How it all Began–Vassar, 1946

Vassar: Main Dorm, 2012


Vassar is, of course, responsible for this trip–the place that nurtured these women’s ideas and interest in Europe, the place where they met, and the place where they planned the trip.

The idea for the trip emerged from a series of conversations between Joan and Maria throughout the academic year of 1948-1949.  They began in a deliciously warm and sunny fall, the leaves lingering, hesitating to fall in this balmy weather, as Joan chatted about her previous trip to Europe, accompanying her father on a business trip.  The conversations developed as Poughkeepsie finally turned into Poughkeepsie in mid-November, its Gothic buildings mournful  in fog and drizzle, and the short walk from Davison to Main requing a ridiculous piling on of layers.  Leafing through the Blue Guide to Europe sustained the students through winter exams and a nasty damp winter and spring that invades all layers of clothing, leaving students shivering and miserable (evening temperatures that March reached as low as -1 degrees fahrenheit, or -18 celsius).  When April finally broke through with glorious, crisp spring weather, the plans were almost set.

Davison Dorm, 2012


Interestingly, one motivation for the trip is pretty much the opposite of what Americans now think about going to Europe.  As Maria put it, “The dollar was king y podíamos vivir más facilmente en Europa que en los Estados Unidos” (we could live more easily in Europe than in the United States), although she adds emphatically that “that wasn’t the main motive” for the trip.

Since Vassar shaped the trip, it’s time to pause and bit to look at Vassar, and even before:

1.  How Maria Teresa Juana de Arco de la Caridad de Zaldo y de la Guardia got to Vassar:

St George's School Havana

St. George’s School, Havana


When my mother was something like twelve-years old (?), she transferred from the Sacred Heart School (the source, I gather, of her excellent French) to St. George’s School.  This last school, was, if I recall correctly, run by two British expatriates who seem to have embodied every Cuban’s idea of what a British schoolmistress should look like.  I imagine them as stern-looking women of a certain age, somewhat pudgy (one tall and one short), but with excellent posture; they would be clad in wire-rimmed glasses and vaguely frumpy dresses (too warm for tweed in Cuba).  Their students were, I believe, mainly Cubans, which meant they would have to deal with the irrepressibly mischievous streak of students who come from a culture in which parents, after the third child, have pretty much allowed their children to run free, as long as they behave themselves at dinnertime when guests come to visit.  This is also the period of the earliest known (to me) instance of mother’s famous Latin temper.  According to Bilín–a friend of my mother’s to whom my mother may or may not be related (hence Rob Meyer’s reference to Cuba as a place of “glorified incest”), my mother, in a fit of rage, grabbed an inkwell and dashed it against the wall.  That she was not the only student who acted up at St. George’s  is attested to by the fact that she was not suspended from school for this incident. (This makes one wonder about the real origins of the song from the Sound of Music “How do you Solve a Problem like Maria?”, particularly given my mother’s own inclinations to become a nun.)  Bilín himself was no innocent, as he suggested that he spent much of his study time trying to see if he could dip the braid of the student in front of him into his inkwell.

(How do boys occupy their time in the classroom now that there are no inkwells?  I like to think that they daydream that they are dipping girls’ braids in inkwells, but it’s more likely that they are planning their next moves on a computer game that involves killing as many enemies as possible with magical light sabers, golden arrows, and winged sandals.)

And this is how my mother got to Vassar, sort of.  The very proper teachers at St. George’s determined that, despite her Latin temper, my mother would make an excellent candidate for a Vassar education.  Much  evidence, charm, and British rhetoric were marshaled to persuade my grandfather Charlie Zaldo.  Charlie, at least, had gone to Harvard, so he took pride in an elite American education; he was just a bit reluctant to think of a woman sharing in this education.  It took even more evidence, charm, and probably marshaling of patriarchal privilege and authority on the part of Charlie to persuade my grandmother, given that almost all the young college-bound girls she knew from the correct families had either gone to university in Cuba or had gone to a Catholic, nun-run college in the States. Charlie prevailed and Vassar let Maria in on condition that she go to Ethel Walker school for a year, first, to get used to the college environment.

