The deMille Chair

9 Feb
My father’s birth certificate, 1927

In recent weeks, my sisters, in acts of decluttering, have been sending me all kinds of family documents: photos, wills, school certificates, and official papers from my parents and grandparents. I have become, by default, the family historian. Amid all of these items–including my father’s report cards and spelling tests from the 4th grade!–I found his birth certificate, something I had never seen before. As all genealogists and archivists can tell you, even the most mundane of old documents can sometimes lead to exciting discoveries, forgotten facts about one’s own family. In some cases, these discoveries can either disprove or substantiate anecdotes that have entered family lore through oral transmission, the truth of which has been lost or never thought about one way or the other once the older generations have passed. And so it was with my father’s birth certificate and the story of the deMille chair.

Some background: my father was born in Los Angeles in 1927, the second son of two new immigrants. My grandfather Robert Jacob Esau was Prussian, from Mennonite family and already in his late 20s when he left Germany in 1910. He was 41 when my father was born. He seems to have spent some years back East and in Florida, and we don’t know exactly when and how he came to California. My grandmother Sofie Overgaard came from Norway via New Mexico and Arizona, arriving in L.A. in 1920. The city was just beginning its phenomenal growth, boosted by the establishment of the film industry in Hollywood; jobs of every sort were there to be had. My grandparents found work in the homes of the newly rich movie moguls, who needed staff to support their lavish lifestyles. According to memories recounted to us by my mother–the only one to ask my father’s parents anything about their past–they met when Sofie worked as a cook in one of these homes, and my grandfather was a chauffeur. Since my uncle, their first-born, arrived in 1924, their meeting must have happened in about 1923, if not earlier. While details are now lost, the family elaborated on this story to claim that their employment had something to do with the residence of Cecil B. deMille. deMille, of course, was the famous early director of silent films who continued to reign in Hollywood into the 1950s, when his spectacles such as “The Ten Commandments” extended his popularity into my generation. The material symbol of my grandparents’ linking to this movie legend was THE CHAIR.

In my grandmother’s tiny Santa Barbara house lived a chair that was proudly identified as one that the grandparents had somehow acquired from the deMille house. I remember it clearly; it had purple upholstery and was rather gaudy to my child’s eyes. I could only find glimpses of the chair in a few photos of the living room at their West Figueroa house, a place that was the touchstone of my and my sisters’ childhood years. 

My sister’s memory of the story includes the tidbit that the chair came from deMille’s mother’s estate. I hadn’t remembered that detail, but my sister spent more time later in life with my grandmother than I did. While we had all incorporated this story into our family lore as children, none of us had ever thought to follow up on the truth of the chair’s origins, or really knew anything about what our grandparents had done when they were younger and lived and worked in Los Angeles. By the time we knew them, our grandfather was totally infirm (he died in 1955), and we just loved our grandmother and never asked her anything about her past (she died in 1985, three weeks after my father, her youngest child, had died, only 57). So the story of the chair just remained a vague anecdote without any possibility of verification.

Until now! My father’s birth certificate revealed one tantalizing clue that opened up a whole thread of speculation.

Under the section listing my father’s father’s occupation, the certificate states “Property Man, Lasky Studios.” That single line “Lasky Studios” led me right to the origins of Hollywood. Jesse Lasky (1880-1958) was one of the founders of the motion picture industry in Hollywood, having formed the Lasky Feature Play Company in 1913 in New York, along with Samuel Goldfish(Goldwyn) and Cecil B. deMille (1881-1959). The group came West in 1914 to make the epic Western, The Squaw Man. Lasky’s sister married Samuel Goldwyn, and Lasky was introduced to deMille by deMille’s mother, who was already a well-known entity in the theatrical world. They decided to stay in California, setting up one of the first film studios in Hollywood. Shortly thereafter, deMille’s mother Beatrice (1853-1923), the successful playwright and literary agent, moved to California as well. By the mid-1920s, Lasky Players had merged with Adolph Zukor’s Players, to become Paramount Pictures, although Lasky still ran his own branch of the company as Lasky Studios.

The film-making group had tremendous success, and by the early 1920s were living in luxury in the burgeoning neighborhoods near their Hollywood studios. deMille had built an elegant villa in 1916 in what was called Laughlin Park (south of Los Feliz Blvd.), next to the home of Charlie Chaplin. His vivacious mother, to whom he was devoted, lived nearby. Lasky, on the other hand, became one of the earliest residents of Belair, the exclusive neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills to the north of what is now UCLA but was then only beanfields.

Back to my family’s chair: that my grandfather is listed as a “Property Man” for Lasky Studios in 1927 seems to substantiate that he was indeed working for Jesse Lasky, the first “movie mogul,” and probably had worked there when he met my grandmother. We had always heard that he was a chauffeur for someone in Hollywood, and such a task may have been understood in the phrase “property man.” My grandmother, too, then, must have worked either for Lasky or for his close associate Cecil B. deMille. In 1927, Lasky Studios actually ceased to exist, as Lasky’s properties and film rosters were now merged to form Paramount Studios, but my grandfather would have still referred to his place of employment as Lasky Studios.

And now the plot–and the speculations–thicken: Beatrice deMille–another woman who should be given more due for her role in early motion pictures and theater–died in 1923, just about the time my grandparents were setting up a household together. (When their children were born, they lived on what looks like a homestead out in the wilds of Thousand Oaks!) In my imagination, then, I can envision some kind of estate sale or even just an open house for employees of the Lasky-deMille group, whereby they could choose an item from Beatrice’s home’s furnishings for their own.

Voila! A possible verification of a family anecdote that we grandchildren took with a grain of salt. I now so wish that we had asked more questions of my grandmother, and spoken to my mother, who had shown an interest in my grandfather’s tales, to learn about their adventures in early Hollywood. But as children, most of us just aren’t interested in what the old folks have to tell us. This may seem like a trivial “discovery,” but for me and my sisters, it’s an exciting piece of a forgotten puzzle. And what fun to do this kind of research!

Missing Links

24 Dec

""

As promised in my last blog about the publication of my book, Three German Women: Personal Histories of the Twentieth Century, I want to include here an addendum of all those materials I received after the manuscript had been sent to the publishers. It always happens: no matter how long you wait, no matter how many pleas you send out to archivists and individuals, you will never get all your eggs in one literary basket before the publication deadline.

In this case, I finally received some photographs relating to Irmgard Rexroth-Kern’s life from her son Vincent Rexroth, literally the day after I had sent off the manuscript after the final proof reading. I was able to get one of the best images into the book, a shot of Irmgard in 1975–as she looked when I knew her–-by flipping two photos so it did not affect the formatting.

The other photos Herr Rexroth sent were not able to enter the manuscript, so I highlight them here. The first one is that lovely one at the beginning of this text, showing Irmgard’s mother Elisabeth Kleine as she appeared in the year she married Irmgard’s father, Guido Joseph Kern. Elisabeth died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, so this photo is particularly poignant. Irmgard was only 11 when she died, and her loss affected the little girl that she was for the rest of her life.

Guido Joseph Kern, 1947

As so often happens when writing biographical studies, these late arrivals can add to, or–as happened with the last photo Herr Rexroth sent–revise the story presented in the book’s text. As details about the Kerns’ life in Berlin made clear, Irmgard and her father had a serious rift at the time she married H.G. Rexroth, in 1936. Given her father’s activities in the 1930s involving Nazi collaboration and finding no evidence that she and he had any contact after that time, I assumed their break was permanent. Herr Rexroth found this photo sent to Irmgard and her son in 1947, at which time, according to Herr Rexroth, he apparently visited them in Frankfurt. That he was still in touch with his daughter after the war (he died in 1953) means that her many years of financial struggle and estrangement from her family, even after her husband was killed on the front in 1944, could have been caused by her own stubbornness and determination to be independent of unpleasant ties to the past.

Other latecoming documents related to Anna Spitzmüller’s work with the so-called “Monuments Men” at the end of World War II. Having limited luck digging deeply into the records at the National Archives for information about Spitzi’s work at the Central Collecting Point in Munich (where all the artworks, both plundered by the Nazis and stored by German museums, were brought by the Allies), I wrote to the Monuments Men Foundation’s archivist. While I had been able to find the dates of her stay in Munich, I wanted to know if there were any specific references to Spitzi’s time there. I had written initially in early 2019; I finally received a response, with relevant letters, in July 2020–too late to revise substantially that chapter.

If nothing else, these genial letters substantiate that Fr. Dr. Spitzmüller was a vital presence at this time, when she went to Munich to sort the objects, the national treasures of Austria, that belonged to the Albertina. If I had received them earlier, I could have presented in the book a more detailed picture of Spitzi’s activities at the Collecting Point.

Since I had access via many family members to many details of Maria Steinberg’s life story, that chapter of the book seems to be fairly complete. If I wanted to dig deeper, I would love to see a transcript of her father’s memoirs, which the family does have, but they are still in handwritten Alte Schrift, waiting to be deciphered by better German scholars than I–and, in the end, more appropriate to be presented by other members of Maria’s family.

Finally, one more image that I wanted to include in the book: a newspaper clipping saved by Fr. Kern, showing her beloved Airedale meeting a rabbit at an Easter show in the Odenwald. I remember her dog Terry very well, when I knew her in Darmstadt. Somehow the image seemed a little too frivolous for an academic book, but it pleases me to remember her walking Terry, as she was when I first met her in 1974.

The Book and the process

22 Dec

eebookcover_oct2020-1

As many of you know from reading this blog, I have been working on this book as a labor of love for several years now. It is so exciting that I finally have it in my hands! The title is Three German Women: Personal Histories of the Twentieth Century. Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (CSP) in the U.K., the book, I now realize, would probably not have found as comfortable a home for publication anywhere else. CSP is known for publishing academic works, but ones that authors would otherwise not have been able to publish because they fill a minority niche. Here’s a great article about how they do it:

http://www.noshelfrequired.com/cambridge-scholars-publishing-doing-simple-things-well/

As the article points out, CSP is peer-reviewed, but decisions to publish are not based on profitability, but on whether the title fulfills some academic research need. As the article says, “We put our authors at the heart of everything we do.” They keep overhead down, so that their profit margins are small, but they publish so many books that in aggregate, they stay afloat financially. They publish out of Newcastle — not a traditional hub of English publishing! — and all processes are done locally. Their method of printing also contributes to their success, as their Chief Executive explains:

Print on Time works by doing short-run digital print which makes sure we hold a small stockholding, based on our calculations of how many titles are likely to sell. We direct-supply our US distributors, quicker and much more cost-effectively than an on-the-ground US warehouse could supply. That’s not supposition – we tried it, and we disintermediated it, and it worked. We don’t get stock-outs, or pulped stock, or returns, because we fulfill an order the same day, and get it to the distributor faster than a local warehouse can. That means we don’t have to worry about the intersections in the supply chain – which is where things always go wrong – or have a manager managing those intersections, reporting on them, and having meetings about them. Nothing is ever ‘out of print’. If someone buys a book we haven’t sold a copy of since 2013, we will very likely have one or two on the shelf, and if we don’t, we will print and ship it the next day. We don’t have boxes and boxes of books gathering dust on a shelf that we will never sell. If it’s older or slower-moving, we hold them in ones and twos. If it’s newer and quicker-moving, we measure their movement in weeks, not years. We keep the margins that printers and warehousers take. We don’t tie up cash in stock and watch it sit and depreciate every day.”

I have been astonished at how quickly CSP can get a shipment of books to me: within a week from the U.K. to California. I have been pleased with the freedom I was given to write as I wanted to — my book is quirky, a bit memoir, a bit women’s history, a bit German history — and that the process of publishing went so smoothly, much more smoothly than my previous academic books.

That being said: CSP is not a publisher for books requiring much graphic design or elaborate illustrations. Being used to publishing in art history, most of my other publications have required lots of illustrations and thought about pleasing design. While I did include black and white illustrations in this book, all of the “design” — what passed as design! — was my job. (I was thrilled, after much searching, to find the Kirchner painting of three German women for the cover!) The typesetters did aid a bit with formatting, but for the most part, the look of the text and placement of photographs within the text were my responsibility as the author. The final product is clear and clean, but not at all adventurous graphically.

Finally, and most unfortunately to my mind, such a simple publishing philosophy, and one that involves taking some risks on a variety of titles that will not necessarily sell well, means that the prices of the volumes are very high. My book costs in the U.K. £62, which translates to about $US83. This is an enormously high price for the people who I would like to have read the book. I am hoping that people will request orders from their local libraries, so the book will be available for those who want to read it but can’t afford the cost. Currently, the book is offered on Amazon.com at $US100! (It sells for €58 on amazon.de).  There is talk that in a few months, CSP will be able to print the book as a paperback, and it is apparently also now available as an e-book for academics who have access to ProQuest. In the meantime, I have been ordering copies at my author’s discount, then passing on those savings to my friends who really want to read the book now. At the moment, I think it is still possible to order the book on the CSP website with a 25% promotional discount, by using the code PROMO25. Here’s the link to the CSP page:

https://www.cambridgescholars.com/product/978-1-5275-5697-3

I am just happy that the book is out there, and hope that anyone interested in stories of intellectual women persevering in the turmoil of 20th-century Central Europe will find it interesting.

My next blog will include some of the research and documents that I received too late to include in the book! This always happens…..

HOLIDAY GREETINGS 2020!

