When I went there with my big black trunk filled with name-taped hacking jacket, jodhpurs and at least two of everything else, it was called Altaraz School. In this antique post card, the house and fountain seem so much smaller than they did to a seven year old child sent from “far-away” Framingham, Massachusetts. I went to the train station with my mother, boarded a steam train through billowing black smoke and found myself alone for the long trip across the State to Great Barrington, Massachusetts near the New York border where the forest turns from the Berkshires into the Catskills where I was to enter the third grade and the unknown.
A taxi was waiting for me when I got off the train and brought me to an imposing German-style manor complete with grinning gargoyles jutting out from under the eaves, a circular drive and a long dark vestibule. (The picture above is the back of the main house, not the front which was equally imposing.)
A small man with black-rimmed glasses and kinky hair stood arms akimbo on the top step. “Are you the new girl?” I didn’t know how to answer.
“What’s your name? He did not come down the steps to greet me.
When I told him, he said, “We already have a Joan here. What’s your middle name?”
“From now on you will be Ellen.” Before I knew where I was, my name was erased.
At that moment an older girl walked by on the green circle of lawn in front. The man called to her and she came closer.
“Take the new girl around and show her the farm.”
I had no idea what a farm was, but we walked a long dirt path through very tall trees and came to a tall totem pole. My guide let me stand in awe for a few minutes while I followed the strange images to the top from turtle through masks and finally an owl. My introduction to the art of another culture.
“From Alaska.” she said, and we moved on to a multi-storied barn, a long chicken coop and a very real bull with a ring in its nose behind a high fence we climbed to have a look..
“All our food is grown right here on the farm.” My guide told me, “Even the meat. You will see how the farmers work and they’ll show you how they kill the chickens.”(They did.)
(The path to the farm)
Back in the Main House in what was to be my dorm, a room with three beds, heavy red velvet curtains and floor to ceiling windows, I was introduced to my roommates: Mori Wildfeuer and the girl who got there before me, the “first” Joan, who had, I was told, escaped Poland with her father, Mr. Wolteger. There was a war on I was told, and awful things had happened to Poland.
That night I woke up suddenly vomiting and I had wet my bed. The whole mess was startling to me. A woman came in and took me to the bathroom where she made me clean everything up by myself while she watched. I remember gagging as I leaned over a cold bathtub and washed the sheets in icy water. It only made me sicker, but she continued to berate me for being a bad girl.
When all was restored and I was back in bed, Mori said, “You won’t get to see the sheikh tomorrow,”
What was she talking about and why should I care?. I was so frightened by the place, the people and the uncertainty of my future, and I had no idea who I was anymore, let alone what a sheikh was.
The next day as I sat, a prisoner locked in the room, tearfully looking out the window, I saw below in the middle of an entourage, a man dressed in a long white robe with a veil and figured out I did see the sheikh after all because he was kind enough to walk directly below my window. He was kind enough to give me the honor of seeing him.Today I wonder what country he came from and what he was doing, and I have always been fascinated by the Arab dress and culture.
That was my first two days at a place that taught me things that influenced my entire life. And although I had no idea who or where I was, Altaraz School introduced me to luxury, art, music, elegance, beauty, manners, Persian rugs, crystal chandeliers, formal gardens and mountain walks, the wealth of nature on expansive grounds dotted with rustic pavilions in a strange place I could never have known except in a movie, a place where I was conditioned (often with severity) to become an artist. That was the whole idea of the place based on Summerside in England, a progressive school where children were allowed to run free to grow their artistic talents. In my case, for example, If I did not want to go to math class because I was in the middle of painting a totem pole on the sidewalk, I was encouraged to continue by teachers on their way to the classrooms.I skipped many a class to wander along the Housatonic River curiously watching long rows of snapping turtles watching me from floating logs. Once I started a “museum” of natural history in one of the pavilions where I encouraged my fellow students to contribute their findings from the countryside, mostly dried-up orange salamanders and odd-shaped rocks. Without adult supervision I was allowed to exercise my imagination and I have always cherished this activity more than any other.Giving me the freedom to dream without limits was a precious gift.
This same freedom allowed me to run wild through the enormous place like a wolf-child, my beautiful red winter coat with green velvet collar and cuffs soon torn and missing buttons, my new Spring coat burned through where the naked light bulb touched it as I kept reading after lights out, my hair long, stringy and dirty. Often my face was unwashed until dinner in the formal dining room where the food was unpalatable smelling of vinegar. Mori, soon my ally, and I stole lots of yellow tomatoes from the ornate glass greenhouse at the top of the lake. We also filled a bushel basket once with weeks’ worth of pine nuts we gleaned from the many cones under trees on the vast grounds. The food at dinner was mostly foreign to me and unpalatable. I remember being made to sit all one afternoon in front of a bowl of pea soup I had refused to eat. To this day, I have never eaten pea soup or eggplant, two bad memories of discipline.
Eventually I was taken to a doctor and found to be iron deficient and had to drink lots of Ovaltine with my meals. I ignored the nutritional problems while I learned to paint on glass, to memorize and recite poetry, to love Mozart and ballet and, best yet, reading. At the end of third grade I had read Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott, although I did not know what the word “bairn” meant and missed much of the plots.
(One of the many similar pavilions that were scattered all over the grounds. This one in the lake still stands in what is now the Eisner Camp.)
When, after two years, I was taken away abruptly and put in a convent school to begin the fifth grade, I had no inkling of a times table, but I could tell a good story, write and direct a play and of course, paint on paper, glass or even a sidewalk. I knew the music of Beethoven, Schubert and more, knew about Pavlova and Nijinsky, had been exposed to opera in recitals by at least one famous opera singer. One afternoon Mori and I hid in the minstrel balcony and looked down into the Music Room where Dr. Altaraz’ beautiful teenage daughter, Vera, serenaded her boyfriend Clarence with”Poor Little Buttercup” by Gilbert and Sullivan. I still love operettas, especially HMS Pinafore. Clarence, we heard, came riding up to visit Vera on a motorcycle. How romantic and extraordinary–the wild young man and the golden princess!
Dr. Altaraz, who we were told was a child psychiatrist, must have been determined to “grow” generations of artists and I think it worked for many of us despite our confusion with the stuffing of culture at every turn. One of my classmates, Alex, tall for a twelve year old, would galumph into any room with a piano, sit down and rip off some classical music and just as suddenly run out again. I also remember in the playground he taught me naughty songs we loved to sing as he pushed me on a swing; one began with the words, “Whenever you see a hearse go by….” It is now clear to me that the good director of the place coming directly from a self-destructing world found purpose in teaching the young about art and culture as a salve for the wounds of war and more likely hope for a more peaceful future. Once, Mori and I sneaked into Mrs.Altaraz’ bathroom and saw her stacked paintings leaning against the walls.I remember how we shivered looking at one showing a line of young women wearing only red stripes of paint across their naked bodies from top to bottom. Was that war up close and personal? Since then I have been appalled by torture all the Saturday matinees in Framingham had never shown me.
(The former Gatehouse to the 880 acre estate (Altaraz School) where we dormed for summer camp is now the entry to the Eisner Camp.)
Every Wednesday night there was a formal salon and we, the students of all ages, were expected, in fact forced, to perform, to show off our talents in fancy dress. For my turns, I directed my fellow students to recite poetry from my Child’s Garden of Verses, or a play I plagiarized from the radio. (Karma when becoming a teacher and finding the temptation and/or stupidity continues to this day.) Oh the talent in that school! I remember a probable young Dorothy Dandridge in a slinky white satin gown leaning against the grand piano singing “Embraceable You” and two budding opera stars in their teens, Ned and Esther in formal attire. It was a treat to be among so many talented students. I loved writing poems and short plays.And ever since have been a show-off, ready to hold forth at any time.
(A picture of the lake and great landing (from the archives of the Library of Congress) where I learned to swim and row a boat and, most importantly, dream and imagine without interruption.)
Whatever they did at Altaraz, it worked. There was an ever-present atmosphere of beauty and creativity: Recitals and concerts in the oak and gold paneled music room with twin grand pianos, coffered ceiling, built-in organ which doubled as a multi-instrument with piano rolls filling a row of drawers just above the floor, and my favorite crystal-globed chandelier, while outside a parade of Greek statues and marble benches lined a rolling lawn edged with giant chestnut trees, and then there was an Italian rose garden with more statues and a long rose covered colonnade, all in the midst of the Berkshire mountains where Dr. Altaraz led all the students on Sunday mornings on hikes with a walking stick from a large collection he kept on the office wall behind his desk. The rumor was if you were bad he would use these for whippings. On hikes, he held forth among the glories of nature and the grandeur of God while waving his stick above us.Oh the impatience to be done with it as the smell of Sunday morning pancakes wafted in the air.
