The Wisdom Project at Moment: Inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate to live long lives.
This week’s conversation is with Gloria Levitas, of New Marlborough, Massachusetts.
Gloria Levitas speaks from the wisdom of 92 years, a life that spans a New York childhood to multiple careers as a journalist, anthropologist and author. She’s well-versed in subjects as diverse as cooking, psychology and Native American prose and poetry. A lifelong and constant reader, for many years Gloria was a New York Times book reviewer.
Born on March 2, 1931, to Albert and Sylvia (Schnall) Barach, Gloria was raised by two working parents. Like many immigrants, her Polish mother first worked as a factory seamstress, then factory manager, then ran a small luncheonette with her husband, and after his heart attack at age 38, worked with her sister in a dress shop, selling and altering women’s clothes. Her father was raised and educated in Turkey, spoke some 11 languages and served as a translator in the French army during World War I. In 1917, at age 22, he immigrated to America, where he joined the U.S. Marines for rapid citizenship, then worked for the legendary newspaperman Walter Lippman, using his language skills to monitor the international press. Later, with an Italian partner, he opened an Italian restaurant in Long Island City. When the Depression closed it, he became a hotel chef.
Gloria credits her parents with her independence and confidence from an early age. After graduating from Brooklyn College, she wed her classmate Mitchel (Mike) Levitas, who went on to be a renowned New York Times editor. Married for 68 years before his passing in 2019 at age 89, the couple had two sons, Daniel and Anthony, and four granddaughters; two step-granddaughters; and two great-grandchildren. The author of five books, she is currently working on a memoir. Gloria also regularly contributes to Moment.
What have you learned about people?
I realized at some point that people are very complicated. That you couldn’t take them at face value. Sometimes, you have to give them time and appreciate them for what and who they are and not worry about who and what they aren’t.
How did you balance your full professional and family life?
I married very young. My husband was also very young, which was a good thing. Before the wedding, we had a long conversation. And I said—remember, this is in 1949—I said, I’m going to work and that’s it. And you have to agree with that because I’m not just going to stay home and take care of the house. And he agreed. So I was able to have a career and he was supportive and we never had problems. I got married at 19 and had my first child at 28.
Who inspired you?
One person was a librarian whose name I still remember: Betty Babcock. I was probably about seven when the city opened the children’s library near us. Betty led me through all the children’s books then gave me free access to the adult library upstairs. I loved her so much that I tried to copy her handwriting. My mother also inspired me. She always wanted to be a writer and was writing when she was 12 or 14 in Poland. The authorities told her parents that she should go on in school. She was one of eight children. Her father, who was Orthodox, said, “I have four [sons] to educate. I’m not bothering with my daughters.” She was 22 when she came to America. She read to me a lot. She was so happy when I learned to read because I had never wanted her to stop.
How did you get into journalism?
When I was 10 or 11, I was madly in love with a French actor, Jean Pierre Aumont. I desperately wanted to meet him. One day, I knew that he was staying at The Sherry-Netherland hotel. I got dressed in my mother’s clothes, and put her hat on with a veil. I wore her Cuban-heeled shoes. I even took her little fur thing and threw it around my neck. I was sure that I’d be welcomed with open arms. I walked in and went up to the desk and announced that I’d like to see Monsieur Aumont. And they threw me out. I was devastated. Then it occurred to me that we had a little newspaper in our school and maybe I could get an interview with him for the paper. So, I wrote to him—and I got the interview! That’s how I got into journalism.
What was it like for you looking for a job in 1949?
The gender thing was always there, and there was also a class thing. When I went for jobs, I remember people saying to me, “Why should I hire a girl from Brooklyn College when I can get Radcliffe graduates?” Which was infuriating.
How did you handle the disappointment and rejection?
My greatest desire at the time, being a shallow teenager, was to work for Vogue. So, I went there and spent three days taking tests, which I passed. I came in to be interviewed by the editor. I knew how to dress and I was very thin and I thought I looked chic. I looked into her office—she didn’t even talk to me. She just looked at me and said, “You won’t do.” Just like that!
What I learned there is that I was lucky not to have gotten the job; I was clearly “not the type” who’d fit in at mainstream and elite publications. I ended up working for a publishing company that gave me the opportunity to learn everything about editing and publishing.
What, for instance?
I worked on The Family Handyman magazine, which still is in existence, believe it or not. The only story I remember writing for them was on laying attic floors.
What did you know about laying attic floors?
I went to the encyclopedia. I figured it out and rewrote it in different language.
What else did you do there?
The company also published [romance novels]. They looked wildly salacious because the covers and titles were crazy, titles like Red Hot. Women with very low-cut dresses. They were actually books that were out of print, from 1912, 1915. We would keep the story, change the names, change the horses to cars and rewrite them. I also wrote cover copy for mystery books.
What do you think makes someone as enterprising as you?
I expect that it is a combination of curiosity, as well as a certain indifference to what others might think. And luck! Don’t count out luck. Being at the right place at the right time is what got me my job at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It was a Tuesday and there was a Subway Series between the Dodgers and the Yankees. Apparently, a few people had applied for the job but only I showed up—et voila! That job was great fun. Ellery Queen was actually two Jewish men, Manfred Lee and Frederic Dannay.
What do you think of today’s celebrated entrepreneurs—Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, etc.?
I don’t like most of them. They are too narcissistic, arrogant and seem to feel that if they can do one thing well, they can do everything well. Their desire to dominate and to eliminate their competitors is too cutthroat for me. I remember a story I once wrote about Panettone; two bakers had each developed versions of this Italian confection. They were described as deadly enemies, a description that turned out to be completely fraudulent, as they were, in fact, very close friends and had created this image to further both their companies. I always thought it was a wonderful departure from the winner-take-all policies of U.S. companies. A little like the difference between ranked-choice voting and our current system.
Why did you go into anthropology?
I got bored with mysteries. I started to read history and got interested in archaeology. So I walked into Columbia one day and asked, “Where do you teach prehistory?” They sent me to the anthropology department. I was deeply into anthropology. I was interested in geology in college mostly because I was in love with the idea of evolution. I think that’s what drew me to anthropology. It combined geology with history.
To what do you attribute your flexibility and openness to new experiences?
A lot of it is just happenstance, how things happen in kind of crazy ways. And seizing opportunities! For instance, I had this idea to do a book comparing what psychologists said about human behavior with what writers said. My boss said, “Why don’t you do it?” I had taken one course in psychology and dropped out of it, but I had a lot of friends who were psychoanalysts. I got permission to use their library and read everything in it.
What advice would you pass on to people and especially young people about living a full and varied life?
The first thing is, don’t expect to get your dream job when you get out of college. It’s always good to try different things. You should not worry about your first job. Take it and make the best of any opportunities you have. The idea that you’ll suddenly become what you think you are is a big mistake. I was particularly lucky, but most of my friends ended up doing what they thought they would do 10 or 15 years later.
For someone who is fascinated by evolution, tell me, how have you evolved?
I was probably more judgemental when I was younger. I am totally non-judgemental these days. Anything goes. I’m also probably freer to speak my mind; that happens when you get older. Although I was never afraid to speak my mind.
What gave you that confidence?
God knows—confidence comes and goes. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t, and often you appear to have it when you don’t. People have different areas of competency and different levels of confidence. Confidence is not black and white. Mine came from being the child of two working parents who had to care for herself at an early age. It also came from my success at school. I was not confident about how I looked or my cultural status. I became confident of my writing and editorial abilities only after many years of working. I wavered in my feelings throughout my twenties and thirties. And I remember having dreams of failure. Long after I received my doctorate, I would dream that I failed the exam and would wake up terrified.
Confidence also comes from the people who trust you; in my case, my parents, friends, bosses, students—they had confidence in me. As you become more successful you are more likely to take risks and seize opportunities. The more people who trust you, the more confident you become. It’s a circular process that involves ability, luck, trust and opportunity.
What authors do you recommend?
Read Yuval Noah Harari. He’s brilliant. He wrote Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. That’s the evolution and the anthropology draw for me. I try to keep up with it.
How would you like to inspire others?
I want people to not be afraid of what other people think. And to not be afraid of doing something that doesn’t seem quite like what everybody else does. Question things more! Read more about America’s history! Change the culture!
How do you change a culture?
Just putting classes about racial history in the schools is not going to do anything [on a meaningful enough scale.] It’s really the day-to-day relationships we have with others that can do it. And if somebody’s not living in your neighborhood, many of those relationships don’t happen.
In New York, I grew up in a very mixed neighborhood—of every kind of Catholic in the world! No Protestants. And it was practically a crime for an Irishman to marry an Italian. I didn’t know any Black kids till I was in high school. Then, my parents wouldn’t let me go to Harlem when a Black girl had a party because they were afraid. Why? Because we were not living next to each other. Once you live where other people are and have real relations with them, it’s a very different world. It takes a lot of bringing together to gain understanding.
How would you describe yourself now?
Well, I’m really in despair over the country. We were all naive about what [America] was. In the last few years I’ve been reading lots of history and I realized just how stupid and naive we were about what was happening here. I don’t just mean the racism, but the [militant] individualism and this crap that we’ve lived with. I’m hoping for a miracle—if the young people turn out to vote. But I am absurdly optimistic about things—probably because I don’t try to live in the future. I live in the moment.