While Dr. Gloria Schrager’s two books focus on cherished memories of the past, at 86 the Westfield pediatrician is eager to explore new fields. Her latest sortie is into the world of movie making.
When a reporter called to interview her last week, she was in the middle of discussions with a director about a possible film based on her books. “It’s been fun to consider, but the movie business is always very complicated,” she said. “So much can go wrong between thought and completion.”
Schrager will talk about her adventures in learning — both personal and professional —when she gives a talk at Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah, the Conservative synagogue in Clark, where she is a member, on Sunday morning, Feb. 27.
Schrager’s four grandchildren have been her muses, she said. She wrote her books — The Complex Life of a Woman Doctor, published in 2008, and her new one, Rebecca and Her Brothers, a fictionalized account of her childhood published last October — out of a desire to share her experiences with them. But she is just as willing to learn from the young.
“All four are wonderful,” she declared. “And they introduce me to so many new things.”
The one time Schrager was tempted to withdraw from the world was 15 years ago, after her husband died. Instead, she took up a suggestion from her daughter-in-law Frances to write about her life. “Remembering the good times — and the difficult ones — occupied my mind and made it easier to deal with the loss,” she said.
She wrote about her immigrant parents who had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe, her childhood in a small village in upstate New York, and her 40-year marriage. A very private person, she intended that text just as a record for the family, but to her surprise, it drew the attention of a publisher and a far larger audience.
The work also tells of perhaps the most open-minded act of her life — her decision to become a doctor at a time when so few women were in the profession. “I remember exactly when it happened — at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon in March,” she said. “I made that the opening sentence of my book.”
Schrager was studying history at Brooklyn College at the time. Totally uninterested in science, she took a course in biology only because it was required. But she was increasingly drawn to the Socratic teaching of her biology professor, and when he asked her do some research, she agreed. When he suggested she consider going into medicine, she stopped in her tracks.
“I said, ‘Really? I could do that? I thought women just became nurses,” Schrager recalled. Her parents were horrified. “My mother thought I’d become an old maid, and that I’d have to do indelicate things,” she said. She went ahead anyway and got her medical degree at Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1948.
Her mother might have been right about the “indelicate things,” but Schrager proved her wrong on the other score. She met fellow doctor Alvin Schrager while doing her internship. They were married for 40 years and had two sons, both of whom became doctors. To their mother’s great delight, she said, they married women she adores, one of them also a doctor.
Schrager and her husband opened a practice in Westfield, where they made their home. She left the practice in 1972 to become director of pediatrics at Overlook Hospital in Summit. When Overlook affiliated with Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, she became clinical professor of pediatrics there. She retired in 1989, but keeps up her teaching contact in the city. In 2000, Overlook presented her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Pediatrics.
A petite, dark-haired woman, Schrager admitted that she learned “by trial and error” to use her looks to her advantage. Fed up with the patronizing compliments about her dimples, she tried to smile without letting them show — but she also realized how to play up her femininity. “I learned I was more likely to have the impact I wanted if I wore a pink suit with a frilly blouse than a gray, mannish suit — though I had some of those too,” she said.
Schrager recently started taking a Tai-Chi class at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains, where she also swims regularly. She has become friends with the instructor, relishing the chance to revisit the pleasure she experienced traveling in China and Japan.
Writing was a totally new challenge for Schrager, though she said that as a physician, she has always stressed the importance of writing “concise and precise” records. She said she simply recorded her memories as they arose — and then added the elements she wanted.
She is excited about the possibility of a film being made of her story. She laughed when asked whom she would like to see portraying her. “Julia Roberts would be wonderful,” she said, and agreed that Natalie Portman would be great, too. But with characteristic realism, she insisted that it is far too early to count on the movie deal actually going through. “It’s fun to think about,” she said.