Marsha Malinowski '82 Shares Insights on the PBS Documentary "The Secrets of Saint John Paul"

June 23, 2016
Marsha Malinowski '82

In 2008, Marsha Malinowski '82, an expert in fine books and manuscripts, had the chance to contribute her expertise to the preservation of little-known papal history.

In the recent PBS documentary The Secrets of Saint John Paul, Malinowski explained that she was working as a senior vice president for Sotheby's in New York City, when she was asked to fly to New Hampshire to assess the value of 343 letters philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a recent widow, had received from the late Pope John Paul II during their 32-year friendship.

Malinowski said her first thought about the trove of letters was, "It's got to be wrong, it's fake, it can't be right." But when she went to visit Tymieniecka, she said, she saw the items and realized, "There's no doubt that they are right."

Malinowski, who said she deeply admires John Paul, knew the letters had to be dealt with carefully. “I believed that they would provide added dimensions of Pope John Paul’s life and who he really was,” said Malinowski. “My biggest concern was to make sure the letters would be purchased by an institution and made available to scholars.”

Malinowski brokered a seven-figure sale between Tymieniecka and the National Library of Poland. The letters remained there, safe but hidden, until the BBC was able to negotiate access to them in 2015.

The friendship began in 1973 when Tymieniecka, who was married to Hendrik S. Houthakker, an economics professor at Harvard, wrote to then-Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyla, offering to translate his book The Acting Person into English. He agreed to discuss the matter in person, and the pair began meeting and corresponding regularly about the project. Over the next few years, they continued to work on the book and exchange ideas. Tymieniecka published the book in 1979.

"Tymieniecka also had an enormous impact in getting him in front of the American public," said Malinowski. Tymieniecka's husband—who served as an economic advisor to two U.S. presidents, "connected [Wojtyla] to religious and political figures who, in the end, helped in his ascent to the papacy."

The letters reveal a strong emotional connection between Wojtyla and Tymieniecka, who enjoyed discussing current events, their homeland, and Krakow's famous Jagiellonian University, which both had attended. "Their friendship made him feel like a real human being and not a lofty, above-it-all-person," Malinowski explained.

In 1978, John Paul was elected pope, the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years. He began to travel the world and quickly became known as a vocal advocate for human rights.

"John Paul had a trajectory that was extraordinary; he knew where he was going," said Malinowski. "Any other man would have dropped the friendship, but he did not waver in his friendship. He kept the relationship where it needed to be, which shows a strength and power that most people don’t have in them."

Their connection was especially important to John Paul toward the end of his life, when his progressive illness forced him to remain inside the Vatican.

Malinowski, a longtime appraiser on Antiques Roadshow, agreed to be part of the PBS project because she wanted to ensure that Tymieniecka, who died in 2013, would not be forgotten. "She had more of an impact on John Paul's career than most people really know," said Malinowski. "She was an extremely bright, motivated woman, extremely well-educated, and in many ways ahead of her time."