28 Nov

The selfie of us on our March anniversary (46th!) seems an appropriate one to begin a holiday letter for this most bizarre of years: a little crooked, a little blurry, and kind of manic! What can we say about a year in which we had to stay home for most of it? Since I wrote last year’s letter before our travels at Christmas, I’ll include some tales of that trip first. Since Max & Dottie & kiddos planned to be in Austin with her family, we decided we would drive over to be with them. We managed to find a great home to stay in via HomeExchange (so it was free accommodation!), and en route made a detour to the famous little Texas town of Marfa–the site of artist Donald Judd’s projects, and a place I had always wanted to visit. Despite the cold and a lot of closed galleries, it was a fascinating place, better than my expectations.   

Marfa Court House

George at the Marfa Store, and below, Chinati Foundation

It was great to see the kiddos in Austin, despite minor family illnesses. We were especially pleased to meet the kiddos’ new cousin Sonny, Dottie’s sister’s little boy, who looks exactly like his father!     

    

Other events:  My book, Three German Women, arrived in October! I love the cover, and the contents look better than I expected they would. Read about it here:  https://www.cambridgescholars.com/product/978-1-5275-5697-3

Sadly, George’s 93-year-old father, George Albert Boeck, Sr., died on Halloween day in Greeley, Colorado. He was a real gentleman who prided himself on being curmudgeonly, and we miss him greatly. To whom will we now send articles about Sherlock Holmes and Abraham Lincoln? Here is the obituary I wrote for him that appeared in the Greeley paper: https://memorials.ncccremation.com/Boeck-George/4378810/

Finally, I gave in after months of not seeing the family, and flew via Southwest Airlines to Denver. A lovely visit, with Lyle, who wanted an axolotl, and Lou, who said his favorite animal was a unicorn.

About the only other event to report in this crazy year is that George has once again acquired a beehive! No bees yet, but it is a sign of his perpetual optimism that he’s waiting for a swarm to find the new digs to call home. So we persist in our hopes for renewal, regeneration, and lots of honey in the New Year!

Please let us hear from you, by whatever means:  EE & GB, 450 N. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, CA 91101, 626 644 2389, esauboeck@gmail.com. We both have Facebook pages, too! Thanks to all of you for making this year survivable! WE LOVE OUR TRIBE!

HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO YOU ALL!

The book is here!

25 Nov

As many of you now know, the book that I began as blog entries on this site, and where I have posted numerous updates as I did the writing (https://esauboeck.wordpress.com/2018/03/14/book-proposal-accepted/), has now arrived! I am glad that I continued to search for the cover image until I found the one that looks right. I’m really pleased with how zappy it looks. The contents look better than I had expected, and now I wish I had included more images than I have.

What can I say? This book was a real labor of love, about women I knew, who lived through the most turbulent times in Central Europe, and managed to persevere and survive. This is my most personal work, not at all like the academic books and articles I’ve written in the past: a bit memoir, a bit women’s studies, a bit German history, it’s very hard to decide where it fits in book publishing categories. I do think it is important in recovering from obscurity the lives of intelligent, professionally active women who made contributions to their culture. Personally, I’m proudest of my translation (after transcribing, with the help of Adobe, from German Fraktur) of the marvelously evocative “Autobiografie einer jungen Frau” that Irmgard Kern wrote in 1934 (Appendix I). This series, presented over several weeks in the renowned Frankfurter Zeitung, was perhaps Kern’s finest writing, and presents such a vivid picture of the life of a privileged Catholic girl growing up in early 20th-century Berlin. I’m grateful as well that Maria Steinberg’s family allowed me to include some of the writings of Maria’s brother Jan, describing in fascinating detail their life on a farm estate outside of Berlin (Appendix II). A world now completely gone.

As happens with small publishing houses now, the book price is outrageously high, in my opinion, but it can’t be helped. While it is now available on Amazon.com, I have found that it is cheaper and faster to order directly from the British publishers, at this site: https://www.cambridgescholars.com/products/978-1-5275-5697-3

For the moment, I think you can still get a 25% discount using this code PROMO25. I have also been assured that in six months, they will publish a paperback and e-Book at a lower price. My other suggestion for those who would like to read it but don’t want to buy it is that you request that your library purchase a copy! Most libraries, if they have any funding at all, are pretty amenable to patrons’ requests.

