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May 10, 2015
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May 12, 2015

LYDS – An Intimate Biography

President Nixon’s ‘Jewish Gypsy,’ Goodwill Ambassador to the World

LYDIA LEVINSON

Born:   May 22, 1910
Died:   October 14, 1993

An appreciation written by her son, Joel,
and read by Rabbi Waintrup at her funeral
on Sunday, October 17, 1993.

If you tried to follow her pointing arthritic index finger, you’d likely be in trouble. Her hand pointed in one direction, the finger in the other. Teased about the ambiguity, she would chuckle, for she likely knew that her hand and finger were the signposts of her life. You couldn’t always trust everything she said, but it’s likely you remembered her utterances. She was an original – from her hair which once went from orange to purple when she went to art school at middle age, to her clothes which she personalized with the help of a seamstress. Purple and orange were also her favorite colors for the bands she added to shirtsleeves and cuffs. Her humor was oftentimes self-deprecating; hilariously so! Other times her ‘straight’ comments had an equally humorous import as when she told her lung doctor that one of her problems is that she breathes out, then in, while everyone else breathes in, then out.

She was the champion of the down-trodden, bringing home the homeless and the mentally ill, long before concerns of this sort were popular. She was generous, as if money had no value to her – and it may not have. She gifted strangers and made loans to friends, acquaintances and family members with no real determination to have them repaid. She was always there to help, to boost, to raise one’s vision upward and inward. Over time, however, she sometimes became a bit insistent. Nevertheless, her love remained constant.

Her first marriage to my father can be characterized as that of a bohemian, free-spirited waif to a good but rather conservative man who did not swim in the same currents as she. After their divorce, and her triumph over medical problems which brought her near to death, she traveled around the world in freighters bringing her unusual style of carefree gaiety, goodwill, and self-deprecating humor to people from all walks of life. Neither one’s station in life, nor race, nor religion, nor age, were barriers to her. She was one of the world’s oddest self-appointed ambassadors of human affection. When she finally had a car of her own, one of her first drives was to an orphanage to take some children for a ride. Her home on Glen Echo Road was a frequent refuge to the homeless and dispossessed.

Her second love was Philip Hazen Chase, a delightful Frenchman who was related to and worked for the DuPonts. A man of impeccable manners and polished social graces, he was, at the advanced age he met her, no longer entranced by the values of high society. Never married, he was deeply attracted to her non-conforming, unpredictable ways. She brought him back to life and in turn, he left her his possessions and some funds that made her life in later years not only comfortable, but enabled her to become a giver of gifts and very loose loans to relatives, friends and strangers.

The last man in her life, John Stone, was made for her. He oftentimes sat in shadows, spoke little, sometimes wore her hat, and occasionally carried her purse. He was a sad and lonely person whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust. They had traveled around North America, flying in John’s tiny old plane, or drove around visiting friends in their camper. She was greeted with open arms but soon had to be off to another state and another friend. The mother in Lydia, and the lost and wounded child in him, coupled with the vagabond in both, kept them together until his death.

She had gay times sprinkled within a life that was not altogether happy and fulfilling. Her sharp and inventive intelligence warranted a college education. But like her father, she was mostly self-taught and also like he, she was an atheist. But in the last few years she expressed some doubts about her doubts, and it was the assumption of some that she was hedging her bets and wanted to make sure the pearly gates would open for her. But if they were not open on arrival, it is one of life’s certainties that she would have arranged to chat for a few moments with God (if there is one). With one of his eyebrows raised in disbelief at this woman’s charm, fearless persistence, and unbounded vitality, he would, in short order, be entranced by the irresistible twinkle in her eyes and her probing questions about his up-bringing and her delightfully expressed suggestions that He (or She) spend some time with a therapist-so he could really be a happy person. And, if he needed a loan, well . . .

If her arrival is not already being prepared with trumpets, Lydia will find someone to open the gates; that was always her talent. Most likely however, she’ll return for a few more chats with us imperfect angels on earth . . . so prepare.


 

LYDIA LEVINSON

 

Lydia (or as her friends called her, Lyds) was gregarious, insecure, a reformer, and a healer. She was easy to laugh, easy to forgive, unconventional, idealistic, and hyper-sensitive to both real and imagined physical discomfort. Lyds was always urging a balanced life for my brother and me in ways both sensible and curious; if you walked up the stairs facing the steps, you had to descend facing in the same direction. As you will discover below, she was disarming, intrepid, free spirited, energized, and off-beat. She was also courageous, as in her decision to end her life; not violently, but as American Indians are reported to have done. She just stopped eating. But even that act was mixed in the last moments of her life with second thoughts that were both heartbreaking and humorous. That event will be told below.

HER LIFE

Lyds was born at home on a Sunday, May 22, 1910 at Orianna and George Streets in Philadelphia. David Wasserman, her father (who I called Papa), was born in 1883 in Simferopol, a city on the Crimean Peninsula overlooking the Black Sea. Mom’s mother’s name was Sonia Ureshefsky, which she changed to Wasserman. Sonia was born in Odessa in 1875. She had been married before, for 10 years, to what Lyds descibed as a first class tailor. According to Lyds, they divorced because they had no children.

In Russia at that time, Jewish children could not go to school beyond the fourth grade. However, a priest met David walking on the street and not surprisiningly if you knew my grandfather, a conversation must have ignited. David said he liked to read and wished for more education. The priest said David could come to his classes but must never reveal he was Jewish. Today, I thank that priest for initiating a family thirst for learning and curiosity. At nineteen, David Wasserman was drafted into the Russian army but escaped to Austria for two years with his best friend, Boris Kieselstein, who later married Sonia’s sister Clara in America.

David had not wanted children because he felt the world was not fit for them, but he ended up marrying a woman who divorced in order to have children. In Philadelphia Sonia and David lived in a one room apartment, Sonia toiling at a sewing machine while David made straw suitcases, a skill he learned in Austria. His hours weaving straw by hand may account for his slightly misshapen thumbs with their articulated and protruding knuckles at the spot where thumb joins hand. This trade may also account for the deliberate and fastidious way he folded twine which, when I was a young boy, always captivated me. Being creatures who silently learn by watching, I too have always felt compelled to carefully loop string and rope and wire like my grandfather. With money saved from sewing and fabricating suitcases they bought a general store at Orianna and George. Their house was attached to the store and they had tenants to make ends meet.

Ethel was their first child and Lydia was their second and last child. Some years later an embryo was tragically aborted. Lydia remembers her mother always working and even making the clothes that Lyds and Ethel wore growing up. This may explain my mother’s lifelong interest in altering her own clothes and later having them altered by seamstresses; a connection to a mother she lost at a very young age. Sonia died of peritonitis resulting from a self inflicted abortion using a button hook; her leg was amputated and her tongue became paralyzed and Lydia believes that the hemangioma she (Lydia) had in later years, resulted from her identification with her mother’s paralyzed tongue.

Lyds remembers her father going to get produce for the store in a large reed basket. She always wanted to go with him. On one occasion, he said go back and get a handkerchief; he would wait. Perhaps suspecting he was trying to fool her and be off on his own, she walked backwards to keep sight of him, but just after seeing him turn the corner without her, she fell backwards into an open bulkhead basement door, bumping her head on each step and landing finally in a coal bin. (I had a similar fall down basement steps, which I will be recounting in my website autobiography). When he recounted this story for me, she wanted me to feel her head and in fact there are some indentations in the back of her skull. This she described as her first major disappointment with her father.

It bothered Lydia that Ethel alone was given piano lessons. Lydia felt and continued to feel throughout her life that Ethel was the apple of their father’s eye. Lydia believes that David did not want a second child except if it had been a boy. She remembered that her father asked her mother to make boy’s clothes for Lydia to wear for a photograph. My sense is that wearing those boy’s clothes was deeply traumatic for my mother and may have led to some later-in-life gender confusion or at least mild gender insecurity. This was likely amplified when she had her breasts removed as a young adult. Lydia was sent to kindergarten when she was three.

It might have been that because Sonia’s family was over-zealously religious or because Sonia had died and he was no longer able to cope alone, but David sent Ethel and Lydia to the religiously non-affiliated Ferrer Modern School in Stelton, NJ; Lydia was 7-1/2 at the time and stayed there till she was ten. This was during the first world war. David moved to New York when he put Lydia and Ethel in that boarding school. He boarded with friends there and bought himself a paper route. He visited his cheldren, but less and less as time passed, partly due to the fact that he had met Fanny, the woman who would become his second wife. He was in his thirties, she was older. Boarding charges at the school proved too expensive, so the kids moved in with one of the teachers (Peggy Vinick) and did work there for half of their keep. Lydia told me that she had more chores than Ethel and that Peggy Vinick found Ethel beautiful. This sounds like the sibling rivalry and jealousy I had with my much more good-looking older brother, Hillel.

Based on the educational model established in Spain by Francisco Ferrer, who was executed in 1909 on charges of fomenting revolt, the Modern Schools movement rejected everything that other schools of that time had espoused. In place of the traditional classroom, with its authoritarian structure and emphasis on rote learning, examinations, discipline, and corporeal punishment, Modern Schools established mixed-age classes that encouraged children to learn by doing. They were taught practical skills and crafts, along with more scholarly subjects. Modern Schools emphasized children’s freedom to develop their own potential at their own pace. One of Lydia’s teachers was Mrs. Nellie Dick who was still alive at the age of 98 in 1991 and who was written up in the New York Times. The quotes in this paragraph are taken from that 12-1-91 article. “Mrs. Dick was a Russian-born Jew who came to New York via England…and spoke of her sister sitting on Lenin’s lap and of members of her family fighting the Russian Revolution of 1917. Mrs. Dick joined the movement when she was 17. Stelton was referred to as “the anarchists’ school,” Mrs. Dick said, because it resembled a commune or kibbutz, in which, families lived and worked together, the roads were dirt, and the classrooms were dusty and without books. (Lydia confirmed this). “We had anarchists, communists, socialists and vegetarians all in one school, but we managed to keep the peace Mrs. Dick said.”

After Fanny and Papa got married (or began living together) they moved to Stelton and he worked at a cooperative grocery store. Eventually, Papa bought a three story house at 5006 Wayne Avenue in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. The house had a grocery store and dining room on the first floor and Ethel and Lydia ran deliveries at lunch time and after school. Lydia recalls there were roaches and bedbugs. Maybe she grww fond of living with roaches because there were roaches (large black water bugs) in the house she later made for Hilly and me and her husband Abe. There were loads of them that scrambled out of kitchen drawers in the middle of night when one went down for a snack, and a whole family of roaches that ran all over Joel’s head and shoulders one evening when I carried a role of my architectural drawings downstairs to show someone. Lyds told me that Fanny washed their heads with kerosene to get rid of the ‘cooties,’ which were the lice that infected many school age children back then. Ethel and Lyds went to the Edward H. Fitler school at Seymour and Knox streets. Lyds loved to recall the School’s theme song: “F stands for fearlessness, I for integrity, T for Truthfulness, L for loyalty, Rah, Rah, Rah.; E stands for earnestness, R for all the rest.  F-I-T-L-E-R: our Fitler is the best, she would sing.

At this location Lydia went to the Happy Hollow playground and remembers these times as among the most pleasant in her life. On one May Day she said, she was in six dances, including the Maypole along with folk dancing from many countries. She made reed and raffia butterfly trays under glass. She remembered Miss Crispin who did a lot to make her feel she was somebody. She told me it was the first time time in her life she recalls feeling like somebody; “her father and Fanny never did”. First female pitcher on the baseball team. They lived three years there, from Mom’s age of ten to thirteen.

Then the family moved to 4506 Fifth street across from Nevel Hosiery Mill. Lydia lived there for two years (the family stayed). Because, Lydia said, Fanny didn’t like Ethel, Papa wrote to Peggy Vinik in Stelton to ask if Lydia could live with her which Lydia did. Ethel moved in with the Griskan family, good friends of the (Wasserman?) family.

At twenty, Lydia had a marriage-like relationship with Charles V. Schuyler which lasted about six months. Schuyler picked Mom up in Kensington where she worked as a dental assistant for William Lord Battersby, a dentist. Based on family reports, Schulyer was an alcoholic, came from a family of anti-Semites, and had a drinking problem. Ethel and Papa were against the relationship from the beginning. This was about 1930.

Lydia had her breast operation when she was eighteen. She had mastitis, swollen glands. John and Harry Deaver were her surgeons. Lydia said they were always drunk and very handsome.

Lydia was living with Mildred Richman and her sister and mother when Lydia met Abe. They met at the Dell, Lydia having gone with Bea and Lester Glass. Abe was wearing a white linen jacket, appearing (my mother said) to have just stepped out of the shower. She said he looked neat but not necessarily handsome. During the intermission, Lydia asked Bea if she would dare her to go over to Abe to sell some soap. Lydia was working for Gimbels at the time and there was a contest awarding the person who sold the most soap a trip to the Caribbean. Although Abe showed no feelings, he and Lydia were married by a Justice of the Peace prior to their religious marriage. They had no sex for the year they went together before marrying, except on one occasion where the sex was very quick and at which Lydia thought she conceived because Abe’s condom fell off. Lydia had typhoid fever for six weeks while they were courting and Dad came every day to see her. She was in very bad shape and on many days, delirious. Then she went to a convalescent home where she met a Barry who Abe also knew. Dad was jealous of Barry and ultimately thought that Lydia had become pregnant by Barry, because Dad could not understand how Lydia could have become pregnant with Dad if he was wearing a condom. Most people, Lydia feels, saw her as flirtatious but she didn’t see that because she was so insecure because of her breast operation. To me (Joel) Lydia may have been looking for confirmation of her attractiveness to men because she doubted her own womanliness, given that her breasts were removed. Mom was twenty six when she married Abe.

In 1995 Martin Kramer told jl that Papa Wasserman used to take Ethel and Lydia to lectures at the Ethical Society which may not have been too far from their house in Center City.

In 1995 Marty told me that when he and Ethel came to the house, Mom (Lydia) never had forks or spoons, so they used to bring their own. Also Marty married Ethel when she was about 19 at which time Lydia was 18. Lydia was living first w/ Ethel and Marty, then Lydia left and went to live w/ Charlie. Marty went over and pulled her out of Charlie’s house and she lived with them for several years. Marty feels that Lydia never knew what a wife should be. He believed that Fannie and Papa had a common law marriage. Eana was Fannie’s niece, not her daughter. Seth Hoffman was a cousin of Ethel and Lydia. His charcoal of a woman carrying a load of wood up a road hangs on the dining room wall at Marty’s.

Lydia told jl that she feels that the theme of her life is STUPIDITY. She has had a very low image of herself. However she sees herself as having a lot of kindness for all people.

Mom saw Emma Goldman, an anarchist at rallies according to Aaron?

She called Aaron, her grandson, when he was at the New School for Social Research to report that there was a bomb in the State House. Her comment: ‘The Revolution has begun.’

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