A Tribute to Shirley Herbert

John Kuhner |

We Note The Passing of one of Rome’s Beautiful Souls

Shirley Herbert, Civis Romana, 1934–2018.
Shirley Herbert, Civis Romana, 1934–2018.

Back in June, Paideia’s Living Latin in Rome students and teachers were staying in Castellamare, on the Bay of Naples. The hotel we were staying in had a little garden, and the staff were in the garden late in the night. It had been a long but remarkable day: we had climbed Mt. Vesuvius with our students in the morning, eaten a long Neapolitan lunch, and spent the whole afternoon in Pompeii, speaking only Latin. We were dog-tired, but had the satisfaction of having finished a day of hard, interesting work. And we were in a beautiful spot. The Bay of Naples was spread out before us, it was a delicious evening, and we were in a good mood. We stayed up far too long, telling stories of Naples and enjoying each other’s company. I didn’t want to go to bed, but I knew it was the right thing to do, so I said goodnight to everyone, and headed for my room. As I walked away one of my colleagues followed and called out to me. “John, hold up for a minute.”

I waited until she drew near. “I got a call earlier today. Shirley died this afternoon. I don’t have any information about a service or anything like that, but I figured you’d want to know the news. I’ll let you know if I hear any more details.”

I thanked her; I did want to know. I should have expected the news. Shirley was in her eighties and had terminal cancer. The end was certainly near. But still I found myself stunned, and I walked back to my room in a pained, dulled silence. I opened the door to find the twins still awake. I took them in my arms, told them Shirley had died, and we all said a prayer together in the darkness.

Despite Shirley’s illness, things seemed more or less normal when we had visited her at her home two weeks before. Shirley knew that I was not particularly interested in medical details — what she called “the organ recital” — but I knew that there had been plenty of procedures, plenty of medicines, and plenty of problems. She told me the key points. She was not expecting to be alive at year’s end. Her cancer was affecting her spine, which would produce occasional attacks of pain so severe she had been considering a trip up to Switzerland for euthanasia, which was unavailable in Italy. As it was, the usual Italian bureaucratic problems sometimes left her with no medication during these spasms, which left her in some terror. But she proclaimed that our visit had cheered her up quite a bit, which seemed true. She took photos of our children, and while she was never a fan of children, she seemed really to appreciate their beauty and their smiles. Soon enough the twins started trying to grab her remote controls and other little objects in the apartment, which meant they had to go. Shirley had perhaps the least child-proofed apartment on the planet, an endless visual feast of carefully balanced, heavy, and intriguing knick-knacks. Catherine took the twins down into the piazza. I remained to talk, and as always, the conversation was wide-ranging and pleasant. She seemed so very alive.

I knew Shirley Herbert as one of the fixtures of American expatriate life in Rome, and in particular of the expatriate community that studied Latin and knew Reginald Foster. I don’t know when she first started studying with Reginaldus, but by the spring of 2000, when I spent some time studying at the Gregorian, she already had a kind of legendary status. She was older than other students — she had already retired from her work as a television personality and journalist — and she was different in other ways as well. For one thing, while the advanced classes were generally full of Latin hotshots, Shirley never seemed to get any better at Latin, despite moving up from beginning to intermediate to advanced classes over the years. She had a knack for getting words wrong: if the phrase was “ab imo pectore,” she’d confuse “pectus” with “pecus” and end up with something like “from the bottom sheep” instead of “from the bottom of my heart.” If the passage was about sheep she’d end up thinking it was about breasts (pectus again). Reginaldus would groan, scold, and lament, prompting her to defend herself by attacking the author (“Well if he wanted to be understood why’d he write it this way?!”), the Latin language (“How in the world did the Romans conquer the world with a language where you can’t tell sheep from breasts!”), Reginaldus’ teaching (“Maybe if someone had told me it was called the pluperfect rather than ‘time five’ I’d know that!”), and any other handy scapegoat. It was like a comedy routine, and in fact, it was a legitimately entertaining part of the course. Occasionally they both got raw about it: Reginaldus really did not enjoy error, and as an idealist in the Vatican he had plenty of other stressors in his life, which left him testy by day’s end. Shirley was intelligent and got frustrated by her constant failure: she was a journalist, a minor expert on opera, knowledgeable about all kinds of other things, fluent in French and Italian, etc. She didn’t understand how in the world Latin could be so hard. Once Latin really did actually threaten their friendship: he had written, in exasperation, on one of her assignments, “This is shit and dreaming,” a classic Reginaldian juxtaposition (“dreaming” was something he disapproved of: it meant you were making things up). She took offense, gave him an earful in class (“This may be shit to you, but I spent twenty hours this week producing this ‘shit’!”) and stormed out. For about a week they didn’t speak. But Shirley in retrospect actually found that this was a kind of turning point in her life: through Latin she was coming to grips with her limitations. She couldn’t be good at everything. Maybe, in fact, it was okay to be bad at things, even things she tried hard to be good at. And her friendship with Reginaldus improved. There was some kind of deep connection between them that Latin could not stop.

Shirley was, like Reginaldus, a Midwesterner (she was from Chicago). She was five years older (born 1934); both came to Rome in the 1960s and ended up staying. Both of them adored Italy, and while there were substantial differences in approach, for both Italy meant a continually available intellectual connection with the human experience. For Reginaldus this happened largely through Latin. Shirley admired this, and came to Latin classes to get some of it; but she found it in her own life largely elsewhere, through opera, modern literature, architecture, food, and art. But the basic similarity between the two kept them friends.

For myself and others of my generation, Shirley represented the ideal of expat life in Rome. She arrived when the Eternal City was simultaneously booming and cheap, and got a rental in the heart of it all: in the old theater of Pompey, above the restaurant Da Pancrazio, overlooking the Campo de’ Fiori. It was the apartment expats dream of. Shirley’s part of the building was seventeenth century at the latest — probably earlier than that — and was the antithesis of modern order and symmetry. Nothing was square. I couldn’t tell you what “floor” any apartment was on: each one was tucked into any random nook it could find. Each apartment was unlike the others, all a somewhat random series of rooms that made no particular sense. There were no mod cons. There was no parking. In place of all that was pure poetry. In the evening she’d toss open her shutters and have the Campo de’ Fiori bathed in golden light below. In the morning she’d shop at the vegetable market in the piazza. It’s still picturesque, but when she arrived half a century ago the Campo was still the traditional center of one of the most traditional neighborhoods in Rome. Children played there; women brought out chairs and mended clothes; men fixed their motorcyles and washed their greasy hands in the nasone. In summer the piazza was the residents’ air conditioning: you sat there until your bedroom got cool enough to sleep. Women brought their laundry and a drying rack down to the fountain and washed their dirty underwear there. For any American looking to escape the historyless atomization of suburbia, everything about the place was heaven. The neighborhood changed, of course: it became more touristy, and buyers in search of authenticity bought up the old apartments. The Campo became a focus of Roman nightlife. But even as the piazza turned offensively noisy at night, Shirley refused to leave the building, finding a quieter apartment on the interior courtyard. It was still a glorious place to live.

We were all terrified when we heard that Shirley was changing apartments. We all thought, “How in the world is she going to move all that stuff?” Even within the same building, the prospect seemed terrifying. The place looked like an antique shop for geniuses. It was also a kind of visual embodiment of what the Humanities mean: that we, as human beings, open ourselves to letting other human beings change and inspire us. Everywhere were names and faces: busts, portraits, photos, titles and authors on spines. And every item carried an electric charge of story: the novels and librettos, the photos of Shirley’s friends, the souvenirs from trips, the reminders of high culture and history, and its various intersections with Shirley’s life. In it you would find the faces of the great composers next to her friends, and reminders of Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans next to her shopping lists. And it endured, decade after decade. Even after she moved — every item went with her — it still felt permanent. Pictures put up in 1984 were still there. There was a photo of Shirley in her bed in the 1960s. She was sleeping in that same bed in 2018.

Shirley was always taking courses, reading books, talking politics, and reacting to art. Homo Deus and a history of Islam were by her bedside when she died — typical reading for her. I can remember many of my conversations with her: about the gardens at Ninfa, the best operas outside of the common repertory, Wagner and German nationalism, Manzoni and the novel in Italian, American policy vis-a-vis Iraq, Turkey, NATO, Serbia, China, immigration, etc. Her take on politics was of the general expat variety, but not wrong for all that: the U.S. should be more idealistic, more generous, and more just. She felt a certain degree of pity and wonder for people who lived without the kind of intellectual culture she had immersed herself in; and she disliked their arrival at her doorstep in the Campo de’ Fiori. “These young people from the U.S. and the U.K. and Germany and Australia, they sit here in the piazza all night drinking bottles of liquor, then smashing them on the ground, urinating godknowswhere, screaming at the top of their lungs all night, and there are fistfights — the Italians don’t take it very well, and I can’t say I blame them.” In recent years alcohol-related ugliness — almost all by foreign tourists — has become a nightly occurrence in Rome, and an alcohol-related death of a young foreigner an annual event. For Shirley this was all strange and sad — surrounded by the great cultural treasures of Rome, young people were trying to reduce it to the level of a frat party. It reminded her of all the things she was trying to leave behind in America: she had described everything she knew up until she was about fifteen as “a sinister amusement park:” a kind of personal unseriousness that actually disguises something more sinister, a real waste of the gift of life. She said it was the working title for her autobiography.

An article from the Chicago Daily News about Shirley Herbert.
An article from the Chicago Daily News about Shirley Herbert.

But as much as she loved her high culture, and as much as she thought there was something important and serious about life well-lived, Shirley was the furthest thing from stuffy. Her intellectual life was part of a larger vivacity that embraced many things. She liked making herself the center of attention, and found ways to not fit in. Reginaldus often said “Shirley, ut turbo” when talking about her in Latin, as if “like a whirlwind” were her proper Homeric epithet. She liked being loud and did not mind squabbling with other people, a trait she admired also in the Italians. Her Italian was excellent but she never seemed to even try adopting an Italian accent: she simply spoke perfectly grammatical, complicated Italian as if it were the native language of Chicago. (Other expats, who took pride in disguising their foreign accents, would wince). She even made the papers for infecting her Italian students (she taught English, both in classes and on Italian television) with a Chicago accent. She drank “EST! EST! EST!” wine from Montefiascone, even though it wasn’t very good, because she loved the story of a man dying from sheer love of a wine. She liked announcing her arrivals in places. For a while she dyed her hair fuchsia — not just highlights, but the whole head a throbbing, fluorescent pink — which astonished the Italians, who could not imagine a human being going so squarely against taste and fashion. When she arrived at Latin class with this hair, Reginaldus managed to get halfway through without mentioning it before she interrupted him, bellowing out in the middle of class, “WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO SAY SOMETHING ABOUT MY HAIR???”

This combination of high culture and complete lack of pretense made Shirley welcome everywhere. This despite the fact that not everyone agreed with her. She was friends with many religious people, though Shirley never ceased mentioning that she really believed that religion was just a vast hallucination with a profit-making apparatus attached. These comments of hers generally — and this was typical of her — led to productive, thoughtful discussions, which I certainly always enjoyed. The conversations she, Reginaldus, and I had about religion were some of the best I have ever been part of. Reginaldus and I spoke often about the good things that had come into our lives as a result of religion — a very concrete, very respectable argument in a place like Rome, and Shirley seemed receptive to this idea — in fact I suspect it was one of the reasons why Rome was especially attractive to her. She described herself as a “faithful Lutheran atheist,” a trinity which seemed to make perfect sense, and which somehow made her deeply appreciative of and thoughtful about religion. I really loved her for it.

For me it’s impossible to write about Shirley without the word “curiosity.” She was in many ways a journalist par excellence. She had a pure curiosity of a sort I have seen in almost no one: hers was not filtered by academia or career (which may be a redundancy): she was not attempting to resolve her curiosity into another article, or another line on her C.V. She was just curious about things. She worked in the English language department at ANSA, an Italian news service. She was hence not an investigative reporter per se. She was translating Italian news stories into English — reblogging, essentially. She found it stimulating, and indeed all her life she kept up with the news. She was interested in all of it — interested in the intersection of the Catholic Church with Polish politics or how South Africa tried to move beyond its apartheid history. She often read well-reviewed books, and made sure to see well-reviewed concerts and exhibitions. She often disarmed people simply by being interested in them: she would ask me about my life, often looking for information about the nuts and bolts of my life (“Now how much does that pay?” “Describe this cabin of yours for me.” “Tell me the first time you ever really felt comfortable reading a Latin text.”), and I could tell she was genuinely interested. She was like this right up until her death. I think I can speak for all of her friends when I say that I rejoice that the curiosity and acuity that resided in her mind remained undimmed all the way to the end.

She was also a good friend. For us young expats she seemed to have been in Rome forever, and was a fabulous source of information. When I and my fiancee were planning a wedding in Rome in 2007, she was far and away the most helpful person involved (she in fact did most of the work arranging the reception). Whatever you might need in Rome — jewelry, photocopying, books, someone to fix a broken window or frame an old print — she knew where to start. And she was deeply willing to help. It was her knowledge of the Italian medical bureaucracy — together with a willingness to butt in — which saved Reginaldus’s life after he broke his leg in 2008. Shirley visited Reginaldus at his monastery, was aghast to find that no one really was taking care of him there, and against his vociferous objections — he really was at the time intending to just die quietly in his bed — she got his superior to send Reginaldus to a hospital, where he was eventually sent for open-heart surgery. Ten years later, he’s still alive. I don’t think Reginaldus had any other friends who would have been so willing to start making phone calls on his behalf against his own objections. I know I certainly would not have had the courage to disobey him like that. Indeed in general she was one of the very few people I ever saw him accept favors from. When I mentioned this to him after she died, he agreed and said, “I always — always — always — respected Shirley.” He respected her so much that he recognized that at times she might be right and he wrong — even about his own life.

Shirley Herbert (left) on Italian television.
Shirley Herbert (left) on Italian television.

Towards the end of her life she became a friend of the Paideia Institute as well, largely because of the respect she had for what Paideia has done to care for Reginaldus’s legacy. She befriended some of Paideia’s newest American expats, regaling them with her stories, and she arranged in her last year to donate her collection of Latin books — a collection appraised around $4000 — to the Institute. And items in her apartment started being passed down to the next generation. When I passingly admired her two-volume edition of Augustus Hare’s Walks in Rome, she handed it to me. It came back to America in my backpack, wrapped in a “Carpe Diem” t-shirt I bought in her honor — that shirt was one of her favorite tourist knickknacks sold in Rome.

And “Carpe Diem” is a phrase I will always associate with Shirley. She wore that t-shirt all over Rome, scandalizing the Italians (80-year-old women can’t go around town wearing t-shirts!) but making her point. She loved that the Italians made time for the things that they valued, and she did the same. She used to send me and her other friends email updates from time to time, and even a glance at them now shows just how rich and varied her life was even in her last years. “Dinner with friends from French class on Baja, a barge on the Tiber.” “The Maxxi, Rome’s National Museum of 21st Century Arts” (a brief review she wrote for her friends — she went there because it was down the street from her doctor’s office). “Hope you enjoy these photos of a stunning temporary exhibit amid the ruins of Trajan’s Market.” And, a complete email which is pure Shirley: “Philosophy DOES help — when it doesn’t hurt your head: After all my moaning and groaning, DO let me recommend Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, Understanding Philosophy through Jokes. It really helped me through my hospital stay.” Shirley lived to be 83, a good, long, rich, full life. Many of the details I don’t know — we who arrive late on the scene never do. I’d love someday to go to the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, or the Festspiele in Bayreuth, which I heard her talking about with such love. But I feel grateful that I got a chance to see Shirley with the Eternal City as her backdrop: in her pink hair pushing past the cassocked priests of the Gregorian University, polishing off a bottle of wine with the Pope’s Latinist at Ristorante Eden by San Pancrazio, tracing the outline of the cavea of Pompey’s theater with her cane, stopping to savor Italian words like “dunque” and “rompicapo,” making her way through the Villa Doria Pamphili to Lo Scarpone, enjoying a Sunday meal with Sant’Andrea della Valle looming up over her table, opening up her shutters to let in Giordano Bruno and all of Campo de’ Fiori, and being so very alive — alive with the power of the mind to appreciate it all.


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John Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is the former president of SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, and editor of In Medias Res.


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