While growing up in extraordinary wealth in the early 20th century, heiress to the fortunes of two of the three great Chicago meatpacking dynasties Muriel Gardiner Buttinger was from a young age both aware of social inequalities and an activist against them. Even at age 10, she convinced her friends to borrow their mothers’ dresses and march with her in support of women getting the right to vote.
Buttinger also learned about the gulf between wealth and lower incomes from the two women who cared for her while her mother pursued her social obligations. One of them, Mollie, had to board out her daughter with a middle class family in order to pursue her job. Both Mollie and the family maid, Nellie, spoke to Buttinger often about the discrepancy between very rich people like her parents and others.
Buttinger was an amazingly energetic woman, who was beautiful and lived her life to the fullest. Sheila Isenberg, who has just published the biography “Muriel’s War: An American Heiress in the Nazi Resistance,” is amazed at the complexity of her subject. “She’s someone who was completely individualistic. She didn’t follow anybody’s drumbeat, but marched to her own,” says Isenberg. “She did exactly what she thought was the right thing to do for herself.”
Buttinger, who during the last 45 years of her life was a resident of Pennington, was a woman who knew how to live in the moment. “She gave herself fully to whatever she was doing,” says Isenberg. “What seems so extraordinary was that in the 30s, she was able to be a medical student, a single mother, have love affairs, and at the same time work in the resistance and save people’s lives.” And even after she returned to the United States, she maintained her dedication to justice, focusing particularly on troubled youths.
Of course part of the reason Buttinger was able to do so much good was her trust fund. Not one who was interested in fancy clothing, jewelry, or swank hotels, she lived simply and gave her money to struggling people in need of help.
One recipient of her funding was the Stonybrook-Millstone Watershed Association, which sits on the property where she lived in Pennington. Listed in the association’s first logbook of membership in 1952, Buttinger is mentioned a few years later as a “Mrs. B” who had agreed to donate 450 acres over several decades to the association. Isenberg will present her book in an event sponsored by the Watershed Association on Saturday, February 5, at Princeton Public Library.
In 1970, as both Buttinger and her housekeeper were starting to slow down, the heiress built a one-story ranch house on the property and moved in. The Watershed Association took over the farmhouse, converting one room into a nature center. When Buttinger died, they converted the ranch house into a bigger and better nature center.
Buttinger attended Wellesley College, where her political leanings started to coalesce around pacifism, women’s rights, issues of justice and injustice, and the chasm between rich and poor. She was very distressed by the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, the famous case of two immigrants who had been involved in radical politics and were being tried for bank robbery and murder. They were convicted. Buttinger believed they were innocent and the government was conspiring against them.
After college, Buttinger spent a year in Italy and then started working on a degree at Oxford University. But a huge disappointment awaited her — after three years, her thesis on Mary Shelley was rejected on the ground that she had not condemned Shelley’s suicidal threats.
In her disappointment in the aftermath of this debacle, Buttinger had an affair with Harold Abramson and ended up marrying him, a choice she would immediately come to regret. But Abramson did make an important contribution to her life. In encouraging her to seek the help of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud to save their marriage, he sparked Buttinger’s lifetime interest in psychoanalysis.
Although Freud turned down her request to become his patient, she still decided to move to Vienna, where she began analysis with one of Freud’s proteges, the American psychoanalyst Ruth Mack.
Buttinger married once again, this time to an easygoing English musician, Julian Gardiner, who fathered her daughter, Connie, but this marriage also ended quickly.
During the 1930s, before the German Nazis marched into Austria, the country’s politics were complicated. Vienna was controlled by the progressive Social Democrats, many of whom were Jewish. In the countryside, however, power was with the Christian Socialists, who were anti-Semitic. A small Austrian Nazi party was also active, throwing bombs in public places and generally causing havoc. Buttinger, a seeker of justice, was of course drawn to the Social Democrats.
As the Austrian Nazis and Christian Socialists became more powerful, and eventually Hitler’s troops marched in, Social Democrats were in mortal danger. Because Buttinger was an American and a medical student, and her Social Democratic sympathies were unknown to the broader populace, she was able to provide hiding places and to secure false passports by carrying photos across the border to Czechoslovakia and bringing the passports on her return trip.
Author Isenberg’s research on Buttinger’s life and for a previous book, “A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry” (an American who saved many Jewish artists and writers caught in southern France during the Second World War), gave her a very personal experience of the devastations of World War II. “You always think you know about something until you do a lot of research,” she says. “I didn’t understand the meaning of the Holocaust and the despair of people who couldn’t get out of Europe until I read the original letters. I didn’t understand what it meant to be in the resistance, when Nazis came or the fascists, and what it meant to risk one’s life going across borders.”
