One of my great regrets is that I never asked Mama to tell her story of how, or even exactly when, she came to Germany, fell in love with my father, and decided to stay for what would turn out to be more than fifteen years, including the entire Second World War. The bare outlines of her life are discernible and easy to trace, but unfortunately I know few of the details, and little of her inner life. This is what I know: My mother Ellen (1912-1998) was born in New York on 20 January 1912 as the youngest and somewhat pampered daughter of Nicholas Biddle (1878-1923), a wealthy financier who managed the estate of John Jacob Astor IV (1864-1912) after the latter’s death on the Titanic. Ellen’s mother was Elisabeth Le Roy Emmet (1874-1943), member of a socially prominent Irish-American family and direct descendant of Thomas Addis Emmet (1764-1827), who was forced to flee to America after the execution of his brother, the Irish patriot Robert Emmet (1778-1803).

Mama and Papa, 1932

Mama and Papa, 1932

Ellen was not an easy child, strong-willed and adventurous, imaginative and rebellious, according to her first cousin and playmate, Elizabeth “Sis” Lapsley (1913-1993). Ellen was dismissed from the prestigious Chapin School for girls in the late 1920s for insubordination, although I never did find out the specific act for which she was thrown out. It was not on academic grounds. Thereupon her mother decided to take her to Europe on a “grand tour”. In the summer of 1930 Ellen and her mother, along with several other members of the Emmet family, stayed as paying guests at Schloss Neubeuern in the Bavarian Alps, the ancestral castle of the Wendelstadt family now owned by Baroness Julie “Sisi” von Wendelstadt (1871-1942) after the death of her husband Jan von Wendelstadt (1855-1909).

Schloss Neubeuern

Schloss Neubeuern

Here and at “Hinterhör,” the modest farm estate in neighboring Altenbeuern of Sisi’s sister-in-law (her brother’s widow) Countess Ottonie “Sweety” von Degenfeld-Schonburg (1882-1970), Ellen met my father, Baron Curt Ernst Ferdinand Friedrich von Stackelberg (1910-1994), an impoverished Baltic German student at the University of Munich who was earning some of his expenses as a tennis coach to the students at Schloss Neubeuern (which housed a private school for boys founded in 1925) and to the guests at the Schloss and at Hinterhör. The wealthy American and impoverished aristocrat fell passionately in love. Ellen decided to remain in Munich to study art, apparently over her mother’s objections. Granny did not think highly of my father and thought him unsuitable for Mama. Undeterred, Mama got pregnant and they married rather abruptly on New Year’s Eve 1931. My older brother Olaf Patrik, named after his paternal grandfather, was born in Munich on 2 August 1932, ending Mama’s career in art before it got properly started.

Mama and Papa at Hinterhör

Mama and Papa at Hinterhör

Papa and Sweety in Hinterhör

Papa and Sweety in Hinterhör

While Germany underwent the exuberant turmoil of a “national revolution” after Hitler’s sudden appointment to the chancellorship at the end of January 1933, Papa continued to study law in Munich, now financially supported by his American mother-in-law, our Granny, while Mama stayed home with her growing family. My sister Betsy (named after her maternal grandmother) was born on 27 April 1934 and my birth followed, rather unexpectedly, on 8 May 1935. Mama, who had been nursing Betsy when I was conceived, did not discover her pregnancy until three months before my birth. It was a difficult birth, and she and I spent my first three months in the hospital. Her marriage was already beginning to go sour before Papa moved his family to Berlin in September 1936 to complete the year of in-service training required for a career in law. My younger brother Nicholas Temple was born in Berlin on 23 December 1938. This was one of my earliest memories, indelibly imprinted in my mind because of the scratch I received from the brooch Mama was wearing when she came back from the hospital. Years later Fritzi von Kügelgen, a close friend of the family, referred to Tempy as the prospective “Versöhnungskind,” on whom rested his parents’ hopes of reconciling a marriage that was falling apart.

Mama, 1934

Mama, 1934


Mama in the Bavarian Alps, 1930

Mama in the Bavarian Alps, 1930

Ellen and Curt had very different personalities; in retrospect their relationship seems to prove nothing so much as that “opposites attract.” While Mama was by nature independent, non-conformist, a dare-devil and a risk-taker, always ready and willing to defy convention and leave the beaten track, Papa was socially and professionally ambitious, much more cautious and correct than Mama, at least in his public conduct, and very aware of the obligations he thought he owed to his background as the descendant of an ancient Baltic aristocratic family. The emblematic story of their thorny relationship was that Papa had been unable to dissuade Mama from attending an aristocratic ball in her ski-boots. But Mama made merciless fun of Papa doffing his hat in obeisance to his unseen interlocutor as he deferentially answered the phone. Many years later, unconscious of the irony in his idealization of a normal middle-class lifestyle, Papa told me in an apologetic tone, “Mit deiner Mutter war kein bürgerliches Leben zu führen” (with your mother a bourgeois life was not possible). However, he prized a visible dent she had once put in his desk in a fit of jealousy, provoked, it seems, more by his addiction to work than by any actual infidelity, although, according to Mama, there was some of that encumbering their marriage as well.

