Jeannette Mirsky: In the Words of an Archivist

“In drawing on the letters and unpublished personal narratives, I have taken the liberty of letting the story run along without denoting ellipses; the pages filled with dots looked unseemly… I have utilized whatever books and articles would carry the story ahead fully and honestly and so obviated the repetitiousness of an archivist’s bibliography.”

-Jeannette Mirsky, from the Preface of Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer

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Last month I referred to Barnard alumna, author, and world traveler, Jeannette Mirsky, as “the coolest person I never heard of until last week.” Considering that her personal papers, recently acquired by the Barnard College Archives, remained unprocessed until this week, it is not surprising I had not encountered Mirsky previously. Last week I completed processing Jeannette Mirsky’s personal papers and reading her book, To the Arctic! Having spent so much time with her collection, and because there is so little information online about her, I found it fitting to pay her a brief tribute by sharing a few words about Mirsky and her work.

Jeannette Mirsky was born in New Jersey in 1903, and raised in New York City where she went on to earn her A.B. from Barnard College in 1924. From 1935-1938 Mirsky did graduate work at Columbia University, where she studied under Franz Boas and Margaret Mead. Mirsky’s academic records from this time and a notebook from a 1935 Anthropology course entitled “Social Organization,” are included among her papers.

As Mirsky embarked on her graduate studies, her inaugural book, To the North! was published. This time period is documented by extensive correspondence with publishers, manuscript drafts, and a collection of maps, illustrations, and photographs to be considered for inclusion in the publication. To the North! recounts the history of Arctic exploration, utilizing primary source materials to detail Arctic journeys in the words of the explorers themselves. To the North! begins: “Not so long ago there was a custom among sailors that accorded to all those who had sailed round Cape Horn the right to put one foot on the table after dinner, while those who had crossed the Arctic Circle could put both feet on the table. Here will be found the stories of those men who have both feet on the table, told whenever possible in their own words.”

Despite Mirksy’s extensive research and utilization of primary source documents, To the North! was controversial for largely discrediting Frederick Cook’s claims of discovering the North Pole. Mirsky wrote, “Cook was an extraordinary figure. It is impossible to dismiss him simply by calling him a liar. Rather it may be said that he was a great teller of stories, a fiction-writer who on a certain amount of fact built a vivid and absorbing yarn. For a man of his ability and experience he harbored too puissant an imagination…The story told in Cook’s My Attainment of the Pole is exciting and well written, but it nevertheless appears to be mainly fiction.”

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Jeannette Mirsky outside a bar

To the North! subsequently went out of print for a number of years due to a lawsuit by Cook, but was re-released in 1946 under the title, To the Arctic: The Story of Northern Exploration from the Earliest Times to the Present. In addition to English, the book has been published in German, Spanish, and French. Although the book is largely remembered for the controversy ignited by Mirsky’s assertion that it was Robert Peary, and not Frederick Cook who first reached the North Pole; the vast majority of To the North! is interested in what happened prior to the so-called attainment of the Pole. Near the end of the book, after devoting a chapter to the North Pole claims, Mirksy concedes: “It has been many years now since the Pole was reached, and viewing Peary’s exploit from such a vantage-point, it would seem fair to say that if any man were to reach the Pole, that man would be Peary…But like all deeds whose import is self-contained, it seems a strange goal on which to have lavished so much energy and planning and money. Like so many grand gestures, when seen in retrospect, it does not seem to matter greatly.”

 Mirsky expressed a lifelong interest in travel and exploration. Her personal papers are full of her research on explorers, letters and correspondence from around the world, and boxes of postcards and photographs documenting these pursuits. Her years of research culminated in a number of publications, which includes The Westward Crossings, The World of Eli Whitney, Elisha Kent Kane and the Seafaring Frontier, The Great Chinese Travelers: An Anthology, Houses of God, and Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer.

Prior to Barnard’s acquisition of Mirsky’s personal papers, the extent of our knowledge ended with her non-fiction and anthropological writings. It is my hope that with the availability of the Jeannette Mirsky collection that interest is sparked and a biographer of Jeannette Mirsky will emerge to tell her story, in her own words, just as she spent her life doing for others.

Written by: Heather Lember, Barnard College Archives Graduate Assistant

You Need to Come Look at This!: The Overbury Collection

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Letter from Emily Dickinson. Image courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

We have a lot of stuff in the archives.  There’s often an overlap between trash and historically significant material culture, so anything that seems relevant to Barnard is carefully boxed, labeled, and stacked onto eight foot high rolling shelves.  Most collection items are unknown to the rest of the world, and linger only vaguely in the depths of the archivist’s mind until called into the forefront by a research request.  We have a gym uniform from the 1960s, at least fifteen copies of a poster for a pro-choice rally from the 1980s, a kinetic learning building block set (missing instructions and two pieces)*, two gold rimmed teacups, a stress-squeeze ball, and a nine-pin.  Among this junk on a shelf three rows from the back, there is the Overbury collection, a repository of female American writers’ manuscripts and letters.**  Purchasing and assembling the collection was the consuming, Herculean labor by which Bertha Van Riper Overbury’s (class of 1896) defined her life.  Overbury began to assemble her collection after reading an article in The Colophon called “Some Bookwomen of the Fifteenth Century”; it is a great love letter to the power, profundity, and charm of feminine imagination in an era when male writers like Ernest Hemingway were increasingly attempting to discredit female authors.  The collection retains Overbury’s original alphabetical filing system and her beautifully handwritten biographical cards that flank each authoress’ works.  While Overbury’s prose is overpowered by the strong voices she collected, her admiration and care for the writers is palpable in each meticulously foldered and bound artifact.  By playing the role of devoted collector and curator, Overbury inserted herself into the literary tradition she longed to be a part of.

Not many researchers use (or know about) the collection.  The Overbury Collection’s quiet, unacknowledged existence at the back of the Archives is almost as astounding as Ravenclaw’s diadem being found on a junky bust in the Room of Requirement or the Arkenstone being buried beneath Smaug’s hoard.  Bertha Overbury wasn’t buying Emily Dickinson’s doodles or Eudora Welty’s grocery lists; she was gathering a formidable, coherent portfolio pertinent to any critical interpretation of American intellectual life in the last two centuries.

In one letter from 1807, Abigail Adams writes to her sister on John Quincy’s pre-presidency diplomatic service in Russia:

“indeed, my dear sister, a man of his worth ought not to be permitted to leave the country….it has been the intolerant spirit of party which has induced him to accept this uniform, and the hope of being serviceable to his country, although reduced and vilified by the same intolerant faction.”

In another, Willa Cather discusses her views on modern poetry with William Braithwaite, an anthology editor and publisher:

“I wish I could be as enthusiastic about contemporary verse as you are.  While I was managing editor of McClures I did my best to seek it out, and if I remember, you agreed with me that some of it was good.  But it is one thing to see merit in a poem, another to feel great enthusiasm for it.  Enthusiasm I do not often rise to, about my own verse of that of my friends.  I wish I did.”

The collection also has a prototype of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” a letter from Harriet Beecher Stowe about dramatizing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” especially for the daughter of an escaped slave to read, and a selection of Gertrude Stein’s prolific correspondence that provides further evidence for a strong stylistic similarity between her literary efforts (consciously produced for posterity) and her personal letters.

Stuck between these well-known names are sheaves of material by forgotten authoresses, stifled by the cool dryness of manila folders and waiting patiently to be shared.  Though I am still in the process of re-discovering the collection, I have already forgotten pieces of it; I read a poem by a woman I did not know and wished that everyone could know her.  Then I forgot her name.

-Johana Godfrey, BC ’13

 
You should absolutely stop by the current archives exhibition on the Overbury Collection, located by the Admissions Office in Milbank Hall.  To view the Overbury Collection, please contact head archivist Shannon O’Neill.

*Anyone who discovers the missing blocks are encouraged to return them, for the sake of the research of future cultural anthropologists.
**There are also many rare books and first additions, but they’re in storage.

