The Woman with the Keys to the Church
by James McGrath Morris
It was perhaps nostalgia triggered by my return to Paris, where I had been raised, that left me feeling so sentimental riding the train into the city from De Gaulle Airport on a brisk October day in 2005. At least my sense of anticipation was more easily explained. Only forty-eight hours earlier I had been at my desk in Virginia on a trans-Atlantic telephone call with Muriel Pulitzer, the eighty-five year-old granddaughter of Albert Pulitzer, brother to the more famous Joseph Pulitzer. I had located her after months of research in hopes that she might possess her grandfather’s unpublished memoirs that could help me in my research for a biography of Joseph Pulitzer.
I had first gotten wind that such a manuscript existed while reading articles about Walter Pulitzer, his son and father to Muriel. Shortly after Albert’s death in 1909, newspapers reported that Walter was preparing his father’s memoirs for publication but I could find no trace of it having ever been published. I even checked with the British Library to see if an English firm had not brought out a small private edition in the years prior to World War I, as most of the notices about the forthcoming book had been in London papers. Through obituaries I located one of Albert’s great-grandchildren, an artist in Texas. He said he knew little about his ancestor but he provided me with the Paris address of his aunt Muriel Pulitzer.
I sent off an express letter. Within a week, I had received an airmail reply from her. “You are most welcome to consult the documents I have here in my possession,” she wrote in elegant script. “This supposes that you can envisage a trip to Paris—as I do not with to allow any of these documents to leave my custody of them for the time being.” The next evening I was on an Icelandair flight to Paris.
The possibility of what these documents might contain made the trip over the Atlantic, and now the train ride into Paris, seem interminable. Around four in the afternoon I reached my hotel, one of those Parisian lodgings comprising rooms carved out of several old buildings connected by narrow twisting corridors often interrupted by small flights of stairs. In my room I called Pulitzer, assuming because of the late hour we would make an appointment for the next morning.
“Oh, no,” she replied. “I kept my day open for you. Please feel free to come now.” I splashed water on my face and changed out of my khakis which looked like wrinkled pajamas after a night on the plane. Within a few minutes, thanks to the remarkable subway system of Paris, I was approaching her residence on a very chic street leading to the Jardin du Luxembourg. I passed shop windows displaying tailored shirts, Scottish cashmere, and antique books. I found her building and stepped over the high threshold of a massive door cut into what had been even a larger carriage door, typical of older buildings in Paris. In the dim passage leading to the courtyard I found a series of doorbells and the one marked Pulitzer.
In perfect French, she told me over the speakerphone to come to the fifth floor; the sixth if one counts them in American style. Pushing open the door of the tiny elevator that I rode up the stairwell of the building, I found her and another lady waiting on the landing. The other woman, whom I later discovered was a social worker, excused herself and Pulitzer led me into her flat. Her abode, a former maid’s quarter, comprised a small room no more than fifteen feet in length and hardly six feet wide, the size of a walk-in closet in some American homes.
At the end was a large window cut into the Mansard roof. To the left of the window the room extended slightly in a small indentation beneath the roof, bisected by a beam running diagonally from the floor to ceiling. This little spot contained a small porcelain sink, a hot plate built into the counter behind the sink, and the tiniest refrigerator. Tucked into little openings in the beam and on small shelves were a few plates and teacups.
Pulitzer sat on the small couch, which doubled as a bed, and left me to sit on a tinier couch that might have fit in a child’s room. She wore a dark blue skirt, a baby blue turtleneck, and a navy blue knit sweater. (Her grandfather favored blue and insisted that his secretary dress in blue.) Already a small woman, her advanced years made her seem miniscule and frail. But her clear blue eyes sparkled just the way people described her grandfather’s eyes. In fact, the family resemblance, especially to the profile of a young Joseph Pulitzer, was striking. Though she would have looked tiny next to Joseph or Albert, the Pulitzer genes were clearly evident.
I sat with my knees almost reaching to my chest, resting as much weight as I could on my haunches rather than the fragile piece of furniture. We chatted about my work and I presented her with a copy of my last book, eager to prove that I was bona fide writer. She asked me to pull down a photo album from the shelves above her. It contained family pictures, some of which had never been published, but my interest was feigned because of my eagerness to see the object of my journey. At last, Pulitzer nodded her head in the direction of a stack of items near the couch. She said the memoir was in the small, plastic briefcase resting there.