I would be most grateful to anyone who could suggest possible publications that might review such a book. There are tales here of those who had to flee the Nazis, stories about a woman who worked with The Monuments Men to save European art treasures, and rediscoveries of forgotten writers who got lost in the aftermath of World War II. The book is dedicated to the late film historian Thomas Elsaesser, whose own discoveries about his family’s history overlapped with the biography of one of “my” women. He was immensely helpful and enthusiastic about this project. I hope I have done justice to these women, who were such inspirations for this American.

Crosswords

6 Sep
art040-contemporary-art-cartoon-cryptic-crossword-1

Since the pandemic lockdown, I’ve been devouring crosswords as a way to combat boredom and intellectual atrophy. And I am apparently not the only one: crossword compilations I’ve ordered online are frequently out of stock, and the shelves of our local bookstore are cleaned out of the newer books of puzzles. Serendipitously, this crossword mania also seems to be having a moment of youth-inspired “rediscovery.” New crossword puzzle creators are appearing in The New Yorker and other publications, hipsters who are eschewing the dreary old clues such as “16th century Dutch coin” or “African root plant” for references to Hip Hop musicians and far too many (for me) Harry Potter and NEW series “Star Wars” entries. It’s fun and invigorating, even when I have to cheat to figure out the lyrics to a 2001 #1 recording by Cardi B or whatever the name of Dumbledore’s sidekick is (yes, I made that up, only showing how complete is my ignorance of Harry Potter characters).

Having finished all the puzzles in my most recent NYT compilation of Sunday ones, and unable to get any of the newer ones I tried for, I desperately grabbed some compilations that were available at Vroman’s, our local bookshop. Starting to work my way through them, I was initially perplexed that there were no TV show references, and lots and lots of Shakespearean clues.  Only then did I realize this book had compiled NYT crosswords from the 1970s!  The difference in tone and attitude was immediately striking! No wonder puzzlers were until recently seen as grandmas and nerdy or crusty old retired professors. Let’s hear it for the renaissance in puzzle making brought on by a new generation of hipster nerds! Now if I could only find some more compilations to do by hand rather than online. Please, young uns, for we oldsters, do remember to put out some compiled books of your brilliant works, so that we can take pencil to paper (I never use a pen!) to complete another crossword a day! 

 

Photographs

3 Aug

 

Reading this article today reignited an enthusiasm, and reminded me of the reasons I began teaching the history of photography in the 1990s. As I told my classes at the beginning of each semester, I wanted to explore with them the seductive nature of photographs, to try and figure out why, at least in my case, it is nearly impossible NOT to look at a photograph. I can always ignore or skip over a painting or other artwork that doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically, but there’s something about the capturing of time and place in photographs that causes me to want to know more about any photographic image I see.

My mother came from a family that put their photos in albums, and so she made great big books of pictures she took throughout our childhood and beyond. I loved looking through the old ones, reading all the captions as a way to cement in my mind a visual memory bank of who was who and where was where in my family’s history. Then I started helping her compile the albums of our events, and finally, when I was on my own, making up my own books of my adventures as captured on Kodaks. I now have all the family photo albums, as well as boxes of images from various family members, dating from the 1920s through the 1950s, most of which have no identification, and there is now no way of finding out who these strays are or what they meant at one time to someone I know. But I still hang on to them, and occasionally look through them for signs of the times and to reflect on how landscapes have changed. In other words, I come by this obsession with photographs honestly, with a special attraction to found images, just as the writer of this article, Bill Schapiro, is drawn to them.

When I began to teach the history of photography at the Australian National University, my own curiosity about how photographic images work was my main motivation for offering the course. The teaching of photographic history, at least in Australia and I suspect in the U.S. as well, had been taken up primarily by photography departments in art schools, and for reasons that I suppose have to do with the enormous number of complex perceptual considerations that photos provide, most classes were steeped in theory, top-heavy with philosophical analyses and artspeak jargon. My history of photography class was, in the 1990s, the only one in Australia that considered photographs from an art historical rather than a theoretical perspective. I really loved teaching this class, because my students were as enthusiastic about the issues as I was, and they felt comfortable talking about a medium that they all knew about in some form. It has been years since I have revisited these topics, but this New York Times article sparked the interest again. So from my own collections, pictures that I love, and ones that are exemplary of the mystery of the medium, we can contemplate together some of these issues: how photographs’ meanings change over time, and finally, what to do with all those images in albums and boxes as references fade. Do they simply become non-entities, meaningless objects, or do they take on other, still significant, meanings? Here we go:

