Irène J. Underwood
ABF: We are Anna Bonnell-Freidin and Clem Wood, and we have the great pleasure of interviewing Mrs. Irène Underwood on July 23, 2008, at her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, about her relationship with Dumbarton Oaks over the years. Thank you very much for speaking with us.
IU: You are welcome.
ABF: Can you tell us about how you and your husband, Paul Underwood, first came to Dumbarton Oaks and about your memories?
IU: My husband was teaching at Cornell, and I came down in advance to find an apartment here, when he was granted a fellowship as a Junior Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. And he had written in advance to say I was coming to Washington. I had never been in the city before. It was 1943 – the war – and I found it rather overwhelming, but I went to Dumbarton Oaks and introduced myself, and John Thacher was very gracious. And his – maybe his secretary, I don’t remember what position she held – turned out to be a classmate of mine in college. So, they were both very gracious, but they were not much help about apartment-hunting. But I finally found one in an apartment building and I went back to Ithaca, and my mother and husband and I came to Washington that fall, so it must have been September, probably, 1943. And my introduction to Mr. and Mrs. Bliss – by the way I had been rather impressed, even on my short interview with John Thacher, by the rather rarefied atmosphere at Dumbarton Oaks in those days. But when I came here my first introduction to the Blisses was a series of concerts that were held in the Music Room, and at that time open only to, of course, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, and to the Fellows at Dumbarton Oaks and, of course, the Director of Studies also, and the head of the study of garden architecture and so on, and the Pre-Columbian, but no outside people. And they were wonderful concerts – really it was a great privilege to be there. I think probably Mrs. Bliss did most of the selection of the people who performed there. But I still remember my first meeting with her. Of course, we were advised that formal attire was rather expected. And we lived in Arlington and we had no car, so we had to travel by bus – we were rather poor too – we traveled by bus. You know, I had a long evening dress, and my husband was in formalwear. And we enjoyed the concert very much, and at the end Mr. and Mrs. Bliss were at the entrance to the Music Room, and we would make our way out and thank them for the concert. So, this was the first time we had met, and Mrs. Bliss looked at me and she said, “Oh, your dress is such a lovely color. I wonder if I might have it for cushions later.” I looked at her; I thought, “How am I supposed to react to this?” you know? I thanked her very much. I don’t know what I said – I really don’t – but I was rather startled. So, that was not a very good beginning to our acquaintance. But she, you know, she thought she was – she didn’t know how the other half lived. And she didn’t quite know how to approach, so she wasn’t very comfortable, I suppose. I assume. Anyway, that was my initial impression of her. And then after that I didn’t have much contact with Dumbarton Oaks at first, because I was rather bored, and I wanted a job, so I applied to the Signal Corps and they were very interested at first because I had taken a course on crypto-analysis at Cornell that one of the professors was giving. It was just for his entertainment, really, but several of us took it – among the students too. And so when they heard that I had taken this course, my interviewer was very interested. Oh yes. But he asked me if I had any relatives abroad, and I said, “Yes, I’m French. I have relatives in France still.” And he said, “Oh well then, I’m sorry. You’re a security risk.” And I said, “But they’re on the right side!” He said, “No, I’m sorry, we can’t consider you.” And so I went home, and I was rather distressed, and in the same building was a young lady, a young woman – we had met at Cornell; she was in the Music Department – we were friendly with her there and we continued to be friendly here, and she said, “Well, try O.S.S.,” and I said, “No, if the Signal Corps won’t have me, O.S.S. isn’t going to have me.” O.S.S. – you’re too young to know – is the predecessor to C.I.A. She said, “Try; I know they’re looking for people.” So I went to O.S.S., and they took me. So I had a job, and that was fine. And then the next thing you’ll be interested in – well, my husband was happy at the change at Dumbarton Oaks, and the Director of Studies was Koehler at the time, Wilhelm Koehler; I think his first name was Wilhelm . I was rather sorry at that, because being French, I would have loved it if I had been there when Focillon was the Director of Studies, but he was gone, and it was a German instead. And I knew that Mrs. Bliss was very much of a Francophile. Anyway...what was I saying?
CW: You got a job at O.S.S.
IU: O.S.S., yeah. So, my husband was getting accustomed to Dumbarton Oaks, and he was quite happy. And he had studied publications of Koehler at Princeton, so he knew all about him, and so on, and it was very nice, very comfortable. And then, what happened next? Oh, there came the Conference –
CW: The Dumbarton Oaks Conference in ’44.
IU: Yes, that was set up preliminary to the San Francisco.
IU: And at that time we lived on the estate. We lived in the villa that had been originally the kennels for the dogs parading through the estate, when it was under the Blisses.
ABF: Was this by the garden? Were you right nearby the garden?
IU: It’s in a hollow of the estate, and when it was turned over to Harvard, they changed it – no, before that, they changed it into a villa for Mrs. Clark, I think her name was, who was the curator, the librarian of Mrs. Bliss’s rare books collection. And at that time, as I said, our apartment was in Arlington, and it was very hot. No air conditioning, of course, at that time. And I was working long hours too, at O.S.S. sometimes, when we had a report to get out. So, she said, “I’m going away for the summer for two months. Why don’t you come and stay in the villa?” So we thought, “Well, fine.” She had no kind of air conditioning, but it was in the hollow. In fact it was a little bit dank, but it was cool, it was cool, and there was room for my mother and Paul and me. And that’s where we lived during the Conference. And it was an amusing time, because I can still remember our laundry man coming to the villa with our laundry, furious, angry. He said, “I’m an American citizen, and I have to come here under armed guard to deliver your laundry.”
CW: Because the Conference was still going on.
IU: Oh yeah, oh yeah. And my husband said to me, “You know, Irène, I go up in the elevator, and there is the Secretary of State, and he greets me, and I know he thinks I’m one of his young men,” you know. “Every morning, we go up and we greet each other.” So, it was a really amusing time. I remember he called me once and he said, “I forgot to pick up our eggs;” – which were delivered at the front entrance – “do you mind picking them up when you come home?” So, I said, “Okay,” so I rang the bell, and of course it was after working hours at Dumbarton Oaks, and I don’t know who it was who answered, but it was one of the bright young men still there, and I said, “I’m sorry, but I’m Mrs. Underwood,” and he said, “Oh yes, the Underwood eggs,” and he got them for me.
ABF: Did you meet any big political personalities while you were there?
IU: Not political, but we met the President of Harvard, because he was part of the Conference, and he lived in one of the suites, I don’t know whether it was the east end or the west end of the Fellows Building. Are you familiar with the Fellows Building?
CW: We live there, yes.
IU: Oh, you live there. I think it was probably the east little apartment there. And so we would spend evenings with him. It was very interesting. But other than that we didn’t meet any of the others, no, no. But the scholars were still permitted to use their studies, which by the way were still under the roof where the domestics lived before it was given to Harvard. You know, I used to tease my husband and say he was in an ivory tower during the war, but he said, “No, you don’t know what the offices, our studies, are like, under the roof, with no air conditioning.”
CW: Right, it must have been hot.
IU: It was very hot. But that changed shortly thereafter, and then they were moved down, and they each had their little offices, and it was very nice. So, what else? Well, that was about it during the war, yeah. And then I left O.S.S., I went to the State Department briefly, when they were going to divide O.S.S. into the C.I.A. and part of it went to the State Department, and I was going to the State Department to hold the French desk until the rest of it came over there, and they wanted to be sure, because the man was leaving who was on the French desk at that time in biographical intelligence. So, I went there briefly, and I hated it. I really hated the State Department. It had a lot of red tape, which we never had in O.S.S., because they were mostly from the academic world, or refugees, and we were free spirits, but not in the State Department. So, I decided to leave. And anyway we wanted a child, and my doctor said, “You have to rest. You can’t work these long hours.” So, I had worked at the French Supply Mission, which was an easy, easy job, and then my daughter was born.
ABF: That was 1947?
IU: She was born, yeah. How did you know that?
ABF: We did our research.
IU: And I had a difficult time adjusting to being at home, so Dumbarton Oaks was very paternalistic in some ways, and I had a job, a temporary job, with the Byzantinische Zeitschrift. Do you know anything about that?
IU: No. Well, it was a research tool set up for scholars, and we were – well, I’ll let someone over there describe it for you – but anyway, I worked on that for a time. And then Mrs. Bliss had a collection of the letters of Franz Liszt, and she wasn’t satisfied with the translation that she had had made, so she asked Libby Bland – do you know about Libby Bland?
ABF: No, who is that?
IU: She was – at that time I wasn’t sure whether she was really the curator of the Byzantine collection or whether there was somebody above her; I’ve forgotten – but later she became curator of the Byzantine collection of art. And Mrs. Bliss asked her if she would do a new translation, and Libby asked me if I would help. So, I said yes, I realized it was a pretty bad translation. I don’t know who did it, if it was just a student or what. So, we both worked on that, and that was a temporary job. And then after that, sometime later, I was in charge of photography at Dumbarton Oaks – not the taking of photographs, no no, but the collection, organizing it and getting into the files and so on.
CW: Photographs of the collection or the gardens, or everything?
IU: Everything, pretty much – mostly of the artwork. No, actually, this was only of the artwork, the Byzantine Collection. But those were all temporary, part-time jobs, and then after that my husband went to Turkey for the first time I think in 1949, was it, or ’50?
