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Former Journalist Sue Buyer ’47 Finds New Calling, Publishing Her First Novel at 92

Like many Vassar grads of the late 1940s, Sue (Fruchtbaum) Buyer ’47 found that the postwar economy offered many opportunities…if you were male. “Those were the days when what you did was get a secretarial job,” Buyer recalls. “You could be a teacher, you could be a social worker; there weren’t a lot of jobs that were eager to have women.” Yet Buyer was eager to escape these limitations, so she became a journalist. Her life as a reporter in the 1950s is the basis for her first novella, All Things in Time (Atmosphere Press, 2020).

Few things can stop first-time novelist Sue Buyer ’47 once she puts her mind to it. Not even a blizzard! Photo: Courtesy of the subject

The book tells the story of two spirited women, one a young journalist, united by a mysterious death. “The plot of the book is totally fiction, but the characters are real people,” Buyer says, with one big difference: “The women in the book led a much more interesting life than I did.”

Maybe, but her own story is interesting enough.

In an eerie echo of today’s student experience, Sue Fruchtbaum, a lifelong resident of suburban Buffalo, NY, entered Vassar in the midst of a polio epidemic. For the early part of her first year, no one was allowed to leave campus or visit from outside. Yet being quarantined, she says, helped her and her fellow residents of Raymond House forge strong bonds, and the group never lacked for amusements. “Somebody wrote a musical show, everything was on campus,” she recalls. “We all went into the parlor room after dinner and sang and put off doing homework for half an hour and we got to know each other.” More than 70 years later, she is still in regular contact with her Raymond roommate.

Her academic experience was equally absorbing.

“We had a teacher, Mabel Newcomer, an economics professor, who really got us going,” she says, adding that because Vassar was an all-women’s school, “we weren’t trying to be sweet and cute for the boys. We just spoke up. We all went through the rest of our lives speaking up.”

Graduating with a sociology degree, Buyer took the path of many of her classmates and became a secretary. But it was clear that her heart wasn’t in it. “One day, the boss came back from lunch, and I was eating my lunch, reading a book, and talking on the telephone,” she remembers. “And he honestly said to me, ‘If you like to do many things badly instead of one thing well, why don’t you go into journalism?’ I thought, what a good idea, and I never had to be a secretary again.” 

Buyer entered Columbia Journalism School in 1950 as one of 7 female students in a class of 62. She credits her alma mater with giving her the courage to make the leap into such a male-dominated profession. “Vassar taught us that!” she exclaims. “Speak up, don’t play dumb.” She received her master’s degree in one year and went right to work. “I graduated on a Friday and started at the Buffalo Evening News on Monday,” she says.

Although she enjoyed the work, she soon realized there were stories she would never get to cover: crimes, accidents—basically anything that involved leaving the building. 

“One time, when there was a big, breaking story, it was New Year’s Eve afternoon, and no one was in the office but three women. The city editor got on the phone to some guy who was at home and said, ‘I have nobody here, please come in,’” she recollects. Apparently, a plane had crashed about 70 miles away. “They never sent women on that kind of story in those years,” she says. 

Although Buyer worked at the paper for 25 years—marrying fellow reporter Robert Buyer along the way—she would not see the day when women were finally sent to cover breaking news. Instead, she embarked on a new career where no boss would tell her she couldn’t go 70 miles down the road. “I left journalism in the 1970s to go into the travel business because it was such fun—we got big discounts and went all over the place!” she recalls with obvious glee. “I like to walk around big cities and just see what I see: Paris, London, Rome.”

Buyer has once again decided to try something new—yet writing a novel was hardly a long-standing ambition. “I wrote it out of boredom in the winter because I don’t ski anymore,” says the 92-year-old author, who hung up her skis at age 85. “I wasn’t a wonderful skier,” she adds with a journalist’s penchant for accuracy. “I was just playing in the snow on non-threatening slopes.”

The terrain of her novella is perhaps a little more threatening—especially to those who would disparage a female journalist on the basis of sex.

“One of the women at the paper was a little feistier than the rest of us,” says Buyer. “She covered the courts back then, and once when somebody made a disparaging, anti-feminist comment to her about her job, she kicked him. He was out of work all week.”

Wait—did that really happen?