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Elizabeth Young-Bruehl in 2006.

On first dipping into a cache of letters and papers, all biographers must tremble with hope and fear about what might – or might not – be there. Imagine finding a reference to yourself, especially a flattering one. That's what happened when Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, a newly graduated PhD, began sorting through her mentor Hannah Arendt's documents. There, on a little piece of paper was a note Arendt had written seven years earlier, on first meeting Young-Bruehl: "Knows Greek and has the most amazing blue eyes."

The American-born Young-Bruehl was the author of groundbreaking psychoanalytical biographies of two of the most influential women of the 20th century – Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World and Anna Freud: A Biography. She was also a philosopher, a psychoanalyst and the author of several other books, including a family saga that bore similarities to her own relatives, called Vigil, a study of anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia since the Second World War, The Anatomy of Prejudices, and the forthcoming Childism: Understanding and Preventing Prejudice Against Children.

She died on Dec. 1 in Toronto, where she had been living since 2007 with her partner, psychiatrist Christine Dunbar.

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Back in 1968, Young-Bruehl had approached Arendt, hoping to do a PhD dissertation in philosophy with her at The New School for Social Research (now The New School) in New York. She was drawn to Arendt because "she had such an understanding of the world and suffering" and "how to live" in the face of genocide and totalitarianism, said Dunbar.

A German Jew and a student of Martin Heidegger before the Second World War, Arendt had earned her doctorate under Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg, escaped from Nazi-occupied France in 1941 and found refuge in the United States. By the time Young-Bruehl met her, Arendt was in her 60s and had published The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Men in Dark Time, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil and On Revolution.

A famous scholar and internationally recognized public intellectual, Arendt didn't accept many students. And those she did take on had to undergo a rigorous interview. After that initial conversation in which the applicant's intellectual attributes – a knowledge of ancient Greek – and an identifying physical trait – her blazing blue eyes – were both noted, Arendt agreed to accept Young-Bruehl as a student.

By the time Young-Bruehl had finished her own dissertation, "Freedom and Karl Jaspers's Philosophy," in 1974, the two women, 40 years apart in age, were friends.

Armed with her academic union card, Young-Bruehl found a job teaching philosophy at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. When Arendt, an ardent smoker, died of a heart attack the following year, in December, 1975, Young-Bruehl was the only one of her students to have completed a doctorate. After the funeral, Young-Bruehl found herself in the midst of a grieving circle of Arendt's emigré friends. "They said somebody should write her biography," according to Dunbar, "and they all looked at Elisabeth, who was the youngest in the room by about 30 years, and said, 'Why don't you do it?' "

In an interview in the New York Times in 1982, Young-Bruehl said she wasn't "very taken" with the idea because she thought writing a biography was beyond her abilities. "But the more I talked to people, the more it became apparent that if somebody didn't write down the stories that her friends had to tell, stories I hadn't known because I met her late in her life, they would simply be lost."

Arendt's literary executor, Mary McCarthy, the political activist and novelist ( The Group) clearly agreed. She gave Young-Bruehl permission to consult the Arendt papers in the Library of Congress and in the German Literary Archive in Marbach, Germany. So, Young-Bruehl, still in her 20s, started writing a biography of one of the most famous public intellectuals of the day.

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For Love of the World, which was published in 1982, won the inaugural Harcourt prize for biography for the way it engrossingly interwove the political theorist's life – including her youthful affair with Heidegger, her persecution as a Jew, her experiences as a refugee in the U.S., her development as a thinker and writer and her philosophical approach to institutionalized evil. Still the standard work on Arendt's life, the book has been translated into several languages, including Hebrew, and was reissued in paperback in 2004.

Meeting and studying with Arendt changed Young-Bruehl's life. But it wasn't the only time a famous female intellectual caused her to shift direction. Working on Arendt had quickened Young-Breuhl's interest in psychoanalysis. While she was still teaching at Wesleyan and writing Arendt's biography, she enrolled in clinical psychoanalytic training in New Haven, Conn., and joined the Gardiner Seminar on Psychiatry and the Humanities at Yale. Coincidentally, Lottie Newman, Anna Freud's editor and literary executor, was also a member of the seminar. So when Freud died in October, 1982, Newman, an admirer of the newly finished Arendt biography, asked Young-Bruehl if she would write Freud's life as well.

