Last year, in short order, two important things happened to Anne Bernays ’52: she became a great-grandmother, and she dyed her hair blue.
While she didn’t think too hard about the coincidence at first, “after some introspection, I realize that I was protesting the passage of my own time here,” the 85-year-old author wrote in an essay for NPR. “In our peculiar culture, beauty does not, as Keats claimed, equal truth. It equals youth.”
According to Bernays’s daughter, the novelist and short story writer Hester Kaplan, the dye job encapsulates her mother’s broader approach to aging. “She never lets age dictate behavior,” Kaplan says. “She’s completely current and curious,” whether posting YouTube videos on Facebook or playing Words with Friends—an activity that, like many twentysomethings, she engages in “compulsively.”
Above all, “she very much rejects the notion that because you’re old, you should act like an old person, and that it’s unseemly for old people to do certain things,” Kaplan notes. “I think this is a really terrific example of where attitude, rather than any number, makes the person. She thinks of herself as young, so she is young. She just happens to be 85.”
Over a 59-year career as an award-winning author, Bernays has written beguiling fiction about social themes such as wealth and sexual harassment, as well as nonfiction about writers and writing, at times collaborating on projects with her late husband, Justin Kaplan. After his death in 2014, she wrote about her loss in highly revealing—and boldly honest—terms.
Bernays took a winding path to Barnard. She first enrolled at Wellesley, which, with its many rules, was not to her liking: she recalls five classmates being punished for sharing a single can of beer. After two years, she transferred to Barnard, the alma mater of her mother, the feminist and writer Doris Fleischman 1913, for whom a scholarship is endowed. “I loved, loved, loved it. It sharpened that faculty that makes you ask questions and not accept the expected answer but keep asking and asking.”
Bernays, who studied 18th-century literature, recalls a class on writing short stories with an instructor who “would read your story closely and sit you down and ask you questions and say, ‘I don’t want you to answer; I just want you to think about it.’ And the questions were where the holes in the story were.”
Bernays honed her writing skills as the Barnard stringer for The New York Times . “I didn’t know anything about writing a newspaper story, but I learned quickly,” she says. She covered campus speakers and other events, and found the task thrilling—if also stressful enough that, every time she left the Times building, she had a bad headache.
Bernays also frequented Greenwich Village, where she “hung out with these disreputable intellectual pre-beatniks.” She lived with her parents at the time, which worked well enough. “I guess, for self-protection, they didn’t question me about where I’d been or what I was doing, which was probably better for all of us.”
At 23, Bernays married Kaplan. She spent her early professional life editing the literary magazine Discovery and evaluating manuscripts for Houghton Mifflin, a job she didn’t much like (“You just read bad stuff all day long”). A chance encounter led her to start writing fiction: she ran into an old high school friend who mentioned that she was working on short stories. “This is hard for me to say, but I went home and said, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too,’” Bernays recalls. “Isn’t that awful? Of course, she didn’t turn into a writer and I did, but it was just what I needed, that little prick of competitiveness, and off I went.”
Bernays would later turn to novels, finding the short story form too restrictive. “I wanted to know what happened to those people,” she says of her fictional characters. She has published several novels, including Growing Up Rich , Professor Romeo , and Trophy House . Her book What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers , written with Pamela Painter, has been in print since 1980. With Kaplan, she authored The Language of Names , a study of the social significance of naming, and Back Then: Two Literary Lives in 1950s New York , a dual autobiography detailing the couple’s early years in the city.
Kaplan—the author of an award-winning Mark Twain biography—played an invaluable role in Bernays’s literary life. The pair read each other’s drafts and influenced each other’s work. “He made it impossible for me to be sloppy,” Bernays says. His example impressed on her that “you have to work at it until you get it absolutely perfect. Even in the first draft, the words have to do exactly what you want them to.”
Now, nearly two years after Kaplan’s death, Bernays is adjusting to life without him. A remarkable essay she wrote for The Washington Post explored the duality of grief and liberty that has marked her period of mourning. She describes how much she misses him, but then notes an upside to living alone: “I can do anything I want, when I want, how I want.”
She eats things that Kaplan avoided, making dinner “a bit of this, a bit of that,” not the balanced meal her husband preferred.
“It feels not so lonely,” she says now. “I’ve gotten into certain habits that make me feel good”—such as walking with friends—“and I don’t cry every time I see his picture anymore.” A longtime writing teacher, she continues to give classes at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation and in her home.
The Washington Post essay prompted scores of responses, more than anything she’s ever written. Readers said they found it inspiring.
“Yet I did not set out to inspire,” she says, an attitude she learned from her husband. “My goal was to see if I could tell the truth, and that’s the hardest thing in writing. I tell my students to write from the pain. If you don’t write from the pain, it’s going to be boring.” And as that blue dye job attests, boring has never been Bernays’ style. •
Photograph by Dorothy Hong