Blumenfeld's Brave Experiment
International crisis sends Blumenfeld to the South Pacific
A few years out of Harvard, Blumenfeld found himself worried over what he perceived as an increasing risk of nuclear annihilation. With the Cold War heating up and foreign tensions nearing their height, most people simply hid under their school desks or purchased fallout shelters. Blumenthal decided to take slightly more drastic measures.
“I was very concerned in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, particularly when the Cuban Missile Crisis took place, about our chances of survival,” Blumenfeld says. “That led me to think that I want to go to a place like New Zealand which I thought might have a good chance of escaping a nuclear attack and nuclear fallout around the world.”
In 1962, Blumenfeld embarked to the South Pacific with his then-girlfriend Helaine (now his wife of more than 40 years) and a group of friends. Philia, an international community, was born.
“A lot of people came down,” Blumenfeld recalls. “There was a large American contingent sent over and a number of British people.”
The emigrants settled in the area of Nelson, a town on the northern coast of New Zealand’s south island. Similar communities had already been established near the town, including groups of conscientious objectors who moved to the region before World War I.
“It was an experiment,” Blumenfeld says. “What we wanted to do was try to show that a community could work on a cooperative basis. Decisions would be on a consensus basis, rather than a voting basis.” He adds, “We felt that this was the wave of the future.”
Cinema fans will note a similarity between the New Zealand settlement and the 1959 anti-war picture “On the Beach,” about post-nuclear war Australians living out their last months with the specter of radioactive clouds approaching the continent.
While Philia members took jobs in Nelson to help provide funds—“we had to be very pragmatic,” Blumenfeld says —the community suffered from an occasionally hostile environment.
“At one time I remember there was a book burning session in the town, where they threw A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because they thought it was pornographic,” Blumenfeld says.
The community did not last for long. Fiscal difficulties plagued Philia, and the founder’s attempts to secure financial backing for the venture were less than successful.
Blumenfeld took leave from the South Pacific to visit wealthy friends in Europe, whom he hoped would provide backing. But he said that political difficulties nixed any hopes he had of securing funds.
“I was declared persona non grata by the New Zealand government and I couldn’t return,” he explains.
Blumenfeld’s original plan had been to expand the Philia enterprise and purchase property in other South Pacific islands. Despite the failure, he recalls the experiment as being very exciting—“one of the great challenges in my lifetime.”
COLLEGE, THEN THE WORLD
Born in Amsterdam, Blumenfeld spent his early childhood in France and moved to New York with his family in August 1941. He is the son of Erwin Blumenfeld, an internationally renowned and heavily influential photographer who specialized in fashion imagery, especially female nudes. Major magazines on both sides of the Atlantic used his work for cover photos and spreads, and the younger Blumenfeld recently published a collection of his father’s prints, The Naked and the Veiled: The Photographic Nudes of Erwin Blumenfeld.
Growing up in Manhattan where his father kept a midtown studio, Yorick attended Columbia Grammar School and matriculated to Harvard in 1950.
A French, British, and Russian History and Literature concentrator at the College, Blumenfeld found himself under the tutelage of now-legendary Russian history scholar Richard Pipes. Pipes, the Baird Professor of History Emeritus, guided Blumenfeld through his undergraduate years, an academic journey that culminated in his thesis, “Gogol and Russian Censorship.”
Blumenfeld argued that censorship acted as a fuel for global creativity, resulting in some of the world’s best-known works of artistry.
“We hotly disagreed,” he says of his experience with the noted scholar. “But it was a very good experience to disagree with Richard Pipes.”
He pauses a moment. “He did appreciate me, I think,” he says reflectively.
Beyond academics, Blumenfeld was also involved in musical theater at Harvard. He stayed behind the scenes, designing sets for the Lowell House Musical Society and, with a friend, submitting a script for the Hasty Pudding Theatricals.
“I liked writing, I didn’t like being on stage,” he recalls.
A WORLD OF NEWS
The script was not selected for production. But soon after graduation, Blumenfeld began making a career of his writing. After postgraduate work at the London School of Economics, he moved to Washington, D.C. to work as an editorial research reporter at Congressional Quarterly.
In the waning days of 1962, after the Philia experiment had come to a halt, Blumenfeld had a chance meeting with Washington Post owner Philip Graham in Paris. “He hired me on the spot,” Blumenfeld recalls.
Graham was less than a year away from his suicide.
“Phil was very erratic—a great man but off the wall,” Blumenfeld said. He later became friends with Graham’s wife Katharine, who took over the Post upon her husband’s death and was a formidable force in Washington society until her own death in 2001.
The chance meeting in France was the beginning of a seven-year career at Newsweek. Blumenfeld started as a cultural correspondent based in Paris, and later became the Eastern European Bureau Chief. His work included two major cover stories: profiles of dictators Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia. Blumenfeld later wrote a book on his experiences, See Saw: Cultural Life in Eastern Europe.
The 1980s brought Ronald Reagan, and a shift in Blumenfeld’s career.
“I thought we were heading to another nuclear holocaust,” Blumenfeld says. “There were so many warheads, mathematically it looked like sooner or later some mishap would happen and we were all going to do ourselves in.”
Ironically, Richard Pipes, Blumenfeld’s Harvard thesis adviser, was a key adviser to Reagan’s foreign policy at the time.
Save for several New York Times op-eds on the subject, Blumenfeld shifted his focus to books, calling periodicals “too ephemeral.” In 1981, Blumenfeld wrote Jenny: My Diary, a cautionary tale of the consequences of nuclear holocaust.
Today, Blumenthal is the editor of “Prospects of Tomorrow,” a series of books focusing on ideas for how to affect the future and discussions of what kinds of issues the world will face in the coming years. The series includes his own 2099: A Eutopia—a look at how daily life may work in a metropolis at the cusp of the 22nd century—and collections of noted scholars discussing positive methods of approaching the future and how to ensure the best possible world for later generations.
ACROSS THE POND
Today, Blumenfeld and his wife reside in Cambridge, England.
“In 1969, Nixon was going to come into the White House and I had decided I didn’t want to bring my children up into a rather violent and very unpredictable America,” he says. “I felt that it would be better to move to England where we would be in the company of more civilized people.”
However, he has not eschewed the States. He fondly remembers his New York days and visits four to five times a year. “I still get an enormous energy from visiting New York,” he says.
Blumenfeld’s Reagan-era anxiety has not been alleviated much today.
“I deplore the way things have deteriorated with the [Bush] administration,” he says. “I am very much opposed to the war in Iraq. I am opposed to the war on terrorism. … You can’t win a so-called war on terrorism anymore than you can win a war against drugs.”
In terms of improving the world, Blumenfeld still considers the pen mightier than the sword, having editorialized on Bush’s policies in The Times of London, The Guardian, and elsewhere. He has also participated in anti-war marches in England, his first experiences as an active demonstrator.
Despite his pessimism about current events, Blumenfeld is still looking to leave the world a better place than he found it, a progressive impulse that remains from his earlier Philia days.
“I’m looking at the prospect for a better world and trying to give the younger generation a reason to vote. And give the generation a more positive outlook,” Blumenfeld says. “[I] feel that negativity leads to shock and fright and is one way to get a reaction from people and does not leave them with anything.…I think the positive message is one that they can go back to….We have a lot to change and I think people really need to be encouraged.”
—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.