Simon, Kate (1912–1990)

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Simon, Kate (1912–1990)

Polish-born American autobiographer and travel writer. Born Kaila Grobsmith on December 5, 1912, in Warsaw, Poland; died of cancer on February 4, 1990, in Manhattan, New York; daughter of Jacob Grobsmith (a shoemaker) and Lina Babica (a corsetiere); Hunter College, B.A., 1935; lived with Stanley F. Goldman (a physician, d. 1942); married Robert Simon (a publisher), in 1947 (divorced 1960); children: daughter Alexandra (d. 1954).

Selected writings:

New York Places and Pleasures: An Uncommon Guidebook (1959); Italy: the Places in Between (1970, 1984); England's Green and Pleasant Land (1974); Fifth Avenue: A Very Social History (1978); Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood (1982); A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence (1986); A Renaissance Tapestry: The Gonzaga of Mantua (1988); Etchings in an Hour Glass (1990).

Widely praised for her lively and entertaining prose, Kate Simon established her literary reputation as a travel writer with the 1959 publication of her successful New York Places and Pleasures, and went on to write similar guides for such cities as Mexico, Paris, London, and Italy. The recipient of awards from the National Book Critics Circle and the English Speaking Union, Simon was considered a master of the genre. J.H. Plumb of The New York Times Book Review wrote that she had made "one of the dullest forms of literature a brilliant work of art."

Born on December 5, 1912, Kate Simon lived in a Warsaw, Poland, ghetto before immigrating to the United States with her mother and younger brother. They settled with her father—who had left Poland when Kate was four—in the Tremont section of the Bronx. Simon did not get along with her overbearing father, clashing over his desire to see her become a concert pianist. Although she exhibited a talent for the instrument, she rebelled by refusing to practice and he countered with a threat to end her high school career with one year of secretarial training. Simon was saved from that fate by a letter from her principal indicating that the gifted student belonged in the academically challenging environment of James Monroe High School. Much of her free time, however, was devoted to caring for her younger brother and sister—a responsibility she recalled with some bitterness in her 1982 memoir of her early childhood, Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood.

Simon left her intolerable home situation and supported herself by teaching piano and English. The teenager found work as a nanny for an eccentric and radical couple, who introduced her to the exhilarating world of culture. Simon chronicled this time of struggle and discovery in her 1986 memoir A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence. She became an English major at Hunter College and adopted a bohemian lifestyle. While still in college, she began living with Stanley F. Goldman, a medical doctor (some sources indicate that they eventually married), with whom she had a child, Alexandra. Goldman died in 1942, the victim of several brain tumors, and 12 years later daughter Alexandra—in the throes of a similar illness—committed suicide.

In 1947, Kate married publisher Robert Simon, and began working in the editorial field for a number of publications, including The New Republic, The Nation, Publishers Weekly, and the Book-of-the-Month Club. Her second marriage provided her with the financial security to travel and from that point on she earned wide acclaim for lively, discerning, and highly perceptive travel writing. Her first book, New York Places and Pleasures: An Uncommon Guidebook, written in 1959 from an insider's perspective on the city, was a huge success. It attained bestseller status and went through several revisions after the first edition. She also wrote Italy: the Places in Between (1970 and 1984); England's Green and Pleasant Land (1974); Fifth Avenue: A Very Social History (1978); and A Renaissance Tapestry: The Gonzaga of Mantua (1988). The National Book Critics Circle, the English Speaking Union and Hunter College bestowed awards upon Simon for her writing.

At the time of her death from cancer in 1990, Simon was scheduled to begin teaching a writing course at Hunter College, and had recently submitted to Harper & Row a third autobiographical manuscript, Etchings in an Hour Glass, which dealt with her college years, two marriages, and most recent travels.


Andrews, Deborah, ed. The Annual Obituary 1990. Chicago, IL: St. James Press, 1991.

Flint, Peter B. The New York Times (obituary). February 5, 1990.

Garraty, John A., ed. American National Biography. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Ryan, Bryan, ed. Major 20th-Century Writers. Vol. 4. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1991.

Howard Gofstein , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan