The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
August/September 2004
ARTS OF WAR
 
 

Gloria Emerson: An Influential Advocate for Vietnam Veterans
 

BY MARC LEEPSON

Gloria Emerson the former New York Times reporter who made her mark covering the war in Vietnam and who died August 3 read every issue of The VVA Veteran from cover to cover. I know that because during our regular telephone calls she would praise or berate me for something I wrote or something someone else wrote in the paper. Gloria who was 75 and apparently took her own life after a long battle with Parkinson's disease read every issue because she was passionately interested in the human legacy of the Vietnam War.

Gloria hated that war but reserved her loathing for its policymakers. She was devoted to Vietnam veterans, especially Vietnam veteran writers. Her National-Book-Award winning Winners and Losers gave voice in 1978 to Vietnam veterans and others whose lives were forever shaped by the war. VVA honored Gloria in 1993 for that book with the President's Award for Excellence in the Arts.

We also honored her because Gloria was a powerful, influential, behind-the-scenes advocate for writers who burned to write about their Vietnam War experiences. She quietly helped more than a few of us wend our way through the Byzantine world of book, magazine, and newspaper publishing, selflessly and expertly using her extensive contacts, her unerring literary expertise, and always-sage advice to nudge our writing careers on the right track. I will be forever in debt to Gloria Emerson for sharing her vision of the world with me.

We asked Jan Barry, Bernard Edelman, W.D. Ehrhart, and Wayne KarlinVietnam veterans
whose lives and life work were shaped by their experiences in that war, to contribute some
thoughts about heras well as Carey Winfree, the editor of Smithsonian magazine.

Jan Barry:

When I decided to drop out of West Point and become a writer, I had no idea how to do what I had determined to dowhich was to write the unvarnished truth about our military misadventure in Indochina. A tremendous influence on my bumbling transition from warrior to writer was Gloria Emerson. Gloria swooped into my life to see what an offbeat little group of veterans was doing compiling a poetry anthology. Her enthusiastic support and networking helped launch Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans to a national audience.

When making a living as a newly minted poet quickly collapsed, I was lured by Gloria's dead-on brand of war reporting into an affair with journalism that grew into a career. As a flurry of e-mails and phone calls flew in the wake of her death, I discovered how many lives of poets and writers and other folks she touched. And with a swooping sensation of grief and insight, I realized another legacy from Gloria (and that it's been a good calling)assisting others struggling with the demands of writing as best I can.

W.D. Ehrhart:

Gloria Emerson once described herself to a reporter as "bossy, ill-tempered, and ferocious. Put all of that down. Do you have it?" And it was all true. But she was also soft-hearted, generous, loyal, and courageous. She had nothing but contempt for generals and presidents, but spent her life giving voice to the voiceless: the privates and corporals and hapless civilians crushed by the powerful. And she was brilliant. Watching her speak without notes to a spellbound audience on the folly of American policy in Vietnam was well worth the quirky late- night calls telling me to put my infant daughter on top of the washing machine and turn it on. Don't do any laundry, she said, just turn on the machine and the vibrations will put Leela right to sleep, goodbye!

Everyone who ever met her has a "Gloria Story" to tell. She was one of a kind, and I was often thankful I only had one of her to cope with. But it was impossible not to love someone who could write, "I don't know even now, twenty years after I left [Vietnam], how to harden my heart so it won't be punctured yet again by the war." Someone who could say to a discouraged writer, "Don't keep track of where the other writers are, either behind or ahead. We are all doing what we can, no more no less. It isn't a race, is it?" Farewell, Gloria. You leave behind many a grieving admirer.

Wayne Karlin:

Gloria Emerson affected great cynicism and helplessness at the evil ways of the world, yet she never surrendered her compassion or her will to act. When she heard, for example, of people in Somalia having their arms amputated in that country's latest spate of ethnic cleansing, she reacted with the same horror we all felt but then arranged to have two of the victims brought to this country to receive prosthetic arms and rehab, and nearly crippled herself, barely able to walkshepherded them around Manhattan.

There are many such stories about her. It was what Gloria demanded, of herself, and of youto be horrified but not petrified. And never, never to be inarticulate. There were no careless or casual conversations with Gloria; she engaged you, fiercely and completely, and after she'd hung up, usually in the midst of your sentence or hers, you felt drained. You felt she had grabbed a corner of your soul and shook it. And if you were wise enough, you understood you'd received a great and rare giftthe way you felt when you had read her.

She had seen what you had seen, all the wasted bodies shredded because of lies, indifference, hatred or greed, and she had seen them broken again in order to fit into comfortable and comforting myths, and she had seen more of it than you, and she was broken by it as well, but she never let that wound erode the clarity with which she saw and told the world. What she understood and valued more than anything is contained in Auden's dictate, that the first job of the writer is to preserve the integrity of the language. She did. Fiercely and well and all else followed.

For some time before her death, she had been sending me books she loved, "uncluttering" she said, though I didn't know how she meant that until after her suicide. A week before that act, I called her, worried because another friend had said he hadn't been able to get in touch.
"Nonsense," she told me, "I'm perfectly fine. Don't call me this week. I'm writing." And then
she hung up. It was a typical Gloria phone call, cut off in the middle, and it was only after her
death that I realized that she was insuring we would never say goodbye.

Bernie Edelman:

I met Gloria Emerson in 1970 during the long winding down of the war. While American soldiers were still being sent out to search and destroy and recon, killing and being killed, in Paris envoys were discussing the shape of the table at which peace talks were to be held. And the real quality reporters whom I desired to emulate were still going out to the field, placing themselves in harm's way, trying to get insights into the human landscape of the war. Gloria Emerson was among the best of them.

Most likely, my friend Mark Jury introduced me to her. Mark and I were assigned to the U.S. Army Vietnam Information Office, and had the relative luxury of traveling through Vietnam photographing and reporting. Mark had met Gloria on a flight out of Cambodia. As he remembers it, they mostly spoke about the young men who were still fighting, men for whom Gloria had great empathy.

To Mark, Gloria "exuded an intellectual toughness and an abiding interest in Vietnam and the young Americans who were forever changed by their time there" that would transcend her career. Mark and Gloria were part of a small fraternity of reporters and war writers and soldiers who would write of their experiences in an attempt to understand and to enlighten. Mark kept in touch with Gloria sporadically; I, not at all. I'll always be sorry that I didn't. 

Carey Winfree:

The only sliver of solace I take from the news of Gloria Emerson's untimely departure from these woods is that I won't disappoint her any more. I've been disappointing her for a quarter- century, ever since we both washed up at the Meiles Hotel in 1979 in what was then called Salisbury, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. I was there for The New York Times; Gloria on a free-lance assignment for Esquire.

She was too polite to express her disappointment in words, but the pained and exasperated expression on her face was all too easy to read, whether I had given the bellman an insufficiently large tiphe, after all, had a sick sister, an aging mother, a deceased father, and wanted desperately to go to collegeor I'd been insufficiently alert to the funeral of a white farmer whose obit she's just read in the local newspaper. Never mind that covering such things for a newspaper was my obligation, no longer hers.

"Let's go, I've hired a car, we're going to be late," she commanded. It was palpably clear that once again, I'd let her down. Clearly, I didn't care enough, didn't try hard enough, didn't want to do the right thing badly enough. I should be smarter, kinder, more professional, more compassionate.

Graham Greene never disappointed her. Well, the idea of Graham Greene never didthe man himself was another story. And though she denied that it was autobiographical, her novel, Loving Graham Greene, has as its protagonist a scathingly funny, dead-on portrait of its author.

She was never late. In fact, she was inevitably early, so even if you met her on time, she was there first and you felt guilty for having made her wait. That look again. There was also, mercifully, the other Gloria, the one who laughed too hard at your attempts at humor or agreed too enthusiastically with your warmed-over insights and credited you with a wit and perspicacity you never realized you had.

She was vain about her thick brown hair and spent too much money having it cut and shaped, and in the last few years, I suspect, colored. And she smoked too much, as I was always happy to point out, especially after I'd disappointed her again.

More than anything, Gloria was fun to be with. She knew everybody, had read everything. She was witty and had something original to say about everything certainly about anything that had been on the front page of The New York Times in the last week, or month, or for that matter, since the Korean War.

She bore her burdens a broken leg that never healed properly, some unfortunate investments, her disappointments in friends and acolytes with uncomplaining courage and wry, dark humor. Gloria Emerson was smart, funny, generous, braveincredibly brave and caring far and away the most compassionate person I have known. She wasn't perfect; she smoked too much.

ARTS IN BRIEF

Charley Trujillo and Sonya Rhee's informing 2003 documentary, Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam, aired August 31 on PBS-TV's POV. The film tells the story of a group of Chicanos from Corcoran, California, a farm labor town, who served in the Vietnam War as did co-producer/ director Trujillo. All of the men underwent hazardous duty tours and were wounded in action. One, Jose Barrera, died in Vietnam. Those who returned had significant readjustment problems. The survivors tell their war and postwar stories insightfully and thoughtfully in the film. For more info, go to www.pbs.org/pov

Eric Schroeder, a lecturer in the English Department at the University of California, Davis, has
long been interested in the Vietnam War. He recently had freshman students in one of his honors classes interview Vietnam veterans. "Regardless of whether the veteran was a family member or a new friend, all the students came back with stories and insight into what it was like for young men to go off to war," he said.

"They learned a lot about the war and about the Vietnam veterans themselves, including that they are schoolteachers, nurses, politicians, artistsregular sorts of people whom they encounter in their daily lives. Importantly, the assignment brought the Vietnam War out of the textbook and into their lives." UC Davis created a web page that provides details on the project. You can take a look at www.news.ucdavis.edu/vietnam/default.lasso

Dale Dye, the top Hollywood military technical adviserand a good friend of VVA has a new, reader-friendly web site that gives an inside look at the films he's worked on, as well as current and future projects, including Dye's books and radio work. Go to www.warriorsinc.com

The Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University will holds its fifth Triennial Vietnam Symposium in Lubbock, March 17-19. The event will focus on the three 2005 anniversaries: the 40th of the first commitment of American ground forces, the 30th of the end of the war, and the 10th of the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam. For info e-mail Vietnam.center@ttu.edu or call 806-742-8664.

VVA member Ed Orr has donated a bronze relief of his award-winning drawing, "The
Grenadier," to the VA's Puget Sound Health Care System in Washington, where it is on display in the main lobby of the Seattle division.

Tony Hope, who accepted the VVA President's Award for Excellence in Arts at the 1999 National Convention for his father, Bob Hope, died June 28 at his home in Washington. He was 63.

   

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