Edith Iglauer’s writing career has spanned seven decades, five books of non-fiction and countless magazine articles: she’s been a war correspondent in Yugoslavia, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a finalist for a Governor General’s Award. Sometimes she seems to spring from a world of myth.
Edith Iglauer wants to know everything about you. Your first time ever in her living room, you’ve only just sat down with your notebook and your recorder, and already she wants what you might call a nineteenth-century Russian level of detail. By the time she was twelve, she says, she was right deep into the Russians. A librarian had given her Constance Garnett’s translation of Anna Karenina and said “You should read this,” and she loved it. She didn’t know what it was all about but she loved the writing. She also loved Colette, and Joyce; she read Ulysses—her father’s copy, possibly a first edition, with the cover falling off—in high school. Milton, and Blake; Chekhov, too, she would have read around that time. Chekhov, with his eye for detail—the domestic, small details—was so incredible, and she loved that. That eye for detail she picked up definitely from him. She wants to picture everything, just like how she wants to know everything about her interviewer now, she wants to picture that, even though she doesn’t use it all, when she’s writing.
At ninety-three, Iglauer lives on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, a forty-minute ferry ride followed by a two-hour drive north of Vancouver; not in the moneyed bohemia of Roberts Creek or the cottagey retirement haven of Sechelt, but farther up the coast, in a place called Garden Bay, where logging trucks haul cedar and Douglas fir, and boats are for work. ReMax and Prudential realty placards (Oceanfront View!) give way to quainter signage: B&B By The Sea, Sunshine Zen Centre, Adopt A Road—Women of Wisdom, Wet Coast Computer and Design, Flying Anvil Studio, Nu-Way Builders, Crossroads Grill, P.H. Diesel Repair Shop.
Iglauer lives with her third husband, Frank White, in the house of her second husband, John Daly, who died in 1978. The road down to the house is guarded by signs in Daly’s hand:
STOP HERE or Backdown Only It is NOT Road to Machine Shop. J. Daly
And farther down:
Faith in Humanity, NOT $
You follow the path that tucks and turns and ends at a snug one-level house plus addition with a boat’s wheel attached to the wall. There’s an Obama-Biden bumper sticker on the glass window in the door, which leads into the kitchen, where you could be forgiven for mistaking Iglauer for someone a couple of decades younger. She has a deep voice and nice wavy hair, and she wears a blue blouse with a brooch and navy slacks. She’s a little nervous and a little hard of hearing, but only the extreme caution of her walk reveals her true age. In her head, she says, she’s in her twenties.
Iglauer’s career has spanned seven decades, five books of non-fiction and countless magazine articles. She’s been a war correspondent in Italy and Yugoslavia, a White House correspondent, a staff writer for The New Yorker, a finalist for a Governor General’s Award and an inspiration for the popular History Channel TV series Ice Road Truckers. Sometimes she seems to spring from a world of myth. When Iglauer’s children were small, Harold Ross, the legendary founding editor of The New Yorker, called Vincent Astor—yes, that Vincent Astor—to arrange permission for her to purchase the apartment next door to hers (Astor owned the building) so they could be knocked into one. She’s profiled Eleanor Roosevelt and Pierre Trudeau and Arthur Erickson; she’s written about Inuit co-operatives and the building of the World Trade towers in New York. Jaclyn Smith played her in a movie based on her second marriage.
Most recently, she’s written a series of personal essays for Geist that might become her next book. She hopes so. She’s got about ten of them now, with titles like “Snowed In at the Sylvia,” “My Lovely Bathtub,” “Tiens! Croissants!” and “Wait, Save, Help.” But the wonderful part about being her age, she says, is that publishing doesn’t matter very much. Someone asked her recently what was the greatest thing that ever happened to her, and without a moment’s hesitation she said the birth of her two sons, Richie and Jay. There was nothing that could compare to that miracle. She was in terrific awe of the writers she had known, the New Yorker circle; well, they were all so good. She couldn’t imagine that she would be that good. She still doesn’t. She says she has never thought of herself seriously as a writer.