ABF: Well, in 1950, he took over Whittemore’s position.
IU: Yeah, but before that he had gone. That was very amusing. Whittemore – you probably know about Thomas Whittemore – was getting on in age, and A.M. Friend, who was at the time Director of Studies at Dumbarton Oaks and who had been my husband’s professor both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, thought, “Well, somebody has to take over the Byzantine Institute; why doesn’t Dumbarton Oaks do it? And why doesn’t somebody learn about the work while Whittemore is still there?” So he sent my husband over as a sort of a – casing the joint, to see how things were going. Whittemore was a fantastic character. He was really something.
ABF: When did you meet him?
IU: I never met him, but I heard all these stories about him. So my husband gets to Istanbul and he knows there’s an Englishman on the staff of the fieldwork under Whittemore, and so he makes contact with – oh dear, what is his name? I’ve forgotten.
ABF: It wasn’t Ernest Hawkins?
IU: Yes, it was Ernest Hawkins. And Whittemore was very possessive of anything to do with the work, so he gave my husband a tourist’s introduction to the work, you know, but not in the way they actually did the work, and all that, but he took him around to see it. But my husband and Ernest would meet in coffeehouses, and Ernest would tell him more about what was going on. So, my husband had a pretty good idea by the time he had finished his first trip to Istanbul, and then when Whittemore died – in the State Department, actually, he collapsed – Dumbarton Oaks took over the Byzantine Institute, and my husband was sent there as the director of the fieldwork, to take Whittemore’s place and to take over. And I think he – well, I know he really enjoyed it, but it was a tricky position, because I don’t know how – Whittemore was a very persuasive character, and how he managed to get Atatürk to agree to change these churches which had been turned – well they were either not used at all, and nothing was done about them, or Hagia Sofia, the greatest church in Istanbul and the one that the Greeks still revere, had been turned into a mosque, and somehow Whittemore persuaded Atatürk to turn all the Byzantine churches back into not churches, but museums. And so that’s how the work started, trying to preserve the mosaics and the wall paintings.
IU: Yeah, I don’t know what got me on that, but anyway. What else can I say?
ABF: Was your husband excited about taking this job which would take him away from D.C. to Istanbul for such a long period of time?
IU: Well, originally he went from April to I don’t know, I don’t remember the dates, but November, maybe, or maybe a little earlier than that. The rest of the time – you couldn’t do it in the wintertime; it was too cold – no, he was all right with that. I mean, he didn’t like to travel, that’s true. But he stayed put in Istanbul, except when he went to Cyprus. Of course they started doing fieldwork in Cyprus too. And he had a young Turk who was on the faculty of Robert College become more or less his mouthpiece between the Turks and taking care of official documents he had to give and so on, except once Ercüment forgot about taxes, and my husband had to appear in court, I think, and it was rather iffy, but – so, I don’t know how long he did that before we joined him. I think our first trip there – you probably have this down pat, but I don’t.
ABF: Was it 1952?
IU: ’52, I think, yes.
IU: Was it ’52 or was it...?
ABF: Your first winter – he writes about your first winter as being in 1953 and it was so cold that you had to put on all the clothes you brought with you.
IU: That was the second trip we took. We went earlier than ’53.
IU: Yeah. We went – I think –
ABF: – would that have been ’51, maybe?
IU: ’51, I think, yes, ’51 we went.
CW: You, and Sarah went with you?
IU: Yeah, she went the first time, yeah. And then we came back. And then we went again in ’53. We came back in ’52. I don’t know have the dates pat, but anyway, we were there from ’53 to ’55.
IU: Yeah. And our first trip – well, my husband had gone in ’50, ’51, and ’52 – no, when did I say? – when did we first go there?
ABF: ’51, I think.
IU: ’51, yeah. But he had gone there in ’50.
IU: And prior to that he had been there once before.
ABF: Right – because there’s correspondence from that time.
IU: And then we decided we would go together, and we went for one season and came back to Dumbarton Oaks, and then we went in ’53, again as a family, and stayed until we came back in ’55, yeah. And from then on he commuted, without us. Sarah and I stayed here. But the first time we went, that was really quite exciting, because when we were on the plane, they told us that unfortunately they had to circle, because the landing gear was sort of iffy, and they didn’t know. So, they had to lighten the load of the fuel, so they went round and round, and my daughter at the age of four had been very good, really, on the trip, but she got sick at that point from the circling, you know. And then they decided, well – this was in Ireland – we’re going to land, we’re going to dive, we’re going to go up and dive, to see if that will loosen the landing gear, so they did that. It didn’t work. So, they said, “Now we’re going to land.” And who was on the plane but Danny Kaye? And we thought, you know, while they were doing all this, we thought, “Well, he should come out and entertain us.”
