December 1, 2014

The Girls of Atomic City

   When I was in college my friend Jim invited me to his home and introduced me to his aunt. Over a glass of scotch, “because it’s five o’clock somewhere,” she regaled us with her experiences as an engineer on the railroad during World War II, when women filled jobs previously held by men in order to help the war effort. I had never heard this description of the war—both of my parents served in the military. I was gratified to hear that women’s prospects had, at one time, been more exciting than mine were at that point. She concluded with a glib, “Of course, when the men came home we gave them back their jobs.”

     This was in the days before the women’s movement had taken hold, but my sensitivities to my second-class status were already on the alert.

     “THEIR jobs!” I screamed silently inside my head. “Their jobs! Why weren’t they YOUR jobs?”

     Being a proper Southerner I did not utter my challenge out loud, but that moment engraved itself on my consciousness: a revelation about women’s possibilities and further evidence of our unbalanced society. I was reminded of that event recently when I read Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City, which relates the stories of women like Jim’s aunt who seized opportunity and made their contributions to ending the war. The “girls” (and some of them were girls) of Atomic City moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, before Oak Ridge, Tennessee even existed. The stories of these women, as told by Kiernan, are also the history of the secretive community created to work on “The Product.”

     The society at Oak Ridge reflected life in America at that time: It was segregated: black women like Kattie Strickland lived in quarters segregated from whites, left their children behind in Alabama to be raised by their grandmothers, and held menial jobs. It was social: the community provided an active social life with dances, bowling alleys, movies, and clubs. Some, like secretary Celia Szapka, leak pipe inspector Colleen Rosen, and statistician extraordinaire Jane Greer, met the men they would marry.

     The society was also different from the rest of America: Women slogged through mud to get to work, often carrying their shoes until they reached their workplace. They lived in a secret society, unable to speak about their work, even to others on “The Reservation.” Many of the women had jobs they would not have been offered on the outside, like Virginia Spivey, a chemist who analyzed “The Product,” guessing its content, but not its potential use. Like all those working at Oak Ridge, her position was so compartmentalized that she (and all the other women and men) did not know what “The Project” was, until the bomb exploded over Japan. 

     This is a wonderfully written book, with personal stories, exalting the achievements of women without touting them, and discussing the science behind the project in understandable terms. It also demonstrates how women seized opportunity when it was presented. I think Jim’s aunt would be tickled at women’s progress and would raise her martini glass in salute.

November 3, 2014

Women Movie Producers

I almost missed the most intriguing story in the October 10 issue of Entertainment Weekly. The cover drew my attention to Katy Sagal’s “Don’t you DARE!” look. Then, in the foreground, I stared into the squint in Charlie Hunnam’s eyes and noted the smoke from the flaming bottle in his hand that appears likely to singe the tattoo off his arm at any minute. Only then did I notice the letters in large white type superimposed on their bodies.  “Sons of Anarchy!” it read, with a large exclamation mark after it, although I’m still not sure why it merited an exclamation mark. It took a second look before I saw the teaser at the top of the magazine, in smaller white letters, “The Women who Really Run Hollywood.”

Nicole Sperling, the writer of the story, proclaims that women producers have been successful in Hollywood. The list of movies made by women producers is impressive and includes some stars: Kathleen Kennedy, who learned the business while working with Steven Spielberg, was nominated for an Oscar eight times; Megan Ellison finances risky projects, like Zero Dark Thirty and American Hustle; Darla K. Anderson is the highest grossing producer, on average, among both men and women.

Proclaiming “success” at this point, however, might be questionable. According to Sperling, although women represent only 18 percent of producers in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, “since 1973, 65 Best Picture nominees have listed at least one woman as a credited producer.” I did the math and that means that 28% of the movies nominated had a woman producer. While this means that the percentage of nominations exceeds the percentage of women in the business, it is still a dismal statistic. And the numbers are even worse for cinematographers, writers, and directors.

This makes me wonder. What would happen if women stopped paying for movies unless women were involved in the production of the film? That would make the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Our action could be labeled anarchy and that would indeed deserve an exclamation mark!

October 13, 2014

Vienna and Beyond

Vienna was bookended by two fabulous meals. The first night we ate tafelspitz at Plachutta’s restaurant. This is a dinner of boiled meat served with horseradish. For our version, the meal came to the table in the pot. First you ladle out a bowl of the broth and crispy vegetables, accompanied by the marrow that you scrape from the bones in the pot and spread on black bread. Then you remove the meat from the pot, the cut chosen by the customer from a diagram of the cow on the menu. There is also a pot of potatoes and this is accompanied with chive cream and horseradished applesauce for the meat. We shared one meal and still had leftovers.