The papers of former Barnard faculty member Helen H. Bacon have been processed

For a Bryn Mawr alumnae reunion, Helen Hazard Bacon submitted a short biography and she commented that “when forty years are compressed into one page most of the really important things are necessarily omitted or between the lines.” Such is the challenge in trying to describe the Helen H. Bacon Papers now processed at the Barnard College Archives.

Pres. James I. Armstrong awards Helen H. Bacon with honorary degree, Middlebury College, VT, June 1, 1970. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives, Helen H. Bacon Papers.

The collection primarily consists of the Prof. Bacon’s research and class papers as a member of the Greek and Latin Department at Barnard College and Columbia University. Her papers document her progressive scholarly work and the wide range of classes she taught, and also offer a glimpse into the life and career of a remarkable member of the Barnard faculty.

In 1942, after pursuing some graduate studies, Helen Bacon joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as a Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). Along with other linguists and classicists, including her own Bryn Mawr professor Richmond Lattimore, she worked  in the Navy’s Communications Annex in Washington, D.C. In her papers, from a lecture presented to the Navy Reserves in 1993, we learn that “Bake”, as she was nicknamed then, was actually a cryptanalysist decoding Japanese radio communications.

The Lion Gate at Mycenae, Greece, March 12, 1951. Photograph by Helen H. Bacon (presumed). Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives, Helen H. Bacon Papers.

After the Navy, she returned to graduate school at Bryn Mawr. In her papers, we find her slides from a trip to Greece while she was teaching at the Woman’s College of Greensboro, N.C. She returned the following year on a Fullbright fellowship and studied at the American Academy of Classical Studies in Athens.  In her richly detailed travel journals, she records her awe at the walls in Mycenae, “really Cyclopean – gigantic blocks of conglomerate, held together by gravity only.” She also captures conversations with her fellow students and locals over ouzo, mostly in French, as they share their desire for peace and their distrust of generals, Eisenhower and Papagos.

Prof. Bacon’s papers show the life of the scholar: the bibliographies, research notes, first drafts and revised editions, all in paper. She was self-admittedly not a great typist so her copious handwritten notes show us how each idea takes shape. In the correspondence, we can read her colleagues’ feedback on a draft, a letter of appreciation from a fellow scholar who found her work, and even a journal editor’s rejection letter.  In her class papers, we can almost follow each lecture as she kept her notes, syllabi, reading lists and even exams.

Helen H. Bacon and unidentified guest at Library of Congress conference honoring the work of Robert Frost, March 26, 1974, Washington, D.C. Photography by Library of Congress, courtesy of the Barnard College Archives, Helen H. Bacon Papers.

As the daughter of a poet, Prof. Bacon brought a literary approach to her readings of the classical texts. She also used her classical background to write on the works of Robert Frost. Over the summers, she taught Classics in translation at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College, for which she was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1970. With Pulitzer prize poet Anthony Hecht, she co-authored a translation of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973.

Prof. Bacon described two kinds of experiences for classicists visiting Greece for the first time: “Either he says ‘How the world of Sophocles and Plato has degenerated’ … or else, with a conviction beyond rational explanation, he says to himself ‘I have been here before’.” “I belong to the second group,” she states, “a group which to those who need prose explanations for things will always seem sentimental, emotionally uncontrolled in permitting romantic feelings to distort their intellectual objectivity.” The Helen H. Bacon papers show that enthusiasm for her studies and her life.

Marion Cowan and Helen H. Bacon (left to right) sitting in a tavern in Santorini, Greece, 1990. Photograph courtesy Marion Cowan and the Barnard College Archives, Helen Bacon papers.

Written by J. Rios, Archives Intern, QC GSLIS ’11

Student Life at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Women and soldiers dancing in the Boathouse Canteen, circa 1918. Photograph by Paul Thompson, courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

The Barnard College Archives would like to announce the launch of its new exhibit entitled “Student Life at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” It is on display in the Barnard College Library front lobby just in time for New Student Orientation Program (NSOP). The Archives is showcasing college life for Barnard students who matriculated before 1920. These photos capture a time when young women were preparing themselves for changes in both academia and the world at large.