CW: To lighten the mood a little bit.
IU: He was in first class. But he didn’t come out, and he had quite an entourage with him. But they went up and they dove, and the landing gear came out, but in landing they burnt one of the wheels, so they couldn’t go on with that plane. I don’t know. So we had to get off the plane, and they changed, but we went on finally. And when we got to London the next day, where we were changing planes, nothing was in the paper about the Underwoods being on the plane, but “Danny Kaye” – a banner headline – “In Near Crash.” So that was my first experience in Turkey. And it was very pleasant, because we had rented a villa up the Bosporus, or Dumbarton Oaks had rented a villa up the Bosporus, in what had originally been, of course, a Greek village, and it was charming. And there were a Greek family who I think Alexander had worked for – Whittemore – anyway we became friendly with them, and it was very pleasant. And the head of Saucony-Vacuum, one of the big oil companies, for the whole of the Near East, had been a friend of Thomas Whittemore, and Whittemore had put him up whenever he came to Istanbul, and in fact when my husband came Whittemore put him up – I don’t mean Whittemore, I mean what was his name, A.V. Walker. Walker was his name, the head of the oil company – and he was very – he liked us, and he liked Sarah too, my little girl. She was very good with him, and he was very good with her. Except he would invite us to lunch sometimes, and there would be the former Spanish ambassador, the former whatever, or the current somebody or other, you know, high up, and he would invite Sarah too, at the age of four, the first time we went there. And I would always wonder, “What are we going to go through this time?” I remember at one lunch, she was at his right hand, and she turned to him and said, “You put crumbs on my seat,” and he laughed and he said, “Yes, I did.” It was weird. And then the time he was at our house, and so was the head of Robert College, Dr. Black, and his wife, and there was Sarah – she always came, I mean – so in the middle of lunch she turned to A.V. Walker, she said to him, “Mr. Walker, you have a beautiful garden,” and then somehow I could see her thinking, and she turned graciously to Dr. Black and Mrs. Black, and said, “Mrs. Black, you have a wonderful garden.” So she handled that quite well. Actually, this was not her first trip. This was – no, it was her first trip, I think. Yeah.
ABF: If she was four, then it must have been the first trip, I think.
IU: It must have...well, I don’t know, because when we went back I put her in a French school, Notre Dame de Sion, she hated that, although she knew a little French, because my mother and I spoke French, but I never attempted to speak French with Sarah, which was my mistake. I really should have. But my husband did not speak French; he understood it and he read it, but he didn’t speak it. He had a few words, of course, but so – what did I start to say?
ABF: Your daughter, you put her in school.
IU: Oh yeah, I put her in that French school, and she hated it. And so I put her in the English High School for Girls. Each nationality that had trade relationships with Turkey – France, Italy, Germany, I don’t know what else, but those were the big three – they each had their own schools. Of course, they had to teach Turkish, which my daughter flunked, and Turkish language and history, I think.
ABF: She was tiny, wasn’t she?
IU: Yes. This was the second trip, not our final trip, when she was five, maybe. But she’s small now, she still is. But I put her in the English High School. When we came back, Sirarpie der Nersessian was at Dumbarton Oaks. She had been my professor at Wellesley, and in fact I had done special honors with her at Wellesley, so when she greeted me in the library – I knew she was at Dumbarton Oaks, but the first time I saw her, I was in the Georgetown Library, and she came in with her sister, and you know, we embraced, we were friends. And her sister looked at her and she said, “Are you always this affectionate with your students?” “Oh,” she said, “no, no, no, no, but this is special.” So when we came back from Turkey I told Sirarpie that Sarah had been to her school, and Sarah was right there, and so Sirarpie turned to her and said, “You went to the English High School? That’s where I went to school. Tell me, is the salon still to the right of the building? Do you have to curtsy before the mistress?” Sarah said, “Yes, yes.” It’s so funny, you know: my child and my professor going to the same school in Turkey. Well, Sirarpie, as you probably know, had to flee Turkey at the time of the massacre, and I remember when Jack Thacher asked her to attend a dinner he was giving for the Turkish ambassador, and Sirarpie was – really she didn’t want to go. She thought, “I can’t take this.” She and her sister had both fled with nothing, nothing. And you know they had to work their way eventually to Paris, but first they had to work in Switzerland and so on, until they got to Paris, and they were finally able to establish themselves there. She went to the Sorbonne. But they had a brother who changed his name to a Turkish name, and for years they didn’t speak, and we knew nothing about him, until finally – I think Sirarpie waited until the second time we went to Turkey to tell us that yes, she had a brother there; before that she had never mentioned him. So, it was very hard for her to attend this dinner with the Turkish ambassador, but she thought, “Well, I’m at Dumbarton Oaks. What else can I do?” So, that was that. What else can I tell you?
