Leila Hadley Luce:
It says a lot about Leila Burton Hadley Luce that in one minute she can mention Milton, Eliot, Gibbon, S.J. Perelman, the study of Latin and Greek, Yeats and the Dalai Lama—and that’s just for starters. At 81, this dynamic life force, still evidencing patrician good looks—traveler, writer, explorer, editor, philanthropist, journalist, foundation head—no longer in top health and recently widowed (her fourth husband Henry Luce III died late last year), is still going strong and not missing a semantic beat. Her down-to-earth manner, a mix of self-effacing wit and humor, and a spontaneous, unpretentious evocation of people, places and things she admires, can leave one speechless. Some of her loves are well known (Shakespeare, Joyce); some relatively unfamiliar (the travel writer and memoirist Patrick Leigh Fermor, the poet Rachel Hadas, the international baccalaureate program at St. Timothy’s Boarding School in Maryland); some forgotten (the American composer Deems Taylor, whose 1919 orchestral suite “Through the Looking Glass” comes to mind now that Rizzoli has just published A Garden By the Sea, an illustrated “practical guide and journal by Leila Haldey,” which describes the cultivation of five acres surrounding her Fishers Island, NY cliff-top home, “Brillig.”
The handsome gardening volume is hardly the first Hadley book to be praised for fine writing. The award-winning Give Me the World, about her gutsy travels from Singapore to Naples as a divorcée with a young son, on a schooner with four guys and a dog, has been hailed as a classic (“Hadley unleashes images so rich you can’t help thinking that if everyone wrote like this, we wouldn’t need TV”), as has A Journey With Elsa Cloud, a memoir of a physical and emotional journey that Leila Hadley took with her then estranged Buddhist daughter. Other books, also lauded, hint at wide interests: traveling with children in Europe, visiting remote regions all over the world, manners for young people, weight loss and fitness programs, organic gardening. A constant and graceful writer, she is never without paper and pen (no computer, please).
A patron of the arts and professional organizations—The Leila Hadley Luce Professorship in modern Tibetan Studies was recently established at Columbia—she co-founded Wings Trust with Luce and later, Wings WorldQuest, both dedicated to promote research and celebrate the accomplishments of women explorers. She serves on the board of PEN, the Society of Women Geographers, the Explorers Club, Tibet House, Fishers Island Conservancy, the New York Academy of Medicine, to name just a few. Some people are, as they say, all over the place, but Leila Hadley has been all over the place. She is also genuinely interested in what others have to say, often turning a question back to ask the questioner’s opinion.
A graduate of St. Tim’s, with its prestigious, rigorous curriculum, Leila Hadley, whose smiling presence graces the Winter 2005 Alumnae Bulletin, confesses—with a gleam of pride—that the school, which she attended from grades 9-12, provided her last formal education. Although she won a scholarship to Radcliffe, she got married instead and had a child the following year (I had a proposal, who knew if I would ever get one again, she says with a twinkle). She became an “autodidact,” though for sure, at St. Tim’s she “got it all.” She says that studies show single-sex-H.S. education as academically and psychologically superior. She recalls the headmistress at St. Tim’s, Ella Robinson Watkins, and her teachers in English, History, Latin as particularly wonderful. A stutterer early on, she attributes her extensive vocabulary and life-long love of language to her need to find synonyms for words she found hard to pronounce, “pretty” for “pulchritude, for example, but the school also encouraged reading and sharpened her aversion to sloppy expression, much of it inspired by email, she believes. “Develop?” You do that with film, not an idea or career. Her models are many and various, but the common denominator is clear, elegant, accessible discourse—the underrated prose of Somerset Maugham, for example, or the poetry of Billy Collins. Woe are they who allow the Hadley style to slip by without influence.#