Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford Revisited: Colt Revolvers, a Cradle and the Connecticut’s Charter Oak

A family wedding was the excuse for visiting Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, one of America’s finest and oldest museums, predating New York’s Metropolitan and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts by thirty-three years. The Atheneum still uses its original building, built in 1842. (See Suzanne Loebl: America’s Art Museums.) It, however, repeatedly outgrew its quarters and now consists of five interconnected structures. Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, the widow of Samuel Colt, the inventor of the revolver, donated one of these.

Samuel Colt (1814-62), a Hartford native, loved to tinker and designed a pistol with a revolving mechanism (hence the name “revolver”) that eliminated the need for reloading between shots. Modern warfare as well as Columbine High and Sandy Hook Elementary School are part of his legacy. Colt and his partner Samuel H. Walker developed assembly line technology for mass-producing arms, eventually becoming inexpensive enough for individuals to buy them. Colt pistols became the weapon of choice during the white man’s conquest of the West, the California Gold Rush, the Mexican War and the Civil War. During the 1850s, the Colt Firearm Manufacturing Company sold 170,000 pocket revolvers and 98,000 belt revolvers. Ever since, powerful firearms using Samuel Colt’s revolving mechanism have been keeping America safe, expanding its power and killing countless innocents. Not surprisingly, some of these models were called the .45caliber Peacemakers, a name that matches the present-day spirit of the National Rifle Association. 

The Colt Cradle at Wadsworth  Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut

The Colt Cradle at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

In addition to money, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt left the museum the couple’s extensive collection of firearms, art, jewelry and memorabilia. Most striking is the Colt cradle suspended between posts adorned with prancing colts—stand-ins for the family name. The cradle was sculpted from the trunk of Connecticut’s famous “Charter Oak,” felled by a storm in 1856. Legend has it that Joseph Wadsworth, ancestor of the founder of the museum, concealed Connecticut’s 1682 Royal charter from a tyrannical English Governor General of New England in one of the oak’s cavities. The oak became a symbol of American independence. At the museum the image of the oak, posthumously painted in 1857 by Charles De Wolf Brownell, is in a gallery adjoining the Colt memorabilia. The frame of the painting is also made from the tree’s trunk. The blue onion dome of the Colt Firearms Factory is seen in the background of the painting.

The Wadsworth Atheneum’s leading collections include works from the Hudson River School, Renaissance, older and newer American art, furniture and decorative art. A. Everett “Chick” Austin, one of America’s most colorful museum directors, shaped its holdings from 1927 until 1944. During his tenure the museum received the two million dollar Sumner fund, which Austin partially used to build an impressive Baroque, Modern, and Surrealist collection. Austin also added a theater, the first in any American museum, sponsored the immigration of George Balanchine, and hosted the first public performance of his future New York City Ballet.

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Mrs. Rockefeller’s Garden on Mount Desert Island

One of my favorite places in the world is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine. It is open ten or so days a year to a limited number of visitors and I usually manage to be among them.

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine. Photo courtesy of http://rockgardenmaine.wordpress.com/

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine.
Photo courtesy of http://rockgardenmaine.wordpress.com/

The Rockefellers bought their summer home, the Eyrie, in 1910 and though it eventually had 106 rooms, the rocky soil of the Granite State does not easily accommodate gardens. Given that they had a big terrace with a view of mountains, boulders, fir trees, streams, mosses, ferns, and the distant ocean, the Rockefellers could hardly have missed a manicured garden. Still, in 1926, Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. decided to build a secluded garden at some distance from their overgrown, overly busy Tudor-style mansion.

Five years earlier the Rockefellers had journeyed to China to attend the dedication of a new building for the Rockefeller-funded medical school, Peking Union Medical College. Their three-month long Asia trip enhanced their passion for the Far East. Their new garden, Abby decided, would combine the spiritual nature of the East with the more worldly gardens of the West. To help them, the Rockefellers engaged Beatrix Farrand, a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, who fortuitously also summered on Mount Desert Island.

