Authored By: Diane F. Gillespie
Libby Benedict (17 June 1903-15 January 1990) was a Jewish-American writer active during the pre- and post-World War II period. Dates of her birth and death seem to be accepted, but there are other confusions about parentage and name. According to a Social Security Death Index, she was born on June 17, 1903 in Missouri and died on January 15, 1990 in New York. An author identification appended to a 1945 review article confirms Missouri as her birthplace. Ancestry.com says that Libby Benedict (1903-1990) “was born into the Benedict family.” Other information about her parentage comes from a 1944 New York Times obituary in which “a daughter, Libby Benedict, author” survived “Meyer Goldberg, Ex-Director of United Palestine Appeal,” who had died at age seventy. Can we assume his widow “the former Fanny Milner” was Benedict’s mother? A late uncle “was editor of the Warsaw Hajnt” and Meyer Goldberg was of Russian birth (“MEYER” 23). He had come to Kansas City, Missouri in 1909 and moved to New York City in 1919. Libby Benedict must have gone to school in Kansas City, Missouri until as a teenager she moved with the Goldbergs to the Bronx. In New York she attended New York University (Kaschl 1). At a time when her publications indicate travel to Europe and back, “Libby Benedict Goldberg” (born circa 1903) is listed on a 1933 New York Passenger list. Is “Libby Benedict” a birth name, a shortened birth or adoptee’s name, or a chosen nom de plume? I can find no evidence of siblings, marriage, or children. Whatever the case with her name, the Goldberg family with its origins in Russia and links to Poland, to Jewish Communities in Kansas City and New York City, and to immigration, activism, and journalism no doubt played an important role in Libby Benedict’s development and interests.
Benedict’s works include short fiction and a single novel as well as journal articles and reviews, translations and poems, reports and short biographies. She emerged as a short story writer in the late 1920s and a journalist in the early 1930s. Her early stories included three for Harper’s Magazine: “The Apartment” (1927), “Engaged” (1927), and “Fledgling” (1930). All three were published under the name “Libbian Benedict,” but the third, “Fledgling,” was reprinted later as authored by “Libby Benedict.” The first two deal with psychological conflicts of independent working women, one of whom tries to assuage her loneliness with superficial relationships and the other of whom feels pushed into marriage to a man she does not even like. “Fledgling,” on the other hand, is set in the Midwest and concerns the psychological turmoil experienced by a young man who learns his parents’ secret, that he is adopted. He is torn between his foster parents’ plans for his life and his desire to be a writer.
Libby Benedict classified her approach to writing in general as an intellectual one. Living on Walton Avenue in New York City in 1931, she wrote a letter to American novelist and social critic Waldo Frank (1889-1967). Noting in her letter that “Joyce, with his stream of consciousness, and Hemingway, with his swift dialogue, seem equally thin,” Benedict confided that, in her own case, “I think, therefore I write” (Letter 1931). Initially Benedict may have thought of plays as her genre. Although In 1932 she copyrighted a three-act comedy called One Night in Yellowstone, I found no evidence that it was performed.
Benedict recalled that she and others had traveled in the early 1930s “to Europe . . . to get continental university titles.” Reactions to her “’American voice’” in Germany and England, she noted later, helped her to understand what became a major interest in the late 1930s and 1940s: the difficulties of refugee adjustment (“Aspects” 13). By 1933, Benedict had become a published journalist, sending articles from Germany to the New York Times. One covered German women’s reactions to Nazis marginalizing or ousting them from roles as workers and professionals (“Women”). Another contrasted Berlin’s deceptively clean, busy streets with its food scarcity and Jewish unemployment (“Berlin”). A third tried to explain to Americans the post WWI wish for peace and fears of another war among average Germans and other European people (“Force”). In 1934 Benedict was giving talks in New York about her travels in Germany and Palestine. In January she spoke about her impressions of Palestine and Germany to the Menorah Graduate Society (“Journalist” 3). In February she spoke at a large meeting of the Concourse Zionist District at Temple Adath Israel on how, in Palestine, Jews can do manual labor and still “cultivate an intellectual and spiritual personality.” Coverage by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency also announces an upcoming speech on “Mordecai the Zionist” by Benedict’s father, Meyer Goldberg, “vice chairman of the district” (“Libby” 1).
