For Ella Russell Torrey ’47, global citizenship is an everyday job
Talking with Torrey, one can be forgiven for being both surprised and unsurprised that she was, at one time, on track to becoming a Rockette. Surprised because, after abandoning her audition for the famed troupe to come to Bennington, Torrey pursued a path that led to becoming, among other things, a fashion writer, a reporter at the United Nations, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s assistant. Unsurprised because only a potential Rockette might possess the stamina to have led such a life.
In fact, it was Torrey’s incomparable, almost restless energy that nearly prevented her from coming to Bennington. After years of buttoneddown private schooling, she wanted freedom. “My father introduced me to Bennington and when I agreed to go he agreed to sign a paper promising no problems if I decided to leave the College after three months,” she says. “But I came alive at Bennington.”
Torrey cites two reasons for her four happy, instrumental years at Bennington: its liberating structure (“I finally could choose to study what I was interested in”) and the faculty. Martha Graham, for one. “That woman taught every class, every freshman. She did not just sit around. She told me, ‘Ella, you have the ability to be a dancer, but you don’t have the heart.’ And she was right.”
For some aspiring dancers, that might have been discouraging news. But for Torrey, it merely shifted her focus. She took courses with Erich Fromm and Peter Drucker, whom she says developed in her a proclivity for political action. “I saw participating in the world and taking responsibility as my duty as a citizen. The teachers at Bennington, many of whom were refugees from Europe, definitely made you feel that it was your responsibility to prevent further holocausts.”
There was another reason Torrey gravitated toward civil service. “My brother was a Marine fighter pilot and he was killed in the war. That experience made me grow up a lot. I wanted to prevent that sadness for others. I don’t believe war solves many problems. It really isn’t the answer. I always say ‘brains, not bullets.’”
After graduation, Torrey attended graduate school for a time before emigrating to Paris to become a writer for The Chicago Tribune. She covered fashion at first, but ever restive, soon took a more political post at Al Masri, then Egypt’s largest newspaper, finessing the copy of her male peers in a culture that didn’t exactly welcome it. “Oh, this was 1949, so there was a lot of sexual harassment,” she says. “People chased me around the couch. But you just laughed it off.”
Some interactions, however, were not so problematic. It was out of social gatherings with journalists that Torrey was recommended to the State Department, specifically to work for the U.S. mission to the U.N., where she was eventually appointed as Eleanor Roosevelt’s public information officer (Mrs. Roosevelt had been assigned to the U.N. by President Truman as a U.S. delegate). “She was an incredible woman,” Torrey says. “She once asked me, ‘Ella, am I the first Democrat you’ve known?’ I said there were a lot of Democrats at Bennington. She laughed at that.”
Torrey is quick to point out that, in those days, there was a friendliness among Democrats and Republicans, a “camaraderie” that she misses deeply today. “I worked for Mrs. Roosevelt, but I also worked for Henry Cabot Lodge and Adlai Stevenson. Things have become so much more fractious, and I don’t know why. I’ve thought about it a lot because it’s tragic for the country.”
Indeed, part of what makes Torrey’s life so compelling is the degree to which it has been about striving to take meaningful action with unusual grace, openness, and civility. At the U.N. she covered the transfer of power from colonial rule to self-rule in many African nations and the early days of the Arab/Israeli conflict. Even when she left the U.N. in 1954 and moved to Evansville, Indiana, she became a leader in integrating the city’s public schools (all while raising four children).
“I’ve given lectures on global citizenship, and I try to tell young people that it is about getting involved. There’s a protectionist impulse now because the world has become so large. It’s scary, and we want to go inward. But we shouldn’t. I recognize that the younger generation may feel they have no influence, but it’s essential to involve yourself, to participate, to vote, to call your congressional representative.”
Torrey is still applying her irrepressible energy. After retiring from her positions at the World Affairs Council and the International Visitors Council, she has become president of an international youth hostel and on the board of the Global Philadelphia Association, which promotes access and trade for profit and nonprofit organizations.
She says she even still follows dance, although no Rockette is likely to have kicked up more for the common good than Torrey.