Subjects of previous columns highlighted groups of women lumped together by circumstance (subjects of documentaries 5/24/12 blog, members of a favorite theatre group 2/12/14, on and offstage colleagues 11/20/16), and this column is no less random.
This one features three women who, just about one year ago, passed away within days of each other. Each 90 years old or older, each were giants in the world of art and human achievement, servants to the art, the people and the superhuman quests they supported, and each I’d never ever heard of. Here they are:
BENEDICTE PESLE passed away 1/17/18 at the age of 90. When she first visited the United States in 1952, she fell in love with many of the artists’ work that she saw. And began a lifelong mission to introduce them to her native France.
She first brought Merce Cunningham’s dance company with music by John Cage, and the experimental theatre of Robert Wilson. She said French audiences were unenthusiastic about their introduction to Cunningham. “People threw things at us - eggs and tomatoes” she said. “During the interval they went out to get more.”
But French audiences soon caught on to what Benedicte was offering. During the ’60’s she worked with artists like Max Ernst and Rene Magritte under the banner of her Artservice International group. A colleague said “She liked ‘service’ in the name, because that’s what she meant: to be at the service of art and artists.”
Other artists who were introduced to Europe by her promotion included composer Meredith Monk, playwright/director Richard Foreman and choreographers Trisha Brown, Douglas Dunn and Viola Farber.
Robert Wilson (whose EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH w/Phillip Glass premiered in France following her introductions) said “She was always direct and modest and worked behind the scenes. Often no one knew that she had been involved.”
When one wrestles with ego and spotlights in the arts, it’s heartening to think of someone like this Benedicte Pesle who dedicated their lives - without acclaim, without honor - to forwarding the arts in a significant way.
CLARIBEL ALEGRIA passed away 1/25/18 at the age of 93. She was a poet who wrote of the harsh realities of life in Central America, and the resulting difficult search for identity and hope there. Her work was formed by her life, born in Nicaragua and then in El Salvador, both countries which were torn by struggles for liberation.
She wrote dozens of books of poetry, novels and histories as “a voice for the voiceless and the dispossessed.”
Much of her work, like this, from the poem “Documentary,” about El Salvador, was described as political.
Besides the coffee
They plant angels
In my country.
A chorus of children
With the small white coffin
Move politely aside
As the harvest passes by.
But she “laughed. To me, it was not political. it was a love poem for my country.”
Her views and art kept her as an exile from both countries at times (she was not able to attend her mother’s funeral for fears for her safety), but was finally able to settle in Nicaragua.
In a recent interview, speaking of the need for El Salvador and other countries riven by war and oppression to comet to grips with history, she said, “Sooner or later we have to face it. We have to reach inside ourselves, and inside our people, too. It’s a lot of work, but something great is going to come from it.”
When she died, it was reported that her ashes would be divided between the two countries.
Claribel Alegria. An artist of courage, in service to the peace and future of her homelands.
ELIZABETH HAWLEY passed away 1/26/18 at the age of 94. An American journalist who chronicled Mont Everest expeditions for more than 50 years, she was a respected and feared figure in the perpetual quests to scale the summit of that fabled mountain.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, she visited Nepal shortly after it had opened its borders to foreign visitors. After she returned to the States, she said “America is a great place, but it’s not the real world. I would like to live a few years in the real world - a world that’s like what most people live in.” She struck a deal with Time magazine as a part-time correspondent in Nepal, and lived there the rest of her life.
She took Kathmandu somewhat by storm, attending lavish parties thrown by Nepal’s royal family, and befriending Edmund Hilary, the first man (with Tenzing Norway) to scale Mount Everest.
With a keen interest in the Mountain and the mountaineers, she was one of the founders of the Himalayan Database, which recorded all expeditions from 1905 to 2017, conducting in that time more than 15,000 interviews on details of the climbs. She grilled climbers before and after their summit attempts, and as American climber Ed Viesturs said “You go to your hotel and as soon as you’re checking in, the phone is ringing and the man behind the desk says “Hawley would like to talk to you’.”
She was nicknamed the “Sherlock Holmes of the mountaineering world,” but to most who knew her, she was simply “Liz.”
She received many honors in her life, but brushed them aside. After the Nepali government named a mountain “Peak Hawley,” in recognition of her contributions, she told National Geographic that she “thought it was just a joke.”
It was the service to, and relationship with, the climbers that she valued.
A colleague wrote “They respected her, feared her, cared about her, criticized her and vied for her attention.”
Elizabeth Hawley’s service to the grand adventure of mountaineering, and to its highest achievement - Everest - is a tribute to the human spirit - hers and the climbers she celebrated.