Gracie and Cyril: An Oral History


Arts & Culture

Grace Paley was born Gracie Goodside ninety years ago today, and my grandmother still calls her that. My grandmother’s parents separated when the Depression hit: her father lost his job, and couldn’t countenance his wife, a beautician, the household’s only breadwinner. In summer, her mother stuck around the beauty salon, but my grandmother would visit her aunt and uncle in Long Pond, in Mahopac, fifty miles north of the city. Uncle Al was a piano teacher, and one of his students a girl named Grace. Two years older than my grandmother, Cyril, Grace spent the whole summer in Mahopac. Her father, a doctor, built a house there, and he’d bring the family up from their Bronx brownstone, at Hoe Avenue and 172nd Street.

I first picked up Paley after my father’s father, Mortimer, died. I hadn’t realized she was part of their same world of meetings, but my grandmother told me. My grandmother remembers everything.

Dr. Goodside—Isaac—he had a chauffeur, Saunders. God forbid, you could never use that word. It was a driver. Gracie’s father, he came from a large city in Russia, not the Pale of Settlement. They  spoke Russian, they did not speak Yiddish. He went to medical school in Italy, and his great pleasure was when the Italian fruit vendor came, you know, with his truck. He’d come once or twice a week, and Dr. Goodside came to talk to him in his broken Italian. Gracie’s father, he also was a great fan, a lover, of Victor Hugo—and his son, who became an ophthalmologist, was named Victor. Gracie was the youngest, she must have been at least ten years younger than Jeanne, Jeanne after Jean Valjean. And she was named Grace, and her sister said to me, in Italian, it was Grazie—thanks, thanks. Jeanne told me this when she was already teaching. She was much older, and she was married to a child psychologist, a real son of a b—a child psychologist who hated children. They never had children.

Gracie was unusual, she was extremely bright. Every day she was made to read at least an hour, I think she was made to study Russian. And they had a large house in Mahopac, her parents always encouraged kids to come to the house. Her father was a music lover, and he would invite people over to his house, and play music. He had this phenomenal record player. My Uncle Al, the piano player, was such an SOB—he would say, “I’m not going, he doesn’t know anything about music.” But that’s how I knew Gracie, the lessons. Her parents, they wanted us to come to her house, we went there, we played Monopoly. I would see Gracie almost every day—we would go swimming, we would have a hare and hound race, try not to fall for the false trails the guys set up. And we’d discuss politics and sex and stuff, whatever kids at that age discuss. She was the leader because we always went to her house, and she was the one who had ideas, and who could give advice. Even at that age. Wherever you went to meet, it was always at Gracie’s house. All the kids would follow Grace.

The other children—Victor, he was not a talker, and Jeanne, Jeanne was always apologizing. I don’t think they ever really answered the father. And their mother was a quiet woman. Gracie was always the one who was really challenging him.

When we were kids, she started a little newspaper that she gave out to the community. She wrote, she edited, and she gave it out. I wasn’t there the whole summer—I hated my Uncle Al, the only reason I went there was that I liked the other kids so much. And she more or less wrote the whole paper herself, in the summer, out of Long Pond. I guess it was printed out of a mimeograph, for the whole community. There was a violinist there, Berg, he lived on City Island. There was a man by the name of Gamzou, he taught drama at NYU. There was a man who taught languages—Russian, German, whatever, in Jersey. And Tom Paley, the folk player—no relation—he was there. His father, David, was a writer, and the mother was beautiful, and they married and divorced two or three times, themselves. The paper, it was about things that happened in the community.

She was a child, and already she was interested in writing. I think she went to Evander Childs High School in the Bronx. I know that in junior high school, she did get into some kind of a confrontation. I don’t remember what it was, but it was political—I remember that she did have a problem. She was never frightened, you know. She was always sure of herself—she would carry an action to what she thought was its logical conclusion.

I think that in college she really started writing, somewhere between the politics and the boys. She went to NYU, and we took a course together there, when I transferred to her school. First I was at the school of journalism, then the school of liberal arts. We stayed in touch during college, and on off, she was always involved with this guy and another guy, she was always with involved with so much she couldn’t keep up with everything she was involved with. Maybe that’s why she dropped out of college for a while. I don’t know why. I was involved, in college, with people who were much more radical than Gracie—Communists. She was involved with a guy, she was very unhappy with her life at home, she began to write.