Barnard women of the past shared many similarities with the current student body. They were repeatedly told not poster the campus and that fliers would be torn down. They were reminded to visit the Registrar and Bursar and meet with their advisors. They were warned it was their responsibility to check the bulletin board for notices and changes in policy and that ignorance would be an insufficient excuse. While webmail and Ebear have replaced these bulletin boards, the reminders remain a constant. Students also performed in plays, voiced their opinions in newspapers and literary magazines, and excelled academically. They held internships, volunteered and navigated the streets of the city to find their callings.

However, some things have changed. Students no longer have a curfew that correlates to class year. The earlier classes of Barnard were required to take entrance examinations and pass courses with a C or better in which they were deemed deficient. Students were previously admitted to incoming first-year class either with or without conditions depending on their scores. Now the requirements are specified as the Nine Ways of Knowing but also require a C or better. The 1900 application to Barnard College required verification by a reference of an applicant’s good moral character. Students with conditions had to show proficiency in specific subjects in order to maintain their student status and obtain a diploma. Lists of students with excessive absences were posted on the bulletin board, and some lost credit or were banned from taking final examinations due to the amount of work they missed. Wigs and Cues had women-only performances. While the high expectations haven’t been altered by time, Barnard women now have greater freedom in areas ranging from course selection to access to resources to general autonomy.

Past traditions that no longer exist can be found in the pages of these scrapbooks. The Greek Games were highlighted as a main event each year, and the Dean officially would cancel classes on the Saturday morning of the Games so all students could attend. At certain events such as chapel services at which important members of the Columbia community such as President Butler addressed the university, students were asked to don their academic gowns. Wednesday afternoons were for a gathering of faculty and students over tea. The sophomores took it upon themselves to initiate the first years with a series of events known as “The Mysteries.” Veiled in secrecy, this ritual is revealed through a scrapbook passed down through the years and by alumnae whose scrapbooks document the night. Though the Mysteries discontinued after being deemed hazing, it brought new students closer to the community and became cyclical. These experiences bonded the community and promoted a sense of school spirit and warm ties to the school.

As the number of matriculates rose, so did the demand for more space. In need of more room for the overcrowded faculty, staff, and students, the Board of Trustees and the Dean asked both alumnae and the city of New York to help fund the expansion. Their plea was answered, and in 1906 there were invitations to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of Brooks Hall. Later additions include Hewitt Hall and Barnard Hall (referred to as Student Hall in 1917 and renamed in l926).

Please stop by the Barnard College Library to view “Students at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Dozens of scrapbooks and photographs can be found right downstairs in the Archives, located at Lehman 23.

Mirra Komarovsky papers available

Born into a privileged family in Tsarist Russia, Mirra Komarovsky’s (2/5/1905 – 1/30/1999) life took a sharp turn when the 1917 Russian Revolution forced her family to immigrate to the United States. Shortly after arriving in the country, she enrolled at Barnard and immersed herself in studying the social sciences. She later became a nationally recognized sociologist, specializing in the sociology of gender, and was a Barnard professor from 1937 to 1992.

Mirra Komarovsky at Barnard. Photo from Barnard College Archives.

Komarovsky’s parents were Zionists and landowning Jews in Akkerman, Russia, until tsarist police drove them from their home. They moved initially to Baku (in what is now Azerbaijan) and then to Wichita, Kansas after the Bolshevik Revolution, when Mirra was 16. In Baku, Komarovsky lived a solidly middle-class lifestyle; she was homeschooled by private tutors and learned Russian, English, Hebrew, and French, as well as playing the piano. Once in the United States, she graduated from Wichita High School within a year and was admitted to Barnard’s Class of 1926.

At Barnard, Komarovsky double-majored in sociology and economics and also took advanced courses in anthropology and psychology. One of her mentors was sociologist William Ogburn, who—despite taking a liking to Komarovsky and recommending her for the graduate fellowship that would allow her to earn her master’s degree at Columbia—once told her to reconsider her goal of becoming a sociology professor, saying, “You are a woman, foreign-born, and Jewish. I would recommend some other occupation.”

