Daniel Shaw's Profile of Barbara Goldsmith in Aspen Magazine

Aspen Magazine, Summer 2005

Views Ideas

Leading the Way

In July, a diverse group of world luminaries comes to the Aspen Institute's Aspen Ideas Festival. Among them is historian BARBARA GOLDSMITH, who is leading a talk on women and leadership. DANIEL SHAW tells us why she is the right woman for the job.

In 1987, Barbara Goldsmith had a really good idea. An executive-committee member of the PEN American Center and one of America's foremost journalists and social historians, she created and began underwriting an award to spotlight dissident writers enduring persecution under oppressive regimes. To date, 28 of those recipients have been released from prison within four months of receiving the PEN/​Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards. "Governments cannot resist newspapers all over the world telling them to let these people out," Goldsmith says.

That initiative and its profound impact alone would have rendered Goldsmith worthy of inclusion in the Aspen Institute's inaugural Aspen Ideas Festival, July 5-10. In this conference, also presented by "The Atlantic" magazine, Goldsmith and ABC news and 20/​20 correspondent Lynn Sherr are moderating a tutorial on women and leadership. And Goldsmith can't wait. "I think it's a wonderful gathering of people from totally different disciplines," she says. "They're mixing it up like you can't believe."

Mixing it up is something the Aspen Institute is determined to do. With the goal of creating "an exciting, unique opportunity for a broad and diverse group of participants to engage in intellectual activities," the Institute is presenting tutorials, seminars, and conversations on topics such as global economics, health and bioscience, culture and society, leadership and the state of the environment. Attendees include Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, Human Genome Sciences founder William Haseltine, MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison, United Nations under-secretary-general and special representative Olara Otunnu, Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, and "U.S. News and World Report" editor in chief Mortimer Zuckerman.

As a founding committee member of the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Goldsmith has seen firsthand the benefits of bringing different fields of knowledge to one setting. "It's amazing how an economist can learn from an artist," she says. Yet in many ways, the Aspen Ideas Festival is a celebration of individualism-- after all, a groundswell of ideas starts with one person. "People say individuals cannot make a difference, but I agree with Margaret Mead, who said, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has," says Goldsmith. The festival, she notes, comes at a critical juncture for America: We now have the technology, power, and money to implement ideas in ways never before possible.

If there is a common thread linking Ideas Festival participants, it is the undeniable influence each of them-- from Colin Powell to Jane Goodall-- has had on our society and the way we view and live in the world. As a journalist, social commentator, and historian, Goldsmith has done her share with the writing. From "Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last", which tells the story of the custody battle over Gloria Vanderbilt, to her latest offering, "Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie", her books have been best-sellers. She manages to popularize history-- to bring it alive-- without sacrificing substance. "Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull" is on its way to becoming a major movie, and her articles for "The New Yorker" and other magazine always offer a fresh take on our culture.

While her vivid accounts have moved, entertained, and informed millions, her myriad philanthropic and volunteer efforts to promote and protect human rights have directly affected lives worldwide. The New York Public Library, where she is an executive-committee member, named its Barbara Goldsmith Conservation and Preservation Divisions after she came up with another inspired idea. Goldsmith, an elected member of the American Academy for Arts & Sciences, became increasingly concerned that our era's books were surviving only about 30 years-- as opposed to the 300 years they'd lasted before the industrial revolution changed the publishing process from acid-free paper to acidic paper. She organized the most influential writers of our time to launch a campaign for the more permanent acid-free paper, and they won a $20 million governmental grant to make it happen.

In 1989, Goldsmith received a signed declaration from Congress and commitments from every major publisher in the nation and 2,500 writers-- all agreeing to use only acid-free paper.

"Now, that was a great idea," she says without a trace of boasting. "Anybody can have a great idea if they go for it. You have to play up great ideas, and I believe this conference will. Marie Curie was a genius. I'm no genius, but I've had a few good ideas."

Selected Works

Best-selling author Barbara Goldsmith on the myth and reality behind the extraordinary "Madame Curie".
“Absorbing, sweeping ... richness of narrative ... complex morally nuanced portraits ... compelling narrative power ... fabulously rich.”
--The New York Times
“Fascinating . . . An engrossing tale of greed, incest, treachery, legal incompetence, corruption, wealth and weakness.”
“Prodigiously researched this book has vast range. Staggering, gripping, confounding, informative, it is extraordinary.”
--Time Magazine
“Brilliant, fascinating, chilling—a marvelously entertaining novel about the decadent world of the super rich and the New York art establishment.” --Peter Maas
Read Barbara Goldsmith's essay "You Know, I Could Write the Most Wonderful Book" from the September 30th, 1984 issue of The New York Times Book Review.
Barbara Goldsmith's Op-Ed article for the New York Times on the controversy of the removal of Larry Rivers "Legs" from Sag Harbor, Long Island.
"La Dolce Viva" by Barbara Goldsmith. New York Magazine, 1968.
TOM WOLFE'S recounting of the beginning of New York Magazine
"No longer are there immutable standards by which to judge ourselves. Image has overtaken reality." -- Barbara Goldsmith, The New York Times Magazine, 1983
Barbara Goldsmith's contribution to the book "Windows on Central Park: The Landscape Revealed" by Betsy Pinover Schiff
Barbara Goldsmith's contribution "An Ongoing Vision" to the monograph on Robert Wilson and The Watermill Center.
Barbara Goldsmith's article from The New Yorker entitled "Women on the Edge".
Pranay Gupte's article on Barbara Goldsmith for the New York Sun.
Read the interview with Barbara Goldsmith in the NYPL BookMark Magazine
"A Testament of Riches Shared" by Pamela Ryckman
Barbara Goldsmith's Blog on Barbie in the 21st Century
Barbara Goldsmith's Blog on the death of Casey Johnson
Barbara Goldsmith's blog from The Daily Beast on New York Public Library pensions
Barbara Goldsmith's blog from The Daily Beast on Ethics
Barbara Goldsmith writes on inherited wealth.