Author, historian, and educator Natalie S. Bober, best known for her biographies of poets, artists, and figures of early American history, died on December 29, 2022. She was 92.
Bober was born Natalie Birnbaum on December 27, 1930 in New York City, the daughter of Samuel, who worked in real estate, and Dolly, an editor, researcher, and indexer.
Bober noted in her autobiographical essay for Something About the Author that she had always read “incessantly” in her early years and that her first summer job, upon graduating from Hunter College High School at age 16, was at the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. Bober believes she “absorbed” a love of England from her English grandmother, who lived with the family while Bober was growing up. As a girl, she cherished the stories her grandmother told her after school each day, over “strong tea and freshly baked cookies.” Bober credited her mother as an influence on her writing as well, explaining how her mother taught her how to do thorough and careful research, a skill that remained essential to Bober’s work throughout her life.
Bober was attending Hunter College when she married Lawrence Bober, a banker, in 1950. She continued her studies, receiving her B.A. from Hunter in 1951, and later earned a M.S. from Hofstra University in 1966. In those intervening years, the couple welcomed three children and Bober had established a career as a teacher and a reading consultant, instructing junior high and college students.
In 1972, Bober’s life saw a sizeable shift. She suffered a health issue involving her leg, which kept her off her feet for six months as she was in and out of the hospital undergoing testing and receiving care. During the long days away from her teaching job, Bober came across an article in Writer magazine about writing biographies for young readers and was intrigued by the idea. Her husband challenged her to give it a go, reminding her, “You’ve always wanted to write,” she recounted in SATA.
She was soon fully immersed in her new pursuit and spent many months researching and writing about one of her favorite poets from her college coursework: William Wordsworth. Bober was additionally inspired by a trip to England she had recently taken with her husband where they visited “Wordsworth country.” As she crafted her drafts into a manuscript, she queried publishers with the project and 21 editors turned her down. The 22nd—whom Bober described as an Anglophile, at Thomas Nelson Publishers—took her on, publishing William Wordsworth: The Wandering Poet in 1975. The book was well received and as a result, Bober was soon researching the life of another favorite poet for what would become A Restless Spirit: The Story of Robert Frost (Atheneum, 1981). In 2008, a revised and expanded edition of the book, published by Henry Holt, was selected as the Vermont Reads book of the year.
In 1985, Bober and her daughter Elizabeth Bober Polivy (Betsy)—as co-owners—opened Once Upon a Time, An Enchanted Children’s Bookstore, in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Later in the 1980s, Bober was asked to take a detour from profiling artists when her editor, Marcia Marshall, lamenting a dearth of good biographies about the early U.S. presidents for young readers, urged her to consider writing a book about Thomas Jefferson. Bober again accepted a writing challenge and this time, she wrote in SATA, “I realized it was the best professional decision I had ever made.”
Thomas Jefferson: Man on a Mountain (Atheneum, 1988) garnered critical praise and led to several exciting career opportunities. Bober and her husband were formally invited to Thomas Jefferson’s 250th birthday celebration at Monticello in 1993. And Bober was asked to participate in filmmaker Ken Burns’s documentary on Jefferson—she was interviewed on camera and served as a consultant—which first aired on PBS in 1997.
Bober’s copious research on Jefferson—and the advice of her son Stephen—led her take on another historical biography: Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution (Atheneum, 1995). That title was named the winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction and also won SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award. In all, she published 11 books for young readers.
Bober was often asked by students and interviewers about her process for writing biographies. In SATA she shared an answer to that question. “I never know where my research will lead me. As I try to catch the cadence—the rhythm—of the lives I’m investigating, I must study the past with a revealing searchlight, all the while looking for details like a hog digging for truffles. I’m always after those dark, hidden morsels. The excitement comes from search and discovery, from recreating a life from details and making a story out of the chaos of reality.”