Fortunately, Komarovsky did not take Ogburn’s words to heart. She completed her master’s at Columbia in 1927, taught for two years at Skidmore College, and then returned to Columbia for her Ph.D. on another fellowship. Her dissertation topic, which she stumbled upon in 1935 through a research position with mathematician Paul Lazarsfeld at the New York Institute for Social Research, was “The Unemployed Man and His Family,” and it earned her her Ph.D. in 1940.

Later published as a book, The Unemployed Man was “an intensive study of fifty-nine families, modeled on work Lazarsfeld had just completed in Europe” (Rosenberg). The project introduced Komarovsky to the sociological methods she would use throughout her career—namely close case studies and survey research—and she would have ample opportunity to pursue this research at Barnard, where she had begun teaching as a part-time lecturer in 1937. In 1948, then-Dean Millicent McIntosh promoted her from assistant professor to associate professor, and to full professor in 1954, and her career took off.

Komarovsky built her legacy on researching the social and cultural attitudes of families. Much of her work focused on the idea of “cultural lag,” in which “cultural attitudes lag behind technological change” (Rosenberg). In addition to her research on adult families, most notably in her books Women in the Modern World and Blue-Collar Marriage, she conducted several studies of Barnard and Columbia students’ attitudes toward family life and women’s work. In her obituary, the New York Times wrote that her work “initiated the contemporary analysis of gender roles.”

In 1973, Komarovsky became only the second woman to be elected president of the American Sociological Association; years earlier, from 1955 to 1956, she had been president of the Eastern Sociological Society. She retired from her full-time position at Barnard in 1970, but continued to teach part-time as professor emeritus until 1992, and served briefly as chair of the women’s studies department when it was launched in 1978. She died in 1999 at age 93.

Komarovsky teaching a seminar at Barnard. Photo from Barnard College Archives.

In the very early years of her career, from 1933 to 1935, Komarovsky was married to a dentist named Leo Horney, but they divorced when it became clear that Horney wanted a traditional housewife, not a groundbreaking career woman. She remarried in 1940 to businessman Marcus Heyman, who died in 1970. She had no children.

While Komarovsky was extremely private and destroyed most of her personal papers (Rosenberg), the Barnard Archives has many of her professional papers, which were recently inventoried. This includes copies of published articles, works she used as sources, professional correspondence, newspaper clippings, and notes. Some examples of the available documents:

  1. In a folder titled “Publications and Awards, 1988” (Box 2/5), the Archives found an article titled “The New Feminist Scholarship: Some Precursors and Polemics,” published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family in 1988; a nomination letter from Barnard sociology department chair Madeline Engel for a “Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award”; and correspondence with colleagues.
  2. In a folder titled “Professional Compliments and Honors, 1970-1983” (Box 2/5), we found a Barnard Alumnae Magazine feature on Komarovsky; a clipping from City News, headlined “Sex Attitudes Subject of Talk,” on a speech she gave; and a summary of students’ evaluations of her courses.
  3. In a folder titled “News Clippings: Wichita High School,” (Box 2/5), we found two newspaper articles about Komarovsky’s impressive work as a high-schooler: one was headlined “Russian Girl Tells of Her Experiences,” and the other “High School Teachers Laud Work of Russian Refugee.”
  4. In a folder titled “Conference Programs and Brochures” (Box 3/5), we found programs from the Eastern Sociological Society’s annual conferences from 1950-1952, 1956, and 1965, as well as programs from a variety of other sociological conferences.
  5. In a folder titled “Lorber” (Box 4/5), we found copies of published articles by sociologist Judith Lorber that Komarovsky used as sources for her research, along with several pages of handwritten notes she took while reading those sources.
  6. In a folder titled “Course materials, 1992” (Box 5/5), we found a copy of Barnard’s official calendar for the 1992-1993 academic year; a syllabus for her “Female and Male: A Sociological Perspective” course; a clipping from the New York Times that she presumably used in that class, titled “Bias Against Girls Is Found Rife in Schools, With Lasting Damage”; and handwritten notes.

