Wednesday, July 14, 2010

RIP, Iris Dornfeld McWilliams

Iris Dornfeld McWilliams, Carey's widow and the author of two young adult novels, died on July 7. She was 97.

Steve Cooper, who interviewed Iris for his John Fante biography, was the first to contact me about her passing. This morning I also heard from Katrina vanden Heuvel, who met Iris as a Nation intern. Katrina has since become the magazine's publisher, but one of her first jobs was organizing Carey's papers for the Bancroft and UCLA libraries. Katrina will say a few words at a small ceremony for Iris in New York City tomorrow.

Iris was ailing when I met her at the apartment near Columbia University in the summer of 2003. We had a telephone conversation before that, too, and she was very helpful. Her conversation was bold and insightful, and I can see why Patty Limerick was impressed by her outspokenness. When I visited Iris in the apartment, her main concern was that I was having fun with the biography of her husband. Very sweet.

One thing I learned by reading Carey's diaries: he was very devoted to her. When he was first diagnosed with cancer, his first thoughts were for her. "I came back by way of the Y--stunned: hating to report this to Iris. And dear God I do worry about her! The whole situation in Los Angeles in a mess. Her mother to watch. And her own health--her eyes. I'm beside myself with concern" (Jan. 17, 1978). And she returned that devotion.

They went through a lot together. Their courtship began while he was serving in California state government. She grew up with Joyce Fante, wife of novelist and screenwriter John Fante, one of Carey's close friends. Joyce and John spent lots of family time in the Sacramento area and arranged the first date. (Iris was living in Susanville at that time.) Iris and Carey hit it off right away, and they married in Yuma, Arizona, in the fall of 1941. Their son Jerry was born in October 1942.

Those years were productive for him but also tough in other ways. The Committee on Un-American Activities in California (a.k.a. the Tenney Committee) was pestering him--I have an unreleased transcript of an amazing closed-session exchange--and some legislators even managed to zero out his department's budget because of his politics. (Governor Olson pocket-vetoed the bill.) But he and Iris got through it and, despite his attachment to Los Angeles, they decided to move to NYC so he could work full-time for The Nation. That was 1951.

After some initial resistance, she embraced the city, and they enjoyed their lives there. Bernard Nossiter said their apartment "was a wonderful oasis in those days. The intelligent and decent civil liberties types all drifted in, and as discouraging as the country seemed, the possibilities of an open and sane society seemed alive there."

In the 1970s, after Carey retired as editor, they contemplated a return to Los Angeles, where they still owned a home on North Alvarado. He taught for a semester at UCLA, but in the end, they decided to stay in NYC. (Two words: rent control.)

They raised Jerry in NYC and frequently hosted Carey's son from his first marriage--Wilson Carey McWilliams, also known as Carey, who finished his career teaching political science at Rutgers. After Carey Sr. died in 1980, and Jerry died of AIDS in 1990, Carey Jr. looked after Iris until his own recent death.

Iris and Carey had come a long way from their origins. She started out in rural Northern California, the daughter of a railroad worker and music teacher, then studied music at Mills College in Oakland. She taught music at Lassen Union High School, more than 150 miles north of Sacramento. He started out in the Rocky Mountains, riding to school on horseback past the saloons and such. So ending up in NYC--"vertical living," as Carey called it--surrounded by writers, labor activists, intellectuals, artists and such was quite a journey for both of them.

RIP, Iris.



At 6:15 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Nicely done, Peter. This will go in the McWilliams collection file, UCLA Library Special Collections. Thanks very much for sharing so much about Iris and Carey, their friends, family and colleagues. All best, Genie


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