CW: So you lived in an apartment, or in a villa, that Dumbarton Oaks owned?
CW: At first.
IU: They rented that the first time. But the second time we went my husband had rented a house – not a house, yes, a house – in the city itself, and it was an old Turkish house, and well, it was an unhappy time in our family, because I had a breakdown while he was away in Salonica, attending a conference, and it was a very bad time, but he came back and we eventually moved to an apartment building, which was better, because there was a French family there – in fact, there were two. One of them, he was the manager of the gasworks in Istanbul, and the other one was a man that my family – and oh, he was the one that Paul had come to know, because being manager of the gasworks for the city, he had to okay the pipe work and everything. When they laid new foundations for a new building or dug up an old building or whatever, he was involved. So, he had become interested in archaeology. And he became interested in the work of the Byzantine Institute, and so my husband and he were good friends, and so I already knew these people. I had met them before. And they were in the same building, and that made it much easier for me. And then I also did volunteer work at the Y, Y.W.C.A., teaching a very small group of young women English. And that was amusing. But I made the mistake of asking them, I said, “I love Turkish cooking. I want recipes.” So, they gave me recipes, but unfortunately every time we had a meeting, they would say, “Did you try this? Did you try that?” And I never did, of course, because Turkish recipes, you have to prepare them in advance, everything is done in advance, so you’re very relaxed at the time, but I wasn’t going to do that when I had a maid; why should I? And they always wanted to talk about movies, and I didn’t know about that. You know, movies weren’t my great interest at the time. And when we had lived on the shore of the Bosporus before, in the villa, there was a very nice Turkish family next door with two grown daughters, and I think they were still going to Robert College at the time – yes they were – and they became very friendly with us, and they loved Sarah, and they were forever talking about movies and wanted to know all about the stars, and I couldn’t help them very much, but – and I think we went once or twice to the movies together, but they were very nice. Unfortunately, when we came back I looked them up and the younger daughter had insisted on taking a job, and her parents would have nothing more to do with her. She would have stayed home, and they would have selected a husband for her, and it was very sad. And so my daughter went to this high school, and that was very pleasant. And then came the riots in fifty –
CW: – ’55.
IU: I can’t remember when they came.
CW: In September ’55?
CW: Over Cyprus.
IU: And I remember I was visiting, spending the evening – I went from our apartment to another apartment building down the hill on the same street, where there was an English couple who had two sons, and the two sons went to the English High School for Girls, which was co-ed, never mind that the girls were still in the title, but – and our driver would take our three children, the two boys and Sarah, to school every day, and we became friends with this English – he was, I think, at the British Consulate. I don’t remember what position he had there. So, I was spending the evening there, and we were having a very nice quiet time, and suddenly my husband came over, and I said, “What?” and he said, “You have to come home right away, right away.” So, I said, “Okay. What’s happened?” He said, “Well, there’s rioting in the city, and you’d better come home,” so we walked home – it was just down a few blocks – and as we walked home there was this group of men coming up from below with clubs, whatever they could grab, and they were coming up the hill looking very, very serious, and Paul said, “Hurry, hurry, we’ll get home.” So, we went home, our bell rang, and it was the janitor of our apartment building, looking very upset – he was Turkish. And he said, “Madame, do you have a Turkish flag?” And I said, “No, I don’t have a Turkish flag.” Well, the building was owned by Greeks, and he wanted to be sure that we had a sign that, you know, said, “We’re okay; no, we’re not Greek.” But we didn’t have it, so we said, “No, we can’t help you. We’ll just have to take our chances.” Well, nothing happened, except down the street there was a little grocery shop, and they ruined that completely, and the main drag, all merchandise – the refrigerators, whatever – were in the streets. They totaled all the shops; the Greek and the Armenian and the Jewish shops were all totaled. And then we saw them the next day – but the next morning, my husband was worried, because on his staff he had both Turks and Greeks, and he thought, “I wonder how things are,” and when his driver came in the morning, he said, “Alexander, you have to take me into the old city, because I don’t know what’s happening there.” And so he agreed, and they drove into the Old City, and he found that the Turkish members of his staff had taken in the Greek members for the night, so they were safe. So that was good. But later in the day – oh, Sarah wasn’t home: she had been spending the weekend at Robert College, because the president had a daughter, and they had just come – the Valentines became good friends with us – had just come that summer to take over the position of president of Robert College, and Sarah had been spending the weekend there with their