Barbara Elias Wrote Poetry, Was Independent Thinker

Barbara Elias, summer resident of Menemsha since 1935, died Jan. 11 at her Greenwich Village apartment in New York city at the age of 84. The last few months of her life, attended by Ms. Margaret Singh, were among her happiest.

Barbara began coming to the Vineyard as a child when her father, Nathaniel Elias, purchased land in the hills above Menemsha. She was devoted to the island, often spending fully six months in residence before returning to New York in time to vote.

Barbara attended the progressive Walden school in New York for all of elementary and high school and went on to achieve high honors at Swarthmore College, from which she graduated in 1942.

Going into government service, Barbara spent the remaining war years writing and editing training materials and broadcast scripts. In 1947, she moved to occupied Berlin as chief of publications for the U.S. government-published weekly Information Control Review, containing information on German political and cultural developments.

Returning to Washington in 1949, after the Berlin blockade forced closure of the publication, Barbara worked for six years for the Department of State. She evaluated materials for inclusion in the U.S. Overseas Book Translation Program, which encouraged foreign publishers to put out translations of American literature.

One of Barbara's favorite episodes occurred when McCarthyites attempted to suppress suspect authors (reputedly including Thoreau and Hemingway). Barbara leaked the story to The Nation and very much enjoyed the scandal that ensued.

During the war, her father Nat married Leona Baumgartner, a public health doctor who later served as commissioner of public health for New York city and known to Islanders as the Garbage Queen for her successful public health campaign to improve landfill management.

Although Barbara was broadly regarded as very beautiful and sophisticated as a young woman, and despite many entreaties, she chose never to marry.

Barbara was a private person, an independent thinker and a political progressive who spoke her mind in no uncertain terms. Her strong character earned her many long-term friendships. She was unfailingly well-informed, and always had well-developed, sometimes radical, opinions on the matters of the day, on up to the present.

Throughout her life, Barbara was a ruthless defender of good English usage. She wrote poetry - often funny rhymes - which she amassed in a famous black notebook. An example of her wit and work is the following birthday poem written for her father (whose name is preserved in Nat's Farm and Elias Lane, off Old County Road in West Tisbury) in 1962, when America was enthralled by John Glenn's orbit of the earth:

This day, when nearly every thought
Is centered on an astronaut,
We join to throw confetti at
Our own beloved astroNat.

And even Mom and Papa Glenn
Would surely not deny us
The chance to satisfy our yen
To praise N.M.Elias.

He's been exposed to many a G
And managed to absorb it;
And we've enjoyed the chance to be
Included in his orbit.

We're glad that he is with us here
Instead of in the stratosphere.
In fact, wherever Nat alights,
We're proud to be his satellites.

Barbara is survived by the three children of her brother, Peter Elias: Ellen Elias Bursac and Paul Elias of Cambridge, and Daniel Elias of Lincoln. A memorial service was held at the Society for Ethical Culture in New York on Jan. 29.