Spotlight: Milton's Rose


At the ripe age of one year, three months before the First World War began, Rose Director had the sense to emigrate from Russia to America. With her parents and four older siblings, she settled in Portland, Oregon.

Today, she is an economist, a bestselling author, and one of America's foremost proponents of free-market principles. But Rose Director Friedman is often overshadowed by her Nobel laureate husband, Milton, with whom she wrote the popular books Free to Choose and Tyranny of the Status Quo.

She doesn't mind, though. In their 48 years of marriage, the Friedmans have acted as a team, each contributing to and supporting the other's work. And it helps, admits Rose, that "I wasn't born with a strong competitive gene."

After graduating from Reed College, Rose went in 1932 to study economics at the University of Chicago, where her older brother, Aaron, was an economics professor. In the 1930s, she recalls, "everybody was greatly interested in economics. They saw the problems of the world, and those of the country, in terms of economics."

It was at Chicago that she met Milton Friedman. Since the professors seated students alphabetically, they usually wound up next to each other in class. But they didn't fall in love until the fall of 1934, when Milton returned from a year at Columbia.

"After a year's absence," says Rose, "we seemed to be drawn to one another and spent much time together—not all of it studying.…The better I got to know him, the more I loved him."

In 1936, after completing their courses and written exams, Rose and Milton left to look for work, hoping to find time along the way to write their dissertations. "Teaching jobs were few and far between," Rose says, "but fortunately for economists—if not for the country as a whole—the New Deal was in full swing, so we both started our careers in Washington." (She worked for the Agriculture Department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.)

Today, the Friedmans, who married in 1938, live in an apartment on Russian Hill in San Francisco, within walking distance of Chinatown's restaurants and Fisherman Wharf's shops. But they spent their first summer together in a more rustic setting—a New England cottage "without electricity but equipped with good Aladdin lamps and a good wood-burning stove," recalls Rose. "We worked on our research projects separately and together, typing our own or the other's as the need arose and doing the household chores."

Rose never completed her dissertation—A History of Capital Theory. "It seemed an impossible subject," she says, "and I rationalized that I could do what I wanted to do without a 'union card.'"

When they had children, Rose became a full-time mother, pursuing economics part-time after Milton came home from work. While the children were young, she stuck to fairly limited projects, such as editing articles, then resumed original research in consumption economics when they were in their teens.

"Every woman should be free to choose," she stresses, "but if she chooses a career, I'm not sure she has a right to have children."

She speaks with pride of the results of her career as a mother. The Friedmans' daughter, Janet, a graduate of Berkeley's Boalt Hall law school, is an attorney in Davis, California. Their son, David, first earned a Ph.D. in physics—"because we 'brainwashed' him," jokes Rose, by saying they didn't want too many economists in one family—but he now teaches economics at Tulane.

While she was raising her children, Rose's interest in economics was maintained and stimulated primarily through participation in her husband's work. "He never wrote an article without discussing it with me and inviting my criticism—sometimes even taking it."

The Friedmans, who both have offices at Stanford's Hoover Institution, have always considered themselves "liberals in the original European sense," says Rose. "To be a conservative means you want to keep things as they are. It's very obvious from everything we've done that there's a lot we'd like to change."

Their experiences as children of immigrant shopkeepers left them strong believers in the free market. "I've often heard Milton say," she recounts, "that if the United States had had a minimum wage rate when his parents immigrated to this country, they could not have come here and that, if he had existed at all, he would now be living behind the Iron Curtain. Surely, they were far better off working for a few years in 'sweatshops' in this country than being condemned indefinitely to remain in Hungary."

These ideas reached a wide audience in the Friedmans' book, Free to Choose, which became a bestseller. They shared the writing, says Rose, "the same way that we live together—by cooperating." After writing separate chapters and exchanging and rewriting drafts several times, they're not interested, says Rose, in who wrote what. "The final product is 'our book.'"

Her husband agrees. "Over a long and happy marriage," he explains, "we have come to understand one another's views and interests sufficiently that we would be hard-put to know who wrote which sentence. That doesn't mean we always agree. But when we disagree we understand why and where."

John Dentinger is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles.