Uncle Lou and Plastics

4 Apr

A lot of our hand-wringing conversation recently has been concern over the mad proliferation of single-use plastic and its horrible, devastating effects on the environment, as the oceans fill up with all manner of plastic debris that chokes marine life and poisons water and land. These distressing conversations and my feelings of helplessness in the face of such overwhelming pollution has, ironically but inevitably, led me to ponder the career of my great uncle Louis Frank Rahm (1899-1991) who devoted his life to the field of plastics chemistry and engineering. He was the youngest child in my maternal grandmother’s family, described as precocious, musical, and fascinated with chemistry from a very early age. He began work in celluloids in the 1920s; we still have some “art objects” that were produced in the factory where he worked, meant to simulate in cellulose ivory carvings.

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Uncle Lou’s display at Leominster, Massachusetts’ Plastics Hall of Fame (now defunct)

Uncle Lou–who I never met, all this information comes from stories my mother told me–began teaching at Princeton University in the 1930s, established the graduate program in Plastics Engineering at the university, and was instrumental in founding the Plastics Institute of America. He wrote a groundbreaking book on plastics molding.  He stayed at Princeton until his retirement in 1964. Family lore has it that his research led to the development of Melmac dishes, and that one of the first sets of Melmac was sent by him as a wedding present to my parents in 1948. I have no idea if this is really accurate information, and no one is still alive that I can ask for verification, but we DO still have some pieces of that original set floating around in the family cupboards. My mother also told us that Uncle Lou continued to play violin, and that at Princeton in the 1950s, he played chamber music with fellow faculty member Albert Einstein.  By all accounts, then, he was a dedicated teacher, a cultivated and ethical man, and a central figure in the development of the scientific discoveries that have led to the world’s saturation and suffocation in non-biodegradable plastics.

So a family history, a personal connection, has led me to these ruminations:  would it have been at all possible for my Uncle Lou to have in any way envisioned that his efforts in science, his belief in societal progress through scientific discoveries, could have been responsible for one of the major culprits in the disastrous pollution of the planet? His is just one of thousands of stories of optimistic belief in progress and education, research and development for industrial uses of products meant to make life simpler, safer, and cleaner–but whose product has now, 70 or more years later, caused a juggernaut of environmental destruction with global ramifications. Were there any people in the 1930s who could have foreseen these drawbacks, and having recognized these failings have implemented some way to control the overwhelming wave of industrial pollution? I am not knowledgeable enough about the history of futurist prediction to know if any environmental visionaries existed then. I am pretty certain, however, that my uncle never doubted that he was contributing something positive to the world. As we talk now apocalyptically about climate change and the death of the planet, I just wonder whether there was a moment when we could have stopped or at least slowed this march toward self-destruction.

Friendships

6 Mar

 

 

This is a story of kindness and generosity, easy-going hospitality and friendship. After several months of our perhaps ill-conceived peregrinations in an attempt to live more cheaply than at home, we found ourselves in a sticky spot, at 10 o’clock at night, with no place to go. Fortunately this happened in my hometown where I still knew people, so at 10:30 pm, in the middle of the week, I called up my old high school friend Ann. We had over the years briefly stayed in touch through Facebook, but had only seen each other a few times in the last few years.  Amazingly, in this age of not answering any phone numbers that one  doesn’t recognize, Ann picked up the phone! “We have had a bit of an emergency, could we possibly come and stay at your house tonight?” Without a hesitation, she and husband said “come on over!” We arrived with all our belongings, disheveled and shaken. After some explanation of our plight, they assured us that we could stay in their extra room for as long as we liked. And serendipitously, they were going away on a ski trip in a week, and would be happy to have us stay and look after their animals. It was almost as if the whole situation was meant to be!

We stayed for two weeks, walking their wonderful dog, making some meals for them, and basically relaxing in their comfortable neighborhood and trying not to impose on their daily routines. As this was my home town, where I hadn’t spent more than a day at a time in 30 years or more, we had lots of places to visit and ways to be away. But what made this visit so comforting for us was the fact that Ann & Pack didn’t just put up with us, they embraced us, made us feel at home. There was no friction, just acceptance, and enthusiastic conversations. For people like us who always worry that we are imposing, and who are often uncomfortable in company, this atmosphere was such a welcome relief–the kind of friends where you feel like you’ve been around each other for a long time. This may sound really corny, but it’s true: they emanate love. What a blessing!

