House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family
by Hadley Freeman
(Simon & Schuster, 23 March 2021)
‘Hadley Freeman knew her grandmother, Sara lived in France just as Hitler started to gain power, but rarely did anyone in her family talk about it. Long after her grandmother’s death, she found a shoebox tucked in the closet containing photographs of her grandmother with a mysterious stranger, a cryptic telegram from the Red Cross, and a drawing signed by Picasso.
This discovery sent Freeman on a decade-long quest to uncover the significance of these keepsakes, taking her from Picasso’s archives in Paris to a secret room in a farmhouse in Auvergne to Long Island to Auschwitz. Freeman pieces together the puzzle of her family’s past, discovering more about the lives of her grandmother and her three brothers, Jacques, Henri, and Alex. Their stories sometimes typical, sometimes astonishing—reveal the broad range of experiences of Eastern European Jews during the Holocaust.
Addressing themes of assimilation, identity, and home, House of Glass is “a triumph” (The Bookseller) and a powerful story about the past that echoes issues that remain relevant today.’
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Freeman, or can we call you Hadley? Thank you so much for joining us today here at Authorlink. We are huge fans of your writing and truly loved your recent family memoir, House of Glass. It tells the story of your grandmother, Sala, and her elder brothers; your great uncles, Alex, Jacques, and Henri, and their experience of the Holocaust amongst other things.
We understand that back in 2006, you found a shoebox in your grandmother’s cupboard full of photos, letters, and documents from the past – when you were going through her clothes to find inspiration for a Vogue article. It held extraordinary evidence of stories you couldn’t quite prove until the chance discovery of Alex’s unpublished memoir in 2014. This gave you crucial details about the Glass siblings’ early lives, including their childhood in a Jewish Shtetl in what was then considered part of Austria, their move to Paris in the 1920s, and what happened to them during the Second World War.
It must have been emotional reacquainting yourself with your grandmother and her brothers and their stories. The passage of Alex escaping from the moving train to Auschwitz was heart stopping.
Were you ever moved to tears writing the House of Glass? What was a defining moment for you after having it published?
FREEMAN: Thank you, that is so kind of you, and of course, call me Hadley. During the writing of the book, I was so focused on getting the history right and conveying it to the reader in a vaguely compelling way that I didn’t really have time to think about my emotions. So it was only towards the end of the book – when I was really using my own memories as opposed to archival evidence – that I could allow feelings of sadness for when Henri, Sala and Alex died. I think probably the defining moment for me after it was published was when my uncle Rich, my father’s younger brother, who had been a little nervous about what the book would be like, sent me an email to say how much he loved it and how it made him understand his parents better. That meant an enormous amount to me.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, what a moment. We feel for you. We inherit the traumas of our parents and grandparents as part of who we are and they shapes our identity. You note in the book that you put off part of the research for as long as possible because you were worried about (understandably) upsetting your relatives, particularly your father. The Glass siblings lived through some traumatic events and did not like to talk about their past. We understand only your father read it beforehand, and he only asked to take out two words. What a relief.
Was it challenging to break through that emotional pain and ask your relatives questions and, in turn, for you to face their answers?
Did your conversations with your family help them lay their history to rest?
What kind of reactions did you receive from the rest of your family after you published your book? Did you have a family gathering to celebrate its’ arrival?
“It was hard to ask some questions because it really felt like prying, which of course it was.”
FREEMAN: We didn’t have a gathering because it sadly came out right at the beginning of the pandemic, so all launches and parties were cancelled.
It was hard to ask some questions because it really felt like prying, which of course it was. But I do think talking about some things helped some of us to deal with awkward parts of the past and understand it better. I was really braced for my family to not like the book but, to my amazement, it has been universally adored by all of them, which has been a huge relief.
AUTHORLINK: Wonderful. You tell your family’s story as a testament to the people they were, but also to the extraordinary lives they led. For instance, Henri had Ayatollah Khomeini as a neighbor in the commune, Neauphle-le-Château; poor Jacques sadly perished at Auschwitz; and Alex, to avoid a similar fate, seriously injured himself when he jumped off a moving train. He then recuperated with the aid of the French Resistance in a cottage he shared with a man who may have been his lover. You even found evidence that the Vichy government and the Nazis spied on him!
We then discover that Alex became a revered fashion designer (whose earlier draftsman was Dior), an art dealer, and a gallery owner and that he was friends with Chagall and Picasso (who even drew a poster for him for an exhibition). Alex’s apartment in Paris was so beautiful that you described it as looking like “a Matisse painting — and that is before you saw the actual Matisses’ on the walls.”
Your Uncle Alex’s ‘tall tales’ were not tales after all, but fact!
How did it feel being the lamplighter against the shadows of your uncles and grandmother’s stories?
FREEMAN: It felt like a big responsibility, but it also felt a bit like cheating, because these people all had such incredible lives, I really think anyone would have told them well, if they’d been lucky enough to have been related to them
AUTHORLINK: Yes, we understand. There seemed to be pervasive anti-semitism at the beginning of the Covid era concurrent to your writing of the House of Glass.
Did it feel like the right time to propel your family’s story forward during the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s 2016 election? Although neither of these political shifts was about keeping Jewish people out, they were about keeping out vaguely defined ‘outsiders’ (with Jeremy Corbyn to use your words either being “stupid about anti-semitism or didn’t care.”)
And then after all of that, to have your book finally published, and the full emotional impact of this, you then received angry tweets from Auschwitz on Twitter (in response to an article you wrote mentioning the ‘tourist’ side), asserting the gift shop selling ‘I Heart Poland’ stuff was not their gift shop, but the local municipality’s…That must have been a real ‘What the?’ moment.
Would you briefly discuss this?
“…it really struck me how much Polish suffering at the camp was played up, and Jewish suffering minimized…”
FREEMAN: Yes, that was funny. That came… about because I wrote a column for The Guardian after I came back from my trip to Auschwitz, because it really struck me how much Polish suffering at the camp was played up, and Jewish suffering minimized, and that is a change that’s happened over the past half decade, since the far right came to power.
The thing that epitomized, to me, the weird attitude in Poland to Auschwitz was that there’s a gift shop in the car park selling “I Love Poland” t-shirts. So I wrote about that, and Auschwitz was NOT impressed, saying the gift shop belongs to the local government, which actually makes it even weirder. Until pretty recently, Poland was very open about its culpability during the war, but that has changed with ascendence of the far right, and now it insists it was purely a victim – and it definitely was victimized by the Nazis who, of course, invaded it, and treated the Poles horrifically.
But it’s also true that Poland was already a highly anti-Semitic country and there are countless stories of Poles arresting Jews and turning them in to the Nazis. And while Poles were killed in the camps, many, many more Jews were. It’s a very interesting story, and it also illustrates how history can change depending on who’s in power. But yes, being reprimanded by Auschwitz on Twitter felt pretty absurd.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, we can imagine. For the twenty years it took you to research and write House of Glass, you have held your full-time job at The Guardian and wrote three books. If you ever needed “a break from Holocaust research,” you wrote about lighter subjects like celebrity, pop culture, and fashion cast into a social context.
We list your other books below in the next question. They’re tremendously enjoyable to read and well-researched, and yet you describe them as your ‘procrastination’ books leading up to your family memoir. Is that right?
Is that because of the sensitive subject matter? Or the requirement to travel to different parts of the world to trace the trajectory of your family’s history? Or both?
FREEMAN: It was a lot of things. Mainly, I had no confidence in my ability to tell this story, so I kept avoiding it. The research was pretty grim at times, so I’d go off and take a break by writing a book about 80s movies. Also, the research involved a lot of waiting: I had to wait a couple years for the Picasso archives to reopen in Paris; I had to wait for government and historical archives to get back to me with my requests for information; I had to wait while I found the right person to talk to about something, and so on and so forth. I’m not very good at waiting, so I found ways to keep busy.
