Experiments in International Living, public health, and collecting works by Edvard Munch
Interviewee: Sarah (Sally) Epstein
Date: April 20, 2013
Location: Epstein residence in Chevy Chase DC
Interviewers: Carl Lankowski and Joan Solomon Janshego
Transcribed (from audio recording) by: Carl Lankowski
Q: Tell us how old you are, where you were born and grew up, and when you came to Washington DC.
SE: I’m 87 and I came to Washington in 1951 because my former husband, Lionel Epstein, was already a lawyer at the Department of the Navy. We had picked out an apartment on Wisconsin Avenue at the Carillon House and moved there when we were married. After building a home designed by the architect Thomas Wright, we moved in 1954 to McLean, Virginia, and eventually we moved to this house in Chevy Chase.
Q: When did you move into this house?
SE: It was over 50 years ago, in 1961.
Q: Where were you coming from?
SE: The town I grew up in was Milton, Massachusetts. South of Boston.
Q: What was it like growing up there? Tell us about your early years.
SE: I was born in Philadelphia. My family moved to Milton when I was twelve years old. That was a very hard move, leaving all my friends at Germantown Friends School behind, to go to a place where I didn’t know anybody in my seventh-grade class at Milton Academy. However, I had a lot of cousins there. My mother was really going back to her childhood home—her father Richards Bradley lived in Milton.
Q: So, there was a Boston background in the family.
SE: Very much so.
Q: What part of Philadelphia did you move from?
SE: Germantown. I had been attending Germantown Friends School. A few years ago I visited Germantown with a friend and we went to 537 Allen’s Lane, my former home. I knocked on the door. When someone answered I said I used to live here. They were very gracious and let us take a tour around the house.
Q: Germantown is when the first German immigrants to America arrived in 1683. In any event, you left Germantown for Milton. What was growing up, going to school in Milton like?
SE: We moved into an old house that had a stream running through the bottom of the property. We children (I had three younger brothers and a sister) used to love that. I can still remember the ducks my father raised. We used to tie a string around their legs and let them swim out. There was also a garage with a turning platform for cars. We used to turn it as fast as possible, hopping on and off of it.
Q: How big was your family? Did you have siblings?
SE: I was the eldest of five children. We were known as “the redheads,” as we all had red hair.
Q: I see some intergenerational symmetry there. You, in turn had five children, right?
SE: That’s right.
Q: Tell us about your school years in Milton.
SE: I attended Milton Academy. It was a girls’ school, in contrast to Germantown Friends, which was co-ed. At first I wasn’t particularly happy with the move, but I made friends eventually.
Q: I am looking for the beginnings of the thread of your infatuation with art and art history. Did something incline you in that way either in Philadelphia or in Milton?
SE: Well, my mother was an amateur artist. She did drawing and watercolor, so we grew up doing the same thing. My parents were not art collectors, but they had art on the walls and we often went to museums. My mother’s mother had been an artist; she was a sculptress. She lived in Boston and Chicago.
Q: Did you know her?
SE: No. She died in the great influenza pandemic of 1918. At the time, my mother was enrolled in a program on social work in Boston, but then dropped out to look after her father, who was devastated by the loss of his wife.
Q: Your lineage is beginning to sound interesting. Tell us something about it.
SE: Well, my mother was descended from a family who were British sympathizers in the American revolution. So, they moved to Canada but after the revolution moved back into Vermont in the generation before my mother was born. I always remember my mother telling me that in her mother’s family the three eldest daughters had died of tuberculosis in Vermont. Her mother overheard her own mother tell a neighbor “oh, we’re so worried that Amy will be next.” So my grandmother grew up thinking that she would be next victim. TB was a real scourge in those days, but when the Civil War was over, my grandmother’s father was sent to Marseilles as a consul, so the family went south and there were no more episodes of TB. My grandmother’s life was spared.
Q: A French connection instead…
SE: Yes. There was a story of my grandmother the sculptress. She went to Paris and wrote back to her parents that she would like to apprentice with a sculpture called Rodin. Her family wrote and said that would be very improper. He was not married and it wouldn’t be right for her to be alone in the studio with him. So, she didn’t.
