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Sarah Underwood (DOA Interview)

Oral History Interview with Sarah Underwood, undertaken by Alasdair Nicholson and Bailey Trela on July 23rd, 2014 at her home in Friendship Heights. Sarah Underwood is the daughter of Paul Atkins Underwood (1902–1968). At Dumbarton Oaks, Paul Underwood was a Junior Fellow in Byzantine Studies (1943–1946), a resident Assistant Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology (1946–1951), Associate Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology (1951–1960), and Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology (1960–1968). Paul Underwood was the Field Director of the Byzantine Institute (1951–1961).

Sarah Underwood was interviewed by the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) on December 19, 2014, as part of the ICFA Oral History Initiative.

AN: My name is Alasdair Nicholson and I’m here today with Bailey Trela. It’s the 23rd of July, 2014, and we are very privileged to be interviewing Ms. Sarah Underwood, daughter of Irène Underwood and Paul Underwood. Paul Underwood was a professor and Field Director at the Byzantine Institute between 1951 and 1961. Thanks so much for speaking with us today.

SU: Of course.

BT: To start off with, if you have any understanding or grasp of how your parents came to be at Dumbarton Oaks – it was obviously before you were born.

SU: Well, what I do know is that my father was on the faculty at Cornell before they came here, and he somehow got to know the then President or Director of the Byzantine Institute, and they ultimately decided they needed a Field Director and asked my father if he would join the enterprise, and I don’t know how that got them with Dumbarton Oaks and how he came to be based there, but he was. But I’m surprised – they came to D.O. before 1951, that was the date you had, Alasdair, during the second World War they lived in what had been the kennels on the side of Dumbarton Oaks that had been converted into an apartment because there was such a shortage of housing in Washington, D.C. during the war. And that was also the period when the Dumbarton Oaks Conference was going on, so they were here – maybe daddy came to Dumbarton Oaks first and became the Field Director of the Byzantine Institute but –

AN: I believe our records show that he came in 1943 as a Junior Byzantine Fellow and then became Associate Professor and a full Professor and then simultaneously Field Director of the Byzantine Institute.

SU: Okay, and then I was born in ’47.

BT: So, I guess the first memories you have – was it in Istanbul? You would have been four or five?

SU: That was the first time we were there, for six months, and I do vaguely remember the house we lived in which was outside the city and on the Bosporus but not much more than that, because I wasn’t going to school – I know it had a garden, we had a maid, but nothing exciting. And that, as I said, was only for six months, and then when I was six to eight we were there continuously, for two and a half or three years. And we lived in the town at that point, and I started school at the English High School for Girls, so I have those memories of second and third grade.

AN: Must have been quite an experience. There were riots during that period – do you have any recollection of that?

SU: Yes I do, because my parents had become friendly with Duncan and Peggy Valentine. Duncan Valentine was the President of the American College – Robert College, rather, which was the American College in Istanbul, outside Istanbul, and they had a daughter, Catherine, about my age, and so I would sometimes go out there for overnights, and actually I was out there at their house when the riots broke out, and my parents – well, we had a chauffeur then, we had a lovely Armenian man named Alexandre, who didn’t speak English but spoke French, and we had a chauffeur-driven Jeep station wagon, and not a fancy Cherokee Jeep like we have now, this was like an army surplus jeep, [laughing] so I think it was a blow to Alexandre’s dignity to have to chauffeur this jeep, but that’s what we had. But anyway, he – Armenians were associated with the Greeks in the minds of the Turks, so Alexandre was afraid to come get me. I was supposed to come home, and I was outside the city with the Valentines, and so I had to stay an extra day or two before he felt safe enough to come and get me. And I remember seeing the destruction along the sides of the road as we came home, any Greco shops or businesses had been completely looted and everything was out on the streets and broken, and broken glass everywhere. I don’t think we had any personal friends who had to leave the country, but I know a number of Greek families who had been longtime residents in Istanbul who were basically given twenty-four hours or so to get out, and basically went back to Greece, but where they had no ties. So yes, I did have a recollection of that.

BT: As a child, were you aware of the intensity of what was going on?

SU: I wasn’t at the time, because I wasn’t in the city, but I do remember my parents saying somebody, I can’t remember who, came to the door with an American flag and told them to put it on our front door, to indicate that Americans lived there, and they weren’t bothered in anyway, and I don’t know that there was any damage in the vicinity of our apartment, but they were certainly aware that something bad was happening.

