Edith Iglauer, who died earlier this year in Sechelt, was a brilliant writer and a smart, funny, adventurous friend. She was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, then studied at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York, knowing from the get-go that finding out about things and writing about them was her life work.
By the time Geist began to publish her short non-fiction pieces in 1996, Edith had been a professional journalist and book author for 55 years. She had joined the circle of women journalists who met each week with Eleanor Roosevelt to receive White House briefings in the early days of the Second World War.
She had served as a war correspondent in Yugoslavia for the Cleveland News; written a series of articles in 1946–1952 for Harper’s on the design and construction of the grand headquarters for the newly formed United Nations; married the writer Philip Hamburger and raised two sons, Jay and Richard; joined the staff at the New Yorker and delivered the first science-based exposé of air pollution in New York City in the 1960s — which was instrumental in changing a clean-air law in New York.
She had journeyed to Ungava Bay, Quebec, to document the formation of the first Inuit-owned and run co-operatives to administer the production and marketing of their art — a series of articles that became a book, Inuit Journey. She had accompanied a trucker in his huge, no-frills red truck — length 10 metres, weight 50 tonnes loaded — as he and his crew built a 520-kilometre road made of ice and snow from Yellowknife, N.W.T., to Great Bear Lake. This too became a book, Denison’s Ice Road.
Edith had also written astute profiles of the artist Bill Reid, the writer Hubert Evans, the writer/adventurer Capi Blanchet, the architect Arthur Erickson and, in 1968, the newly elected prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau — to name a few.
When Edith began to write for Geist, she and Philip had divorced and she had welcomed two grandsons. And she had fallen in love with a salmon fisherman named John Daly and moved to the Sunshine Coast of B.C. to marry him. He died a few years later, when they were dancing; there were some difficult years, and in 1988 Edith’s book Fishing with John (Harbour Publishing), about her years with John aboard his troller, became an instant B.C. bestseller and a Governor General’s Literary Award finalist.
A few years later, in December 1996, Edith and her companion (and later husband) Frank White, who had been travelling separately in the United States, agreed to meet at the Sylvia Hotel, at English Bay in Vancouver, and drive back to the Sunshine Coast together. Everything went as planned — until the onslaught of what Lower Mainland newscasters still call “the worst snow storm on record.”
Edith and Frank accepted their fate, which was so pleasant that they prayed for more snow, and Edith’s first dispatch for Geist, “Snowed In at the Sylvia,” took root. It was published in Geist 24 in 1997, and readers loved it. About a year later, Edith wrote “My Lovely Bathtub” for Geist, about how a vintage claw-foot bathtub on her deck — a gift from Frank — became the most beautiful private outdoor bath for miles around; more fan letters came in. Some months after that we published “Wait, Save, Help,” Edith’s account of migrating to a computer after half a century writing on her typewriter; and then her dispatch “Sitting on Water,” about the boats in her life.
These and all of Edith’s dispatches are short, smooth, accessible reads, so they can seem slight: Edith adopts a kitten who is fond of voles; she and Frank sign up for an aquafit class; a concert pianist friend comes to visit during the Olympics, but security has shut down vehicle access, so Edith takes him to Costco. In Edith’s care, these apparently simple encounters (with the exception of “The Prime Minister Accepts,” about the time she invited Pierre Trudeau to dinner at her apartment in New York) open out to the world.
She is well in control of her material, yet there is something about her approach — delight, surprise, skilful care of the reader and an attribute that her son Jay calls her “rampant curiosity” — that invites readers to join her in savouring the encounters, and staying alert to what else might happen.
It was a great pleasure to work with Edith as editor for the 15 dispatches she wrote for Geist. We had no contract or schedule for her work. A couple of times a year, if she wasn’t travelling, she would phone me with one or two ideas for dispatches. She would ask after me and my family, then describe the ideas, brightly and briefly, in plain talk, not wasting a word. Each one proposed an understated, shapely narrative, with subtle but unmistakable suspense, perfect for Geist readers or any readers. Every dispatch she suggested was surprising, funny and necessary. We’d talk it over and settle on one of the ideas, and Edith would say when she hoped to have a draft ready.
A few days later, she would phone to say she was faxing the draft. I would say “great, — I’ll watch for it,” and in would come the draft. But I wouldn’t read it, because for Edith, as for other seasoned writers, the act of transferring a draft to the editor would somehow shake loose any pesky lingering writing questions, which could then be seen and resolved. Fax technology was far from smooth, but it was analogue: even the transmission from writer to editor sounded like coffee (or literature) percolating. Within 24 hours, Edith would phone to tell me to ignore that draft because a much better one would be in my fax tray tomorrow, which it always was.
I would read the new draft through, marvelling at Edith’s skill at evoking worlds in a short, straight-ahead account: a box of croissants that defrosted with surprising vigour; a date with a boy, at age 16, with her mouth full of brand-new braces; the persistent problem of the “independent wandering behaviour of our hearing aids: they are always someplace else.” I’d flag minor things on the page and list a very few queries and suggestions on a separate sheet, then phone Edith, then fax the documents to her.
Within an hour, Edith would phone me and shower me with praise for my editing. “You’re such a wonderful editor,” she would say. “You’re the best magazine editor I’ve had since Mr. Shawn at the New Yorker!” How I’d have loved to accept those laurels! But no. “Thank you, Edith,” I’d say, “but... I’m the only magazine editor you’ve had since Mr. Shawn.”
A day or two later, Edith would fax the revised draft. She would have inserted not one of my suggestions, except for a stray typo or em dash. Yet in the new draft she would have resolved all of my notes and queries perfectly, in her style and her voice.
Edith had been writing for Geist for a couple of years when she invited me to lunch at her home on the Sunshine Coast, near the water and full of light. At her kitchen table we ate a delicious soup with tiny perfect crackers, a green salad and some tinned sockeye that did not come from the supermarket. I had eaten a few spoonfuls of the soup when Edith flashed me a big grin and said, “Do you like the soup?” I did. It was wonderful. “Can you guess what’s in it?” she said. I couldn’t, but said it was quite elegant, whatever it was. She laughed. The soup was made of one tin condensed tomato soup, one tin condensed green pea soup, a bit of cream and a splash of sherry. “I’m so glad you like it,” she said. “Next time you come, I’ll make my famous olive sandwiches.”
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