The Archives has copies of much of the research she published from 1933-1991. The articles available range from excerpts from her book Blue-Collar Marriage reprinted in various peer-reviewed journals; to a 1949 article, cowritten with Stansfeld Sargent and printed in Culture and Personality, titled “Research into Subcultural Influences Upon Personality”; to a 1982 study of Barnard undergraduates titled “Female Freshmen View Their Future: Career Salience and Its Correlates.” The Archives also has a number of published reviews of her articles.

Written by Maggie Astor ’11

Sources

  1. Pace, Eric. “Mirra Komarovsky, Authority on Women’s Studies, Dies at 93.” New York Times, 2/1/1999. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/01/us/mirra-komarovsky-authority-on-women-s-studies-dies-at-93.html?pagewanted=2.
  2. Rosenberg, Rosalind. “Mirra Komarovsky.” http://www.columbia.edu/~rr91/3567/sample_biographies/mirra_komarovsky%20black%20board.htm.

Archives donates Gabriela Mistral collection to Chile

After 32 years in Lehman Hall, the Barnard Archives’ Gabriela Mistral Collection has found a new home.

This month, the Archives will donate the collection—which consists of approximately 900 books owned by Mistral, a renowned Chilean poet and Nobel laureate—to the Gabriela Mistral Museum in her hometown of Vicuña, Chile. The museum already holds 700 books from Mistral’s personal library and additional books from the estate of Doris Dana, BC ’44. Barnard is donating its volumes—many of which contain Mistral’s notes in the margins and inscriptions from the authors—to complete the Vicuña collection, in honor of the International Year of Gabriela Mistral and Chile’s bicentennial celebration.

“It is Barnard College’s opinion that there is great academic value to consolidating this material to facilitate scholarly research,” Carol Falcione, Barnard’s outgoing library dean, wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to Chilean museum officials. “The College also recognizes the great cultural significance of Gabriela Mistral to her native country.”

Dana originally donated these 900 books to the Archives in 1978; Mistral taught at Barnard from 1930-31 and become close with Dana when she presented a lecture here after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945. In exchange for its gift to the Vicuña museum, Barnard will receive copies of any electronic or microfilm versions of the museum’s Mistral materials that may be created, which will allow Barnard and Columbia students continued access to the books, papers, and ephemera of one of the College’s most distinguished affiliates.

“Gabriela taught at Barnard in 1930, and I, myself, graduated from Barnard in 1944,” Dana wrote upon donating the books to Barnard in 1978. “It was here at Columbia University, in the Hispanic Institute, that Gabriela’s first book of poetry was published in 1922—Desolación. My first meeting with Gabriela took place in Milbank Hall in March 1946, when she addressed the Spanish Department upon her return from Stockholm after receiving the Nobel Prize. Above all, in giving this library to Barnard, a college which has done much for the rights of women, it is my hope to call attention to one of the great women of our time.”

Among many others, the collection includes books by Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke; Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore; Cuban poet José Martí; Belgian playwright, poet, and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck; American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson; and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Of special personal significance to Mistral were books by José Vasconcelos, Don Miguel de Unamuno, Jacques Maritain, Rubén Darío, Eduardo Frei, Victoria Ocampo, and Esther de Caceres. There are also a number of children’s books that Mistral used to teach herself English, and in which she wrote notes and made lists of new vocabulary. Scattered throughout the margins of the entire collection are fragments of poems and notes Mistral jotted down.

Gabriela Mistral—a pseudonym for Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga—was born in Vicuña in 1889. She began writing poetry in earnest after her lover, railroad worker Romelio Ureta, committed suicide in 1909. In addition to teaching at Barnard, she taught Spanish literature briefly at Middlebury College and Vassar College in 1931, and at the University of Puerto Rico from 1931-33. Her second-to-last book of poetry, Lagar, was published in 1954 and included many poems inspired by another suicide in 1943, that of her 17-year-old nephew, whom she had raised with her close friend Palma Guillén. Her last book, Poema de Chile, was edited by Dana and published posthumously in 1967. The capstone on her career came in 1945, when she became the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She died of pancreatic cancer in 1957 at the age of 67.

Written by Maggie Astor ’11