Felling trees, removing roots and rocks, leveling the terrain, and bringing in tons of topsoil was the first order of business. The main elements of the garden were in place by 1928. They consisted of a Spirit Path lined by twelve large Korean stone guardians, a rectangular lawn, framed by a border of garden flowers (the sunken garden), a small pool enclosed by an oval lawn and shrubbery, a shade garden, and several small enclaves ideal for rest and contemplation.

Suddenly it became known that a large number of coping tiles from a newly dismantled section of the Forbidden City’s enclosure might be for sale in China. Farrand revised her plans and enclosed the nascent garden in a pink stucco wall crowned by six thousand glazed yellow coping tiles. Today it is hard to believe that the wall was an afterthought!

The garden is now almost ninety years old. Thanks to the concentrated care of nine gardeners it may even more beautiful today than in its youth. Thick moss carpets mysterious enclaves along the Spirit Path; bunchberries and blueberries encircle the feet of the Korean officials; two gilded Buddhas, shaded by ancient pines, sit silently on their thrones; and other exquisite sculptures are strategically placed throughout. The festive summer flowers add joy to inner peace.

How glorious our world can be! I commune with my favorite haunts: The barely visible stone toad from 18th-19th century Japan, the monk (17th century Edo period) that fondles a tiger cub, and the thick lips of moss that almost hide a foot-wide stream. Silently I pay tribute to the artists who created the sculptures that enhance the magic garden, to the gardeners who see to it that everything is perfect during the short two months that this Eden comes to life, to Beatrice Farrand, who designed it and wrote to her patron on October 26, 1928 that “the wall lines were tentatively staked out yesterday with much fussing and refusing and changes of curves here and there.” And of course to the Rockefellers, who loved it into being and footed the bill.

During the two hours that I am allowed to spend here, it is hard to think of the bombs that harass and kill my fellow humans in their not-so-distant lands: Israel and Gaza, Iraq, the Ukraine…the children trying to storm the southern border of the US, the families that mourn those who died aboard the Malaysian airliner!


For more about Abby Rockefeller’s Garden, see Suzanne Loebl’s America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy. (Harper, 2010)

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World War I: August 3, 1914: Germany Invades Belgium

World War II defined my life, but it was actually a continuation of  World War I, whose 100th birthday we “celebrate” this year. The hostilities took a while to get underway. They began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914. In a knee-jerk reaction Austria declared war on Serbia. The war began in earnest a month later when Germany declared war on France on August 1st, followed by the invasion of Belgium on August 3rd.

Belgian soldier guarding the Yser front in 1918.

The German army drafted my father, then studying chemistry in Switzerland. The military issued him a gun, which was promptly stolen from him as he traveled to his assignment at a military hospital in Eastern Europe. Emotionally the war was much harder on my mom, a twelve-year-old growing up in Nuremberg. Two of her three male cousins were killed on the front. Food was scarce and since she was young and pretty my grandparents prevailed upon her to smuggle contraband victuals from nearby farms in her backpack. “I was terrified,” she recalled twenty-five years later, “to be searched and caught.” Wartime recipes filled the handwritten cookbook she penned during her high school home economics class. She also kept the worthless paper money used in Germany during the inflation that followed the war. Her tales and the astronomical denominations of the notes forever robbed me of faith in my economic security.

On August 3rd, 1914, the German army invaded Belgium. Within a matter of weeks they traversed the little country that I called home from 1938 to 1946. At a small river, the Yser, Belgian and Allied troops stopped the German advance, leaving a tiny corner of Belgium, including the Flemish town of Ypres and the seaside resort town of La Panne, unoccupied.

Belgian history takes pride in the fact that neither its king, le roi soldat Albert I, his queen Elisabeth, or the Belgian army left Belgian soil during the ensuing four years. The devastation of the countryside around Yser, was however, horrific. Even today, a hundred years later, the soil still coughs up un-exploded bombs. In her June 26, 2014 New York Times article, Suzanne Daley wrote: “Around Ypres, the Allies fought for nearly four years in a marathon slugfest that produced the war’s most famous and deadly battles. It was here that the German first used chlorine and mustard gas…yet neither side made much headway…”

