Hanna Holborn Gray, An Academic Life: A Memoir, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 352 pp., $29.95.
Hanna Holborn Gray was the first woman president of a major American university--Yale, as acting president for more than a year, and if one does not count that, president of the University of Chicago for fifteen years. Once deemed "the most distinguished woman in the academic world," she served on the Harvard and Yale corporations, as well as on the board of directors of the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Mayo Clinic and the Brookings Institution; a few years ago she stepped down as president of the Howard Hughes Medical Foundation, the second largest foundation in America. She probably has received more honorary degrees than anyone other than the Dalai Lama. Those who have seen her know her magisterial bearing. Her memoir contains magisterial reflections but is also sprightly, often playful, and chockful of entertaining anecdotes.
Even though Hanna Gray was a childhood refugee from Hitler's Germany, she had a head statt in life. The family was forced to flee because Hanna's mother was Jewish, but her Christian father, Hajo Holborn, who had gained a doctorate in history from the University of Berlin, was well-connected. He looked for employment in the United States immediately after the Nazi takeover, sailing alone to America with financial support from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in February of 1933. In April, he was faced with the difficult choice of whether to accept a faculty position at either Harvard or Yale and opted for the latter. His daughter writes that "the outcome seemed a kind of miracle" yet adds: "it is quite certain that, had he been Jewish, his search would have been unlikely to end in a department of history in the Ivy League."
Holborn brought his family over in the summer of 1934. Hanna was four. She recalls that "the ship docked at midnight after sailing past a brightly lit Statue of Liberty." She was very excited because it was the latest she had ever been up. Foreseeing the reader's wonder about whether memories of a four-year old might be suspect, she writes that the details of the landing "were so often repeated as part of family lore that [they were] reinforced in my personal sense of a significant past moment." Hanna's mother, Annemarie Bettmann, came from a Heidelberg professorial family that mingled with the Heidelberg intellectual elite. Annemarie herself gained a doctorate at Berlin in classical philology before marrying Hajo Holborn. Gray writes that both parents were "steeped in the study of Greek and Latin." Both were left-of-center social democrats. In the Holborn living room, young Hanna listened to her parents' conversations with intellectuals such as Erich Auerbach, Paul Hindemith and Ernst Cassirer, "with his great mane of white hair like a movie producer's vision of a philosopher." There was also the Sanskrit folklorist Heinrich Zimmer and his wife, the daughter of Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, Erwin Panofsky, Paul Tillich and Hannah Arendt. The historian Ernst Kantorowicz was there too.
Hanna attended the private Foote school in New Haven--"with Bryn Mawr standards: both rigorous and mildly progressive." When her father moved to Washington with his family for war work (oss, of course), it was the Sidwell Friends School. (Perhaps out of modesty the author neglects to mention that in Washington she appeared on the local radio as a "Quiz Kid.") When it was time for her to choose a college, she narrowed it down to either Smith or Bryn Mawr: "with great excitement I told my father that I would be attending Smith. 'No,' he said, 'you are going to Bryn Mawr.' And so I did."
Gray's Bryn Mawr chapter is full of lively incident. We may not be entirely surprised to learn that on May Day Bryn Mawr girls danced around a maypole in "gauzy long white dresses with garlands around their heads," but it surely is surprising to learn that teen-aged...