×

A Life: Myrna and Harvey Frommer ‘showed impressive dedication’

  • Myrna and Harvey Frommer are photographed in 2006 in Patagonia in South America. (Family photograph)

  • Myrna and Harvey Frommer, shown in an undated photograph, relocated to Lyme, N.H., from Brooklyn in the 1990s and died a week apart in early August 2019. (Family photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, August 25, 2019

LYME — Myrna and Harvey Frommer devoted much of the last 30 years of their lives to asking people to talk about their lives and to teaching others the tricks of the oral historian’s trade.

One frigid day in the Frommers’ then newly adopted hometown of Lyme, one of their three grown children turned the tables with a question of her own.

“I think it was pretty much right away when they moved there,” Fred Frommer, one of the couple’s two sons, recalls with a chuckle. “Our sister Jennifer said, ‘Why can’t you just be like normal Jewish parents and move down to Florida?’ ”

Probably because, until they died a week apart in early August — Harvey of lung cancer at age 83; Myrna of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at 80 — the Brooklyn natives were too busy re-writing their own story: as Yankee landowners and co-teachers of oral history in Dartmouth College’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program.

The early drafts, after their relocation from Long Island in the mid-1990s, gave them pause.

“It was kind of a rocky start,” MALS faculty member and Canaan resident Alan Lelchuk said last week. “They would ask me ‘Can you really make it up here? Can you not go crazy?’ But in a couple of years, they’d figured it out and learned to love it.

“They found a new beginning.”

They found it by degrees. Already successful authors — Harvey with sports biographies, Myrna with magazine articles, the two of them with their It Happened inseries of oral histories — they often visited Fred, then a reporter for the Valley News, and developed a fondness for the area.

During one visit, they multi-tasked with an interview of Lelchuk for one of their oral histories.

“I can’t remember now whether it was for It Happened in Brooklyn or Growing Up Jewish in America,” Lelchuk said. “I didn’t know either of them at the time, but I remember that it was a very warm and friendly conversation. Afterward, I asked them if they might be interested in teaching at MALS.”

It sounded good to Harvey, who as a visiting professor had enjoyed teaching a Dartmouth class called Sports and Culture at Dartmouth in 1992. Lelchuk introduced the Frommers to MALS’ then-chairman Gus DeMaggio.

“Their intimate relationship informed not only their collaborations, but their ability to team-teach on oral history and (interviewing) strategies,” current MALS chairman Donald Pease said last week. “They were quite different personalities. Harvey could be quite blunt and direct in his mode of instruction. Myrna could translate something he’d said that was too direct or even authoritarian into a form of instruction that invited the students to enter into dialogue, not only with Harvey or with Myrna but with each other.”

Often as not, the dialogue carried on beyond the closing bell.

“They gathered with us at local restaurants after class, and showed impressive dedication to our ongoing projects,” MALS graduate Haley Johnston wrote in the preface to a March 2018 interview of Harvey Frommer for the MALS web page. “It was easy to see how they convinced so many interesting people to sit down with them and share their stories.”

The Frommers also mentored students individually during office hours. In sessions with Myrna, Pakistani student Mashal Imran found an ally in her adjustment to American culture and academia.

“I remember … approaching her with many of the insecurities my writer’s block was generating in me as I worked on my project,” Imran said during an exchange of emails last week. “ ‘Follow your heart. It seems like it’s telling you exactly what to do,’ she would tell me. She would listen patiently to my rambling with a smile on her face and always tell me she loved the way I spoke. She gave a scared international student the gentle push I needed to believe I belonged in this scary new world filled with people much smarter and much more accomplished than I was. I cannot thank her enough.”

The Frommers’ own story began with crossing paths while working at New York University’s student newspaper. They were married in 1960, made their living as teachers before gravitating to writing and finally found their ultimate calling — in part by evolution, in part by accident.

“I had an agent who claimed she had won a beauty contest in the Catskills, and she thought that a book about the Catskills would be a great book for us to write,” Harvey Frommer told Johnston. “So we went out to the Catskills and we met all of these zany, incredible, funny characters. We had no training in oral history, but we decided, instead of making a book told by us about them, it would be a book told by them about them.”

And soon It Happened in the Catskills would beget It Happened in Brooklyn, which in turn begat It Happened on Broadway, and on up through It Happened in Manhattan and It Happened in Miami.

“They would do the interviews together,” Fred Frommer said. “They were a really good tag team at drawing people out and then coming up with a coherent narrative.”

While refining their technique, the Frommers shared what they’d learned with their students for more than 20 years.

“The way they introduced oral history was as a genre that valued voices — everyone’s voice,” Johnston, now a Boston-based paralegal working in immigration law, said last week. “There was this sense that you could use oral history to tell whatever story you wanted to tell.”

Between semesters, the Frommers continued collecting and writing about stories that interested them. In 2015, Harvey published When It Was Just a Game: The First Super Bowl, followed in short order by The Ultimate Yankee Book, which he gave to Johnston at the end of the class she took with him and Myrna.

And the procession didn’t end with the Frommers’ decline: In the pipeline for publication in 2020 are their Members of the Tribe: An Oral and Narrative History of Amazing Jewish Communities, and It Happened in Israel: An Oral and Narrative History.

Fred Frommer said that while his parents would attend services at the Upper Valley Jewish Community during the High Holy Days, “they embraced Judaism more on a cultural and tribal level. They did learn a lot about Israel while putting the books together, traveling there often.”

And always, they looked forward to returning home to their 16 acres in Lyme.

“They loved the pace of the place,” said Fred Frommer, who now works for a public-relations consultancy in Washington, D.C. “My mother was involved in a poetry club and would go to town meetings, and my dad really embraced the whole landowner thing. He wore a lot of flannel and plaid. He loved chopping wood, took a lot of pride in making stone walls. When we’d come up to visit, he’d have us do chores, almost like it was a family farm.”

Harvey still seemed to be enjoying the role of gentleman farmer and author during an interview with Johnston in mud season 2018. By then Johnston said, she and other MALS alumni were “aware that Myrna was going to stop teaching, but we didn’t know the extent of her condition, and nobody seemed terribly aware of the fact that Harvey was sick, too.”

Turns out the ultimate storytellers could keep a secret from leaking outside the family.

“She was the captain of the household for all their years together, and now he was the one paying the bills and overseeing things,” Fred Frommer said. “He did a heroic job. He really didn’t want to put her in a nursing home.

“It was pretty moving to see that love and dedication.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.