So here’s to friendships that endure, here’s to kindness and acceptance! And for Peter, who knows us all and expects such things on my blog:  a photo of Ann’s cat Jinx, who even let me pet her, which she rarely lets anyone but Ann do!

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In defense of Facebook

3 Feb

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With all the understandably bad press Facebook has been receiving lately, I feel it is incumbent up on me as a Facebook addict to defend the site for its very real contribution to social well being. Yes, yes, I know all the arguments against it by those who are horrified by its very existence:  the intrusion into privacy, its supposed collection of data about us, the permission it gives to hate-filled trolls to spew bile at those they disagree with, the possibilities of manipulation of political processes. But here’s how it works for the majority of us who use Facebook as a way to communicate with friends, to find others of like-minded interests and attitudes with which we can share opinions and cultural communities, offer advice and support, and stay in touch with people who we may never meet.  On that last point, I think of it as the contemporary version of the old letter-writing phenomenon of having pen pals, but on a global scale! When I was a kid, I had 6 pen pals in other countries to whom I wrote regularly, and looked forward to their letters in return.  Now I do the same thing, but instantaneously and with a much larger number of people in many more countries.

Let me present two examples of how MY Facebook has worked positively just in the last few days. The first example relates to the cute little meme I’ve put above. One of my Facebook friends is facing an unexpected medical intervention, and she’s understandably scared. She reached out on FB to let us all know what was happening.  An enormous number of people–some of whom she didn’t know before–wrote back, offering encouragement, support, and in some cases, practical advice and offers for assistance.  She was so heartened by this show of support and understanding of her worries that she posted the meme in thanks.  We will now follow her progress through updates on FB from her partner and from her as she heals.

The second example is, for me, even more poignant and special. Through Facebook, I have come to know the fate of many of my former students at the university where I used to teach. It has been such a wonderful experience to learn of their successes (and mishaps) and to know that they remember me positively; I am now Facebook friends with so many of them who I remember as baby-squirrel 20 year olds while they are now in their 50s!  One of these former students is one who has fallen between the cracks of a “successful” life: a gifted artist, he is now homeless, suffering mental illness and issues of addiction.  Somehow he has managed to keep a Smartphone, and kept in touch–if often incoherently–with his old college friends via Facebook. After a memorial service upon the death of his only close companion, and in the midst of the hideous cold that hit the Midwest, he disappeared.  A concerned call went out on FB, to him and to all those who may have known his whereabouts. Because of the alert, we were able to learn his whereabouts, that he had found shelter. More importantly, he learned that there were people who care about him and are concerned for his welfare. Now a support page has been set up on FB for him. We have been sending him information on homeless shelters, encouraging him to get help for his illness, and generally letting him know that we recognize him as a human being in need. What’s more, his plight has brought together former friends, and people who have now recognized “there but for the grace of God go I”–one of their own who just hasn’t made a very good go in his life choices.

Some of you may say “well, these things could also happen on email” or by phone or in writing. But why not use social media for what it is supposed to do, which is bring people together quickly and globally?  I do understand people who do not want to have anything to do with social media. My husband is one, as are many of my friends to whom I try to stay in touch by email, and for the really old ones, by letter.  I just wanted to express my gratitude for something as POSITIVE in terms of social communication as Facebook can be.  If, like me, one does express vehement political opinions on FB, one does have to be selective in who you Friend–I have had to lose a few “friends” whose outlooks on life, religion, and politics were so opposed to my own. So yes, we are preaching to our own choir, but who cares?  Isn’t that what friends do? If you don’t like someone’s shares, you just scroll past them, as I am sure many of my FB friends do with my political rants–as I do with some others.

And to those who say it is a waste of time–yes, it is.  But it can also be culturally and intellectually stimulating. It isn’t all memes and inane comments about what one had for dinner.  And what can be better than sharing thoughts and enthusiasms with friends?

Thanks, Facebook friends, for being there!

 

 

Holiday Greetings 2018

25 Nov

HAPPY HOLIDAYS 2018!

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This year has been particularly tumultuous, with good and sad times, so I’ll just cover the highlights:

The photo shows our happiest moment:  Big Brother Lyle meeting his Little Brother, Louis Seely Boeck, for the first time.  Louis was born August 19, a day ahead of the planned c-section, just as his brother had been, but with less worry because they realized what was happening more quickly than last time. He was born with bilateral club feet, which we thankfully knew about ahead of time, so were all prepared for the necessary procedures.  We were in Denver in September, so were able to drive Dottie & the baby to Anschutz Children’s Hospital where a splendid team takes wonderful care of him. He will be out of casts very soon, and then will wear braces and a bar between his feet for a while. We are so grateful for medical technology, and that the family has been able to receive the best of care.  Louis will be perfect in no time. He IS a beautiful baby! Meanwhile, Lyle at 2 ½ has become a little boy instead of a toddler and talks amazingly well. He names nearly every one of his stuffed animals “Tomatillo,” and he loves big trucks and backhoes. Max and Dottie are champs as parents! We are so proud of them all.

The year has been one of “procedures” for me: none of them serious and each of them successful. The three little operations, however, each required 6 weeks of recovery, so a lot of sitting-around time for me.  Thank goodness for the internet, and a book project about which I had to do research reading.  “Three German Women” will, I hope, be ready for publication next year.

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My altar for Dia de los Muertos: Vale, Leonardo, Giorgio, and Margaret.

Sadly, we lost three dear friends this year:  Leonardo Chalupowicz, Giorgio Perissinotto, and Margaret Brown. We were grateful to have been able to participate in a memorial service for Leonardo, at his and his husband Michael’s beautiful house in the Silver Lake Hills.  In memory of his Argentinian roots I read a poem by Borges. For Giorgio—who we have known for more than 40 years—we were in Mexico at the time of his celebration of life; I lit a candle for him in the Querétaro Cathedral. And Margaret, who offered me wise counsel and friendship in Australia, I was able to include in my Dia de los Muertos altarpiece. We loved you all, may you rest in peace!

Once again, in our probably vain attempt to hold on to our Pasadena home, we have rented it to a Huntington scholar for the academic year, and have sought less expensive accommodation elsewhere (yes, California really is that expensive!). We spent September in Denver at a friend’s house (thanks Don & Cyndy!) while seeing the family as much as we could.  In October we returned to Mexico: a little while in Ajijic on Lake Chapala where we were last year (thanks, Leslie Edwards and AirBnB!) and then, the highlight of the year so far, a visit to Querétaro, to see my cousin’s family–thanks to Robert Jones and son Roberto, and especially to Deborah Baro Peruyero, who took us to San Miguel Allende and Guanajuato to meet daughter Jenny!). We loved Querétaro and the wonderful people we met as our AirBnB hosts there. We also spent two magnificent weeks in Mexico City, where, despite the altitude and a bit of the turistas, we were enthralled by its fantastic museums and unbelievably good food.  I honestly think Mexican cuisine is the world’s most diverse and therefore best!

Now we are staying for several months at my sister Robyn’s house in Oakhurst, 20 miles from Yosemite’s South entrance. Mark & Robyn are travelling in their 5th wheeler around the country, so we are here minding the house and their five cats! We are very thankful for this arrangement, and hope that I’ll be able to get some writing done while here. Fingers crossed! In the spring we’ll go to Europe–again through the kindness and generosity of friends–to do final research in Vienna and Berlin.  Oh, to be in Europe again!

ee&gbincoyoacan_oct2018 Here we are in the lovely Mexican village of Coyoacán—home of Frida and Diego, but for us, more importantly, Leon Trotsky’s last residence.  As you can see by our smiling faces, all is well!  We wish everyone the best of holidays and a serene New Year. Despite the world’s dilemmas, we should remember all that we have and all that we are grateful for.  We hope that we get to see you all some time in the next year.  Really!

You can always contact us by email:  esauboeck@gmail.com. And as many of you are aware, I am an inveterate Facebook user, so look for me there if you’re not afraid of Zuckerberg et al!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, LOVE & PEACE!

