By MICHELLE MONROE
St. Albans Messenger editor
SHELBURNE — There are two red chairs in former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin’s cottage on Wake Robin Drive.
The chairs probably wouldn’t draw attention except they feature in her new book Coming of Age: My Journey Into the Eighties.
For most of her life, Kunin writes, she made the places she lived into a calming refuge from the outside world. But when she and her second husband moved to Wake Robin, she abandoned white walls and soothing neutral colors in favor of yellow walls, a red kitchen and those chairs.
The year she turned 80, she also replaced her beige Prius with one that is bright red.
Kunin and her husband, John Hennessey, Jr., had chosen the chairs specially for their cottage, but when the chairs arrived doubt set in. Pondering why she hadn’t chosen chairs in soothing neutral tones she concluded: “Part of me… no longer wanted a refuge. I wanted to bring life inside, not leave it at the door. And the red chairs did exactly that. They were red. They were vivid.”
That willingness to still try something new, to reach outside of what is known, comfortable and familiar marks Kunin’s writing as well.
“I made myself vulnerable,” she said of the book. “I exposed myself.”
That exposure ranges from small things like the chairs or sneaking into the men’s room at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts rather than waiting in line for the ladies room and much bigger things like her father’s suicide, and the deaths of her brother and her husband.
In “Coming of Age,” Kunin turns her incisive mind inward, examining the experience of growing older in both prose and poetry.
“I was kind of intrigued with what I was experiencing and thought ‘that’s worth writing about,’” she said.
“When you’re in politics you’re sort of a one-dimensional character,” said Kunin. “I wanted to let people know who I really was.”
In politics, you also must choose your words with care, but that has changed. “As I got older I found I could say what I want,” said Kunin. “I just felt so liberated to say what I thought and heard and felt.”
Many of those thoughts and feelings center on her romance with Hennessy, whom she met at the age of 71. He was eight years older. “I joke and I say he had two qualities which were essential: He was a feminist and he was a Democrat.”
He was also comfortable being with a woman who carries the titles governor and ambassador.
“John was very comfortable with who I was. I couldn’t have written that book without him,” Kunin said. “He sort of gave me the strength and the confidence to write like this.”
As he grew older, Hennessay began to suffer from insomnia and depression. Kunin writes frankly about the challenges of loving someone who is struggling with depression, how his depression meant their life shifted between good periods when they spoke together of the travels they’d still like to take and darker ones.
Kunin also writes of those things women her age are not expected to experience, or at least not to speak of – attraction, flirtation and sex.
She writes of the loss of sex with John and other men she noticed and felt attracted to. “Older people still enjoy making love,” Kunin wrote, quoting columnist Jane E. Brody, “but we’re not supposed to talk about it.”
Kunin agonized over including the parts about sex, but “I thought I could connect with some people,” she said.
The pace of her life has changed. “You have time to stop and look at a tree,” she said. “I see more. I stop to see more.
“Maybe it’s knowing you’re not going to be around forever.”
Aging, she said, is seen as a problem, a burden. “We venerate youth,” said Kunin.
But there are still “new things to be discovered, new ideas, new people,” she said.
Before she became Vermont’s first female governor, Kunin was a journalist. She attended the Columbia School of Journalism, and while her male counterparts went to work as copy boys at the New York Times, she was offered a job in the cafeteria. She turned it down.
After graduation, she was one of three candidates for a job with the Washington Post. When they called to tell her they had hired someone else, “the only thing they had to say was ‘we decided to give the job to a man,’” she recalled.
She ultimately wrote for the Burlington Free Press for a year.
Her older brother, Edgar, was also a journalist, a Pulitzer Prize winning one. Still, he followed her into the legislature, becoming chair of the Senate committee dealing with the budget just as she became governor.
Their closeness was tinged with competitiveness.
“In the process of writing, I discovered he had a tough time with me, but we were very close,” she said.
It was Edgar who discouraged her from attending the London School of Economics instead of Columbia, so she would remain close to their mother. A month later Kunin discovered Edgar was taking a trip to Europe. Edgar, unlike Kunin, had not asked their mother for permission.
The differing rules and expectations for men and women did not sit well with Kunin. “I was basically a feminist before the movement,” she said.
It was after spending a year in Switzerland, observing the efforts of Swiss women to secure the right to vote, which they did not gain until 1971, and reading the writings of Betty Freidan and others, that inspired her to run for the Vermont legislature.
She has remained committed to getting women into public office, founding Emerge Vermont, to support female candidates, and speaking at the Women’s March in Montpelier in 2017.
But she didn’t want this book to be about politics. Instead, she writes of her mother, a Jewish woman fleeing Europe with two young children during World War II. “Only later did I fully appreciate my mother’s courage,” said Kunin.
While serving as the ambassador to Switzerland, Kunin’s diplomatic efforts centered on getting the Swiss to release money and valuables which had been left in Swiss banks by Holocaust victims.
She also used her time in Europe to try to visit the facility where her father stayed prior to his suicide. He had served in World War I and likely suffered from post-traumatic stress.
Kunin said she wanted people to know and understand her family’s history, where she came from, that she had grown up in a single-parent home.
Although she avoided politics in the book, she is still paying attention. “I’m very concerned about what is happening in our country,” Kunin said.
“I still believe in the power of democracy to move us from the far fight to the center,” she added, saying the most hopeful sign she has seen is the number of women elected last fall. “When people hope for change it comes down to the ballot box.”
The need for an instantaneous response to every criticism or event concerns her. “That’s dangerous,” said Kunin. “You have to use discretion.”
“The worse case would be if start a war based on tweets.”
“That’s one of the characteristics of this president, he punches back immediately,” she observed. “Facts have been dismissed. That’s so scary. He can say anything and his diehard supporters will believe him.”