(The Housatonic River ran through it all….Through all four seasons, it seemed a never-ending kingdom– limitless to a wandering little kid.)
There was a double marble landing on an artificial lake big enough for the seniors to hold their cotillions, where I raced a heavy green rowboat during summers, and a second artificial lake where I learned to skate, and hills to ski down in winter. In summer “camp” I still remember the words we sang ( “John Jacob Jingle Heimerschmitt”) around a campfire toasting marshmallows, and I never tire of Strauss waltzes recalling the parqueted floor of the grand ballroom when the Persian rug was rolled up by six people across, preparing for the formal dances when my partner was a nine year old boy named John Allen. I remember the feelings of pride in my little peach satin gown while the older people looked down at the little couple and crooned, “How adorable.” Good for the soul of a child who had magically entered some kind of wonderland.
(I remember drawing these urns with pastels as a kid)
(The rose garden)
(my secret garden?)
I spent hours as a child playing and imagining in spectacular gardens. I learned to swim in the fountain you can almost see in the first picture. There were six rearing white marble horses spitting water into the pool and every time I paddled on my little board under one I would bob up and down. After we graduated from the fountain, Mori, Joan and I were taken to the big lake with the landings where we hung on for dear life to the marble edge kicking our feet. We had ballet lessons on the terrace above the fountain. It ran the whole length of the building, but it was not easy to dance on bricks.
(The picture doesn’t give a true picture of the grand marble landings big enough to hold dances on. At graduation we 3 little girls watched from our window at the romantic couples canoeing across the lake under moving spotlights– just like a movie!)
|We were taught to fish on this lake, and I remember the horror of removing the hook. (Recently my dog, Daisy caught a catfish where I now live near another bigger lake.) I have happy memories of “my” assigned green boat that made me love sailing. And then there were always kingfishers and herons….things to write poems and stories about.|
I remember these two years with gratitude because I became a writer with so many wonderful experiences, awards and memories, published poems and stories, and plays off-Broadway, and on NPR. Once on my old TV show my producer said I could talk to “anyone”about anything. (I even got to interview Johnny Carson, one of the best!) The truth is I knew enough to begin a conversation because of my varied beginnings. I continued to meet famous artists, writers and musicians through years of my own company productions of classical music (PeQuod Productions) – too many to name here. and my paintings are in some nice offices, homes and studios. I’d say that for better or worse, whatever Dr. Altaraz envisioned for his students’ future, it worked for me. I owe so much of my happiness and artistic success to the mission, goals and vision of the man who christened me “the new girl, Ellen.”
O, My handsome riding habit was a ludicrous outfit since the best I could do was sit atop “Nursey” a smelly black Shetland pony while a groom led me up and back on the bridle path as I watched Mori speedily dash across the meadow bareback on a pinto pony. She was the real tomboy. I still have the scars in my leg where when wrestling, she pushed me down on a rusty nail sticking out of a wooden crate we were planning to make into a soapbox derby entry. We ignored Joan W. as she was a true blue “Goody Good” the name we had for well-behaved young ladies. She most likely grew up to be a politician or a judge.
(our “other” lake where we could skate in winter at the bottom of the hill where we learned to ski.)
|I remember when they drained it once we found razorback clams galore in the mud.|
(There was an inside courtyard formed by the 3-sided manor house, filled with a hedged-in garden, more roses and a dog house in the center for Spitzy, the Altaraz’ American Eskimo dog who barked all winter in the snow. The doors open out from the grand ballroom and once John Allen spilled a bit of cocoa out there on one of my three pretty ball gowns when we took time out from waltzing.)
Frieda Altaraz was an excellent painter who died in the 1970s and her husband, Dr. A. died tragically a few years later trapped upstairs in a house fire. Their lovely daughter, Vera, passed away just last year after a long life, painting wildflowers and gardening and inspiring others during her lifetime to enjoy everything beautiful! A few years ago, I found her book on Amazon of paintings of the wildflowers of the Berkshire mountains. Mori and I thought her the most beautiful and talented “big” girl in the world. She did NOT marry Clarence. She married a writer.
Long after I left the school was named Brookside and it was, I am told, for boys only. These linen postcards were made during that period all but the top one of the back view with gardens.
Today, Altaraz School has become the modern Eisner Camp for Reformed Jewish kids. You can Google it for all the new and wonderful things available for new generations of students. You know who Michael Eisner (Hollywood) is, no doubt. How canny and wise of him to purchase a place of majestic beauty and the creativity it inspires in young people!.
©This is from a memoir-in-progress (Are You My Mother?)
Does anyone know what happened to Mori Wildfeuer and Joan Wolteger? I have wondered for years now to no avail. I believe Mori’s mother was a high-fashion model who only visited once while I was there, and I was very excited for her since nobody ever visited me during my two years in the school. I remember her being very tall and beautiful, but she made a big deal of a “present I brought for you, Mori.” When she pulled a lollipop out of her purse, I was not too young to feel let down. I mean once in two years. a small lollipop?I must admit that each time she married, Mori got a package. Once it was “Fruit of the Loom” and she opened a box full of aprons and dish towels. ???? But when her mother married a toy manufacturer Mori got a little movie projector and we had lots of fun creating films of “Our room” slowly panning across the bureau draped with stuff falling out of open drawers and our massive pine cone collection from the forest. Mori was my best friend for the long two years.I hope she was in the movie business.
I looked up the name Wolteger online and found the name of one such person in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 who was a physician. His wife, the report says, was “lost.” (That would explain a lot if indeed it was Joan’s history..)The only other Wolteger is a well-respected violinist named Edna in Toronto. Could this be her granddaughter?
See my gallery for sale items
|Lists some of the treasures when sold.|
for original lithograph of Robert Louis Stevenson, an original photograph and book from my meeting with Lowell Thomas, and the book by T.E.Lawrence. Read more about these artifacts for sale now. Oh the picture of Fredrick Franklin is not for sale. He was my hero from the moment in my childhood when I saw him dance to “Freddie and his fiddle” in the play, Song of Norway.
You can read more about dancers on these pages. Jose Greco and Franklin were two of my heroes who I was lucky to meet when I was a kid. Can students today enjoy real art when they are so addicted to technology/screens? Is there time in their lives for cultural enrichment when they spend hours on end playing video games? Or is art obsolete in a world where Sci-fi is reality?
When I was a teenager I had seen the Ballet Russes at the Boston Opera House year after year, and I remember Jerome Hines in Faust, and so many other of the great artists in live performances of my youth.
My conflicted mother, whose single life and career as a nurse had little room to raise a child, worked hard and long to pay for someone else to do the job and told me when I asked the big why (?), that she saw the alternative: a kid growing up in a rented room with only a fire escape for the outdoors. While my mother lived with a hot plate in the closet and a jar of peanut butter and a can of tomato soup, I lived the radical difference at Altaraz School for two years, and despite the loneliness, discomfort and sometimes real pain of being alone, I grew to be a fearless single traveler through much of the world, with an outlandish love of art and its makers, so much so that I became one. And in the end I feel overwhelming gratitude to my mother for doing the best thing for her only child.
I wonder: “Are social media and video games plugging up childhood today and will it matter if adults eventually have little use for art and artists?”
I was at one time the Public Relations Director for the San Jose Symphony and Opera Company in Silicon Valley. Yes, I grew up to consort with many world talents, e.g., having lunch with Alicia de Laroccha, a tiny lady with such strength at the keyboard that she broke a piano string on her first note on our Steinway!
During my TV days, I remember a picnic in the San Francisco Zoo with Ron Moody before his turn in Oliver that night where we drank cheap Spanish wine and laughed our heads off, and later in his hotel suite with his mother, his cousins and his aunts, where he yelled out the window at a practicing opera singer to “Keep it down” so the rest of us could practice too. And Joan Baez sang in my car as I drove her home where she made me a cup of tea in her cozy kitchen. So many fun times with the best of the best. The list of my contemporary “famous” actors, singers, dancers, painters, and a list of all who I have met and known in my long life is too long for a blog-post, but let’s say, when I watch TCM or listen to the radio, I have happy memories of the performers.
Thank you, Mom, for giving me the Altaraz School experience. And thank you, Dr. Altaraz and family for putting me in a fairy-tale setting at an early age. It put me on the path to a lifetime of writing, another way to continue playing and dreaming into adulthood.