Le Anne Schreiber 1945-2019

Pioneering journalist and NYS Writers Institute visiting writer and instructor leaves a legacy through her books and teaching 

We mourn the passing of Le Anne Schreiber, award-winning author, memoirist, teacher, and the first woman to run a major American daily newspaper’s sports section.

 

Schreiber died May 31 in a hospital in Poughkeepsie, NY. Her obituary was published in The New York Times, June 4, 2019.

Schreiber is the author of two memoirs, Midstream: The Story of a Mother's Death, and a Daughter's Renewal (1990), and Light Years (1996), both of which deal with the deaths of family members and the wild lands surrounding her home in Columbia County.

Schreiber made journalism history when she was named editor of the New York Times Sports section in 1978, becoming the first woman to hold the position. She was 33 years old and put in charge of 55 reporters, editors and columnists. 

After leaving the sports section in 1980, Schreiber spent nearly four years as deputy editor of The New York Times Book Review.

Following her move upstate, Schreiber became a frequent guest of the Writers Institute. In 1997, Schreiber and Phillip Lopate led a Writers Institute discussion on The Art of the Essay & the Craft of Nonfiction and in 2005, Schreiber joined sports journalist Jeff MacGregor and Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race in the Indy 500, for a panel on sports writing and memoir.

Le Anne Schreiber in 1978, shortly after being named sports editor of The New York Times. (Associated Press)

Audio:

In this undated audiotape from the Writers Institute archives, Le Anne Schreiber's discusses her writing, the rigors of daily journalism and her experiences working at the New York Times

Le Anne Schreiber - NYS Writers Institute
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"A virtuoso instructor"

From 1997 through 2001, Schreiber taught five Community Writing Workshop courses for the Writers Institute:

Crossing the Boundaries: A Workshop in Fiction & Nonfiction, 1997

Writing from Personal Experience: Finding Your Form, 1998

Masterclass in Nonfiction, 1999

Literary Nonfiction in Spring, 2000

Short Nonfiction Workshop, 2001

Letters praising Schreiber poured into the Writers Institute's office. Here is an excerpt from a 1997 letter from writer P. Cody Collett to William Kennedy:

 

Not only is Le Anne Schreiber a virtuoso instructor and author, Mr. Kennedy, but she astounds me with her selflessness and with her rare capacity to be fully present, absolutely attentive whether in conversation or explaining a point to the group or with one of our manuscripts. She appears to enter into the moment - the manuscript at hand for discussion, for instance - walking around in it, breathing it in, discerning inroads and road blocks, then guiding each of us in our own particular language.

Le Anne sees clearly to the heart of a piece of writing and to what is required for it to beat in a rhythm that will make it most abundantly alive. Because she sees the work and its possibilities so exquisitely, she is matchless in making available techniques, resources and approaches that will enhance both the work and the writer's skill. All without ruffling a feather.
Not a writer in the workshop wasn't blown away by this singular -- almost spooky -- quality of Le Anne's. 

Fiction writer and poet Jeanne Finley's memoir Travel was generated in Schreiber's nonfiction workshop and was developed in a subsequent Master Class Schreiber taught for the Institute in 1999. Finley commended her "spectacularly articulate and perceptive teacher" in a 1998 letter:

I learned so much from her methods of drawing us out on why we wrote a particular section; what critical approaches might be appropriate for each of us; and her uncanny sense of what each participant was trying to accomplish in her/her work. I see now that my own critical sense has been sharpened and honed by exposure to her critical sense; and I now see how to apply this knowledge to my own students’ work. I can’t remember taking a workshop, either in graduate school or out, where my critical skills required such acuity, and I’m very grateful to have given them such a workout.

"A titan of journalism"

Former national political reporter Meredith Shiner, writing in Deadspin, spotlighted Le Anne Schreiber's advocacy for more storytelling and less cheerleading in the news industry.

Shiner cites Schreiber's courageous tenure as ombudsman at ESPN from 2007 to 2009, where she used her position as a megaphone to encourage news organizations to let their reporters seek out and write deeper stories. It echoed the approach she advocated at the New York Times in the late 1970s. "Gerald Eskenazi, a sportswriter for The Times for 44 years, wrote in an email that Ms. Schreiber had been eager to learn 'what we covered and also what we might be doing differently.'”

"There is no other way to say it: Le Anne Schreiber was a titan of journalism," wrote Shiner, "She was a brilliant writer and an even more brilliant mind, and she leaves behind a body of work that will stand the test of time."

"The Book Show" interview:

Le Anne Schreiber

Unedited transcription of an interview aired on "The Book Show" with host and Writers Institute Director Tom Smith, April 1, 1990

Tom Smith: My guest today is Le Anne Schreiber, author of the moving and magical memoir, Midstream. After having been the first woman editor of the New York Times sports department, an associate editor of the New York Times book review, Le Anne Schreiber, approaching 40, left big city journalism behind and moved to a house in the country, just about the time her mother’s terminal cancer was diagnosed. Her journal, Midstream, is at once a gripping dialogue with death and an unsentimental celebration of the renewal of life. Le Anne Schreiber, welcome to the Public Radio Book Show and congratulations on the publication of this lovely and luminous book.

Le Anne Schreiber: Thank you, Tom.

Smith: Le Anne, the very title itself, Midstream, has multiple meanings, does it not? Could you talk about that a little bit?

Schreiber: Yes. On one level, it’s a very literal title because much of the book is set midstream, the stream being (Roeliff Jansen Kill?), one of the state’s best trout streams, which happens to run by my house in Ingram, New York.

Smith: This is in Columbia County, 2 hours north of New York City.

Schreiber: Exactly. Much of the book is set with me in the middle of the stream fly casting for trout, which is one of the pleasures of life I discovered after moving from the city to the country. The most literal reference of course, is to the fact that I was turning 40 at the time that I made this move and also that it came to me in the course of my mother’s sickness and dying that dealing with one’s own mortality which one inevitably does through the death of a parent, for me marked a radical change that I imagine will mark the second half of my life.

Smith: In Midstream, you dealt profoundly with the denial of death. In fact, almost everybody seems to collaborate in the denial of death. Not only the person who is dying, but also the people around him or her, in this case your mother. You have a fascinating wrinkle on that particular subject, the denial of death. I want to read a sentence or two here and ask you about it. This is from the end of the prologue of Midstream and you’re talking about the vision of the attitude of death in contemporary America, particularly in your generation. You say this at the end of that first chapter:

“Those of us born after the war were raised in an era of mass forgetfulness. Death was put behind us. Our well intentioned parents with exception wished this for their children. But suddenly as a generation we are being reminded of what we were spared. Age is claiming our parents and AIDS, our peers. Unless we accept the knowledge of death not as a mistake, a form of bad luck or a malpractice, but death is an ordinary event we face between generations, between peers, against ourselves.”

Then you go on to say that this journal takes you toward death as certainly as the 19th century British novel takes you toward marriage. That’s very poignant, very profound. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? In other words, there is a particular kind of suppression of death that you feel that people in your generation at this time in America have had.

Schreiber: I think that we as a generation have been particularly insulated from the reality of death. I think that American culture at large is a fairly death denying culture. We have the resource partly to become so because sickness happens out of sight, in hospitals. It’s not a culture or a time where we see people going to their deaths as people once did in the family. I also think that after the war, I happened to be born the week they dropped the bomb so in some ways the quintessential –

Smith: That’s an apocalyptical perspective!

Schreiber: Yes. I think the generations of our parents were so relieved that the death and carnage of World War 2 was over that they very optimistically and with great intentions towards their children, hoped to raise them in a world where they could spare them the knowledge of death and carnage that they had experienced. The 50s and 60s were a fun time for this generation, and I think we were protected and insulated from the fact of death. As we enter our 40s, it is our time as a generation to say goodbye to the age of our parents and also coincidentally is the surge of AIDs. On the two fronts, I think we are quite singularly unprepared. We have not given it thought nor have we experienced it. The war of our generation was Vietnam, and as deadly as its carnage was, many of us, particularly middle class members of my generation were protected from it. We did not fight that war.