 

 

 

 

Irmgard Kern, H.G. Rexroth, and Thomas Wolfe

19 Nov

 

[Several months ago, Irmgard Kern’s son Vincent Rexroth, who is an architect in Heidelberg, sent me by email attachment a few items that he had found in boxes of his mother’s things.  One of the items was the first four weatherbeaten pages of a typescript that Fr. Kern had written in about 1952, recounting her memories of meeting and interviewing the American writer Thomas Wolfe. I was thrilled to see this previously unknown document. She had told me this story in bits and pieces when I knew her in Darmstadt in 1974.  Unfortunately, Herr Rexroth was not able to find the last page of the typescript; he promised to keep looking for it.  But what a find! I have now contacted the people at the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Library, where Wolfe’s papers are housed.  Meanwhile, I have translated the text of these pages. What a colorful depiction of a larger-than-life figure of American literature. This is the first time anyone other than three people have seen this description of a remarkable episode in the author’s life. ]

 

[The final page of Kern’s typescript has unfortunately been lost.]

 

It was late summer 1936. All of the cultural columns in the newspapers were reporting that the American writer Thomas Wolfe was in Berlin and could be reached through his German publisher Rowohlt. The DAZ (Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung) contracted me to request an interview with Wolfe and after the interview to write about his person, his plans, his working methods. I arranged with Heinz Ledig-Rowohlt–whose reminiscences about Wolfe had just appeared in the Berlin paper Der Monat–that Wolfe and Ledig should come to our house for tea at 4:30 on Tuesday.

We lived at that time in a small furnished apartment in the house of the elderly, vivacious Berlin painter Julie Wolfthorn and her sister, the sensitive and quiet Luise Wolf, well known then as a translator and lecturer. The little house sat hidden between tall stony apartment blocks, set far back in one of the forgotten gardens of Berlin West, between grassy lawns and grottoes, under old trees:  gardens that only natives behind the facades of the Kurfuerstenstrasse and Kurfuerstendamm and other old West End streets knew about.

My husband and I lived the life of so many other freelance literati of the time, with much unrest, lots of guests (very little money), intermittent work, tons of worries: bearing some vague hope for our personal future yet overshadowed  by the very definite hopelessness in relation to the overall future. What indefinite kind of confidence we harbored was probably nothing more than the private dream that we, like so many others in these years, had to dream in order to survive.

“Be sure to make it look nice, and remember that this Wolfe is already a famous man, used to the good life. One also says that he has an enormous appetite.” My husband H.G. Rexroth said something along these lines, and so I went to the shops on Nollendorfplatz and Woyrschstrasse and bought the very best cakes and confections that could be found. It was difficult to buy things, but the tea table looked unusually enticing and rich. At 4:30 Rexroth and I sat in anticipation of our guests. Then it was five; we continued to wait. Then it was 5:30–we drank the first cup of tea ourselves. At six the doorbell rang; it was the postman with a telegram. Unexpectedly Wolfe had been given a ticket to the Olympic Games, and he didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. We rescheduled the appointment for the next evening at 8:30. Greetings from Ledig, read the telegram.  Rex and I drank up all the tea after that.

The next evening I had to meet a Chinese friend who I had met while studying in the USA. She had unexpectedly appeared in Berlin. She was a professor of “hygiene”, come to study the athletic facilities at the Olympic games. “Be sure to come back home on time,” my husband warned. “You know that Thomas Wolfe is coming at 8:30.” When I returned at quarter to nine, no one had yet appeared. The food on the table, which we had with our limited means kept over from the day before, was cold. 9:15 came and went, then 9:30. The doorbell rang. Again it was the postman, this time with a message that a prepaid telephone call was waiting at the next post office. I made my way over there, to a building about 15 minutes away. I dialed the number on the message; after a few minutes I heard music, and then there was Ledig’s voice on the phone. “ We’re coming, we’re coming, I promise. But something terrible has happened: Thomas Wolfe is sitting here with me. He has had way too much wine. But here’s the terrible part: a beautiful young woman has appeared at the next table, and he has chatted her up. We will certainly have to entertain her for quite a while. We’ll be there in about 45 minutes.”

