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A decade ago Elisa New divorced, began a memoir – and fell in love with controversial Harvard president Larry Summers, who currently heads U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
A decade ago Elisa New divorced, began a memoir – and fell in love with controversial Harvard president Larry Summers, who currently heads U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Sarah Hampson: The Interview

Author Elisa New delves into her family's path - and rewrites her own future Add to ...

A decade ago, when she was entering her 40s, Elisa New began a journey into her family's past, and the first step came with the aid of a cane.

"I felt the very plates of history shift," she writes of holding her great-grandfather's cane in her 2009 memoir, Jacob's Cane: A Jewish Family's Journey from the Four Lands of Lithuania to the Ports of London and Baltimore. "Supple in shape, sinuous in form, coming to hand in the form of a question, a cane is shaped like an inquiry - and puts its foot down with caution."

Assembling the pieces of her family's history, a task that involved separating fact from lore, happened at a time when she "had decided to take a lot of my life apart."

Ms. New and her husband of 20 years divorced. The mother of three had to juggle her parental obligations with her career as a professor of English literature at Harvard. And then, quite unexpectedly, she fell in love with Larry Summers, the controversial former president of Harvard who currently heads Barack Obama's National Economic Council.

At the time, Mr. Summers, a father of three, was recently divorced himself. They married in 2005, the year before Mr. Summers resigned from Harvard in the wake of the media frenzy spurred by his remarks about the differences in aptitude among women and men.

"It was a turbulent time," Ms. New says, laughing. "And there's nothing like a good day in the library to steady things out."

The confidence of midlife - as she puts it, "a sense that my intellect and my maturity wouldn't abandon me" - propelled Ms. New, who had written two academic books, into her literary journey. "I was completely determined," she says of her research on her family, which she did with the help of her daughter, Yael. "It had taken possession of me."

The story of her great-grandfather, Jacob Levy, is distinctly different from the standard Jewish immigrant narrative. In the mid-1880s, he arrived in Baltimore, Md., not Ellis Island in New York, and soon became a successful businessman and socialist leader. "Many, many immigrants went through Baltimore and did not work in sweatshops. They brought from Europe a set of experiences and ideas, the kind of confidence that had its roots in the Jewish enlightenment," she explains.

In the migrant hub of Baltimore, the family contributed much to the industrial life of the United States. "The two protagonists in the story - [Bernhard]Baron and Levy - both had technical knowledge that they had acquired in the Old World … which was enormously valuable in post-bellum America that had completely depended on slaves for everything."

Mr. Levy, who was familiar with German textile processing, established the International Shrinking Company, which finished fabrics. Mr. Baron, the author's great-great uncle, entered the tobacco industry, and became a fabled magnate when he moved to London, England, where his progeny and heirs were later knighted.

But Ms. New's investigation also unravels a family saga of ambition and betrayal. The two men, who began as great friends, would become bitter rivals. Three of Mr. Levy's sons would decide to follow their Uncle Bernhard to London to capitalize on his success with what was known as "the bewitching vegetable." They changed their surname to Baron. Mr. Levy's heart was broken.

The research was painstaking, she says. "When telling the story of people's lives, there are a set of facts, and especially since it was my family I was writing about, I felt a serious obligation to get it right." But she also realized that the writing of history required the use of her imagination.

"In an emotional way, this is a book about parents and children, parents who become estranged from children, about generations who hold together. I had time to reflect on my own relationship to my own children and the ways in which one develops lasting bonds with them, different from the bonds one has when mothering small children."

Smart, tenacious and accessible, Ms. New, who is 51, is a study of a woman at midlife, fully inhabiting her life - unapologetically. Her courtship with Mr. Summers, who is widely seen as irascible and brusque, was magical, she says. They were introduced by a mutual friend at Harvard. "I said, 'You're crazy!' and I didn't think much about it." But then the week before 9/11 she saw him in the faculty club. "He was looking tanned and fit, and I thought, 'Hmmm, seems plausible. Why not?' " she giggles.

Her friend had told her that the president of the university "couldn't go around hitting on members of the faculty" so she would have to call him. She did. He e-mailed her in "very, very careful" manner, asking if "this is the kind of hello where you'd like me to pull your file and get my secretary to make us an appointment."

Ms. New responded that "no, this wasn't that kind of hello." A brief e-mail exchange followed. Busy with alumni activities and university business, he then called her for three nights in a row, late at night, and they talked for three hours each time. "He was so much fun to talk to. So funny. And so unlike a university president. So smart. So searching … and affectionate, incredibly sweet." By the time she met him a week later, "I already liked him."

Now with a blended family of six children and a busy life commuting between Brookline, Mass., and Washington, D.C., she leads a life that's rich in ways she could not have imagined. "It's completely fascinating," she says, adding that the family has gone to Camp David with the Obamas, and their children have spent many hours at the White House. "I've had an unbelievable box seat on human nature, on how great institutions operate and think of themselves … on the world economy."

To enjoy the wild ride of the last few years, there's only one rule, she says. "Take my vitamins!"

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