Edith Theresa Iglauer was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1917. Her father, Jay Iglauer, won a full scholarship to the University of Chicago but turned it down to support his mother and brother; his father had died when he was nine. He applied for a job at Halle Brothers, the most elegant department store in Cleveland, and told them he knew bookkeeping. The woman sitting next to him taught him bookkeeping over the weekend. By the end of his career he’d risen to executive vice-president and he always kept that woman in his office. He stayed fifty years to the day, and then he said he was through and he quit. On his eightieth birthday, Iglauer asked him if he would have done anything differently. Oh yes, he said, totally differently. He had wanted to be a doctor. This was the first she’d heard of it.
Iglauer’s mother, Bertha Good Iglauer, stayed at home with Edith and her sister, Jane, three and a half years her elder. The first thing Iglauer can remember is being held up to the mirror in the bathroom by her mother and her saying, “See the pretty baby.” Both her parents encouraged her to read. She can remember herself and Jane, each sitting on one arm of their father’s chair while he read them Alice in Wonderland, and she can remember when she and Jane were both sick at the same time their mother would sit on a stool between their rooms and read to them. Iglauer recalls a childhood filled with laughter and hospitality. Her heritage was German Jewish on both sides of the family, though they were Reform, and those were the circles she moved in, in Cleveland. She dated boys, most of them German Jewish, and brought them home for lemonade and cookies.
Her religious life was less a matter of dogma, though, than of (you might say) landscape; a theme that would recur later in her life. She went to Sunday School until it became too boring. For a while the family went to temple. But Iglauer claims her whole personality was formed at the family cabin in the country, thirty miles from Cleveland, where she used to go with her father. He liked to ride and so Iglauer was taught to ride very early. Mr. Halle had given her father a horse he didn’t want any more, and then her father got another horse from an Amish farmer. The farmer had his children crawl under the horse’s feet to demonstrate its gentleness. Edith and her father rode Prince and Happy all over, for miles and miles. The Iglauers only had fifty-four acres but they were surrounded by large estates, thousands of acres, and there would be a riding gate between the properties, and you rode up to it and pulled a rope to open it and pulled a rope to close it again. Her father used to pick her up on Fridays after school and they would ride, and then have supper in a greasy spoon on the way home.
Iglauer attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and after that studied journalism at Columbia. It was at Columbia that she met Philip Hamburger, her first husband. He came from a Baltimore family and was studying journalism too. Their grandmothers knew each other. His grandmother said You have to meet Fanny Good’s granddaughter and her grandmother said You have to meet Pauline Craft’s grandson. Iglauer was in the library one day when Hamburger came in and said to the librarian, did they have a student named Edith Iglauer? They used to take your picture, she says, with your number across your chest, and the librarian showed it to him and he said, “That’s just what I thought my grandmother would recommend.” But the librarian said, “No, she’s very nice, she’s right over there,” and took him over and introduced him. Hamburger took Iglauer out to Richard III. They sat in the second balcony and he mimicked the whole thing through, and afterwards they went to Child’s Restaurant at the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street and he did the whole show for her and she laughed so hard they got thrown out. When they got married, Iglauer had a trousseau including a luncheon set for twelve with her initials on it, but she never used it. She was brought up to marry a rich man, she says, but she never did.
Celebrity, though, was another matter. Philip Hamburger was hired as a reporter at The New Yorker around the time they met, and quickly joined the magazine’s inner circle. He wrote everything from Talk of the Town pieces (as “Our Man Stanley”), to a first-hand account of Achille Starace being shot and then hung next to the body of his boss, Benito Mussolini, on April 29, 1945, to music, movie and television reviews, to profiles of Toscanini, Truman and Juan Perón. Hamburger worked at the magazine for more than six decades, with every one of its editors: Harold Ross, William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown and David Remnick. He embodied the New Yorker ethos of informed liberalism, quirky curiosity, whimsical humour and a fierce passion for literary style.
