Daughter of Edward L. and Dorothy Fleischman Bernays; married Justin Kaplan, 1954; children: Susanna, Hester, Polly
Born into a prominent family, Anne Bernays was a grandniece of Freud and the younger of two daughters of the founding father of the public relations field. Bernays was raised in the Sherry Netherlands Hotel during the Depression, which, she was told, "was happening to poor people." She attended the Brearley School in New York City, then Wellesley for two years, transferring to Barnard where for the first time, she made friends outside a limited social circle.
In 1953 Bernays worked as an editor of Discovery for Vance Bourjaily. In 1954 she married critic Justin Kaplan and left publishing in 1957 to give birth to the first of her three daughters. The same year, she started writing and completed 10 short stories. In 1959 Bernays moved with her family to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she has taught fiction workshops, written novels, and worked as a part-time editor for David Godine.
Bernays' first novel, Short Pleasure (1962), tells the story of an heiress who runs away from her wedding but claims she was kidnapped and stuffed into a car trunk. Bernays uses the story, based on a newspaper item, to illustrate the extravagant lengths to which a "poor little rich girl" will go to escape the confines of her family.
One of Bernays' best books, Growing Up Rich (1975), deals again with the need to escape the family—this time, however, without having the characters resort to tales of dramatic kidnapping or to suicide, as in The New York Ride (1965). In Growing Up Rich, Bernays accurately records the characteristics of the rich and the trappings of their wealth. The narrator, another "poor little rich girl," cannot, as Bernays herself could not, make friends in her private school. The pudgy schoolgirl who lacks self-assurance is confused by her divided loyalties—to her natural father, a Christian, and her stepfather, a Jew; to her German parents and her Russian guardians. When disaster strikes, she is sent to live with the same Russian Jews who were formerly held in contempt by her family. In her new home, her makeshift bedroom is a converted porch without heat, and she goes to public, not private school. She becomes a debutante in a new sense of the word as she enters a more public, less private society. Growing Up Rich is written with wit, sophistication, and a sense of pain and poignancy, holding up to ridicule the false values of upper class society.
With Growing Up Rich, Bernays hits her stride as a social satirist; she maintains the pace in The School Room (1979). In a central episode, children in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, private school, spying on their teachers through a crack in a wall, catch them in a compromising situation. Multiple plots and the contrasting positions of children either thrust out of, or secure in, their families are deftly handled. Bernays' humor brings levity to the pain of adolescence. These books ensured Bernays' reputation; she is one of few writers to deal with mother/daughter relationships, showing that the child belongs to the nurturing, and not necessarily the natural, parent. Parents in her novels are often weak: mothers are too intrusive, evasive, or too busy with their own concerns; nor can fathers help their sons. Bernays writes about children and about women who are both professionals and involved family members. Bernays' wit, her acute ear for dialogue, her compassion for the adolescent, her ability to handle intricate plots, and her awareness of the life of the mind as well as her knowledge of the domestic scene make her work mature, womanly, and literate.
Bernays has explored in her fiction the culture of social privilege in America. From New York City's high society (The New York Ride and Growing Up Rich) to the cloistered environment of an exclusive Cambridge boarding school (The School Book, 1980), Bernays has exposed with humor and poignancy these often hermetic institutions of privilege. In two novels in the 1980s, Bernays turned her attention to issues concerning professional women. The Address Book (1983) features a successful, middle-aged editor at a Boston publishing house who is offered a new job with a top New York firm. As Alicia Baer—wife, mother, professional woman—struggles with the decision to move on in her career or to remain with her family, she is confronted by her own fears of loneliness and death, as well as by her repressed ambition and sexuality. Submerged elements of her inner life become personified as mysterious old acquaintances who make claims upon her. The Address Book successfully portrays the conflict between Alicia's genuine love of and attachment to her family and her longings to escape the personal restrictions it imposes upon her.
Professor Romeo (1989) deals with sexual harassment on the college campus. Assuming a male voice, Bernays tells the story of compulsive sexual exploitation from the point of view of the perpetrator, psychology professor Jake Barker, and reveals the profound emptiness looming behind Barker's accomplished facade. Finally called to account for his unethical behavior, Barker faces his dismissal from Harvard, and the professional demise it represents, with bewildered incomprehension. A shallow man from beginning to end, he shows no sign of reform or redemption.
In 1990 Bernays took another direction, publishing a creative writing manual for students with Pamela Painter. Composed of 83 lessons in 12 sections, each addressing a facet of fiction writing, What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers avoids theoretical and technical jargon, focusing instead on practical exercises, revision, and the study of great authors. The next year, 1991, Bernays joined the faculty at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. With her husband, Kaplan, she jointly holds the Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters. Bernays and Kaplan collaborated on The Language of Names in 1997, which provides scholarly information about names in an easily accessible style. The authors discuss the importance of names as "cultural universals" used throughout history and provide a wealth of trivia about names from literature, history, films, racial and ethnic groups, and the business world.
In addition to pursuing her own writing career, Bernays is busy on behalf of other writers. She is a founding and active member of PEN New England, a regional offshoot of the national anticensorship and writer advocacy organization. She is chair of the Fine Arts Work Center, which funds writers and visual artists for a year's stay in Provincetown; she also serves on the board of the National Writers Union.
Prudence, Indeed (1966). The First to Know (1974).
CA (1967). CANR (1982, 1999). SATA (1983).
Boston Magazine (Dec. 1975). College Composition and Communication (Feb. 1992). Hudson Review (Autumn 1984). NYT (19 July 1989). NYTBR (13 Nov. 1983, 23 July 1989). Ploughshares (Spring 1976).
—E. M. BRONER
UPDATED BY MELISSA BURNS