It was October 1992. Carolyn had retired from Columbia after the spring semester—early, as retirements go these days, at sixty-six. The head of the Women’s Studies program at the CUNY Graduate Center, along with two colleagues and I, created an event to honor Carolyn’s leaving Columbia —since Columbia had done nothing to mark the rather public and dramatic occasion. We wanted to acknowledge the importance of Carolyn’s career as a feminist critic and writer, but also highlight Columbia’s bizarre silence about the departure of a senior scholar, holder of a named chair. We called the conference, “Out of the Academy and Into the World with Carolyn Heilbrun.”
The parting had not been friendly. Carolyn had tried and failed to hire a younger feminist colleague, and had made a deal, academic horse-trading, with the most powerful man in the department: if she supported his bringing in a squash buddy from the College (the man’s entire distinction was a monograph on the history of the boy scouts, the boy scouts!) into the department with tenure, he would support her getting tenure for a young feminist assistant professor, a lively young woman, radically intelligent, and popular with students. His candidate sailed through; Carolyn’s failed the vote and had to leave the department. Carolyn concluded from this defection that she would never succeed in adding another feminist to the faculty, along with her even less realistic hope to change the culture of the English Department. She left the university rather splashily; there were articles in the New York Times and New York magazine. Carolyn was angry and quite willing to dish about it. Because she would have lost a large amount of money were she to resign, Carolyn had to mitigate the less daring reality of her retirement. Not to would have meant losing twice.
We arranged a series of panels at the Graduate Center, in which Carolyn’s former students and feminist colleagues described, often wittily, what it had meant to be her student or to read her work for the first time. The occasion was celebratory, and the final panel ended with music. Carolyn’s love for Cole Porter was well known and the last participant had arranged for his 1934 song “You’re the Top” to play after she finished her toast. As the music filled the room, Carolyn came to the stage to receive her final honors.
This is how I remembered the final event and wrote about it my last book, published just before the pandemic, in which I described my twenty-year friendship with Carolyn: Carolyn rose from the audience to ascend to the group assembled and waiting for her on the platform. She climbed the steps of the staircase leading up to the podium. Jim, Carolyn’s loyal husband, a quiet, dignified man whom most of us didn’t know personally, followed Carolyn, and patted her on the bottom as he accompanied her to the stage. *
I remember thinking on the moment that this was a charming, not to say adorable touch, one that revealed something about their marriage, a kind of intimacy that none of us had witnessed, and that I knew I wouldn’t forget. I enjoyed writing about this scene not only because it was a gesture of affection unusual in an academic setting, but also because it revealed an aspect of Carolyn’s rather private personal life.
Although the event itself was filmed by CUNY TV, early on the master tape seemed to have disappeared. Decades later, while working on my book, I regretted not having saved a copy of the tape at the time. I was writing then from memory and would have liked to be able to include more detail. Was Carolyn, for example, wearing her pearls? Of course, there was a great deal more about the day I didn’t remember—who all the panelists were, for one—how we opened the panel, what I said, how we had gone about organizing the conference itself, I had saved a snapshot of the co-organizers, snappily dressed alike in black blazers, white shirt, and a boutonnière.
Recently, a few years after the friendship memoir was published, and thinking about the upcoming anniversary of Carolyn’s suicide, I was rearranging her books on the shelf in my study and discovered, hidden from sight behind a row of her detective novels, the missing conference tape in a clearly labeled, if dust covered box. Oh no! Waves of embarrassment washed over me; nausea rippled through my chest making it hard to breathe. I had wanted to watch the tape while writing about Carolyn for the book, and had assumed it had gone missing, which is what we at the Graduate Center told people who asked for a copy.
I decided to have the tape digitized, even though I had saved our old VHS recorder in a closet for just this occurrence, and even though the era of watching films on tape had long passed. If I wanted to preserve the recording, it was time to enter the realm of the digital. I inserted the thumb drive into the computer and sat down to revisit the conference, anticipating the pleasure of seeing old friends and colleagues, slipping pleasurably into nostalgia. True, it had felt more than a little strange, disquieting on the moment, that I had not remembered having the tape in my possession. After all, the event had been important to me as a feminist scholar, and to my relationship with Carolyn, our long friendship. What did the memory lapse mean?
I started to watch the recording from the beginning, at first shocked to see myself looking more attractive and animated at 50 than I had remembered, but rather than dwelling on the loss of my youthful appearance (it’s all relative, as I should know by now) I found myself clicking fast forward to the final scene. I wanted to enjoy once more the expression of Carolyn’s surprise and pleasure at hearing the music she loved as a kind of grand finale to the conference. I wanted now to remember how she was then, decades before her death.
As “You’re the Top” started to play, a scene unfolded that ran entirely counter to the one I had described in my book. Even writing about it now, years after writing the book, the fact that what I saw on the screen did not correspond to my memory disturbs me because I still picture clearly what I saw then. In the version of the conference filmed and edited by the staff at CUNY TV, Carolyn appeared on the stage for the final tributes, but exactly how she got there from the audience, did not. She just was there. Presumably, I tell myself, the editors did not consider a shot of Carolyn climbing the stairs from the audience to the stage of visual interest. As the music continued to play, Carolyn’s husband Jim appeared on the stage (again, no stair climbing in the sequence), and when he stood next to Carolyn, kissed his wife delicately on the lips. The music kept playing as the credits rolled, and Jim, then Carolyn beckoned their daughter Margaret to join them from the audience, which she did, big hair flying, throwing her arms around her mother when she reached her on the stage.
I was incredulous. How could I have misremembered Jim’s embrace as a pat on Carolyn’s bottom? How could I have thought it was even plausible? I can still recall thinking then, oh, now I know more about Jim and their married life offstage. But wait, maybe I’m not inventing, maybe I did see Carolyn rise from her seat in the audience and walk to the staircase leading to the stage. Maybe the scene was edited out. But no, I was on the stage so I couldn’t have seen Carolyn from the back. Had I remembered the scene from elsewhere? Or dreamed it? I long to know.
What else, I’ve had to ask myself, have I misremembered about Carolyn; what else, not to put too fine a point on it, have I simply forgotten, or worse still, invented?
. . . . .
* The published version appears on p. 53 in My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism.