Helen, Ira, and Michael Wolfert papers
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
The Wolfert family, whose lives spanned the 20th century and who engaged with most of the important domestic and international concerns of the day, were a remarkably close-knit family of writers and thinkers who struggled to keep their family relationships intact while also pursuing the elusive goal of long-term literary success. As a war reporter during WWII, embedded with the U.S. Forces in the Pacific, Ira Wolfert's journalism won him widespread acclaim, but in the post-war era his writing fell out of fashion, and he devoted much of his time to well-paying but personally unfulfilling human interest pieces for Reader's Digest. His wife, Helen Wolfert, achieved some success in the pre-war poetry scene, but was frustrated in her post-war attempts to publish an experimental novel, The Birth; and in the decades that followed, she endured increasing amounts of rejection, as well as prolonged mental and physical illness. She turned her energies to a number of side interests, including space travel, extra-sensory perception, and a new translation of The Song of Songs, while also encouraging her son Michael's writing career, both emotionally and financially, as he pursued a bohemian life in Africa and Europe, attempting to produce a massive autobiographical novel which was never published. Finally, after several divorces and a stint of magazine work in New York in the same vein as his father, the trauma of his mother's death brought Michael back to the family home in Woodstock, NY, where he cared for his father in his final days.
Ira Wolfert was an American journalist and novelist. Born in New York, NY in 1908, Wolfert was a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism, and worked for the North American Newspaper Alliance during the 1930s and 40s. He married Helen Herschdorfer in 1928, with whom he had two children, Ruth (1933-2001) and Michael (1936-2001). In 1943, he received the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Battle of Guadalcanal. After the war, his novel Tucker's People (1943) became a bestseller, and was made into a movie, Force of Evil (1948). Until his retirement, Wolfert worked as a staff writer for Reader's Digest. He was the author of One Man Air Force (1944, with Don Gentile), An Act of Love (two versions: 1949, 1954), and Married Men (1953). He died in Margaretville, NY, in 1997.
Helen X. Herschdorfer Wolfert was an American poet and essayist. Born in New York, NY in 1901, she graduated from Hunter College and taught in New York City schools for ten years. She married Ira Wolfert in 1928, with whom she had two children, Ruth and Michael. During her career she published poems and articles in magazines such as Poetry, Harper's Bazaar, The New Republic and The Nation, and her books include Nothing is a Wonderful Thing (1946), The Music (1965), and Landlady and Tenant (1979). She died in Woodstock, NY in 1985.
Michael Wolfert was an American writer and the son of Ira and Helen Wolfert. Born in New York, NY in 1936, he graduated from Harvard College in 1957 and worked briefly as a reporter for The Boston Globe and The New York Post before moving to Tangier and then to Paris, where he served in the Secretariat of UNESCO. After leaving UNESCO with a writing fellowship, he lived in Sweden for many years before returning to America in the 1980s, where he worked as a staff writer for Womens World. He was a co-writer of the English translation of Miodrag Bulatovic's The War Was Better (1971). His first wife, Paula Wolfert, is a well-known writer of cookbooks and culinary articles. He died in Lake Hill, NY in 2001.
This collection includes material related to the lives and work of Helen, Ira, and Michael Wolfert. It contains correspondence between the family and others; manuscripts by all three subjects, as well as a smaller amount by colleagues and acquaintances; financial documents; personal documents; photos taken by and of the family; newspaper clippings collected by the family; and notes and miscellanea.
The correspondence concerns the personal and professional lives of the Wolferts. Notable correspondents include Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, and other notable twentieth century editors and poets. The wartime correspondence, in particular, helps illustrate the family's relationships during a time of national crisis.
The manuscripts, with their somewhat idiosyncratic ordering and continual revision, represent the struggle (especially in regards to Michael and Helen) of each writer to produce meaningful work in the post-war years, as cohesive literary material is slowly superseded by magazine work and diffuse notes; in Helen's case, they document her somewhat eccentric hobbies, such as her fascination with space travel and ESP, as well as her deep interest in the history of The Song of Songs.
The financial material represents Ira and Helen's growing middle-class stability in the post-war years, as well as their struggles to support Michael and Ruth, whose financial situations were more precarious.
The personal material includes official documents like birth, marriage, and death certificates, as well as more intimate material, like Helen's Rorshach test and Ira's wallet and its contents.
The series labelled Photographs contains many pictures of unclear provenance and subject, probably taken by Ira during his WWII-era travels and research trips for Reader's Digest, but also contain portraits of the whole family, including more distant relatives.
The series of newspaper clippings reflect Helen and Ira's interest in international events, particularly the state of the U.S.S.R. and Israel, two countries in which both had a special interest, as Jewish progressives and Marxist sympathizers. The series of notes and miscellanea consists mostly of material culled from the folders of correspondence which could not be identified with any particular subject.
Gift of George D. Wachtel, 2001 May 31
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Sam Allingham
- Finding Aid Date
- 2017 November 7
- Access Restrictions
The bulk of this collection is open for research use. However, access to original audio/visual materials and computer files is restricted. The Kislak Center will provide access to the information on these materials from duplicate master files. If the original does not already have a copy, it will be sent to an outside vendor for copying. Patrons are financially responsible for the cost. The turnaround time from request to delivery of digital items is about two weeks for up to five items and three to seven weeks for more than five items. Please contact Reprographic Services (email@example.com) for cost estimates and ordering.
Once digital items are received, researchers will have access to the files on a dedicated computer in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. Researchers should be aware of specifics of copyright law and act accordingly.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.