College Thesis Evolves Into Biography of Rep. Fenwick

Posted March 26, 2003 at 4:21pm

As Amy Schapiro was finishing up her bachelor’s degree at American University, she was faced with the daunting task of writing her history thesis.

Luckily, her mother suggested she research Republican Rep. Millicent Fenwick, who at the time was Schapiro’s Congresswoman in New Jersey’s 5th district. It was then that she realized people didn’t know anything about Fenwick beyond her life on Capitol Hill.

More than 10 years later, Schapiro, 32, is now ready to sign autographs as author of her first book, “Millicent Fenwick: Her Way.” It is published by Rutgers University Press.

She is scheduled to present the book at noon, April 1, at the Library of Congress in the James Madison Building’s Mumford Room.

Fenwick was first elected in 1974 and served in four Congresses. She unsuccessfully sought a Senate seat in 1982.

“She was only there for eight years, but made a very distinctive impression,” said Schapiro, who now is a social science analyst for the Department of Justice.

Born in 1910, Fenwick lost her mother in the Lusitania disaster in 1915. In the 1960s, she became involved in the civil rights movement along with local and state politics. She was elected to office at the age of 64.

Schapiro and Fenwick, who was also U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, corresponded when she was in college but were never able to meet in person. Fenwick — often known as the pipe-smoking grandmother who took Congress by storm — would always answer letters sent by Schapiro with a hand-written response. That was one of the Congresswoman’s more well-known practices when she was in office, Schapiro said.

“It was unique back then and is still unique today,” she said. “Her personal touch was what really made an impression on people who met her.”

Fenwick was known as a fiscal conservative, but she addressed herself to many issues.

Lucky for Schapiro, she befriended Fenwick’s son, Hugh, who granted her exclusive rights to Fenwick’s personal papers, oral histories, letters and photographs after his mother’s death in 1992. These materials provide a rare insight into the life and career of Fenwick.

Schapiro said she enjoyed working on the 296-page biography, but acknowledges how hard it was to leave out information she deemed vital. The book focuses on Fenwick’s life and the interesting tidbits Schapiro found from her interviews.

“I could have spent forever interviewing people,” she said. “I finally had to just cut it off and focus on writing.”

Schapiro also presents information on the theory that Fenwick served as the model for Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury character Lacey Davenport, though she comes to no conclusion.

“You couldn’t invent Millicent Fenwick. … She was unique,” former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean (R) wrote in the book’s foreword. “The best writers of fiction might have struggled to make her believable but they would have failed.”