Grace Paley was born Grace Goodside in the Bronx to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants Isaac Goodside and Manya Ridnik Goodside, whose last name was originally Gutseit. She was the youngest of the three Goodside children. Her family played a large role in the political activism for which she became well known. In June, 1942, Grace Goodside married Jess Paley, a cinematic cameraman; they had two children, Nora, born in 1949, and Danny, born in 1951, but later divorced. She married Robert Nichols, the landscape architect and writer, in 1972.
Grace spent a large part of her life on political activism. As a devoted member of the War Resisters League, she opposed American participation in the Vietnam War and became an envoy with a peace mission to Hanoi to negotiate the release of prisoners of war. After campaigning against the United States government’s policies toward Nicaragua and El Salvador, she visited those countries in 1985. She was present at the World Peace Conference in 1974 and was arrested in December, 1978, as one of the White House Eleven, for unfurling an antinuclear banner on the White House Lawn. She was fined and given a suspended sentence.
Paley was seventeen years old in 1940 when she enrolled in W. H. Auden’s literature class at the New School, where she unconsciously started to write like a British gentleman. Once she became aware of this tendency, she stripped herself of pretentious language and began to write poetry in a spare style with a simple vocabulary; this style is also evident in her prose. She was thirty years old when she was recovering from an abortion and found time to write her first book of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, which captured the voice of ordinary people on the street and was widely acclaimed.
During the twenty-six years between the publication of her first book of fiction and her last, Paley wrote poetry, which ended up in odd nooks and drawers in her apartment. During the early 1980’s, Beatrix Gates, one of Paley’s students at Sarah Lawrence, encouraged Paley to gather her old poems and then helped her publish them. This resulted in Paley’s first book of published poems, Leaning Forward, which was largely ignored. Two additional collections of poems were published in her lifetime. Her last book of poetry, Fidelity, was published posthumously less than a year after her death from cancer in 2007.