Eleanor Munro, who profiled women artists, dies at 94

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Eleanor Munro, who profiled women artists, dies at 94
Her 1979 book featured interviews with dozens of artists, but she also wrote on other subjects — pilgrimages, for instance.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Eleanor Munro, who in an illuminating 1979 book profiled and interviewed dozens of women artists, probing for common threads in their works and their experiences trying to pursue the creative life in a society and art world that limited opportunities for them, died April 1 at an assisted-living center in Rye, New Hampshire. She was 94.

Her son, David Frankfurter, said the cause was complications of dementia.

Munro had been writing frequently about art for The Atlantic, Partisan Review, The New York Times and other publications when she published “Originals: American Women Artists” in 1979. The book, full of extensive interviews with Georgia O’Keeffe, Alice Neel, Joan Mitchell, Anne Truitt, Faith Ringgold and other important artists, stands as a rich historical resource, but Munro made it more than just a collection of profiles. In telling their stories, she examined how the climate for women artists had changed over the decades. And their struggles illuminated her own life.

“In a way,” she told The Atlanta Constitution on 1979, “the book was an autobiographical search for myself.”

She had been raised in an artistic household. Her father was a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, but that hadn’t necessarily meant that she was encouraged creatively (a dynamic she explored in a 1988 book, “Memoir of a Modernist’s Daughter”). And she had seen her mother give up her dream of becoming a concert pianist in favor of a more traditional role as a homemaker and piano teacher.

As she put it: “In our household, you could love Beethoven, but God forbid that you should be him. God forbid that you should have an artistic temperament.”

The resulting book, as novelist Janet Hobhouse wrote in her review in The New York Times, was more than just a women-in-a-male-dominated-world lament.

“Miss Munro’s book is about the processes and hardships of the creative life,” Hobhouse wrote, “the long solitary journeys that result in bits of string and wire, in oily shapes on canvas — a far more engaging subject than whether women are capable of rising above the patchwork quilt to the heights of Leonardo.”

Although Munro wrote frequently about art, her interests ranged widely. For her other best-known book, “On Glory Roads: A Pilgrim’s Book About Pilgrimage” (1987), she visited Jerusalem, Hindu shrines in India, the Buddhist temple Borobudur on Java and other revered sites, examining the phenomenon of pilgrimage from the perspective of, in her words, a “visionary humanist.”

The book was part travelogue and part meditation on what inspires pilgrimages, what those who make them are seeking.

“This is a meditative, reflective book,” Merle Rubin wrote in reviewing it for The Christian Science Monitor, “a careful blend of objectivity and subjectivity, written in an open-minded spirit delicately balanced between belief and disbelief.”

Eleanor Carroll Munro was born March 28, 1928, in Brooklyn, New York, to Thomas and Lucile Nadler Munro. The family moved to the Cleveland area when her father secured the curatorial position at the Cleveland Museum, and she graduated from the Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She graduated from Smith College in 1949, then studied at the Sorbonne in Paris for a year. In 1968, she earned a master’s degree in English at Columbia University.

In the 1950s, she was an editor at Art News magazine (now ARTnews) and then managing editor of Art News Annual. Art News’ editor at the time was Alfred Frankfurter. They married in 1960. He died in 1965.

In 1969, Munro married E.J. Kahn Jr., a writer for The New Yorker. He died in 1994.

In addition to her son, a professor of religion at Boston University, Munro is survived by two sisters, Cynthia Beeker and Elisabeth Smith; a brother, Donald; and two grandchildren. Another son from her first marriage, Alexander, died in 1993.

Munro’s other books included “The Golden Encyclopedia of Art” (1961) and “Through the Vermilion Gates: A Journey Into China’s Past” (1971). She also compiled two books of readings, “Wedding Readings: Centuries of Writing and Rituals for Love and Marriage” (1989) and “Readings for Remembrance: A Collection for Funerals and Memorial Services” (2000).

In a 1993 article for the Travel section of the Times, she offered a sort of memorial of her own. She told a story from when she was working on the book about pilgrimages: She took her mother, who was then 86 and seemed to be fading, on one of her pilgrimage trips, through France and Spain. The trip, she wrote, seemed to revive her mother’s interest in life, if briefly.

“The details of the trip were soon gone from Mother’s mind,” she wrote at the end of that essay, “as I knew they would be, but it left in mine a most palpable sense of her questing personality and her life-savoring presence. Mother died in 1991 at the age of 94.”

When Munro died, she had just passed her 94th birthday.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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