Smith: Yes, that’s a fascinating historical point you’re making because in other words, it’s both the reality, I mean the encounter of death, with the grisly details of death which most of the time are not very appealing, like the end of Hollywood movies but also the very idea of death. I’m from an older generation than you and I remember as a tiny boy growing up in the 1930s in a small town in Appalachia, where people still died at home and were laid out in the parlor. I remember literally going every week with my grandmother and my aunts somewhere up and down the village to see somebody lay out in the parlor. I used to see at least a corpse a week. Then after the war that whole reality, even back there, seemed to be removed into hospitals and funeral parlors, etcetera, and then as you say very acutely in your book, the very idea of it seemed to have formed the American optimism, and the American progress of the 50s and 60s, so you some to the age of 40 singularly unprepared for this inexorable journey of the death ritual.

Schreiber: I also think that changes in how medicine is practiced have encouraged that also. The medical advances which have staved off so many illnesses and kept them from being fatal, which they might have been in another generation has changed the nature of the way the doctor thinks about his mission and the way we think about it. I say someplace in the book that illness does not lead to death, illness leads to medicine. Medicine, particularly how it is practiced in hospitals, is perceived as a war and the enemy is death. There’s very little conception of the doctor as a practitioner who relieves suffering on the path to death. Doctors perceive of themselves of having failed every time a patient dies. Even once you enter the world of the hospital, even within that very claustrophobic environment there is still, strangely enough, a deep denial of death.

Smith: I was going to say, that’s really eerie where even the medical profession collaborates in the denial of death. We can understand on the healing side of it, how the loved ones do. It’s not a very nice thing to confront for many reasons. Even when the medical profession collaborates in it, it gives another dimension.

Schreiber: Tom, one thing I’d like to add; I think before the experience of my mother’s illness that I always thought of denial as a very abstract word, it’s part of the common parents now because Elizabeth Ross is part of the common culture and we all know the term, “denial.” But it was a very abstract word, I knew its meaning. It normally held abstraction for me. I mean it is such a strong force. I think it’s almost like a gale force wind blowing in your face, shutting your mouth. It is a very, very powerful emotional reality. I did not appreciate it until one, I was in the grip of it and when I would try to release myself from the grip of it practically everything around me was opposing it.

Smith: Yes, well even when we’re in the depths of what we call depression, we’re conditioned to feel that somehow you can get out of it. Somehow there is some kind of redemptive thing. But the absoluteness and inexorability of the death ritual – I mean once you have confronted the thing itself – is something that you can’t forget. It’s like you’re sentenced twenty four hours a day to face this in the eye. That makes it much less than abstract. In Midstream, you describe how you commuted between your new life in Columbia County, where you’re trout fishing and also dealing with a well that doesn’t seem to want to give you enough drinking water and all those kind of things and a kind of pastoral retreat. Then you commute to your parents’ home in Minnesota for the death watch. Your mother is home for about a year and then goes into the hospital. That whole thing gives the book a very dramatic structure, but what an unreal and strangely life affirming double vision. Is that the way you felt when you were going back and forth, when you were actually living it?

Schreiber: Not entirely. When I was going back and forth from my very willfully, chosen life in upstate New York, which was full of pleasures I had never before known in life because I never lived rurally, and I would go from that situation to Minnesota, where my family had gathered to very difficultly to deal with this sickness of my mother. The time that I was living it, it felt a bit schizophrenic. Part of the reason I wrote Midstream was to see if there wasn’t a way to rethink about that experience. During the 18 months that are covered in the book Midstream, I kept two journals which became the force of the book. I literally kept those as two separate journals, two separate notebooks, which I thought of as very separate. They were hand written journals, and in one I had just marked my “trout fishing journal.” I had begun that several months before we learned my mother was ill.

 

The first time I was on the plane to Minnesota after learning of her diagnosis, I began a separate notebook which I called my “cancer journal.” I kept the two of them with very different spirit and for very different reasons. I did not think of them as linked. When the experience was over, several months after my mother died, I went back and I reread the cancer journal to try to come to terms with the experience that was recorded in them. I shared them with a couple friends and I saw the devastation that came over them through the reading of the cancer journal. To console them I said wait, that’s only half the experience, that’s not the entirety of the experience of those eighteen months; let me give you something else. Then I gave them the trout fishing journals in a way as my act of consolation for having subjecting them to the experience of my mother’s sickness and death. They were indeed comforted.

