Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Otto Plath Was "A Good Boy, But a Poor Businessman"

This Berkeley newspaper classified ad is so over-thought and overwrought it first made me laugh. Otto Plath, “Going East” in May 1914, offered an 80 x 130 urban lot for sale at below market value. Its virtues include proximity to the post office.

Berkeley Evening Gazette, May 30, 1914, p. 6

In May 1914 Otto Plath was 29, a graduate student at U.C.-Berkeley, and unhappily married. He said his first wife Lydia was “cold,” meaning sexually, but it was her and her sisters' money he lost trying to deal in real estate, and she was angry. Otto was going east, without his wife, to Columbia University in New York, to study there toward a Ph.D. in German. Despite this promising career plan, war with Germany derailed it and pauperized Otto through no fault of his own.

Most anyone will tell you that land by itself is a poor investment. It might one day be sold at a profit but no one can say when, or how much of a profit, or what might be erected next door. Meanwhile it produces no income or benefit yet is taxable. That said, immigrants such as Otto or his father Theodor arriving in the U.S. with only what they could carry--that was the rule at Ellis Island--might deeply value being able to say they owned land. The Europe that Otto and Theodor came from measured wealth in terms of land ownership. In the United States, wealth meant having money in the bank. Otto’s attempt at flipping land to put money in the bank bridged the old world and the new.

Looking into this, I quit laughing. Otto was trying to accumulate wealth using the only money available to him. American banks did not lend to immigrants with no collateral or credit history. So for loans of all types, immigrants went to their families, in-laws, or fellow immigrants. Some ethnic communities had their own loan associations. At least they spoke your language. A loan shark was another alternative. For a financial foothold with no money down, the U.S. government invited all citizens, excluding only rebels, to claim 160 acres of free public land purged of Indians. Under the 1862 Homestead Act, claimants had five years to turn the land into a farm or ranch. After that they owned it and could sell it. It was a great opportunity and an enormous gamble.

Otto Plath’s father Theodor Plath came to the U.S. in 1901. A traveling master blacksmith, he settled his wife and five of their six kids and finally himself on a North Dakota farm. There his wife showed signs of mental illness. Around 1907, Theodor moved to Harney County in southeastern Oregon and was a blacksmith there. This is sagebrush desert land at an altitude of 4000 feet. Annual rainfall is 10 inches, and the gravelly soil is good only for raising cattle and sheep and grasses to feed them. In all of Harney County's 10,000 square miles there were two towns. Today those towns are cities. There are still only two.

Harney County's Pueblo Mountains area. Irrigation efforts failed. [1]

Given the challenges of staging and funding a whole new life in inhospitable places, an immigrant’s living apart from a spouse or leaving children with relatives or simply going mad was (and still is) not unusual. The 1910 federal census shows Theodor, without his wife, in Harney County with his son Paul, and son Max was a hired man nearby. Two daughters remained in the Midwest, one a servant, the other with an aunt. Theodor’s immigrant parents in Wisconsin were paying for Otto’s education: a student loan. Otto defaulted by changing his major and the family cut him off. As Aurelia put it, he was on his own for the rest of his life.

Otto’s marriage in August 1912 got him access to money. Parted from his wife, Otto borrowed from friends or worked low-level jobs. One of his very rare letters (I’ve seen two) asks a friend for more time to repay $30. [2] In 1917 he was $1400 in debt -- the equivalent of $30,000 today. In 1920 he was 35 years old and the federal census says he was unemployed. When Otto, at last fully employed, married Aurelia Schober in 1932 he and Aurelia took a side trip to San Francisco where Aurelia said he sold or disposed of an urban property with an ocean view. She gave no further details.

Five days before writing his will, broke and sickly Theodor Plath claimed homestead acreage in Washington State, not to dwell there but to own it without buying it and leave it to his younger daughter. Theodor was buried in a pauper’s lot with no headstone. His wife died in an insane asylum. As a graduate student on a new degree track, Otto in his thirties kept borrowing from housemates and obsessing about interest rates. He pinched pennies, but any nest egg he ever had he sank into stocks and lost. He gambled with his health and died miserably, maybe in part because doctors cost money.

Otto’s uncle had rightly called him “a good boy but a poor businessman.” Consider along with his bumblebees and their ways that Sylvia Plath’s father was 51 before he was able to buy a house. He left Aurelia to dispel with starch and sunshine the carnage of the immigration experience and by herself lift Otto’s children permanently into the middle class.

[1] State of Oregon Harney County history, retrieved 7 April 2022. The area Theodor lived in is now ZIP code 97720.

[2] Otto Plath to Hans Gaebler, 18 October 1917. (Smith)

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Where Aurelia Plath Went to College

Voyeur Arthur Inman lived across from Aurelia's all-female college, its campus here portrayed in its handbook, 1932.

Boston University in 1900 didn't want a business college. The word "business" itself was tainted; it stank of corruption and money-grubbing, and only grudgingly--responding to a survey of what male high-school seniors wanted, because female B.U. graduates outnumbered males--did B.U. allow in 1913 a College of Business Administration. The university's president and board of trustees, holding their noses, imposed certain conditions: 1) Night classes only. 2) The business college, being "unacademic," must be strictly separate from B.U.'s College of Liberal Arts. 3) The business college must fund itself; B.U. allowed the use of its classrooms but none of its money.

Hundreds of males enrolled. At last, a college that taught something practical: accounting, business law, economics, advertising, and also Spanish, because trade with Latin America was trending and Pan-Americanism was a live ideal. In three years the college more than paid for itself, and B.U. made it full-time and degree-granting. It was the first undergraduate business college in New England, its first graduates the class of 1917. [1]

During the Great War, men enlisted and women had to fill their office jobs. Without any fuss, B.U. in 1919 opened for women the College of Secretarial Sciences, degree-granting but with many options. College graduates and those with some college could earn secretarial credentials in one year or two. With two more years of literature and languages, women as cultured as they were self-supporting received a bachelor's degree. In its first semester 300 women enrolled. Aurelia Schober enrolled in 1924, when the school, offering a four-year teaching track, renamed itself the College of Practical Arts and Letters (CPAL). Aurelia earned the two-year secretarial certificate, as her father required, and could then have found a job, but the flourishing college where she was a star inspired her to want a career.

B.U.'s CPAL was first located in the old Massachusetts College of Pharmacy building on Garrison Street in Boston's Back Bay. In short order CPAL expanded into three adjacent buildings. One was the dormitory Aurelia lived in during her senior year. [2] [3] [4] In 1942, CPAL hired its own alumna, now named Aurelia Plath, to develop a medical-secretarial program at its new location, Dunn Hall on B.U.'s more picturesque Charles River campus [color photo]. CPAL in the 1940s had other specialty majors: business education, applied art, home economics, and retailing. But secretarial studies was its bread and butter and that was what Professor Aurelia Plath taught.

Where Aurelia Plath taught: Dunn Hall, Boston University
As crucial as such training was to women who needed it, at universities "secretarial science" was reduced to "skills" that high schools and vocational schools could teach in less time and with fewer books. CPAL was dissolved in 1955, its courses and faculty portioned out to B.U.'s art school, school of education, and thriving College of Business Administration, where Aurelia was promoted to associate professor. Dunn Hall today houses the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies.

[1] https://www.bu.edu/articles/2015/birth-of-a-college/


The Journal of Education, Sept. 29, 1922.

[3] Recluse and diarist Arthur Inman lived from 1919 until the 1960s in Garrison Hall, a residential hotel at 8 Garrison Street. His September 21, 1921 diary entry describes looking through field glasses from his sixth-floor apartment down into Boston University's gymnasium, where, in an office, naked female students were being measured and examined. The Inman Diary (Harvard Univ. Press, 1985).

