I first met my future mother-in-law in 1996, when my boyfriend at the time, Marc Aronson, brought me to Westchester, where he was giving a talk on Edith Wharton to his mother’s book reading group, which was reading House of Mirth. Marc and I had met many times over the years–I an all-in-black aspiring novelist, he an editor at Henry Holt–mostly at the home of Shashi and Minu Tharoor. On one fateful occasion, we sat perched on a sofa and were soon immersed in a conversation about Edith Wharton and Henry James. Marc had recently finished his dissertation on William Crary Brownell, who edited both authors. (I am a James fan; he a Wharton, and we still have not resolved the issue) At the time, I think Marc was surprised that he was talking to someone who not only knew all the works, but even cared!
What followed was a very Jamesian or Whartonesque courtship–take your pick–a long date at the Metropolitan Museum, where we both had wandered as children and now shared our favorite rooms, literary readings, strolls and high and low meals talking books in our beloved New York City; proffered and refused gifts and many, many conversations, heady and otherwise. Over the course of that time, he mentioned his parents a few times–once at an Israeli restaurant in the East Village he said something about his parents ‘working in the theater.’ Then one evening, standing at the bar at Gramercy Tavern, after an event at the National Arts Club, he began to explain his fascination with Brownell, how he was drawn to figures who are on the borderline or cusp of cultural change, since of course, that was who his father, the set designer Boris Aronson, was. At that moment, I thought to myself, “I will never be bored with this man. I will always want to hear what he has to say,” and simply put–fell in love.
Shortly thereafter we rented a car and made our way up to Westchester, where I met his elegant, snowy-haired mother and her fellow book group. Marc gave his talk and then we followed Lisa back to her home, across the river, in Nyack. At the time, Lisa was about 75 years old, and she drove like a speed demon, swerving around the winding roads. As we stepped up to the door, he paused, and said with a sigh, “Welcome to my family. Welcome to the avant-garde.”
The door swung open.
And so it was.
For that door swinging open happened on many levels for me. My life utterly changed. Marc and I–like Lisa and Boris, though differently–became collaborators and deep friends in work, love and parenting. Soon after he became my editor on a non-fiction book, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers–an idea we dreamed up together and which set me on my path of writing young adult works about teenagers of multicultural backgrounds. (I too would give a talk to that same book group–on Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse) And we now are co-authors, with a new work-in-progress on romance, artistic collaboration and war, about the photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. Throughout, our partnership has been graced by the light of Lisa, who taught me, by example, about the balance of art and life. She never lost her sweet optimism and child-like curiosity, what one friend described as the spirit of “pre-Fascist Europe”–which carried through to her final days.
I hope to put into words more of the door that truly did swing open for me, onto the remarkable woman who became my mother-in-law.
Below is Lisa’s obituary, which I think may help explain what Marc meant and what I have come to understand and love.
Lisa Jalowetz Aronson
April 18, 1920-April 18, 2013
For over 35 years Lisa Jalowetz Aronson was part of the Broadway theater design team, with her husband Boris Aronson, garnering six Tony awards, for such iconic shows as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Follies,” and others. She also was the co-author, with Frank Rich, of The Theater Art of Boris Aronson.
Lisa herself came from an artistic family and her childhood home was a place where all forms of art were an integral part of life. She was born in Prague in 1920 where her father, the conductor Heinrich Jalowetz, was a close associate of members of the second Vienna school including Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg and he conducted several of the premieres of their music. Heinrich was brought to America by a patron of Schoenberg’s and headed the music department at Black Mountain College, which Lisa attended after she managed to escape from Nazi-controlled Vienna where she was studying art at a high school.
Her sister, the weaver Trude Guermonprez, studied at the School of Fine and Applied Arts in Halle-Saale, Germany—noted for the many Bauhaus-trained artists on its faculty—and lived in open hiding, under a false identity, in Amsterdam during World War II, while her husband, the photographer Paul Guermonprez, was a leader in the Dutch Resistance until his execution by the Nazis. Lisa and her sister were reunited after the war, when Trude was sponsored by Anni Albers to teach weaving at Black Mountain. Lisa’s cousin, Willy Groag, with whom she grew up, was responsible for bringing out much of the art from the Terezin camp after World War II; her cousin Jacques Groag worked with the Viennese architect Adolf Loos and the philosopher-architect Ludwig Wittgenstein, before fleeing to England, where he and his wife re-established their artistic careers, and Jacqueline Groag became a well-known textile designer.
After graduating from Black Mountain Lisa Jalowetz came to New York where she sketched theater scenes for newspapers, worked with Erwin Piscator at the New School, and as an assistant to various set designers such as Jo Malzeiner, and then Boris Aronson. They were married in 1945, and she was listed on every show he did after that, as Lisa Jalowetz, assistant to Mr. Aronson. She and Boris first lived on the top floor of a Beaux Artes townhouse on Columbus Circle, which Boris would paint, and where Lisa recalled, after the theater let out, streams of hungry dancers and actors would come to their place to eat. They then moved to an apartment overlooking Central Park where they did all their design work together in the front studio room.
Lisa had a singular gift for friendship, and remained close to childhood friends such as Margit Meissner, Black Mountain classmates such as Atti Gropius, the weaver Lore Lindenfeld, the poet Jane Mayhall, the artist Ruth Asawa, and the director and acting teacher John Stix, as well their theater colleagues such as Harold Prince, Al Hirschfield, Uta Hagen, and Lotte Lenya–and many, many others. Yet Lisa was not one to rest in the past, nurturing new connections and daily rhythms through each phase of her life. One ritual she and a few other dear friends used to do was to call each other up every time the full moon rose in the night sky.
She also provided resources for the German scholar Albrecht Pohlman for his biography of Trude and her husband the Dutch Resistance leader and publisher Paul Guermonprez, as well as a traveling exhibit of Boris’s theater art at the Katonah Art Museum and the Israel Museum, where the Boris and Lisa Aronson print collection is also housed. She served on the Tony Nominating Committee from 1999-2001. More recently, she helped with Boris’ Yiddish Theater art, which opened at the Ben Uri Museum in London on the day she died, April 18th, her 93rd birthday. Lisa died of respiratory failure at her home in Nyack, New York and is survived by her son, Marc, daughter-in-law Marina Budhos, and two grandsons, Sasha and Raphael.