Carolyn Gold Heilbrun

Cutting down the 'boys' treehouse club'


She was the first woman to have tenure in Columbia University's English department.

And after 32 years there, Carolyn Gold Heilbrun left, saying she was "sick of the treehouse gang."

"Sad, exhausting — and infuriating," she told The New York Times Magazine in 1992. "Because Columbia will continue to be run by male professors who behave like little boys saying, 'This is our secret treehouse club, no girls allowed.'"

Her revelations apparently sent discomfort and defensive posturing rippling through academia.

Heilbrun, a Virginia Woolf scholar who had a summer home in Alford, had told the magazine that she had been pushed around by an old boys' club within the department when she had piped up about women's issues.

This author of 14 works of nonfiction and 15 mystery novels had had enough. She said the department was discriminating against women; that not a single woman sat on the tenure committee, and that the place was operating amid "old-boy secrets."

"In life, as in fiction, women who speak out usually end up punished or dead," Heilbrun had said. "I'm lucky to escape with my pension and a year of leave."

The feminist literary scholar could afford the exit. She was married to an economist, lived on Central Park West and had two summer homes.

Heilbrun was born in East Orange, N.J., in 1928. She was 67 when she up and left her endowed position at Columbia. Over the years she would write scholarly feminist books like "Toward a Recognition of Androgyny" and "Reinventing Womanhood."

She also snuck in a series of intellectual murder mysteries.

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Writing under the pen name, Amanda Cross, she fashioned the rich, beautiful and sophisticated protagonist, Kate Fansler. The book jacket for the first in the series, "In the Last Analysis," explains:

"When beautiful Janet Harrison asks English professor Kate Fansler to recommend a Manhattan psychoanalyst, Kate immediately sends the girl to her dear friend and former lover, Dr. Emanuel Bauer. Seven weeks later, the girl is stabbed to death on Emanuel's couch — with incriminating fingerprints on the murder weapon ... Kate's analytic techniques leave no stone unturned."

Heilbrun tried to hide her identity, but was apparently found out by a scholar who sleuthed through copyright records. According to the Times Magazine article, she started writing the first Fansler mystery under the following conditions: "... while an assistant professor at Columbia, living in a crowded New York City apartment with three children under 8, a large dog and a husband in graduate school. She began rising at 5 a.m. to type her way into an alternate existence ..."

The book was up for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America.

Later she said, ''Winning would have blown my cover."

She managed to keep it for six years, fearing the revelation could affect the perception of her as a serious academic and threaten her tenure.

Heilbrun who had also lectured at other ivy league colleges and taught at Brooklyn College, had already begun to talk about taking her life at age 70 in her work, "The Last Gift Of Time: Life Beyond Sixty." The idea, she said, was to "quit while you're ahead."

She made good on this at age 77. Her son had told The New York Times that "she wanted to control her destiny."

Heilbrun's suicide note: "The journey is over. Love to all."

— Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle


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