[4] After CPAL left Garrison Street, two other colleges moved in. The buildings were razed in the 1970s for apartments and senior housing. Garrison Hall, on the next block, still stands.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Aurelia Plath Vowed Not to Make Her Kids Do This

Aurelia at 18 worked "the summer after high school [1924] in an insurance company, typing dull form letters eight hours a day five and a half days a week from wax dictation cylinders--a grim experience I vowed no child of mine would ever have to endure." [Letters Home, 3]. The woman in this 1920s photo is not Aurelia; she would not have been smiling. Aurelia Plath long remembered the sweltering office and cane-bottomed chair. [1]

In 1924, office air conditioning was decades in the future for most. The cylinders, in the photo conveniently racked, are cardboard coated with wax, and thus reusable. For those who don't remember, wax cylinders were first marketed for sound recording in 1889. While recorded music moved to discs, wax cylinders persisted in offices until after World War II. View a demonstration of a restored wax-cylinder dictation machine here. Basically, the boss spoke into a horn that scratched the sound of his voice onto a rotating cylinder, and the "Ediphone" operator, when ready to type out what he said, put that horn to her ear or maybe had a headset, like the lady in the photo, and controlled the playback with a foot pedal.

When working her part-time job at Massachusetts General Hospital (much easier than grimly writing or not writing), Sylvia Plath transcribed medical reports from a similar but updated dictation machine called an audiograph, commonly trademarked Audograph, that etched the boss's voice permanently onto vinyl discs. That job inspired Sylvia's stories "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams" and "The Daughters of Blossom Street." In both, the business office is where fearful things happen.

[1] Aurelia to Max Gaebler, 7 June 1939. (Smith)

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

How Otto Plath Divorced His First Wife Without Telling Her

Where Otto Plath was divorced and Otto and Aurelia were married, Ormsby County Courthouse. Flickr.com

Daylight was at its briefest, but December of 1931 was mild, more rainy than snowy, and late that month three Bostonians headed west to Reno, Nevada, “Sin City,” just under 3000 miles away. They were a married man of 46, Otto Plath; his 25-year-old fiancĂ©e Aurelia Schober; and her mother Aurelia Greenwood Schober, 44, who drove the car.

Otto Plath sought a quick divorce from a wife he hadn’t seen for years and didn’t care to hear from. Socialites and movie stars had been shedding spouses in Reno since a scandal in 1906 made it famous. It so happened that in 1931, the year Otto and Aurelia were ready to marry, Nevada cut its three-month residency requirement for divorce seekers to an unheard-of six weeks. That was headline news, and the year’s B-movies such as Peach O’Reno and The Road to Reno and Night Life in Reno showed how it was done.

Bound by a deadline and a budget, the three could not stay six weeks, but Otto—who was rarely so lucky—had relatives in Reno he had visited before. Those relatives could testify almost honestly that Otto on visits had spent six weeks there in aggregate, or fib that he had been their guest since November. Someone arranged—amazingly—to hire as Otto’s divorce lawyer Reno’s mayor, E. E. Roberts, a colorful public servant who lost more elections than he won, but not for lack of trying.

Nevada divorces worked like this: You or your spouse filed papers charging adultery or cruelty or such, and on your court date, spouse present or not, your lawyer told the judge the charges were true. Judges ignored lies that were not too obvious. But Otto did not have to file any charges, so his wife was never served with papers or notified. Along with Nevada’s six-week law, there was in 1931 a brand-new grounds for divorce, no charges needed: non-cohabitation for five years or more. Otto and his first wife Lydia had lived apart for fifteen years. In the courtroom another attorney simply stood in for her and agreed that the marriage was over.

By chance or by stratagem, the presiding judge was Clark J. Guild, chief proponent of Nevada’s non-cohabitation rule and Mayor Roberts’ crony. Otto’s divorce decree says “Ormsby County” and therefore was granted in Carson City, population 1,600, rather than glitzy Reno, of well-deserved ill fame, in the county next door.

It was Monday, January 4, 1932. No waiting, no blood tests required: Otto Plath and Aurelia Schober were married at the same courthouse that same day. We don’t know what they paid for the divorce, but the cheapest price for a lawyer plus the defendant’s lawyer plus court costs was $150. The wedding announcement sent out later says they married in Winthrop, Massachusetts.

The required legal notice was published only in Nevada, so Lydia Plath in Wisconsin learned of her divorce another way.

Sources: Nevada court costs in 1931: Mella Harmon, M.A. thesis, University of Nevada-Reno, 1998; Winter weather 1931-32; Wikimedia photo via Flickr used under CC by 2.0 license; wedding announcement, Smith College Plath archives; Aurelia S. Plath, preface to Letters Home; Clark J. Guild, Memoirs of Career (1971), University of Nevada Oral History Program; Renodivorcehistory.org. Ormsby County was absorbed into Carson City in 1969.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Soul Murder By Toxic Astro-Babble: Ted and Olwyn

Space bathmat with dust clouds, Walmart.com

Olwyn Hughes gloried in playing malicious games to shut out her brothers’ wives and girlfriends and redirect their attention to herself. Sylvia Plath said that on a visit to her in-laws Olwyn talked around and through her as if she were not there, and Ted Hughes, as if mesmerized, ignored Sylvia’s desperate signals to end it. Olwyn’s hostility drove Gerald Hughes’s wife to pack her bags and head for the train station. On occasion Olwyn snagged Ted’s attention by “talking astrology,” highly technical discourse that astrologers Olwyn and Ted understood, but Sylvia and most people did not.

Suzette Macedo, friend to both Sylvia and Assia Wevill, told interviewer Harriet Rosenstein that Olwyn shut out Sylvia by saying, “‘Ted, Teddy—you remember Neptune in the seventh house.” They’d continue to talk astrology as if no one else was present. Macedo said, “It creates an entity, a mystery, binding them together. And she spins this and draws him in.” Macedo guessed that the siblings had shared a private language in childhood.

Monopolizing Ted was the point. At a gathering in the 1960s, Macedo saw Olwyn triangulate Ted’s girlfriend Assia, who broke down crying:

Nobody could say actually what had happened. It sounds completely crazy and irrational but everybody who was present had felt it. . . All that was happening was that Olwyn was talking to Ted in this code language. Unless you’ve seen her do it—it’s something you have to experience to see what it is—she calls up a time in their lives when they communicated through—I don’t know what it is—and it’s just horrible, absolutely horrible. Everybody in that room was ill. [1]

Olwyn taught Ted astrology. That is not so weird given their time and place and their mother’s interest in the occult. British astrologers gave astrology its modern form. Sun-sign astrology dawned when a London paper in 1930 had an astrologer read Princess Margaret’s character and future through her birth chart. [2] In the 1950s Ted sent Olwyn letters studded with astrological symbols and hand-drawn astrological charts as spot-on as today’s computerized charts. But whoever taught Olwyn how to chart did not convince her that astrology ought never to be weaponized.

Yes, astrologers have ethics. Professionals learn they must do no harm. They may not share the birth data of living private individuals, precisely because this data, revealing a person’s proclivities, can be weaponized. [3] Ted shared with Olwyn Sylvia’s birth chart soon after they married, pointing out Sylvia’s “suicidal” Saturn placement. [4] Maybe Hughes thought it casual, but a chart is private info you don’t want a jealous sister-in-law to know and savor.

When Olwyn said in Sylvia’s presence, “‘Ted, Teddy—you remember Neptune in the seventh house,’” she was covertly criticizing Sylvia as a wife and reminding him she was a mental case. Sylvia’s birth chart in fact has Neptune in the astrological seventh house that represents marriage and partnerships. In astro-lore that signifies inflated expectations or delusions regarding marriage and the spouse. Sylvia really did say that she had found the perfect husband and marriage was to her “the central experience of life.” [5] But responsible astrologers don’t judge character using only one factor in a birth chart. If they did, they’d point out that Olwyn had a pretty sad Neptune herself.

Sylvia was angered, and Assia very hurt, by the Hughes’s astro-babble, which Macedo says Ted did not call a halt to. It made Olwyn smile. Macedo called it evil.

[1] Collection 1489, folder “Macedo, S.” Rose Library, Emory.

[2] https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/princess-margaret-horoscopes. Both Olwyn (b. 1928) and Ted (b. 1930) were born before Sun-sign astrology was invented, but as an adult Ted came under its influence.

[3] So well known for astrological references in his art, Ted Hughes closely guarded his own birth data. See Diane Wood Middlebrook, Her Husband, chapter “His Family.”

[4] Ted Hughes to Olwyn Hughes, October 1956.

[5] Sylvia Plath to Aurelia Plath, May 7, 1957.