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Hildred Storey Geertz, professor emeritus at Princeton University, died peacefully at home in Princeton, New Jersey, on September 30, 2022. 

I am one of those graduate students for whom Hilly Geertz was an absolutely essential presence in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. I had a background in Spanish literature, I loved the arts, and I wanted to be a writer. I often wandered through Aaron Burr Hall questioning my decision to pursue a career in anthropology. Did it make any sense? It was Hilly who sought to show me that anthropology is a capacious discipline. Through her passion for Balinese painting and storytelling, she convinced me there was room in anthropology for those of us wanting to build bridges to the arts and to write poetically nuanced ethnographies.  

Hilly earned her BA at Antioch College in 1948 and her PhD in social anthropology from Radcliffe College in 1956. Her pioneering ethnographic research in Indonesia and Morrocco resulted in several books, The Javanese Family (1961), Images of Power: Balinese Paintings Made for Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead (1995), The Life of a Balinese Temple: Artistry, Imagination, and History in a Peasant Village (2004), Tales of a Charmed Life: A Balinese Painter Reminisces (2005), Kinship in Bali (with husband Clifford Geertz, 1975), Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis (with Clifford Geertz and Lawrence Rosen, 1979), and numerous scholarly articles.  

Hilly joined Princeton’s faculty in 1971. During her time there she became the university’s first female department chair and third female tenured professor. The Department of Anthropology was small and in transition when I was there between 1977 and 1982. Graduate courses were in short supply. When I’m asked who I studied with at Princeton, I always say, “Hilly and Jim, and Jim and Hilly.” I did fieldwork in Spain in the summers with the support and inspiration of Jim Fernandez. And then during the academic year, I’d do tutorials with Hilly, the two of us inventing courses that didn’t exist. She’d ask me to create the syllabus, which was exciting, and also a lot of work. This involved researching the subject—at the actual physical library in those days—and finding the key articles and books, and figuring out the intellectual genealogy of how a certain field had come to be. I was interested in photography and film, and one of our tutorials focused on visual anthropology. In addition to reading and discussing texts and watching ethnographic films, Hilly suggested I do some fieldwork. She kindly agreed to be a research subject when I chose to study a local hair salon. And so I photographed Hilly getting a haircut. She didn’t let me forget the seriousness of the project; she made sure that I observed the social setting and reflected on the beauty expectations for women. 

The year I was ready to write my dissertation, Hilly had a sabbatical, and she generously allowed me to borrow her office as there were no offices for students to do their writing. Each day, as I sifted through notes and transcriptions of interviews, I couldn’t believe I was sitting in the professor’s chair, where Hilly had sat during our tutorials. Perched under a stunning work of Balinese art, I wrote about a Spanish village that I had photographed with large format cameras, and where I’d come to meet aging farmers whose efforts to wrest food from the land had moved me deeply. There I was in Hilly’s chair, in Hilly’s office, rehearsing to be a professor and scholar one day. She believed in me in ways I didn’t believe in myself, and I remain grateful to her for that gift. 

When I teach my “Ethnographic Writing” course, my version of the course Hilly taught long ago at Princeton, which she called “The Ethnographer’s Craft,” I too seek to show my students that anthropology is a capacious discipline, just as Hilly taught me. I urge my students, most of all, to tap into their creativity and poetic selves and not to be afraid. Sometimes I can feel Hilly looking over my shoulder as I teach and I remember her fiery wit, her passion for intellectual work, and her keen understanding of how anthropology and the arts were meant to be united. 

(Ruth Behar)