So my husband and I went for a walk under the trees of the Kurfuerstenstrasse. The light from the street lamps fell onto the leaves that were already turning yellow; a few of them fell onto the pavement, as we spoke about the perils that the lives of famous men seemed to involve. Olympic tickets, wine, and strange beautiful women. Then Rexroth went home, and I wandered for a while back and forth on our street. It began to rain.  A little before 11 a taxi came up the empty street, stopped on the wet asphalt. I was standing on the other side of the street, when the following picture presented itself:

Small, nimble, yet a bit wobbly on his feet, the figure of Heinz Ledig climbed out of the left side of the car. He mumbled something to the driver then paid him with deliberate drunken care. While this was going on, from the other side of the car a formless shadow appeared to extricate itself, a shadow that grew and grew and then took a few mincing steps. The two of them joined up in front of the car and, still carefully trying to maintain their balance, tried to make their way to our house door, while I, chuckling under my breath, followed.  An unforgettable scene now unfolded before me: these two happy-go-lucky brothers, attempting to coordinate their staggering steps by holding on to each other’s arms while their unequal upper bodies darted left and right, as if a wedge were trying to balance on its point.

I caught up with the two of them just inside the enormous archway that led through the apartment block and into the idyllic garden. With an obsequiousness meant to make up for their extreme lateness, Ledig now introduced the gigantic shadow, who from his lofty height smiled down at me. Then all three of us walked across the rainy pathway through the garden.

The condition of the two started to affect me with its unbelievable mirth. Wolfe’s soulful helplessness, which he stammeringly tried to explain, seemed something like an ironic plea addressed to the whole, great, vast inexhaustible world not to take it so seriously. There was nothing better in the world than wine, lots of wine, and then serendipitously to discover a lovely girl! Who cared about work or an appointment for an interview? While he kept stammering trying to make these points, his dark eyes kept making side glances toward me. But I kept thinking as we climbed up the stairs, “Oh, how Rexroth will be pleased, he’s really going to like these two!”

As I opened the door to our living room, something nearly imperceptible happened which I nonetheless will never forget:  my husband had sat down on the sofa on the furthest wall of the room across from the door. Upon hearing the commotion in the vestibule, he had expectantly turned his strikingly flashing eyes toward the entrance, and at the height at which one would expect to catch the eye of someone of normal height. The door opened–and his glance met Wolfe’s vest button! It was for me an unforgettable moment, as Rexroth’s astonished eyes climbed higher and higher, wandering ever higher, until finally, shortly before the top of the door frame, he reached the face of this extremely tall poet. Only then did Rex understand and stood up.

We had a joyful, wide-ranging discussion that evening (although not a word about literature or even about his own work!). In the glow of the lamplight, Thomas Wolfe, with his heavy head and disheveled hair falling in all directions, and now after drinking tea almost completely sobered up, spoke very little.   I had the impression that he was under some kind of internal urgency which forced him to observe everything very quickly. Nothing escaped him. It was as if his eyes were lurking behind a visor. Without one noticing, he took in with extreme acuity the small things in his purview, the tiniest gesture around him.  His ears seemed to pick up the smallest sound…Nonetheless he was not completely there. That took a while. Then suddenly with a start he came alive to the uttermost expanse of his vision. His eyes–a deep brown color with bits of amber colored sparks–widened, and he began to speak. Sometimes in English, sometimes in German, he stumbled along, then his speech resolved itself, lost the contours of the words and became mere sounds. Then he would start again, expand an impression, come up with a particularly witty word. We also had some wine, and began drinking some. We felt uplifted and comradly.  The discussion of literature was postponed until the next afternoon at a restaurant.

There was another surprise on this evening: I showed Wolfe a book that a friend had sent me, certainly the only copy available in Germany of “Cabins in the Laurel”. It was a collective study from the University of North Carolina about the poor inhabitants of the so-called highlands of this state. Wolfe grabbed the book from me with a shout. He held it against his enormous chest, stroked it, twirled around with it a few times, then finally sat down. He pounded on it with his powerful flat hand and cried “There it is inside, there is her name! See it?” And indeed, there it was:  The Pentlands. His mother’s family’s name. He was overwhelmingly excited about it, as if only this study, and not the books he had written, had made his family well known. He borrowed this book, and later I was told that for the next three days he carried it under his arm everywhere he went in Berlin.

