One of the photographs in Grace Halsell's autobiographical In Their Shoes shows a 16-year-old Grace astride a rearing horse in a rodeo contest. The caption says she did not win the prize for best woman rider but was the youngest one to try. That photograph and caption epitomize her life. She might have gotten hurt, or worse, in that contest or in a dozen other adventures that were to follow, but an irrepressible urge drove her to see for herself at first hand, to overcome the restraints imposed on women of her generation, and to disguise herself as Hispanic, Native American or African American to understand and write about their lives.
Born on the dry plains of West Texas to a beloved rancher and Indian-fighter father, Grace Halsell may have inherited her thirst for adventure from him, but whatever the source of her drive, she has hardly been able to finish one daring, and often dangerous, exploit before plunging into the next. Just out of high school, she boldly asked the editor of a Lubbock, Texas, newspaper for a job. Bemused by the audacity of the young girl, the editor hired her. His one condition was that she never study professional journalism; in his opinion, it ruined the potential writer.
Moving up in journalism as male reporters went off to World War Il, Ms. Halsell scored a "first" as police reporter for a big Fort Worth newspaper. Covering a conference, she met and wrote a two-part article on hotel magnate Conrad Hilton. He was so taken by her account of the interview, and perhaps by Grace's beauty, that he gave her a signed card entitling her to free lodging in any Hilton hotel anywhere, & privilege she enjoyed for 20 years. Relocating from Texas to New York as a young woman, she worked for The New York Times and later for the U.S. government's Office of War Information. For the first time she met sophisticated and accomplished women role models including Eleanor Roosevelt (one of only five others, including Grace, to receive an "open sesame" card from Conrad Hilton).
In 1945 Grace Halsell went back to Texas to continue work as a journalist. There she entered into, and eventually left, a not-very-happy marriage. At age 29 she crossed a psychological Rubicon. As a young girl she had always refused to accept second place. She had bested a pushy young brother in a fight, she had proved herself as a journalist, and, inspired by American poet Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road" ("Strong and content I travel the open road"), she set out for Europe with nothing much in her pocket. But her combination of brashness, looks and journalistic skills produced copy about Texans that sold well in Texas newspapers.
Then on to Japan, where she wrote a daily column for the Japanese Times; on to Hong Kong and life on a junk with a large Chinese family. She realized that she was freer than the Chinese who were born, lived and died on their boat. But they had each other, while Grace, in a poignant suggestion of doubt about her own life, was "attempting to paddle my own small boat on a very high sea."
Grace Halsell's wanderlust, however, overcame all doubts. She traveled to Peru, where she eventually wrote 1,095 columns entitled "Lima Today" for La Prensa newspaper. Then, acting on a truly dangerous impulse, she "flew" by what had been a road over the Andes and sailed 2,000 miles down tropical rivers via a rickety tug and a scrubby crew who spoke no English. Somehow she made it. Such uneasy restlessness resists simple explanations, but this episode reminded me of William Butler Yeats's poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," in which the flyer did not hate his enemy or love the people he defended. His motivation? "A secret impulse of delight."
Back in the United States, Ms. Halsell worked for rich Texas oilman Earl Baldridge and at the White House for another Texan, Lyndon Johnson. She admired bold entrepreneur Baldridge and civil-rights champion Johnson, but found LBJ all but juvenile in his insecurity.
Chapters 12 through 17 describe a deeply socially conscious Grace Halsell "passing" as a black maid in Mississippi (special pills and exposure to the sun darkened her skin), an American Indian (Bessie Yellowhair), a live-in Mexican domestic, and an illegal "wetback" being smuggled into the United States. The abuse she suffered in Mississippi and in her other deliberate disguises is often shocking. So far as I know, no other outsider has shared these groups' experiences to such an extent. Readers of In Their Shoes cannot but admire Grace Halsell's guts and drive.
To me, Ms. Halsell's' chapter on Palestine is the most compelling in the book, even if her adventures there are perhaps less physically dangerous than others. Two of her three trips to the Holy Land were in groups organized by televangelist Jerry Falwell. She stayed with Christian, Jewish and Muslim families, reporting from intimate association their thoughts and feelings. When she said to an old friend back in the United States that the Palestinians were under siege, he warned, "Don't touch that subject." She nevertheless did describe it in a very good book, Journey to Jerusalem. She has paid a price, of course, as does anyone in the United States who reports the disturbing realities of the Arab-Israel issue.
Grace Halsell looks deeply and with admirable courage at those whom she calls "the other." Anyone looking for a spiritual lift in an all-too-cynical world and who enjoys good writing should read In Their Shoes.