BT: So Alexandre came to get you, or your parents – ?

SU: I can’t remember if they came with him or if he came by himself.

AN: Do you recall your father maybe talking about his work while in Istanbul?

SU: Well, yes, and I remember going to his work. Because the school I went to, I think we had a half-day on Wednesdays and we went to school on Saturday mornings as I recall, and so sometimes in the afternoon on Wednesday, or on Saturday, daddy and Alexandre would pick me up at school and we’d go by the Kariye Camii, and so I remember seeing the huge pile – there was little room that had a huge pile of mosaic cubes that had fallen, and they were always swept up and put in there, [laughing] and the sense I had is that when they met for the restorations, when they needed a cube of a certain color, they would go in there and rummage around. Now, I just assumed that, whether or not it’s true I don’t know, but they definitely had a big pile in there that they were saving.

BT: You went to the English High School for Girls, but I feel like, in addition, I read about a French school?

SU: Oh my goodness, you guys did your research. I think, when we first got there for the three-year stint, my mother – you know my mother was French – they put me in a school that was run by an order of Catholic nuns from France, who spoke French, and I don’t think I lasted even one semester. I was miserable, partly because everything was in French, and I did – I spoke some French, because my grandmother, my mother’s mother, had lived with us, and although she’d lived in this country since my mother was seven, she brought my mother over, she didn’t admit that she spoke English, [laughing] and so she always spoke to me and my mother and my father in French, and then we had friends in Istanbul who didn’t speak English but spoke French, and so I knew some French. But I was miserable, and they also, for lunch – my recollection is everyday, I’m not sure this is true – they gave us oranges and yogurt, and so at that time I hated yogurt, [laughing] so lunch was an ordeal. So, when I was so miserable my parents took me out of that school and put me in the English High School for Girls, which was a) co-educational, and b) only went up to the eight grade, so why it was called the English High School for Girls I have no idea [laughing].

BT: [laughing] Totally incorrect. While you were in Istanbul, you said you were a little bit aware of your father’s work – did you know any of his colleagues?

SU: Yes, I certainly knew Carroll Wales and Larry Majewski, who worked with him for a number of years. And they were close personal friends of my parents so they came over to socialize I think quite often. And then he had a lovely Turkish gentleman, Ercüment Atabay, who worked for him, who – Ercüment was married to an English woman, Jill, and I’m not quite sure what kind of work Ercüment did, I’m not sure he was really an art historian. I know Larry and Carroll were, so I don’t know what Ercüment’s background was, but he worked with my father for years, and they were also close personal friends. And then other people came, you know, visiting scholars and kinds of people, so they would cycle through and be entertained.

BT: Obviously you lived in the place on the Bosporus the first time you were in Istanbul, but could you talk about the second home in the city?

SU: For the second trip we had an apartment, sort of near Taksim Square, near what was then the German Hospital, in what was then a quite new building that was kind of funny, because it had only two units per floor, but it was built – it was a high-rise, and it was built on this steep incline, so when you came in and entered this building there were, I think it was eight stories below that backed up onto this view of the Bosporus, and then eight stories above. And our apartment, luckily, was on the ground floor, because the landlady, the woman who built it, initially lived across the hall from us on the ground floor, and she didn’t want to spend money to put in an elevator. So, initially there was no elevator, and the poor people who were in the bottom and at the top had to climb. And then the landlady’s apartment was burglarized, and so she moved to the top, and at that point there was an elevator, but we didn’t need it, so. But it was a very nice apartment looking out on the Bosporus. And my recollection is also, I think it was after we left, but I remember hearing that the building next door to us had left its foundations and slid down this extremely steep hill [laughing]; I don’t have any recollection of seeing it but I also think I recall that nobody was hurt or killed.

AN: Was the apartment organized by Dumbarton Oaks?

SU: I don’t know how we got that apartment, and I don’t know if we paid the rent or – I think, at least after we moved home, the apartment was retained by Dumbarton Oaks, and so my father would stay there, after we came back to the States, he would go at the beginning and the end of the seasons, because the churches got so cold in the winter that they didn’t work in the coldest part of the winter, so he would go to start the season and then to kind of wrap up, he would go for a couple of months. And so he stayed in the apartment, and then other scholars who came through Istanbul for various reasons also stayed there. So, I think at that point Dumbarton Oaks was in charge of it.

BT: Do you remember A. V. Walker, the head of the oil company?

SU: Yes, a very wealthy guy.

BT: Did you remember interacting with him?

SU: Only very vaguely, I mean, I do remember my parents socializing with him, they entertained him and I think he entertained us, but I don’t really remember.

AN: Moving back to the States – obviously we’re always very keen to speak to anyone who interacted with Mr. or Mrs. Bliss. Do you recall meeting Mrs. Bliss?

SU: Oh yes, oh yes. And everybody was terrified of her. My most – well, going to tea at Dumbarton Oaks was a big treat, and so sometimes when mother and I were out in the afternoon, if we were at Montrose Park next door or wherever, mother would say, “Okay, well, we’ll go by Dumbarton Oaks and see daddy and have tea,” so we did, because at that time the tea was in the old library in the main house, and it was nice, but it wasn’t terribly formal, and I knew most everybody who was there anyway. So, one day we were – we’d gone by and we were there, and word came from the front desk that Mrs. Bliss was coming for tea, and mind you, I’d been at the playground so I was kind of a mess, and so my mother says to me, she points to a chair in the corner and she says, “Go and sit in that chair and don’t move,” and so I did. And Mrs. Bliss comes swooping in, I don’t think it was thirty seconds, she catches a glimpse of me and she says very imperiously, “And whose is that?” So, my poor mother had to fess up that it was her daughter. And then I remember one time we had – my parents decided to have, I think it was a holiday open house, and they invited everybody, or most everybody from Dumbarton Oaks, and for some reason my mother decided to invite the Blisses, and so at this point I was a teenager, I was appointed to look after the little kids that some of the guests had brought, upstairs. Somehow the Blisses had got into the house without my parents’ realizing and they were trying to be folksy and of-the-people, so they just proceeded upstairs to leave their coats, and I was up there with all these little kids, and here were the Blisses! So I don’t remember what happened after that – I guess I went running downstairs and said, “Mom, the Blisses are here!” And then I also remember one story my mother told that I think probably was before my time, they had started the Dumbarton Oaks concerts, and all the faculty members were given tickets, which was a lovely benefit, and so my parents were at the concert early on, and my mother was wearing a dress that she had made for herself, that was apricot velvet, which she was very proud of. And when they went through – the Blisses always had a receiving line when you went in to the concerts, and Mrs. Bliss makes some remark about – and she was admiring the fabric of my mother’s dress, and she says, “I think that would make lovely curtains. You must pass it on to me when you’re done with it.” [laughing] So she did not have the common touch. Mr. Bliss was much more approachable, as I recall.

BT: Could you talk about Mr. Bliss a bit? I know most people say he was a little nicer but they didn’t really interact with him –

SU: No, I really didn’t either. I just remember hearing that he was more approachable, and my parents generally had affection and admiration for him.

BT: Did you go to a lot of teas?

SU: No, I remember it being a big treat, but it was not a frequent occurrence.

BT: Where were you living around that time?

SU: We lived at 3707 S Street in Burlieth, and our next-door neighbors were the Kitzingers. My parents were very close friends with the Kitzingers; Ernst and my father were probably best friends, and Susan and my mother were best friends, and then Rachel is six months younger than I am, and we were childhood best friends, and we reconnected – we drifted apart in our early adulthood, but we reconnected in our forties, maybe early fifties. She lives in Poughkeepsie, and we’ve been in pretty close touch ever since then, so that’s lovely.

AN: Fantastic. Did you have any particular memories of certain Fellows or professors at Dumbarton Oaks?

SU: Bob Van Nice, the Van Nices were really good friends with my parents as well, and Glanville Downey, he had two daughters who were about my age as well, so we would meet – there were a group of maybe six or eight of us who were roughly the same age as the Kitzinger kids, the Downeys, the Van Nices and me, so we would meet at the pool, a lot, in the summer. Who else was on the faculty then? Oh, Father Dvornik, Sirarpie der Nersessian – I’m trying to think who else. Those were the ones I remember the most. And then some of the staff, Julia Warner and Fanny Bonajuto were very close friends of my parents. As far as Fellows go, Herb Kessler I know was here for a couple of years, and he was very friendly with my parents.

AN: It’s great that you mention the pool, because that’s very much still an institution. I can’t imagine it was just the kids using it, were there Fellows and – ?

SU: Oh yes, yeah, yeah. My recollection is at the time in June and September we could only go after five o’clock because the gardens were still open to the public, so we would go as soon as it got to be five o’clock, and then in July and August I think they closed the gardens completely, so we could go anytime, and we would take picnics and spend the day, especially on the weekends, because my mother worked, and of course the faculty were working during the week, so I think they would swim maybe at lunchtime and then after work, but – I should ask if you all are interested in any photographs, because I actually have a photograph of us teenagers in the pool.

AN: We’d be more than interested.

SU: [getting photograph album] I got together with Rachel recently, so I went through my photographs to see if there were any that she might want to see. This is the one of us in the pool, and if I get my reading glasses on I can tell you who’s who – let’s see, that’s Catherine Downey, that’s me, that’s Rachel, that’s Sarah Downey, and I think that’s Tony Kitzinger, and this is Bob Van Nice, Sirarpie Der Nersessian and Ernst Kitzinger, in the gardens, because I think that’s probably Sirarpie’s purse, maybe during a symposium. I’ll show these other ones, because my mother, bless her heart, went through her photographs a couple of years before she died and made me albums of pictures of my father, all the pictures she had, so some of them are of his early life and way before Dumbarton Oaks’ time, but – here they are in Ithaca, so this was ’39, and they were in Princeton before they went to Ithaca, and there’s me, right there, but there’s a number – this is our little house at 3707 S Street, so the Kitzingers were next door to us on this side, but there are a number at Dumbarton Oaks, and I may know who some of these people are. Yes, there’s Sirarpie, I guess she was running the symposium. That’s my father, that’s Father Dvornik, I think that’s Glanville Downey –

BT: Is that you guys in the pool, down in the corner?

SU: Oh yes, I’m learning to swim. Let’s see, I know there are some others. So, André Grabar had a symposium in 1950 evidently, and again the only one I know is Father Dvornik, he always used to pinch my cheek and give me cookies. [laughing] So, that was in Istanbul, ’51, this would have been the first trip to Istanbul, I don’t know where we are. More Istanbul, oh and there – we used to rent, in the summer, I guess maybe both years, we went to the faculty house at Robert College, in the summer, and when they came home on home leave, so we relocated to out there because it was cooler and there was room to run around, and actually these were, this was, Peter and Johnny Shaw, Peter was in my class at the English High School, and his mother Phoebe, my father, my mother and me, so they must have come out to visit us there. That’s Cyril Mango’s wedding –

AN: Oh!

SU: [laughing] So, this is Barbara Van Nice, my father, Betty Van Nice, Jim – oh, what is his name, I can’t remember his last name, it might come to me. That’s Rob Van Nice, and Molly is the older one, there’s Cyril and Mabs Mango, and my mother and me; I’m tired, there. That’s my birthday party in Istanbul, there’s Ernst Kitzinger, and my father, Bob Van Nice, with Turkish officials in ’58 – that’s my father in the Sinai desert with Kurt Weitzmann. He was consulting on Mount Sinai restorations, and then he had to eat a camel’s eye.

BT: What?

SU: Yes, that was a great sign of respect from the Bedouins, there was a group of Bedouins that camp outside the monastery in Mount Sinai and they invited the VIPs to this feast and one of the great signs of honor, was to give you the camel’s eye, which my poor father had to swallow whole, which he did, without throwing up. [laughing] I don’t know how he did it. I couldn’t have done it.

BT: That’s pretty funny.

SU: I’m not sure there are many more D.O. ones in here. This is my father’s brother and his sister, oh, that’s at D.O. because that’s outside the Orangery, oh, with Sirarpie’s sister, yep. In 1960 my father ran the symposium, so that’s Sirarpie, that’s Ihor Ševčenko, that’s Rosalie Green maybe? I’m not sure. Oh, and there’s my father with, I don’t know if these – no, this would have been in the drafting room I think at Dumbarton Oaks, upstairs, I’m not exactly sure what he’s doing, but it clearly isn’t in the Kariye Camii, I don’t know, are those maybe blowups of photographs?

AN: I think I recognize the design on the right.

SU: It’s certainly from the Kariye Camii, but I don’t – I mean, it’s certainly not the original mosaics, I don’t know what he’s doing. And this is at Dumbarton Oaks, they had a Byzantine hat party, obviously in ’62, and my mother made this huge thing – daddy was the emperor Theodosius maybe? And this is from one of the mosaics, that he was wearing the headgear like this, and she had some kind of crown, she was the empress – and I think maybe this is the end, no, there we are with the Der Nersessians. That’s my father, he ran the design competition for the mosaics in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral here, the one that’s at Massachusetts and Wisconsin, so he’s up there with whoever the artist is who was installing them. Oh, and that’s when I was graduating, oh, no, this is when I was a student at Smith, because my father died before I graduated. And that’s it.

