Vining, Elizabeth Gray (1902–1999)

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Vining, Elizabeth Gray (1902–1999)

American tutor to the crown prince of Japan and author of many books for children and adults . Name variations: Elizabeth Janet Gray. Born on October 6, 1902, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died on November 27, 1999, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania; daughter of John Gordon Gray (a businessman) and Anne Moore (Iszard) Gray; educated at Germantown Friends School; Bryn Mawr College, A.B., 1923; Drexel Institute School of Library Science, B.S., 1926; married Morgan Vining, on January 31, 1929 (died).

Writing career began at age 17 when she contributed story to Young Churchman (1919); wrote several books under name Elizabeth Janet Gray; won Newbery Medal for Adam of the Road (1943); was recipient of Herald Tribune Spring Festival award for book Sandy (1945); tutored Crown Prince Akihito of Japan (1946–50); wrote bestselling book, Windows for the Crown Prince (1952), about her experiences in Japan.

Selected writings—all under Elizabeth Janet Gray unless otherwise noted: Meredith's Ann (1929); Tilly-Tod (1929); Meggy MacIntosh (1930); Tangle Garden (1932); Jane Hope (1933); Beppy Marlowe of Charles Town (1936); Young Walter Scott (1938); Penn (1938); Contributions of the Quakers (1939); The Fair Adventure (1940); Anthology with Comments (1942); Adam of the Road (1942); Sandy (1945); (under Elizabeth Gray Vining) Windows for the Crown Prince (1952); The World in Tune (1954); The Virginia Exiles (1955); Friend of Life: The Biography of Rufus M. Jones (1958); The Cheerful Heart (1959); Return to Japan (1960); I Will Adventure (1962); Take Heed of Loving Me (1963); Flora: A Biography (1966); I, Roberta (1967); (under Elizabeth Gray Vining) Quiet Pilgrimage (autobiography, 1970); (under Elizabeth Gray Vining) The Taken Girl (1972); (under Elizabeth Gray Vining) Being Seventy: The Measure of a Year (1978).

Born into an old Philadelphia Quaker family on October 6, 1902, Elizabeth Gray Vining received her early schooling at Germantown Friends School and graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1923. She was the daughter of Anne Izard Gray and John Gordon Gray, a businessman who made surveying instruments used by Admiral Robert Peary at the North Pole and in the building of the Trans-Siberian railroad. Following her college graduation, Vining taught school and had several stories published in Sunday school magazines. In 1926, she obtained a degree in library science from Drexel University in Philadelphia, and went on to teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she met Morgan Vining, the associate director of the university's extension division, whom she married on January 31, 1929. Her husband died in an automobile accident a few years later.

After writing several books under the name Elizabeth Janet Gray, she was named the recipient of the prestigious Newbery Medal for her children's book Adam of the Road (1943). She also won the Herald Tribune Spring Festival award for her book Sandy in 1945. In 1946, through her work with the American Friends Service Committee, Vining was suggested as a possible English tutor for Crown Prince Akihito of Japan. Her first reaction to the idea was one of disbelief and hesitancy, but in the end she decided to take the position if she were asked, though she would not lift a finger to get it. With the approval of the emperor of Japan, Vining was selected to tutor Akihito, and in 1946 she arrived at the imperial court intent on making some "small contribution to the cause of peace among nations." She also hoped that she might help improve the lowly position of women in Japan, not knowing that, abetted by Beate Sirota , Japanese women had already been given the right to vote shortly before her arrival there. Her duties in Japan soon included teaching English to other members of the royal family as well as lecturing to various groups.

Vining's experiences in Japan led her to write two books, the bestselling Windows for the Crown Prince (1952) and Return to Japan (1960). In Windows for the Crown Prince, she gives a clear picture of the dedicated attempts of many Americans in Japan who, after World War II, attempted to build a new and democratic country. She also details the bewilderment the Japanese often experienced while trying to learn American democratic principles. Descriptions of Japanese customs, traditions and holidays are included, as well as detailed notes on school life, the royal family and the imperial court, the crown prince's first meeting with General Douglas MacArthur, and the Japanese reaction to the outbreak of war in Korea in 1950. Tutoring the crown prince from 1946 to 1950, Vining forged a strong friendship with him, one that was retained throughout her lifetime.

Vining wrote more than 60 books for children and adults, including biographies, contemporary fiction, historical novels and an autobiography. Her last, also autobiographical in nature, was Being Seventy: The Measure of a Year (1978), a daily journal of the changes, thoughts and wisdom Vining encountered during her 70th year. A return visit to Japan and reminiscences of her days teaching the crown prince are included.

Vining served as the vice-president of trustees of Bryn Mawr from 1951 to 1971 and held memberships in the Authors League and PEN (New York). She was awarded 14 honorary degrees, was the recipient of the Constance Lindsay Skinner

Award and the American Women's Eminent Achievement Award, and named Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania. The Japanese government presented her with the Third Order of the Sacred Crown, an award with eight possible degrees of merit. When it was explained to her that the first and second degrees of merit were reserved for princesses, she was asked whether she would mind the third. Vining replied, "Mottai nai" (It's too good).

Elizabeth Vining died on November 27, 1999, at Kendal-at-Longwoods, a retirement community in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, at the age of 97.


Commire, Anne, ed. "Elizabeth Janet Gray," in Something about the Author. Vol. 6. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1974.

"Elizabeth Vining," in The Economist. December 11, 1999.

Obituary in The Day [New London, CT]. December 1, 1999.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont