Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. This is Atomic Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. and it is Wednesday, November 15, 2017. I have with me Suzanne Langsdorf. My first question is for her to tell us her full name and spell it.
Suzanne Langsdorf: My name is Suzanne Martyl Langsdorf. That is spelled S-U-Z-A-N-N-E, Martyl is M-A-R-T-Y-L, and Langsdorf is L-A-N-G-S-D-O-R-F.
Kelly: Very good.
Langsdorf: I have to spell it a lot in real life.
Kelly: Well, you are here because of your father and your mother, who both played a part in shaping the Atomic Age. Your dad being part of the Manhattan Project and your mom as an artist, afterwards working on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists designs and other things.
With that, why don’t you start and tell us what you can recall about who your father was, and where he came from? What was his background?
Langsdorf: My father was a physicist, so we learned early on how important physics was. We learned that it was something that preoccupied him. He was very engaging, a very sweet person. He was a great father, very loving, but he was also capable of going off into the clouds. He had a very high forehead, he looked like an egghead. He was thinking a lot, and then we would have wonderful discussions.
Dinner table conversations were always—he would end up explaining lots of things. His father was also a scientist. He was an electrical engineer, Dean Langsdorf. My parents had come from St. Louis. My grandfather started the engineering school at Washington University. My father and grandfather were both intellects, scientists.
Kelly: Excuse me, I forgot to ask—could you tell us the names of your father and his father?
Langsdorf: My father is Alexander – what was his middle name? No, he didn’t have a middle name. He was Alexander S. Langsdorf, Jr., but he wasn’t technically wasn’t a junior because on his birth certificate, they didn’t spell out the Suss, S-U-S-S. So my father was Alexander Langsdorf, Jr., PhD, Doctor, whatever. His father was Alexander Suss Langsdorf.
My father started at Washington University. He went to Washington University, then to MIT, then to Caltech. Then he went back to St. Louis. He said that Washington University’s atomic focus was sort of in medicine. He thought the nuclear—well, the research that was being done, which ended up on the Manhattan Project. He basically wanted to work with [Enrico] Fermi, so he came up to Chicago.
He had met my mother through his family. Their families knew each other in St. Louis. My mother was a very ambitious young artist, who had lots of beaus, but wasn’t interested particularly in settling down. It had to be the right person, who would give her her space basically, which was unusual in the ’30s. They moved to Chicago, and I was born after the war.
Kelly: What was your mother’s name?
Langsdorf: My mother’s name was Martyl Suzanne Schweig. Do you want me to spell that?
Kelly: Yes, please.
Langsdorf: M-A-R-T-Y-L was her first name; Suzanne is S-U-Z-A-N-N-E. So the reverse of my name. Her maiden name was Schweig, S-C-H-W-E-I-G.
Her father was a well-known photographer in St. Louis who was the son of a photographer, who had come from Germany and set up his own studio.
My father’s parents were Dean Langsdorf and his mother, Elsie, was very political. She had gone to Cornell, was one of the first women to graduate from Cornell, and was an alderwoman and active in all kinds of things. They met at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, which was their religion, if you can call it a religion.
They hit it off. I think the marriage may not have taken place really, because my mother’s grandmother, Suzie, for whom I was named, she really approved of Alex Langsdorf. But of course, my mother went the other direction. If her family was thinking she ought to marry this guy, she was thinking, “No!”
But she told me once, she said, “We were driving around one day. I looked over and he was driving the car,” and she said, “Boy, he’s really handsome.” He was really good-looking, pictures of him in his thirties.
Kelly: How old were they when they were married?
Langsdorf: 1941. I can’t do the math. My father was born in 1912, and my mother was born in 1917. They got engaged. A good friend of my mother’s was basically pushing her into, “You need to set a date, really.” she just basically just threw a big New Year’s Eve party and said, “This is your engagement party.” This was her friend Dorothy Jean Samen in St. Louis, a classmate.
Kelly: Did it work? Did they get engaged?
Langsdorf: Yes. Yes, they got engaged, they had a huge party. My grandfather took all these wonderful photographs so there was a book, because it was a professional high-quality photography. The kind of silver nitrate prints, bonded to heavy, the whole thing, leather-bound. Beautiful pictures in the ‘40s with orchids and stuff.
Of course then, when the wedding took place, it was a year later. Pearl Harbor was December 7, 1941 and they got married on December 31, 1941. It was great to get married, but it was this shadow, cloud over the whole proceedings.
Kelly: Was your father working at Washington University at the time?
Langsdorf: Yes, that was 1941. I don’t think he moved to Chicago until ’42. I did listen to the whole interview that you have recorded, and he talked about his saga of coming—I think it was ’42.
Of course, there was no housing to be had. They had gotten married, it would be hard-pressed to find quarters and scientists were sleeping on people’s couches or bunking wherever they could. Hyde Park was—well, they weren’t building extra housing. People were flooding, coming in from far corners.
Kelly: I do recall from that interview of your father’s, that your mother wasn’t free to come until June, but that worked out pretty well?
Langsdorf: Yes. I think [Edward] Teller vacated an apartment. You remember that whole story?
Langsdorf: That was the apartment I was born into.
Kelly: What was that address? Do you remember?
Langsdorf: It was on Kimbark. 50-something Kimbark. It was one of those wonderful Chicago apartments that had a brick façade, an entryway. As I recall, you walked in around a little circular fountain-thing and into a marble lobby. There were probably several entrances around the courtyard. You would go up the stairs; inside, they were mid-western apartments. Lots of space compared to Virginia, D.C. A lot of Chicago University people were there.
My mother, when I was a newborn—I was born in December 1945. At one point when I was an infant, she dropped me on my head in the lobby. She was horrified. “Oh, my baby!” One of the residents was a neurologist or something. He said, “Oh, don’t worry, children have soft heads, she’ll be fine.”
Kelly: Oh, my goodness.
Langsdorf: That’s the apartment. That was ’45. We were there for three years until my sister was born, and then they wanted to move out of that. But anyway, she had many stories about that apartment building. The hallways were painted—she called it “shit-brown,” dreary. She jazzed it up.
They brought in their furniture that they had collected in St. Louis. She had some very nice couches, a matched pair, because I remember these in the apartment. She had slipcovers made for them in white cotton with piping around them. But she painted Picasso designs on them, one of her favorite painters of all time. I remember sitting on these Picasso couches.
They were a matched pair of Pullman sleep sofas, the Pullman Railroad Car Company. They were basically so well-made, and weighed so much. They’re actually in my niece’s house in Santa Cruz, the very couches. Had many different slipcovers put on them over the era, but they started off with Picasso to jazz up this apartment.
She painted one of the walls in the dining room forest green. She tried to spruce up the hallways coming up the stairs. She painted a Roman balustrade on the wall, and then had a huge fight with a super of the building, who said they’d get evicted if she didn’t paint it out.
Kelly: So she had to do that?
Langsdorf: Mm-hmm. So you’re getting a bit of flavor of what my mother was like.
Kelly: A little bit of a rebel?
Langsdorf: Yes, extremely independent-minded and very fun-loving. The pair of them loved to have parties.
Kelly: Who would come to these parties? You remember?
Langsdorf: Oh, no not really. At the age of three, I just remember being put to bed. I’m sure there were scientists. They all hung out together. It was stressful. My mother always complained, forever though, when you had the scientists over the men went in the corner and talked shop. That’s never going to change.
Kelly: Yes, exactly.
Langsdorf: My mother would try to mix it up. Of course, they all drank. Everybody drank and smoked, so that sort of loosened things up. Everybody smoked. My father smoked Pall Malls. I don’t even think they make those cigarettes. Remember Pall Malls? The red package with the white crest on it? Filterless.
Langsdorf: Mm-hmm. Everybody smoked.
Kelly: Certainly [J. Robert] Oppenheimer did.
Langsdorf: My mother, she smoked because everybody smoked. But she painted and of course she used oil paints. You’ve got turpentine sitting around, you have to be kind of careful.
Kelly: Yes, indeed.
Langsdorf: She would also paint with Casein paints and Gouache. But basically, her medium was oil paint until acrylic was invented in the ‘60s. She switched over because at that time, we were living in this wooden redwood house. She said, “A wooden house with oil paints?” If you take oil-soaked rags and dump them in the corner, they’ll combust by themselves.
Anyway, the parties were—she made a mean martini.
Kelly: That’s also characteristic of an Oppenheimer party.
Langsdorf: It was, yes, martinis. Basically it’s a vehicle for what, just gin or vodka.
45 to 48, we lived on Kimbark and then my sister was in the offing. She was born in August of ‘48. They kept looking, they looked for a house to buy, and Hyde Park was quite pricy. I’d say there was a lot of population pressure, but no place for people to go. They didn’t have a lot of money so they ended up buying a row house. I guess you would call them a brownstone; they’re kind of like the Brooklyn, New York stone façade. Walk up the steps to the front door kind of thing.
Woodlawn, 62nd – between 60th and 61st, on Woodlawn. It was nurse’s residence along 60th street, it was along the Midway there. They bought this house and did a lot of work on it. My father added a bathroom. Because it probably only had one, he put in another bathroom and all this stuff. We were there until ’52.
My father had to go to Argonne. He was working at Argonne and to get to Argonne from Hyde Park, you can imagine where the two are located. You have to travel west from the lake out into the hinterland, because Argonne was called Site A. It was probably twenty miles across the expanding or the west reaches of the city. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been seven railroad crossings, grade crossings between Hyde Park and Argonne.
He would carpool, and it was nerve-racking because you didn’t want to get stuck waiting for a freight train to pass. Men being men, a lot of them would see the barriers start to come down and they’d try to gun it to get across before they came down. He had tales of suffering in the carpool out to Argonne. He said, “We got to move. We got to leave the city.”
When we lived basically on the wrong side of basically the Midway, my mother said that—of course they put us in nursery school. At the University of Chicago, there was the lab school for elementary school but there was also nursery school and pre-schools. It was all an extension of the education department at the university. There were a lot of teachers there who were – what do you call them, not student teachers. But they were studying teaching or child psychology, so they would observe children having fights.
Kelly: Where did you end up moving to?
Langsdorf: Well, we got packed into the car and driven all over, my sister and I. Driven all over suburban Chicago area in the vicinity of Argonne, hence Lombard, Hinsdale. I remember looking at one house after the other. My mother wanted a studio. She took the biggest bedroom in the Woodlawn house, upstairs in the front with the best light. That was her painting studio. They took the back bedroom. She had to have a house that had a suitable studio, and not all houses have rooms in them that you can turn into a studio.
We looked and looked and looked and looked, and nothing was suitable. Then they heard through friends about a house of an architect who had built himself a house in Schaumburg, which is, where’s that? Northwest suburbs, sort of on your way out towards Rockford. He had been offered a position at the Yale School of Law.
He built this house. It was his test piece for himself with his wife and son. He said, “Oh, my God, who am I going to sell this house to? I’m going to go to Yale, but what do I do with my home?”
This turned out to be a house and family, marriage made in heaven. But I remember, this was all before the freeways. We got in the car and basically drove—it seemed like forever—out into the country, because Meacham Road at the time was a two-lane gravel road, it hadn’t even been paved yet. There was no Kennedy. Basically to get out there, you triangulated out. You go out Northwest highway, you turn north, you go west, and you turn north.
From Hyde Park, it’s over forty miles now on the freeways, so if you can imagine what it might have been in 1952. I think when we went looking, it was in the summer. The house was surrounded by a field. I guess because Schweikher was leaving, it was full of ragweed. My sister and I, we went running through the field while my parents were wandering around looking at the house. Of course, that set my sister up with her various allergies. She was ruined for life because of that. We came running in all covered with cockle burrs and ragweed pollen.
We ended up renting the place for a year, and then we bought it—they bought it. It was a stretch because—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but it was a fantastic house. It’s a national landmark property now. The architect was Paul Schweikher, and I’ll spell that S-C-H-W-E-I-K-H-E-R.
The house was made a landmark property because the local water district tried to condemn it, to tear it down so they could have the seven acres around it to flush out their parcel. My parents went to bat for it to preserve it, and it got landmark status about three or four years early, because it hadn’t turned fifty years old quite yet. But it’s now the Schweikher-Langsdorf House and Studio. It’s a Schweikher House Trust. The village of Schaumburg owns it and there’s a website, I think its Schweikherhouse.org.
We ended up living in that place. My parents preserved the house, but they did some things to it, to make their own bedroom in the north wing, which had been the architecture shop for Schweikher. They didn’t put up drywall and try to paint things over. They kept the character of the house. It was like a third child in our family, because it took so much care and so much work and attention.
My sister and I said it was a sibling, sibling rivalry. It was always something. They both worked on it all of the time. My father worked at the lab during the week, and then he’d come home, he’d work in the garden, he’d work on the house. He was worried about the roof, the plumbing, the this and that. It was a never-ending saga, and it continues to this day. The seven acres of grounds, it had actually had a professional landscape architect. His name was Franz Lipp, L-I-P-P, who worked with Schweikher and planted all the things around.
One of his insane things however, was planting a willow tree, because it’s so beautiful, right? But it was right outside the bathroom at the front of the house. Willow trees love water, so the roots kept growing into the sewer.
It was a great house. We finally moved out. My parents’ friends were all still down in Hyde Park and my piano teacher was still in Hyde Park so we made treks regularly by car into Hyde Park.
My father’s commute was no longer across grade crossings, but it was twenty-five miles from our house to Argonne, down two-lane roads.
Kelly: That was a good hour drive?
Langsdorf: Yeah, and it was before cell phones or anything so he would leave work. Can you imagine when you’re in Illinois winter, and you leave work and it’s dark. We didn’t have daylight savings time then, I don’t think. It got dark at 4:30. You’d have to drive home in the ice and snow. My father was an Eagle Scout, had been an Eagle Scout, and he was very cautious. He always carried a bucket of sand and a shovel and you name it in the car.
I remember him being late coming home and my mother would go sit in the living room, sort of watch the driveway, you know, how wives do. She liked to watch birds, so there was a pair of binoculars there by the window. She’d sit there. Typical American family of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Dinner’s ready at 6 o’clock. Dinner was ready. No dad; where is he?
Kelly: So you’d wait for him to come home?
“Waiting for your father to get home.” He’d make it. He was usually tired. He’d want to lie down before dinner. But usually if it wasn’t winter, he would come home, rest for a little bit, and then we’d have dinner. He always had a fountain pen in his pocket. We’d have dinner and he’d explain things.
The first table we had was an old fashioned—it didn’t look good in this house, as you can imagine—but it was one of those white enamel tables. They actually have one in the Smithsonian here. There’s a typical American kitchen from pre-war, and it was a white enamel-topped table with a wooden base and a drawer on each side of the table. Big, straight legs. Of course, my grandmother had one too in her kitchen and there would be a ball of rubber bands in one drawer, side of the drawer. We didn’t have aluminum foil then. but there would be wax paper with a foil backing on it. It was waterproof paper that things would come wrapped in. You saved all of that, too. That was in the other drawer. It’s like a period piece in my mind.
He could actually write on this table top to explain things, because he was always explaining things. We’d ask questions about stuff and he’d start drawing pictures about it. Because that’s what he did, he designed experiments and designed equipment to have the tech people make for his experiments. He’d always have machinists. He was always talk about a particular machinist who either was extremely talented, or somebody who was in the wrong field entirely.
Kelly: Did he ever try his hand at machining something?
Langsdorf: No—he might have. He plumbed the whole lab at Argonne, because he said they had a building—they put up a building and it was a cement shell, as I recall from the interview. They had to go in and build the whole lab from the beginning. I’m sure he cut pipe. I don’t know if he ran a lathe. But he made stuff. He made things for our house. He was quite handy.
I remember the Christmas that his present was a DEWALT table saw. My mother ordered it and had it delivered. We had it set up in the garage and we led him out there to see it, and it was, “Oh, my gosh.”
He made things like bookshelves. Actually, one of heating grates in their bedroom was a lattice over radiator in the floor. You can imagine what hot air rising over a wood lattice will do over time, so Schweikher’s grates were literally falling apart. They were like a bunch of puzzle pieces there. He took it upon himself to make new grated. I don’t know how you call it, it was like using a router so it was like teak, like a grate on a ship deck, perfectly joined. He made that.
When he was growing up, he told us about how it was his job as a little boy to get up and get the furnace started in the coal house. It was cold, and it was a coal furnace. He figured out ways to get things started when he wouldn’t have to get out of bed. It usually involved some kind of apparatus that he would make.
But he took fans apart and put them back together again. He knew how all that stuff worked, because his father wrote a book that was a classic, at least until mid-20th century. It was called The Principles of Alternating Current Machinery. It’s out of print, but McGraw-Hill was publishing it and it was still selling in India up until 2000, or something.
Kelly: Was your grandfather a good tutor to your dad about these things?
Langsdorf: I don’t know how that worked. My grandfather was a completely different person. He was more of a professor, and they lived in a house. I don’t think he did a lot of housework, you know, kind of manual things. My father was, as I said, the Eagle Scout. He trained my sister and me to sort of look, think of things because of physics, that things put in a certain position will fall over. He could secure a load in a car. It took you twice as long to get it out, because you had to undo all the knots and things. But he could look and see where things were unstable.
He had seatbelts installed. He knew the Europeans had seatbelts in their cars long before they ever were put in American cars. He had seatbelts installed in this Ford station wagon that they bought, because he knew: you jam on the brakes, your kids go flying. Hadn’t occurred to that many other Americans. Now you can’t have seatbelts put into a car, they have to be original equipment.
He could see things. He knew what was going on with the roof. At his memorial service, Rocky Cobb, who is an astrophysicist at University of Chicago. His eulogy to my dad said—this was my mother’s memorial, actually. He said “Alex Langsdorf and Martyl Langsdorf were artists and scientists. These scientists and artists are the noticers of the world. These are people who notice things. They’d say, ‘Why? What’s this? What causes that? Why does this work this way? Why does that work that way? How can I fix that?’” That carried over in everything.
It’s kind of hard to skate under any radar in a house like that, though, I have to tell you, growing up. My mother was always telling me to pick up my feet because I turn up the carpet edges. When we moved to this house—which was an architectural masterpiece, a work of art—the natural tendency of a child to park all their belongings from the kitchen door when they come in, back to their room drove her wild. I couldn’t leave it. I had twin beds—long story. “You have to pick everything up. We don’t have room—you don’t have rooms where you can shut the door and hide the mess. I’m sorry, but that’s the way this is. So clean your room up, put that away, and pick up your feet.”
Kelly: So the rest of your living spaces in your house were off limits for children?
Langsdorf: No, they were all open. No, we use the entire house all of the time, it’s just all open. I’d say that the roof had a bit of an overhang, but the roof itself was 4,000 square feet of flat roof in the Illinois prairie. Most houses in that part of the world have pitched roofs, so the snow can fall off. Schweikher actually built a bit of a grade. It was very Japanese. Well, the Japanese actually do a lot of water control, but it was flat roof, sort of prairie style.
My father actually ended up putting heating elements put in the downspout area, the drain area, to melt the ice dams that naturally were created. So water flow, he had to keep that in mind too all the time. He was always going up on the roof. 4,000 square feet of roof was a large expense to maintain or to replace. Worrying about the grade, a very slight grade even though it appeared flat. There were multiple levels and places where things joined. There was flashing, places for water to go when things didn’t quite join the way they should.
It was 4,000 square feet of roof. Then there was probably 3.5 thousand square feet of space in the living room, solar bedroom, the children’s room that Schweikher added on at the end. He had been married sixteen years before he and his wife had a child, so the house was built without a room for the kid.
Kitchen, it was opening planning housing. People are building houses like these now, big open rooms, multi-purpose. The dining table was in a corner, right near the kitchen. Every room you were in, you could look through beautiful sight lines to other places or to windows and to see out. You can see pictures of it online, and it’s appeared in a number of books too.
Julius Shulman wrote a book, a Chicago architect or something, it’s in there. Was it a book on midcentury modern? I can’t remember. So it’s midcentury modern, which is the big rage now. Schweikher built it in ’38. He started building it in 1938, so he was there from ‘38 to ‘52.
Kelly: How long was your family there?
Langsdorf: My mother lived there until she died. It was condemned by the Metropolitan Water District, they call it, the water people, MWD. which was a big, huge EPA sponsored water treatment facility for the Chicago metro area. The water district, these are separate water districts around in Illinois and they were sort of their own fiefdom. The plant was there and they were surrounded by maybe 800 acres, some huge plot. There was this little notch where this house was that they wanted to—we were right on the border of Schaumburg Township and Elk Grove Village.
It was condemned. My parents went ballistic. Well, they knew half of Chicago and lots of lawyers who were friends, the Sawyers, and they basically mounted a campaign, and artists and architectural people who were into preservation. This was in the ‘80s. They won landmark status, and so the water district became the owner of this place.
My parents got paid for the property and then they paid back out of the proceeds, basically, were reserved for a life tenancy. It was really a wonderful thing, because they got paid a pile of money for the house, they got somewhere to live, they didn’t have to pay Cook County property taxes anymore because it was not their own house. Any big ticket items, somebody else had to pay for. Of course, they didn’t do a particularly good job for it, they didn’t really want to own this house.
Over—how long it took, fifteen, twenty -years—Schaumburg actually negotiated with the water plant and decided to buy it. The Village of Schaumburg had other historic properties, not anything like this one, but they had some Lutheran churches and old Victorian-style homes in the center of town, from the mid-19th century. It was a crossroads of Schaumburg Road and Roselle Road. This little village basically had 500 German farmers, and then the biggest township in Illinois with almost nobody else in there.
It was a breadbasket out there. They raised sheep, cabbages, tomatoes, corn, wheat, alfalfa. For us living out there with nobody nearby, except the Rohlwings across the road. There were a lot of Rohlwings out there. In fact, there’s a road that used to be Highway 53, it was called Rohlwing Road. They call it Rohlwing Road. The other road south of us was called Nerge. I don’t know how you pronounce it in German. So it was Germany out there.
Everyone from the city started moving out in the ‘60s. My parents were liberals, and they supported Adlai Stevenson. We were in the heartland of Eisenhower. Our friends were in Hyde Park. We were surrounded by farmers. She knew them. We were civil to people, we knew the people who was around us. We had Farmer Pierce, behind us so I’d pick up apples.
Schweikher planted an orchard behind the house which was beautiful. It was two cherry trees, six apple—no, four apple trees, and two pear trees, and a partridge and a plum tree. Well, the apple trees do what apple trees do. So do the pear trees, they’re dropping stuff all over the place. You have to pick that up. One of my jobs was, my sister and I would rake apples into this cart and then we’d go wheel it up behind us there, and tip them through the fence. There was a barbed wire fence between us and the Pierces. All the pigs would come, and that was fun to watch.
We were nestled in this seven acres. There was a gravel pit to the south of us. The whole area around Chicago like that. It’s full of what’s called glacial moraines. It was the area where the glaciers—not the terminus, I would think that was further south. They dropped their loads of—they ground up rock as they move south 10,000 years ago. As they retreated, they left the Great Lakes and a ton of gravel, and then people mined the gravel. They would dig out a vein of gravel and when they’d run out of gravel, they’d just leave the hole there.
Kelly:Let’s go back to your mother. After the war, your father helped found the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Can you talk about that?
If they were going to make it into a magazine—not just a stapled together, mimeographed newsletter—it needed a cover, some kind of artwork. My mother said, “Well, I’m probably the only artist they knew.” She was a tame artist in the thick of it, a drinking buddy. She was a big pal of Fermi. She loved Enrico Fermi. I mean they all had FBI tails, followed them around all of the time. All of them did.
Kelly: During or after the war, or both?
Langsdorf: During and yeah. Well, it was a whole military operation, right? They didn’t have CIA then. It was the OSS, the FBI. Was it Hoover, even then? Mm-hmm, J. Edgar Hoover and the goons. Apparently the gumshoes, or whatever, everybody knew who they were. My mother said they tried to shake their tails, just for fun.
My mother painted all of the time, that’s what she did, so this was just a side adventure. She designed the cover. She’s called “The Clock Lady,” that’s what she called herself. She designed what ended up becoming the Doomsday Clock. It was the idea of the bewitching hour, the midnight hour, things happening at midnight. It’s in our consciousness, from fairytales. I always thought it was Cinderella, your coach turns into a pumpkin at midnight. Something’s going to happen at midnight, if you aren’t careful. That’s kind of what popped into her mind, and so she did the hands of a clock. She liked the graphic image of it too, and so she scoped it out.
That stuck. They changed the color. They put the hands at maybe 10 or 12—no, it was not quarter of, but like 14 or 13 to midnight. The numbers were just squarish, like on a watch face. They changed the color of it. It was reddish or greenish or grayish or whatever, every month they changed the color of it.Then somebody got the idea of when things were happening, they started changing the time. Now, that’s a big deal. I’m sure they had lots of meetings and discussions on what to do.
My father, he was very upset by what was going on. He was on a lot of committees, went to a lot of meetings. He just gave up after a while, because people really stopped listening to the worriers. We were raised with a healthy regard for radiation because he knew what it could do, having worked in labs and seen accidents happen. I grew up in the era of radium dials in my watch. We all know what happened to the radium watch face painters. They licked their brushes with the radium paint.
My father, somebody gave him a typewritten report, I think it was from the Army Department. Looked like a Master’s thesis or something. It was a report from all of the people that had gone into Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reported on what they had seen. Here was this report, it was on the bookshelf next to where I had to practice my piano. Of course, I read it when I was supposed to be practicing. Fourteen years old. Oh, yeah, I don’t think many people have read anything like that. None of my friends ever did.
I know that people used those X-ray machines that were out in shoe stores. We’d go out to buy shoes and my father would go yell at the shop people that, “You shouldn’t have these things. They’re dangerous.”
Our dentist used to hold the film, he held the X-ray. He ended up losing his arm to cancer and then, made it his mission to get the rest of—this was in the dentist building downtown. It was full of dentists and after losing his arm to cancer, we had a one-armed dentist, if you can imagine. Tried to get all the other dentists who were holding the films in their patient’s mouths to cease and desist that.
My father talked about that stuff but it wasn’t to scare us, it was to have us educated. Looking back on it now, freak out department, if you think of your kids being exposed to stuff like that, but who knew? Then of course, we had the whole Cold War and duck-and-cover bomb shelters. Oh yeah, right.
Kelly: He didn’t subscribe to bomb shelters?
Langsdorf: No, he said, “The living will envy the dead. If you can think you can survive in a bomb shelter,” he says, “And what are you coming out to?”
But my mother, she livened things up. She said, “Scientists needed to be livened up essentially, that they don’t see the world they way artists do. They notice things but they’re in their own universe. There are very few scientist/artists. I think Bobby Wilson at the Fermilab was a poet and a sculptor, as well as being a physicist. She admired him for that.
My father, he liked art. He was quite sensitive to it, but he didn’t really have the language to describe it. He really admired what she did and let her do her thing, which was a condition of their marriage, of course. I don’t think she wanted particularly to be a mom, because knowing what that entailed. I think there was a bargain that happened there, that he had to be a very involved dad. So he was very involved, which was not the thing then. Look back at Mad Men, women took care of the kids.
My mother always had help. During the day when he was working, we had a live-in nanny in Chicago, not out in the country but then we were at school. But my father was the one, he would come home from work and I remember him putting my sister and me to bed and reading us our stories. Probably falling asleep, more often than not, reading the story—him falling asleep, not me.
He was the kind of guy, he’d have to go to all these lectures in the lecture hall, or to go to a conference and you sit in the room. As soon as you turn the lights down to show the slides, off he’d go. I mean, nod off. He was a good napper.
Kelly: That’s a talent.
Langsdorf: Mm-hmm. His father was the ace of that. He would take my sister and me to movies when we visited them in St. Louis. He’d park himself down there, he’d lean back, he’d say, “Wake me when it’s over.” He’d immediately go to sleep, on command. It’s compartmentalizing or something, I don’t know.
Kelly: What else can you tell us about your parents? Or yourself or your sister?
But my mother didn’t particularly like them, and she didn’t have much patience for people if she didn’t really like them, or they weren’t really her kind of person. Maybe they didn’t drink or they weren’t good conversationalists, or I don’t know, sort of colorless as a couple. If you’d invite them over, Alex and his colleague would talk and she’d be trying to—she called it “squeeze a turnip,” or something. Anyway, so she was more like, “Well, I don’t have patience for this.”
There was a bit of a clash, of being an artist who was ambitious and a career and wanted to sell paintings, her patrons were people who had more money and she said, “You can’t just sell to other artist. You can trade with other artists, but artists aren’t going to buy your pictures. Rich people are going to buy your pictures.” She was good at that, and so they liked to give parties.