Guys went for Gracie. She really wasn’t that attractive—she was short, I don’t ever remember her without glasses, I don’t know. I think she was always a very down to earth person. There was one guy who came out there, I think she really loved him. But he had a bad heart or something. Her parents discouraged her from having much to do with him. Many years later, he came back to Mahopac, I think he was married, to show the family that he was a success. It was very interesting. He came with someone. The friend he came with was an executive at Bloomingdale’s.

She was very dramatic, you know, if she was sad, she was sadder than most people … or happier. She was always kind of like … a crisis. I was going with Morty, and she married a guy named Paley, a photographer or something. They had two children, and he began going with other woman. And he left her … or she may have left him, she may have kicked him out. And she became involved with the Democratic club in the Village. And she had a group of women that she began to work with and all, and her sister Jeanne gave her a lot of support at that time. And she was writing.

When Gracie was twenty-eight, I know that she was in some kind of demonstration, and she was arrested. She was put in the house of detention for women, which was Sixth Avenue and Greenwich. Someone told me, and I went, and I was shouting up at her. And then she began writing, her first book was The Little Disturbances of Man. And then she became very involved against the Vietnam War. She had gone to Vietnam a number of times. She was given an award, you know, New York State Writer. The first. She was. Every year the city had a writer, or the state, and she was one of them.

Around 1960, all the women I knew, Gracie too, we went on a train—the Women’s Strike for Peace. Bella Abzug, and something from Jane Addams, her Women’s League for Peace. And the committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. We would take trains out to Washington. They reserved a whole train.

Later, I met her at a number of marches. By the time the Vietnam War came, she was already a famous writer. But she had no pretensions, she always remained the same. She was always ashamed to tell people that her father was a doctor, because of the people she went with; she went with a lot of poor and working class people. She would never mention it—only later on would she mention that her father was a doctor. She always presented herself as from the working class.

The women she knew in the village, she gained strength from them—women who were dissatisfied with their lives. They were educated women. Or their husbands were away, or their husbands were leaving. From when she was a child on, she anticipated what people were going to say. She was just, like, way ahead of you. She had this gift. Even in college. Even when she was a kid in Mahopac, people kind of just followed her. People would come to her, and dump their problems on her, their stories.

She married a man named Nichols, Robert Nichols, she had lived with him, and then she married him. I would see her on and off over the years. We met her in New York, a few years ago, at this peace demonstration, against the war. They had moved to a town called Bedford Hills in Vermont. And she begged me to come to visit her. And somehow Morty and I promised her that we would, but I never got there. She died maybe a year later.

Crazy—I was ten, twelve years old, I would meet Dr. Goodside on a Friday, Dr. Goodside and his driver, at the entrance of that huge cemetery in the Bronx, Woodlawn Cemetery, the entrance at Jerome Avenue. I got to know the gatekeeper. A chauffeured limousine comes in, and the gatekeeper would say to me, that’s Judge so-and-so, twice a month he comes to his mausoleum. To sit in his mausoleum. Can you believe it? When Dr. Goodside came to pick me up, once, he saw I was all shaken, and I told him what had happened. He thought people were crazy. People are insane! Gracie’s mother died of cancer; Dr. Goodside was very devoted to her. I remember him making her do exercise, mow the lawn, so she could move her muscles. And she would say, she would wail, It’s too hard! He wanted her to live. When she died, he continued to practice awhile, but then he went into a senior residence. And he began to write poetry. Like Gracie, that was the kid that he was most involved with, there was a little competition there. Gracie, she died of breast cancer, too. I met her daughter, Nora. Maybe she was named after A Doll’s House. Or after Seán O’Casey’s Nora—the man is a coward, and Nora’s the one with strength.

When we went to Cuba, Mort and I, two or three years after Chavez was elected, we saw him with Castro. I met a woman who was her neighbor in Vermont. And she said, even there, what an unusual woman Gracie was. She was really very unusual.