 

I realized that the separation that I had so thrived in living in and that was exemplified by my keeping of the experiences in two separate books wasn’t real; that the two experiences belong together, had been lived together, and in a way the process of going back to those journals and turning them into a book was my effort to reconcile those two pieces of experience, to integrate them. The amazing thing I discovered when I tried to weave the two sets of journals together is that they fit so naturally. When I was in the trout stream, when I had recorded the day in the trout stream, I was not necessarily consciously thinking of what was happening in Minnesota but when I would go back and look at them I kept realizing that I was constantly in my upstate New York life creating metaphors for what was going on in my Minnesota life. If I had deliberately tried to create metaphors, for instance the title Midstream, if I had set about to write metaphorically I couldn’t have achieved it or it would have been false or strained.

 

What I discovered was that I had inadvertently, probably out of the depths of my unconscious, been reckoning with the issues of sickness and death and family and our origins and who we are every time that I took a walk in the woods or every time that I entered the trout stream; or even through the process of buying and renovating an old home, which I did during the same period of time. In a way, even the act of taking a house apart and putting back together and creating a home for myself at the same time that my original home of my mother and father was coming to its end.

Smith: Yes, the implications of the two journals flowing together, I must say a reader, even when one talks about it abstractly if people haven’t read it yet, it sounds like it truly must have been a schizophrenic experience. Yet when you read it, the two journals flow very well together. In fact, parts of the cancer journal are absolutely riveting. You want to read on and yet you read on insistently because you’re afraid you will be part of the denial of deal too. On the other hand, when you go back to Columbia county to deal with the house and go trout fishing and what have you, there’s a kind of not only relief, but it gives dimension to the other journal. In a sense, when someone reads Midstream now, it seems like it was all happening at once in your mind that it was one seamless web of experience and that’s a great tribute to your writing style and how the book is shaped.

Smith: This is Tom Smith and you’re listening to the Public Radio Book Show and I’m talking with Le Anne Schreiber, author of Midstream, her fascinating and moving memoir of her mother’s death by cancer and of her renewal of life. Le Anne, one of the things that also come through in your book is the death as a family experience. The family experiences it as a group in a sense and yet very separately, in a very lonely way. I think this is universal, how your father and your brother Mike, who was also a radiologist I believe, and your sister in law – they were all part of your mother’s death as you were and yet they have to assume the roles that are most comfortable to them and not to you. Did that cause any division of grief and how do they look upon your book?

Schreiber: Both my brother and my father had the manuscript a full eighteen months before it was published. In fact I showed it to my father before I ever submitted it to publishers because it was very important that I had his support and encouragement, and I had it very fully. What readers of Midstream don’t know is that during the last part of the months when I was finishing Midstream, finishing the reckoning that I was doing with my mother’s death, I was again going back and forth between Ingram and Minnesota, tending to my father in what became his final illness. He died 48 hours after the book was sold to Viking. It sounds really peculiar but literally his off conscious conversation with me was an expression of pleasure that the book was going to see the world. My brother has often been extremely supportive.

My father’s response was very important to me and so has my brother’s, and they have been extremely supportive. I think it is because they realized, not so much at the time but in retrospect, how much of a trial the experience had been for us as a family as well as for my mother as a patient. There’s so much anger. Cancer and death provoked so much anger and are so difficult to reckon with and yet is such an unsatisfying target of anger. I think what happens almost universally is that the anger gets displaced. There’s a passage in the book where things were getting particularly difficult. I said that I thought each one of us would wake up every morning and say, “Who are we going to get angry at today?” Is it going to be mother, father, sister, brother or the medical profession?

Smith: Well, the medical profession does come in for a little bit for your anger and I think that’s probably inevitable with the misinformation; also with the almost studied indifference that they have to posture in contrast to the rollercoaster of hope and horror that you and your father and your brother were on. I think maybe that’s simply inevitability.

Schreiber: I think doctors become the focus of an inordinate amount of family anger, some of it appropriate but much of it not. Part of what causes the misplaced anger is that through the entire course of an illness, one is going through this cycle of hope and denial. I mean it’s not that you go through a phase of denial and it’s over. It keeps returning. These cycles are very often mismatched because on a day that I might wake up full of hope, my brother might wake up full of despair and the mismatched cycles of response to illness is what triggers the anger.

