Alice Von Hildebrand: The Passing of a Tigress

COMMENTARY: Alice von Hildebrand was a woman of iron conviction.

Dietich and Alice von Hildebrand.
Dietich and Alice von Hildebrand. (photo: Courtesy photo / Hildebrand Project)

Alice von Hildebrand passed away on Jan. 14 at the age of 98. She had reached a point in her life when she longed for death, longed to be reunited with her husband, Dietrich. 

She titled her biography of her late husband The Soul of a Lion (2000). When he was close to death, he spoke to her in his native language, which was Italian: Ma sai, sai, la mia anima è ancora un leone (“But you know, you know, my soul is still a lion”). If Dietrich had the soul of a lion, Alice had the soul of a tigress.

I met the von Hildebrands in New York when I was a graduate student at St. John’s University. At that time, Dietrich was elderly, and his wife served as his memory. They were a model of humility and gentleness. I did not sense that I had encountered a lion and a tigress. I thought I was in the presence of a lamb and a dove. They, as I soon learned, were gentle toward others, but ferociously dedicated to truth.

I used their book The Art of Living in my ethics class. My own copy bears an inscription from Alice, or Lily, as she preferred to be called, “To Professor DeMarco, in caritate Christi.” 

For the von Hildebrands, reverence is the mother of all virtues. “Confronted with being,” they write, the reverent man remains silent in order to give it an opportunity to speak.” One must be humble in order to receive the truth of things. Egoism is the implacable enemy of objectivity.

Many years passed after our first meeting. When I was scheduled some time ago to speak in Montreal, I noticed that Alice von Hildebrand was also on the program. Naturally, I was most eager to meet her. To my surprise, she was looking forward to meeting me. When I arrived at the conference, she found me and gently asked if I could serve as her escort.
“A lady cannot attend a banquet without an escort,” she said. In this instance, she displayed the gentle, feminine side of her nature. We sat together at the banquet and discussed, among other things, Jacques Maritain’s strange alliance with Saul Alinsky. “I am not a feminist,” she declared. She viewed a feminist as a woman who has a strong hatred for femininity. “The whole world,” she states, “is under petticoat government. We are now living in an age of uncommon nonsense.” The world that has gone “totally crazy.” Here was the tigress pleading for a true femininity. 

One may read about her understanding of femininity and criticism of secular feminism in her book The Privilege of Being a Woman. I am most fortunate, she once told me, that I had a chaste father and a chaste husband.

Alice von Hildebrand taught at Hunter College for 37 years. In her autobiography, Memoirs of a Happy Failure (2014), she recounts how she was persecuted for disagreeing with the prevailing relativistic philosophy. Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon attests, “Her love of truth shines forth on every page of this fascinating personal memoir.” But Lily’s commitment to truth was her greatest obstacle. In fact, she was told by her school administrators not to teach objective truth. It took 15 years for Hunter College just to give Alice her own desk. “Someone — God — wanted me there,” she writes. “After 13 years I was granted tenure,” she recalls, “by a 9 to 8 vote, passing an unprecedented Gestapo-like interview of two hours by 15 heads of departments and two deans.” She, and others as well, regarded her being awarded tenure as a “miracle.” 

“In secular universities,” as Alice observed, “the word ‘objective truth’ triggers panic.” One of her students, she told me, said to her in class, “I am God” and then bowed theatrically to her classmates. On another occasion she admonished a particularly ambitious student by saying to him, “I wish you no earthly success whatsoever.” In the final analysis, however, she prevailed, leading many of her students into the Catholic Church and was, at the end of her tenure, given the “President’s Award” for excellence in teaching. In 2013, Pope Francis formally recognized her as a “Dame Grand Cross” of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory, a papal order of knighthood, in recognition of her lifetime work on behalf of the Church.

We worked closely together on two articles I wrote about her husband. She was always accessible, gentle, grateful and most encouraging. She will be missed, but her legacy, together with that of her husband, will live on. This is assured by the Hildebrand Project, a long-term promotion and dissemination of her husband’s life and thought. The project has received support from Pope Benedict XVI and many scholars, philanthropists and friends.

Till the end, Alice Marie von Hildebrand was a woman of iron conviction. But her convictions were fully justified because they centered on the Church, love and truth. She was, in essence, a great lady.