On November 3, the New Orleans Chapter celebrated National Reading Group Month at the Xavier University of Louisiana Library. Before introducing the event’s two illustrious authors, Past-President Marie Breaux said with a laugh, “New Orleanians are allowed to be fashionably late.” Fitting with the program’s theme, “The Art of Biography,” the two speakers, Clare Coss and Blanche Wiesen Cook, are women with extensive and impressive biographies of their own.
Coss, a playwright, biographer and psychotherapist, spoke on her latest project, Emmett Till, the Opera, which is in preproduction. Till was murdered when Coss was a junior at Louisiana State University, and his story stayed with her. In the 1990s, she felt Till was being lost to history, and one morning she woke up with a “mandate” to write a play about his life; Emmett, Down in My Heart was born. The award-winning play continued to be revised as more information about Till’s life was discovered. When she was told her play should be an opera, she wrote the libretto. The catalyst in the opera is Mamie Till-Mobley’s momentous decision to have an open casket for her son’s funeral. The other main character is the play’s only fictional one, a white woman who was Coss’s entry into telling a story not of her own race.
Coss’s first play was Lillian Wald: At Home on Henry Street, a one-woman play she still performs. Wald was a social reformer and the founder of community nursing in America. Coss also continues to perform her one-woman play Dangerous Territory about Mary White Ovington, cofounder of the NAACP.
Thinking of how the first black undergraduate student at her alma mater, fellow freshman A.P. Tureaud, Jr., left LSU to complete his studies at Xavier University, Coss ended her talk by saying how wonderful it was for her to be on Xavier’s campus for the first time.
Blanche Wiesen Cook
Picking up from Coss’s remarks, historian and biographer Cook started off by saying Lillian Wald was one of the anti-militarists Cook wrote of in her dissertation on Woodrow Wilson. Later, while researching her book on Dwight D. Eisenhower, Cook fought for access to classified information that led to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
A book about Eleanor Roosevelt that was sent to Cook for review, and that she reviewed negatively, became the impetus for her definitive, award-winning, three-volume biography of Eleanor’s life. As a military historian, Cook almost didn’t write the biography. She is now thinking of writing about Eleanor Roosevelt’s massive FBI file, which begins in 1919 when Eleanor started campaigning for the US to become a member of the World Court. Cook called Eleanor an “antidote” to the times and spoke of her “incredible vision.”
Cook has also written on Crystal Eastman, a Peace Movement member and founder of the AFL-CIO. Cook stated, “Women don’t get credit,” as she noted that Eastman isn’t credited as the founder of the AFL-CIO, but the man Eastman asked to succeed her due to her pregnancy is. Cook also mentioned loving the WWII Museum in New Orleans but being disappointed at not seeing any pictures of the original Women’s Army Corps (WAC) leaders there. She was happy to see how many writers were in the audience, she said, as there are so many biographies that still need to be written, including one on Eleanor Roosevelt’s mentor, Marie Souvestre.
The ensuing question-and-answer period turned into a satisfying discussion among the two authors and the audience members, which included an Xavier history professor and some of her students.
By Teresa Tumminello Brader, Chapter Secretary and The Bookwoman correspondent