Q: Missed Rodin, sigh. What about your father’s side of the family?
SE: My father’s family came from Cincinnati. It was my great grandfather who founded the firm Proctor & Gamble. My father’s father worked for Proctor & Gamble for a short time and then left. Do you know the Gamble House in Pasadena? My grandparents, Mary and David Gamble, hired Greene & Greene to build that house. It is now a National Historic Landmark. Fortunately, they took a trip to the Orient with my father Clarence and uncle Sidney Gamble, and left the Greene brothers to build the house uninterrupted. The Greenes built it as they desired.
Q: Did they live there a long time?
SE: Yes, they did. The oldest son, Cecil, inherited it. His widow, my aunt, had planned to sell it, but she overheard the couple proposing to make the purchase saying how they would paint over the woodwork in white. That drove Cecil’s family to change plans and they gave it instead to the University of California.
Q: It is a gorgeous house.
SE: I remember that one time my father had a streptococcus infection and went out there to recover. All of us went. I was about seven years old. To me, the fish pond was the most interesting thing. I didn’t pay much attention to the house itself.
Q: So how did your parents meet?
SE: My father went to the Harvard Medical School and then interned at Massachusetts General Hospital. They met at some party. They were married in 1924 in Brattleboro, Vermont. They were married there because my mother’s father had a family home in Brattleboro.
So after graduating from medical school, he took a trip with a friend who owned an airplane. The plan was to hop and skip across the country, ending up in Pasadena to visit his parents. Shortly after taking off, the plane crashed. My father was unconscious for something like six weeks. He eventually came around, but after that he needed a great deal of sleep. He decided he couldn’t be a doctor with patients under those circumstances. So he went into research. When Margaret Sanger came to Philadelphia to open a clinic, she also wanted someone to could study the shelf life of spermicidal jellies. Somebody recommended my father as someone with a laboratory and maybe he could do it for her. He got thoroughly involved and spent the rest of his life in the birth control world.
Q: Interesting. So that’s how you got involved in Planned Parenthood.
SE: That’s right. I met Margaret Sanger as a result of him being one of her advisors. Growing up, I thought every baby was planned and wanted.
Q: I was amazed at all the activities that came together in your volunteer work—from Planned Parenthood to Experiment in International Living, to the Peace Corps and civil rights. Now I am still looking for those threads. Let me put the question directly: what in your earlier life led you to become interested in art?
SE: I don’t think I was fully interested until I was going to Simmons School of Social Work. I had a boyfriend who was at MIT. He was very keen on modern art and jazz; I had very little of either in my background. One day he said to me “I am taking you to an exhibition of a Norwegian artist by the name of Edvard Munch.” “OK, I’d love to go.” I walked into the exhibition of Munch’s oil paintings and graphics…and he became my artist for life. Everything he did seemed to come directly from him—personal experience and emotions he had felt. Then when I bought the catalogue, I learned all about his life and was just fascinated. That was it.
Q: Love at first sight?
SE: Yes, it was. And then when I met my former husband, Lionel, I found out that he had also seen the exhibit and had been very taken with it. I had met Lionel as we were both in a program with the Experiment for International Living.
Q: So, you were at the Simmons School of Social Work?
Q: What made you go there?
SE: Well, my father really wanted me to be a doctor, but he made the mistake of taking me to Mass. General Hospital. They had an operating room with an observation window where students could look down and watch the operation. The one I witnessed was on a fellow’s knee that appeared to be particularly bloody. I was very upset. I had wanted to be a doctor, but my mother had started in the school of social work and I came to view that as being a much more satisfactory way to go. Besides, I knew my father’s work was birth control and if I should get into that field, social work would be a good background.
Q: How did you connect with the Experiment for International Living?
SE: My parents knew Donald Watt, or had friends who introduced them to Watt, the founder of the Experiment. So they knew about it. Now, the first Experiment groups in the 1930s went to Germany in the early days of Hitler. I think there was a feeling that Hitler was giving the German youth a reason for being, getting them in uniform, getting them proud of themselves. They didn’t really think of Hitler as a tyrant. Of course, they didn’t know anything about death camps.
Q: Yes, the death camps came later.
SE: Then, during World War II, they couldn’t send Experiment groups overseas, so they sent them to the Kentucky hills, or Mexico, or other places. I didn’t go immediately, but I had studied German at Milton Academy and again at Wellesley College. There was a mountain-climbing group preparing to go to Austria. I really enjoyed the outdoors, climbing and hiking, so I thought how wonderful—I could use my German and go hiking and climbing. That was 1949.
Q: Where in Austria did you go?
SE: We had homestays in Vienna.
Q: And then you hiked up into the mountains?
SE: Yes. That was a very special summer. I met Lionel, my former husband, as a result of that summer. He had previously been an Experimenter to Holland. That summer he was the leader of the group to Holland. He was attending Harvard Law School. There were a couple of other Experimenters around Cambridge and we used to get together every Tuesday night for dinner. The members of the Experiment dinner group came from different backgrounds and different disciplines. It was fascinating.
Q: You travelled in 1949 and the meetings were subsequent to that.
SE: That’s right—in 1950-1951.
Q: You met Lionel at one of these meetings and discovered that you shared an interest in Munch. Is that what brought you together?
SE: Partly. It had more to do with the Experiment. Actually, he had another girlfriend named Jane Coffey whom he had met on the Experiment. I think she lived in New York City. She came up and I took her in for weekends on a number of occasions. After a while, she was no longer coming and I was the girlfriend.
Q: Was Planned Parenthood already a going concern then?
SE: Oh yes, Planned Parenthood had already been established when Margaret Sanger [1879-1966] was still alive. It must have been in the late 1930s.
Q: Were you also already involved in Planned Parenthood in the early 1950s?
SE: No, that came later.
Q: You mentioned Wellesley College.
SE: I went to Wellesley for two years. First, I graduated from Milton Academy in 1943. It was during the war, so I thought I should be patriotic and therefore volunteered as a nurse’s aide. So I worked at the Boston City Hospital for a year. That was an ordeal. Many of the nurses had volunteered to serve in the US Army. That meant we nurse’s aides got a lot more real nursing that we would otherwise not have gotten, had the real nurses been there. It was on-the-job training. So, I had that year and the next year I started Wellesley.
Q: You had two years at Wellesley and then went to Simmons?
SE: Actually, after two years at Wellesley I then had two years at Oberlin College. So I had Boston City Hospital, followed by two years at Wellesley and then two years at Oberlin.
Q: You were a peripatetic student. What were you studying at Oberlin?
Q: And Simmons School of Social Work came after that.
SE: Yes. I graduated with a degree in social work.
Q: What year was that?
SE: Let’s see—I was in the class of 1948 at Oberlin—so it must have been 1950. It was a two-year program.
Q: When were you married to Lionel?
SE: It would have been 1950, immediately following my second year at Simmons.
Q: When did the children come along?
SE: David was born in 1953, Jim in 1954, Richard in 1957 and Miles in 1960. Well, by then I was already concerned about global population. We very much wanted a daughter, so we adopted our youngest child. Sally Anne was born in 1963.
Q: A way to get a girl.
SE: Yes, she had to be a girl. One of my father’s friends had a daughter who had an adoption agency here in Washington. We went to her and explained our situation. We specified that with four older brothers, she would have to be healthy.
Q: How old was Sally Anne when you got her?
SE: About two or three months old.
Q: Did you know of her origins?
SE: Yes, indeed. That was quite interesting, because I had come from a Protestant background and my husband from a Jewish background. It turned out that Sally Anne’s mother was Jewish and her father was a Presbyterian from Scotland and Wales. The mother came from eastern Europe, which matched Lionel. Taken together, the match was very accurate, just a reverse of the sexes.
Q: I think I remember from your essay in the catalogue for the National Gallery of Art exhibition, Edvard Munch: Master Prints from the Epstein Family Collection (1990), that you had already had begun collecting Munch’s work during the 1950s. You were already in Washington.
