ETHEL O. - AGE 91
A verbal and a visual portrait:
“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 else’s, 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 didn’t like it because I couldn’t ask any questions. I complained and my mother was devastated. My brother said, if you pay me what you pay the Hebrew school, I’ll teach Etti. So he taught me and that’s 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 mother’s 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 master’s 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 student’s 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 wasn’t good for a black man to marry a white woman. Then my husband went into politics, causing further issues.
It’s a very lonely life now. I don’t 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 haven’t 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.
IN MY WORDS: AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ETHEL WERFEL OWENS
Born in Brooklyn on May 14, 1923 of Orthodox Jewish parents from Austria-Poland, I was an avid student, piano player, Hebrew School student and voracious reader.
My father was an industrious self-made businessman (owned his own pants factory), and my mother was a great lover of music, sewed her own dresses and curtains, was a puritan about no make-up, a severe hairdo and V-neck dresses, and loved to live near the ocean, and to breathe the air.
My two older brothers rebelled at playing the violin, played baseball, and were good students, as required by Mom. The older of the two, Lou, was my mother’s favorite, a brilliant scholar, a reader, an impressive speaker, and a Rabbinical student. He was also my first great teacher, teaching me Hebrew studies and history, but also asking me questions that taught me critical, analytical thinking. But by far his greatest influence was his idealistic political thinking, which I happily adopted. He was a Socialist and a pacifist, and my future followed that pattern.
After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1945 as a music major, I attended the University of Chicago and received an MA, but also taught Humanities 1 at the undergraduate college (how to appreciate music, literature and art). I left in 1950 to go to California to mountain-climb with the Sierra Club and do folk dancing, but accepted a position at Morehouse College in 1952 to organize and teach a Humanities program such as I had taught at the University of Chicago.
That was the beginning of my growing-up. I learned about racism and the South, and, of course, rebelled against it. My teaching and the rigorous homework it entailed, was resisted at first by students who were ill-prepared and knew it, but brilliant and didn’t really know it. Even the Ford Scholars who had been plucked from their southern Black high schools to be immersed in college courses early did not really believe in their intellectual capacity being equal to the University of Chicago students I had formerly taught.
But soon that changed. My students not only excelled in literature and music and art studies, but were also creative in those fields. An active Arts Club we formed produced three issues of our PHOENIX magazine of poetry which received critical acclaim.
In 1955, I went to the University of Puerto Rico, where I taught English Literature in the Basico Inglese Department and gave seminars in the other arts for faculty and students.
In 1956 I married Major Owens, the most brilliant of my students at Morehouse, and in 1957 we spent a year on scholarship in Europe, traveling and studying in Paris.
In 1959 our first son, Christopher, was born and we moved to Brooklyn and, because housing for an interracial couple was impossible in those days, we bought our beautiful brownstone for $13,500 on a shoestring! There followed another son, Geoffrey, in 1961, and still another, Millard, in 1964.
All this while Major was a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library, but was also working on civil right and community issues with Brooklyn CORE and Metropolitan Council on Housing. Eventually, he turned to politics, and ran unsuccessfully for City Council, and then successfully for [the New York State Senate and] the U.S. Congress.
Our boys went to college – Christopher to Harvard, Geoffrey and Millard to Yale – but our marriage could not survive the politics and we divorced in the 70s [CORRECTION: The divorce actually happened in 1987, but Ethel and Major first separated in 1974.]
I then moved to Connecticut where Mitty was at school and, years later, to Montclair, NJ, to live with my second son, Geoffrey, after he left California.
Over the years, my family and I have traveled much – to Europe, to Japan, [China, Thailand], and to Africa several times. Millard volunteered to work in Zimbabwe for six months one year, and I joined him for a whole summer, traveling to Kenya and Tanzania and [end of document].