Bettina Bien Greaves (1917-2018) has died, and I find writing about her to be unusually difficult. She was a friend for so long and we shared the same intellectual passions. It is only today that I fully realized how much her life and professional ambitions have influenced mine.
I spent many hours and even days with her to prepare published interviews, hear lore from the post-war history of the liberty movement, dig through libraries, and negotiate publishing rights. I revelled in her amazing knowledge of personalities, literature, and events. We were in frequent contact to realize a mutual dream of getting all the works of Ludwig von Mises in print and online for public access.
She had a beautiful and blunt way about her, never sugar-coating the history but always inspired by an ideal she fell in love with and never gave up: the idea that human freedom is the right principle for the good society.
She was an unlikely hero in the modern history of human liberty, a stenographer, translator, typist, bibliographer, and chronicler of times. In her day, she was called a “secretary” back when the title suggested high status and high skill because the competition was tough and the demands were high.
She had this particular skill that is probably nearly extinct. She knew shorthand, which was a method by which you could write as fast as a person spoke in order to create a perfect transcript. She did this with dozens of Mises’s own lectures, thereby bringing to life a side of his personality and thought to which we would otherwise not have access. In some ways, these transcriptions are as revealing as his formal books, and sometimes more so.
Above all, Greaves was an intellectual entrepreneur who bet on one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. In 1951, she went to work for the Foundation for Economic Education. It was here that she met Mises but you have to consider this: he was by no means considered to be what his reputation is today. He had emigrated to the US in 1940 and did not have a huge following, a prestige academic position, or even a big network of support. His most famous book Human Action (1949) barely escaped rejection by the publisher.
Most of the academic establishment was inclined to think of him as a has been but she knew better. She saw that he needed someone to document his work, be his bibliographer, and champion his work. In some ways, it was humble work; in other ways, it was heroic. The life of Mises’s mind became her profession. She spent the next 65 years doing exactly that, and the world is better for it. She contributed mightily to helping Mises receive the intellectual fame he so richly deserved.
In 1998, I asked her about the claim that Mises was behind the times.
“Now we know that he was way ahead of his times,” she responded. “He was celebrating the wonderful inventiveness and productive power of markets while everyone else was talking about the wonders of central planning and socialism. Today, markets are becoming the driving force of history and governments are shrinking in their ambitions…. I enjoy talking about him and discussing his career. But as interesting as the details of his life are, his ideas and economic theories are more important. Promoting them will be the most fitting tribute possible to Mises.”