The brushed-steel, Renzo Piano–designed New York Times headquarters on Eighth Avenue is located 50 blocks south of the prewar Manhattan apartment where Abramson grew up, the younger child of a successful, never-finished-college importer of Irish linen and his wife, a college graduate who became a homemaker. Abramson is pure baby boomer, from the Wonder Bread childhood years of postwar Eisenhower calm to young womanhood in the turbulent era of second-wave feminism, antiwar protests, drugs and rock and roll. In Beatles terms, she admits to being a George girl, but the real backdrop of her younger days was more like the Manhattan of a Woody Allen or Nora Ephron movie. She played in Central Park, and when she and her sister had birthdays, they never wanted parties, preferring a Broadway show followed by dinner at Sardi’s.
The Abramson household was secular Jewish, a place where, she’s often said, “the New York Times was our religion.” Although the sisters were not pushed to follow a particular career path, “our father really encouraged us,” says Abramson’s six-years-older sister, Jane O’Connor, a publishing success herself as the author of the popular Fancy Nancy children’s books. “He felt we could do whatever we set our minds to, and Jill always had interests. She got very interested in the Lincoln assassination as a pretty young kid. She would get deeply focused on something like that.”
The sisters remain very close. Abramson calls O’Connor “my beacon”; O’Connor says, “Nobody cracks me up the way Jill does.” Every year they take a trip to some far-flung place, such as Hungary, China (twice) or French Polynesia. “Our parents really had the travel bug,” O’Connor recalls. “They used to go to Europe together every spring,” leaving the girls home with their grandmothers and the housekeeper. “We imagined our parents sort of like George and Marion [Kerby] in Topper: We thought they were very glamorous and that they stayed at nice hotels, and when we finally traveled to Europe with them, we realized, no, they are just like they are at home. They are not the Kerbys.”
After graduating from Ethical Culture Fieldston prep school, Abramson went to Harvard, entering just as the university went fully coed. She acknowledges that some hazing ensued but says it was “mainly high school–boy antics that had always characterized Harvard, pre-women. A few guys thought we should still be living at Radcliffe and said so.” Her fellow students in the class of 1976 included Yo-Yo Ma and Chief Justice John Roberts. An English major, Abramson covered culture and theater for the weekly Harvard Independent. She took a turn toward hard news when, in the summer of 1973, she was waiting tables on Nantucket island. A national story broke—Robert F. Kennedy’s son Joseph had crashed his Jeep there—and, through a family friend, Abramson was tapped by Time magazine to file stringer reports.
“I have always had a strong desire to get to the bottom of the facts,” she says now of her decision to become a journalist, “especially when people say the facts are not knowable.”