Christmas 2017: A Walk Along Fifth Avenue

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The world is a mess. Washington is concocting a disastrous tax plan, we’re confronting the reality of widespread horrible sexual behavior by men, North Korea is rattling long-range nuclear missiles, and Trump meddles in Middle Eastern politics. Nevertheless, New York’s Fifth Avenue spruced itself up for the holidays. Lord and Taylor, the southern-most outpost of my Christmas window walk, has three major tableaux and many small ones. I loved the tiny skaters encircled by taxis with Christmas trees strapped onto their roof. The scene is silhouetted against buildings reminiscent of a clock-topped Grand Central Station and of the Chrysler building. I also liked L&T’s winter forest, where raccoons and the like snuggle in the crevasses of a giant tree. A large, spectacled rabbit seems worried. He might very well be, and so am I. The relentless attacks from Amazon, Land’s End and other giant online retailers are forcing familiar department stores to downsize. Are these the last Christmas windows from L&T, the pride of Fifth Avenue?

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Wistfully I remember when, as a young mother, I spent my occasional child-free afternoon savoring the glamour of these retail palaces. They were a welcome contrast to the cloth diapers I was dealing with at home. Now I ducked into L&T and picked up a few holiday gifts, noting with both pleasure and dismay that most everything was on sale a full three weeks before Christmas. Were the prices inflated to begin with or is the economy bad?

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I proceeded uptown, stopping at Cartier, whose windows were filled with diamonds and tiny doormen figurines wearing old-fashioned uniforms. Saks Fifth Avenue celebrates the eightieth anniversary of Walt Disney’s film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Carabosse, the bad witch who tries to kill the heroine with a poisoned apple, was so repulsive-looking that one had to feel sorry for her. Never mind. I enjoyed listening to parents retelling the familiar fairy tale to a new generation.

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At the northern end of my walk, Bergdorf-Goodman’s windows featured New York’s cultural institutions. I was amused by the dinosaur skeletons outlined in rhinestones—the store’s interpretation of the Museum of Natural History—the glowing musical instruments that characterize the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and the treasures and ephemera that illustrate the New York Historical Society.

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At last I came to Dolce and Gabbana, a newcomer to Fifth Avenue. As I was salivating over the glazed cookies and fruit that filled their windows, I realized that their food-laden table was an exception. Most of the 2017 Christmas displays had been devoid of their usual surfeit of sugary treats. Indeed, carbs, refined sugars and gluten are out of favor, and fats, especially the “healthy” extra-virgin olive oil or “EVOO,” are in. And yet, fats have not replaced the sweets in the Christmas windows this year. Perhaps the window designers did not consider that consecrated olive oil is the heart of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light and freedom. The holiday celebrates the victory of the rebel Maccabees over King Antiochus IV of Syria. The Jerusalem temple had to be rededicated, and there was only enough holy oil to light the eternal lamp for a day. Miraculously it lasted for eight days, allowing the priests enough time to replenish the supplies. May America’s freedom miraculously survive dark times and the assaults it is subjected to!

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I am happy to report that the entrance to Trump Tower, at the intersection of 57th and Fifth Avenue, has calmed down as our president flits between Washington, Florida, New Jersey, and the rest of the world. I hope that both New York and I will be well enough a year from now for me to take my customary walk.

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At Home on Echo Lake

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For the past half-century, my husband of 67 years and I have spent our summers on Echo Lake in Somesville, Maine. This year we wondered whether we would make it. My spouse is not well, and I too have medical issues. Could we stand the 500-mile trip from Brooklyn to Mount Desert Island? Would carrying drinking water from the town water supply to our cottage be too much for us? Our granddaughter Naomi would drive us to Maine, but we worried whether we could drive our 20-year-old Malibu once we got there. The prospect of recharging our internal batteries in Maine, however, won out, and we left in mid-July.

One wintry day in February 1968, my husband and I bought our Maine “camp.” The former rental cottage was kind of decrepit, but it had great bones. It sits on a rise above Echo Lake, fronted by granite rocks, moss and blueberry bushes. It has a magnificent view. Ernest Richardson, its owner and builder, had equipped it with a majestic granite fireplace. Its name, Judy—also that of our teenage daughter—was a good omen.

I immediately felt at home in the small towns that surrounded me, though my new neighbors were totally foreign to my western European, Second World War background. Perhaps our bond was our shared love for the beauty of nature, the quiet lakes, the ruggedness of the mountains, and the wildness of the rocky coast. Perhaps it was that they, like me, believed that money and success are dwarfed by contentment with life. Or perhaps my Maine neighbors did think that I was odd after all, and I simply did not notice it.

We usually arrived in Maine at the beginning of June—just in time for the black flies, the bloom of the lady slippers, lilacs and lupines, the lobster picnic of the Footloose Friends hiking group, the library’s strawberry festival, and the first play of the Acadia Repertory Theater. Soon after we arrived, we would settle into on our regular hiking and swimming routines.

Not this year. We missed the blooms and the festivities. We started out by visiting many doctors and the Somesville Rehabilitation Center. In this age of regimented, indifferent medicine, both were excellent and pleasant. My physical activity had declined, and I spent a lot of time at home on Echo Lake. I also neglected my computer; this is the only blog I wrote during my very pleasurable summer.

Once more I fell in love with my “camp,” now a comfortable dwelling that, in spite of doubling in size, has retained its old charm. It perfectly suits my needs and personality. Over the years, we added a deck and two rooms, and remodeled the kitchen and baths. We pierced the walls and roofs with picture windows and skylights. From every window we have wonderful views. When I raise my eyes above my computer, I encounter the gyrating leaves of an oak tree that grew from an acorn I threw there more than thirty years ago. From the floor, where I do yoga and other exercises, I see sun-lit maple leaves intermixed with evergreens. Out front I view Echo Lake, whose mood changes from placidly calm to angry and white-capped.

Summerhouses are dumping grounds for items one does not quite know what to do with in one’s primary residence. In our home, one of these is a family flag that my mother sewed in 1932. It marks an important piece of our history: the flag identified a sandcastle we occupied that year on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Our flag featured my favorite toys; the neighboring sandcastles flew swastikas.

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For some still unfathomable reason, our Echo Lake cottage harbors monogrammed towels that at one point belonged to ancestors born in Europe more than a hundred years ago. Several fancy linen face towels are marked IMM: Isaac and Mathilde Mayer, my great-great-grandparents who married in Frankfurt, Germany around 1865. My favorite dishtowel is red and white. Its exact function, Tellertuch (cloth for dinner plates), is woven into its border. Its initials read HSS: Heinrich and Selma Schwarzhaupt, my great-aunt and uncle. My mother’s towels are marked GB: Gretel Bamberger. Maybe they were used separately from those marked GBH, for both my mother and my father Hugo. My grandmother-in-law’s reads AW (Anna Weiner). I ask myself: how did these household goods end up at Echo Lake—surviving the Holocaust as well as emigration to Belgium, England, Israel and finally America?

There are many other mementos: an olive wood bowl my mother brought back from Italy in 1935, the skeleton of a saguaro cactus I found during a business trip to Arizona, a nude sculpture my deceased son made in college, water bottles my grandchildren took to day camp at the College of the Atlantic, copies of the books I wrote and published, as well as manuscripts of books that did not get published… a whole lifetime.

In September, it is time for me to pack up the cottage. I am deeply grateful to it. I arrived in America in 1946. The present refugee crisis reawakens me to the reality that I used to be one myself: trudging the roads of Belgium in 1940, hiding from the Germans during the Holocaust, stateless until the U.S. offered me citizenship. For a variety of reasons—incredible luck, an inborn positive personality—my childhood experiences did not cripple me. I have had a full, shall I dare to say “normal,” life. My fifty summers in Maine helped me feel at home.

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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

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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

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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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