Writer Paula Fox knew loss, dislocation and abandonment

NEW YORK • Paula Fox, a distinguished writer for children and adults, whose work illuminated lives filled with loss, dislocation and abandonment, conditions she knew first-hand from an early age, died last Wednesday in Brooklyn. She was 93.

Her death, at a hospital near her home, was confirmed by her daughter, Linda Carroll-Barraud.

Fox wrote a half-dozen novels for adults and more than 20 books for young people. What united her output was a cool, elegant style that was haunting in its pared-down economy; minute observation; masterly control of tone and pacing; and an abiding concern with dissolution - of family, of home, of health, of trust.

Fox's best-known novel for adults is Desperate Characters (1970), about the disintegration of a marriage. It was made into a film of the same title, released the next year and starring Shirley MacLaine and Kenneth Mars.

She was awarded the Newbery Medal, considered the Pulitzer Prize of children's literature, in 1974 for The Slave Dancer, a controversial novel centred on the Atlantic slave trade in the mid-19th century.

Fox's bibliography includes picture books for young children, like Traces (2008), a poem, illustrated by Karla Kuskin, about the evanescent signs - think of footprints and vapour trails - left by unseen visitors. It also includes many titles for middle-grade readers and teenagers.

Her fiction for adults was sometimes overlooked. In later years, however, her adult books enjoyed something of a renaissance, thanks largely to the efforts of novelist Jonathan Franzen, who became an ardent champion of her work after devouring an out-of-print copy of Desperate Characters he had come across by chance.

Paula Fox was born in Manhattan on April 22, 1923, to parents who did not want her.

Her father, Paul Hervey Fox, was an undistinguished novelist and playwright who earned his living as a script doctor.

Her mother, the former Elsie de Sola, of Spanish and Cuban extraction, was young, vain, cold "and ungovernable in her haste to have done with me", as Fox wrote in Borrowed Finery. Paul and Elsie floated through the 1920s and 1930s in a sea of alcohol, Hollywood parties and European travel, none of which, they made plain, was best experienced with a child in tow.

When Paula was a few days old, she was left, at her mother's insistence, in a foundling hospital. From there, she embarked on her itinerant young life, bouncing among a series of friends, relatives and strangers across the country and in Cuba, where she lived for a time on a sugar plantation with her grandmother.

Fox studied piano briefly at the Juilliard School in Manhattan and later attended Columbia University.

She held a series of odd jobs, including modelling, reporting on the post-war reconstruction of Poland for a British news service and teaching emotionally disturbed children.

As a teenager, Fox had what she referred to as a "brief, disastrous marriage"; her second marriage, to Richard Sigerson, ended in divorce. In 1962, she married Martin Greenberg, a brother of art critic Clement Greenberg.

In 1997, while visiting Jerusalem, Fox was mugged and suffered serious brain injury. The incident, she said afterwards, prompted her to begin writing her first memoir, Borrowed Finery.

At the end of Borrowed Finery, Fox tells of being reunited with the daughter she had borne at 20, the offspring of a brief liaison after her first marriage had ended. She gave the infant up for adoption, a decision, she wrote, that pained her the rest of her life. In middle age, the daughter, Carroll-Barraud, found Fox.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2017, with the headline 'Writer Paula Fox knew loss, dislocation and abandonment'. Print Edition | Subscribe