By YVONNE FRENCH
"My teachers always put a door before me. They said, ‘Gregorian, knock on it.'" And he did, from elementary school in Iran to his doctorate from Stanford in 1964. Vartan Gregorian has continued to knock on doors throughout his career, and they have almost always swung open.
Now as president of the grant-making Carnegie Corporation of New York, Gregorian is on the other side of the door.
"For the first time in my life people are seeing the backs of my hands instead of the palms of my hands," he said, holding them out, palms up, then slowly turning them over at a Books & Beyond author series lecture. "I was a fundraiser, and at long last I am on the giving side and the investing side. It is in the giving that we receive," he told the audience who came to hear about his autobiography "The Road to Home" (Simon & Schuster, 2003) in May. The program was sponsored by the Library's Center for the Book.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in introducing Gregorian that under his tenure as president of New York Public Library (NYPL) in the 1980s, that institution enjoyed its golden years. "He enticed, inveigled and corralled the state of New York and New York Public Library to provide the model of how you could revive a great research institution," said Billington.
In all, Gregorian raised $327 million for the library in a public-private partnership, according to his book.
Gregorian describes his work at NYPL in the book: "After eight-and-a-half years at the helm of the Library and a successful capital campaign, I had seen the re-emergence of the New York Public Library as the intellectual, scholarly, and cultural repository of New York and the nation, with a robust public education outreach agenda in the form of exhibitions, lectures, and publications. Most important of all, the Library was able to provide millions of New Yorkers and Americans across our land with free access to information and knowledge."
Among other things, Gregorian befriended philanthropist Brooke Astor and the editorial board of The New York Times, one of whose editors once "complained … that there must be something wrong with the Times, as a day had passed without a New York Public Library story," Gregorian wrote in the book. He also launched Literary Lions dinners with famous authors and New York society.
As a youngster, the only books in the Gregorian household were an Armenian bible and an American history book. Gregorian, now 69, lost his mother when he was 6 years old and was raised by his maternal grandmother.
"I was immune to all authority except for hers," said Gregorian. She was full of aphorisms, and he recognized them in many of the things he heard later as a choir and altar boy in their minority Christian church in Tabriz, Iran. "What was unique about her is that she practiced what she preached," he said.
He said it was difficult to write about his childhood and parents because "traditional Armenian families have a saying that the house has walls to keep family business inside." Nonetheless, he described in the book a distant father and a stepmother for whom he and his sister bore little love.
Gregorian said he wanted to title the book "With the Kindness of Strangers," because that is how he made it through life. "It was kindness that came from religion, from faith, from ethnic ties, but mostly, it was human kindness," said Gregorian, giving three examples.
When Gregorian was 13, the French vice consul in Tabriz, an Armenian named Edgar Maloyan, took ill with the flu. Gregorian sat with him during his convalescence and in return the vice consul taught him to play chess. Maloyan said that Gregorian was smart and should go to school in Beruit, Lebanon. He wrote three letters on Gregorian's behalf: one to the head of the Lebanese Internal Security Agency, one to the Collège Arménien, and one to a hotel where he could stay.
When Gregorian was 15, Simon Vratzian, the last prime minister of the independent Armenian Republic, became the new director of the Collège Arménien. Vratzian's eyesight was failing, and Gregorian became his private secretary. Vratzian eventually became Gregorian's surrogate father and mentor and perhaps one of the greatest influences on his life, aside from his grandmother.
At 22, Gregorian went to San Francisco to attend Stanford University. But somehow he managed to lose his plane ticket. In tears, he asked the agent in New York what he could do and was told that he must advertise for six months "and if no one had found the ticket, one would be reissued." Gregorian was frantic. "I have to be at Stanford," he told the agent. The ticket agent said, "I have never done this before in my life," and stamped his empty envelope. He instructed him not to get off the plane. The flight stopped in Chicago, Kansas City, Phoenix, and Los Angeles before arriving in San Francisco, and at each stop, Gregorian told the stewardesses he did not feel well, and they allowed him to stay on board.
It was not only benevolent strangers, but doubters and detractors who helped him along the way, Gregorian said. In Tabriz, his stepmother said he would never make it to Beirut for secondary school. He obtained a visa and was on his way within seven months—no small feat given the bureaucracy involved.
"Impossible," the French instructress at the Collège Arménien said of Gregorian's plan to learn French in one year to enable him to study there. Said Gregorian: "This was the best motivation." He secured two free tutors, the copy editor of L'Orient, a French newspaper, who taught him on weekends, and an urban planner, who taught him on weeknights. He learned French within a year.
Later, Stanford marked his "departure from the old, didactic world into the new instructive, discursive one," he said. There he also met the former Clare Russell of New Jersey, whom he married in 1960. They have three sons.
After receiving his doctorate, Gregorian taught at San Francisco State College, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin. He joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1972, where he was appointed Tarzian Professor of History and professor of South Asian history. He became the university's founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1974 and served as its provost from 1978 to 1989. He was president of Brown University for nine years before serving as NYPL president from 1981 to 1989. He has been president of Carnegie Corporation since 1997.
Gregorian said he was afraid that Billington would say he could not keep a job, but the Librarian praised him for being "a great source of energy and vitality."
Gregorian has written "The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880-1946" (1969) and "Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith" (2003).
"You get a sense of the catholicity and reach of this man," said Billington, who noted that Gregorian is concerned with "all things Armenian and also with free society." Gregorian responded that the thing he values most about being a U.S. citizen is "being able to do and say what I want."
Yvonne French is senior writer-editor in the Office of the Librarian.