Daughter of Jacob and Lina Babicz Grobsmith; married Dr. Stanley Goldman (common law, died 1942); Robert Simon, 1947 (divorced); children: Alexandra
Kate Simon's passionate and daring life provided excellent material for her many popular travel books and the memoirs she produced in old age. Born in the Jewish section of Warsaw, she emigrated to New York with her family at age four and grew up in working-class neighborhoods in the city, where she excelled in the public schools and displayed unusual musical talent. Holding a series of odd jobs, she worked her way through the demanding James Monroe High School and Hunter College (B.A., 1935). A common-law marriage to Dr. Stanley Goldman ended with his death in 1942, leaving Simon to support herself and their daughter, Alexandra, by working at various editorial and reviewing jobs.
After her marriage to Robert Simon, which apparently freed her from financial constraints, Simon began to travel extensively throughout Europe and Mexico. She published her first book, New York Places and Pleasures: An Uncommon Guidebook, in 1959. Hailed as a landmark in the travel genre, it went through four revisions and sparked a successful career in travel writing. Simon went on to produce guides to Mexico City, Paris, London, Rome, Italy, and England—all informed by her artistic tastes and graceful prose—as well as the more historically focused Fifth Avenue: A Very Social History (1978) and A Renaissance Tapestry: The Gonzaga of Mantua (1988).
Acclaimed as these works are, it is Simon's memoirs that distinguish her as more than an elegant and cosmopolitan stylist. Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood (1982, latest reissue 1997) shocked readers with its revelation of intense emotional conflict and sexual abuse within her family: Simon recounts the strong influence of her mother, who built her own business as a corset maker and encouraged her daughter to acquire an education and the means to be self-supporting. She describes her defiance of her shoemaker father, who insisted she leave high school to become a concert pianist and who, Simon believed, tolerated the sexual abuse by relatives and acquaintances to which she was subjected from early adolescence. Leaving her family in her early teens, Simon eagerly absorbed the influence of leftist politics, antibourgeois sentiment, artistic values, and free love among the 1920s New York City avant-garde. A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence (1986) reveals, however, that this life was scarcely romantic: Simon was again the victim of sexual predators (sometimes her teachers) and was often desperately poor. She describes shabby lodgings and meager jobs, illegal abortions, and above all, her struggle to nourish her growing aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities.
The posthumously published Etchings in an Hourglass (1990) is the most digressive of her books, and also the most bitter and intimate. Here she confronts her grief and anger at the early deaths of Goldman and of her only child, and contemplates a long life filled with as much doubt as comfort: "At seventeen I was so enamored of life…that I promised myself I would experience everything, stipulating no qualities good or bad, and it has pretty much all happened. Little more than I knew at seventeen do I surely know who I am at seventy-five." Simon's books document, through the consciousness of a complex and brave woman, the arduous process of living fully.
Also widely published in such magazines as Harper's, Holiday, National Geographic, Saturday Review, and Vogue, Simon received awards of honor from Hunter College and the English Speaking Union. The National Book Critics Circle listed Bronx Primitive as one of the most distinguished books published in 1982.
New York (1964). Mexico: Places and Pleasures (1965, 1988). Kate Simon's Paris: Places and Pleasures (1967). Kate Simon's London: Places and Pleasures (1968). Italy: The Places in Between (1972, 1987). England's Green and Pleasant Land (1974).
Burstein, J., Writing Mothers, Writing Daughters: Tracing the Maternal in Stories by American Jewish Women (1996). Cahill, S. N., ed., Writing Women's Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Narratives by 20th Century American Women Writers (1994). Norris, G., ed., The Seasons of Women: An Anthology (1996). Rose, P., The Norton Book of Women's Lives (1993). Yang, M. C., "From Ethnicity to a Wider World: The Education of Kate Simon and Maxine Hong Kingston" (thesis, 1992).
CA (1989, 1990). MTCW (1991).
Feminist Studies (Spring 1991). Los Angeles Times (4 May 1982). Ms. (June 1982, July 1986). NYT (5 Feb. 1990). NYTBR (19 Aug. 1990). PW (14 May 1982). Time (14 July 1967, 19 Apr. 1982, 24 Feb. 1986).