AUTHORLINK: Right…We list your previous books followed by a few questions on each one:-
Your first book was That Extra Half an Inch: Hair, Heels, and Everything in Between (Michael Joseph, 27 October 2006), which you co-wrote with Victoria Beckham.
Questions: How did this come about? Was it your connection to the Guardian fashion desk that gave you the boost-up? Was this your first attempt to write a book? How tricky was it to share your words with another? And is Posh Spice as lovely as she seems?
Your second book, The Meaning of Sunglasses, A Guide to (Almost) All Things Fashionable (Viking, 7 February 2008), has been described as a “force for good for the industry and a level head for the consumers…Freeman celebrates the good in fashion: (clothes, pageantry, pantheon of eccentrics) and comes down hard on the bad: (size 0, objectification, exploitation)” (27 February 2015, Culture Whisper).
Questions: Can you tell us about it that experience?
Your third book, Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies (HarperCollins Publishers, 30 January 2014), is a guide to life directed to yourself at 23 and how to be a twenty-first-century feminist, navigating eating disorders, and how to cheer up your friends without patronizing them. Brilliant!
Question: Would you ever consider writing a part two version of this book directed to yourself at the age you are now?
And finally, the hit, Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Any More) (Harper Collins, 2 June 2016). You said once, ‘woman characters have become so reductive since the 80s movies and men’s roles so infantile.’
It’s part of the human condition to consider the present less wholesome than the past, the classic generational gripe we enter as we cast our eyes backward. Including in this is the feeling that ‘they just don’t make movies like they used to!’ I grew up on 80s films too – my brother, sister and I can quote almost all of Steel Magnolias by heart and am currently introducing my daughter (12) to all of them, much to her delight.
Questions: Was this book a way for you to explore this? How do you feel about the movies of today? What do you think?
FREEMAN: Yes, I ghosted Victoria Beckham’s fashion book when I was 27, and the publisher asked me because I was then working on The Guardian’s fashion desk. It was my first attempt at book writing, and it is odd writing in someone else’s voice. But Victoria herself was very kind and funny and easy to work with.
After that, I wrote The Meaning of Sunglasses pretty quickly, partly because I just thought it seemed like a fun thing to do, and also probably as a reaction to having written Victoria’s book. I wrote her book, now I wanted to write mine.
I wrote Be Awesome at a point in my life when I felt extremely un-awesome: I was heartbroken and quite lonely, living on my own in NYC. People tell me they like that book, but honestly, I can’t even look at it anymore.
Then I wrote Life Moves Pretty Fast, which came about because I’d been spending too much time in Holocaust archives and just really needed to watch some 80s movies. I agree, it is a cliched tendency to look back at the past as better, but what I enjoyed with that book was talking to people in Hollywood and finding out there are real concrete reasons why movies in the 80s were more fun than they are more, mainly to do with there being more of a focus on overseas sales, and that means more special effects and less dialogue and interesting scripts. This is now changing with the rise of screening and TV in general, but it still feels a bit of a loss.
AUTHORLINK: What fascinating answers. We’re sorry you were low during writing ‘Be Awesome’. Who was your first agent? Have you always had the same agent? Did you ever feel you weren’t going to make it as an author? What were the challenges in writing these social commentary books against working for The Guardian and raising a family?
FREEMAN: My first agent was the wonderful Kate Jones, who very sadly died right before my first book came out. I’m now with Georgia Garrett at RCW who I love. I was absolutely certain I wouldn’t make it as an author and don’t really feel like I have yet, to be honest. And yes, of course, it’s hard to write books while holding down a full-time job and I have three kids under five. But I also feel like, if you want to do something, you do it. You can give reasons not to, and that’s fine, but it just means you won’t do it.
AUTHORLINK: Great, thanks. Remarkable you were ‘absolutely certain’ you wouldn’t make it as an author! Did you always want to be a writer? Your first break as a young journalist came when you were in your final year at the University of Oxford when you won a Telegraph competition for young writers.
