Inspired by Irma

October 3, 2015

I recently had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Jersey Festival of Words – the Island’s 2015 literary festival. I was lucky enough to enjoy an evening event featuring Irma Kurtz.  For those who don’t know about Irma, she was Cosmopolitan’s Agony Aunt for more than 40 years.

Irma Kurtz – My Life In Agony

‘An hour ago I met Irma for the first time and now I feel like we are best friends’, opined Murray Norton, host of the heart-warming Jersey Festival of Words show with agony aunt Irma Kurtz. Show is the wrong word. It wasn’t a show, or an event, or a performance. It was as though we had been privileged to sit in on an honest, funny and intimate conversation between two old friends. In the blink of an eye, an hour had passed and we had been given a brief insight into the rollercoaster ride of a life that Irma has lived. And is still living.

Cradled in a plush mustard-coloured velvet armchair on the Opera House stage, Irma’s diminutive frame belies her strength of character. This is one tough cookie. There’s the time she wanted to experience life in a war zone so was sent to cover the war in Vietnam (journalist first, agony aunt later). Buoyed by her abhorrence of racism and fascinated by the extent of power they held, she chose to interview the head of the Klu Klux Klan. Thankfully he misheard her surname as Curtis and proceeded with the interview.

Her rule of thumb for giving advice is simple. ‘I’ve always avoided telling people what they should do. I listen, and empathise, and then present options.’  It is this common sense approach, of which Irma is a great believer, that has kept her in the agony aunt business writing for Cosmopolitan on multiple continents for 40 years. Trying to remain at all times impartial, the one area she confides to being more opinionated is affairs. ‘Having an affair makes you a collaborator, not a lover.’

Has the advice she has given changed over the years? ‘Essentially the issues are still the same – lack of self esteem, jealousy, friendship, family’. What has been most interesting is how the letters have varied by culture. The Japanese appear to have an endless problem with in-laws. British women are more self-accusing: ‘what am I doing wrong?’ in comparison to the more angry Americans: ‘why can’t he…?’.   When Irma was asked to respond to letters from South Africa at the height of apartheid this was where she really struggled. ‘What was open as a solution to white women wasn’t open to their black sisters. I didn’t know what I could suggest.’

When the letters started arriving in batches, Irma’s son thoughtfully bought her an electric letter opener. ‘The postman hated me’ she laughs. But the thousands of recipients of her wise words of advice and sound counsel loved her.

Did she ever feel overwhelmed by all this sadness? ‘No,’ she said. ‘I felt privileged that these women, they were mostly women, were genuinely talking to me.’ The fact these people were motivated to start confessing their fears, problems and issues with her meant they were on the first step to seeking help.

Sadly she has handed the mantle of agony aunt over. ‘Email doesn’t grip me in the same way as a letter does’ she states, somewhat wistfully.

What about when she has problems? Who does she turn to? ‘I go for a very long walk and eventually I turn, and return, to myself’. And if she could give her 20 year old self a piece of advice what would it be? ‘Would you just stop and think!?’.

Tennessee Williams saved Irma’s life. A delay to their scheduled interview meant Irma changed her flight out to meet him. Had she travelled as originally planned, she would have been on a plane that went down in the ocean. Thank the Lord that didn’t happen and the world was blessed with Irma Kurtz wisdom for many years more. I think it’s safe to say everyone left the Jersey Opera House that little bit more enlightened about life and how to tackle the challenges it presents.

If you’d like to read more, I’d strongly recommend Irma’s book – My Life In Agony.

To find out more about the Jersey Festival of Words, please visit www.jerseyfestivalofwords.org

Irma Kurtz photo credit: Huntley Hedworth

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