 

Even after a death is over there’s a difference in what one wants to remember. Who wants to stay in the experience and remember it for a while, who wants to immediately put it behind them – that’s also a form of hope and denial that operates differently on any given day. One day a member of the family may want to go back and talk about it and another member of the family will say let me go on; let me think about something else today.

Smith: That’s part of the isolation of each individual grief. You’re not always on the same wavelength and there can be cross purposes as far as recovery and sadness and all that. I’m going to ask you something that has to do with the epilogue. You mentioned your father’s subsequent death. The Italian connection is important in Midstream; there’s Columbia County and there’s Minnesota, but there’s also Tuscany, Dante’s Tuscany, he who was lost in the middle of a journey himself in the beginning of the Inferno, and also your mother’s name was Beatrice, which as the same as Dante’s great muse and goddess and lady on the pedestal. Also your resolution to some of your feelings about death and about your father happens in Italy.

Schreiber: Yes. I think you partly had to be there to picture the glories of Italy. Italy has become very important to me. Earlier we were talking about the sort of schizophrenia I would feel going back and forth between my life in upstate New York and iterating my parents’ life in Minnesota. In a way that’s a kind of extreme form of a division, or distance, that had existed even in my life before the crisis because I was the child who had left home, from the age of 18 I had been a thousand miles distant from my parents and one can only stand that so much by Christmas visits and holiday visits. In Italy, the first thing I did after leaving my workaholic city life and giving myself the present of unstructured free time was take my parents to Italy to this farm house in Tuscany, where I alone had vacationed many times before.

 

It was the first time that they had ever been out of the country but it was also the first time since I was in my late teens that the three of us were reconstituted as the original family. Then my brother eventually joined us. It was the first time my mother, my father, my brother and myself had come together in a way and lived together again and rekindled that basic intimacy that comes from waking up and spending a day together and going to sleep at night in the same home. A hilltop in Italy surrounded by your own vineyards and olive orchards is idyllic.

Smith: It’s very inspiring and idyllic. Le Anne, we only have a minute or so left and I want to ask you a couple of other things about the (firthian?) aspect of your story. Why did you leave it behind so young? You had it made in your profession. Let me quote a sentence or two here so you can respond to it. I think this is published in about 1979. This is a comment from you about don’t anticipate a life’s career in sports, “but my reason for ending journalism was diversely outdone pretty well…I have no specific plan but I don’t anticipate a twenty year tenure sports editor in the Times,” but you go on to say you like your work and all that. Why did you leave it all behind and go upstate? Are there other reasons about the profession of journalism that we don’t know about in your book?

Schreiber: Not really, except in so far as journalism is an extremely intense, highly involving workaholic profession. News does not stop. It does not stop for weekends, it does not stop for nights; it is a totally, intensive kind of profession. I spent ten years in New York very intensely occupied with journalism and my career. I had no regrets about those years, they were very exciting and very fulfilling but from the instant that I embarked upon that career in 1974, I knew it would not be my whole life. There would be too many parts of myself unsatisfied. I am by nature, a contemplative person. I have a great capacity to enjoy solitude, and so I knew I would be exercising one sure part of myself during those years in an Manhattan career life but there was going to be a lot unsatisfied, and if the opportunity arose and I was at great pains to create that opportunity for myself, that I wanted to at least as many years to another way of living.

Smith: That comes through quite beautifully in the book; the great gains in inspiration of the life of solitude, the life of the country. Do you have any future plans – books, journeys in journals that we can expect downstream from you in the next year or two?

Schreiber: What I would really like to do is recreate the state of mind in which I originally embarked upon this move to the country. When I left the city I never said I’m going to lead a rural life in order to write. I said I am going to move to the country to live and to fish and to see what kind of writing, if any, naturally emerges from that. Life for better or worse gave me Midstream. What life will give me, if anything, next I am uncertain. After a first book, there’s a lot of internal and external impression to rush into a second. I think there are a lot of bad second books for that reason. I’m trying to envision myself a much more open mind.

Smith: We’re going to leave it right at that point; Le Anne Schreiber, thank you and bon voyage. Keep fishing in the stream of life.

Schreiber: Thank you, Tom.

Smith: This is Tom Smith saying so long until next time on the Public Radio Book Show.