After a year in Paris, you joined The Guardian in 2000, initially as a staff writer on the fashion desk, and have worked for the newspaper as a fashion writer, features writer, Deputy Fashion Editor, columnist (including your Ask Hadley) and written about modern womanhood, racism, general social commentary, and politics ever since. In addition, you’ve also written for British Vogue, New York Magazine, and New Statesmen. Is this correct?
As you said in your last Weekend Guardian column, “I’ve been a Weekend columnist for five and a half years, and before that, I was in the Guardian’s opinion section, and before that, I was a columnist in the daily features section, G2, meaning I’ve foisted about 10 million of my random opinions on all of you.” And we are so pleased you did!
You ended your ‘Weekend’ column just the other day (18 September 2021) after 5 ½ years to concentrate on interviews for the newspaper. Is that right? Was it also because you wanted to focus more on your book writing?
Your interviews with celebrities are beloved by many making you one of The Guardian’s most recognizable names. So how does it make you feel to have this vast body of work?
FREEMAN: Yes, I always wanted to be a writer, mainly because I can’t really do anything else. It’s nice, I guess, to have written so many interviews, but I’ve been at The Guardian for 21 years, so it would be worrying if I hadn’t. I ended the column because I felt it was time to do so.
AUTHORLINK: Your articles are so eloquent, well-written, and reflective. They’re like letters from a friend, yet at the same time, objective, satirical and omniscient, and while you don’t place yourself in the story (unless it’s an opinion piece), your take on the world leaves hilarious sound-bites; sharp yet with an oddly comforting familiarity.
There’s a noticeable shift in the industry from an emphasis on news and features to opinion pieces and columns, no doubt because we are all opining on some social media soapbox or another and making ourselves into a brand.
You said this once, “These days, no story is more valued than someone’s personal experience. I wrote more than a decade ago about the trend in journalism in which (often female) journalists cannibalize their own lives for copy, and this has bled into publishing…Personal experience is seen as the final word. “This is my truth” is the mantra of the modern age.” (19 June 2021, The Guardian)
However, having proved yourself to be an acutely perceptive and well-informed writer with a healthy following, the whole point of you having your opinion piece is to read your opinion.
What do you think about this now? And why is this a good thing or a bad thing?
You also said this once, “It was [Michael] Fox who taught me how to become an interviewer in 2013…It wasn’t just about meeting and listening to people; it was about telling others how they felt when they met…I was previously worried that meeting a hero would kill fandom, but it proved to be the other way around. Meeting them sharpens the joy I get from their work. (20 November 2020, Eminetra)
Would you kindly elaborate on this?
FREEMAN: Of course, in an opinion piece you should write your opinion. But I do think there is a vogue now for the belief that only opinions gleaned from personal experience – as opposed to intellectual engagement – are valid, and that is just not true in my book. Personal experience is very subjective and not representative, and anecdotes are not data.
I’ve interviewed Michael J Fox twice now and he is very much my favourite interviewee – I hope I get to interview him again. I’ve been a fan of his all my life, and when I first interviewed him in 2013, the whole experience was so wonderful, because he really is just the best guy, that I wanted readers to share that experience with me. So I tried to write it in a way so it felt like they were in the room, too, and that’s what I’ve done ever since.
AUTHORLINK: Wonderful – thank you for sharing that. You started the House of Glass in 2001, and it took 18 years to research while raising three children, writing three and a half ‘procrastination books’ and maintaining a challenging full-time job. It was only in the last few years, however, that you properly turned your mind to it with the assistance of your good friend (who was a researcher on the Who Do You Think You Are show…helpful) and after eighteen months of study and eighteen months of writing, you finished it.
Unfortunately, it came out on 5 March 2020, just before lockdown commenced on the 16th. As a result, all your readings were canceled. What are the pros and cons of publishing in the time of Covid, in your opinion?
FREEMAN: Well, the pros were that everyone was reading at home, so books were selling. The obvious cons were that no one was going to bookshops, so they couldn’t see what booksellers were recommending, and of course all events were cancelled. So clearly it wasn’t ideal, but it worked out.