Mama with Olaf, 1933

Mama with Olaf, 1933

Each of us children bore some marks of our conflicting maternal and paternal heritages. In retrospect Olaf and Betsy took more after Papa, both in physical appearance and in other ways, and Tempy and I took more after Mama. Olaf became the “Aushängeschild der Familie” (the quote is again from Fritzi, meaning, roughly, “poster child”), professionally the most successful of the four of us, eventually ending his career as head of the Mathematics Department at Kent State University for twenty years. Betsy and Mama were always at odds, just as different from each other in their tastes, opinions, values, and personalities as were Papa and Mama. Mama herself always thought that Tempy was most like her, irreverent, insouciant, irascible, and independent, and both shared a particularly cutting brand of humor. As for myself, I have always been conscious of my conflicted identity and divided loyalties, admiring Papa (after I got to know him in 1959), but feeling much closer to and more like Mama. Looking back over my life, I am struck by how much I replicated some aspects of her peculiar biography: becoming an expatriate in my twenties, spurning a normal academic career path, marrying and then divorcing a German, never fulfilling my own literary or artistic ambitions, living my life at the edge of poverty, though never as badly off as Mama after the war. Mama, however, thrived on activity, whether it had a purposeful goal or not. “That ability to sit at your desk for hours,” she told me when I was working on a paper for college, “that’s something you have from your father, not from me.”

Olaf in Hinterhör, 1936

Olaf in Hinterhör, 1936

Betsy, Tempy, Rodi, 1940

Betsy, Tempy, Rodi, 1940

Papa’s youth had not been easy. His Stackelberg ancestors, whose line he could trace back to the thirteenth century, had migrated east as part of the Teutonic Order, and settled in the Baltic provinces of Livland, Kurland, and Estland (today Latvia and Estonia) as part of the culturally German land-owning ruling class. Formerly subject to the kingdom of Sweden (there are still sizable branches of the Stackelberg family in both Sweden and Finland), the Baltic provinces had been incorporated into the Russian Empire under Peter the Great in the Great Northern War of the early eighteenth century. Papa was born in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg on 11 May 1910 by the old Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time. During the First World War, most of the Baltic aristocracy remained loyal to the Russian monarchy and fought on the Russian side. After the fall of the tsar and the violent Bolshevik Revolution that followed, Estonia and Latvia declared their independence from Russia as self-governing democratic republics. Estonia was occupied by German troops until 1919, when they were withdrawn under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919. It was then that the fledgling Estonian government was able to push through the expropriation of baronial estates. The Baltic-German aristocracy lost its political dominance as well as much of its land. Among the properties confiscated by the new Estonian state was Hallinap, the estate managed by Papa’s father Olaf Patrik (1878-1959) on behalf of the Stackelberg Family Foundation, established to assist indigent members of the Stackelberg Family Clan (incorporated in 1864).

Papa with his father Olaf Patrik at Hallinap, 1912

Papa with his father Olaf Patrik at Hallinap, 1912

Faced with the loss of their livelihood, Papa’s father and mother, born Stella Bernewitz (1883-1950) in Riga, emigrated to Germany with their two children, my nine-year-old father and his seven-year-old sister Elisabeth (“Lulli”). Papa’s aged paternal grandparents remained on their reduced family estate of Röal, where they died in their eighties in 1925.

Papa`s mother Stella, his aunt at the piano, and his grand-parents in Röal, ca 1912

Papa`s mother Stella, his aunt at the piano, and his grand-parents in Röal, ca 1912

Life in Germany was difficult for our father’s transplanted family in the aftermath of the First World War. Deprived of their legal privileges in the new Weimar republic, many members of the lower aristocracy found it difficult to maintain, or in the case of the displaced Baltic aristocracy to regain, the status and standard of living to which they had been accustomed. Adjustment to very different conditions and regret for the loss of their inherited way of life in their ancient homeland must certainly have left some psychic scars. Papa’s parents finally found reasonably suitable employment as the managers of a rest-home for convalescents in the alpine health resort town of Bad Reichenhall in Bavaria.

Papa at age fifteen in 1925

Papa at age fifteen in 1925

Papa’s youth was marked by the kind of genteel poverty that may well have led him to value money and status so greatly later in life — another trait that would differentiate him from my mother, although, ironically, she grew up under much wealthier circumstances.Grandfather Nicholas Biddle
Granny Elizabeth Emmet Biddle

Granny Elizabeth Emmet Biddle and grandfather Nicholas Biddle

Ellen’s silk-stocking, social-register American background dated back on the Biddle side to well before the American Revolution, in which one of our Biddle ancestors served as the Qartermaster General of George Washington’s army and another young Biddle, a naval officer, was killed in battle. Mama’s background must have seemed as exotic and attractive to Curt as his own aristocratic pedigree probably did to her.

