Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Writing final chapters

Franklin White and Edith Iglauer photographed by Jan Brinton

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 11, 2009


This morning, as she does thrice a week, Edith Iglauer will bask in the restorative waters of an indoor swimming pool.

An underwater workout eases the aches of 91-year-old bones. She is joined in the exercise by her husband, Franklin White, known as Munga, a retired logger.

“We’d be stiff as boards if we didn’t do something like that,” she said.

The couple so enjoy aquafit they once rode in the bed of a truck promoting the fitness program in a May Day parade through Pender Harbour, where they make their home.

Ms. Iglauer has endured operations — “one back, two hips, one knee” — each demanding a period of recovery. She wears hearing aids in both ears, a frustration for a reporter whose self-described “rampant curiosity” is evident in her every piece.

When not in the water, Ms. Iglauer can be found at the keyboard. She is at work on her sixth book. It is about herself.

“I hate to call it a memoir,” she said. “I loathe that word. Everybody’s writing a memoir.”

The bare bones of her biography promise a great read. Born in Cleveland a month before her country entered the First World War, she would be a war correspondent at the end of the Second. She wrote for McCall’s magazine and for the Cleveland News, covered First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House, held the rank of captain as she reported from post-war Italy and Yugoslavia, wrote about the creation of the United nations for Harper’s, got bylines in The Atlantic Monthly and the New York Herald-Tribune, among other publications.

After joining the staff of the New Yorker in 1961, she wrote about the construction of the World Trade Center, as well as about housing, air pollution and mounted policemen in New York City. It was during her first year at the magazine that she traveled to the Canadian Arctic to report on an Inuit co-operative in northern Quebec at George River, now Kangiqsualujjuaq. (“You’ll have to spell that yourself,” she says today.”) She fell in love with this vast land, though her introduction was to a place so few of us have ever seen. Ms. Iglauer likes to joke she came to Canada “from the top down.” She later described Canadians as “the strangers next door.” a title she would use for a journalism collection.

Almost as if by default, she became a primary interpreter of Canadians for Americans (or at least those stirred enough to care).

In 1942, she married Philip Hamburger, a New Yorker writer. The marriage ended, though their affection for one another never did. The union produced two sons, both involved in the theatre, Richard as a director in New York and Jay in Vancouver, where he is a founder and artistic director of Theatre in the Raw. The former was once a circus clown, the latter recently directed “Bruce — The Musical,” about the acerbic downtown-eastside activist Bruce Eriksen.

On a reporting trip to British Columbia, a friend put her in touch with a commercial fisherman named John Daly. They dined on salmon and champagne aboard MoreKelp, a “shabby little vessel” lacking even a proper toilet.

She had returned to Manhattan when she got a late-night telephone call from the coast.

“I’ve just bought a wooden toilet seat that I think will fit very well on top of that pail on the boat,” Mr. Daly said. “It’s sky-blue, and I paid eight dollars and fifty-five cents for it.”

“Lovely,” she replied. “But it’s two o’clock in the morning here. What about it?”

What about it?!” he shouted. “Marriage! That’s what!”

The writer became a deckhand on the troller, learning not to hang tea cups on adjacent hooks lest they smash together on a swelling sea. She also learned how to live with a partner in cramped quarters along an unforgiving coast.

One day, they were on an overland road trip, dancing in a smokey hall. The poor air made it difficult for Mr. Daly to breath. She urged him to leave. He insisted on one last dance before exiting for fresh air. She found him outside, on his back, his arms out. She thought, for a happy moment, he was making snow angels. He was gone.

She recounted their life together in “Fishing With John,” a memoir rich in detail and utterly free of sentimentality, which makes it so touching a love story.

Though she had only ever anticipated the one marriage, a third was in her future.

Frank White, who had lost his wife at about the same time Mr. Daly died, invited her to attend an evening class with him on public speaking. She hated the idea of addressing an audience, but appreciated the invitation to a pre-class dinner. They have been together now almost a quarter-century, married for the past few.

With Valentine’s Day approaching, Ms Iglauer was asked what she had learned about sustaining a relationship.

“You can’t be rigid,” she said. “Rigidity leads to disaster. Younger people are very much in love with each other, but none can give in to the other. I guess compromise is the word I’m seeking.”

She grew up in comfort, while her husband lived on an island with the only amenities those they built themselves. She has a degree from Wellesley College and a journalism master’s from Columbia; he is self-taught. To this day, she cannot place milk on a table unless it is in a pitcher; he is a retired logger.

Mr. White is the father of Howard White of Harbour Publishing, whose stable includes one Edith Iglauer. He counts among his grandchildren another publisher and a Globe and Mail reporter.

Ms. Iglauer remains a striking woman, her silver-white hair like a gloriole in a devotional painting. Sometimes, at night, Munga brings her a cup of cocoa in bed.

She says she is uncertain whether she will ever finish the book about her life. If not, the reason is obvious. She is still living it.

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