On December 11, 1922 in Bronx, N.Y., Grace Paley (nee Goodside) was born to Jewish Ukrainian immigrants Isaac and Manya Goodside. After graduating high school early, she attended Hunter College and New York University, both briefly. She then studied at the New School for Social Research with the poet W.H. Auden, who would greatly influence her work as a poet. At twenty, she married Jess Paley, a cinematographer, with whom she had two children, Nora and Danny. She and Jess Paley eventually divorced, and she married writer Robert Nichols in 1972.
Paley began to publish in her thirties. Her first book, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) was a collection of short stories about New York life. The success of the book was slow, but gained an ardent following over time, prompting a re-issue nine years later. Paley’s second collection of short fiction, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, published in 1974, featured some of the same characters from The Little Disturbances of Man, as did a third collection, Later the Same Day (1985). That same year, she also published a book of poems, Leaning Forward. She subsequently published two additional books of poetry: Begin Again (1992) and Fidelity (2008—posthumous).
Paley’s stories often focused significantly on the lives of women, and explored the ideas of class, gender, urban life and Jewish identity. The character Faith Darwin Asbury, who appears in many of Paley’s stories, is a Jewish single mother with two sons, and the daughter of aging socialists.
Besides being increasingly dedicated to the teaching of writing—in 1967, she co-founded the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York—Paley was a notable peace activist, committed to anti-war movements throughout her lifetime. During the war in Vietnam, Paley joined the War Resisters League, and traveled to Hanoi in 1969 on a peace mission attempting to free prisoners of war. In 1978, she was arrested for covering part of the White House lawn with an anti-nuclear weapons banner. She also wrote numerous nonfiction pieces opposing war.
In 1961, Paley was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1989, she was deemed the first official New York State Writer by New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Other honors include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1967, the Edith Wharton Award in 1983, and the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the Literary Arts in 1994. She was Vermont State Poet Laureate (2003-2007) and her Collected Stories was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. She gave the commencement speech at Sarah Lawrence College in 2004.
While Paley taught for over 20 years at Sarah Lawrence College, she also taught at Columbia University, City College and Syracuse University. She lived in New York City and in Thetford, Vermont, where she died on August 22, 2007.