By Harriet P. Gross
Over the first 11 months of this year, I’ve read and put aside several obituaries of interesting people whose lives ended during 2014. I’ll be sharing them with you in the coming weeks. But as a prelude, I’d like you to meet a woman who writes obituaries for a living — one of the most difficult but least appreciated areas of journalism.
Margalit Fox says, “I rescue lost souls. At the New York Times, I have the great, improbable pleasure of reconstituting the lives of interesting people.” She lists among her favorites the inventors of the bar code, the Frisbee, the Etch-A-Sketch, the crash-test dummy and the Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed. But the most interesting soul she’s ever brought back to life is Alice Kober, an obscure woman who made possible the translation of a lost language. Fox came along too late in the obit game to write one for Kober, who died in 1950 at only 43. But she’s more than made up for that by penning an entire book about her: “The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code,” published in 2013.
Kober, born in New York in 1906, was the brilliant daughter of Jewish immigrants from Hungary. As a student at Hunter College, she fell in love with “Linear B,” the name scholars had given to the inscriptions on some ancient clay tablets unearthed on Crete in 1900. Fox says, “The script, which teemed with pictograms in the shapes of arrows, chariots and horses’ heads, resembled no writing ever seen. No one knew what language it recorded, much less what it said.”
By day, Kober taught classics at Brooklyn College. At night, she “worked quietly and methodically at her dining table in Flatbush,” Fox says, trying to solve that tantalizing linguistic mystery. She never married, or left signs of any life beyond her compulsive cataloguing of the elements of Linear B, and the articles she published about them.
In England, Michael Ventris was also obsessed with Linear B, and he was the one given credit for discovering that it was actually early Greek “writing” from long before the Greek alphabet. But he never told how he’d reached this conclusion; he died at only 34 in a car accident that Fox theorizes may have been suicide.
“Like so many narratives of achievement,” Fox writes, “this story has a quiet backstage figure behind the towering public one.” Kober had died two years before Ventris cracked the code, and it was her publications that gave him the know-how to decipher the pictograms making up Linear B. “She handed him the key to the locked room,” Fox continues. “After her death, using the methods she devised, he brought about the solution. It is now clear that without Kober’s work, Ventris could never have deciphered Linear B when he did, if ever. Yet because history is always written by the victors, the contributions of this brilliant woman have been all but lost to time…”
Bringing the story closer to home: Fox was the first journalist to view the Kober archives when they were opened at — of all places — the University of Texas. Ten years of work, tens of thousands of note cards fitted neatly into boxes that Alice Kober, a dedicated smoker, made out of cigarette cartons; these reveal all the steps that Ventris took on his way to solving the mystery of Linear B.
Kober once wrote to a colleague, “The important thing is the solution of the problem, not who solves it.” But Fox also found this telling bit as she sifted through Kober’s correspondence: “I feel that in scholarly matters, the truth must always be told.”
And so does Fox. After Kober died, the Times brief obituary devoted less than one sentence to Linear B. That’s why Fox wrote her book. “To redeem my profession,” she says, “I have chosen to reconstitute this singular unsung heroine at length, at last.”