Oral History: Edwin Fancher ’41

Edwin Fancher, John Spear, Oral History

At Northwood, Edwin Fancher ’41 was an accomplished athlete and outdoorsman and became a pacifist at a time in the school’s history that was dominated by the looming war. After Northwood, he became a decorated veteran or World War II in the “college boy” 10th Mountain Division where he saw heavy combat in the mountains of Italy. Back stateside, he became a prominent Freudian psychoanalyst and leader of the New York School for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. He is most known for being the founding publisher of the most successful weekly newspaper in America, The Village Voice. Edwin Fancher’s wide-ranging career and accomplishments make him one of Northwood’s most distinguished alumni.

John Spear ’88, Northwood’s Director of College Guidance, spoke with Mr. Fancher to reflect on his time at Northwood and since.

Edwin Fancher '41

Edwin Fancher ’41


John Spear ‘88: What was Northwood School like when you arrived in 1939?

Edwin Fancher ’41: While I was at Northwood I was very involved in hockey and skiing and football and track and that sort of thing, but I think all of us were disturbed by the war in Europe. It was sort of a buzz in the background. The war in Spain had just finished and Franco had won, and everything was topsy-turvy in Europe.

From sports at Northwood I learned a lot about getting along with people, in football and hockey, and so on. I made a lot of good friends. I think the boys at Northwood were wonderful. I know that most of the boys in my generation were in the war, and quite a few of them were killed in the war.

I wasn’t an A student. I was probably a B or B+ student, and I was particularly interested in history. I had Mr. Deeks for history. I had a couple of courses in history with him, and I guess enough courses to make me think that World War I was a gigantic mistake – and I still believe that – and I don’t know how we could have avoided World War II, but so many young men were killed.

Jim Fullerton was wonderful; he had an enormous influence on me. He was a paragon of virtue and fairness. Fullerton really connected with the boys.

You attended University of Alaska at Fairbanks in the fall of 1941. Why did you choose Fairbanks?

I wanted to take a year off and travel. My father was convinced that the U.S. was going to be in World War II, and he said, “No, no you can’t do that. You’ve got to go to college and I want you to go to a college with ROTC, so that when you get into this war you have a chance to go as an officer.” Well, I didn’t particularly want that, but he said, “I’ll send you to any college you can get into – with ROTC.”

Dr. Flinner [the headmaster at the time] had arranged two or three colleges in the west for me to go to, which were probably very good colleges, but I didn’t know much about them. I had always wanted to go to Alaska. I had read Jack London’s stories, so I said, okay, I’ll take the University of Alaska.

And it was a good choice. It was a crazy choice. At the age of 18 I got on a train in New York and went to Seattle and got on a boat up to Seward and on a train to Fairbanks. I had a very interesting year there. It was very small, about 300 students, and almost everyone in the school earned their way through, which was quite unusual. The average age of the students was twenty-four. The men would work in the summers in the mine fields and they would make enough money to pay for the college for the next year.

Of course the big event was Pearl Harbor, and we knew we were going into the service.

Did you leave school shortly after Pearl Harbor?

I went back to Middletown, New York, to see my family before I was drafted, and I discovered that the draft board there would let me finish a semester of college, if I were already registered in one. It was too late to go back to Alaska, so I went to Middlebury for a semester.

You served mostly in Italy for the 10th Mountain Division, based in nearby Watertown, NY. How did you come to join that division?

My father wanted me to apply to officer training school, but I knew something that he evidently did not know: the highest casualty rate in combat was second lieutenant, so I didn’t want to be an officer if the infantry, so I didn’t even tell anybody I had a year of ROTC. I figured it was my best chance of surviving the war.

I was a pacifist in many ways – I thought World War I was a slaughter. I thought – and I still think – that modern warfare is a way of slaughtering young men. I am opposed to war, basically. So I thought, is there any service that I might volunteer for where I might have a better chance of survival as opposed to just going in as a front-line infantryman? Since I had been a skier most of my life and camped out a great deal I volunteered for the ski troops and spent three years with the 10th Mountain Division. That was an interesting experience. The 10th Mountain Division was known in the field as the college boy division, because in 1942 the only people who were skiers were college boys, so it was full of college kids, including many from the ivies and several from Northwood. We trained for two years before we went into combat.

We were in very heavy combat for the last four months of the war. We were the spearhead division in Italy that broke through the Gothic line. We were the first troops to reach the Po River.

In the Tenth Mountain Division, out of 13,000 men a thousand were killed and another four thousand were casualties. I ended my service without being wounded. They gave me two Bronze Stars, I’m not quite sure why, but they did.

The Tenth Mountain Division is quite unique in that it has an active alumni association. They have meetings and take trips back to battlefields. On one such trip back we climbed the mountain where we had our first major battle, and I found my old foxhole. I climbed with my son, who was eleven at the time, it was 1983, and my former sergeant, had an eleven year old son also, and the four of us climbed what we called Riva Ridge, which was a mountain that the Germans didn’t believe anyone could climb. We climbed it in the middle of the night and had total surprise of the Germans there and it was considered an exceptional battle. That’s where I found my old foxhole.

After the war, you decided to move to New York City and attend the New School. Why?

I got out of the Army on the 3rd of January in 1946 and two or three weeks later I had registered at the New School. I wanted to be close to my family in Middletown, NY. I had been away for six years. So I enrolled for a semester at the New School for Social Research while I figured out what I’d do. I liked it so much I stayed. That’s where I became interested in psychoanalysis and was introduced to some of the leading psychoanalysts in the world at that time.