daughter; she was a year or two older than Sarah. And I said to Paul, “I want to go up to Robert College and get Sarah. I want her to be home with us.” And he said, “Yeah, I think you’re right, maybe,” and I said, “We’ll take some bread with us,” because we were sure that all the shops had been looted all the way up the Bosporus too. So we called, got hold of Alexander, and said, “You’ve got to take us up the Bosporus.” And he said, “Oh, I really don’t want to,” because he was from Syria, I think, and he was a Christian, and of course nobody was supposed to know that, and he was afraid for his life, you know, if they discovered it. But he finally agreed to take us. And it was all right; we got there okay. Except for, when we got there we found that the Valentines had just received the day before their pictures and other things from the States, and they were busy hanging up pictures, very calmly. We entered their living room and said, “What are you doing? Do you know what’s happening in town?” “No, no.” They didn’t know anything about it. And I said, “We’ve brought you some bread, because we were afraid you were running out of, you know, bread, anything.” Oh, they were just amazed that anything had happened. So, we got Sarah; we got home okay. But a day or two later the World Bank was meeting in Istanbul at the time, and among the members of the Bank was Crainer T. Young, he was a friend of the Blisses, and they knew Jack Thacher, and they were interested in the art and so on. They were in Istanbul because of the meeting of the World Bank. Crainer was not familiar with the city so my husband asked me to accompany him to wherever he wished or I suggested he see. Unfortunately, I had not realized he was an avid photographer. He began to snap the all too evident signs of the recent rioting – merchandise strewn all over the main drag from all the Greek shops etc. I asked him to put away his camera, “In this tense atmosphere, we might be attacked.” “You’re right, he said.” She wasn’t with us; it was only Crainer. So, we got together, and he had his camera with him, and we went into the city, and the stupid man was taking pictures, and you know, the main street was filled with this merchandise; nothing had been cleaned up. And it was just horrible, and he was taking pictures. And I said, “Crainer, put away your camera; you know, they’ll see you, and we’ll be attacked if we continue.” “Oh,” he said, “you’re right; you’re right.” So we got through all right, and it worked fine. In fact, as we were going home later that year, I mean going back to America, we met them in Naples and we had dinner together, and it was very pleasant. And Mrs. Young said to Sarah, “Would you like to see the kitchen?” She said, “Oh, yes!” So, they went off to the kitchen together, you see, which the Italians were always happy to have people do that in the hotels; you know, you could go and see whatever was being done. So, Sarah enjoyed that. But that meeting and the World Bank, and of course the Turks were ashamed to have the World Bank see all this destruction, but it was their doing. And then that fall – November, I think it was – we left – or maybe late October – we left for the States.
ABF: Did you see the Blisses in Istanbul?
IU: No, they didn’t come out, but the – I never remember whether it’s the Kress or the Kresge –
ABF: Yeah, the Kresses.
IU: Kress Foundation. They came out while we were there, and they were entertained.
ABF: It seems as if your husband was not only working on the restoration, but dealing with all these potential benefactors who were coming through, or handling all of the finances, and these letters make it seem like he –
IU: Well, I wasn’t aware of all that he did. He didn’t hide things from me, but I didn’t think to ask very much. And unless I was personally involved – I didn’t entertain the Kresses when they came, but I know there was a dinner for them at Robert College, and we were all together, and so I met them – but he probably saw many more people that he didn’t tell me about, that I don’t know, unless I was involved in some way.
ABF: It seems very remarkable, looking at his letters, all that he was managing to do while he was there.
IU: Yes. Well, as I say, he didn’t tell me all that happened. He protected me, as it were, I think. But he enjoyed it, and we had this good friend who became his assistant, really, and he took care of the official part with the Turks – a very good friend – and he used to take us on sightseeing tours, and have us to his house, which was an old Turkish home with decorations of flowers, of course, because they could never have figurative decorations now. And it was really lovely; we enjoyed meeting, you know, the real Turks. And unfortunately, he’s retired now from the faculty at Robert College, and he’s not doing very well in old age, not accepting it very well, which is bad, and I haven’t seen him. I saw him last – I don’t remember when my last trip to Turkey was, in the ’80s. I did see him then, but – we correspond at Christmas, but that’s not great. So that’s about it.
ABF: And do you remember seeing other Dumbarton Oaks scholars while you were there, like I know that Kitzinger came and stayed with you in October 1963?
IU: He did?
ABF: That’s what the letter said.
IU: I’m going to see if I can see these letters, yeah.
ABF: They’re there, at Dumbarton Oaks.
IU: I don’t even know the name of the director. Joe, what’s the name of the director?
IU: Oh, yes, somebody told me that.
IU: Does he have a family?
JM: He has a wife too; it’s a very good addition to Dumbarton Oaks.
IU: Oh, good, I’m glad to hear that, because the one before that, I don’t think – well no, well yeah, he’s Director. But it’s still Alice-Mary, right, who is Director of Byzantine Studies, but she’s going to retire, isn’t she?
ABF: Yeah, mhm.
JM: She’s gonna stay one more year.
IU: One more year, yeah.
ABF: Yeah, Alice-Mary told us all about you.
IU: She did?
ABF: She did. She had very kind things to say.
IU: She did? I remember once Philip Grierson was giving a little cocktail party before dinner – and dinner too, I guess – outside, and I was early, and I didn’t want to be early, so I was looking into this – there used to be a sort of an antique shop at the corner, I think – and I was looking in the window there, and so I was sauntering around, wasting time, and Alice-Mary came by, and she said, “What are you doing on a street corner, Mrs. Underwood?” So I said, “Well, I’m early, I’m early.” Oh, dear.
ABF: I’m just wondering if we could go back for just a second to sort of the early days and if you could –
IU: Yes, you should have stopped me.
CW: No, no.
ABF: No, no, we wanted to hear it as you remember it before we asked questions. But do you remember going to teas with Mrs. Bliss or any of those other sort of rituals besides the music concerts?
IU: Oh, I meant to tell you about the teas. Yes, the teas were originally in the Music Room, which was not – they were too formal, really. It was cold, and I didn’t enjoy that particularly. But then they moved to the Founders’ Room – I hope it’s still called that. It’s on the right-hand side down the hall.
ABF: In the Main Building?
IU: Yes, yes. At the main entrance, the main entrance to the house, beyond that, when you still go down the hall, there’s a relatively small room on the right, which has – I think it has bookcases; I’ve forgotten now – and it used to be called the Founders’ Room, I think.
JM: I think it was called the Study, and the larger room was the Founders’ Room.
IU: Oh, was it? The larger room, I know, is now called the Founders’ Room, but I thought the other one was – well no, probably. I don’t know, I don’t know.
JM: I’m as confused as you are; I’ve only been here 33 years.
IU: No, but I’ve forgotten. My memory is not reliable. Anyway, you think it was called the Study. Well, that was a smaller room, and it was very nice, and Mrs. Bliss would occasionally appear, even though Harvard had had the gift for some time now, you know, of Dumbarton Oaks, and usually it was the scholars, and they didn’t have to come – I don’t think my husband ever came. I don’t know whether he did or not. But the younger Fellows would certainly come, and Mrs. Bliss’s maid, the maid who had been her personal maid – and I don’t know whether she still had duties at their home in Georgetown – but she would be there at tea time, and she would make the most delicious butter sandwiches, just butter – they were so good – on very lovely bread. So, one day Sarah and I were walking in the gardens, and I had on a denim skirt, and she had on denim slacks, and she said, “Oh, let’s go to tea.” And I said, “Sarah, we can’t go to tea. Look at us!” And she said, “Oh, come on, Mom. I know everybody there!” she said. So, I let myself be persuaded. And unfortunately it was one of the days when Mrs. Bliss had chosen to come. And we were sitting around having tea. And as I said, Mrs. Bliss, she always tried to be friendly, you know, but she didn’t quite know, so she turned and she said, “And to whom does this belong?” pointing to Sarah. And I said, “She’s mine, Mrs. Bliss! She’s mine!” You know, our encounters were rather strange, Mrs. Bliss’ and mine.
ABF: Do you remember Mr. Bliss as well?
IU: No, no. He didn’t show up very much. Well, I knew him, of course, and one of the things I remember, when he died, Mrs. Bliss, who I think had a rather soft spot for my husband, who was quite handsome – they met in the hall, and she said, “Oh, Underwood” – everybody was by their surname; she never – “I wonder, you know, Mr. Bliss, we found that he had many shirts that he didn’t wear, and I was wondering if you would like them.” He was just as thunderstruck as I had been in my encounters. I said, “How did you handle that?” That’s one encounter he told me about. And he said, “Well, I didn’t quite know, but I finally said, ‘You know, Mrs. Bliss, Mr. Bliss was a much taller man than I, and I’m afraid perhaps they wouldn’t fit me.’” What else could he say? I thought it was such a strange suggestion, you know. But I knew who he was, of course. We shook hands, and I went through receiving line after receiving line, and there he was, so of course I knew him. But I remember their golden anniversary, they had a reception, and there was a line to go to greet them. It went from R Street all the way to the front bit, to the main entrance of the house, you know; people waited to see them. And we were in line, we were near the R Street entrance, actually; suddenly, the word came down the line, “Mrs. Bliss would like to see Underwood; Mrs. Bliss would like to see Underwood.” My husband was very reserved, and finally it reached us. And Paul was looking at us, and I said, “Well, Paul, she wants to see you; you’d better go.” So poor Paul, he had to walk all the way up to the front of the line; I don’t know why she wanted to see him at that point. I never did learn why she called him. He probably told me, but it didn’t stick. That was so funny. Oh dear. But I really didn’t know Mr. Bliss. He seemed very nice, you know. He didn’t spend much time at Dumbarton Oaks. She, of course – her great interest was the garden, and she still planned, she and her landscape architect – Farr –
ABF: Beatrix Farrand.