People loved to come to our house when we moved out to Schaumburg. They would make this trek out there, because it was like going to a park. Beautiful house, somebody who had the pitcher of martinis there, and there was peony flower garden in the back. She started giving this annual party, early on, she called it “The peony party,” and it was first weekend in June when the peonies started to bloom.
My parents loved to entertain and always busy, always working on the house. As I said, we were isolated really, because we didn’t have a lot of neighbors around. I think that’s one of the reasons my mother loved being there was that she could control access to her time. Vacations, generally we wouldn’t go somewhere just to go somewhere; take a cruise or whatever, or we would go visit family in St. Louis.
She would go to New York to do galleries or something. We started going with Sam Allison and his family to their family cottage up in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. That was a vacation. Oh, we made some major trips places, but my mother always said, “We go where we’re invited, and we go visit people in interesting places.” My father went to Harwell in England, we went there for a year.
In 1952, they went on a much I guess postponed honeymoon, European trip. Because they got married at Pearl Harbor time and the war, and then they had two kids and it’s like, no honeymoon. They went with the Allisons and another couple.
They parked my sister and me—I say “parked” but they found this very upscale Swiss boarding school for the summer, and put Sandie and me there. Left us there, and then went off on this grand tour around Portugal and Spain and France with their friends.
That’s a whole other saga. I was seven and my sister was five, and we don’t speak French and here we are in Gstaad. I have wonderful memories of that, because it was, “Oh, my God, from the Illinois prairie to the mountains.”
Kelly: So you enjoyed it? It came out okay?
Langsdorf: I hated it while I was there, but in retrospect, I adapted, essentially. It was like, “What? Where’d you go? Where’s my parents?” You’ve got to eat and sleep. It’s sort of like, what’s that movie, Madeline? Although it wasn’t nuns, it was Swiss. My mother said she felt perfectly comfortable leaving her daughters there, because we were with a Swiss.
They had a ball. They showed up in the middle of our stay there. My mother had bought an outfit in Spain and had her hair cut, and I didn’t hardly recognize her. Of course, she didn’t recognize us because the Swiss had cut off my hair and my sister’s too, because they weren’t about to spend the time to braid two little squirmy kid’s braids. They kept feeding us, the food was good. We both put on ten pounds and had our hair cut. So we had this meeting, and she said, “We’re going off, we’re going to France now.”
That was growing up with scientists, and artists, and whatever. Always sort of busy, keeping ourselves amused in the country without neighbors. We had school, but we couldn’t play with our neighbor kids or classmates. Not that we didn’t have friends. My mother would have the obligatory birthday party, and we had swim lessons, so we’d go to the swimming pool.
As we lived out there, civilization encroached upon us. It started with the Kennedy Expressway. It made it a little bit easier to get back into Chicago, of course. But I used to take the train into—my mother encouraged it, since I liked to draw. Personally, I inherited my mother’s—I like to draw and I drew all of the time. She saved my drawings and she said I drew better than she did. She said she really meant it, but she didn’t know if I’d be an artist or not. But I ended up sort of inheriting my great-grandmother’s love of needlework, so I became the sewing person in the house.
I would have to mow the lawn, weed the strawberry patch, and help clean up the kitchen. I augmented my allowance by hemming things. I actually enjoyed doing it and I learned to sew, and that’s a whole other saga.
My sister, she’s more like my mother, more like her personality. Had my father’s bone structure and math gene. She’s kind of artistic as well, she always liked to knit and to weave. But neither of us became scientists. My sister did get a math degree.
I was good at math, but I had a bad start at it because we spent the year in England. I got plopped into the English school system, and the American are completely different. I got into third form. I was thirteen. They’d already been doing algebra for two years in this Catholic girls’ school. Our Lady’s Convent, Abingdon, Berkshire. If you’ve never had even the slightest introduction to algebra and you’re suddenly in a class where they’re doing math, algebra. I couldn’t grasp simultaneous equations. I still probably couldn’t do one now. But I couldn’t grasp it, and my father was incapable of helping me to understand it. The big explainer, he’d just start yelling, which is no way to—you know.
Now, my son, who is named Alex, also Alexander. Not Langsdorf, he has my late husband’s name, Alexander Hasha. He’s a mathematician and when he was in graduate school, he tutored med students who had to take calculus to get their degree. To tutor someone who was trying to grasp the finer points of calculus; well, if you can’t explain it one way, you have to try another way and another way and another analogy and whatever, until the light goes on. It takes patience.
My father, he had patience to explain something that he wanted to explain, that really interested him. Somehow, explaining to his daughter who he thought ought to be able to get it but didn’t quite. I did place out of math at the University of Chicago, and that was the last I ever did with it. He kept saying, “You can do it!”
I actually did do all right on it, on the SATs or whatever. But you get a complex about some things early on in life. My mother, she was very organized and everything. But you tried to talk to her about things with numbers and her famous line was, “I’m innumerate.”
It’s hard to give a picture to somebody else of what people are like. But my mother was fun-loving and sort of like when they say, if you follow all the rules, you miss all of the fun. Have you heard that quote? She liked to say, “Rules were made to be broken.” She had this attitude about things.