SE: We started collecting when we lived in a very modern house in McLean, Virginia. It was built by the architect, Tom Wright. He liked to say that it was very good to have the name Wright in his profession. But we had absolutely outgrown the house. For the last three years we were there, our niece Arlene Krebs, Lionel’s sister’s daughter, was with us, attending Madeira School in McLean. We had four children at that point, plus our niece. Sally Anne was born after we moved to the District. On Tuesday next week Arlene is visiting, because I am giving her a party for the 50th anniversary of her graduation from Madeira. We expect around 30 of her classmates.
Q: Tell us how your collecting began in the 1950s.
SE: We already knew that we liked Munch very much. At this time we had had two Norwegian au pairs. That summer Sargent Shriver asked us to sail on a student ship and talk to the young people to see if they liked the idea of joining the Peace Corps. So while awaiting the return sailing, we went to Norway to visit the families of our au pairs. We saw Munch paintings and prints, in friends’homes and in museums. When we returned my husband had to go to New York on business. The architect, Mies van der Rohe, was selling his collection of Munch prints. His pupil, Eugene Summers—who was the sculptor of this very table—had some Munch prints as well and decided he would put his in with the sale. So Lionel went to see it. The next weekend both of us went back to New York to see it. Li didn’t tell me, but he had meantime reserved three of Summers’s prints that he later gave to me for my birthday, Mother’s Day, or whatever. That was really the beginning of our collection.
Q: That must have been around 1961—the Peace Corps was launched in that year, I think. Lionel bought Summers’s Munch prints then?
SE: That’s right. Mies Van der Rohe’s collection was reserved by the Chicago Art Institute. Summers had four, five or six prints for sale.
Q: Had you had any connection with Norway prior to your visit?
SE: My brother had gone on the Experiment in International Living to Norway. One of the daughters of my brother’s host family expressed a desire to come to the United States as an au pair to learn English. So we had Gudrun Røvig come to us as an au pair for a year and then she found a friend of hers who wanted to come the next year. That was our initial connection to Norway.
Q: I have a good friend who lives in Kongsberg, just below Oslo, who will be very interested in this story.
SE: I guess you know that this summer the 150th anniversary of Munch’s birth will be marked. Of course, there are all sorts of Munch activities going on in Norway. My husband, Don and I are going the end of May for a week in and around Oslo.
Q: Has it been a while since you had been there?
SE: I have been there quite a number of times. Actually, I have done about 60 interviews on tape myself of Norwegians—people whose portraits Munch had painted or who knew him, were neighbors, or other Norwegian artists, or just old people who could talk about the old days. This was back in the 1970s when there were still people alive that could tell me about Munch, or life in his time.
Q: What did you do with the interviews?
SE: They are transcribed. Our entire Munch collection plus all the catalogues, interviews, etc. are going to the National Gallery of Art.
Q: Will they be posted on the web?
SE: I don’t think so. They will be part of a research collection of interest to art historians who could go through them and pick out the salient elements.
Q: So the collecting began in the 1960s. What were some of the major benchmarks in the growth of your collection?
SE: When we first started collecting, we were very fortunate to have known Alan Fern at the Library of Congress. He used to get all the auction catalogues across his desk. He would let us know when some Munchs were up for sale. He would also offer advice on what we might want to bid for them. They weren’t very expensive in those days. They usually came in batches of three or five or eight all at once. That wouldn’t happen today. At any rate, we collected quite rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s. Now we still occasionally do, but not very often. What we usually do now is get a little portrait or etching, something that has meaning for us, or a portrait of someone I know from my studies.
Q: Your description in your 1990 essay of Munch literally surrounded by piles of prints and drawings is evocative of a way of life. The idea that he would treat something that would become so valuable for future generations in the way that he did is amusing and from another angle horrifying.
SE: One of our prints of a beach scene is called Melancholy. If you took it out of the frame and flipped it over, you would see a footprint (laughter) on it. He had obviously stepped in mud or ink or something and then stepped on the back of the print. Well, you know, he could always have printed more for himself, if he wanted more. He printed some on his own and gave others to printers to do.
Q: How difficult was it for you to find people to talk to about Munch who knew him?
SE: Not very hard, because Norway had only about three million people at that time. It seemed everybody knew everybody. One person would say “Oh, I know the son of Munch’s doctor. You could talk to him.” So, I would get an introduction and work it out. It really wasn’t very difficult. I was fortunate to be able to interview his last three models.
Q: Was there a language issue?
SE: Sometimes. For example, the person who had been Munch’s gardener didn’t speak English. So then I took someone from the Munch Museum as my translator.
Q: Did you spend a concentrated period of time there?
SE: I went back and forth about four times to conduct the interviews for periods of ten days to two weeks.
Q: Who would transcribe the interviews?
SE: I have a secretary.
Q: We wish we had one! (laughter) Your catalogue essay was written in 1990 and referred to a collection that was to be bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art.
SE: We created a foundation and the prints now belong to the foundation. Every year I have to decide which three or four works go permanently to the National Gallery. That’s always hard to decide which of your children you are going to send off permanently into the wider world.
Q: Do you designate the works, or do they physically depart?
SE: They physically leave our collection for the National Gallery.
Q: That must be a difficult choice. It sounds like an iterative process—you must revisit it every year.
SE: Yes. Luckily, my secretary used to work at the Corcoran Gallery. She is very knowledgeable about art and how art is handled. And then we loan prints very often to shows. She is the person who works with the curator at the other end. If they are going overseas, then you have to send a courier, so she gets a chance to go to Japan, Germany or England, or wherever they are going to be shown.
Q: Let me ask you about Germany. A lot of Munch’s work ended up there—because it was the biggest market, I guess. I know from your essay that much of the subsequent turnover was generated through German collectors and houses. And we have learned today that you studied German. So this is a German connection. And you spent your first period abroad in a German-speaking country.
SE: Also I had a friend, Carla Lathe, a British art historian who studied Munch. She spoke German much better than I did. So, Carla and I went together to Germany to look for the places were Munch had lived and worked, as well as interviewing people who had known him. That was a lot of fun.
Q: When did you do that and where did you go?
SE: We went to Berlin and environs and some of the other cities that had Munch collections, Lübeck for example and Hamburg. Munch had lived in Lübeck with the Max Linde family. I was too late to interview any of the four children in that family, but I did interview cousins and learned a lot about the family through them.
Q: There is an element of Buddenbrooks in that. It must have been interesting to have been in Germany in the 1960s not so long after the war. What was the atmosphere like at that time?
SE: I got a lot of the story of Munch there. I interviewed the daughter of Munch’s cataloguer, Gustav Schieffler. There were the stories of how inflation and war ruined many collectors financially, who then had to sell off their Munchs. Stories of hardship. The second son of the Linde family was gassed in the first world war and had very weak lungs as a result.
Q: You expressed great concern about the dispersion of collections in your essay. You stated a commitment to keeping your collection intact. The Schieffler story sounds like it affected you in this way.
SE: Yes, very sad for the family. However, we saw one collection in Germany that was even bigger than ours, but it is kept in boxes, not on display.
Q: I take it that much of Munch’s work has been sold off piecemeal.
SE: We were so lucky in this respect, because when we first started collecting, Munch’s generation—the people who bought directly from him—were dying and the children were inheriting the works. The children often sold entire collections or parts of them. That is how we had a relatively easy time in finding and collecting them. And we had the assistance of Alan Fern who saw the German catalogues.
Q: A major feature of your contribution to art is the keeping intact of the collection that you have.
SE: Yes. We started out buying prints for our children, so some of them were in the children’s names. But we talked to the children and they agreed that they would go into the foundation. The whole collection from the foundation goes to the National Gallery. We did have three oil paintings—very minor ones—but eventually we sold those just because we decided our collection was really a print collection and it gave us more money to continue to buy prints.
Q: Give us some metrics. Broadly speaking, how many prints have come to you?
SE: We have over 300 in the collection.
Q: And the collection grew incrementally from the 1960s?
SE: When we were actively collecting, if we saw one that was in better condition and maybe was hand-colored and we had one that was in less good condition and not hand-colored, we would sometimes sell the one we had to help us buy the better one. We were trying to upgrade at the same time as we were expanding the collection.
Q: Now let’s turn our attention to your experience in Chevy Chase DC. Characterize, if you please, the value-added of living in Chevy Chase. Are there others interested in collecting art in Chevy Chase?
SE: We knew our neighbors better when the children were here, because the children sort of flowed back and forth. We really don’t at present have any close friends right in the neighborhood. Our friends are through family planning, The Experiment, and through what we call The Art Group. It’s a group of women. We meet every two weeks, either to go to an art show, or to somebody’s home to hear somebody talk about art.
Q: How large a group is it?
SE: There are about 20 of us.
Q: From the DC metropolitan area.
SE: Yes, that’s right.
Q: How did you come to choose Chevy Chase as your home?
SE: We absolutely outgrew our “Wright house” in McLean. Tommy Wright was going to build a wing with three bedrooms, with a corridor that went out through the yard to the new rooms. I thought, well, I don’t really want my children split off in that way. Then we decided we had to look for a house. Someone in Lionel’s office said there was a fine big house up on Oregon Avenue. We came to have a look. You can’t imagine what this house was like in those days: heavy velvet curtains, squiggles going up the walls, the dining table had a glass top with gold Cupids holding it up. In the basement there was a big bar and there were flames coming up, painted in the stairwell and a sign beckoning “come on down, it’s hot down here.” There was a half-swimming pool in back of the house that looked very dangerous. The room in which we are sitting was only half the size it is now. The other half was an outside covered porch with three archways. We put three children’s bedrooms directly over this, now expanded room. I was initially aghast at the décor of the house. It was really Lionel who imagined it differently. He said to think of painting the interior white. So we bid on the house and got it.
Q: And the grounds are so beautiful. That must have been an attraction.
SE: It was.
Q: How much land do you have here?
SE: It’s about two acres.
Q: Do you know when the house was built?
SE: 1927. I give Munch tours and slide lectures every so often. At one point there was a group coming through that I knew from the museum world. A woman visiting from Boston said “I think my nephew grew up in this house.” I told her that was fascinating and would love to meet him. She wrote to her nephew, who stopped on his way back north from Florida to his summer home in Vermont He brought me photographs of the house as it had been and talked about it. He lived with his grandmother, who had made a fortune during World War I. She owned boarding houses downtown. With the proceeds from those ventures she had this house built.
Q: Did he provide any written documentation?
SE: No, I think he just related it conversationally.
Q: Was there a particular architect associated with it?
SE: I don’t have that information. The person who established the Barrie School possessed it after this fellow’s grandmother. It was the Barrie School lady who did all the gold cupids and hell-fire flames.
Q: What was the built environment in the immediate vicinity?
SE: There was a couple called Schumacher down the hill. They had children who used to play with ours. Chuck Bernstein lived on the other side. Pat Buchanan lived a stone’s throw from here, across the back fence from our tennis court. Originally, there were three lots of similar dimensions to ours. By the time we moved in, they had already been subdivided and populated with smaller houses.
Q: So the kids went to school from this house. Where did they go?
SE: When we were living in McLean, they had started at the Potomac School in McLean. So we just had them continue. There was a bus that gathered the students from the District. One year it actually came down Oregon Avenue. All the other years we had to drive them over to Connecticut Avenue. In those days the Potomac School went through the ninth grade. They had to make a choice after that. They went to five different boarding schools after that.
Q: Where did they end up going?
SE: David went to Wilbraham; Jim went to Millbrook; Richard went to Storm King; Sally Anne went to Mercersburg; and Miles attended St. Marks.
Q: That would have been towards the end of the 1960s, right. A difficult time in the District, after the assassination of Martin Luther King in April, 1968.
SE: Yes, and all the Robert Kennedy children of course went to Potomac School. Richard was very good at acting. I remember sitting next to Ethel Kennedy at a school play in which Richard was the lawyer and Bobby Kennedy, Jr., was playing the murderer. Ethel was so upset. She obviously didn’t know what was going on as Bobby Jr. prepared his part. She was seeing it absolutely for the first time and objected to having Bobby play a murderer. Having rehearsed Richard, I could practically give all the lines myself.
Q: What did they end up doing after they graduated from school?