moxonphoto_forwordpress

**I found this little photographic card at a paper store in Los Angeles, in a box of old photos and post cards (I collect post cards, too, adding on to the collection begun by my great-aunt in the 1910s). I had initially thought that its address in Hay referred to Hay, Australia, but of course, it refers to Hay-on-Wye in England. The photographer, Thomas Moxon, was a well-known figure in the late 1890s and early 1900s, so this card was probably produced in the early 20th century. Why did it appeal to me? For the same reasons that it would appeal to Schapiro: here is a darling little girl, dressed in a pristine white dress, probably held up from behind by a “hidden mother” or father. Aside from the evidence of past styles of children’s dress–and I do love that revelation from found photos–this is an image of someone who is now gone, but who, as Schapiro writes, “lived, worked, made their share of bad decisions, loved a bunch and surely suffered some.” Just like Schapiro, this image grounds me, and gives me a longer view, of “humanity’s slow and sweeping waltz.” Everything about life is ephemeral, but the photograph remains.

robyn&janontrip_ca1972_000011

**This snapshot comes from one of my mother’s many albums. She seems to have kept and classified every single picture on the film roll, no matter how badly shot or how non-descript the focus. Playing devil’s advocate in my classes, I used to show another one in this “series” that conveyed even less information about what is depicted–it only showed the hood of the Karman Ghia in the background, the chain link fence,  the table with the orange pot, and my sister’s hands. I then asked the classes why such a photograph of hardly anything could possibly be interesting once the immediate references–my sister and her friend on a trip up the California coast in about 1973–had been lost in time. Students were all adamant: the image conveyed lots of information, they said, about the car, about a pot just like ones they had at home, and even about the landscape. I was amused by how closely they studied the photo, and how quick they were to defend its validity as an historical record, rather than a family heirloom.

maydeeshotfromairplane_ca1971_000009

**Another one from my family albums, this one really stretches the idea of photograph as information. In context, it was taken by my mother out the window of the plane in which she was flying for the first time–to my college graduation in Denver in 1971. She was trying, with her little snapshot camera, to get a photo of the snow-capped Rockies. Aside from saying something about the quality of snapshot film in the 1970s, this vernacular photograph loses all meaning once its purpose as evidence of one person’s presence in a plane across the mountains is lost.

glenburnhouse_torrance_ca1959_000010

**A snap of the living room in our “new” house in Torrance, California, in 1959. My mother must have sent this to her family back East, since she has written on the back: “East End of living room.  Behind drapes is a sliding glass door–in other words, the whole wall is glass, but our yard is still dirt, so I keep the drapes closed.” Then she writes below that, with an arrow pointing to the place on the front, “Stereo here.” I can read so much of family biography into this one: first of all, the pride of ownership. This house was a real step up the social ladder from where we lived before. My mother was especially proud that she now could have a piano, the piano on which I took lessons and which now lives at my son’s house. And I remember those curtains, or drapes as they were called, with all kinds of complicated pulls and ropes. They must have been an expensive item, since the curtains moved with us to the next house. And we had that green lounge chair for years and years, where my father usually sat. But what resonance can this boringly neat and tidy image of mid-20th century American suburbia have for anybody else? Just as I accumulated all these albums at my house, my history professor from graduate school contacted me for help with a book she was writing about suburban houses (Barbara Miller Lane, Houses for a New World). She looked through these albums, with their quantity of snaps of Californian suburbs circa 1950-70, and chose several as examples of how we lived, in a time that is now already historic. So there are those drapes, frozen in print for posterity, inside the covers of an academic book about American houses.

norwegianrelatives_ca1964_000012

**From the boxes of unidentified family pictures comes this wonderful group portrait. I think these may be Norwegian relatives, taken when my grandmother, who had come to America in 1918, went back to visit for the first time 50 years later. A Norwegian friend has verified that the house looks like one from Norway, and if I study the faces carefully, I can convince myself that I see family resemblances. But now they are all dead, and eventually this image will end up in one of those dusty bins for sale in antique shops, flea markets, and second-hand bookstores.

maydee&ee@5days_sb_april1949

**Finally, one of me. Granted, I’m only 5 days old, and not really recognizable yet, but the photo speaks volumes, doesn’t it? I would imagine that Schapiro, if he found this on any of his collecting expeditions would love it, for he says he is “drawn to quietly composed pictures that hold the sense of an unfinished story.” That it most certainly is.

For me, the picture also points to the great dilemma facing so many of us: what will happen to all these thousands of photographs once I’m gone, and the next generation only takes gillions of digital images? I would hope that my son will take them, and in preparation for coaxing him and his wife into maintaining this “hard copy” legacy, I have already made up albums of “real” photos of the digital images of their two boys’ first years. I am concerned about the fact that the next generation will have no actual visual record of their lives except in cyberspace. I want to make sure that they have the opportunity to peruse their families’ histories just as I have had.

Still, I am aware that, as this New York Times article states, in the end our photos are all that may endure of us. Schapiro’s last lines are something we all have to face: “These found photographs not only remind me of this delicate thing we run both toward and away from–time–but they also hold something else. The humbling, steadying truth that, one day, that’s all we’ll be: a photo.”

There is still so much more I would like to explore on this topic, but I’ll close for now–and include an image of us with a cat! Appleton, Wisconsin, 1985. The cat’s name was Hecate.

gb&ee&max&cat2_appleton_1985_000010

Lessons in lockdown

16 Jul

quarantinehoroscope

“Signs in Quarantine” by Felicia Chiao.

As the weeks in quarantine continue and the virus surges inexorably, I have been thinking about what I have learned in this historic time, ruminating on existential as well as banal questions during all this downtime. Here are a few thoughts:

**As long as we are the two of us here at home, I am having no problem having no visitors. It’s been years since I’ve enjoyed the idea of having a dinner party, or afternoon visitors, in any case, so this has not been difficult to maintain at all. It would probably be much harder for me if I were single and alone in the house. But I am actually surprised to realize what an introvert I am, and how easy it has been for me to stay home and just communicate via the internet or to talk with George.

**Continuing the above thought:  except for visiting museums and botanic gardens, I was never that driven to be in social groups, like choirs or clubs. This isolation is really hard on those who are social, those who are used to having lots of friends over and are active in group activities. As long as I have access to social media–and THANK GOD for that!–I’m OK with those interactions. I DO miss hugs at my AA meetings! And I do want to have projects to do on the computer or as a craft.

**I really worry about families/couples who have had any kind of tension in their relationships. All this togetherness is at times trying on even the most compatible people. I have heard that many people in early recovery from addictions have been under tremendous pressure in isolation, and all of my psychologist and counselor friends have been swamped with requests for therapy.

**Having pets has been vital, I think. I can understand why so many people have gone out and acquired a dog or a cat while housebound. I pet the cats much more often than before, and use them as substitutes for human hugs. They seem to love the routines that we have established, and are perfectly happy that we’re home all the time.

**I am so grateful we have a yard/garden that attracts birds. My amateur birding has been a constant joy as we sit on our back porch. I am actually getting better at identifying even the NBBs–the non-descript brown birds!

**Los Angeles skies are much clearer these days, as traffic has been so reduced. It’s really noticeable on our walks.

**We notice so many more people on our walks around the neighborhood. We always take our masks with us, and if we see another person walking toward us, we either go into the street to avoid being close, or we put our masks on immediately.

**No matter what others say, I have found no effective way to keep my glasses from steaming up when I wear a mask.

**The ONE source of tremendous sadness and distress for me: not being able to visit the grandchildren in Denver. Since George is high risk (COPD and heart issues), since we always catch whatever illness the kiddos have when we visit, and since Dottie works in a hospital, we just cannot risk getting there, either by plane or driving. We are missing their sweetest year, but are again so thankful that we have social media to keep us in touch. I just want the grandsons to remember us when they grow up. That, to me, is our only form of immortality.

**I have to avoid what I can of the news, since it just fills me with despair that we are suffering through this pandemic with the absolute worst possible non-government in power. But all the reading that I have been doing–what else is there to do?–inevitably leads me to some considerations of how America has devolved into such a situation. Here’s one thought that came to me and that I shared on Facebook: “I’ve just been reading, in David Talbot’s Season of the Witch, the story of Dan White, the pathetic human who assassinated Harvey Milk and SF Mayor George Moscone–you know, the one who got away with murder because his aggressive lawyer used the ‘Twinkie defense.’ What struck me in the story of this guy was something Harvey Milk said about him: ‘I feel sorry for him, because he’s just stupid, and out of his depth as City Councilman.’ Then it hit me: part of the problem for people like DT and CERTAINLY for Betsy deVos, is that they are not very bright at all. This makes them so defensive when they are out of their depth intellectually that they have to lash out against those who are smarter than they are. Couple this, in DT’s case, with pathological narcissism and you have the mess we’re in today. Stupidity can make people do awful things if they’re not loved enough and/or find themselves in positions of power and incapable of knowing what responsibility that power requires.”

**It’s even harder now to keep track of what day it is than it was once we retired.

**Zoom meetings are frustrating, but better than nothing.

**TV: for some reason, I find the presence of actual TV in real time calming, no matter how mindless the programs (well, up to a point). It must be my age, but it makes me feel like someone is out there, even though I know that isn’t true. Netflix and other streaming apps are great, and I do appreciate watching real shows and films on them, too. But for a feeling of security, I watch reruns of “Law & Order” over a first-run program. And no, I would NOT watch Tiger King!

