Music, Politics, and Children’s Literature: Alice Belgray ʼ59

Photos Courtesy of the Subject; Vassarion ʼ59

When Alice Belgray ʼ59, née Bunzl, came to Vassar, she was planning to study math, but found herself gravitating toward the rich musical education at the College. At 86, Belgray still has a passion for music and also children’s literature.

Three women, smiling, wearing black jackets.
Alice Belgray ’59 (center) and her daughters, Laura (left) and Marian (right).

Belgray sings in the Brearley Singers choir—as she has for 28 years. The Brearley Singers celebrated their 30th anniversary in May, singing to a sold-out crowd at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in New York City.

“We just sang Brahms’ German Requiem,” Belgray said. “I last sang it at Vassar in 1958. Singing in this chorus has been an exhilarating experience for me.” 

The Brearley Singers originated in the Brearley School, one of Belgray’s alma maters and where she sent her daughters, Laura and Marian. The all-girls school emphasized literature, words, and the values of women. Belgray carried those teachings with her to Vassar—the alma mater of her mother, Margaret Tanzer Bunzl, class of 1927—where she sang in the choir.

Headshot of Alice Belgray wearing a light colored shirt with short dark hair, taken in black and white.
Alice Bunzl Belgray Class Photo 
Courtesy of Vassarion ʼ59

“Senior year, Pete Seeger came to Vassar,” Belgray recalled. “It was during the McCarthy Era and he wasn’t allowed on campus, but he performed at Alumnae House. That was an inspiring experience because he was one of my idols. It gave me a different worldview and a love of folk music. I grew up as a very privileged white person in New York going to a high-powered private school and then Vassar. Vassar expanded my view of the world.”

Her expanding perspective also led to her first foray into politics. Vassar is where she joined her first march in support of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956—much to the chagrin of her father.

After graduation, Belgray attended the University of Michigan, where she earned a PhD in musicology. She began teaching music but found it wasn’t for her. In her 20s, she became involved in politics, working as a legislative assistant in Albany, but experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. This was around the time that writer and activist Betty Friedan published her book The Feminine Mystique, and that impacted Belgray greatly—she refused to be a victim. Later, she worked for the New York Civil Liberties Union and helped to write legislative memoranda.

“I worked on the Equal Rights Amendment for New York, which we passed,” Belgray said. “So my political life has been a sub-level career. It’s something I’ve been involved in all these years.”

Man wearing light gray jacket, white shirt and a tie and a woman wearing a blue and white flowered shirt and black skirt, dancing.
Alice and David Belgray

In 1967 she married David Belgray, a psychoanalyst who passed away in 2018. “He was the love of my life, and I spent 51 incredible years with him,” Belgray said. 

Following her career in politics, she worked for recording companies, including Vanguard Records, but in the 1980s, after attending a seminar for women seeking a career change, Belgray found her calling: children’s book publishing. In her 40s, she began as an intern for a small children’s book publishing company and took classes on children’s literature. She went on to work for Clarion Books and the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) where she was the editor of children’s books.

After JPS, Belgray briefly tried freelancing while her daughters were in college. When that didn’t pan out, she joined the Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College of Education. Now, as a member of the committee, Belgray helps to evaluate 6,000 published children’s books annually and is involved in compiling a comprehensive annotated list of 600 of the best titles. She was the chair of the committee for 15 years, and, while she stepped down from that role in 2011, she remains an active member.

“I’ve been on both sides as a publisher and reviewer,” Belgray said. “I love working with children’s books.”

Belgray has been quite active in her alma mater. She has attended Vassar Reunions where she’s met a lot of friends, and she was once the president of her class. She has been a consistent donor to the Vassar Fund since the 1980s out of loyalty to an institution she said has contributed to her personal growth.

“I’m quite lucky all around,” Belgray said. “A wonderful family, an active life. I have been very fortunate.”

June 18, 2024
Embracing Every Chapter