Ruth Boorstin: vital partner in career-marriage team
Washington — "What one person finds impossible to do, two can achieve." An idealized needlepoint motto for marriage? Perhaps. But its author, Ruth Frankel, has put her life where her lip-service is. Married for 39 years to Daniel J. Boorstin, currently the Librarian of Congress and formerly a professor of history at Swarthmore and the University of Chicago, Ruth Frankel has kept suitably busy as Ruth Frankel -- achieving on her side of the partnership as an editor, a poet, and a syndicated columnist on children.
ogether the Boorstins have produced 16 books and three sons in a collaboration that seems to recognize none of the neat, arbitrary boundaries between marriage and career. "We're all amateurs as husbands and wives," Mrs. Boorstin observes, "but Dan and I have somehow shared a second life -- as professionals."
At home in her contemporary house on a tree-shaded Washington street, she begins her disquisition on marriage in general, and the Boorstin marriage in particular, by saying what it is not. "I've always tried to avoid all those boring things a wife in the suburbs has to do," she confesses. Like managing money. "At the start, of course, we didn't have any, so we never had to worry about spending it. We concentrated on the fun things of life -- books and ideas."
They also concentrated on what Mrs. Boorstin calls "all those old corny ideas" that keep marriages strong: love, trust, respect, support.
"You have to lead almost a double life," she believes, "and learn to see things not only from your own point of view, but the other person's too. If a woman is an immaculate housekeeper, for example, and spends all day scrubbing and dusting and polishing, she should ask herself if this is what her husband really wants -- a clean house and an exhausted wife.
"I've always been proud of my dust. It shows that I had something better to do."
That "something better" has included not only "his" and "her" careers but something that might be described as "their" career. AS an editor, Ruth Frankel has played bestfriend critic to every book, essay, and lecture Dr. Boorstin has written, including his three-volume history "The Americans," which took 25 years of work.
"A writer's life is a lonely life. It was particularly important during a long work like this to have someone there who understood, who could talk about the project, get excited about it, and share the new insights as they came along."
Such teamwork shows up in other aspects of their marriage. Mrs. Boorstin is part of many of the librarian's activities ("I get the condensed version of his glamorous job"). She attends each lecture he gives (he won't give one without her), and recently completed a marketing tour for their latest book, an 11 th-grade American history text Dr. Boorstin co-authored with one of his former students, Dr. Brooks Mather Kelley.
"We shared the excitement and the exhaustion of the trip," she recalls, and took turns addressing audiences and fielding questions. "Although Dan is accustomed to facing such audiences, I have done almost no public speaking," she explains. "He told me how impressed he was by my performance. It's great fun, after 39 years, to be able to show your husband an entirely new side."
The "cornball basic" of marriage, Mrs. Boorstin submits, is sharing, and sharing, by definition, crosses all the boundaries. "Everything in marriage," she insists, "is grist for the mill. Cross-country skiing. Bird-watching. Cooking. Our love of colonial kitchen gadgets. Our goldfish."
Their travel together has led to other forms of sharing. On one trip they decided spontaneously to stay overnight at the top of a German alp. "We had nothing," Mrs. Boorstin recalls. "No toothbrush. No pajamas. No book to read. All we had was a warm fire and the start of an idea." That idea was their plan to write nothing less loftily alpine than a world history -- a 20-year project now nearing completion.
Having "no book to read" is, by Boorstin standards, a serious deprivation. "There's an odd idea that intellectual growth is something you only encourage in children," Mrs. Boorstin says. "But of course it continues throughout your life." And one of the best ways to promote that continuity is to "read, read, read. Get into the habit of going to the library, browsing through bookstores, following works by your favorite author, discussing new books with your friends."
For Ruth and Daniel Boorstin, these friends include "anyone with an idea in their head," from Clare Boothe Luce to science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, from Kennedy Center director Roger Stevens to economist Milton Friedman.
But, Mrs. Boorstin insists, their sharing is not all intellect and exotic places. "The best conversations can happen walking on a beach," she notes. "And trying to answer children's questions can make you grow enormously. Nothing is more stuffy or pallid than the person who believes you mustn't read or do certain things because they're not 'intellectual.'"
Marriage for Ruth Boorstin is as organic as the gardens the Boorstins have grown together. "I feel badly about those marriages that fall apart after 20 years," she says. "What happens to all the memories they've built up? Including wonderful little things, like running jokes."
One memory has a special point. "When our third son was born," she recalls, "Dan was so excited that the nurse asked him if this was his first child. He said no, it was his third. Then she decided it must be his first son. He said no, it was his third boy, but washn't it exciting?"m
That seems to sum up the Boorstin attitude on marriage -- on life.