SE: You’re taking me back. I don’t think about this every day. I think David went to American University, Jim to Princeton, Richard to Sarah Lawrence, Sally Anne to Southern Methodist, and Miles to Oberlin.
Q: What did they become?
SE: David is a master potter; he works and teaches in Glen Echo and he has his own studio. These pottery pieces are his. Jim has taken over our family business office. Lionel is still the retired top CEO. Richard is an actor and lives in Brattleboro, Vermont. Miles started out as an EMT, but left that in favor of art school for four years and now makes art furniture out of recycled materials in San Francisco. And Sally Anne has two children who are 13 and 11, so she is an at-home mother. She and her husband lived in Montana for a long time and moved to Bethesda about three years ago. They had about 100 acres and there were no children in the immediate neighborhood. She had to drive about 30 miles to Bozeman for their school. I think she was very glad to move back home. Pottery is my art form. When they were small, I took them on Saturdays to a workshop with a children’s class run by Vally Possony.
Q: Where did you find the pottery class?
SE: It was when we were still living in McLean. Our next door neighbor was taking classes from Vally Possony, an Austrian Jewish woman who fortunately escaped to the USA before the Germans invaded Austria. She invited me to come with her out to the studio in Falls Church. I still go to the studio, which is now run by one of her top students.
Q: International travel appears to be a motif in your life.
SE: We do a lot of it. My husband, Don, loves to travel. International family planning has had a lot to do with it. Half the time we were going to developing countries, the other half on vacation or on art excursions. We went to London last October because the Tate Gallery was doing a wonderful show about the second half of Munch’s life. His main masterpieces came early, but all the rest of his life he kept up with what was going on in the art world. He took up photography and movie-making. In the Tate exhibition I saw a lot of things I had never seen before.
Q: When did you remarry?
SE: 19 years ago. After fifteen years of being single, I didn’t expect to get married again.
Q: What is your husband’s name?
SE: Donald Collins. He was involved in working with a charitable foundation in Pittsburgh. They put him in charge of the family planning work they were doing. First he was sent to Chile, where he was horrified to see women who had died from septic abortions. He has been in the family planning field a long time.
Q: Is he a physician?
SE: No. Economics. He was a venture capitalist for awhile.
Q: Where did he train?
SE: He grew up outside of Pittsburgh and went to Yale and then New York University for a Masters in business. Then on to banking, then venture capital, and then to this charitable work. Subsequently, he became an independent, setting up his own foundation IASF (International Services Assistance Fund). And we work together now in family planning.
Q: Are you still working with Lionel?
SE: Yes, we remain partners in our avocation and business of collecting Munchs.
Q: What haven’t we asked you that we should have asked you?
SE: Well, I am still on quite a number of boards. We can start with Pathfinder International, which was founded by my father Dr Clarence Gamble. It currently has birth control clinics in about twenty developing countries. Over the years I have very often gone out to look at those. And then I’m on the board of Population Services International. I think they do an exceptional job of doing birth control, plus they distribute malaria nets and other things out into remoter areas, working through subsidies to local village stores. It allows the owner to sell birth control at a profit, which makes him eager to promote contraception. I am also on the board of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. One of my concerns is what is going to happen in this country. We are using all our natural resources; we are opening up our borders; we are taking in a million new people every year from outside the country. And then of course they have children and the population is just expanding tremendously. Not a good idea.
Q: How long have you been involved in that organization?
SE: About 30 years. The present amnesty bill in Congess is about 800 pages. They are planning to give it only one day of reading. Can you imagine Congress reading 800 pages in one day? There is nothing more in the current bill than they have ever done in the past to close the borders. It’s really shocking.
Q: It sounds like you have a very busy life.
SE: Very. I am not on the board of Planned Parenthood anymore, but I am close to Laura Meyers, the head of it, and keep track of what’s going on. And I am still involved with the Experiment in International Living. We raise enough scholarship money to send 18-20 young people from the DC metropolitan area on their program every year.
Q: Is it mostly young people?
SE: High school age. It’s simply amazing. We give them an orientation. I am on the selection committee, so I meet them early on. They come to a briefing meeting with their parents or grandmother or whomever before they go abroad. Many of them have never been in an airplane. They are kind of tense. And then at the end of the year, sometimes in October or November, we have a debriefing meeting and they are so changed, so excited. They’ve got a family in Italy or Ethiopia or Brazil. It really opens their eyes to the world.
Q: Typically, what year do they go?
SE: Usually they are juniors in high school. The thinking is they will go back to the high school and share their experience and encourage other people to go.
Q: Of the developing countries covered by the several organizations in which you are involved, are many in Africa?
SE: A great many are in Africa, yes, but in Asia as well as Central and South America. In Africa three years ago we visited Pathfinder in Ethiopia. What shocked me was that China was coming into Ethiopia, renting out land so they can grow food to ship back to China. Ethiopia is still primitive, people still using manual plows. I have also gotten involved in Senegal. Molly Melching went there first as a junior in college—she was a French-African major—then signed up with the Peace Corps and in 1993 or 1994 started to teach village women literacy. She began her three-year program by first discussing human rights. Later came a hygiene and health program. Female genital cutting was not criticized—they simple discussed the health consequences. The village women in one class decided it was against human rights, and eventually decided to abandon the custom. Because of this program, over 5,000 villages in Senegal have abandoned this custom. Now the word is spreading to other countries in West Africa and even to countries in East Africa. My husband and I have been to Senegal three times to observe this program.
Q: Your travels to Asia and the Western Hemisphere?
SE: Cambodia, Thailand, India, Tibet, to China several times, Japan. I have never been to Pakistan. In Latin America, though not very recently, we have been to Costa Rica, Jamaica, Brazil and Chile. More recently we have been to Patagonia, in both Argentina and Chile.
Q: Returning to Chevy Chase, what was it like living in the neighborhood when you were a young mother or more recently?
SE: It was wonderful to have Rock Creek Park as our back yard. A big issue right now is that they want to make Oregon Avenue a three-lane highway. We love the park; we used to spend a lot of time down in the park in the playgrounds, skipping stones, feeding the ducks. But with all my other interests, I never did get very involved in local Chevy Chase activities. We used to go with the children to that public swimming pool off of Connecticut Avenue. In the summertime, the children usually went to camp. After camp the whole family would decamp to Maine. We went to Georgetown Island, beyond Bath and the Kennebec River. We are right where the Kennebec River flows into the ocean.
Would you like to take a walk around to see some of the Munchs we have on display?
Q: We would love to! I do have one more question. You have lived a life of art; you have lived a life filled with global travel. How do these two things connect for you?
SE: Well, I always like to see what the art is wherever we go.
Q: I remember from your essay that what many people find disturbing in Munch’s art you don’t. He connects to you viscerally in some way. I can’t help but think that because of the kinds of work you do globally there is a connection. You also see many things that people would find disturbing. I guess I am looking for the common thread in your reaction to these two spheres.
SE: You talk about disturbing sights. I think of the terrible slums outside cities like Nairobi or New Delhi, where people live in worse huts than I would keep a dog in.
Q: Did you do social work after you got your degree?
SE: I got married just days after graduation. When we came to Washington I did volunteer work for Planned Parenthood.
Q: Do you see art as a relief from the work you do in developing countries? Are these two different spheres for you? I am struggling with how they connect.
SE: I will give you a little pamphlet I have done where I combine the art and the planning. They are not separate. They go together very much. Especially with Munch, because Munch is always about how people feel. I find a lot of empathy and emotion in Munch—as I do in my work. Munch said that he wanted people to understand that all people feel emotions. One time when I was doing a tour at the National Gallery in 1990 at the exhibition of our prints. Halfway through the tour an elderly man joined the group. He was elegantly dressed and had some sort of velvet outlining his lapel. When the rest of the group went to see something else, he came up to me and said “thank you!” and he burst into tears.
Q: What do you say when people tell you that Munch is too sad and depressing?
SE: I tell them that my mother felt the same way. She said she couldn’t understand how I could collect this art.
At this time in my life I spend much more time trying, with my husband, to get our quinacrine permanent contraceptive approved by the FDA than I do with art.
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