We Need a Funded Planned Parenthood

In 1949, when my big romance was morphing from casual to committed I was desperately searching for a reliable method of birth control. To be precise, I wanted a diaphragm, i.e. a rubber cap that would prevent my lover’s sperm from reaching my uterus. Today I could have marched into the office of a gynecologist, but then it was illegal for doctors to prescribe contraceptives to single women. I certainly could not approach my family physician. Even Planned Parenthood, founded in 1921, was forbidden to counsel me.

Surreptitiously I obtained the name of a Dr. Hertz who might fit me with a diaphragm. I made an appointment and went to see him, alone while my boyfriend anxiously paced the street outside his office. I remember telling the physician a cock & bull story about condoms and irritating spermicide creams. To his credit the doctor rather quickly understood my request. Relieved, he called out to his nurse that I wanted a diaphragm. He fitted me and I carefully hid my trophy from my prying mother. Six months later, my lover and I married and I gratefully visited Planned Parenthood. Dr. Hertz had fitted me well, but the entire experience left me with a lingering sense of guilt and underhandedness. I always hoped that there would be children in my life. Planned Parenthood, founded 29 years earlier by Margaret Sanger, made me feel that I was planning their future responsibly.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, effective contraception relied on male methods: condoms made from animals’ bladders or guts, or coitus interruptus (withdrawal before ejaculation). Both methods are ancient. The latter is mentioned in the Bible. The Egyptians already used animal bladders, as did Crete’s legendary King Minos, whose sperm contained scorpions and snakes bound to harm his fair mate.

Several reasons shaped Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of birth control. They included the widespread use of often fatal abortions, the interrelationship between poverty and large families, the toll of too closely spaced pregnancies on the health of both mother and child, and the need for women to control their own fertility. The medical data issuing from small Holland impressed Sanger. In 1878, Dr. Alletta Jacobs, Holland’s first female physician, and Dr. Johannes Rutgers, had founded the country’s first free clinic for poor women and children. Stillbirths and abortions dropped so dramatically in the vicinity of the clinic that 50 more such institutions were founded. Dr. Jacobs and colleagues also developed workable contraceptive diaphragms. In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Sanger braved the submarine-infested Atlantic and visited Holland. Back in America, she founded Planned Parenthood in 1921.

Ever since then, Planned Parenthood has provided adequate free or low-cost counseling and healthcare to women before, during and after pregnancy. It is by far not the only organization to do so, but it is an crucial contributor. By now Planned Parenthood operates 600 health centers throughout the United States. The dignified care they provide is not only humanitarian, but also a wise business decision. Readily available birth control as well as other factors have reduced abortion rates from 1.36 million annually in 2000 to 926,000 in 2014. And as demonstrated in Holland so long ago, preventive care reduces maternal mortality and dramatically reduces the risk of expensive preterm babies.

According to the U.S. Institute of Medicine, 15 million infants are born prematurely (before 37 weeks gestation) worldwide. The cost of caring for a premature infant is astronomical. Figures range from $50,000 during the first year (March of Dimes, 2009) to $2.2 million during the first 18 months (U.S. Institute of Medicine, 2012). By contrast, according to the March of Dimes, a full-term baby costs an average of $4,500 during his or her first year of life. Prenatal care, which includes birth control counseling, obviously is a wise investment.

Defunding Planned Parenthood is a cruel, insensitive and economically disastrous decision.

Suzanne Loebl is the author of Conception, Contraception: A New Look, which retells the amazing story of science’s long struggle to understand how humans and other mammals are conceived. Macmillan published it in 1974, fourteen years after the FDA approved the Pill. Today, high school students know more about human physiology than major scientists did a century ago.

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‘Kykuit: The Rockefeller Family Home’ at the French Institute Alliance Française (FI:AF)

Picasso tapestries in the underground art galleries at Kykuit. (Photo © Jaime Martorano)

On the cusp of summer, the French Institute Alliance Française—one of New York’s oldest institutions, bonding the United States and France—invited Mary Louise Pierson to talk about the lavishly illustrated book she and her mother, Ann Rockefeller Roberts, published about her family’s weekend home in Pocantico Hills, NY. Mary Louise, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, took the book’s intimate pictures; Ann Roberts Rockefeller provided the lively text. The book, published by Abbeville Press, is called Kykuit: The Rockefeller Family Home. I attended the lunch because the talk would remind me of the five years I spent researching and writing about the Rockefellers’ contributions to the American art world.

In 1893, soon after the center of his oil business shifted from Cleveland to New York City, patriarch John D. Rockefeller, Sr. bought the land on which the estate rests. For a while the senior Rockefellers lived in a house that came with the estate, but in 1902 his son, known as Junior, built an imposing Beaux Arts mansion for his parents. The house is located atop and named for Kykuit (Dutch for “lookout”), a hill that dominates its surroundings. Indeed, from certain vantage points, the visitor is awed by a view of the mighty Hudson.

The house is designed for summer living; the gardens that surround it are truly magnificent. Today Kykuit is a house-museum shaped by three generations of Rockefellers. Senior equipped it with an organ and a golf-course; Junior —whose favorite architect William Welles Bosworth, designed the gardens—gave it its regal character; and Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, the last live-in Rockefeller, provided it with its final form. He removed the organ and also endowed it with a major 20th century sculpture collection. Nelson was Ann Rockefeller Roberts’ father and Mary-Louise’s grandfather,

During her presentation at FI:AF, Mary Louise emphasized her loving relationship with her grandfather and entertained the audience with personal stories. Assisted by MoMA’s René d’Harnoncourt, Nelson spent much time arranging his sculptures in their ideal location. One of Mary Louise’s stories involved a brotherly disagreement between David and Nelson Rockefeller on the subject of the noise and disturbance caused by a helicopter as it repeatedly adjusted the placement of a large Henry Moore sculpture while David played golf with important Chase Bank clients. Today Nelson’s sculpture garden, which includes works by Aristide Maillol, Pablo Picasso, Jacques Lipchitz, Gaston Lachaise, Elie Nadelman, Alberto Giacometti and many more, is one of the finest in America.

I identified with Mary Louise’s pleasure at photographing and illustrating Kykuit. I visited the estate repeatedly, and as well as most of the 37 other institutions that benefited from the Rockefeller’s financial largesse, hard work, and excellent taste, all recorded in my latest book, America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and their Astonishing Cultural Legacy (HarperCollins). It was so much fun creating that book that I wish that I could do it all over again.

The elegant lunch provided by FI:AF matched the refinement of Kykuit. Each one of the dozen or so tables was napped by bright-blue tablecloths and highlighted by vases of tulips and shiny, stemmed wine glasses. The food was equally delicious, and the festivity of the penthouse space at 22 East 60th Street matched the excitement of the afternoon.

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An Announcement

As many readers of this blog know, I have written two memoirs. One of them, At the Mercy of Strangers: Growing Up on the Edge of the Holocaust, is an account of my experience as a hidden Jewish teenager during World War II. It relies heavily on my war-time diary, which I kept while I worked as a “mother’s helper” with false papers in Nazi-occupied Belgium, to tell the story of my family’s escape from Hitler, and our survival.

The other memoir is The Mothers’ Group: Of Love, Loss and AIDS. In 1983, my son David was infected with HIV. Almost 40 years after I escaped peril in Europe, I found life closing in on my family again. I once again kept a diary of sorts, and joined a group of mothers whose children were also affected by the then-fatal virus.

Of the 355 women who came through our group, every single one lost their child. My personal battle was over on May 24, 1993. A few years after I lost David, I sat down to write about the experience. The book is much more about life than about death. It is about David and his love of life, and about his generation in the gay community, for whom AIDS was a terrifying rite of passage.

Both of these books have been available in print for some time, but I am so glad to announce that my granddaughter Naomi has recently reissued them in digital form. In addition to the print editions, you can now order both memoirs as e-books from Amazon.com: At the Mercy of Strangers (Kindle edition); The Mothers’ Group (Kindle edition). You can also contact me at suzanne.loebl [at] gmail [dot] com for autographed, old-fashioned, lavishly illustrated print copies.

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On Ice Cream

serendipity

All of us have foods that unleash floods of memories. For Marcel Proust it was Madeleine cakes. For me, one of those foods is ice cream.

I simply love ice cream. In my birth town of Hanover, it was only available in summer, when the local bakery made it once a week. We rushed over to buy it, and hurried home before it melted. Then, at my request, Mom, Dad, Anna the cook, Detta the nanny, and I all sat on the stairs of our creaky Victorian house, licking away at the cool Manna to our heart’s content.

I love all iced desserts. I date my first gourmet epiphany to a slice of Italian semifreddo studded with bits of candied fruit, nuts and chocolate. I have learned to make my own fruit ices redolent with kiwis or mango, and a praline soufflé dripping with calories. But I also swoon over a Good Humor bar—good vanilla ice cream with a hard coat of chocolate—or a sugar cone filled with Häagen Dazs.

When my children were young I discovered Serendipity 3, a dreamy confectionery on Manhattan’s East Side. It is filled with stained glass lamps, improbable sculptures, and other nonsense. The shop serves delicious chocolate and ice cream concoctions. We went to celebrate achievements and to mourn losses. Taking my grandchildren there a generation later was proof that I, an immigrant, was growing roots. Since Jacqueline Kennedy was said to have taken Caroline there, I even felt that I was part of New York City’s elite.

The other day I had to waste some time in the neighborhood and decided to revisit Serendipity. It had not been a good day and memories of my past happiness eluded me. I felt bereft. I love my daughter and my grandchildren, I thought, but they are too big and busy to appreciate ice-cream outings! What am I doing here all alone? Serendipity does not even carry decaffeinated coffee! Worse, unbidden, the memories of other ice cream-centered celebrations entered my consciousness.

In 1933, Germany turned ugly. Hitler despised Jews and it had become difficult for my mother to find a school that would accept a Jewish child. Finally the liberal Rudolf Steiner-Waldorf School did. The children were rather tolerant of Ruth Iris and me, their only Jewish classmates. In 1937 we accompanied the class on its annual school trip. When an SS member spotted the two of us at the inn where we were staying overnight, he insisted that we be sent home immediately because he “could not possibly sleep under the same roof as these Jew pigs.”

My parents fortunately owned a car and fetched us in the middle of the night. To console me my mom gave me a generous amount of cash to buy myself an ice cream sundae at Hanover’s beloved Eis Palast (ice cream palace). I did, but could hardly swallow my favorite food. I fervently wished for company with whom to share this adventure. In no way did the ice cream make up for the rejection and humiliation I felt after my ejection from the inn.

My family left Germany for Belgium in 1938; the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940. Two years later my family started hiding in “plain sight.” By then I was old enough to work as a mother’s helper and during the next two years lived with four different families. Food was in very short supply, and ice cream unheard of. My mom learned of a pastry shop that for 50 francs clandestinely served Dame Blanche, i.e. a “black and white” hot fudge sundae. As a very special treat, my mom gave me the money.

Proudly I took myself to the pastry shop on the Rue du Bac in Brussels. The owner of the shop was surprised to see me and quite rightly demanded payment in advance. Knowing that in restaurants one pays after the meal, I was profoundly humiliated. Did the owner think that I was going to defraud her? Would I be caught eating contraband food? I paid up and when I was served that incredible frozen delight I felt awful. As in the Eis Palast in Hanover I felt like an orphan! I cried as I ladled the chocolate and vanilla concoction into my mouth.
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Farewell to David Rockefeller

David Rockefeller

David Rockefeller

One of the pleasures of being a biographer is that one becomes intimate with one’s subjects without really knowing them in the flesh. So it is, after spending five years writing America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and their Astonishing Cultural Legacywith the Rockefellers and me.

In addition to writing the book I have always profited from Rockefeller benevolence. I enjoy the institutions they founded or supported—in America’s Medicis, I identify thirty institutions on which the family left its imprint. I enjoy the lands they donated for me to walk on in New York, Maine, and California. I am grateful for the medical research carried out at Rockefeller University, which improved the world’s health.

I also have some more personal connections. Both David and I own homes—he a substantial one, I a camp—on Mount Desert Island in Maine. I had the pleasure of meeting him on walks on Rockefeller land—he driving his magnificent matched pair of horses, I being led by my poodle; in restaurants; and even in line to use the bathroom at concerts at St. Savior’s Church in Bar Harbor.

David was the youngest and the longest-lived of the five amazing sons of John D. Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. John and Abby somehow managed to bring their children up to be successful, mostly caring human beings even though their grandfather had been the richest man on earth. The boys learned to care about God, the beauty of the world, education and art. As Chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, David managed to enlarge his considerable inherited fortune. He distributed some of it as he went along.

America’s Medicis concentrates on the family’s contribution to America’s art world. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was David’s favorite. Abby co-founded it in 1919 and for decades “Mother’s museum” was Abby’s as well as Nelson Rockefeller’s principal concern. David’s first task for MoMA came in 1953 when he was put in charge of developing the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, one of New York’s most beloved public spaces. The garden fills the lot formerly occupied by the Rockefeller houses on 54th Street. David’s involvement with the museum grew, as did his donations. He assumed the position of chairman of the board in 1962.  Like most museums MoMA often needed more money than it had, and single-handedly managed its finances in such a manner that it could become the mega-museum it is today.

David Rockefeller also assembled a great art collection. It includes work by nineteenth-century French paintings and more modern pieces. In 1968 MoMA was given the opportunity to buy Gertrude Stein’s collection. The museum did not have the funds to acquire it, but recruited five collectors, including Nelson and David Rockefeller, to buy it provided that they would will certain works to the museum. During the sale David acquired eight paintings by Picasso, including Girl with Basket of Flowers and The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro, both of which are destined for MoMA.

In addition to MoMA David had other institutional favorites that benefited from his largesse: Rockefeller University and Harvard University, his alma mater.

Thank you, David Rockefeller.

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Georges Seurat’s Circus Sideshow at the Met

Georges Seurat was a visionary. He applied primary colors in tiny dots, and ended up with unbelievably beautiful novel textures and shades. His technique was based on the theory of the color wheel and as a reaction to the spontaneous, loosely constructed images of the Impressionists. Seurat based his own figures on careful drawings made with a Conté crayon on rough paper, a technique that again resulted in a specific texture. They often look like abstract silhouettes, an impression enhanced in Circus Sideshow, on exhibit at the Met through May 29, by the ethereal illumination provided by the gaslights that line the upper edges of the painting.

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Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque) by Georges Seurat (1887-1888)

In Circus Sideshow, the row of heads of the would-be clients frames the bottom edge of the mesmerizing painting. They wear assorted hats. A trombone player, his fellow musicians, a jester and the ringmaster all try to entice the crowd to pay a few pennies to enter the circus tent and see the actual show, which fills the body of the canvas. The picture is formally constructed, with strong vertical and horizontal divisions.

It is fitting that the Met displays Seurat’s Circus Sideshow in 2017, the last year that Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Brothers’ “Greatest Show on Earth” will tour America. The circus, a word that has become synonymous with chaos and bedlam, is one of humanity’s oldest entertainments. Circus shows have changed little since the late 19th century when Seurat painted the Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque) that depicts the free teaser meant to attract a paying audience.

Seurat’s last painting, The Circus, is a joyous view of the performance inside the tent. Its most important feature is a triumphant woman balanced atop a galloping white stallion. The bleachers, filled with hatted spectators, emphasize the painting’s relationship to the Circus Sideshow.

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The Circus (Le Cirque) by Georges Seurat (1891)

At the time of Seurat’s death in 1891, no French museum owned any of his major paintings. John Quinn, an American lawyer who had assembled an amazing collection of modern paintings, left Seurat’s unfinished Circus to the Louvre when he died in 1924. The rest of Quinn’s collection was dispersed, and its sale may have been a contributing factor to the founding of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929.

At the current Met show, the Circus Sideshow is surrounded by contemporary drawings related to popular circuses and fairs. Many of these are by Seurat himself as well as by Honoré Daumier. There are many relevant posters and related paintings. The most amazing of these is Fernand Pelez’s gigantic Grimaces et Misère: Les Saltimbanques, which gives us a very realistic view of a typical circus troupe with its dwarf, clowns and musicians with their brass instruments. As its title implies, the sad faces of the performers illustrates the tragic aspect of people being amused by misfits.

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Grimaces et misères: les Saltimbanques by Fernand Pelez

Seurat died at just 32 years old, leaving the world seven large paintings and about forty smaller works. His best-known work is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, now owned by the Art Institute of Chicago. Given such a small output it is surprising that his technique—Neo-Impressionism, pointillism or divisionism—exerted a major influence on the future of the art world.

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Planned Parenthood and The Marseillaise: Aux Armes, Citoyens!

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To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions
Let’s march, let’s march
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields

This is the refrain of the Marseillaise, forever the battle-song of oppressed humanities. It was composed by Claude Rouget de Lisle in 1792 shortly before the French Revolution and popularized by a battalion of Marseille soldiers as they marched to Paris to help in overthrowing the aristocracy. It became France’s national anthem.

The song could very well have been sung by us, millions of women in our pussy hats, as we marched on January 21st in Washington, DC and in all of the major American cities.

We marched because the Trump administration is likely to interfere with the progress we have made: wages, medical care, domestic violence legislation, school lunches, and so much more.

We also marched because of the threat to that which has protected women’s health for a century:

Planned Parenthood.

It has helped us to plan our children so that as responsible mothers we could give birth to them whenever we could best care for them.

It is not that women ignored spacing and planning the children they bore before the birth control movement existed. To do so a hundred years ago many women, especially the poor, had to rely on shoddy and self-inflicted abortions. Many died in the process.

In 1916, Margaret Sanger, a nurse who had witnessed many such needless deaths, established a birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. There she taught walk-ins who wanted to learn “how to stop the babies from coming” everything she had learned about reliable birth control methods in Holland. That country had such counseling centers before World War I.

The police closed Sanger’s clinic after a few days and she ended up in jail, where she rapidly befriended her fellow inmates. On March 6, 1917, Margaret Sanger’s prison sentence was up. As she recalled later in her autobiography:

Through the metal doors I stepped and the tingling air beat against my face. No other experience in my life has been like that. Gathered in front of me were my old friends who had frozen through the two hours waiting to celebrate ‘Margaret’s coming out party.’ They lifted their voices in the Marseillaise. Behind them at the upper windows were my new friends…and they too were singing. Something choked me. Something still chokes me whenever I hear that triumphant music and ringing words: ‘Ye sons of freedom wake to glory.’

After prison Margaret Sanger abandoned guerrilla tactics and fought for the right of women to access comprehensive birth control throughout the court. She succeeded, but access has always been a somewhat thorny issue. Only recently has it become part of most healthcare plans.

During his first week in office President Trump is targeting the free birth control provision of the Affordable Care Act. Just as shocking is the fact that he revived the ban on providing foreign aid to groups that provide abortion counseling. Are we going back to unwanted children and self-induced abortions?

We might very well. Anti-abortion, right-to-lifers marched in Washington less than a week after the Women’s March. Their placards defamed Planned Parenthood. They were addressed by Vice President Mike Pence. They are targeting Roe v. Wade, which is the ruling that for decades has given every woman the right to a legal, safe abortion. Women, hurry to the barricades!

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