Libby Benedict’s written voice, throughout her publishing career in the 1930s and 40s, reveals careful research in the U.S. and abroad, keen observation of both political movements and individual psychology, familiarity with several languages and cultures, and sympathy combined with candid advice for refugees from totalitarian movements. During the mid-1930s, she wrote short stories set in several countries, publishing more in Harper’s Magazine and others in The Menorah Journal, The London Mercury, and Time and Tide. An example is “Wedding in Berlin: A Story,” published in 1936 in The Menorah Journal. Benedict depicts the attitudes and psychological reactions of a Jewish man and woman, strangers to each other, who agree separately to leave behind lives in a Berlin threatened by the “dynamited chaos of the past three years” to do manual labor in Palestine (“Wedding 61). Benedict’s story reflects the League of Nations’ British Palestine Mandate of 1922 to lay the foundation for a Jewish nation. With a quarter of a million Jews settling in Palestine in the 1930s, however, British restrictions increased. To get a scarce entry permit for two, Benedict’s characters must agree to a sham marriage, separation upon arrival, and residence in temporary camps until work is found for them.
Other stories by Benedict reflect youthful interests in mating and education. “The Day of Triumph,” about broken male-female relationships, appeared in The London Mercury (England) Fiction Parade and Golden Book Magazine in 1937. In 1936 and 1937, Lady Rhondda’s feminist, left-wing weekly Time and Tide published Benedict’s “The Decision” and “Blind Man’s Buff.” In “The Decision,” a man and a woman, university students and lovers, argue about whether you can incorporate Communist ideas into exams in chemistry, an “absolute science,” versus economics with its “human elements” (“Decision” 1088). “Blind Man’s Buff” is a psychological study of a “well mated” couple broken up by the man’s friendship with an admirable but possessive blind man (55). Benedict’s journalism and fiction were “feminist” in that they were concerned with the status of women and its psychological and political effects. In the face of World War II and its harrowing human results, however, her focus was larger.
Libby Benedict’s The Refugees, published by the Hogarth Press in 1938, combines the narrative ability and psychological insights of her short stories with the close observations and political interests of her foreign journalism. Many facts about Benedict’s relationship with Leonard and Virginia Woolf and their Hogarth Press staff, however, remain unclear. The Hogarth Papers at the University of Reading include no surviving letters of inquiry or acceptance, or letters about revisions. There is only a Hogarth Press mock-up or dummy of the book used by people at Charleston in the 1940s for notes and drawings (Porter 14). Time and Tide and Lady Rhondda (Margaret Haig Thomas Mackworth) may have been one link between Libby Benedict and the Hogarth Press. Time and Tide had published Lady Rhondda’s Leisured Women in 1928, as well as short excerpts of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in 1929. Although a Random House representative would only say that the London address on a contract no longer exists, perhaps Benedict, like Time and Tide, the Hogarth Press, and several of the refugee characters in her novel, also lived in Bloomsbury long enough to consult personally with editors and staff.
Virginia Woolf sold her share of the Press and John Lehmann, who had been active in Press publishing for some time, began working as Leonard Woolf’s partner in the spring of 1938. During this period of transition and impending war, the Press published a mere sixteen volumes, only three of which were fiction (Willis, Appendix A). Still, “Our last Leonard & Virginia season is perhaps our most brilliant,” Virginia Woolf noted in March.“All the weeklies I think single out Isherwood, Upward, & even Libby Benedict for the highest places” (D 5 129-30 and n. 6). The Press advertised Benedict’s novel with two autobiographical works, Journey to the Border by Edward Upward (1903-2009) and Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties by Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986). In fact, The Refugees, dubbed “a remarkable first novel,” tops the Hogarth Press advertisement in The Observer with a recommendation from writer and critic V. S. Pritchett (1900-1997): “Sober, dignified, simple, The Refugees is the most moving and interesting book about politics I have read for a long time” (443). Pritchett also notes in his review how “accurately observed” are the “intellectual and emotional phases” of Benedict’s characters (443). Among other reviewers was then well-known fiction writer and critic, Frank Swinnerton (1884-1992), who writes that the novel’s “account . . . of the bewildered discomfiture of the left wing leaders . . . is very intelligent” and that its author, while “anti-Nazi,” is “much more than a political partisan” (6). Swinnerton refers to the author as male. A Canadian reviewer notes, however, that, although “we have had the economic man, the political man and the man of straw in many novels, . . . it is always an advantage to deal with the human man. Perhaps it is not an accident that this particular human ‘frame of reference’ was created by a woman” (W. 414). The dust-jacket review, possibly written by John Lehmann, is mixed. On the one hand, The Refugees “shows signs of immaturity.” On the other, the story is “moving” and “extremely interesting in its analysis and presentation of psychology.” The blurb does not identify Benedict as Jewish. According to the World Catalogue, the Hogarth Press published four editions of Benedict’s novel in English as well as one in German in 1938.