Before Hamburger’s influence, Iglauer’s reportage was dutiful but subdued; it’s hard to imagine her beginning a New Yorker piece, as she does a Christian Science Monitor profile from 1941, with “Marian Anderson opened a new chapter in her life last year when she bought the lovely farm at Hill Plain, Connecticut.” Working for The New Yorker was simultaneously a thrill, a challenge and extremely hard work. Iglauer got her start at the magazine selling ideas. She would send in an idea, she says, and if they used it they sent her a cheque. For instance, in 1959 she did one about seats on the stock exchange. She wondered what a “seat” meant so she ran the idea and was told to go ahead, and it turned out to be very interesting. She wasn’t allowed to write; she would do the notes for a Talk of the Town piece and Brendan Gill would rewrite them. She would call him up and ask how many pages he wanted and he would say four and he would condense that into two. Finally she offered them an idea about the last mounted police stable in New York and Hamburger said, “Why don’t you ask to do a long piece?” and that was her first New Yorker publication. Contrast the immediacy, the crisp thrill of this opening: “Promptly at ten o’clock Thursday—a cold day—I arrived at the Armory, where the mounted police occupy a stable area set aside for them by the National Guard.”
The celebrated journalist A.J. Liebling told her she would never write. He said, “You don’t have the sitzfleisch,” the necessary padding on the rear for long periods of sitting at a desk. When the mounted police piece came out, Hamburger took her to a lobster restaurant where they all ate. Liebling was eating by himself—his double meal, Iglauer calls it: he was a prodigious eater—and when Iglauer came in he stood up and congratulated her. She still remembers how nice that was.
Iglauer evokes those years as a blur of hard work, late nights, restaurants, drinks, parties and general sleep deprivation. (Hamburger’s collection of New Yorker writings is tellingly entitled Friends Talking in the Night.) During Iglauer’s most energetic period, she got up at four and wrote until it was time to get breakfast and get her two sons off to school and then she wrote again until they came home at three. And then, she says, they entertained all the time, like all the New Yorker staff. The couple either went out or they had people in, and then Hamburger started doing music reviews, which he did for a year and a half, and they went to a concert nearly every night. Iglauer was so exhausted that she slept through many of the great classics. But Hamburger didn’t want to go without her, so she went.
Hamburger and the New Yorker circle were the formative influence on Iglauer’s own writing style. She says marriage to Hamburger made her more aware of perfection. They were each other’s first reader, and while they didn’t really do much to each other’s prose—just a word here or a word there—she learned a lot about technique from what he did. He could remember whole conversations; they’d come rolling out onto the page. Iglauer worked much more slowly. She worked consciously to take on the New Yorker style of that period—the pellucid prose, the bubbling humour—and soaked up lessons of craft. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, for example: the chapter where he shows you how to cut the words and take out the “verys,” that was important to her. Even now, she says, when she’s writing for Geist, she’s very wordy when she starts and then she cleans it up.
Four of Iglauer’s five books originated as long New Yorker pieces. The New People, later reprinted as Inuit Journey, traced the development of Inuit co-operatives in the eastern Canadian Arctic. Denison’s Ice Road chronicled her travels with the truck crew building the annual 325-mile winter road from Yellowknife to a silver mine on Great Bear Lake, above the Arctic Circle. Seven Stones: A Portrait of Arthur Erickson, Architect was first published as a profile on June 4, 1979. (Iglauer maintained a friendship with Erickson after the piece was finished, attending a couple of his parties and his recent memorial at the Simon Fraser University Burnaby Mountain campus, which he designed. Once he came up to visit her at the house. Iglauer had just bought a fig tree and he told her where to put it and it hasn’t had a fig since. She remains very angry at him about that.)
Her book Fishing with John was published in 1988 and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction. In 1991 she published The Strangers Next Door, a selection of her writings beginning with the 1941 profile of Marian Anderson quoted above and extending all the way to excerpts from Fishing with John, published in 1988.
Through all these marvellously thoughtful, detailed works, Iglauer’s reader is struck by a signal absence: Iglauer herself. Suppression of the writer’s own presence is a signature of the old New Yorker style. But Iglauer takes this convention to an extreme, hiding herself so successfully that the reader is left knowing everything about her subject and wanting to know much more about the writer. Indeed, the rare paragraphs where she does give the reader a glimpse into her own thoughts are some of her most vivid, such as these passages from Denison’s Ice Road, where she allows herself to imagine going through the ice:
Gentle humming smooth comfortable lake driving. That’s the real danger. Sinister. Ready to crack. Cracked. Maybe now. Down through black black black cold cold cold to brown probably soft mud death at the bottom of this lake. Malfait. Badly made. Well named.
We are rolling over the snow, crushing it down in our little box of sometimes safety. My stiff fingers touch the slender flat cool black expensive radio. Stiff fingers. I rub the joints, touch the warm wolverine rim of my parka hood, the fur that Jimmy Magrum sold me last year, that June sewed on while I was there one day instead of the white rabbit fur that always shed; I touch my forehead, touch the red frame of the windshield, touch the slippery brown leather seat, touch my eyes, tired from straining to see the space not here not there, but maybe here among the trees.
Interestingly, Iglauer’s biggest commercial success, Fishing with John, is also the book in which she herself is most present. Confidence seems a large part of what makes Iglauer’s more confessional style work. It took the confidence of a great love to write about her relationship with John Daly; it took the confidence of eight decades of writing experience to produce the polished autobiographical gems that glitter in Geist.
Iglauer has published a single piece of fiction, a short story called “The Beautiful Day” in the March 19, 1966, issue of The New Yorker. She originally wrote it as a piece of non-fiction, a memory of her last day with her father. It was rejected. But Bill Maxwell, who was a close friend as well as fiction editor at the time, suggested she put it in the third person, and that’s how it appeared in the magazine. She’s had a lot of people tell her that when somebody died in their family it was helpful to them. It was like a song in her head, she says; the whole thing came out in one big piece. She’d like to write more fiction, always thought she’d be a fiction writer, but she was scared; scared not to be able to do it.
The house Iglauer shares with her third husband, Frank White, originally belonged to her second husband, the salmon fisherman John Daly, and his presence remains tangible. There’s the boat-like use of walls and ceilings, no storage space wasted; the coziness, a nautical combination of neatness and thrift and warmth; and a general sense of hunkering down against the elements without. (Iglauer tended a wood fire throughout our interview, opening and closing windows and doors to manipulate the smoke that escaped a partially blocked flue.) Yellow windows in the blue dark on warm nights; black dark on the cold ones. A selection of Daly’s clippings and handwritten notes hangs in the bathroom. There are family portraits throughout the house (“That’s Grandpa Good and my sister and me”; “This is Richie, hamming it up”; “That’s a drawing I did of John on the boat”; “Oh, she worked for my mother the last fifteen years of her life. Her name was Armenia Baker. She died before my mother and I told her, I said, ‘How can you do that to me?’ She was the one who pulled me through my divorce, more than anything. She was black and from Texas and part Indian and I adored her. If she had lived I would have brought her out here with me. That’s the family”). She has a huge study decorated with beloved pieces of art: New Yorker covers, Mandelbrot photographs, Inuit sculpture and drawings by her friend Hedda Sterne, Saul Steinberg’s widow. On the deck is a working bathtub, because, when it’s warm enough, Iglauer likes to soak outside.
After her divorce, Iglauer had come to Vancouver to visit a friend she had met at Columbia, who introduced her to Daly. He took her out and they went to see a performance by some Ukrainian dancers. They had dinner at the Lotus restaurant and he missed the last ferry, so he spent the night on the couch in the living room with his feet hanging about that far off the end of the couch. She started going out with him all the time, and then she came to live with him. First she experimented. She went on his boat, the MoreKelp, to see if she liked it. She didn’t get seasick and she loved it on the boat. And then she went out on the boat for one month that year and then she came back and stayed.
Tight spaces—the MoreKelp, or the trailer that was her living space while she travelled the ice road with John Denison’s crew—don’t bother her. She was very well trained, she says, from having been at the shack with her father. It was a small cabin with no electricity and when they first went there was no running water, nothing. She was used to the outhouse out back, very well trained about going to the bathroom, she says, which is vital anyplace. And she wasn’t allowed to complain, so she just got used to following people around, doing whatever they were doing. She got to profile Trudeau by making a deal that if he would let her accompany him on a cross-Canada trip, she wouldn’t ask for personal interviews with him except for one. She watched him for eight days and got a brilliant profile out of it, and (judging from a subsequent piece she wrote for Geist about his unexpectedly taking her up on a dinner invitation) some affection from her subject as well. John English, in his 2009 biography Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968–2000, says Iglauer’s profile “remains the best portrait of Trudeau as he took power and shaped his private self to the new demands of public life.”