AUTHORLINK: As you said recently, “But where once people could argue with one another and then go out for a drink, now it feels as if people argue. A difference of opinion becomes a seismic breaking of alliances, and certain subjects are verboten in social situations.” (18 September 2021, The Guardian)
What do you think of the division seen around the world (notably Australia) between people resisting the vaccine and lockdown measures as an attack on their civil liberties and the ones who welcome them? After nearly two years of Covid, it’s still incredibly a polarizing topic. I had an outright war on my Facebook page between two friends, one a dear old classmate from high school and a new friend from another part of the world, who didn’t know each other, which escalated to regretful proportions.
Do you believe people have forgotten the adage that’ politics and religion ought never to be discussed in polite company’? Or is the vaccine a whole other topic?
Touching upon the above question, you once said, “So it’s ironic that at a time when column-writing has never been more desirable to so many, there is such an expectation of conformity of opinion.” (18 September 2021, The Guardian)
FREEMAN: I don’t mind people arguing about politics or whatever – difficult issues should be discussed. But I do think there is a belief these days among too many people that unless you agree on every subject with someone, you can’t be friends with them.
It does feel to me that there is less of an understanding that people can honestly and in good faith see things in different ways, and that doesn’t make them a bad person. We should be curious about different people’s experiences of the world, not condemn them for it.
AUTHORLINK: Completely agree. What’s a typical writing day for you? Where do you write and when? How many hours do you try and write a day? Do you go through any rituals to help you get through a hard-working day?
FREEMAN: I write in my study, and any time when I don’t have Guardian work or kids to look after, I write, so there isn’t really a schedule.
Ideally, I’d write from 10am to 6pm every day, but life doesn’t really work like that. And if I’m struggling, I take the dog for a walk.
AUTHORLINK: We admire your calm, often tongue-in-cheek, outspokenness about issues you feel are important; for example, when you questioned Diablo Cody, producer of the critically acclaimed film Juno (2007), about your concerns with the scene featuring pro-life protestors (and that unnecessary, sensational one-liner). Further, how in June 2018, you denounced the treatment of undocumented child immigrants arriving in America, drawing parallels with your grandmother’s experience of escaping from the Holocaust, describing it as deliberate “cruelty by the Trump administration, and a reflection of latent racism amongst its supporters.” Or how in September 2020, during the extradition trial of Julian Assange, you balked at Assange’s partner for expressing concerns that extradition would prevent her two children from being able to see their father.
Has any of your opinions got you into any trouble or danger? Do you care? Have you ever hesitated in saying them? Have you been censored because of them?
FREEMAN: Yes, of course people have got cross with me about my opinions, but no, I don’t care. People disagree with me about Israel, about gender, about antisemitism, and that’s fine. I accept people have different perspectives and different experiences. But unlike some people, I don’t try to stop them from expressing those alternative perspectives.
AUTHORLINK: Now to discuss your remarkable interviews. You have chatted with such greats as William Shatner, Salman Rushdie, Woody Allen, Fran Lebowitz, Judy Bloom, Oprah Winfrey, and Keanu Reeves, to name a few! You once said, “As a fan, you want to please. As a journalist, you need a story. Well, my heart is full of fandom, but my head knows that my work is more important than the fleeting approval of celebrities.” (19 June 2021, The Guardian)
How long does it take you to prepare your interviews and then write them out? Is there a type of format you like to use (without giving away your trade secrets)? Or do you ask them questions that interest you personally?
Which are your top three interviews and why? We know that at least one is Michael J Fox…The other two? We rather loved the one with Helena Bonham Carter, as well.
How long does it take you to write 800-word articles? Did you or do you ever become stressed with deadlines? Are your articles ever ‘adjusted’ by your editor? Are you always able to choose the topic you would like to write about in your opinion pieces?
FREEMAN: Interviews are between 2000-4000 words, and the writing is the easy part. That tends to take a day and a bit to three days to get really right.
For preparation, I see or read every film or book the subject has done, read and watch as many past interviews as possible, and I ask the questions I want to know the answers to. No point wasting time with dull questions.