**I really miss a swimming pool! I am never one for big-time, long-term exercise regimens, but I’m astonished at how creaky I can get if I don’t keep up some exercise routines. I wasn’t aware of how much running around I used to do in a day.

**I have resigned myself to the fact that in many ways, these quarantine routines are what we are going to have to live with for a long, long time. I am not ready to die yet, and getting COVID-19 is just not an option if I want to stay alive for a little while longer. So I must appreciate the small things, stay in touch with loved ones by media means, and be thankful that I have always been one to read and think.

**I will close with cats again: Kolo, the black & white one, always looks better in photos than he does in person! And orange one Zuma doesn’t like to pose.

Stay healthy and safe, everyone!

 

Manuscript is in production!

3 Jun

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Coffee drinking women, painting, 1907

While I am exhausted from despair and anxiety because of “current events,” as it used to be called in my high school days, I just cannot bring myself to comment on this blog about these dismaying incidents about which I have ranted on Facebook. But I did feel I needed to post something new here, so this is my report: I submitted the manuscript of “Three German Women” to the publishers last week! Despite the pandemic lockdown, the first proofs should be here in a few weeks. In the meantime, I have agonized over the choice of a cover image for the book. I scoured all the free sites, such as Wikimedia, I considered several possibilities, every one of which ended up requiring expensive permission fees, or was somehow unsuitable. My search terms had something to do with three German women, active 1910-1950, preferably a cafe scene, something not Weimar-era Flapper-like, or frilly, but not too serious either. Ideally I wanted a woman artist, but nothing I found seemed to resonate appropriately. I had several people recommend graphic designers who would, I am sure, have created something original and pertinent, but given the small size of this book (it’s A5 format), I really didn’t want to waste their obvious talents on such a meager space. Here are three of the possible images I considered:

I really wanted to use the Beckmann, because it was the right period, a little edgy- Germanic, but it would have required searching for copyright permission (the work appears a gillion times on Pinterest, but nowhere could I find who owned it), and it probably would have cost a fortune to reproduce. The photograph of the little girls would have been available, but my Facebook critics determined that it might lead prospective readers to assume the themes of the book were of a younger milieu than the text was focussing on. And the final image by Lotte Laserstein (a new and welcome discovery for me) was deemed too busy for a small cover (and probably would have required elaborate permissions as well).

Finally, after days of online perusal, I found a stock photo site that included images free of royalty rights or permissions. And there was the bright yellow painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner of three women drinking coffee! I could have the image for $70. While it is, at 1907, a bit early for the actual events of the book (one of my women is not born until 1919), the image was so striking and so German that I felt it captured the right mood. So I have submitted it to the publishers, who will now determine whether it’s usable or not. Fingers crossed! I think it will make a very striking impression.

If nothing else, all of these pictorial excursions and decisions have diverted my attention from the chaos and violence being stoked into frenzy by the highest levels of the American government, and in the midst of a global pandemic that already warrants extreme levels of vigilance and anxiety for everyone. We can do very little but try to continue to live civilized, humane lives. As I say in my book–one of the themes of which is that most Germans under Nazi rule were neither Nazis nor radicals–individual human beings will have to negotiate their own moral and ethical behavior in light of these atrocities: “In our present political climate, dictatorial impulses around the globe are, bafflingly, upending many of the gains made since that last world war, erasing for some the lessons we should have learned from the tumultuous history these women had to face. While we do not have to stand by in complete helplessness as these events out of our control occur, it is perhaps beneficial to be reminded that ordinary people should not necessarily be painted as traitors or heroes to a cause, as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ if they are simply living their lives with as much grace and perseverance as they can.”

 

 

 

For Mother’s Day

11 May

maydee&ee@5days_sb_april1949

For my mother, Maydee Rahm Scheuneman Esau. She loved music, Nelson Eddy/Jeanette McDonald movies, crosswords, sewing, and baseball. She sang all the time, she played the piano, she was exuberant (some would say loud). She had absolutely no filters, which was sometimes mortifying, sometimes delightful. She had three daughters, I’m the oldest. She swore like a sailor when she was sewing, and she loved to travel. She went to South Africa, Germany, and Guatemala on an archaeological dig. She fought breast cancer for 12 years, but it got her in the end. She was only 61 when she died. We have never gotten over it. Here she is with me, 5 days old.