At noon the following day I sat with Wolfe in a restaurant on Nollendorfplatz, and he conjured up many enlightening [illegible–ed.] and distressing details about his ideas and the efforts as well as the myths about his work. A few days later my husband didn’t show up for lunch as he had planned. He didn’t show up in the afternoon, either, nor in the evening. Just as I was getting worried that something had happened to him, about 11 at night, he finally appeared. “Guess who I met today?” he said. I rattled off several names. “Nope, not any of those people!” he cried, as if they were totally insignificant. “I met Thomas Wolfe! We talked about literature…..”

[last page missing–ed.]

The word from everyone is that this sounds a lot like Wolfe!  I am now incorporating his writing about his time in Berlin in 1936 into my chapter on Fr. Kern. This turned out to be his last visit to the city he loved. He died of tuberculosis in 1938.

The sorry saga of Maximiliano de Mexico

9 Nov

 

 

In all the expansive glory-seeking annals of European imperialism, no episode is as pathetic, as grasping at straws, as the attempt in the 1860s to extend European reach in the New World by installing an Emperor in Mexico.  Maximilian, younger brother of the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph–or more correctly, His Imperial and Royal Highness Archduke and Prince Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria, Prince of Hungary, Bohemia and Croatia–was the sacrificial lamb, “reigning” as Emperor from 1864 until his inevitable execution in Santiago de Querétaro in 1867, the ostensible subject of Manet’s famous painting of 1868.

As a somewhat lazy student of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I have always been a bit confused and perplexed by Maximilian’s story:  how and why was an Austrian prince chosen by the French to become the ruler of a land that they had no business invading, a country newly freed from the colonial rule of Bourbon Spain? In our recent travels, tidbits of Maximilian’s story kept popping up in unexpected places. When we arrived in Querétaro and learned (to our surprise, since my knowledge of the facts was still very vague) that it was in this very Mexican city that he was imprisoned and executed, I decided I needed to unravel this peculiar historical incident, if only for my own peace of mind.

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Miramare, Maximilian’s castle in Trieste. Described by Simon Winder as “a sort of Disneyish dream home”

Our first encounter with Maximilian–and his tragic bride Charlotte of Belgium, who became Carlota of Mexico–was in Trieste, site of Miramare, the villa he built when he was newly married and happy as a commander in the Austrian Navy.  Here is how Jan Morris, in her wonderful book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, describes it

In a way it was a little like a romantic idealization of the empire itself, a fairy-tale mock fortress on this southern shore, and when I see it out there I am reminded poignantly of the passing of all empires, those seductive illusions of permanence, those monuments of hubris which have sometimes been all evil, but have sometimes had much good to them.

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Maximilian and Charlotte on their wedding day, 1857. She was 17, he was 25.

Morris also gives a good description of Maximilian’s personality, one of the keys to his ill-fated decision to take up the mantel of Empire:  “He was a dreamy sort of man, somewhat liberal in his views and much influenced by his uncle the crazed romantic Ludwig I of Bavaria, so he was not at ease with the stiff autocracy of K u K” (Kaiserlich und Königlich, Imperial and Royal, a reference to the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Here’s as much of a back story as I can figure out to the chain of events leading up to Maximilian and Carlota’s departure for Mexico:  the old royal houses of Europe led by French monarchists, disgruntled by revolutionary forces in their countries and miffed at the growing power of the United States, felt they needed a stronger foothold in the Americas. In a last gasp of imperialist solidarity,  the French turned to the oldest House in Europe, the Habsburgs–whose Spanish branch had ruled New Spain for three hundred years–as the most viable option for imposing a regime on Mexico. While the United States was preoccupied with their Civil War, the thinking went, and believing that there was considerable support among conservatives within Mexico for a return to monarchical rule after the rise of the Mexican leader Benito Juárez, French troops invaded Mexico in 1861.  While reluctant at first, Maximilian was reassured by Mexican monarchists and France’s Napoleon III that these troops would support him in establishing rule in the country.  So in April 1864, he and Carlota arrived in Mexico, to be hailed as Emperor and Emperor’s Consort.  They were crowned Emperor and Empress at the Cathedral in Mexico City.