She was in this girls’ school when she grew up. She went to a private girls’ school called Mary Institute, which still exists in St. Louis today. It was quite reputable. Her mother taught art there. But she went to Mary Institute Girls’ School, there was a lot of rules. She said, “I was the kind of person, if they told you to sit down, she’d stand up.”
There was no gum chewing, of course. But she would chew on a prune pit so that it looked like she was chewing gum. They would try to tell her to stop chewing gum. She’d say, “I’m not chewing gum.” There was this need to kind of dig.
Thankfully, the two of them, Martyl and Alex, actually agreed on the big-ticket things as far as raising kids. They never really argued. You couldn’t play one off against the other, they both had the German stock and it’s like, “Follow the rules, be a good citizen, do what you’re supposed to do, practice your piano, eat your spinach,” you know.
My mother, she was so visual and part of this attitude of, “Do things for your own good. Get very critical because you’re afraid your kids not going to turn out right. You want them to follow the rules.” It’s kind of stifling, to have somebody always monitoring your behavior. Kids are always going to be like that, right? “Why are you always on my case?” But she did also know that her own parents were so much like that, she was just doing how she’d been raised, in a way.
She backed off. When we were adults she knew she’s got her own life to lead. “We’d raised you, okay.” You could sometimes sense a disapproval somewhere. It’s usually what you’re wearing, and it’s like, “Hmm.” But growing up, you know, when she bought our clothes, we had to look good in the house. I always thought brown is not my good color and orange, but it looked good in this wooden house and everything. She’s the kind of person that you need to all go together, right, plus she was not a frilly person. I know I went through a very frilly/floral phase. Little girls tend to do that. At least this little girl did. That was beaten out of me. Not literally, but it didn’t go with the house. My father was oblivious to all of this. Actually, he did notice that my sister and my mother were more alike. I look at it as ganging up on me, which they did. I tell my sister about it now, and she says, “I was terrible.”
My father once, in a moment of candor, said, “I did notice how it really bothered me.”
And I’m thinking to myself while he’s telling me, “Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you let me know that I didn’t have to take it so much to heart?”
But I survived. You always see things as you’re an adult, you just had no clue what was going on when you’re a kid. Your feelings get hurt.
We did not have a television until the Kennedy/Nixon debates in 1960. We bought a used one. When that broke, got another one for the next election. And piano lessons and academics and stuff.
It was a wonderful, unusual childhood, I have to say, because of the marriage of art and science. And unique location, in a beautiful house, with not a lot of distractions. You end up really appreciating nature when you live in a place like that, and your mother is sitting there admiring the birds, feeding the birds, and looking at the birds, seeing the snow, all the seasons. She was a landscape painter.
Kelly: She painted your landscape?
Langsdorf: Yeah, she would paint all the views around from the house, or looking outside on the grounds and looking to the different views. When she would travel, it would be to places that were beautiful. They would go look. They went to Japan for my father’s work, and that really inspired her. In England, when we lived in England, she went around to north of England. She painted there. She sold most of her work so those works are out there now. Some of them are coming up on eBay and various places.
Kelly: You and your sister have a collection?
Langsdorf: I have quite the collection. I’ve got more than I can hang. It’s like a museum in my house, where I have things squirreled away in closets. She has works that she didn’t sell that were in house that we ended up bringing home. There are still some of her work, a good deal of it. She had works hanging in her house that were other artists, besides her own, and that’s there.
My mother’s brother had a lot of her stuff, and he died recently. The Martyl’s that were in her brother’s collection, they’ve all gone to California. My sister has three daughters. The art endures. Friends of hers that had works when they’ve died, people turn around and say, “Do you want them?”
It endures. And the Bulletin stories and now we’re part of this whole—it continues. You’re preserving even my memories. So my son can go—I gave him the link to Alex Langsdorf, and he’s listened to it. He just listened to it straight through. He was enthralled.
Kelly: It’s a wonderful interview. It’s a great interview.
Langsdorf: Thanks so much for doing it.
Kelly: It came out so well.
Langsdorf: My sister and I said when we first listened to it, it kind of freaked us out because we knew that voice so well. Here he was younger than my sister and I were when we were listening to him.
Kelly: Yeah. It’s fun.
Langsdorf: A young man.
Kelly: Yeah, he was.
Kelly: Very perceptive.
Langsdorf: Oh, yes. He was an encyclopedia, too. He loved to talk about stuff. I remember driving to Oaxaca, at night of course, when you’re crossing from Illinois, across the center of the US and Texas. Looking at the stars, he’d be talking about the cosmos.
Langsdorf: To his daughters. He liked to talk to us. It wasn’t like we were these foreign beings. I’m sure there are a lot of scientists that can’t be bothered with their kids.
We spent a summer in Los Alamos, so all these cool places because of his work. Everywhere we went, my mother was looking at the landscape.