Those who knew Alice von Hildebrand (“Lily” to her family and friends) could be forgiven for thinking she might outlive—possibly by a wide mark—the ninety-nine years given to her by her beloved maker. When she passed away in January in her apartment in New Rochelle, New York, mourners were grateful for having known such a remarkable woman and almost incredulous that this preternaturally energetic presence was now gone.
Born Alice Jourdain to a devoutly Catholic family in Belgium in 1923, Lily and her older sister, Louloute, would escape Europe in 1940 on the last passenger vessel to leave France. She had something of a religious experience when the boat was almost sunk by a German submarine; her brush with death convinced her of God’s goodness, taking her to a place where “time vanishes and everything is present.” Upon arriving in the United States, Lily lived with her aunt and uncle at the Waldorf Astoria but found little in life to give her joy or meaning. This changed one evening when she was introduced to the German-Italian convert and philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand and his circle of friends. “After twenty-nine months of darkness,” Lily would write in Memoirs of a Happy Failure, “the sun again rose in my life.” Lily and Dietrich eventually married in 1959, and worked together to advance Catholic spiritual and intellectual life until Dietrich’s passing in 1977.
Lily’s own passion for ideas propelled her to a decades-long vocation as a professor of philosophy at Hunter College. She was popular in the classroom, but often resented in the faculty room for raising questions about the regnant philosophical fads of the day. “There is one absolute dogma in the liberal world, namely the universal relativity and subjectivity of all values,” she wrote. “To challenge this dogma is already to violate the separation of church and state.”
After Lily retired, she began to develop her understanding of femininity and what she would call the “terrible lie of Feminism” in her books, The Privilege of Being a Woman and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention. Always analytically sophisticated and attentive to lived reality, Lily warned her readers that despite the fatal flaws in contemporary feminism, her own account of femininity should not be misrepresented in an absolutist fashion, since “generalizations are usually indicative of a mediocre mind” and “sweeping statements about ‘all men’ or ‘all women’ are redolent of prejudice and superficiality.”
One of Lily’s favorite biblical texts was the Song of the Valiant Woman, Solomon’s paen to womanhood in Proverbs 31: “What a rare find is a virtuous woman, more precious than rubies.” Saint Hilary, bishop of Poitiers and an early doctor of the Church, follows Origen in reading the narrative allegorically. For Hilary, the woman is Wisdom, Sapientia, aiding man in his journey toward virtue. In Lily, womanhood and wisdom were one, the artifact of humility and grace.
The Torah, in its plain meaning, also insists that the woman of valor values the friendship of other women. In Lily’s case, this could not be more evident than in the nearly eighty-year friendship she enjoyed with Madeleine Froelicher Stebbins, herself a great champion of tradition and beauty. Lily and Madeleine met at one of von Hildebrand’s evening lectures in his apartment when the two were still in their early twenties. According to Lily, “She was so radiant, pure, enchanting, feminine, graceful, and warmhearted that I immediately thought, ‘I wish she were my friend.’”
In life and in death, these souls were deeply connected. Lily is now buried next to her husband but also beside Madeleine (who passed away late last year). When I first saw the twin gravestones, they recalled for me a day about a decade ago when the two women invited me for lunch at Madeleine’s apartment in Westchester. They went out of their way for me and bought kosher food at the Jewish market in a neighboring town (only later did I learn that Madeleine’s parents were involved in a Catholic network that helped save three thousand Jews from Germany and Austria in the late 1930s). It was a delightful few hours, and our conversation ranged from updates about my growing family to the Orthodox Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod’s intellectual debt to Heidegger, something that troubled Lily greatly. As much as she respected her colleague from Hunter College—one of the few colleagues she did respect—she couldn’t understand why a God-fearing intellectual, let alone an Orthodox Jew, was attracted to the thought of a Nazi-colluding magus (the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik expressed similar antipathy but studied Heidegger’s philosophy more carefully, I suspect).
Lily could be stubborn at times, with a touch of triumphalism, displaying the holy indignation you’d expect from a fierce culture warrior and defender of the Church Militant; Madeleine was the more genteel and softer of the pair. The sight of these two ladies together—spiritual sisters as much as worldly friends, Catholic royalty and laity both—left a deep impression on me. As Lily once said, “Love and friendship are the remnants of the earthly Paradise.” It certainly felt that way in their company.
However allegorically we may want to read Proverbs 31, an ancient Jewish hermeneutical principle insists that Scripture cannot be shorn of its contextual sense or meaning. Which brings us back to Lily as life partner and peer of her beloved husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand. In addition to being a remarkable teacher, thinker, and culture warrior in her own right, Lily was a faithful steward of her husband’s philosophical legacy after his death (though she once suggested that her late husband’s Germanic mien prevented him from appreciating her sometimes mischievous French wit).
My own friendship with Lily emerged, unsurprisingly, from my early interest in her husband’s work and witness. I first encountered von Hildebrand’s thought thirty-five years ago—though not through his heroic anti-Nazi writings, which may have been inspiring to a young philo-Catholic Jew like myself. Instead, one of my dear rabbis gave me a copy of The New Tower of Babel, a trenchant critique of modernity, and told me to read the essay “Beauty in the Light of the Redemption.” My rebbe knew I was grappling with vexing questions on the theological value of beauty and that von Hildebrand was a vital source. But when I finally met Lily years later, our friendship was as transformative as anything I had read in her late husband’s consequential body of writing. Lily’s life was one of consummate grace, fierce intelligence, and beauty—a life I could learn from in direct relationship, more than through book knowledge.
In 2013, Lily celebrated her ninetieth birthday by delivering a talk, “Gratitude as the Key to Happiness.” In it, she said that on the topic of gratitude, she was merely a faithful recorder of her husband's teachings. Gratitude, according to von Hildebrand, was the natural response of the soul to the goodness inherent in another person, especially the ultimate Person. “Like hope,” von Hildebrand avers, “the affective response of gratitude implies a tacit reliance on the existence of a benevolent and all-powerful God, even by those who have not yet found Him.” In characteristically accessible yet profound language, Lily added: “Any day that is without ‘thank you’ is lost.” Let us not lose the opportunity to thank our maker for giving us the gift of Alice von Hildebrand, who arduously defended the truth through her formidable faculties of head and heart.
Rabbi Mark Gottlieb is senior director of the Tikvah Fund and a trustee of the Hildebrand Project.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?