An new occasional series on people, places or objects which have influenced me.(Or, confessions of a preteen philatelist)
During my first stint as a New Yorker, between 1976 and 1982, I collected stamps. Although my opinion on the merits of collecting anything has shifted since those years — from “presents for me = good” to the belief that an attachment to physical things Physical things other than my Apple Mac, of course. insulates against new experiences — I still think that the study of stamps can provide quirky comparative perspectives on geographical history. But the end of postal monopolies and the rise of email have, in my mind, added a closing bracket to the set of stamps that are culturally meaningful. Stamps have gone the way of coats of arms, seals and silent movies: Interesting as products of their age, but false witnesses to our own (unless you consider collecting authentic false witnesses a worthwile ironical pursuit.)
But email was far in the future when I started my stamp collecting career, described here from my perspective as a 10-year old: (Click to enlarge)
I think some of those sentences really were mine; the rest was likely redacted by well-meaning grownups eager to portray children as uncorrupted adults. But that was my story, and Viola Ilma did play a large part in it.
I have fragmented memories of Viola Ilma. She was a big gregarious older woman, at least to my skinny preteen self, and I remember her always with cigarette in hand, or else with one at hand. She lived alone in an apartment near the NY Collectors Club in Murray Hill, and on weekends my parents would drive me there. The weather was always overcast, somehow. Most often, the two of us would sit at the kitchen table, with the rain titter-tattering against a window made up of small square panes. The apartment would be quiet and dark. Perhaps she had a cat. Her tea mugs, like her fingers, were stained yellowish brown.
Viola Ilma, my sister Francesca, and me. Dad took the picture.
There would always be a new shipment of stamps to examine, or else there was work to do on my presentation on stamps depicting the work of the World Health Organization, which I would eventually exhibit at several philately shows. I had figured out early on that Viola was some kind of philatelic evangelist, and well known among “pro” stamp collectors. But there was also an international connection that I could not quite fathom. I vividly remember a picture of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, hanging on a wall. I was under the impression she was related to him, for some reason. In one of her thousands of books a letter from Einstein acted as a bookmark, which impressed me greatly. I remember hoping with a children’s logic that she would give it to me one day — probably because she was generous, which to a child soon creates expectations.
When my family left New York in 1982, I lost touch with her. My interest in stamps waned, and I now wanted a Commodore 64, though I never lost the perspectives I gained in her kitchen. I suspect Viola saw stamp collecting as a means to an overarching internationalist end; googling her provides tantalizing hints of a remarkable life in that vein. Some annotated results follow:
/Viola wrote the Funk and Wagnalls Guide to the World of Stamp Collecting: The Joys of Stamp Collecting for the Beginning and Advanced Philatelist, published in 1978, right around the time I knew her.
/A letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to a soldier, dated 1942, that mentions Viola Ilma. I reproduce the letter here as the site is selling it:
The page further explains:
Another such letter. Viola Ilma’s name also crops up in Eleanor Roosevelt’s papers.During World War II, FBI Director dubbed First Lady ELEANOR ROOSEVELT “Rover” because she traveled so much. She visited U.S. military bases to help raise the morale of the men. Mrs. Roosevelt visited the battlefront (in a Red Cross uniform), ate with the soldiers in their mess halls and spent countless hours in hospital wards. Upon her return back to the White House, she would call families of soldiers she had met or write to them. VIOLA ILMA was Executive Director of the Young Men’s Vocational Foundation.
The American Youth Congress was “arguably the most significant mobilization of youth-based political activity in American history prior to the late 1960s,” according to this National Park site.The founder of the American Youth Congress analyzes youth problems in the depression, urging youth to support Roosevelt’s New Deal as an alternative to traditional capitalist democracy, communism, and fascism. She also urges youth to fight against war, though she opposes isolationism and favors collective action. Noting that Nazism, fascism, and communism gained their strength in Europe from youth, she calls for mobilization of American youth and opposition to totalitarianism. (The author withdrew from AYC when a coalition of communists and socialists won control.)
/At this point, it is still possible to entertain doubts that these Viola Ilmas really are all the same person — it’s an original name, but that’s no guarantee with Google. Then I found this blurb about a book called The Political Virgin. It turns out that this extraordinary woman wrote an autobiography:
I am going to have to buy that book, clearly. (Anne Morgan was most likely the philantropist daughter of JP Morgan.)Viola Ilma is remembered as the brashest, most imaginative, and most unpredictable youngster of the nervous thirties. Her autobiography presents the story of a girl with an insatiable appetite for life and an enormous interest and faith in people. Ilma, granddaughter of a noted Swiss missionary in Ethiopia, startled 1930s Depression Era America with a new magazine called MODERN YOUTH, organized the first American Youth Congress & was a close friend of Anne Morgan & Eleanor Roosevelt.
The Ethiopia link removes any doubt in my mind that these Violas are the person I knew.
/There is another connection between her and Ethiopia. It seems she wrote on Ethiopia’s political and economic situation in 1959-60 for CD Jackson, Speechwriter and Special Assistant to President Eisenhower.
/Finally, with a resume like that, what are the odds, you think, that she would not also be this Viola Ilma, cast member of Broadway play, Cloudy with Showers, performed in 1931?
With the hindsight provided by Google, Viola’s willingness to spend hours and hours teaching some random kid now seems entirely in character. I still don’t know when she was born, and when (or even if) she died, but I have contacted other people who knew her, and there are a few more leads to explore, so I will report back when I know more.