Iglauer made notes on the Erickson piece on the boat, and when she got underway with the writing, she kept taking sections of it to William Shawn, her editor at The New Yorker. Each time, his response was, “Keep going.” Iglauer revered Shawn, as did many who worked with him during his thirty-five-year tenure at the magazine. In Friends Talking in the Night, Philip Hamburger writes: “To Shawn, words meant thought, civilization, decency. Words were the linchpins of a just and orderly society. He approached words with caution and deep respect . . . Somehow, by encouraging his writers to feel free, to be bold and truthful, he brought them to the peak of their powers.” Shawn was known for his generosity with writers, providing them with offices and salaries even when they weren’t producing, as well as unprecedented leeway in pursuing the subjects that interested them.
Shawn also made himself available to his writers for however long it took them to complete their pieces. Hamburger quotes Shawn as saying, of the time it takes to write a good profile, “It takes as long as it takes.” In Iglauer’s case, this could be years: “Seven Stones,” the Arthur Erickson piece, took three years; “The Ice Road” (eventually Denison’s Ice Road) took six. Of Fishing with John Iglauer writes, “On my first regular fishing trip with John, in 1974, while he was delivering our first load of fish to Seafood Products in Port Hardy, I ran upstairs to the cannery office and called Bill at The New Yorker. ‘I have the most wonderful story!’ I said.” Shawn went on to edit the entire book, which was published in 1988, fourteen years after that initial inspiration.
Fishing with John displays another signal influence of The New Yorker on Iglauer’s writing style: the absence of pictures. Until Tina Brown took over as editor in 1992, magazine articles consisted of text only. Iglauer (and her peers) used thousands of words where a picture might have sufficed:
[Daly] prepared a length of monofilament—clear plastic line—which he called a “leader,” with a “lure” to attract the fish. Using a pair of pliers, he crimped a black hook to an egg-shaped piece of shiny brass plate that he called a “spoon,” which he then tied to the leader, explaining that when he clipped the leader into the steel mainline it would do just that—lead the line, with its lure and hook, down to where, one hoped, the fish were.
This dense, detailed style of description can feel slow, but it also has a quality of almost photographic accuracy and deep care. The impression the reader takes from Fishing with John is of a painstaking portrait—think seventeenth-century Dutch, maybe, or super-realist—of a world and a way of life that will one day be best known through words rather than pictures: Iglauer’s words. Love informs every sentence; there’s passion in her detail.
Daly died in 1978; he and Iglauer had been together for just six years, married for four. Marriage was something she had resisted, but he kept buying marriage licences. Finally he said to her, “This is the last one. I’m not gonna spend another five dollars on you.” She had been scared of marriage, didn’t want another divorce; she didn’t think she could survive one. She wasn’t disillusioned with marriage, she just didn’t trust it. But she was very happy; ecstatically happy with him. And she loved the boat, just loved it. She hated to come home at the end of the season.
A close friend once asked Iglauer if she knew that Daly was sick when she married him and she said, “Yes, indeed I did. But I thought I loved him so much he couldn’t die.”
It’s tempting to view Iglauer’s career through the prism of her sex, though she herself dismisses it crisply as of minor importance. Far from a trailblazer (she claims), she was surrounded by women writers at The New Yorker, people like Katharine White, Emily Hahn, Janet Flanner and Nancy Hale. (Though, notably, those women weren’t also staying home raising children and being good hostesses on limited means. White came from money; Hahn’s husband and children lived in England while she lived in New York; neither Flanner nor Hale had children.) Iglauer’s father thought women could do as well as men, took her everywhere with him, and never discouraged her from any pursuit. Iglauer herself doesn’t see the difference between a man’s work and a woman’s work. She believes it’s out there for all of us. She sees her affection for male subjects as having alienated her from the feminists who came a generation or two later; they were all writing about women’s this and women’s that, Iglauer says, and she just really loved working with men. She always has.
