In Memorian: Joan Konner, 1931-2018

“Follow your bliss, and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” —Joseph Campbell

As she put it herself, Joan was a child of the atom bomb. The blast made her deeply aware that scientific advancement was outpacing society’s moral and spiritual development, and inspired her to devote her life to the pursuit of ideas. However, the way did not come to her in an atomic flash, but from years of living, first as she was supposed to, and then as she determined to, in a relentless quest to know herself and what it meant to be alive.

During her career, Joan made hundreds of documentaries for PBS, NBC, and Public Affairs Television with Bill Moyers, many of them well known and still relevant. She won numerous awards including 16 Emmys, a Peabody Award, and an Alfred I. du Pont Award. Her work was notable for thorough preparation and her fearless interviewing. She believed that the mark of a good journalist was looking for the right question rather than finding a good answer.

In her unpublished memoir, A Soundbitten Life, Joan revealed what it took to become a tour de force in documentary television. She went to work in an age when women were expected to marry and stay home, attracting both admiration and suspicion among her acquaintances. Even though she had mentors early in her career, she had to be better than men at what she did. And cleverer.

Her account, edited to fit, of winning a ping pong game as part of a job interview, is illustrative.
Six reels of my documentaries sat unviewed under a chair in the office of Bob Mulholland, the Executive Vice President of News at NBC. I had delivered them months before when I signed a six-month contract that was about to expire. I already had a record in the NBC news division in every capacity and many awards, but soon I would have no job.

I decided to invite him out to my home in Snedens Landing for a dinner. If it went well, maybe then I could ask him to look at my documentaries.

When he walked through the door, Mulholland looked around. "Lovely house,"; he said. Then my next door neighbors, Morley Safer and his wife Jane, arrived. Suddenly, Bob was at attention. The food was excellent, conversation lively. After dinner, I challenged Mulholland to a game of ping pong. First game, I won. He challenged me to a second game. I beat him again. The next morning, Mulholland called me into his office and offered me a contract. He never looked at my films.

Joan was the first and only female dean of her alma mater, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Seen by her colleagues as tough but tender, she restored an institution in crisis to its proper place at the top of the world’s elite journalism schools, and opened the way to countless women, many of whom she mentored.

Her books include The Atheist's Bible, You Don't Have To Be Buddhist To Know Nothing, Having It All Isn't Everything, and The Book of I. She described them as “gourmet take-out food for the mind.” Her essays serve as revelatory companion pieces.

Here in Palisades, where she shared a home with her husband, Al Perlmutter, and her dog, Bliss, she lived her life with her usual verve and purpose. One of her last endeavors was to form a group of local writers, some established, others not, so she could write her memoir against deadline. As always, she was immensely generous with her time and experience, serving as a mentor to every member, and touched each with her openness and humanity, unexpected in one so accomplished.

As a speaker at Joan’s memorial service at Columbia said, the only way you can forget a woman like Joan is to pass from this world yourself.