Historian and writer Marilyn Yalom died on November 20, 2019. I had the good fortune to know her, to have read much of her work, and the greatest fortune of all: to work with her on one of her stellar books.
I was sitting a few years ago in the back seat of Irvin Yalom’s automobile, stuck on an afternoon with Irv and his wife Marilyn Yalom in the usual jam of cars attempting to get onto the Bay Bridge. We were in the middle of the San Francisco financial district. Most sunlight was being blocked by the new tech-related skyscrapers just then going up. A great many pedestrians, hurtling from their offices in furious lunch-hour escape, were further slowing traffic. What with the myriad cars, trucks, buses, and citizens, we were making no progress up the street.
So, we had some time to talk about books.
The Yaloms are both celebrated for their writing, each having achieved a level of fame and distinction that is reserved for very few. Irv’s work has been noted by the world, and Marilyn’s is by no means diminished by her husband’s well-deserved fame. I’ve been a fan of her writing for years, particularly her books A History of The Wife, How the French Invented Love, and Birth of The Chess Queen. Marilyn combines a love of deep scholarship and historical accuracy with a sophisticated writing style that makes her books among the most readable I have encountered.
With Ivory Madison, I had recently cofounded the publishing company Astor & Lenox. Marilyn was asking me about that, and was charmed by the fact that we had named our company after the two lions in front of the New York Public Library at 476 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I asked her what she was writing just then, and we chatted also about a few of her other books, until she asked me what kind of books we wanted to publish.
“Books like the ones you’ve written,” I replied. My tone of voice was a little breezy, and I worried that it would be thought insincere by Marilyn.
Indeed, there was silence. A few cars up ahead moved, but not far.
“Well…I have one,” she said, “that you might find interesting.”
“Yes, it’s called Blood Sisters. About the French Revolution told by women who were actually involved in it.”
I was unfamiliar with this book, and Marilyn explained that it had been published in 1993 by Basic Books. She had particularly enjoyed the research she had had to do for it, for a couple of reasons. Women in the revolution have received short shrift from most historians, and their stories basically have been under-represented. The research itself was a kind of joyful undertaking, Marilyn said, because so many of the journals she read were written by highly educated women in superb French, a language in which Marilyn was completely fluent. (Among many other subjects, she taught French at Stanford University and, in 1991, received the honor of Officier des Palmes Académiques from the French Government.)
Blood Sisters features women like Madame Germaine de Staël, the Duchesse de Tourzel, who was the governess of Queen Marie Antoinette’s children, and the Duchesse d’Angoulême, who was with the queen during the last days before her execution. There are others not so highly placed in the French society of the time. Élisabeth Le Bas, née Duplay, was one who had to negotiate her way through the dangerous post-revolution streets of Paris, and lived to tell about it. Even those journals that were based on oral tellings by illiterate or poorly educated women were special for Marilyn, like the story of Renée Bordereau, called “Langevin,” a peasant who participated in the revolutionary battles fought in the Vendée, in the west of France. Women like Langevin were often on the very front lines of the revolution, serving, as did Langevin herself, as basic infantry. Her stories include grisly accounts of her own dispatching of royalist soldiers on the fields of battle.
“All of it was exciting,” Marilyn said. “It was wonderful.”
I asked her if the book had ever been re-published, or did she have the rights to the book so that she could arrange for its re-publication.
Marilyn looked over her shoulder into the back seat of the car. “I do have the rights.” She smiled broadly.
A few days later, Marilyn gave me a copy of Blood Sisters, and I can write that it is the only academic book I’ve ever read that is also a riveting page-turner. Derring-do, contemplative sadness, bravery in the face of great personal disaster, tragedy itself, the contemplation of certain death, victory in war…all of it presented in Marilyn’s clear, deft hand.
I showed it to my colleague Ivory, who read it as avidly as I had, and we agreed that we wanted to publish it as soon as possible. We asked only for a different title, one that would more directly signal what the book is about. It became Compelled to Witness: Women’s Memoirs of the French Revolution, and was published by Astor & Lenox in 2015. Author Gail Sheehy wrote of this book, “Acting as a literary medium with a latter-day feminist eye, Yalom breathes life into these women memoirists and weaves their miniature epics of personal survival into the larger pageant of French history. A wonderful book.”
A special treat for me was to work with Marilyn on the nitty-gritty re-editing of notes, references, quotes, and bibliography for the book. These are treadmill editing tasks that I normally avoid at all costs. But working with her was always a pleasure because she brought such humor and additional information to these notes, which made the book even richer for me personally.
Marilyn Yalom was an exceptional historian, a very fine writer who was also a devout francophile, and a vivid conversationalist. Along with everyone I know who knew her, I will miss her deeply.