IU: Yeah. – planned a water garden, and I mean it was pebbles imported from Scotland, and I don’t know what’s happened to that part of –
ABF: It’s still there.
CW: By the pool, yeah.
IU: Is it still a water garden? I mean, is there water on it?
CW: It’s just pebbles now; it doesn’t have water.
JM: The design was flawed and wouldn’t hold the water, and they redid it at the cost of many tens of thousands of dollars, and they did it wrong, and it didn’t hold again.
IU: Now it holds? It never held? Before that it was a tennis court. And I remember during the war diplomats would come there and play, you know, and there were also victory gardens on the grounds that the staff had, little plots where you could grow vegetables. We never had one; we were not gardeners. So, it was a great experience, really.
ABF: Did it seem as if there was a very clearly defined social hierarchy among the scholars who were working there?
ABF: With regard to who was invited to lunch there?
IU: When ambassadors were invited to dine at the Fellows Building, I don’t know who hosted the dinner – Mrs. Bliss or Jack Thacher. When the French ambassador came, the Underwoods were invited – I assume because of me. And when the Turkish ambassador was invited, Sirarpie Der Nersessian, an Armenian scholar, was invited – because she was born in Istanbul? I don’t really know whom Mrs. Bliss invited to their home from Dumbarton Oaks. I remember there was Fanny Bonajuto, for example. Have you heard of her? She was assistant to Julia Warner, who was in charge of publications at one time, and Fanny came from a very good family in Italy, and she had married a Sicilian prince, and so she was a principessa – how do you pronounce it in Italian? Principessa or whatever.
IU: – And she was invited to Mrs. Bliss’s for lunch. Mrs. Bliss never invited me. Oh, I didn’t tell you about the Christmas – I’ve got to – Well, the Christmas party, the Blisses.
JM: I’d like to just put another tape in before you do this. We’ll run out of tape. Just pause for a minute, please.
IU: But don’t waste your tape; it’s just going to be one story.
JM: Well, I only have three minutes. So let me just pause.
IU: The Blisses used to give – I remember one, but I think it was more than one time – a Christmas party at their house. The members of Dumbarton Oaks received pointsettias at Christmas time and flowering plants at Easter; Mr. Kearney, head of the grounds, would deliver them, also presents from Mrs. Bliss. One year, I remember the card that came with it. I don’t know whether it was always to the wives or whether I just misread the card that came with it and thought it was addressed to me. And I looked at it and I couldn’t make out what it was; it was a little case – I don’t even remember what it was made of. So, I wrote a thank-you note – I don’t know how I phrased it, because I didn’t know what the object was, but I phrased it somehow – thanking Mrs. Bliss. It was meant for my husband. And she was, she really – I heard – gave Kearney a hard time for delivering the wrong thing, delivering it supposedly to me when it should have been to my husband. I don’t know what happened. I was so embarrassed to have this whole thing here. But the one I was going to tell you about, the Christmas party that I remember, was at their home in their rumpus room, where there was a Picasso on the wall, and you name it, you know, but it was what they termed the “rumpus room.” And it was just for the Dumbarton Oaks Fellows and wives. And 1952 was the first year that my husband was to be accompanied by our daughter and me for his yearly sixth-month directing of the work in Istanbul, and Mrs. Bliss had presents for everybody there at the party. And mine was a very nice fitted toilet case. And I thought that was so nice, really so very, you know, gracious and very thoughtful. Usually it was her social secretary who selected them. I’m sure she gave her a list and said, “Get something,” you know, so that was very nice. But like everything that Mrs. Bliss did, there was always something. Children were not invited to this party. Now that was okay with us, because my mother lived with us, and so I had a live-in babysitter, you know, Sarah’s grandmother. But the Van Nices did not have a mother living with them, and they kept their children in the car, in the street, all during this party. Now, really, I would not have done that. I’m sorry. But I thought that was so bad. But you know, Mrs. Bliss didn’t think of the problems that parents have sometimes. So, that was sad. That was all I was going to say.
ABF: Well, we don’t want to keep you any longer, but we’d love to keep going.
IU: No really, I must go.
ABF: Well, thank you very, very much.