I brought it over to my seat. It contained a typed manuscript, held together by the kind of cloth-bound elastic used by tailors, and a plastic bag holding photographs and odds and ends. I gingerly opened the manuscript. It was indeed—or seemed to be—the very manuscript I read about. I tried to continue our conversation while paging through the four hundred typed pages. Finally, I asked how we might proceed. As I couldn’t very well work in the apartment, she consented that I take the briefcase back to my hotel and that I could duplicate it. That decided, we chatted for another hour.
Exhausted, having hardly slept for the past twenty-four hours, I returned to my room and fell fast asleep, interrupted with nightmares of a hotel fire destroying the manuscript. The next morning I went to the neighborhood near Sorbonne University, found a small copy shop, and page-by-page I made a copy of the manuscript, the paper being too brittle to use the automatic feeder. As I turned over the pages I got my first look at the contents.
Now, with a copy that I could read without worrying about damaging it, I installed myself at a café. Ordered a baguette with Gruyere, an Alsatian beer, and read it in its entirety. The manuscript was indeed the very book Walter was preparing for publication. It was filled with lengthy extracts from Albert’s memoirs, notes, letters, and letters from others along with Walter’s annotations. With this book—that no one else has ever used—I knew I would be able to provide my readers with a more complete portrayal of the Joseph’s childhood and of his thorny relationship with Albert. It was a biographer’s dream.
I returned Sunday to Muriel Pulitzer’s flat. She had come to Paris in 1954 to study sacred art. Raised an Episcopalian, she converted to Catholicism and wanted to become a sculptress. Unlike descendants from the Joseph side of the family, she hardly had any money. When her grandfather Albert committed suicide in 1909, the vast sums he had made from the New York paper he established were gone. Her father Walter was not a success in his various business enterprises—mostly musical and poetical—and so there was not much family money.
In the fifty years since coming to Paris, Pulitzer established a very successful, though financially modest, existence making religious sculptures. Her work may be found in churches worldwide. (The photo to the left is a 1961 Pulitzer in Chapelle Saint-Germain.) The reason she has remained unknown to Joseph Pulitzer descendants was that she chose to use her mother’s maiden name, Englehart, for her work. She found the Pulitzer name and its association to the prize to be a burden to her.
I had returned not only to give back the loaned manuscript, but also to accompany Pulitzer to Mass at Saint-Sulpice, only a few blocks away. She had become too frail to leave her apartment alone and I had offered my arm and company. Founded in the early 1600s, the church is a jewel that is often overlooked because Paris is filled with beautiful churches. Pulitzer had a special relationship with this church because for many decades she had maintained an atelier (studio) in the eaves. To reach her unheated workshop high above the rooftops of Paris, she had to climb one hundred steps and cross an open-air passage on the roof. Needless to say, in her present condition, she had not been to her studio for a while.
As we approached Saint-Sulpice, we turned and went down a narrow street behind the church. We came to a large locked door, sitting flush with the wall of the church. Pulitzer pulled from her purse a set of old keys, bound together with twine. She had a set of keys to the church. After Mass we went for oysters and a lengthy lunch. Like attending Mass, eating oysters was something she had missed for a long time. The subject had come up because I had read Hemingway’s Moveable Feast on the plane and mentioned how every few minutes he seemed to eating huitre and downing whiskeys. We settled for a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse instead of the whiskeys.
Thus began a series of lengthy visits that included sampling Belgian Trappist beer at a local bar, vodka in another brasserie, and long conversations about her work and her life in Paris. I felt privileged. I was sad to leave. Not only had I found what would be an important piece to the puzzle I was assembling but I knew these days would stay with me forever. When I walked away I thought of the likelihood that we would never meet again. She spoke frequently to me about her preparations for the end her life. But another thought struck me at this moment. She had recently acquired a large piece of aged pear wood and had cut it into four smaller sections. Three angels had been carved, two of which were commissioned, and the third had been given to her nephew. The fourth block of wood with, as she said, “an angel within it” awaited her chisel. I wondered if it would ever be freed from its confines.
Muriel Pulitzer passed away in 2008 at age 88.