 it's in Latin

From Anne Cleveland and Jean Anderson’s cartoons about Vassar in her 1940’s collection, Vassar: A Second Glance. Sources for all the cartoons in this blog:


2. How Anisa got to Vassar

For Anisa and her family, the move to Vassar probably started with a question like, “if you’re an intellectual woman in a country without a strong tradition of educating women at the university level, and if you’re interested in Political Science, where would you want to go to college?”  At first, the answer was definitely not Vassar College.  Anisa, like Mahaut, had never even heard of Vassar. And Poughkeepsie probably sounded like something from a naughty Irish limerick.

Anisa got good advice on where to go to college but bad advice on how to get there.  The result was the kind of long, meandering, torturous experience of travel, bureaucracy, and British queues that could itself be the subject of a book.  So I’ll be detailing these incidents  in a separate post.

I’ll be adding, later, the details that Anisa and Mahaut gave me about their friendships at Vassar, but it is important to note how crucial Vassar seems to have been for this trip.  That my mother would eventually go to Europe is a given–growing up with a German governess (who, I was told, was fired after my grandfather heard my 7-year-old mother spouting fascistic slogans in German), then going to a school run by a French order of nuns, then to one run by British women.  By the time my mother was fifteen, she was already familiar with and fluent in three Western European languages.  That Anisa would also go to Europe is also a given, considering the international perspective of her family along with the many relatives and acquaintances she had in England and France.


3. How Mahaut got to Vassar:

Mahaut’s decision to go to Vassar came in a somewhat circuitous way, so this narrative will be somewhat circuitous. As Mahaut characterizes this, “Yes, all of this, in the end was because my mother worked with the French Resistance; her group worked with Americans out of Switzerland and so she got to know some Americans. So, when the International Conference of Women was being organized for 1946 in the Catskills, we went.”

(Translations throughout are mine. Let me know if you want me to add the French original to the blogs.)

Mahaut’s transatlantic experience might be termed an anti-cruise. Travel after the war was above all about moving of troops, diplomats, and human rights groups across the ocean. That priority, coupled with the relative paucity of ships available after the war (think Pearl Harbor and U-Boats), meant that travel was definitely not oriented to young female travelers from aristocratic backgrounds. Instead, when Mahaut “traveled on a boat that was organized for transporting troops, with eight people sharing rooms built for two. The weather was dreadful; we were sick as dogs.”

In fact, Mahaut was essentially hounded by cramped quarters and bad weather throughout her voyage through the Catskills, California, Chicago, and New York. On the plus side, this was probably good preparation for dorm life.

As Mahaut notes, the plan was for Mahaut to attend the International Assembly of Women with her mother, then go to an American college, while Madame de la Noue did a fundraising tour of the States. The conference, organized at the estate of Alice T. Mclean in October, 1946, was significant enough to inspire a commentary by Eleanor Roosevelt, who herself attended the Assembly: “I have been sent a little leaflet about the plan for the international assembly of women which is to be held in October at the home of Mrs. Alice T. McLean in South Kortright, New York. The leaders of women’s organizations in this and other countries throughout the world will come together to discuss four main topics:

(1) “What kind of political world are we living in?”
(2) “What kind of economic world are we living in?”
(3) “What kind of social order should we strive to achieve?”
(4) “How can we apply the ideas exchanged at this conference for the benefit of our communities, our nations and the world?”

This is an educational conference and it will last ten days. The subjects under discussion are so all-encompassing that one could go on discussing them day in and day out for many years to come. That, I think, is exactly what the sponsoring organizations hope will come about.”[i]


It was at the Assembly that Mahaut’s next few years were set, although Mahaut would not know that for a few months, for it was at the Assembly that she “met Dean Thompson from Vassar College. To me, Vassar meant nothing—I was definitely not interested and decided instead to travel with some Swiss friends who lived in California.”

However, fate, mother, and Dean Thompson intervened, so a detour to Dean Thompson seems to be called for. Dean C. Mildred Thompson appears to have been a formidable academic and activist woman with a strong streak of creativity, the “C.” being a fake initial that she added to her name. A Vassar graduate, Thompson was first hired by the History Department at Vassar in 1908, her particular historical interest lying in the Reconstruction era in the post Civil war South. She became the second ever Dean of Vassar College in 1923 and remained Dean through 1948. She was most known for being active in the women’s rights movements throughout her life, starting from 1911, when she marched in the second suffrage parade in New York City. After the war she wasthe only female representative invited to an education reconstruction committee Conference of Allied Ministers of Education in London. [ii] But, more significant for Mahaut, it was Dean Thompson who implemented the brief three-year (trimester) degree at Vassar during the World War Two period. Still in operation in 1946, Mahaut commented that “I wrote to my parents, ‘The Americans do things very quickly. Even their trimesters.” Between the trimesters and the academic specialization typical of high schools in France, Mahaut had graduated from Vassar by the end of Spring, 1948.

But this was in the future. In October 1946, the de la Noues were experiencing the typical parent-child tensions over how, when, where, and whether to go to college. There is little doubt who would win this one; after all, Madame de la Noue had secretly worked for the Resistance and evaded capture by Nazis, and she was working with the formidable Dean Thompson. Madame de la Noue went to see the French ambassador because he had a cousin who had been ambassador… in Washington. While conversing with the ambassador, she mentioned Dean Thompson’s invitation to Mahaut to go to Vassar. The ambassador’s response was “there is no better place for her to go than Vassar.”

So, Mahaut added, “I receive a telegram from my mother stating, ‘Get to Vassar by such and such a date.’ I still didn’t know where Vassar was, and I couldn’t take a plane. It was snowing like crazy, and my friends were afraid that the flight would get stranded in the mountains, so they immediately packed me into a train for Poughkeepsie.”

More bad weather and lodging for the soon-to-be bewildered, befuddled, and exhausted Mahaut. “So, I took the train, and it was an old train, which stopped all the time. We arrived late into Chicago for the connection that would take me to Vassar.” At first everything only got worse: “The weather outside was threatening; they had forgotten to add cars to the train, so there were two people per sleeper car bunk. I still didn’t know where Vassar was.”

But her timing was good. “The train was filled with students returning to their different universities,” students who were friendly and interested in the fact that she was French, headed for Vassar, and filled with questions: “Where is Vassar? How does one get from the train station to the college? Is the station far from the college? “

Finally, one of those nice, young, intrepid college men (I’m thinking blue blazer, varsity sweater, and slicked back hair) said, “Ok; listen, there are certainly Vassar students on this train; I’ll find one.” So he set out in search and came back with a certified Vassar student who, despite her lack of French, took care of Mahaut, telling her a bit about Vassar, grabbing a taxi for the two of them, and traipsing through the snow to find her dorm.

[i] Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day. August 31, 1946. 28 May, 2014. Web.

[ii] “C. Mildred Thompson.” Vassar Encyclopedia. 27 May 2014. Web.

 4.  Carmen and Vassar:

Carmen did not, of course, attend Vassar, but she did attend Poughkeepsie.  Even then Poughkeepsie was not a tourist destination (except for Vassar), but it was far more prosperous and bustling than it is now. When her husband died in 1948, she got a job in Childrens’ Hospital in Poughkeepsie and moved into the home of a “widow by the name of Mrs. Crocker”–certainly close enough to participate in the conversations about the trip to Europe.

5.  Vassar and the trip to Europe:

 Vassar seems to have shaped and consolidated the possibility for this trip in two ways.

First, of course, is the fact, that it provided for an intellectual, international community.  Again, I’m relying on memory here, not the transcripts of the tapes, so feel free to correct me on any of this.   Their close friendship with someone from France, which included an excursion that Anisa, Bedia, and Mahaut made to Jones Beach, could only have made it more likely that at least one of them would go on to visit Mahaut in France.  Photos of that trip are more blurred than Anisa’s memory of it.  They show four (I can’t remember who the fourth person is) slim attractive women looking happy and relaxed, and simply enjoying each other’s company.

