March 2005

Ernestine Bradley

Finding her way: Bradley reveals a difficult path to independence
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Ernestine Bradley is the wife of Bill Bradley, the former basketball star, U.S. senator from New Jersey and 2000 presidential aspirant. But she dwells neither on sports nor politics in The Way Home: A German Childhood, An American Life, her engaging account of growing up in wartime Germany and then flowering as an adult in America. Although her marriage to Bradley clearly put her in the company of the glamorous and mighty, she doesn’t gossip or drop names. Her focus, instead, is on coming to terms with her parents particularly her self-involved mother and finding her own way in a culture she first glimpsed through its conquering army.

Bradley came to America in 1957, when she was 21 years old and working as a stewardess for Pan American airlines. The following year, she married an American doctor and moved to Atlanta. There she gave birth to her first child, earned a doctorate in comparative literature and began her long career as a college teacher. After the marriage ended, she moved to New York, leaving her child in the custody of her former husband. In 1974, she married Bradley, who would go on to serve 18 years in the Senate. While he lived in Washington (and eventually took care of their young daughter), she continued to teach in New Jersey. Such an arrangement, she observes, was perfectly congruent with the then-prevailing feminist values to which she enthusiastically subscribed.

Speaking to BookPage from her home in New Jersey, Bradley explains why her book concentrates more on what was going on inside her mind than the minute details of what was happening around her. “I think the world always needs some interpretation,” she says, her German accent still distinct. “Otherwise we face it blindly. Without a structure, you can’t process whatever information there is.” Although she says she made some good friends in Washington during her husband’s tenure in the Senate, Bradley admits she was not drawn to the town’s social scene or political intrigues. “So many of the people you meet in Washington, particularly among the political participants, you don’t really develop friendships with. They are all purpose-based contacts, I would say.” Fully half the book is devoted to the author’s life in Germany. Her descriptions of Passau and Ingolstadt, the towns in which she grew up, are vivid and often warm, despite the deprivations she suffered. Always at the center of her recollections is her domineering mother, who was simultaneously an inspiration and a burden. Ernestine was conceived out of wedlock, but by the time she was born, her mother had made a marriage of convenience. That marriage ended eight years later when Ernestine’s real father, a German soldier, came back into the picture. It was not until her mother’s death in 2001 that Bradley seemed able to resolve their complex relationship.

“When I was a teenager the time that she influenced me most profoundly,” Bradley reflects, “I wasn’t really aware that I was being influenced heavily influenced by her. I could only read my responses . . . . [M]y actions were to get away from Ingolstadt as soon as I could. Today, in this country, [that’s] not a big deal. But at the time, which was in the late ’50s in Germany, it was a major step. I don’t know in retrospect whether it was a step of liberation or just a step to get away from this very powerful influence.” But leaving home didn’t end her mother’s influence, Bradley concedes. “I think after I came to this country, I still enacted the imprints I had received before I left. As she began to fail [physically] and I went to Germany right after the [2000] election frequently to be with her some of my thoughts began to be clearer to me. I began to understand why I had to leave, why I wanted to leave and what the cost would have been if I had stayed. Like any mother, she only wanted the best [for her children] but she always thought her way was the best.” In 1992, Bradley discovered she had breast cancer. In fighting the disease, she lost a breast. But the experience made her more resilient and philosophical. “Losing a breast is not so great an inconvenience as losing an arm or a foot,” she writes. “I am lucky.” Now retired from the faculty of Montclair State College, Bradley teaches one course a semester at the New School in New York and spends a lot more time with her husband, daughters and grandchildren. “My life,” she says with evident satisfaction, “is completely filled.” Edward Morris writes from Nashville.

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