Virginia Woolf recorded no response to The Refugees until early May 1938, two months after publication and on the very day Libby Benedict was due to visit. Woolf quips, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West, that she now “must turn to Libby Benedict[‘]s Fable on Libby Benedict” (L 6 226 and n. 2), a label that predicts moralizing and self-revelation. Perhaps Woolf derived her dismissal of the novel in part from Swinnerton’s description of some characters (not the author herself) as “concentrated on pure doctrine” in a story based on apparently “first hand” experiences (6). As for Benedict herself, Woolf indulges in anti-Semitic stereotyping. “Here[‘]s L[eonard]. to ask me what I think Libby Benedict looks like?” Virginia Woolf records in her diary. “I guess fat & Jewish: she’s thin & Jewish,” Leonard replies (D5 138).
The distinctive, unsigned jacket of The Refugees places, among many small ones, two large, barbed-wire swastikas. E. McKnight Kauffer, active in designing covers for the Press at the time, might have been the artist (Gordon 198). In his 1935 anti-fascist book Quack, Quack! Leonard Woolf sees the swastika as an indication “that the wearer has accepted the inspiration either directly or indirectly” from a “God-inspired leader” (46-7). Perhaps Leonard Woolf’s book was another link between Libby Benedict and the Hogarth Press. In her novel, psychoanalyst Karl Ruhmann also sees multiplying swastikas as signs of a submissive religious impulse. German people are “hiding” beneath what he calls “the emblem of the twisted cross, . . . chanting the assent[,] and offering the sacrifices that were demanded” (Refugees 177).
In The Refugees, Libby Benedict introduces us to several groups targeted by Hitler’s Nazi regime: Jews, left-wing Social Democrats, and Communists, many of whom fled Germany in the early 1930s. Some of these men and women risked writing, printing, and disseminating anti-Nazi propaganda. Benedict presents these flawed efforts as uncoordinated, fraught with disagreements over strategy and ideology, compromised by class and gender biases, and impeded by individual agendas and personalities. By associating these ideologies with fictional characters, Benedict is able to convey why a complex diversity of sincere early efforts to stop Hitler were unlikely to succeed. In 1941, in an article entitled “After Germany is Liberated,” Benedict adds to her explanation of the inability of dissidents to stop Hitler, faulting “bad training” resulting from a German hierarchical militaristic tradition, an ironic dependence on Jews for “liberal professions and commerce,” and a widespread lethargic submissiveness which inhibited rebellion (9).
Libby Benedict was an educated woman with the resources to travel in Europe and Palestine. She also was able to return home to New York. She was, nevertheless, vocal about the plight of Jews, political theorists, women, and others who did not fit Hitler’s narrow vision for Germany and who were potential and actual casualties of Nazi brutality. In The Refugees, one of her four main refugee characters is Dr. Sophie Leitner who moves into the public world in Germany but cannot find, as a Jew, any dual outsider/insider identity or voice that enables her to improve her country from within. In Germany, Benedict’s character researched, published, and lectured on the status of women. Leitner’s study of how “women of the war age . . . had adjusted themselves economically in Germany” earned her the editorship of a sociological journal and she had begun to write for Social Democratic publications (Refugees 145). Now, Sophie Leitner says, just as Jewish women like herself “’had . . . acquired intellectual freedom,’” they have found themselves “neither . . . at home” as refugees, nor as Jews able to “’love Germany any more’” (Refugees 227). With widespread traditions of anti-Semitism and increasing restrictions on Jewish refugees in many countries, a Jewish woman refugee belongs nowhere.
Benedict did not write another novel, but she continued to write short fiction. “While Millionaires are Made,” a 1938 short story in The London Mercury set in Paris, describes a big-production lottery drawing that exposes the futile dreams and tensions of three people who share a ticket. By September 1939, when England declared war, Libby Benedict was back in the United States, still voicing her concerns about refugees from Nazism. In the 1940s, she worked for Jewish and government committees and bureaus. She is listed as a member of a special department of the American Jewish Committee (“Reaction” 191), as Editorial Assistant and contributor to The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (Contributors list), and, by 1945, as an employee of the News and Features Bureau of the Office of War Information (“Disillusionment” 4).
As a journalist, Libby Benedict published articles, reports, translations, and encyclopedia entries for non-Jewish and Jewish publications. Surely there are more published and unpublished materials than I have located. Since, along with The Refugees, later writers on refugee experiences cite Benedict, there is considerable room for further research on her especially in the context of Jewish history and culture, publications, and archives. Benedict wrote the entry on Charles Spencer Chaplin, for example, for The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia and dealt with rumors of Chaplin’s “Jewish ancestry” (“Chaplin” 113). Based in New York, again in the Bronx, she wrote articles like “Aspects of Refugee Adjustment” for the American Hebrew. Cultural differences, she realized, made life for Jewish refugees in the United States difficult, but immigrants needed to redefine themselves, not only as parts of a Jewish community, but as “full-fledged citizen[s]” in “a free country” (17). To make the point about membership in a larger community, Benedict wrote a description of a Jewish funeral in Warsaw, Poland. An oddly mixed crowd following the coffin represents not just Jews, but “the unity of the working class” in mourning for a “perpetual political prisoner” whose experience had led to his suicide (“Requiem” 138). Benedict noted in “A Case of Philanthropitis” the insensitive treatment of refugees, even by some Jewish philanthropic organizations, sadly plagued by understaffing and bureaucratic red tape. Tackling stereotyping, Benedict insisted that, as a minority group, Jews want “not the right to have geniuses among them,” which they have, “but the right,” like other groups, to have the inevitable proportion of “fools and scoundrels—without being condemned” (“Right” 13).
Benedict also befriended Jewish refugees from Germany, like lawyer and writer Jacob Picard (1883-1967) who escaped before WWII to the U.S. via Russia and Japan, stayed in the U.S. for eighteen years and, in 1958, returned to Germany. Benedict helped him to meet people and to find publishers. To him she wrote, “I am honored to be able to say that Christopher Isherwood and I share a publisher, since Hogarth Press published my novel, ’The Refugees.’ But I am afraid that in the matter of prejudices I oppose him. I am a little angry—as a native American—at the flattery he and his friends have handed out to this country. It hasn’t been good for our souls” (Letter 1941). Isherwood (1904-1986) emigrated to the United States in 1939 and became an American citizen in 1946. Benedict saw his voluntary emigration as quite different from the forced displacement of refugees from Hitler’s regime. Although she documented protests in the United States against the extermination of Jews in Europe as well as listed sponsors of refugees from 1942 onward (“Reaction” 191), she often found America’s responses to refugees wanting.
Libby Benedict continued to publish stories throughout the 1940s. An example is “A Mother for Maxim” (1947) about a French couple, the Mallards, who take in a little Jewish boy and protect him as their own when his mother is sent to a concentration camp in Poland and his father is executed by the Nazis. Six years later, when Madame Levy has barely and miraculously survived until the liberation, she returns to find her son. Seeing Maxim’s and the Mallards’ mutual affection, she makes the difficult decision to leave him where he is.
Libby Benedict also published a number of review essays and used them to express her political opinions. In 1945 after the end of the war, for example, she reviewed her countrywoman Gertrude Stein’s Wars I Have Seen. Its charming cover by Cecil Beton shows Stein and Alice B. Toklas and their flower-surrounded French cottage with planes and parachutes overhead. Stein and Toklas seemed oblivious to the danger under which they lived. To Stein’s comment, “’War is never fatal but always lost,’” Benedict responds in her review, “One can loathe war to the bottom of one’s heart. . . . . But to say that it must . . . be a lost war, when the beast that has been unleashed in a nation is annihilated by . . . sincere fighters for civilization—that is irresponsible cynicism” (“Disillusionment” 4). When Stein writes, “’anyway everybody is a refugee and it is a puzzle a considerable puzzle how everybody goes on living and spending money and looking fairly well fed and well clothed,’” Benedict loses her temper: “Didn’t Miss Stein ever see the harried, beaten, ragged refugees in Paris from 1933 on? Didn’t she know that . . . these refugees could . . . not have work permits? Did she never see them crowd the consulates . . . , begging for a visa that would enable them to go somewhere and earn a living? Where are Miss Stein’s eyes, those eyes that can so unerringly discern the value of a Picasso?” (“Disillusionment” 4). To Benedict, fighting to prevent the annihilation of civilization is justified.
Libby Benedict continued with her work for Jewish organizations and publications during the later decades of her life. If the information I have is correct, she died in 1990 in New York at the age of 87.
Note: The information in this narrative is based on my research for “Publishing on the Brink of World War II: The Woolfs, the Hogarth Press, and The Refugees.” I have used some of my words and insights from that essay without quotation marks. To my knowledge, there are no volumes of Benedict’s letters and no autobiographies or biographies (other than a short overview by Helga Kaschl and brief author identifications with some of Benedict’s publications). There are no Hogarth Press papers related to Benedict’s The Refugees at the University of Reading. In his history of the Hogarth Press, J. H. Willis, Jr. only mentions Benedict when he quotes Virginia Woolf on “‘our last Leonard & Virginia season’” (332). Benedict seems absent from the usual literary and Jewish reference sources like the Jewish Women’s Archive. I could locate no photographs. There are scattered letters from Benedict in recipients’ collections, but I have found no collection of manuscripts or letters by her. Neither her short stories nor her essays have been collected.