BT: Thanks you so much for sharing those.

SU: So, what’s going to happen to this oral history? Is it being published or compiled somehow?

BT: Yeah, basically we will transcribe it and, on the website, there’s an oral history department page that has upwards of fifty interviews, and you can just click on them and read them.

SU: Oh, I should go in –

AN: There are certainly some interesting tidbits –

SU: Oh I’m sure.

BT: And we’ll send you an email or something when we get ready to put it out.

SU: Well, I could certainly get in touch with Rachel and Adrian Kitzinger, if you would have any interest in talking to them. Neither of them are here; Adrian’s in New York and Rachel, as I’ve said, is in Poughkeepsie.

BT: We’ll have to see about that, because our time here is running out, we’re only here until August 8th or so, but we do have a spreadsheet where – the project starts up every now and then. It would be nice to have contact information for them.

SU: Well, rather than give out their information I’d rather get hold of them, which I can do, and see if they’re willing to be interviewed, and if they are, I’ll let you know or have them contact you or whatever.

BT: Perfect.

SU: Well, is there anything else you wanted to ask me about?

BT: The community of children at Dumbarton Oaks is fascinating for me. How close were they? You had friends outside of it, I suppose?

SU: Yes, because we didn’t go to the same schools. As I said, I was closest with the Kitzingers, and we were very close, we did a great deal together, and then when we came back from Turkey, they had moved, because they had three children, those houses were small, and Ernst’s mother and an aunt lived with them also, so they were all squished into this tiny, teeny-weeny house. So, they moved while we were in Turkey to a house on 34th Street in Cleveland Park, and then we moved, when we got back, up to Fulton and Wisconsin, the other side of the cathedral, so Rachel and I got together frequently. I would roller-skate over there; we could even walk. So we socialized a great deal, at least until we got to high school. The Downeys I saw from time to time but wasn’t as close with, the same with the Van Nice kids.

AN: Your father ran the symposium in 1960, obviously – do you remember anything about it?

SU: No, I really don’t, I didn’t go to any of it, I remember that it was going on and that he was very involved and stressed, [laughing] and as far as I recall it went very well, but I don’t remember any of the details.

BT: About – obviously Sirarpie was in a ton of those photos, and I guess she had been your mother’s professor?

SU: Oh, she was, at Wellesley, yes, I’d forgotten that.

BT: And she’d also gone to the English Girl’s High School in Istanbul –

SU: Sirarpie? Oh, okay, well I don’t know that, but –

BT: Were the Der Nersessians around a lot?

SU: Well, they were older, of course, but we – I remember going to their house, they lived in the house that, if you’re looking at the main house the gate that goes down into the gardens that’s on the left of the main house, there was a double house next to that, and at the time, the Der Nersessians lived in half of it, and Mr. Kearney who was the head gardener lived in the other half. So, my parents entertained the Der Nersessians and we went to their house, and I’m sure my parents went to dinners that I wasn’t invited to, but I remember going there.

BT: Let me look at our questions – I guess we’ve talked mostly about your being a child at Dumbarton Oaks, but being a teenager, was that different in anyway, more time or less time spent on the grounds?

SU: No. If anything it was less, because I had my own extracurricular activities and ultimately got to the point where I could drive and socialize with my school friends, so if anything I think I spent less time there.

AN: Did you keep up with Dumbarton Oaks after you moved to college?

SU: Well, there was, of course, the four year break while I was in college, and then, of course, I came back here right after college, but really I didn’t keep up. I mean, I heard from my mother, who I saw all the time, about activities that she – people she saw who had come into town – and I did see a fair amount of Julia Warner and Fanny Bonajuto because by that time my mother was widowed and they were very close friends of hers, and Julia would entertain us at the Chevy Chase Country Club, and my mother would have Julia and Fanny over, and so I would see them probably more than anyone else.

BT: Well, I don’t think we have too much else. Alasdair were you thinking of anything else?

AN: No, nothing comes to mind. Is there anything more you would like to talk about?

SU: No, I don’t think so.

AN: Well, thank you so much for talking to us.

SU: Well, you’re very, very welcome. It was a pleasure, and it’s interesting, you know, I don’t think about this stuff very often anymore, and it’s kind of fun to go back and think about it a little bit.