In the past nearly four years working as an oral historian, I have had the privilege of collecting some great stories. Through it all, I have learned more about my city, its past, and its place in history. My latest project has been particularly interesting to me, because it has given me the opportunity to investigate Chicago in relation to the Cold War, the historical era that interests me the most, and was the focus of my undergraduate studies. It is rare for people to be able to put to use the full range of what they learned in college for their work, but I have been fully utilizing my degree for the past year with this project.
Despite my general good fortune in landing this project, I have to say that today stands out, not only as the best day I've had working on the Cold War project, but as my best day at CHM. It may even go down as one of the most memorable days of my life.
Today, I drove out to Schaumburg in order to interview Martyl Langsdorf. She came to our project by way of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a Chicago-based publication that has been in existence since 1945, when the first atomic bombs were used against Japan. We were interested in telling the story of the Bulletin, and had written to them to see if they could suggest any "old-timers" from the journal's past with whom we could speak. Helpfully, they sent us an entire list, complete with the name of Martyl Langsdorf, the artist responsible for designing the famous "Doomsday clock" that has graced the cover of the Bulletin since its inception.
I was incredulous that we were able to secure an interview from someone who had been active during that time period, and was quick to volunteer to interview her myself, rather than delegating the task to an intern. In the weeks before the interview, I conducted quite a bit of research on Martyl, reading a lengthy oral history that she had conducted with the Art Institute, focusing mainly on her formidable artistic career and the historic home she owns in Schaumburg, designed by architect Paul Schweikher. I was amazed by the life she had led, and was eager to flush out some of the historic points that had been glossed over in the Art Institute interview.
When I arrived at Martyl's home, I was struck by her openness and generosity. I promptly received a tour of her unusual, mid-century home, and was encouraged to spend time playing with her friendly poodle, Xander. When we finally settled down for the interview, in her serene, light-filled studio, incredible stories began to pour forth.
Originally from St. Louis, Martyl and I bonded over our mutual alumni status at Washington University, though our tenures there had occurred some seventy years apart. Martyl's husband, Alexander, was a professor at Wash U when he was called to Chicago to join the Manhattan project, working on the development of the atomic bomb. Martyl shared anecdotes with me of such historical figures as Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Edward Teller, whose Hyde Park apartment the Langsdorfs rented when the Tellers moved to Los Alamos. To me, these men are icons only read about in books, but to her, they were friends and colleagues. Her stories personalized them on a level I never could have anticipated.
Martyl also shared her story of being marginalized during the McCarthy era, when her connections to the art world threw suspicions upon her husband's work. She and her husband were constantly followed by the FBI, and Martyl's career was impacted by gallery owners who declined to represent her because they didn't want to draw the attention of the federal government.
|If you look carefully, to the right, behind the easel, are a couple mock-ups of the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.|
Truly, it was an amazing experience to meet someone who is a living, breathing link to a history that I've only experienced through academic study. After our interview, Martyl insisted on taking me out to lunch, where I got to hear more about her life, albeit off the record. I'm certainly never going to forget the day I spent with her. It validated my decision to pursue history in my life, even if it hasn't been the most lucrative career path. Maintaining a connection with the past is important for all of us, and I'm very lucky to have met Martyl today.