Certainly, though, she recognizes that her life has been complicated by the demands of the men around her. She grew up in an age where women took a back seat and she certainly did, she says, for a long time. Hamburger, for instance, made sure their domestic roles remained utterly separate. Well, he was an only child and he was inexperienced and no, he never diapered a baby. Once he diapered it all wrong and it was his way of saying to her, “Don’t ask me to do this.” At least that’s how she interpreted it; they didn’t talk about it. For a man with an IQ of 176 to diaper a baby with the rubber pants on the inside and the diaper on the outside, it was ridiculous. And it was very funny but it really wasn’t very funny in the long run.
Then there was the matter of professional jealousy. A publisher wanted to make a young people’s book out of the New Yorker piece she’d written about the training of the mounted police and their horses. Iglauer was thrilled, but Hamburger told her of another author who’d had a bad experience with the publisher and persuaded her to withdraw the book. The publisher was absolutely dumbfounded; they already had the cover made. Iglauer says it was like losing a baby. And there was no reason; the reason her husband gave wasn’t a reason at all. But she says she could feel the walls of her marriage beginning to go. She thought of it as walls. If ever there was anything that was indicative of the position of a woman in a marriage or a relationship when she came up against competition, if she wanted to stay married… Marriage is a very delicate thing, Iglauer thinks, when both people are working. Even long after the divorce, she never told Hamburger about the fan letters she’d gotten, a couple hundred at least from Fishing with John. She says she just knew to keep her mouth shut.
Fishing with John is a chronicle of a love affair, but to those feminists of a generation or two (or three) later, it can also be read as a repository of small humiliations: the fishermen who mock two women for trading recipes on the CB radio, Daly’s gruffness and shouting, the pleasant visit with a fisherman friend of Daly’s ending with an exchange of gifts: “Ken came down to see us in the morning, carrying six cans of his home-smoked salmon and a side of fresh smoked coho. John had presented him with a bottle of scotch when we arrived, and I gave him some paperback books I thought he would enjoy. He looked them over carefully, and then handed three of them to me. ‘You can have these back,’ he said. ‘I never read books by women.’”
When I told Iglauer that exchange hit me like a slap in the face, she responded that it was just an interesting side of his character, and that she and Daly had laughed about it afterwards. But when I persisted—to say that to her face, and her a writer—Iglauer insisted that her reaction was only one of fascination. Many women were so developed and were conquering the world by that time. It was just interesting a man could be that limited, she said, and still keep his head up. She was sure it was why he was by himself.
In her tendency to submerse her own personality and tastes to those of the people she’s writing about, and also in the men in her life (creative, stubborn, larger-than-life), Iglauer’s world can resemble the fictional world of Alice Munro. In length, too, there’s something of a parallel between the long, complex short story form Munro pioneered and the long New Yorker profile, profoundly detailed and intimate but readable in a single sitting. Interestingly, Iglauer’s single published short story captures the two poles of her writing: the love and the brutality.
“The Beautiful Day” is Iglauer’s memory of the last day she spent with her father. (You can read it in The Strangers Next Door.) Her character, named Amelia Medford, drives with her husband, father and two sons to a rural Ohio cabin in midwinter: “[I]t was a turning to before the boys were born, when she was her father’s child and not somebody’s mother.” They visit the farmer who is their nearest neighbour, a man named John Barnes; take a picture; wander through the cabin mired in snow; draw snowmen on the blackboard by the door; feed the birds; and then it’s time to leave. A month later her father is dead. But “That last day spent with her father remained suspended in Amelia’s mind, away from other days, vivid and clear, a fragment of beauty to which she could turn whenever she wanted.” Amelia returns to the cabin soon after, a return she’s been dreading in her grief, to find the snowmen still on the blackboard and the stub of her father’s cigarette still in the ashtray. She recalls a conversation with her father where he advised her that “you can’t do anything about the past, so never look back.” Here’s the final paragraph of the story:
Amelia heard the car honking, and the children shouting for her to come. She shivered and rubbed her arms as she got up from the chair. It really was cold in the cabin. She pulled back the fire screen, emptied the ashtray with its lone cigarette butt into the fireplace, and carefully replaced the screen. Then she went over to the blackboard and erased the drawings of the snowmen. She locked the front door and went outside to wait for John Barnes, who came around the corner of the cabin and joined her. They walked down to the car, and although she had always turned around before for a farewell look at the cabin and the tall swaying sycamore trees when she was going away, this time she did not look back.
