Awards: She is a New York Public Library Literary Lion, is in the International Women's Hall of Fame, and has won the Exceptional Achievement Award from the Women's Project and Production.
Bette Bao Lord is a best-selling author of novels and works of nonfiction that have been translated into more than fifteen languages. She is also a civic activist who serves on many boards and is currently the chair of Freedom House, an organization established in 1941 by Wendell Willkie and Eleanor Roosevelt to monitor violations of political and civil rights and to promote the growth of democratic institutions around the world. She is a frequent lecturer on the topic of foreign affairs, and, specifically, on her native country, China.
Bette Bao was born on November 3, 1938, in Shanghai, China, to Dora and Sandys Bao. Sandys, her father, had been educated in England and China as an electrical engineer. When the Japanese invaded China he was commissioned in the army as a colonel. He spent much of the war building a power plant in Hunan Province, in China's interior. When the war was over Sandys was sent to the United States by the Nationalist government to buy heavy equipment to rebuild China. It was initially intended that he serve this time in America alone, but he was finally able to persuade the authorities to allow his wife and two of three daughters to join him. A third, the youngest girl, Sansan, was left behind with relatives because her parents thought the long boat journey across the Pacific would be too much for the infant.
Within a couple of years China's Nationalist government would become embroiled in a civil war with the communist forces of Mao Zedong. When the government fell in 1949, the Baos knew they could never go back, and further, that getting Sansan out would be nearly impossible.
The Baos settled in Brooklyn, New York, where Bette went to grammar school. Soon, though, the family moved to New Jersey, and Bette went to high school in Teaneck where she was a very popular, excellent student. She was elected secretary of the student council and was a member of the debating team. Upon graduation she enrolled in Tufts University in suburban Boston.
Bette's parents wanted her to study chemistry, and for her first year she did, until discovering that it wasn't right for her. Instead she earned a bachelor's degree in history and political science in 1959. From there she went on to earn a master's degree at Tufts's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy the next year.
Bao's first job after graduate school was as assistant to the director of the University of Hawaii's East-West Cultural Center. The center grew considerably while she was there, due mainly to a large increase in federal funding, and by the time Bao left the job in 1961, she was in charge of a department of thirty-five people. From there she accepted a job in Washington as adviser to the director of the Fulbright Exchange program. In Washington she was reunited with Winston Lord, a man she'd met in college. In 1962 they were married. Also in that year, Bao's mother, feigning a serious illness, convinced authorities to allow her youngest daughter, Sansan, to visit her in Hong Kong. After making it to Hong Kong, Sansan escaped to America with her mother.
Bao Lord continued in her job with the Fulbright Foundation while her husband pursued his career in diplomacy. In 1963 she was encouraged by some friends who had heard the story of Sansan and her separation from the family to write a book about her sister's life. The idea seemed very intriguing to her and she quit her job and devoted herself to the project full time. She interviewed Sansan extensively and in 1964 Harper published Eighth Moon: The True Story of a Young Girl's Life in Communist China. The book did remarkably well both critically and commercially. It was issued as a Reader's Digest condensed book and continues to be taught in high schools. Bao Lord also gave birth to a daughter that year, Elizabeth Pillsbury Lord.
In 1965 Bao Lord's husband was sent to Geneva as a member of the United States negotiating team at the Kennedy round of international tariff discussions. While in Switzerland, Bao Lord taught modern dance, something she'd been involved in since college. Upon returning to Washington two years later she had her second child, a son, Winston Bao Lord.
Winston Lord's political prospects brightened considerably when Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968. Nixon's chief foreign policy adviser was Henry Kissinger, and Lord was one of Kissinger's top assistants. When Kissinger was named secretary of state, Lord left his post with the national security council to follow him to the state department. As a top Kissinger aide, Lord accompanied him on five meetings with Mao Zedong in preparation for American recognition of Communist China. Bao Lord was not allowed to go with her husband on any of these missions, but in November 1973 she was allowed to return with her husband to the country of her birth.
Photographs she took during this trip were published in the Washington Post when she returned--they went on to win the National Graphic Arts Contest--and she signed a contract with Harper and Row to write an account of her return to China.
In 1976 the Republicans were voted out of the presidency and the Lords decided to leave Washington for a while. They moved to Colorado where Bao Lord began work on her book. Her original intention was to write a nonfiction account of her return to China, but she was concerned that she might jeopardize the lives of some of the family members she had met with while there. China was at the time in the grips of the vehemently anti-Western Cultural Revolution, and people were routinely imprisoned or killed for having contact with what were considered "anti-revolutionary" Westerners. So she decided to write a novel instead. It was called Spring Moon and was published in 1981 to glowing reviews. It was nominated for a National Book Award, was on the New York Times bestseller list for thirty weeks, and earned an award from the Literary Guild.
In 1984 Bao Lord published her first children's book. Intended for fifth and sixth graders, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson is a fictionalized account of her first year in America, which she spent as a grade-schooler in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1985 Lord was appointed the American ambassador to China, and she returned with him to her native country. While stationed in Beijing, Bao Lord immersed herself in the local arts community, and in 1988 she co-produced the play The Caine Mutiny at The People's Art Theater. The production was directed by the American film star Charlton Heston and the premiere was attended by Herman Wouk, the play's author. The play received excellent reviews--including Wouk's, who said it was the best production he had seen of his play since its world premiere.
Although Bao Lord had no official title in the diplomatic corps, she was an invaluable assistant to her husband during this period, which was an especially difficult one for the rulers of China. By the end of Lord's stay in Beijing, the city was in the midst of the student-led pro-democracy movement. Lord's ambassadorship ended in April of 1989, but Bao Lord stayed behind to help interpret events for CBS News. She had left, however, by the weekend of June 3rd, when government troops massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed students in Tiananmen Square.
In 1990 Bao Lord published her second work of nonfiction, Legacies, A Chinese Mosaic, which tells the story of her return to China as the wife of the American ambassador. The book became a New York Times bestseller, a Book of the Month Club selection, has been translated into ten languages, and was named one of the top ten books of nonfiction for 1990 by Time magazine.
Bao Lord holds honorary doctorates from Notre Dame, Tufts, Skidmore College, Marymount College, Bryant College, and Dominican College. She is a New York Public Library Literary Lion, is in the International Women's Hall of Fame, and has won the Exceptional Achievement Award from the Women's Project and Production.
Since the spring of 1993 she has been the chair of the Freedom House, a New York-based organization that seeks to foster democracy around the world. It issues yearly reports on the state of freedom in the world, listing countries that hold free and fair elections and those that don't. Another of the guiding premises of Freedom House is that it is in the best interests of the United States to remain engaged in the international community, resisting isolationist impulses at home.
Writing in Newsweek in 1992, Bao Lord addressed recent national concerns over ethnicity and the barriers that members of racial minorities experience in their attempts to succeed. In this climate, she observed, there is a tendency for groups to splinter from the mainstream, to cut themselves off into an enclave. She warned that this is a dangerous impulse, but she predicted that the need for it will be overcome "when we engage our diversity to yield a nation greater than the sum of its parts; we can be as different as brothers and sisters are, and belong to the same family; and we bless, not shame, America, our home."