This time Young-Bruehl knew she could write a biography, but unlike the Arendt project, she didn't have a connection with the subject or her work. Later, Young-Bruehl described the Freud material – eight volumes of published papers, as well as all of her correspondence – which had been lovingly tended by Freud's companion, Dorothy Burlingham, as "an archaeological site, keyed precisely to the day-by-day-year-by-year living of her life."

The youngest of Sigmund Freud's six children, Anna Freud was the only one to develop an interest in her father's work and to make her own name – not only as an analyst, but as the mother, along with rival Melanie Klein, of child psychoanalysis. Initially, Young-Bruehl assumed Freud was a lesbian, but came to realize she was asexual, and had sublimated her own sexual desires into caring for her famous father and the patients, including war-traumatized children, she treated in London at what is now called the Anna Freud Centre. The Freud biography was published to acclaim in 1988.

In the early 1990s, Young-Bruehl left her tenured position at Wesleyan and moved to Philadelphia, teaching part-time at Haverford College to support herself while she continued her psychoanalytic training at the Philadelphia Association for Psychoanalysis. After graduating in 1999, she moved to New York and started a private practice as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist. Even though she had left academe, she continued to write books.

While working on The Anatomy of Prejudices, she had a nagging feeling that she was missing something, which led to her final book. Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. Young-Bruehl, who had no biological children of her own, and had made her name writing about two other childless women, became fascinated with children through writing Anna Freud's biography, her own work as a therapist and her personal life as an aunt and a stepmother. She came to believe that prejudice against children was intertwined with all the other prejudices she had written about, and was also embedded in the history of psychoanalysis. Childism will be published by Yale Press next month.

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Elisabeth Young was born on March 3, 1946, in Elkton, Md., sandwiched between an older brother and a younger sister. Her father, Herbert (Gibby) Young, was a golf pro – he had been on the American track and field team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – and a marine who had served in the South Pacific during the Second World War. Her mother, Lois (always called Bea) Williams, was a homemaker, an amateur actress and the "rock" of the family. After her parents divorced in 1972, her mother married chemical engineer Ernie Sutton, a widower with three children. She died in October, two month's before her daughter's death.

After primary and secondary school, Young went to Sarah Lawrence College in New York State in the mid-1960s. She studied poetry with Muriel Rukeyser, an intellectual and political activist, but dropped out in her sophomore year and headed to New York City to become a writer. "It took me only about six months to realize that I was too young, that I needed more education," she told The Boston Globe in 1988. Young completed her undergraduate studies at The New School, where she met not only Arendt, but philosophy student Robert Bruehl. They married in 1968, but later divorced.

In April, 2005, Young-Bruehl came to Toronto to deliver a lecture on developmental dreaming. Dunbar was on the committee that had invited her to speak and "the rest is history," she said. The two women, both of whom were divorced, fell in love and married in 2008. By then Young-Bruehl had moved here. Together they founded Caversham Productions, a firm that produces psychoanalytic training materials.

"She was at the height of her power and so enthusiastic," said Dunbar, mentioning the blog that Young-Bruehl had started, "Who's Afraid of Social Democracy?" and the huge project she had undertaken as the general editor of an 11-volume series about the life and work of the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. "She was writing about social justice, children, psychoanalysis and doing academic work," said Dunbar. "What comforts me is that these last few years were the happiest of her life."

On a Thursday evening the couple went to "Baroque Splendour," a Tafelmusik concert in Toronto. After listening to a "gorgeous oboe solo," they were on their way home when Young-Bruehl collapsed. She was taken to St Michael's hospital, suffering from a pulmonary embolism, but doctors couldn't resuscitate her. She was 65.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl leaves her partner, Christine Dunbar, two siblings, a stepdaughter and her extended family. Memorial services are being planned in Toronto and New York.

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