Iglauer doesn’t like to discuss her divorce from Hamburger. She loved him so much, and when she left they didn’t speak for two years. Once they started again, they spoke often and continued to share their writing with each other right up until Hamburger’s death, in 2004; The Strangers Next Door is dedicated to Hamburger and his second wife, Anna, for whom Iglauer evinces great affection. Hamburger remains the imaginary audience Iglauer writes for when she’s alone at her desk. One of the last things he said to her was that she was such a wonderful writer.
Frank White is ninety-four. Iglauer met him through his son, Howard White, Iglauer’s editor at Harbour Publishing. Frank used to come out and play crib with Iglauer, and then take her out to dinner. That was twenty years ago. White and Iglauer married in 2006. Again, Iglauer wasn’t anxious to be married; she really did it because she wanted to put White on her medical insurance from The New Yorker, and she couldn’t unless they were married. They’d been sitting in a room together while she was on the phone with the insurer and she said, “Well, we’ll get married, then,” and she looked over and his face was just glowing. She asked him afterwards why it meant so much for him to get married and he said, “You’re mine now.”
White doesn’t interfere with Iglauer’s writing. She thinks one of the reasons their relationship has been so successful is that he admires her writing but he’s not involved. He was a logger and then an engineer, without having engineering training; he could make anything, fix anything. (He installed the outdoor bathtub.) And so there was no clash; he just loved her writing and still does. For Iglauer, that was such a relief.
I had arrived for our interview with my husband and two small children in tow; the three of them spent the afternoon playing in the woods while Iglauer and I talked, and then returned, at Iglauer’s invitation, for supper that evening. I had been reluctant to accept: Iglauer and White seemed frail, the house was full of special things, and my children were, well, children. I feared all kinds of breakages. But virtually every local hotel and restaurant was closed for the season, and the one pub we found on the drive up was all smoke and beer.
It quickly became apparent that my fears had been misplaced. White greeted my two-year-old son by putting up his fists and demanding, “Wanna fight?” He spent the rest of the visit fondling Caleb’s hair and plying him with goldfish crackers. At one point he turned to my husband and said, “I’d love to have one of these again.”
Iglauer had laid out a collection of Barbie clothes for Sophie, who was entranced; her enlightened mother had withheld Barbie for complex socio-political reasons that were hard to remember while watching the eyes of those two fashionistas, separated by nine decades, lighting with pleasure at the tiny pink satin princess gown and the forest green velvet figure skating outfit.
Between them, Iglauer and White had prepared us nothing short of a feast: macaroni and cheese topped with bacon rashers, chicken pot pie, molasses bread made by White, a salade composée with homemade mayonnaise, hard rolls; and for dessert Caramilk ice cream, lemon fairy cake, chocolate profiteroles, mini cinnamon buns, and Earl Grey tea. One of the impressions you get of Iglauer from her books is of a woman who loves food and cooking. Note the mouth-watering “six cans of home-smoked salmon” in the anecdote about the man who wouldn’t read a book by a woman, or the lovingly distraught account of the soggy raspberries in the dinner she served Trudeau in her article for Geist entitled “The Prime Minister Accepts,” or a mutual friend’s description of her surprisingly awesome cream cheese and green olive sandwiches, an Iglauer original. In her Washington, D.C., days, Iglauer says, she had a book called Casserole Cookery. She started with recipe number one and she went straight through to the fiftieth recipe. That’s how she learned to cook.
Iglauer’s life seems pretty full these days: children and grandchildren, medical appointments in the city, exercise classes, travel, swimming. Both her sons are now theatre directors—Richie in Dallas as Artistic Director Emeritus of the Dallas Theater Center, Jay at Vancouver’s Theatre in the Raw—and she follows their work with interest. Our interview was arranged for the afternoon because she wanted to visit a local craft fair in the morning. She tries to keep up with her reading, taking in The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, Inuit Quarterly, Vancouver Sun and Geist. Iglauer became a Canadian citizen in 2009 with her friend Martine Reid, Bill Reid’s widow, at the new Bill Reid Gallery. The only time I saw Iglauer angry was when she began talking about the Bush administration. She votes by absentee ballot in every election (she’s a dual citizen), and was passionately for Obama. She thinks it would be hard to name a worse president than George Bush. He ignored the Constitution. And then Cheney she thinks is really walking evil. It’s in his face, she says, like it was in Nixon’s face, the evil.
