ETHEL O. - AGE 91
I am the niece of Franz Werfel, German Jewish novelist and poet. The way Americans know him is Song of Bernadette (a 1943 film). He married the former wife of Gustav Mahler. She was brilliant, sexy, sort of like me only sexier!
I grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. I spent most of my childhood walking on the boardwalk and reading poetry. One of my greatest regrets was that I was such a self-absorbed, spoiled girl. I was the last child and the only girl. I was also very musical and literary, and my mother lived through me. I would sit at the piano so-called practicing and I was able to avoid helping her in the kitchen. I was destined, according to her, to be a concert pianist. She had hoped I would go to Vienna to study music but the war intervened.
My apartment was different from anybody elses, very refined. When people came over they would marvel. My mother was very upper class and dogmatic in her taste. She would wear no makeup and wore her hair back in a severe style. I was miserable. I wanted a bleached-blond, lipstick-covered mother with meticulous English. My father was very different. He was an intelligent, hardworking, success-bound person.
My brother, who was the light of my life, was an orthodox rabbi. He was also a socialist and a pacifist. He influenced me more than anyone else in the world. I was a rebel early. I was one of the few girls from an Orthodox family who was sent to Hebrew school. I didnt like it because I couldnt ask any questions. I complained and my mother was devastated. My brother said, if you pay me what you pay the Hebrew school, Ill teach Etti. So he taught me and thats how we became so close. He encouraged questions and explained everything.
I left home when I was very young. My mother died a couple of weeks before I graduated high school. My father married someone else quickly after my mothers death. She made my father move to Williamsburg, Brooklyn and I lived with them for a year in this medieval setting. One day when my father and his wife were both gone, I arranged for a mover. All I had were my books, clothes, and my piano. I had rented a furnished room and moved myself out. I looked for work in the NY Times. I became an English teacher in a Yeshiva working in the afternoon, and going to college in the morning.
I went to Brooklyn College in 1941. The world was in misfortune but I was very fortunate. Many Europeans had fled to the U.S., so the Board of Education grabbed these brilliant intellectuals and they went to Brooklyn College. I had the most amazing group of professors and became very close to many of them. John Paul Morel was my music teacher. He taught me the piano even after he left Brooklyn College.
So I was about to graduate and I wrote to several universities throughout the country telling them about my idea to create a program encompassing all of the humanities. Most universities threw my letter in the wastebasket. However, the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan invited me to come. When I went to the University of Chicago I saw gargoyles and it reminded me of the Cloisters in New York City, which I loved. I felt that this was my home. After getting my masters degree I ended up teaching there; that was the beginning of my teaching career. This was the time of returning veterans, and they were uneducated. The school asked if I could develop a curriculum for a basic humanities course. So I wrote it up and they published a handbook. I eventually became an assistant professor for about three years. I then went to teach at Morehouse College, a school for black men where Martin Luther King, Jr. went to school. They wanted to establish the general humanities course. I wrote the president of Morehouse a letter and said you must know that I am white and Jewish. But he sent me a plane ticket.
Taking this job at Morehouse changed my whole life for the good. I used to not know what it meant to be black in this country. I was as usual the revolutionary. I got my students to love Milton. I gave them hours of homework in poetry. I started an art studio in connection with the course. Each semester the students had to create an original piece of music and painting along with an analysis of their work. I felt like I really changed some of these students lives.
I married one of my students, Major Owens, who later became a congressman in NY. We had three boys but eventually divorced. NY at that time was a hotbed of black fury and pride. It wasnt good for a black man to marry a white woman. Then my husband went into politics, causing further issues.
Its a very lonely life now. I dont find that many people
who enjoy the things I do. I still go to the theater in NYC and I still
drive at night. Sometimes I go with my sons. So I am close to my family,
but they are pretty busy. My only public connection is with the NJ Peace
Action. Walking is not good. I have a balance problem and use a cane when
I remember. I hate having my memory gone! I havent played music
for a while; my fingers are not nimble. But I still teach music to my
granddaughter and I play Christmas carols. The best thing about being
old is that I can see my boys as they have grown into young men. That
is the fruition of my life.
Interview conducted by New Jersey artist Janet Boltax for this exhibition.