A second inspiration for the trip is, I’m thinking,  the courses that were taught at Vassar.  If they are anything like the typical curriculum of competitive colleges of the period, they were heavily slanted towards Western Europe, with classes like the History of Western Civilization, Masterworks of Western Literature, and The History of Art through the Baroque period–a course which would focus on ancient Greek and Roman art, pause a bit at French, Italian, and British medieval art, then dwell lovingly and lingeringly on Italian Renaissance art for much of the rest of the semester. With classes like these, the next, almost inevitable, result of this education would be to visit Europe itself.

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This concept and these courses may seem “old hat”, even dated, to us now, but they were part of a radical rethinking of American colleges and universities that seems almost inevitably to have accompanied the postwar period. Vassar had essentially reinvented itself after the war by bringing in its first woman president, Sarah Gibson Blanning, a woman who doubled the number of male professors at Vassar, hence turning upside down a structure that had been dominated by male administrators and female professors. This shift was symbolic of other changes brought about by the war. Vassar added some new courses, including cryptography, a secret class taken by a few select students. [i] The G.I. bill bought male students to Vassar—something simply unthinkable before the war (although their degrees would be from SUNY, given that Vassar’s charter did not allow degrees granted to men).These young soldiers would help change the structure of traditional classes at Vassar. Professors contemplating how best to teach students who had not been drenched in prep school classes on European history and culture turned increasingly to the radical theories of “New Criticism,” which proclaimed that great literary works could be understood outside of their immediate historical and cultural contexts, given their timeless, universal nature, an idea that seems elitist now but was radically liberal in its espousal that any attentive student could read into a major literary work’s nuances, form, complexities.

What is also interesting here is one important ideal behind the emphasis on European culture and literature just at the moment when the destructive, and often self-destructive, trajectories of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century should have led to the larger question of how and why Europe should be a model for civilization and culture.  The persistence, in the United States, of a Eurocentric curriculum was shaped by European intellectuals exiled in the United States, exiles who had experienced the horrors of war through the bombing of their homes, death of relatives, imprisonment, or death threats.  These scholars looked back to early European writings, seeing in them a larger, transcendent and universal, idea and ideal of humanity that, they believed, readers could turn to to renew their hope in democratic, unified Europe and turn a new generation away from the seductions of fascism and totalitarian thought.

One of these scholars was Ernst Robert Curtius. Raised in Alsace–that strip of Europe claimed alternatively and violently by France and Germany.  Wounded in World War I, he spent much of his career in Nazi Germany at the University of Bonn, emphasizing a Humanist perspective that would counteract totalitarian thinking.  In his magisterial study, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, published in 1953 after years of research, Curtius links the crisis of European culture after World War I with a tendency for cultures to deplete themselves by turning to war; he adds that it is our tendency to forget  common patterns in European History that leads to a renewal of war and totalitarian thought in Europe and of what he calls “dullness and narrowness of consciousness, to which anti-social feelings of very kind contribute” (3).  Against this pattern of thought he calls for “a narrative” of common themes in European literature and history combined with “analytical methods” of thought (8,15) along with awareness of transcendent, universal, and humanistic themes in European literature and culture.

This larger idea of Europe was disseminated not just in ivy-covered campuses but also by travel writers, who, as Christopher Endy puts it, often stressed “a shared Western civilization” which “encouraged Americans to imagine themselves as part of an Atlantic Community” (31)

It is this idea of Europe as perhaps less of a geographic location and more of a larger ideal of human enterprise, thought, and unity, that, I think, our four travelers took with them to Europe.  Without traveling into the past or traveling to Greece, these travelers nonetheless encountered Socrates in pot-hole strewn roads, the Venus de Milo in musty restaurants (and in the Louvre), and Dante in hotels with creaky beds.

[i]“A Look Back: For School, For Country.” Vassar: The Alumni Quarterly. Winter 2011 Volume 107 Issue 1. Web. 5-27-2014.











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