Belfrage, Sally (1936–1994)

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Belfrage, Sally (1936–1994)

American journalist and memoirist whose first book, A Room in Moscow, brought her instant fame. Born Sally Mary Caroline Belfrage in Hollywood, California, on October 4, 1936; died in London on March 14, 1994; daughter of Cedric Belfrage and Molly Castle; studied in New York City and at the London School of Economics; married Bernard Pomerance, in 1965; children: Eve and Moby.

Selected writings:

A Room in Moscow (London: André Deutsch, 1958); Flowers of Emptiness: Reflections on an Ashram (NY: Dial Press, 1981); Living With War: A Belfast Year (NY: Viking Press, 1987); Freedom Summer (with a Foreword by Robert P. Moses, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990); Un-American Activities: A Memoir of the Fifties (NY: HarperCollins, 1994).

Sally Belfrage was born in Hollywood, California, on March 14, 1936, to British parents who were distinctly un-American in their attitudes. Her father Cedric was born into a well-todo physician's family; sent to Cambridge University, he arrived there along with his manservant and a "meager" allowance of two pounds a week. By the time Sally was born, both of her parents had established themselves as successful journalists. Cedric Belfrage's transformation into an intellectual iconoclast was well underway, and by the 1940s he was proudly calling himself an "independent radical." In 1948, he founded a spirited left-wing journal, The National Guardian. Sally's mother Molly Castle , who was less interested in politics, was known to have more than her quota of British eccentricities. Largely because of her father's leftist politics, Sally felt herself an outsider while growing up in California and New York City, where she attended the Bronx High School of Science and Hunter College. Above all else, she wanted to be accepted as an "All American Girl," a difficult task given her family's politics. Her Jewish fiancé's mother was fiercely determined to protect her son from the dire threat of "a shiksa Red spy's daughter," and broke up his relationship with Belfrage.

The most traumatic event of these years for Belfrage was her father's 1955 departure from the United States after Elizabeth Bentley accused him of having been involved in Communist espionage. Belfrage went to England with her father and enrolled at the London School of Economics. Encouraged by her father and intrigued in her own right, she traveled to Moscow in 1957 as a member of the United States delegation to the World Youth Festival. Defying a Washington ban on travel to the People's Republic of China, Belfrage also traveled there to see for herself what the McCarthyites believed she should not examine firsthand. On her return from Peking to Moscow, she decided to remain in Moscow for five months and took a job at the Foreign Languages Publishing House. There, she rented a room of her own—a unique achievement for a foreigner, let alone a Soviet citizen—and met the British spy Donald Maclean.

The book Belfrage wrote about her experiences in the Soviet Union, A Room in Moscow, became a worldwide bestseller. The reviewer for the respected Manchester Guardian praised it as "a unique, outrageous, lively and intelligent account of a winter in Moscow spent among a group of Muscovite bohemians." The American celebrity machine, then still in its infancy, took a fancy to the spunky young woman barely out of her teens. Mike Wallace interviewed her for network television, Dorothy Parker gave a party in her honor, and Eleanor Roosevelt graciously chatted with her. Theodore White gave her book his blessing, calling it "a gem of perceptive reporting."

Following Eleanor Roosevelt's suggestion that she go to the Middle East to gather material for another book, Belfrage spent a year in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Syria. Her notebooks filled up, and she contracted a sham marriage with Sari Nashashibi, the son of a distinguished Palestinian family, in order to help him acquire American citizenship. But her time spent in the region never led to a book, as Belfrage decided she was too emotionally conflicted to achieve any reportorial distance on the Middle East's countless conflicts. After her return to the United States, the FBI decided that she was a chip off the Belfrage block. Regarding her as a potential "security risk," the agency began to assemble a file on Belfrage that over two decades grew to several hundreds of pages.

The rise of the civil-rights movement in the American South contained the elements of extreme conflict and basic human questions that attracted Belfrage as both a reporter and private citizen. She spent the summer of 1963 in Mississippi as a volunteer with Stokely Carmichael's voter registration campaign. Despite the considerable risks involved, she probed every aspect of the racism that had distorted the lives of both blacks and whites in the Deep South since the end of the Civil War. The result of her stay was the book Freedom Summer, which received high critical praise upon publication. Writing in the New York Review of Books, noted Southern writer Walker Percy described the work as "a low-keyed and all the more effective treatment of the gritty routine of running a Freedom library, of the Negroes, the daily procession of small harassments, the obscene phone calls, the cars that try to run you down in the street, and finally the registration drive and a week-end in the Greenwood jail." The book has become a classic and was reprinted in 1990.

Belfrage married writer Bernard Pomerance in 1965 and became mother to a son and a daughter. The family moved to London, Pomerance achieved success with his play The Elephant Man, but the marriage broke down. She began the 1980s immersing herself in the ways of the followers of Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, joining two of her friends at his ashram in Poona, India. The insightful and often extremely humorous book that resulted was the 1981 volume Flowers of Emptiness. The review in Newsweek described the book as "an utterly absorbing odyssey."

Much more serious was her investigation of the violence in Northern Ireland. Belfrage spent many months interviewing participants in the sectarian hatreds of the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Belfast; eventually, she reached the sad conclusion that it would prove difficult to end the conflict because many individuals and groups had vested interests in keeping intact the existing system of injustice and violence. When her book appeared in print in 1987 as Living With War: A Belfast Year (British title, The Crack), many reviewers declared it one of the best studies yet of the tragic conflict in Ulster.

Belfrage had friends and admirers all over the world and was known for her courage, sense of humor, and lack of snobbery. An active participant in the women's movement in the United Kingdom, she was one of a group of close friends who supported Jill Tweedie during her final illness. Days after Tweedie's death in December 1993, Belfrage learned that she had terminal cancer. By this time, she had completed the manuscript of her last book, the autobiographical Un-American Activities: A Memoir of the Fifties. Sally Belfrage spent the last weeks of her life going over the galley proofs of what Nora Sayre called her "fascinating and irresistible" memoir of life in the conformist years of the Cold War and Senator Joseph McCarthy. The reviews of Un-American Activities were enthusiastic, with Victor Navasky leading the pack: "Sally Belfrage's beautiful memoir is heartrending, hilarious, and as roller-coasterish as the decade she has forever captured." It was a review Belfrage did not live to see. She died in London on March 14, 1994. Many years before, her friend Orson Welles affectionately captured her essence, calling Belfrage "a good old-fashioned international nuisance."


Fowler, Glenn. "Cedric Belfrage, 85, Target of Communist Inquiry," in The New York Times Biographical Service. June 1990, p. 596.

Pace, Eric. "Sally Belfrage Dies; Writer Specializing in Memoirs Was 57," in The New York Times Biographical Service. March 1994, p. 396.

"Sally Belfrage," in The Times [London]. March 16, 1994, p. 21.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia