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Barbara Probst Solomon, Who Wrote of Spain Under Franco, Dies at 90

Barbara Probst Solomon, an American memoirist and essayist known for documenting life in Spain during and after the regime of Gen. Francisco Franco, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 90.

The cause was renal disease, her family said.

Esteemed by critics for her observations on 20th-century culture and politics, Ms. Solomon was renowned in particular for her 1972 memoir, "Arriving Where We Started," which chronicled her youthful involvement with the anti-Franco resistance movement, including her naïvely brazen rescue of two resistance members from a Spanish labor camp.

Her essays appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, HuffPost and elsewhere. She was also a novelist and a translator from the Spanish.

Reviewing "Arriving Where We Started" in The New York Times, the Harvard literary scholar Robert Kiely wrote, "A picture of a credible and strong willed young woman emerges: a kind of earnest picaresque heroine, shrewd, resilient, generous, game for adventure, and absolutely committed to life."

Ms. Solomon's picaresque odyssey was all the more striking in light of her background, which could not have been more different from those of the resistance fighters with whom she became involved.

The daughter of J. Anthony Probst, a lawyer and chairman of the Self Winding Clock Company, and Frances (Kurke) Probst, Barbara Kurke Probst was born in Manhattan on Dec. 3, 1928, to a prosperous, distinguished family.

She was reared -- largely, she wrote afterward, by a German governess -- on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and at her family's waterfront estate in Westport, Conn. After graduating from the Dalton School, a private academy on the East Side, she chose to forgo college in favor of experience that would help her comprehend her identity: as an American, as a Jew, as a woman and as a daughter of privilege in a world lately racked by war.

For a young woman of her time and class, it was a highly unorthodox choice.

"In that era there was no such thing as finding yourself or following your own path," Ms. Solomon told an interviewer years later. "You were a dropout, you were not distinguished in any way."

At 19, craving adventure, she persuaded her mother to escort her to Paris and let her live there on her own. On the boat over, they met another American mother and daughter, en route to Paris to visit the family's son, a would-be writer at work on his first novel.

Her mother, Ms. Solomon would recall, was conspicuously interested in the novel in progress, a wartime story set in the Pacific Theater.

"Mother, don't bother me with nice Jewish sons who are writing the great American novel," she recalled admonishing her.

But on her arrival in Paris, Barbara looked up that nice Jewish son, whose novel, "The Naked and the Dead," published in 1948, would transform him into Norman Mailer. He became a friend, as did his sister, also named Barbara.

Young Barbara Probst had been seeking adventure, and, courtesy of Mailer, she found it.

"A few days after my mother left," she wrote in "Arriving Where We Started," "Norman approached his sister Barbara and me, and in a somewhat offhand, slightly conspiratorial tone asked the two of us how we would like to uh, sort of, spring a few people from a Franco jail in Spain."

Their task was to help a friend of Mailer's, the resistance fighter Paco Benet, spirit two compatriots out of Cuelgamuros, Franco's labor camp near Madrid. Two young American women posing as tourists, Mailer reasoned, were unlikely to attract the authorities' notice.

"Neither Barbara nor I had any true sense of what we were getting into," Ms. Solomon wrote. "As for danger or consequences, life was to be led like a book; in books good people lived dangerously."

Against all odds, the scheme worked. With Mr. Benet, the two young women, daintily dressed, drove Mailer's car to Cuelgamuros and pulled alongside the local church where prisoners were brought for Sunday services. With the guards momentarily diverted, Mr. Benet bundled the escapees into the car and they sped off. After winding circuitously along mountain roads, they dropped the two men at an isolated spot in the Pyrenees, from which they made their way to freedom.

Back in Paris, the young Ms. Solomon and Mr. Benet, who were romantically involved for several years, published a resistance magazine, Península, that was smuggled into Spain.

After returning to the United States, she earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish from the Columbia University School of General Studies.

Ms. Solomon's other books include two novels, "The Beat of Life" (1960), about unwanted pregnancy and its devastating consequences, and "Smart Hearts in the City" (1992), about an interracial love affair; a second memoir, "Short Flights," (1983), about her time in Spain after Franco's death in 1975; and the essay collection "Horse-Trading and Ecstasy" (1989).

One of Ms. Solomon's most famous essays was a scathing critique of the handling of Hemingway's posthumously published novel "The Garden of Eden," which was published, to great fanfare, by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1986. The work -- about the romantic and artistic anguish of a young American writer and his wife in 1920s France and Spain -- had been unfinished at the time of Hemingway's suicide in 1961.

Ms. Solomon's critique, published in The New Republic in 1987, castigated Scribner's for committing what she described as "a literary crime" and "the literary equivalent of 'colorization.' "

Comparing the published novel with Hemingway's several extant drafts, which Ms. Solomon pored over in manuscript at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, she concluded, she wrote, that "Scribner's interfered imperiously with what Hemingway left us."

In substituting a more hopeful ending for the darker ones of the manuscripts, for instance -- and in removing much of Hemingway's symbolic invocation of the work of visual artists like Bosch and Rodin -- the publisher, Ms. Solomon charged, "has transformed these unfinished experiments into the stuff of potboilers and pulp."

(Asked to comment on Ms. Solomon's charges, the publisher's chairman, Charles Scribner Jr., told the news service United Press International: "She in effect says she doesn't like the way the book was prepared for publication and she has a right to say that. I don't agree with her, but she has that right.")

A longtime resident of Manhattan, Ms. Solomon taught at Sarah Lawrence College and elsewhere. She was a founder and the editor in chief of The Reading Room, a literary journal.

Ms. Solomon's husband, Harold W. Solomon, a law professor whom she married in 1952, died in 1967. Her survivors include their two daughters, Carla Solomon Magliocco and Maria Solomon; four grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

Ms. Solomon was for many years the United States cultural correspondent for the major Spanish newspaper El País. In 2008 she was awarded the Francisco Cerecedo Prize by the Association of European Journalists in Spain, the first North American to be so honored.

In an interview with the Columbia General Studies alumni magazine soon after she won the Cerecedo Prize, Ms. Solomon sought to play down the significance of her laurels in the context of the historical struggles about which she wrote.

"You don't plan these things, you know," she said. "One thing I learned was that the butcher, baker and candlestick maker who're thrown in jail don't enter history -- they're not writers. But writers can become known. History's not fair."

[Source: By Margalit Fox, The New York Times, NY, 01Sep19]

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