She came across many stories where Buttinger tried to help people leave the country, but in the end couldn’t help them because they did not want to leave without members of their extended families. “This all has led me to decide I will never write another book on the Holocaust,” says Isenberg. “Writing this book was very painful; it really hurt.”
Isenberg first became interested in Buttinger’s story during research for the Fry book. Buttinger had paid passage for some of the refugees that Fry got out of Europe, and Isenberg remembers wondering, “Who is this woman who is so generous?”
After getting sidetracked for several years and changing literary agents, Isenberg got a contract for “Muriel’s Story” and started her research. In contrast to the Fry papers, which were neatly sorted and organized in archives at Columbia University, Buttinger’s “archives” were in her daughter’s possession and comprised dusty boxes filled with “unsorted piles of papers that hadn’t been looked at in so many years.”
Among these papers, Isenberg found one real treasure: Buttinger’s handwritten notes for the memoir she published in 1983, “Code Name ‘Mary’: Memoirs of an American Woman in the Austrian Underground.” The notes included, says Isenberg, “all the personal stuff” that Buttinger had left out of the book.” For example, Buttinger did not mention her first husband. But her notes did not suffer from this paucity of emotions. Isenberg says her notes “were articulate and clear and didn’t leave anything out.”
A second source was a lengthy interview with Buttinger for a Columbia University project about eminent psychoanalysts.
Isenberg’s third source was interviews with Buttinger by Brenda Webster, who knew her personally. Webster’s father, Wolf Schwabacher, was both Buttinger’s friend and her lawyer. Two years after the arrival of Buttinger and her third husband, Joseph Buttinger, in Manhattan, her daughter, Connie, longed to live in the country, and Schwabacher suggested that Buttinger and her family move into part of a big farmhouse he owned in Pennington called Brookdale Farm. Schwabacher’s brother lived in half of the house, but when he moved out, Buttinger bought the house.
Isenberg was born in New York City. Her father was a conductor for the Pennsylvania Railroad, a train engineer in the Philippines during World War II, and later owner of a travel agency. Her mother eventually joined him working at the agency.
Isenberg decided at age 15 that she wanted to become a writer, after reading Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” “In high school, I read the book and remember being taken by it and thinking, ‘I want to do that; I want to write a book.’”
But when Isenberg was growing up, women were being told to become school teachers, or social workers, or nurses. Even though Isenberg did not want to be a teacher, she returned to graduate school at Hunter College to do just that — after having been completely demoralized by a job at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency where she spent all her time using Correctype to fix typos for one of the agents. After gathering the credits she needed at Hunter, Isenberg became an English teacher in the New York City school system, for seven years. “I didn’t know how to teach, and I didn’t want to teach, and the kids were tough,” she says.
When she became pregnant with her daughter, she stopped teaching in the public schools and instead taught adult education classes in high school equivalency and English as a Second Language in Harlem, which she found much more interesting.
While teaching, she started writing a book, which she actually sold to a bona fide publisher on the basis of four chapters. It focused on the women’s movement and in particular how to organize a consciousness-raising group. But, alas, she says, “life intervened, and I never finished it.”
In 1977 Isenberg left the city and moved to Woodstock, New York, working for a small newspaper for 10 years. Isenberg actually traces her interest in newspapers back to her father, who would come home every day with four or five newspapers. She later spent four years as press secretary for Helene Weinstein, a New York State assemblywoman from Brooklyn, where she got the idea for her first book, “Women Who Love Men Who Kill,” published by Simon and Schuster in 1991.
Although Isenberg is done with the Holocaust, she is not afraid to tackle painful subjects. The subject of her next book, which she will write with her daughter, is domestic violence. It will be cultural psychology, as was her first book, not biography.
Isenberg, who in addition to her writing teaches English part time at Marist College, had not realized how challenging the book about Buttinger would be. “With Muriel, from the day she was born until the day she died, her story was very compelling,” says Isenberg.
Author Event, Saturday, February 5, 5 to 7 p.m., Princeton Public Library. Author Sheila Isenberg discusses her book “Muriel’s War: An American Heiress in the Nazi Resistance.” Muriel Gardiner Buttinger was an original member of Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, which is located on her former property in Pennington. Register at 609-737-3735, extension 10.