Occasionally young writers take the time to compliment their heroes. In the 1970s, Flora Lewis was a New York Times foreign affairs columnist based in Paris who wrote with uncommon intelligence and lucidity. She was among the few women writing opinion regularly for a daily publication of great prestige (another was Mary McGrory of the Washington Star and later the Washington Post). The Los Angeles-born Lewis was a particularly rare species because she wrote from overseas, and on foreign policy, territory long seen as an exclusively male preserve. Her column, introduced in 1972 under the rubric Foreign Affairs, marked the first time a woman was allowed to publish regularly on the Times op-ed page, founded in 1970 (she was hired only after her separation from husband Sydney Gruson, also a Times correspondent; the paper had a rule against spousal employment).
Lewis’ work was notable for its range, reflecting her insatiable curiosity. “I dabble,” she told Esquire in 1980. “I’ll write about a gastronomic binge, I’ll write about NATO, I’ll do an interview with Nureyev, I’ll do a political piece. I don’t know a hell of a lot about anything.”
She dabbled well, while also earning a reputation as a dogged, precise thinker not prone to worrying much about being liked. This made her eloquent response to a simple and shy fan letter all the more impressive, particularly since — unlike most such responses — it took time out to provide not only real encouragement but also offered advice about the difficulties of the profession, and writing itself.
Lewis, who began working at 21 and eventually spent four decades writing columns for Long Island Newsday, the Times, and the then-International Herald Tribune, also published four nonfiction books, the last one about European unity in 1992. “It is the same old Europe,” she reflected, “and it changes every day.” Once asked how she maintained both a family (three children) and a career, she slyly replied: “By neglecting both.” She died in Paris in 2002 at age 79.
The New York Times
Bureau de Paris
3, Rue Scribe (9)
Chief Paris Correspondent
May 8, 1978
Dear Mr. — ,
I was very touched and honored to read your note, all the more so because as it happened I received another rather nasty message at the same time. So you really cheered me up. I’ve been traveling since and only now have a chance to answer you.
I read your pieces with much interest and admiration. You are making a running start, and you should keep at it. Maybe a few people produce a few masterpieces and can let it go at that, but for most of us writing is just something you have to keep doing all the time, and sometimes it works a little better, other times less well, but it’s never the last race. It would be extraordinary, and disconcerting, if you ever stopped getting depressed, we all do but the whole meaning of professionalism is that you keep on slogging anyway. And, for me at least, the fun of the business is that you keep on learning. Mastery remains beyond the horizon, there’s always more and better to come.
You have a clean, vivid style, which is already a great deal, and it is clear that you think about what you have to tell. I am delighted to give you full encouragement, and to wish you the best of luck, which always helps too.
With all my warm regards,