Bradley’s Search for ‘Home’
Wife of ex-Sen. Bill Bradley Recounts Success and Struggles in New Memoir
Ernestine Bradley does not like to be called a “survivor.”
Despite overcoming childhood in wartime Germany, life as a political spouse, and a battle with breast cancer, in Bradley’s native country, a “survivor” has a much more somber meaning.
The word, she writes, “has been pre-empted for me by its most singular use, in the phrase ‘Holocaust survivor.’”
And that’s just one example of how growing up in Germany during the Nazi regime affected Bradley’s life and career.
The wife of former New Jersey Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley
speaks candidly of war, family, career and life on the campaign trail in her new memoir, “The Way Home: A German Childhood, An American Life,” which hits bookstores today.
At the core of the story is her search to find her Heimat, a German word which she writes has no English equivalent but symbolizes roots and where one was born.
“Maybe it is nice to write the family history as so many people do today,” Bradley said in a phone interview. “And then I thought, ‘Where am I rooted? In the hearts of the people I love, or am I rooted geographically?’”
The book recounts Bradley’s journey toward the American dream. Born in Germany, she had a tumultuous but close relationship with her mother. After studying languages, she earned a position as an airline hostess on Pan Am, which gave her opportunities to see the world.
After moving to the United States to work for Pan Am, she met and married Dr. Robert Schlant. She studied at Emory University, and after the two divorced, she moved to New York and became a professor. It was a brief foray into filmmaking that introduced her to Bill Bradley, then a star basketball player for the New York Knicks.
She married Bradley in 1974 (during the NBA All-Star break) and continued teaching at Montclair State University in New Jersey when he ran for U.S. Senate in 1978. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992.
The last lines of the memoir summarize what she says is an important theme in the book.
“Only now do I understand the most important message of all: defeat is never permanent; nor triumph everlasting. Only memory seals these moments in unending glory.”
The two themes of finding her roots and overcoming defeat intersect throughout the memoir.
Bradley began seriously researching her ancestry after the 2000 presidential campaign, when an archivist in Passau, Germany, her home town, made claims on the Internet that she was lying about her heritage. The Web site claimed that her father was not an Air Force officer but a hairdresser. (Her biological father was an Air Force officer, while her mother’s first husband was a hairdresser.)
“I was really very upset about the town archivist in Passau who put all kinds of things on the Internet that I was not aware of. That really caused me to take notes and write things down and start to figure things out,” she said.
Part of coming to terms with her past, she wrote, meant understanding the Holocaust. The only way to handle this for her was “acceptance combined with grief and a commitment to speak out openly, even as the burden of the facts and the trauma of coping with them threaten to paralyze you.”
One of the most difficult passages to write, she said, was the chapter on her battle with cancer because she wanted to be sensitive to those who had their own experiences.
“The cancer was very difficult for me to get into shape for the book because people have so many different experiences. For me, it was basically to accept it,” she said. “Many, many people die from it. I was just lucky. I tried to really keep in mind people who aren’t so lucky. They might not agree with my attitude toward cancer.
“In a sense, cancer also bestowed on me the gift of love. I’m so much more open when confronted with the ultimate. So that was very precarious for me to write about.”
Although the book focuses mainly on her childhood in Germany, she dedicates a chapter to the 2000 campaign, in which her husband challenged then-Vice President Al Gore.
For Bradley, the campaign allowed the country to become her classroom. “I had been a teacher all my adult life, and now my forum was as big as the country itself,” she wrote.
“Every wife feels her husband is the best candidate, so it was easy for me to go out and campaign. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience,” she said of her time on the campaign trail. “You meet so many people who make so many sacrifices, to canvass, to volunteer. I was surrounded by people who wished Bill well. There are people who feel like you do.”
Her campaign experience also gave her a new outlook on the United States. “I also felt the richness of the country and the people engaged in the democratic process. This is a particularly American phenomenon,” Bradley said.
Today, Bradley teaches at New School University — just one course a semester, she said, to “keep myself professionally engaged.” (Ex-Nebraska Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, a former colleague of Bill Bradley’s, serves as president of New School.) Her courses focus on the center of her academic career, West German literature and the Holocaust.
Bradley is doubtful her husband will make another run for public office. She recalled attending a speech with her husband when he was asked if he would run for office again and he replied, “I have given 20 years of my life to politics and now I’m moving on.”
Ernestine Bradley said she hopes her story will inspire others to learn more about themselves as well.
“I hope people read it in the spirit it was written — in the spirit of self discovery,” she said. “I hope they don’t just read my book, but they start to reflect on themselves, if they’re not doing that already. Whatever you do, you can always place it in the larger context.”