The Secret of the film “Grace Paley”

Film Maker Lilly Rivlin wanted to use a narrative device that true fans of the writer/activist Grace Paley would get immediately.

Paley, a New York legend who became the state’s first official state author and was once Vermont’s poet laureate, wrote a three-volume fiction series called “Collected Stories.” Rivlin used the structure of Paley’s books as the structure of her biographical film. If you know Paley’s work, look for it.

The film traces her life in chapters as a Russian Jewish refugee who fled to America, studied with W.H. Auden and later taught creative writing for 22 years at Sarah Lawrence College. Her social activism is as strong a theme in Paley’s life as her legacy as an author, and her life story is told using historical footage, interviews and readings from her poems, essays and fiction. Paley’s close friend, watercolor artist Vera Williams, is the featured reader, but there are no narrators in the film.

If the name Paley brings to your mind the image of the beautiful New York socialite Babe Paley instead of an activist author, you are not alone. It’s a mistake that turned a soldier away from pinup lust toward a writing career. The film contains an interview with author Allan Gurganus, who sought to study with Grace after seeing a Vogue photo spread of Babe during his stint in Vietnam. Here’s a transcript of his account:

Allan: “I discovered Grace Paley’s fiction on board the U.S.S. Yorktown off the shores of Vietnam. Some sailor’s girlfriend had left a Vogue magazine and there was a Grace Paley story adjoining a beautiful photo essay about Babe Paley, the wife of the CBS chairman, who was the great beauty of her generation. And because her name was Babe and Grace’s name was Grace, I conflated the two and thought that she had written the story. I thought it was a weird kind of disconnect that this hot house beauty was writing about moms in Washington Square Park. I came in search of Grace. I found her at Sarah Lawrence and when I encountered her at the health food bar, she looked very unlike the swan that I was expecting — that I felt immediately the magnetism that we all felt and enjoyed.”

“Grace Paley: Collected Shorts” screens at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 1 at Woodstock Town Hall and at 2 p.m. Oct. 2 at Upstate Films-Rhinebeck. For tickets, go to

–Deborah Medenbach

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  • Blog Author

    Deborah Medenbach

    Deborah Medenbach brings her multimedia coverage talents to the film shoots, stage productions, celebrity stories, film festivals and basic business of film and theater in the Hudson Valley. Read Full

    Timothy Malcolm

    Timothy has been the arts and entertainment editor of the Times Herald-Record, based in Middletown, N.Y., since 2008. He covers a wide array of topics, focusing on performing arts, film and the visual arts. Read Full
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