Googliography: Viola Ilma

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.articlesmall.jpg

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:

ilma.jpeg/A picture of Viola Ilma taken in 1933 by the photographer Arnold Genthe and now in the collections of the Library of Congress.

/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.

/Viola wrote And now youth!, published in 1934 and edited by Robert O. Ballou, who was also John Steinbeck’s editor at the time. The page selling the book notes:

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.

20 thoughts on “Googliography: Viola Ilma

  1. Though I find the google stalking a bit creepy, I think this story is very “cute”. I reckon cute is not what you’re going for these days though, no? Uh, you have a ways to go to get to sexy.

  2. Cute is not how I would describe this. Fascinating is more like it. She seems to be so much a piece of a world that doesn’t exist anymore, shaped by a time that despite depression and war, was somehow optimistic but was perhaps more just completely lacking in cynicism. Or maybe I’m just being sentimental.
    Did your parents know any of these things about Viola Ilma?

  3. The More Things Change Dept.

    On the left, Stefan Geens, age 10, junior protocol chairman of INJUNPEX-IYC, contemplating his stamp collection. On the right, Stefan Geens, age 30+, junior protocol chairman of CHAO-REC, contemplating his losing scrabble record.

  4. When googling Stefan Geens, I get appr. 20.000 hits. I assume that there are more people in this world bearing that name. Still, it is an awful lot of hits! You are surely making things hard for people that will google you in, say, sixty years time to find out who you were. Apart from that, what do you think they’d find?

  5. I love the body language of the photo. Stefan’s sister is so trusting and relaxed, sitting in Ms Ilma’s lap very comfortably. Stefan looks so serious and austere as he leans forward for the camera.

  6. Ahh, Stefan…I remember you well. If you don’t recall, and given your obviously excellent memory, I’ll bet you do, I was the IYC Liaison between the United Nations and JA for INJUNPEX. You were the youngest addition to the JA crew at the time, and all the rest of us had been around in varying capacities throughout the mid-70s. Viola is indeed the person in each of the references you have above. She has unfortunately passed on, but Honor Holland and Dick Beresford are both still with us. I’m sure you remember them both. Please feel free to drop me an email and I’ll get you in touch with all the old JA folks. We’re all here…we mostly use Macs…we mostly still collect stamps, exhibit, or write, or promote issues of public policy. But most importantly, I think, we all strive to include young people in all the work that we do. That was Vi’s ultimate gift to each of us, the clear statement that despite our youth, we had something to offer and so were welcome wherever and whenever she was. It’s a shame more people like her don’t exist.

  7. I knew Viola and her cousin, Honor Holland, and spent many happy Sunday evenings having dinner at their apartment, then watching Upstairs Downstairs, and then playing Scrabble. I was a teenager living on my own in the city and their household, with their pug (Percy) and a big Lhasa Apso whose name I can’t recall, was a cozy place. Their friend Dick Beresford, who lived downstairs, usually dined with us. Vi and her English cousin were both related to the Ethiopian royal family via a missionary forebear, and they had both been involved in some kind of revolution in… 1957, maybe? She knew the most amazing people—Bricktop, Billie Holiday, and on and on. She gave me perhaps the most amazing compliment I’ve ever received, though I was too young to appreciate it: she said I reminded her of Eleanor Roosevelt(!), which worried me because I thought she meant I was homely (youth is stupid, isn’t it?).

    Anyway, I was sitting here watching Auntie Mame and suddenly thought that Viola was sort of an Auntie Mame, so I googled her and found your post. I think she provided color and a sense of a wider world to a lot of young people, and we were lucky to be among them.

  8. Also, re the Ethiopian connection: Vi asked me over one evening. This was in perhaps ’75 or ’76. Selassie had been deposed and his family were living as exiles. One of his sons was in New York, looking for support to regain the throne. He was at Vi’s apartment that night, and she thought perhaps we would get along so after dinner she left us alone to hang out. I can think of almost nobody in this world I could conceivably have had less in common with than a prince of any kind, deposed or not. He was a very elegant young man, rather small, light-skinned, and handsome. We had a pleasant conversation and I excused myself early. It was an odd extraordinary event of the kind one expected if you hung around at Vi’s place.

  9. Hello Stefan,

    Your article set me thinking… I already knew of the Saalmüller/Waldmeier expedition to Ethiopia (ISBN 9781612960494). I was wondering about Viola’s surname. I was pretty sure she was not descended from Karl Heinrich Saalmüller (the other missionary that went to Ethiopia) as I have the Saalmüllers in my family tree already. There have been some pieces of misdirection along the way!

    Eventually I found the naturalization record (New York, Naturalization Records, 1882-1944 Roll 1140 No. 366501) which starts “I, Viola Waldmeier, also known as Viola Ilma”… which explains why my searches for Viola Ilma in the official records had failed. Presumably “Ilma” was her middle name, but why she dropped her surname is a mystery to me.

    Her father was Alfred Waldmeier, an opera singer, according to the U.S. census of 1915, and Alfred was in turn the son of Theophilus Waldmeier and Susan Sarah Yubdar Bell (born Magdala, Ethiopia).

    The next piece of misdirection was Viola’s entry on Metapedia which says her father was Swiss, however It’s fairly well documented elsewhere that he was born in Brummana, Lebanon. His place of birth recorded in the 1915 census says “Serria” which makes sense if Brummana, now in Lebanon, was in Syria at the time and the census enumerator just wrote down what he(she) heard phonetically. Alfred’s father, Theophilus, WAS Swiss (born Moehlin, Aargau, Switzerland) so it’s possible that Alfred had dual nationality and held a Swiss passport at some time. The Metapedia entry says that Viola’s mother Hattie (Hettie?) was American; from the same census record it looks like Hattie’s maiden name was Stern.

    Finally, for anyone interested in the history of the Saalmüller and Waldmeier families, there is a treasure trove of information at:

  10. Hello Stefan, I just realised I didn’t answer your original question: “I still don’t know when she was born, and when (or even if) she died”. Viola was born 24th April, 1910 at Mainz, Rheinland-Palatinate, Germany and died 14th March 1989 at Saratoga Springs, New York, USA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *