By Robert Ast
“Let me make one thing clear,” the writer Barbara Probst Solomon says, “in that era there was no such thing as finding yourself or following your own path. You were a dropout, you were not distinguished in any way.”
Coming of age in New York as World War II was ending, after high school Barbara Probst did not follow her classmates to college; instead, she went to Europe with somewhat indefinite plans—until she met a young novelist named Norman Mailer. “Youngish, buoyant, and idealistic … in the triste Babylonia of après la guerre,” as she later recalled, Mailer invited her to “uh, sort of, spring a few people from a Franco jail in Spain.”
Probst leapt at the opportunity. “For a little girl who wanted to see postwar Europe, I knew I had arrived at the right café,” she said. The escape attempt succeeded and was quickly followed by other exploits, including an excursion to the American Occupation Zone in Germany, all detailed in her memoir Arriving Where We Started.
Ultimately, however, it was her everyday life in Paris that exerted a more profound influence. “You don’t learn anything in two weeks on some kind of extraterrestrial adventure,” she said. “It was what came after that was important: seeing the exiles and refugees, watching the old Anarchist leaders die. By the time I got back to America I was myself plus somebody else.”
The McCarthy-suffused America to which she returned in the early 1950s was also markedly different from the one she had left: many of her friends were married, and fear of reprisal kept most of the American Left quiet. “Jesus Christ, what a time to be 21,” as she wrote later. She began to circulate petitions and do “various ad hoc protests,” she said. “What could they have done to me? I had no job to lose. My father was even a Republican. I wished that those investigators were tapping my phone—then they would have to listen to my silly conversations about Saks Fifth Avenue.”
She also attempted to resume her education but quickly discovered that “there were not that many options if you were a little bright and off the beaten track,” she said. And, though she was only a year or two older than most college students, her life experience clearly set her apart: “I had seen Dachau—I was not exactly equipped for Barnard.”
An acquaintance told her about the School of General Studies, and she immediately registered. “General Studies was just what somebody like me needed,” she said. During her time at GS she married, gave birth to two children, and made the most of her opportunity by talking her way into graduate courses. “I went up to Federico De Onis, who was the chair of the Spanish department—which was the best in the country, or one of the best—and asked if I could take his class. He said, ‘What are your qualifications?’ I said, ‘Well, I was in the Spanish opposition,’ and he said, ‘Come, come!’
“That’s how it was then, not very formal. But it was an amazing place, if you had a clue what you were looking for. I had a better education than my contemporaries had had at Radcliffe or Bryn Mawr.”
In fact, it was the informal atmosphere of GS’s early days that fostered classroom interactions that would have been impossible elsewhere—particularly in the writing workshops given by Martha Foley, one of the founding editors of Story magazine. “Martha Foley had discovered Norman Mailer, Carson McCullers, Terry Southern, and Malcolm Lowry, and she was absolutely incredible with her 1920s lorgnette and cigarette holder,” Probst Solomon said. “Carson had been her student, and Martha would drag her in to talk to the class. Carson was sort of shy, so she would drag in Tennessee Williams. At some point Arthur Miller wandered in—who could have more riches than that?
“This was a totally unfashionable school that, if you knew where to look for it, had the best of the best of the best. None of this was recognized at Columbia—we were just seen as the money cow—but look what was going on there.
“It’s interesting because what’s been acknowledged has been Columbia College of that period, people like Norman Podhoretz and Lionel Trilling. They suffered from a kind of ‘we happy few’ ethos: they weren’t quite Ivy League, not Harvard or Yale; they wanted to be white-shoe, and they didn’t recognize that what they had in their grasp was a dynamic, changing New York culture that would have, as part of it, more Jews.”
After GS Probst Solomon continued to work as a journalist, keeping one foot in the U.S. and another in Europe and gaining renown for her prescient analysis of post-Franco Spain. She also began to teach writing and is currently on the graduate faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, where, following the example of Martha Foley, she forces her students to bring in one rejection a week.
This year she became the first North American to be awarded Spain’s most prestigious journalism prize, the Francisco Cerecedo Prize. But, upon mention of this or her other recent awards (United Nations/Women Together, 2006; Antonio de Sancha Prize, 2005), she quickly points to those who are not being honored. “You don’t plan these things, you know,” she said. “The narrative was just right. One thing I learned was that the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker who’re thrown in jail don’t enter history—they’re not writers. But writers can become known. History’s not fair.”