For the past 7 years, viewers have cheered on the fictional Peggy Olson as she made the transition from secretary to the first female writer on staff (since the war) at Sterling Cooper, to head copywriter.
In real life, Ursula Nordstrom followed a similar trajectory. Originally hired as a clerk for the textbook division of Harper & Brothers, she worked her way up to become the first female vice president of the company. She was promoted to Editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper & Row at age 30.
Nurturing the craft of luminaries such as E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, and Shel Silverstein, Nordstrom helped to bring about a revolution in children’s literature, shifting focus from the production of pat parables to rich depictions of children’s inner worlds. Her wisdom, and the art with which she coaxed masterpieces out of her artists, is on full display in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. In general, I find the collection of letters heartening because it serves as a reminder that creative work rarely gets spit out wholly on the first try; even great artists muddle through revisions and doubt. In one of my favorite letters, to a disheartened Maurice Sendak on the cusp of writing Where the Wild Things Are, she also points out the importance of continuing to put out work, and the potential that still waits beyond 30:
“You reminded me that you are 33. I always think 29, but OK. Anyhow, aren’t the thirties wonderful? And 33 is still young for an artist with your potentialities. I mean, you may not do your deepest, fullest, richest work until you are in your forties. You are growing and getting better all the time. I hope it was good for you to write me the thoughts that came to you. It was very good for me to read what you wrote, and to think about your letter. I’m sorry you have writers cramp as you put it but glad that you’re putting down “pure Sendakian vaguery” (I think you invented that good word). The more you put down the better and I’ll be glad to see anything you want to show me. You referred to your “atoms worth of talent.” You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either. You have a vast and beautiful genius.”
Thank you, Ursula!