I find it impossible to list favourites besides Michael J Fox. Yes, Helena Bonham Carter was great, so was Judy Blume, and I loved Nicolas Cage as well as Fran Lebowitz. Really, almost all of them has been fascinating.
AUTHORLINK: Wonderful. Who is your first reader for your books? Does your husband or writer friends lend a hand in this regard? Who is your first reader for your articles?
Famous people surround you, but you’ve admitted you’re not friends with many of them. Although, one of your close friends is Zadie Smith.
You’ve said once about her, “Yet Smith is the kind of friend who comes round every day when you’re having a tough time, who, when she decides she wants to be your friend will tenaciously pursue, call, support, love, never letting a friendship slip out of her grasp even when she’s neck-deep in a novel and surrounded by a celebrity force field. Her parties in London used to contain half her primary school in one room and Ian McEwan and Martin Amis in another….” Loved reading that.
Do you ever give feedback on each other’s work?
FREEMAN: It really depends on the book. Yes, my husband reads them, and I show them to people who are interested in the subject. Zadie is a very close friend and we have shown one another things in the past, but usually we’re too busy asking each another’s opinion about clothes.
“…criticism is part of the job, and you have to roll with it.”
AUTHORLINK: Ha ha ha. Brilliant. How do you handle criticism? Do you take it on the chin, ignore it or ‘block’ people?
FREEMAN: Criticism is fine, personal abuse online is less ideal, and I block that. But criticism is part of the job, and you have to roll with it.
AUTHORLINK: We were saddened to read that you were ill and in hospital for three years in your late teens with anorexia. We can’t even imagine what a difficult period that must have been for you and your family. After you became well, you entered Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies then went on to read English literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford.
Your next memoir recounts your teenage experience of anorexia, scheduled to be published by Fourth Estate in spring 2023. Congratulations! How is that going so far, and has it been easy to write?
FREEMAN: Yes, I’m writing that now, and it’s been a lot easier to write than a book starting in Poland in 1900. It’s strange writing something so extended about myself, but hopefully readers won’t find it too dull.
AUTHORLINK: We very much doubt it. And to finish off with some light-hearted questions,
- Best Betty White scene in the Golden Girls? Too many? Best Bea Arthur scene?
- Ideal beverage while writing or editing? Coffee, tea, wine, water, gin or kombucha, soft drink, juice or nothing at all?
- What are the best books you’ve read this year?
- It has to be when Rose bakes a cake for herself after her husband has died, and she talks to him while eating the cake. And for Dorothy, it’s when she’s trying to buy condoms at the pharmacist.
- Shalom Auslander’s, Mother for Dinner and Hope: A Tragedy, and David Baddiel’s, Jews Don’t Count
AUTHORLINK: Terrific! Thank you, Hadley. We couldn’t stop laughing at that pharmacy episode of The Golden Girls. What a rich experience it has been for us chatting to you about House of Glass and your writing career. Thanks so much for your time and your contribution to journalism in the last 20 years.
We wish you even more incredible success in your personal and professional life and look forward to reading your opinions and your forthcoming books in the future. All the best.
FREEMAN: Thank you, that’s so kind of you.
About the Author: Hadley Freeman has been a features writer at The Guardian newspaper since 2000.
Hadley Freeman has been a columnist and features writer at The Guardian since 2000. In 2008, she published her first book The Meaning of Sunglasses: A Guide to (Almost) All Things Fashionable followed by Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies in 2013, described as a ‘series of witty polemics on women’s place in society’ by The Observer.
She was on the judging panel for the Idler Academy’s Bad Grammar Awards 2014 along with Rowley Leigh and Jeremy Paxman. She has also made guest appearances on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4.
House of Glass is her fourth book and has been described as “frightening, inspiring, and cautionary” (Kirkus Reviews) and “a triumph” (The Bookseller).
Hadley read English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She also contributes to British Vogue, New York Magazine, and New Statesmen. She lives in New York and London.