 

The new royal family set up house and government offices in the Castillo, the castle built in the late 18th century located in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. They brought full regalia and the accoutrements of royalty, and made up some fascinating new ones, such as an imperial banner incorporating the emblems of Mexico with Hapsburgian elements. We walked up the hill to the Castle, which is a well-visited tourist site in the park. The castle itself is, at least by European standards, somewhat modest, in a rather plain Neo-Classical style.  The rooms have been furnished with evidence of the imperial period, as well as subsequent occupancy by Juárez and Mexico’s near-dictator ruler Porfirio Diaz. Carlota’s rooms are particularly poignant, perhaps only because we now know of her fate.  It was, however, quite apparent here as it was in Querétaro, that the Mexicans are understandably reluctant to heroize this moment in their history, preferring instead to focus on their canon of revolutionaries, foremost among them Benito Juárez. The Castle has a full-wall mural honoring Juárez, and amusingly, displays as well a golden laurel wreath with which Juárez was crowned once the invaders were routed.  This is the only crown in the Castle’s interesting History Room displays.

 

 

The most fantastic aspect of the Chapultepec Castle is its elevation. The views from its balconies over Bosque de Chapultepec are as stunning today as they were in the 1860s. This park in the center of Mexico City, off of the Paseo de Reforma–a street that was implemented under Maximilian’s direction–is one of the most magnificent parks in the world.

 

As the story of the doomed Second Mexican Empire progressed, warning signs of failure started to appear almost immediately.  The royal couple took their duties seriously, and were appalled at the level of poverty and inequality seen across the country. Maximilian ended child labor and tried to establish schools for the poor, while Carlota toured as far as the Yucután and sponsored charities to improve conditions for children.  The Emperor turned out to be far too liberal for the Mexican conservatives that had brought him to the country; their idea of Empire was to maintain the status quo of rich landowners and their fiefdoms. When the American Civil War ended and Napoleon III withdrew his troops from Mexico, having apparently lost interest in the idea of conquest, Maximilian’s fate was sealed.

 

 

 

On a brilliant Sunday morning, we walked from our apartment on Calle Damian Carmona to Cerro de las Campanas, which is now on the campus of the University of Querétaro. The place is now a pleasant park, and families were enjoying the ice cream vendors, and finding out that the rocks really do ring when struck.

The only memorial in the entire city to the Maximilian moment in the city’s history is a small chapel erected in the 1890s on the site where he and his generals faced the firing squad. A small museum above this site, which we assumed would focus on the story of the Empire, gave only passing mention to this era, emphasizing instead the story of Mexican Independence and Revolution(s). The pinnacle of the Hill, which provides a nice view over the city, is dominated by this enormous, and to my mind particularly unattractive, statue of the great hero, Benito Juárez. As it should be, I suppose, although I wish the public sculptures of Juárez were up to the aesthetic quality of the Mexican Muralists’ works all over the country.

Our entrepreneurial Yankee minds were thinking that the Queretarans had missed a selling point for tourists by not providing a “Maximilian Tour” to cash in on these historic monuments, but then we realized that the great virtue of Querétaro is that it is not at all geared for foreign tourists–no one in the tourist office spoke English or any other language other than Spanish, and there were no tourist maps published in English. This made the town blissfully free of tourist busses. This non-interest in becoming a tourist mecca was also what we liked about Trieste, that other town with traces of Maximiliana.

As we went up the long steep hill to the Castillo in Chapultepec Park, I saw one of the only cats we saw outside in all of Mexico.   Carlota apparently liked cats, too.

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Trotsky in Coyoacán

4 Nov

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In the last 30 years we are surely the only Americans  who have visited the charming “village” of Coyoacán, Mexico–now engulfed by Mexico City spread–without seeing a single Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera site!  This was not entirely by choice–we went on a Friday, which was our first mistake, and the line to get into Frida’s house was ridiculously long. Add to that my impatience with the obsessive marketing of all things Frida in the last few years, and there was not much persuasion needed to convince me to skip the whole journey to the shrines. This is not to say that I don’t admire her artwork, and her story is sensational–I just can’t bear the kitschifying of her and her art. But that’s a theme for another blog!

What we DID head to see, and first up, was the Museo de la Casa Leon Trotsky. This is the home where exiled Communist leader Leon Trotsky, after years of exile in various countries fleeing Stalin’s brutal hand, lived 1939-40 until he was assassinated by a Stalinist operative. (Stalin had already killed just about everybody else associated with Trotsky, including his son and his first wife.) His murder by ice axe took place in this very house, in the study that has been preserved exactly as it was at the time of his death.  During his time in Mexico, he was an active participant in the heady intellectual and cultural life surrounding the Mexican Muralists and others drawn to revolutionary thought and action so significant in the 1930s and 1940s throughout Latin America and the United States.

The house as a museum is run by a private board headed by Trotsky’s grandson Esteban Volkow. Constantly in need of funds, the displays are sometimes cheesy, with amateurish labels and less than consistent displays. The emphasis is always on Trotsky’s very fruitful time in Mexico (he wrote some of his best books there), so there are many photos of him with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (Trotsky lived in their Blue House for many months, and is said to have had an affair with Frida), as well as an intriguing timeline of “revolutionary” events throughout Trotsky’s life. This display even included a photograph of the painter David Siqueiros in jail for his part in an earlier unsuccessful attempt on Trotsky’s life. The bookstore contained all the books in Spanish one would find at a socialist bookshop, on the likes of Rosa Luxemburg and Gramsci.  I felt like I did back in my time running with the YSA crowd in Portland, Oregon, only as if our activities were taking place in Spanish.

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The famous muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros was directly involved in the earlier assassination attempt on Trotsky, and served some time in jail. The great art historian Meyer Schapiro wrote a scathing indictment of Siqueiros about his part in this action.

Despite some museological “failings”, the impact of being on the grounds and in Trotsky’s house, surrounded by the objects of his daily life while in Coyoacán, was immediate and intense.  If only to have such a vivid document of material culture in 1940s Mexico, a glimpse at the kitchen, dining room, and even the bathroom I found fascinating. All those simply decorated dishes, all those beautiful wooden doors!

And then there was the study, with the desk still holding Trotsky’s glasses and the papers he had been working on when the Spanish-born Soviet agent Ramón Mercader, posing as one of Trotsky’s followers, entered the room and struck him in the head with an ice axe. I found this a very moving experience, seeing all his books and his bed and cane.  And then on the grounds, near Trotsky’s chicken coops and flowering trees, is his grave. His long-suffering wife Natalia Sedova, who lived into the 1960s, is also buried there.

Once we left La Casa Trotsky, we headed down to the Plaza Hidalgo in the middle of town, through Coyoacán’s magnificently authentic mercado. Ironically, having just come from the home of a revolutionary leader, Coyoacán, once a sleepy little artists’ community, is now one of the priciest places to live in Mexico City. As the waiter told us at the lovely little restaurant Moheli where we had lunch, its street, Avenida Francisco Sosa, is “like the Beverly Hills of Mexico.”  That street is indeed lined with venerable, newly renovated, estates built around 18th-century houses.

We watched dancers practicing flamenco steps on the elegant plaza–with Coyote fountain (Coyoacán means “place of the coyotes”)–and stepped into the pleasing interior of the town’s central Franciscan church, San Juan Bautista. Finally, instead of making it to the Rivera/Kahlo studio, we walked to the Nacional de La Acuarela , a charming display of the history of Mexican watercolors collected and donated by the artist Alfredo Guati Rojo.  We then made a torturous Uber journey back to La Condesa through Mexico City’s Friday night traffic. I would definitely advise people to make the journey to this wonderful village on any day but Friday or Saturday!

While the town is now a far cry from its lazy days of the 1940s, one can still get a bit of a sense of how it must have been when Trotsky was there.  The old street peddlers are still there, and the market place is as it must have been then.  If we had been game to elbow our way through the Rivera/Kahlo sites, I’m sure that we would have an even better feeling for that revolutionarily buzzing moment when Mexico seemed set for a new intellectual and cultural life.

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A honey vendor on Plaza Hidalgo