We also made an afternoon jaunt to the Sacher Hotel to have the “original” sacher torte. We did, however, resist the menu at one restaurant that included Altwiener Kaiserschmarrn, translated on the menu as “Old Viennese Rubbish with homemade stewed apricots.”

It was such a relief to find that the churches in Vienna venerate the saints and not the archbishops as in Salzburg. Perhaps all archbishops were saints in past centuries? Even if I believed that, it was disconcerting to see archbishops staring out from the side altars rather than saints. The wealth of the Church always overwhelms me, but the wealth of the archbishops in Salzburg seemed to be a special case. They lived like royalty, even ruling the town openly like little kings.  

We made side trips to Budapest and Prague. Usually we prefer to be in a city for a time to “feel” the city. This time we popped in and out, assuming we might not have another chance to visit these cities, something I hope we don’t do again. There was more travel time than touring time. It also made us think that our reluctance to go on organized tours might be justified. “In just a few minutes,” the tour guide says, from the front of the bus, “we will pass a beautiful church, built in the [fill in the blank] century. Get your cameras ready. Okay, now! Snap a picture!” And the bus never slows down.

Old Budapest
Historic Prague

One of the highlights of Vienna was touring the opera house. There are tickets priced for everyone and individual translators at every seat. The tickets range in price from 150 euros down to a few euros for a standing-room-only ticket the day of the performance. One traveler we met said that he had paid three euros for a place in the standing balcony. “There are rails,” he said, “so you don’t feel like you’re off-balance or anything.” Or you can choose to watch the opera for free. A giant screen outside the opera house broadcasts the performance inside.   

Outdoor Screen at Opera House

Individual Translators at Opera Seats

I was struck by the fact that the opera company assures that all citizens have an opportunity to attend, regardless of ability to pay. But then, this is not surprising when you learn that the opera house was one of the first buildings rebuilt after the bombings by the allies during World War II destroyed so much of the city.

I did find it amusing that the citizens protested loudly about how modern the building was when it was rebuilt. In my mind I compared it to the Palau de la Musica in Barcelona that we visited last year, and I chuckled.  

Grand Entry at Vienna Opera House

Grand Entry at Palau de la Musica in Barcelona

For me, this trip instilled a fascination with Maria Theresa, the only Habsburg woman to rule in the three centuries the dynasty was in power. She ruled for forty years, fighting wars while promoting commerce. In addition she gave birth to sixteen children, thirteen of them surviving beyond infancy. She used her daughters to form alliances with other realms, the most famous perhaps being the marriage of Maria Antonia (re-named Marie Antoinette by the French). She did play favorites, however. She preferred Maria Christina and allowed her to marry the man she loved, although even she married well.   

Vienna is a city of musicians. It was a magnet for Mozart, Johann Strauss, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Wagner, Brahms and Schöenberg, to name but a few. Even my beloved Vivaldi came here to find fame and fortune. Unfortunately, he found neither and died here a pauper. Because my book on Vivaldi does not include his death I had not planned to do any research here, but the universe provides. While walking around one day we found a plaque marking the place where he had lived.

The night before we flew home, we went to Grieschenbeisl, a restaurant that has been on the same spot since 1447. It is a place that has always attracted artists and politicians. On one wall you can find signatures written by Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, Mark Twain and Johnny Cash. For some reason, we wound up in a room where every table, except for ours and one other, was filled with women, in twos, threes, fours, even singles. I’m not sure why we are placed there but I felt very comfortable. We ordered wiener schnitzel. When I gasped at the size, one of the women dining alone tittered at my response. The plates were huge and we should have shared as we did with the Tafelspitz. Now we are home, savoring memories as we did the food.

Sentinel for the General's Belvedere in Vienna 

Raison d'Etre for our Trip this Year

Some of the readers of this blog do not know my husband, Gary Zimmerman, so I will introduce him to you. A retired chemistry professor and university CEO, he spends his retirement running a genealogy library. In addition he has some personal clients and one of those decided not only to research his family, but to learn more about the story of the ancestor for whom he is named. He engaged others to assist him and Gary was one of those contributors.

The ancestor is Dr. Michael Berolzheimer who managed to leave Bavaria just days before the Nazis came to demand his passport. He had been fortunate enough to move some of his art to the United States, but much more of it was confiscated by the Nazis. Efforts have been underway to restore the art and there has been some success. The documentation of Dr. Michael’s life resulted in a book and that book was launched into the world at the Jewish Museum in Munich.

We were fortunate, along with family members, art restoration experts, authors, researchers, and others to be present for that event. It was an immense blessing and I hope to uncover the layers of meaning as I write more about this event. The participants were from all over the country and the world. The book launch was preceded and followed by time at Dr. Michael’s home in Bavaria (which is now a wonderful bed and breakfast owned by a German bank). The combination of accents and outlooks that were joined together in this endeavor was almost magical. It serves as an example of how connected we all are, how much we all have in common, and how easy it is to connect with people you barely know if you just sit at table with them.

September 30, 2014


You have to love a city where they serve prosecco with salami and pickles for breakfast.

And bake bread into musical shapes.

Salzburg is a charming city under any circumstances, devoted to Mozart and his fellow musicians,
Even the Archbishop Dresses for the Festival

but we happened to arrive for St. Rupert’s Festival, a celebration of the patron saint and founder of the city. His feast day is celebrated in Austria on September 24 (although it is celebrated in March in much of the rest of the Roman Catholic Church).

The festival takes over the city on one side of the river. Booths of craftsmen, vendors, and food are stuffed into all the squares. Beer gardens bloom in every open space; carnival rides and games are squeezed in as well.

Musicians play everywhere.

And beer arrives by the wagonload.

Beer and music often mix

That's the conductor on the stage with the mug.

Many people who attend the festival wear
lederhosen and dirndls. Whole families are decked out in the traditional clothing. Little girls wear their aprons over their skirts, mature young women wear tighter (and lower) blouses, and older women wear refined wool jackets over their traditional skirts. Men of all ages wear lederhosen of varying lengths; even boy scouts wear them for the festival.

Small children look like dolls in their outfits. One toddling boy concentrated on his feet, perhaps wondering why it was more difficult to walk in his leather pants; one little girl pulled up her skirt, revealing her diaper. I met one woman who confessed to buying lederhosen for her three-month old son, “because it looks good.”

Me, trying to decide if I can eat the Whole Thing

The city is filled with painted eggs (real ones).

They even sell plain eggs, already blown and cleaned for you. Since I collect eggs I thought I should buy one. I was especially taken with the one that had ladybugs glued to the egg, surrounded by flowers. Then I wondered how I would get it home and didn’t buy it. And then I saw the egg with the teddy bear (which I also collect) playing a musical instrument. It came home in an egg carton in the top of my purse. Fortunately, it made it intact. They are intended for Easter egg trees, but mine will join the other 118 bears on my Christmas tree. 

September 22, 2014


We traveled to Bavaria for a very special event, one I must absorb and turn over in my mind before I write about it. As part of that voyage back in history, we spent four days in the Bavarian Alps. Here’s a short photo journal of that trip.

We stopped in Mittenwald, where the violin trade was practiced in Bavaria. They claim to be the first violin center that organized their sales as well as production. Eventually, however, the sales people took over the operation, leaving the violinmakers as employees, without the respect and control of artisans in other parts of Europe.

Ye Old Violin Shoppe

One day the other people in our party went on a hike and I remained behind. For lunch, I sat outside, eating venison goulash with cranberries and dumpling and drinking apfel schorle. This is the view of Alpspitze from my table. The mountain felt so close I thought I might be able to reach out and flick the few wispy clouds off its shoulder. I resisted the urge as I was afraid it might break the magic of the moment.

Alpspitze in Untergrainau

 We made a trip to the top of Zugspitze, the tallest peak in Germany. A cable takes you straight up the side of the mountain, and I do mean straight. Then we came down the mountain on a cogwheel train that wended its way downhill through a long tunnel. German engineers are fearless.

The route up on the cable car is shown on this map--the red line that goes straight up the mountain.

Here is a look back at the cables we took up the mountain, gleaming in the sun.

For someone who’s squeamish about heights and tunnels, it was a feat of courage. But, oh, it was worth it!

Alps from the Top of Zugspitze

Alpine Crags

Alps from the Austrian Side

Alpine Sunbathing

We spent several days with a group of people from all over the world and stayed in an ancestral home called Huegel am Weg (literally: Hill on the Way). This a view from our window.

The Bavarian Alps are not complete without a trip to Mad Ludwig’s Castle.

Can everyone say “Disneyland?”

This is the view from his castle. I suspect he was not really mad, only an eccentric romantic (or is that redundant?).

September 18, 2014


Gary and Michele at Nymphenburg Palace

--You know you’re traveling when your body clock keeps saying it’s time to sleep, it’s time to eat, and the times don’t correspond at all with where you are.

--You know you’re in a foreign country when you go to church and the priest’s reflection is incomprehensible except for the words Palestine, Syria, and Iraq.

--You know you’re in Europe when the hotels, no matter the country, provide French soaps.

--You know you’re in Munich when the bill for an appetizer, side dish and glass of wine for two is 100 euros.

--You know you’re not in Seattle when the bicyclists obey the traffic laws and don’t cross intersections if the light is red.

--You know you’re not in Seattle when it rains, and everyone pulls out an umbrella.

--You know you’re not in any American city when you and your husband can buy a Partner ticket (Partner is the word used in German) and travel all around the city easily. You might get a bit lost when the transfer bus the hotel clerk told you to take is out of service for repairs. Then a lovely German woman, who knows less English than you know German, will somehow figure out what you need and introduce you to the conductor on the next tram. He will then welcome you aboard, and deposit you a few stops later, back on the route you intended all along.  

Entrance to our Hotel

As we edged closer and closer to our trip to Germany and Austria, I kept looking at the map and wondering why I hadn’t included a quick jaunt to Italy in the itinerary. It is just a quick plane hop away. Unlike previous travels, I had spent little time learning a few basics of the language in the country we would visit. Of the few phrases I attempted to learn were, “I am allergic to dairy” and “Where is the bathroom?” I lamented that my Italian would not be useful just as I am becoming courageous enough to simply blurt out Italian and hope it works.

What a joy to arrive in Munich and have the hotel recommend an Italian restaurant nearby. And how comforting to visit La Stanza that evening and discover that everyone there spoke Italian. The food was excellent and I had decided we would return before we even left the restaurant.

It turns out that in Southern Germany, like in England, no one recommends the local cuisine. It is assumed that you will eat the food of other countries. We did have sausages, potato salad and kraut in a beer garden—how could we not? But, for our other meals we ate Italian, Japanese and attempted Indian, but the restaurant was too crowded to accommodate us.

I'm going to stuff my suitcase with German bread
 My favorite meal, at a restaurant near the Schloss-Nymphenburg: an appetizer platter with sausages and mustard, duck with fresh horseradish, a prosciutto-like meat, trout, pickles and (my favorite—where can I get some more?) apple-lard on nutty German bread.

We usually spend time in a city just wandering around and getting a feel for it but this time we only had a few days and played the tourist. We visited museums (with Italian paintings and scientific equipment) went to the Marienplatz to see the glockenspiel dance at noon; and visited the royal palace (an French/Italian wannabe).

The Schloss-Nymphenburg is promoted here as the most beautiful palace in the world (and it might have been—once!); it may be the most enormous palace anywhere, but now it is only a series of palazzos strung together like pearls on a necklace by long hallways of glass and portraits.

Its most significant feature is the Hall of Beauties, thirty-six portraits of beautiful women secured and painted according to the specifications of the ruler. Gary wondered if this was his version of Playboy but I think not. With all the nude women painted on the walls and ceilings, these modest, standard portraits, are something more. I can’t put my finger on it, but I do wonder what his wife must have thought. Did she take another route through the palace so as not to confront the display?   

Quite by accident we went to the palace on the 350th anniversary of its creation. This meant that entrance was free, in exchange for listening to thirty minutes of speeches, and hearing some music. There were actors in Baroque costumes accompanied by medieval musicians. The hall in which the occasion was marked as been restored and future work is anticipated to restore the palace to its former glory.

The most amazing part of the palace is the stables where royal carriages and sleighs have been preserved and displayed. They were beyond description with their gold, and statues, and paintings, and furs, and feathers, and leather, and jewels. A picture will have to suffice, even though the picture cannot capture the splendor and size.

I asked Gary what he thought of Munich and he contributed the following (as well as five of the photos):

Munich is the capital of Bavaria, the southernmost state of Germany—predominantly Catholic, fairly conservative—but welcoming visitors from all over the world. The landscapes are green, the air is fresh and cool, and the cows are all contented.

Heiliggeistkirche Church with Paper Cranes 

August 13, 2014

Persistence Persists

     One hundred years ago a woman Martha Graham described as a “plump little lady with the dynamism of a rocket” founded the Cornish School in Seattle. Today it is a college of the arts, but in its beginnings all ages were nurtured there.

         Nellie Cornish believed that the arts existed best in combination with one another and should not be taught discreetly. She believed exposure to various arts led to greater creativity. Although she was well-connected to classical art figures throughout the United States and Europe she embraced popular theater and even puppetry.

     Shortly before her death in 1956 she collaborated on her autobiography, Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish (published by University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1964). In it she describes the ups and downs of her life. From childhood on her fortunes fluctuated and yet she persisted. I cannot help but wonder if the Cornish College of the Arts would exist today had she been a person who accepted defeat. When there was no money, she juggled until times changed. When teachers reneged on commitments, she simply reached into her vast network of acquaintances and found someone else. When one program faltered, she introduced another.

     I suspect part of her tenacity came from the pioneer spirit that was still prevalent in the West
during Nellie’s youth. It may also have been facilitated by the fact that she was not married and could pick up and go to New York or Europe in search of teachers whenever she wished. In the end, though, there just seem to be special people in this world who are never overcome by adversity, people who are guided by dreams that become more important than themselves.

     Cornish College of the Arts still struggles financially—as it always has. It does, however, persist, just as Nellie Cornish would have wished.