She’s slowed down a little since, oh, the age of eighty, when she was writer-in-residence in the Creative Writing Program at UBC. It was her first experience teaching. The first student paper she picked up started with a man and a woman having intercourse and he looked down and there was blood all over everything and he assumed that it was her but it was his because his penis skin was too tight. There was another one who had multiple personalities, and another one who was looking for her birth mother. Iglauer bought her refrigerator and her stove with what they paid her for that. Or the age of eighty-one, when she was instrumental in forming the Francis Point Marine Park Society to get an area of ecologically sensitive old-growth forest near the village of Madeira Park designated a provincial park. Or the age of eighty-four, when she flew to New York two weeks after September 11, 2001, to visit Ground Zero and write an op-ed for the Vancouver Sun. (She had previously written a long, much-quoted New Yorker article about the building of the World Trade Center towers’ foundation, and now she walked the site with a handkerchief over her nose and mouth, terrified of the asbestos she knew was poisoning the air.)
Doctor visits are more frequent now, and she worries a lot about White, who suffers chronic pain. She was astonished to reach eighty; ninety, she says, is just beyond comprehension. She’d like to go to Cleveland, to go out to the shack, but she can’t hike any more and she doesn’t like to leave Frank.
Iglauer thought she’d be married to the same person all her life. She never thought she’d have three husbands. After all (she says, deadpan), she was brought up on movie magazines. It took her a long time to get over Daly’s death. She loves Frank, too, and Phil, whom she divorced and grieved. She believes you can love more than one person; you just love people differently. Somehow you just have to absorb that other person into your heart so he’s with you all the time. When I draw a comparison between Iglauer’s brilliantly detailed prose and her all-encompassing love—for her parents, her three husbands, her two sons, her grandchildren, her many friends—she acknowledges they might be related. The people Edith Iglauer loves, she loves without any conditions. Her father had that capacity, she says, and she got it from him. Un-reserved in his love. Once he loved you that was it. And she has that, too. She’s very glad she does.
Her writing continues to evolve. She’s finally torn the third-person veil away in her personal essays and writes of her own life with an elegance worthy of White and Flanner and Liebling and Hamburger and Shawn. It wasn’t easy to get to this point. Iglauer’s editor for The Strangers Next Door, Mary Schendlinger, recalls the difficulty with which Iglauer had to be persuaded to write the brief first-person reminiscences that preface each section of the book. Though she now excels at it, writing about herself was antithetical to her understanding of her role as a writer. Iglauer can’t quite seem to believe anyone would want to read about her.
Thinking to be clever, I confronted her with a passage from Seven Stones where she visits the Museum of Anthropology at UBC with its architect. She had written: “I was drawn to a case containing some magnificent Haida masks, dramatic, somber carvings like nothing I had ever seen before. Your superconscious finding what’s relevant to you, Erickson said, smiling.” I wondered if she felt that was true.
He was a brilliant man, Iglauer replied, really wonderful to talk to.
I’m wondering about masks particularly, though, I persisted; do they have some kind of symbolism for you?
Very interesting tools to express yourself outside yourself, or your inner feelings, Iglauer offered. I haven’t worked very much with them but both my boys have. I’m very interested in the whole business of masks, are you?
In a way, I suggested, writing is something you put up between yourself and the world, but it’s also a way of showing something of yourself to the world that you might not have another way to do.
I think so, is it for you?
For me, yes, but I’m interested in you.
I’m fascinated with your writing, Iglauer said, smiling, and offered me another cup of tea.
"Eye for Detail" was published in the 20th Anniversary Collector's Issue and is the first in a series of five profiles commissioned with the support of Arts Partners in Creative Development. Forthcoming profiles include Don Stewart (by George Fetherling), in Geist 80, and Randy Fred (by Michal Kozlowski), Jan and Crispin Elsted (by Michael Hayward), and Jay Powell & Vickie Jensen (by Constance Brissenden with Larry Loyie) in later issues.