I read that while you were at the New School you were friends with James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. How did you come to know them?

I knew them all. We were all part of the Greenwich Village scene. We all hung out at a saloon called the San Remo down on Bleecker Street. It was a hangout for village writers. I knew all of those people, and then when we started The Voice, Kerouac, Ginsberg and those people came around quite a bit.

How did you come to publish The Village Voice in 1955?

At the New School I met a fellow about nine years older than me, Daniel Wolf, and we became very good friends. I had just finished my [psychoanalysis] internship and Dan told me he wanted to start a weekly newspaper which will reflect the creative element of Greenwich Village. He said, “I need some help. Why don’t you ask the chief psychiatrist if you can work for a year half time at the clinic and work half time helping me get this paper going?” The chief psychiatrist said sure, and I did it for nineteen years. I worked full time on The Voice, but I also worked two or three days a week doing psychotherapy during all those years.

While at Northwood, you weren’t on the staff of The Mirror or Epitome, yet you became the publisher of one of America’s most important journalistic institutions. Do you think your coming from outside journalism was advantage?

While I was at the University of Alaska I was at this party and I met this middle aged man by the name of Jensen, and he said, “I’m going to start a weekly newspaper in Fairbanks.” Fairbanks already had a daily called the News Miner. “I need somebody to report on the University activities. Would you like to be the reporter?” I said sure, and I did for several months write a weekly column for the Jensen’s Weekly, which continued after the war for several years, so I did have a little journalism experience.

But The Village Voice was unique because it was devoted to being an open newspaper. There had never been an open newspaper like The Village Voice before – or since. Writers would walk in the door and say I want to write about such-and-such, and the editor would say, well, tell me, what makes you think you can write about that, and that’s where we got our writers. The letters to the editor were better written than The New Yorker. The literate quality of our readership was extraordinary.

New York had seven daily newspapers then. Why did you think you could be successful in such a competitive environment?

Well there was a paper in Greenwich Village when we started, called The Villager, and it was very, very boring and dull, and it was really for old maids, but it was successful as a neighborhood newspaper. So our strategy was that we would start The Voice as a neighborhood newspaper, but very quickly it became a citywide newspaper and eventually, on a small level, it was national. When we sold it The Village Voice was the largest weekly newspaper in the country; we had an audited paid circulation of 150,000, which was enormous for a weekly newspaper, and a lot of it was out of town, in all of the college cities and we had subscribers in thirty countries.

You helped lead The Village Voice from the end of the McCarthy era through Watergate, a time of major change in New York and the country. What are some of the memorable issues the paper covered?

We were very much against the Vietnam War and had reporters dedicated to covering the war. We were very active in the movement for racial equality in the South. Some of our reporters were Freedom Riders in the South. We were involved in local issues, too. There was an attempt to put a sunken highway through Washington Square Park. Robert Moses wanted to do that. We strongly opposed that.

Robert Moses was the most powerful person in New York during your time at The Voice.

He was, and we pounded away at him…We weren’t intimidated by him, because we felt justified in opposing him and it felt great to defeat him. We also defeated Carmine DeSapio [the last head of the Tammany Hall political machine to dominate NYC politics], and DeSapio eventually had to come out against the sunken highway, and I think that was one of the few times Robert Moses was really defeated. [Moses] would have destroyed the entire lower Village Italian community had that highway gone through.

What are you most proud of from your time at The Voice?

I am most proud of having an open newspaper. I think of Joe Flaherty, a young man whose father had been a longshoreman who opposed the gangsters and was found face down in the East River. Joe, at the age of fifteen, became a longshoreman to support his mother and siblings. When he was seventeen or eighteen he wanted to be a writer. He wrote an article and brought it in to [Voice editor] Dan Wolf who said, “This is terrific. I’m hiring you” And he was a very good reporter. I mean that’s the sort of thing we did, this open journalism.

Why did you decide to sell the paper in 1969?

Money [laughs]. Dan and I worked on The Village Voice for nineteen years. He was nine years older than I was and it was hard to get any money. The Voice was just barely profitable. Most of the more liberal publications that were successful were subsidized by very wealthy people. We didn’t have that. We had very little money. Dan was exhausted and he wanted to retire and the only way to get a little money out of it was to sell it. I also wanted to get back to my psychotherapy practice full time and teaching.

You have been a psychoanalyst for over sixty years. How has psychoanalysis changed since WWII?

There are, of course, more people who take medication, and that didn’t exist when I first started out practicing psychotherapy, but a lot of the practice that I do is the same as it was when I started. Essentially, I am a Freudian, and I think that most of Freud’s major contributions – unconscious fantasy, dreams, the ego, and so on – have held up. I think medication doesn’t cure people. It helps them a lot. It helps them handle the emotional storms, but it doesn’t help them resolve the deep-seated neuroticism.

More people are taking once or twice a week treatment rather than three or four times a week, but I still think that treatment three or four times a week has a very important role to play.

What have you been doing since you retired last year, at age 90?

I am still active as president of the New York School for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. I am also in a book club which meets once a month. I think there are six or seven of us, and, as I tell my wife, they are all smarter than I am. One is a professor of sociology at NYU; another is a poet and former English professor; another is a corporate lawyer, a Harvard Law School grad; another is a publisher of travel books and so on. We get together once a month and pick very difficult books to read and discuss.

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