayed a doggedness and meticulous attention to detail notable even for the glacially-paced New Yorker of the era. In 1972, she finished an article on the building of the foundation for the World Trade Center, the story taking longer to complete than the foundation itself.

An exposé on sulphur dioxide in Manhattan’s air forced Consolidated Edison to burn a lighter oil and brought attention to environmental despoliation in 1964, six years before the inaugural Earth Day.

The writer was on assignment when a friend suggested she meet John Heywood Daly, a commercial fisherman. An unlikely romance bloomed between the gruff and uncouth seaman and the sophisticated cosmopolitan. He invited her to spend time with him aboard MoreKelp, a 41-foot boat lacking a toilet and reeking of diesel fuel. She wrongly anticipated pulling into quaint New England ports of her childhood and even packed formal wear for swanky dinner parties, which, needless to say, never materialized. As he worked the coast, she decided she had found her next major writing project, alerting New Yorker editor William Shawn to the story from Port Hardy, surely the only call of its kind ever made from the Vancouver Island fishing village.

She had returned to New York when Mr. Daly awakened her with a telephone call.

“I’ve just bought a wooden toilet seat that I think will fit very well on top of that pail on the boat,” he said. “It’s sky blue, and I paid $8.50 for it.”

“Lovely,” she replied. “But it’s two o’clock in the morning. What about it?”

“What about it?!” he sputtered. “Marriage! That’s what.”

The union was a happy one until the night Mr. Daly died suddenly of a heart attack at a community dance four years after their marriage. In her grief, Ms. Iglauer wrote her most famous, and autobiographical, work, which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Non-fiction in 1988.Other notable books include “Seven Stones,” a biography of Mr. Erickson published in 1981, and “Inuit Journey” (2000), an updated and revised version of her first book, “The New People,” published in 1966.She met a widower named Franklin Wetmore White, an autodidact and self-described “bush ape” who had spent much of his life as a trucker and gyppo logger. He was the father of Howard White, her publisher with Harbour Publishing. They embarked on a Green Acres relationship, as he had spent much of his time in logging camps and had the table manners to show it, while she traveled in circles so sophisticated they not only read the New Yorker, they wrote it. After a quarter-century courtship, they married in 2006. They lived in Mr. Daly’s seaside cottage in Garden Bay on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. At age 99, Frank White, who was known as Munga, published a best-selling memoir, “Milk Spills and One-Log Loads,” following up a year later with “That Went By Fast: My First Hundred Years.”

Into her nineties, Ms. Iglauer wrote marvelous short essays for Geist, a literary magazine based in Vancouver. She also worked on a memoir, a genre with which she disliked being associated, as she felt far too many people were writing navel-gazing works of low quality.

She died at Sechelt Hospital on February 13. She leaves two sons, Richard Shaw Hamburger, of New York, a theatre director, and Jay Philip Hamburger, of Vancouver, founder and artistic director of Theatre in the Raw, and their families. Her marriage to Mr. Hamburger ended in divorce in 1966 and he died in 2004, aged 89. She was also predeceased by her second husband, Mr. Daly, who died in 1978, and her third husband, Mr. White, who died in 2015, aged 101. Her older sister, Jane Iglauer Fallon, a patron of the arts and inductee to the Cleveland Play House Hall of Fame, died in 2002, at 89.Ms. Iglauer displayed a dogged attention to detail notable even for the glacially-paced New Yorker of the era. In 1972, she finished an article on the building of the foundation for the World Trade Center, the story taking longer to complete than the foundation itself.