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Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock Hardcover – October 4, 2011
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From the Author
Your previous book, Beyond Glory, was about the great boxing matches between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. How did you get from there to Little Rock, 1957?
Actually, I began the two projects at roughly the same time. While in Little Rock to do a Clinton-related magazine story in 1999, I visited the museum across from Central High School. Like so many others, I well knew the picture of Elizabeth and Hazel from 1957. So I was flabbergasted to see a poster there showing the two of them, now grown women, standing next to one another, smiling, apparently reconciled. How had that happened? It seemed inconceivable. So I began gathering material on it. The two projects share a lot, in addition to their racial themes; each focuses on a discrete event—the first, a fight lasting about two minutes, the second, an exposure lasting probably a sixtieth of a second—to reveal an era.
Was it difficult to find Elizabeth and get her to speak with you?
No, Elizabeth was in the same house she'd lived in the day the picture was taken. I had expected her to be resistant but she wasn't at all, particularly once we got going. Elizabeth has an enormous respect for history and the historical process.
Hazel was much more reluctant. Though she left school at seventeen, she's read widely in the history of American race relations, and knew of the historic alliance between blacks and Jews. For that reason, among others, she feared that Elizabeth and I would gang up on her. I made a very poor impression on her in our first meeting, and as the fragile friendship she'd struck up with Elizabeth faltered, her position toward me hardened. It was only seven years later, after an early version of this story appeared in Vanity Fair, that she relented. Then she opened up to me, and I came to realize how remarkable a person she, too, is.
Did you have any idea that their personal stories would intersect in such a fascinating way?
I knew, from the poster, that they'd come together again. But only later did I learn that five years or so after the picture was taken, Hazel had called Elizabeth to apologize. That was enormously significant to me, a key to her character. It said to me that for all the skepticism and hostility Hazel has encountered over the years, she in fact did the right thing in the right way: early on, when no cameras were rolling.
The book took you twelve years to complete. Why so long?
Well, apart from the multitasking that all journalists must do these days, the story turned out to be endlessly rich. I interviewed dozens of people, some repeatedly, including seven of the other eight of the Little Rock Nine. I shudder to think how many times I questioned Elizabeth; whenever I told her I was almost certainly done she laughed, because she knew there would be more questions. Hazel also put up with a lot of me.
Can you tell us something about your most recent trip to Little Rock?
Though my reporting was pretty much finished, I accompanied my friend Larry Schiller as he took portraits of the two women. We thought it essential to capture how two faces that are seared into the national memory had evolved with time and experience. Two of those photographs appear on the jacket of my book. Being with Elizabeth and Hazel one last time, and recording them once more for history, was very moving.
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Margolick seemed particularly insightful in his analysis of how the Little Rock public was eager to cash in on their 1997 reconciliation, but which then made Massery vulnerable as the apology scape-goat of the entire community.
You read this book hoping for a happy ending, but perhaps it is a more accurate reflection of the state of current American race relations that one is not forthcoming. It's quite amazing that Eckford and Massery they gave author David Margolick permission to write so candidly about such a presently painful subject for them. I also loved the chapter on Louis Armstrong and the "lathered-up" photo.
My only small complaint is an academic one - I wished there were more extensive footnotes and a bibliography at the end.
But history didn't end after the snapshot was taken. Both Eckford and Bryan went through life changes as they moved from the people they had been in 1957 to older, more mature women. Bryan, who transferred away from Little Rock Central, married young and began to look at herself and reconsider her core beliefs. Eckford, who stayed a year or so at the high school, was scarred by her time in the spotlight as one of the "Little Rock Nine". Determined later to be suffering from a form of PTSD from those traumatic days, combined with a depressive nature, Eckford rather drifted through life as a loner, holding jobs and raising two sons, and coming out occasionally to tell the history of the desegregation of the high school. Bryan also was a loner, despite having an active family life, and a few years after the incident at the high school, she called Eckford and apologised for her hateful actions.
The years passed and Hazel Bryan became a "searcher" for her role in life. She and Elizabeth Eckford got together and actually became friends for a while, working together on race relation workshops. They traveled around together telling "their story", how the victim and the tormenter were able to bond and heal their wounds. But were they really able do that? Certainly Eckford was suspicious of Bryan's "conversion" and of her "apology". Was it sincere? It seemed to me - the reader - that Hazel Bryan truly did have a life changing journey, but I am not Elizabeth Eckford and I did not suffer the indignities she did.
David Margolick looks at both Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan and examines both their lives and the milieu both came from. Fifty years after "Little Rock" the wounds haven't healed completely. Margolick's book is a very good picture of a famous snapshot.
Eckford - wounded, brittle but ultimately triumphant - emerges from these pages as a true American hero. The surprise is Massery. Only 15 years old when the photo was snapped, Margolick's book captures the maturation and personal growth of a complex woman. It's worth noting that the words often adorning Counts' photo - "A life is more than a moment" - are Massery's, not Eckford's.
I purchased Tantor Media's Audio CD version of this book. Narrator Carrington MacDuffie's lush southern drawl is a perfect match for this story. Her voice seems to lend the account an additional level of authenticity. I love the way 'school' comes out as 'skeul'...and I smiled every time 'rapprochement' came elegantly tumbling out her lips. You could do worse than to spend eight hours in her company. I love Tantor's one MP3-CD approach. To be able to listen to eight hours without once having to manage a CD change is a pleasure.