Appreciation: Hazel Rowley

This weekend, I’m mourning the loss of a neighbor I never met. I may have shared an elevator with her at some point, but I don’t believe we ever spoke.

I live in a 12 story building in New York. There are 12 apartments on each floor. Boxes within a box. There are four tenants named J. Kim who live in the row of apartments – e.g. 108, 308, 708, 1008. Each of these apartments has the same floor plan. None of the Kims are related.

The doormen and the building owners are perhaps the only people who know everyone.

A few weeks ago, I walked in the lobby and Julian said, “I want to ask you something. Come here.”

Julian is originally from India, has a fascination for American politics, regularly polls tenants on politics and is a consummate predictor of weather.

“Isn’t your first name–the name you don’t use–Eleanor?”


“Do you know Hazel? The writer who recently moved back again from France?”


“She just wrote this book, Franklin and Eleanor, about Eleanor Roosevelt. She brought it to me. I am going to read it. You should, too.”

A life-long admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt. I made a mental note to read it…after I got to the book I have still yet to buy–and read–for my book club. I’d leave Ms. Rowley a note after I read it, I thought. And maybe see if she wants to have coffee.

On Friday, Julian stopped me again.

“What do I wear to a funeral in a Catholic Church on a Saturday? Should I wear a suit and tie?”

“Who died?,” I said.

“Hazel, the writer,” he said. “She had a stroke, heart trouble. She was young – only 59.”

I’ve spent the weekend learning about my former neighbor–online. Born in London, Hazel Rowley was also raised and educated in Australia, where she studied and later taught literary studies at a university. She was a writer’s writer, having written biographies about writers Christina Stead, Richard Wright, and another providing an in-depth glimpse into the relationship of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sarte. The Age reports that she “once described writing a biography as like having a love affair”:

You know how it is when you are in love? You smile indulgently at their faults, you are fascinated by every minor detail about them. You cannot take your mind off them, you become so totally obsessed. You live with them day and night for years.

Apparently, her love was paying off: Franklin & Eleanor was named one of the best 10 books for 2010 by NPR’s Fresh Air. The book was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October; she died in the middle of her book tour. The New York Times has yet to mention her passing, but here’s a brief obit from the International Business Times. And a piece on her book from NPR. What a career!

Do I even need to tell you what my next read will be? Thank you, Hazel (and Julian).


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4 Responses to Appreciation: Hazel Rowley

  1. John Trumpbour says:

    Thank you for this kind article about Hazel Rowley, biographer extraordinaire and a wonderful person. Yes, it is ironic that the New York Times refuses to do an obituary about Hazel’s extraordinary life, after all Hazel did to open up new ways of understanding the lives of such giant figures as FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, Sartre and Beauvoir, Richard Wright, and Christina Stead. Oddly, given the cold attitude of the NYT obits department, her Richard Wright book was once on the cover of the Sunday NY Times Book Review. The Guardian in the UK plans to print an article on Hazel later this month, and I hope there will be others. There will be memorial services this March 12-13 weekend for her in New York and Paris, and there will be another memorial in Melbourne, Australia on March 16. So many of us are devastated to hear the news of her death.

  2. John Trumpbour says:

    A follow up…. After much pressure from several tenacious admirers of Hazel Rowley’s works, the New York Times (15 March 2011) relented and printed a long news obituary written by Margalit Fox. Thanks to you and others for pointing out the strange lack of coverage in the USA, now several media outlets seem to be giving her death coverage. It is good to see that the NYT finally stepped up and explored her life story.

  3. John Trumpbour says:

    One slight correction, the NYT obit has appeared online on 15 March 2011, but it is slated to be in the print edition later this week. Stay tuned.

  4. Della Rowley says:

    That is a lovely story by Chandlee. I know Julian, the doorman, and he did come to the memorial service along with about 200 other friends of Hazel’s but the service most definately was not in a Catholic Church. It was in the “little church around the corner” (One East 29th Street) a church loved by artists and writers and “outsiders” , people whom Hazel wrote about.
    There have been Obituaries in the NY Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Guardian(UK), Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Times, The Age & The Australian, Adelaide Review etc and many more other newsletters subscribed to by writers.
    As Hazel’s younger sister, I intend to honor Hazel’s memory in a several ways and if you would like more information please contact me.

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