Mama with Betsy, ca. 1936

Mama with Betsy, ca. 1936

It is tempting to see the breakdown of their cosmopolitan marriage as also a German-American conflict in which the personal and the political inevitably overlapped. The war put their marriage to a terrible test and clarified for Mama once and for all where her loyalties lay. In retrospect it does not seem a mere coincidence that their formal break-up occurred in the year that the United States entered the war, although their divorce did not become final until June 1942. By that time Curt had fathered a daughter, Susanne (b. April 1942), with an attractive blond Polish woman, Halina Wojciechova (1913-2001), from Cracow. He was stationed in Poland as an officer in the Quartermaster Corps of the Wehrmacht, into which he had been conscripted in 1940. In his memoirs, written in the 1980s, Papa wrote that before pursuing his courtship of Halina he had offered to continue his marriage with Mama, but Mama had rejected his efforts at reconciliation. Mama corroborated this account, but with the significant difference that when he made his offer, Halina was already expecting his child. After obtaining the official permission required for an “interracial” marriage, Papa married his second wife in November 1942 and they had two more daughters, Stella (b. 1943) and Sylvia (b. 1945). The last of his eight children, his son Curt (1956-1997), was born eleven years later in Karlsruhe.

Mama and Papa`s four children, 1939

Mama and Papa`s four children, 1939

Years later I asked Mama why she had chosen to remain in Germany despite her dislike of the Nazis, their vicious persecution of Germany’s Jewish minority, their contempt for American popular culture and humanitarian values, and the absence of any of the democratic freedoms with which she had grown up. She experienced her first visit to pre-Hitler Germany as a “culture shock,” but an exciting one with both positive and negative features. As is often the case with young people, she was politically aloof without strong ideological convictions, although a partisan supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal at home. From Papa’s relatively more conservative perspective she had left-wing sympathies, which certainly came to the fore under very different circumstances upon her return to the United States after the war. Once married in Germany she evidently saw no compelling reason to leave the country to which her husband was bound by both ancestral lineage and the prospects of future professional success. Mama did once confess to me that she would not have wanted to stay in Germany if she had not married into the aristocracy. The deference she enjoyed as “Frau Baronin” in a class-conscious society was certainly one of the perks that came with her marriage to a German aristocrat. It was not as if she had no opportunity to leave. With her children (but without Papa, whose work kept him busy) she made several lengthy visits back to her mother’s seaside summer home in Wareham, Massachusetts, in the 1930s: once in 1934 to show off her latest child Betsy, again in 1937, and finally in the summer of 1939, along with our German maid, Fräulein Ursula (”Ulla”) Fuchs.

Visit to Wareham in 1937: Back row, Mama, Granny, and Aunt Virginia (Uncle Nick Biddle's wife) holding her baby Liz, b. 1936; middle, Olaf, Ginny Biddle, Kitty Biddle; front , Betsy and Rody

Visit to Wareham in 1937: Back row, Mama, Granny, and Aunt Virginia (Uncle Nick Biddle's wife) holding her baby Liz, b. 1936; middle, Olaf, Ginny Biddle, Kitty Biddle; front , Betsy and Rody

By the time Mama returned to Europe in September 1939, three weeks after she had originally been scheduled to return, the German invasion of Poland had already begun. Why did she decide to return to a troubled marriage in a Germany at war when she certainly could have stayed in safe and comfortable circumstances surrounded by a supportive family in the country of her birth? Of course, nobody knew at the time that the German invasion of Poland marked the beginning of what was to become a second world war. The likelihood of the United States becoming involved in the war, if it was not attacked, seemed quite remote at the time. Perhaps Mama shared the illusion that after the German conquest of Poland, Britain and France would now make peace. Mama described her reason for returning to Germany as self-evident: her place, she said, was beside her husband, even, or especially, in time of war. But in view of the continuing problems in her marriage, this uncharacteristically conventional explanation did not ring entirely true. Papa’s explanation was predictably less charitable, reflecting the bitterness of their divorce: she had formed a strong attachment to the talented Dutch music student Winifred (”Wini”) Van Duyl (1913-2006), whom she had met in Berlin and wanted to rejoin. Besides, he added, but with a hint of embarrassment at so outrageous a suggestion, she wanted to be on the winning side. My brother Olaf attributed Mama’s decision to return to Germany to her wish to escape from the domination of her mother and older sister. Family pressure to get her to stay in America only brought out her contrariness and made her want to return all the more. My first wife Steffi Heuss (b. 1941), who did not get along with her mother-in-law, but was a perceptive critic, had a provocative explanation of her own: “Can you really imagine Mama missing out on the war?”

Published on Friday, December 18th, 2009 at 4:32 pm and filed under Memoir.