In May 1940, when World War II really got underway, the Germans again chose to get to France by overrunning Belgium. My mother, sister and I, along two million other civilians, tried to outrun the German Army and reach France via the seacoast. Along the way we coalesced with two other families respectively headed by Harry and Gus, two German Jewish veterans of WWI.  Our small contingent got stuck in La Panne, on the far side of the Yser. “The German will never get us here,” the men said. “We sat on the Yser for four years…”

But World War II was of course different. Three weeks after we left, our group returned to our homes. We started out on foot, crossing this desolate part of Flanders. German aircraft flew over the clogged highways, sometimes machine gunning the refugees. I will never forget the dead cattle that speckled the fields, four limbs sticking into the air, nor the dead man propped up next to the door of his house. After three days of walking, slowed by Gus’ ancient aunt, Harry managed to hire a truck that took us to Brussels.

Strangely, World War I contributed to my survival during World War II. The Belgians never forgot the terror and cruelty of Germany’s 1914-18 occupation of their country. When the Nazis returned in 1940, an overwhelming portion of the population was ready to help anyone targeted by their old enemy. Sixty percent of the Jews trapped in Belgium survived the war. Eight different families sheltered my mother, sister and myself during the two years we hid in “plain sight.” Numerous others helped us by getting us false papers and food stamps, and mostly by not calling attention to our presence.


For more on Suzanne Loebl’s life during World War II, read At The Mercy of Strangers: Growing up on the Edge of the HolocaustAlso see:
Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Little Ships – June 17, 2012
Liberators and Protectors – March 28, 2011
D-Day, June 6, 1944: Seventy Years Later – June 6, 2014

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The Hobby Lobby Ruling Shames America

A hundred years ago Margaret Sanger distributed five thousand flyers in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood that read:


Can you afford to have a large family?

Do you want any more children?

If not, why do you have them?


Safe, Harmless Information can be obtained of trained Nurses at…

Advertisement for America's first birth control clinic, 1916.

Advertisement for America’s first birth control clinic, 1916.

On October 16, 1916, America’s first free birth control clinic opened. Rapidly a line of at least 150 women formed each morning. Ten days later, U.S. marshals closed the clinic and locked up the woman who had coined the term birth control. The principal charge against Sanger and her associates was that they had violated Section 1141 of the Penal Code, which specifically prohibited the dissemination of birth control information. At that time the U.S. Post Office enforced laws pertaining to the guardianship of America’s morals, which for forty years were masterminded by Anthony Comstock, U.S. Postal Inspector and founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Born in Corning, New York, a town neighboring Seneca Falls (known as the birthplace of women’s rights in America), Margaret Sanger discovered early on that wealth and small families went hand in hand. She never abandoned her belief. Sanger became a nurse, worked on New York’s Lower East Side and was traumatized by the deaths of patients who succumbed to botched abortions. Her poor clients begged her to let them in on the secret of how rich women managed “to keep the babies from coming.”

Using her own resources, Sanger went to Europe to investigate available methods of birth control. She was particularly impressed by “the Dutch, [which] had long ago since adopted a common-sense attitude…that having a baby is an economic luxury—something like a piano or an automobile that had to be taken care of afterwards.”* Holland had free health clinics for poor women and children. These clinics also dispensed diaphragms and other available methods of birth control.

During her long life, Sanger worked tirelessly at making these imperfect methods of contraception available to married women. Sanger also urged scientists to develop an oral contraceptive, and provided her recruit Dr. Gregory Goodwin Pincus, one of the three fathers of “the Pill,” with his first minuscule grant of $2300.

Margaret Sanger could not have fathomed the sexual freedom that effective birth control would engender among the population, including its young teens. Though there are now reliable contraceptives they are not always used or used properly. Thirty-seven percent of the live births in the U.S. are unplanned. Nevertheless we have been making encouraging progress. During the past 23 years America’s horrendous teenage pregnancy rate declined dramatically from a high of 61.8/1000 teens to 26.6/1000 teens.  Abortions, too, have declined from about 1.5 million to 1.1 million.

The recent ruling of the Supreme Court that certain corporations don’t have to pay for birth control of their employees is anathema to the spirit of our founding fathers, who advocated religious freedom. It is also economically unsound. Many women who cannot afford birth control will either have makeshift abortions or unwanted babies. No one, regardless of their religious orientation, promotes abortions, which in addition to being emotionally distressing can lead to costly medical complications, especially when improperly performed. Unwanted children unfortunately often become a painful burden for our overstressed society and overcrowded earth. As Margaret Sanger would have predicted, costly contraception will further widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Do we really want that?

*Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography. Norton & Company, 1938.

In 1973 Suzanne Loebl wrote Conception, Contraception: A New Look (McGraw-Hill Book Company), which retells humanity’s millennial struggle to discover reliable methods of birth control.

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The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Being Polyglot

In April 2014 my husband and I decided to vacation in France. We spent a few days in Paris, visited with some friends in Normandy and then boated up the Rhône and Saone in the Buri, owned by Viking River Cruises. Being able to speak the language of the host country added to my pleasure.

The Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel as depicted by Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

I owe my three languages to history. German is the language of my childhood; French that of my adolescence and young adulthood; and English that of my life ever since. Each one of my tongues is associated with a different me.

By now English is my dominant language. It was with English that my future husband won my heart; it was in English that we raised our children; and it is English-speaking America that provided me with permanent shelter, citizenship and the opportunity to earn a decent living. Nevertheless it is French that I love best. When I step off the plane in a French-speaking country, my heart beats a bit faster; it is as if the sun came out from behind the clouds. Between trips my French gets rusty and I hate listening to the way the guttural r’s roll off my tongue.

During that recent vacation trip I was surprised how rapidly French returned to my mental forefront and how readily my brain supplied me with words I had not used in decades. Soon I had to stop to ascertain whether I was speaking or reading French or English.

I feel very different about my German. My family had lived in Germany for centuries, the men having fought in its army, many dying in its wars. When I came along, however, my alleged compatriots mercilessly persecuted their Jews. I grew to hate and fear everything German, including the language and even the parts of myself that smacked of my family’s Teutonic past. After living through the Nazi occupation of Belgium from 1940-44, I even became physically afraid whenever I found myself in a German-speaking environment. Very, very occasionally the words of a poem or song will connect to my soul.

The effect my languages have on my personality may derive from the circumstances during which I acquired them. I learned French when I wanted desperately to be accepted by my peers. I fell in love with the rhythm and the poetry of the language and subscribed to the pride the French take in their tongue. I took pride in being taken for a native.

I arrived in New York at twenty-one with a rudimentary knowledge in English, good enough to attend Columbia University’s School of General Studies, where I eked out the required B average to enter graduate school. Within a year I made English my own, but the fact that I had left French-speaking Belgium reluctantly and among other things, had yet to learn another language, made me resentful.

Growing up with more than one language is mostly a good thing, but it permanently segments a person’s inner self. When I was younger, there were times that I wished that I had a single mother tongue. I always had an accent, and even today people feel entitled to ask me where I am from. When I embarked on a writing career, a well-meaning neighbor wondered aloud whether this was presumptuous, since I was not a native-born American. On the other hand, learning a language as natives do, is usually accompanied by an instinctive understanding of another culture and the ability to view problems from multiple angles. If I were given a choice I would opt for being polyglot–though, given the political and economic necessities of the world, those who are, seldom have options.

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The Gay World as Navigated by a Straight Mom (www.gaykids-straightmom.com)

I am launching a new blog entitled The Gay World as Navigated by a Straight Mom. Following the tradition of my Branching blog, I intend to publish a new piece every week or two. I hope that some of my regular readers will sample my new blog and/or recommend it to friends who might like its content.

The Gay World as Navigated by a Straight Mom

Chances are that if my son had not been gay, I would not have become involved in LGBT affairs. This was not to be. David showed signs of being gay very early in life, and since he became sexually active during the early stages of the AIDS epidemic, I lost him in 1993, when he was thirty-seven. David had been very sad that he could not supply me with grandchildren. To his joy and relief his sister gave birth to twin girls in 1987. My granddaughters were five when David died. Him not being able to share their lives has always been my family’s great regret, especially since his nieces turned out to be gay.

Gay people are like everyone else: good, bad, funny, mean, helpful, smart, dull, and loving. They, however belong to a special group, one that until recently was discriminated against. As a parent of a gay son, this prejudice reflected on me and I felt extremely lonely. Today, when it seems hip to be gay, being the parent of a child belonging to a minority and sharing is less of a problem. Still, prejudice and discrimination are hard to overcome and it may take awhile for some of us to feel comfortable with having gay children.

Though being gay is now legal and considered socially acceptable in most spheres, some members of the LGBT community may still have some difficulties in accepting themselves and/or coming out to their families. Even when everybody is on the same page, communication may not always be easy. Parents may have all kinds of questions; I did when I was getting used to my son being gay.

The Internet is flooded with information about gay marriages, female surrogates for gay men, gay dating sites, transgender hormone therapy, gay travel tours, butch clothes for women or even same-sex divorces. There is, however, little information for the invisible group of parents of this large LGBT community. Some may have questions they feel reluctant to ask. During the past fifty years, as a science writer, mom, grandma and friend of the gay community I have dealt with all aspects of this complex world. On The Gay World as Navigated by a Straight Mom I will answer your questions to the best of my ability. If I don’t know the answer myself, I’ll consult the appropriate experts. Submit your questions and comments at www.gaykids-straightmom.com/contact-me. If you have no questions of your own, please recommend this blog to others who may have unanswered questions.


Social media update: you can find me on Twitter at @suzanneloebl or, for my new blog, @gaykidsstr8mom. I look forward to connecting with you.

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D-Day, June 6, 1944: Seventy Years Later

Listening to the BBC radio was strictly illegal in Nazi-occupied Belgium. Still, within hours everyone in Brussels knew that the Allied Forces had finally debarked in Normandy on June 6th. We had been waiting for that day for more than four years.

Allied forces approach Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Allied forces approach Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

I consider May 10, 1940 the most important date in my life. At dawn the Germans had invaded Belgium and the life of my nuclear German-Jewish refugee family was shattered.  Because we were German nationals, the Belgian authorities had arrested us mid-morning. They released women and children at the end of the day, but kept my father, whom I was not to see for six years. My mom, my 10-year old sister and I tried to flee to France via the Belgian coast. The German army outpaced us and trapped us, as well as 340,000 British and Belgian soldiers, in a small enclave surrounding the English Channel port of Dunkirk. The British, assisted by an armada of small privately owned boats, rescued their army between May 27 and 31. Their departure both relieved and horrified me. (For more on this experience, see At the Mercy of Strangers.)

During the ensuing occupation, the BBC became one of the country’s lifelines. Even during World War II’s darkest hours, the radio station’s messages, heralded by the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, were upbeat. One of its propaganda ploys was to make believe that rescue was imminent. It took four years!

In anticipation of the event the Germans had fortified the Atlantic coastline with bunkers, land mines and other paraphernalia. At immense cost the Allies established a beachhead in Normandy. On June 6th, about 160,000 Allied soldiers crossed the Channel, eventually numbering over two million.

British forces arrive at Gold Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

British forces arrive at Gold Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

During the next six weeks the fighting remained confined to Normandy and Brittany, then the Allied breached the German defenses, liberating Paris on August 25 and Brussels on September 3. I had survived in the Belgian capital during the entire occupation and welcomed the troops that I had seen depart Dunkirk in 1940. I had been a child when they left; now I was a young woman. My family had survived, but my joy was tempered by the immense cost humanity had paid for this victory.

The past April my husband and I visited the Normandy beaches. Evelyne and Jean-Pierre Grosfils were our hosts. His home had been my last “out-in-the-open” hiding place. I had been Jean-Pierre’s nanny and our current trip was a celebration of a long friendship. I expected to be terribly moved by visiting the beaches, but my reaction was more cerebral than emotional. Though there are museums, monuments, remnants of the makeshift Mulberry Harbor and remnants of the German defenses, nature has a way of erasing most scars. But the losses of this, the so-called Good War, are staggering and the rows upon rows of white crosses in the military cemeteries are heartbreaking.

After the carnage of World War I, people hoped that the world might come to its senses. This, of course, was not the case. The hopes engendered by WWII were more modest, and since then the world continues to be plagued by smaller slaughters. Personally, the older I get, and the more I watch my grandchildren grow, I continue to venerate June 6th as the day that insured my personal liberation from bondage.

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