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Denise Scott Brown; family history (Part 2)


Denise Scott Brown; family history (Part 1)
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] My mother’s family were born mainly in Latvia, and my father’s family in Lithuania, except his mother. Now, there may be 30 miles of difference between the places, but these differences were big, and I learnt in America the [Lithuan] Jews were known for their remarkable scholarship. I always saw them as more gross than the Latvian Jews. I was amused to hear Sydney Brenner speak, because he too used that word, Peruvian, and told me its origins. It didn’t mean from… gross people from Peru, it meant people who belonged to… it was a Yiddish acronym… of people from Eastern Europe who were looked upon as crude in general by all the German Jews, who were much more enlightened, and more educated and richer.  So Brenner describes in very moving terms, an experience which I find charming and familiar, except his family came later and were, by the time he was born, poorer than mine were when I was born. Mine were already more upwardly mobile than his, and I too was given private school educations and made to feel part in and part out of my group, and told…

In South Africa?

[DSB] In South Africa, and told to manage in both. Made to feel you must manage in both, and I think this is a demand that Jewish parents make on their children, and Italian parents some of them too, and it makes you unsettled, and it makes you, in the end, if you can escape the problems of it, or ride the hurdles carrying all your problems along, you can maybe have a pretty creative life with it. My grandmother on my mother’s side was born into a family where the father had already gone to Africa, and she had… the mother had many children, and the father died in Africa. That was the thing, they died of disease; two generations died of disease, so many of them. Being an immigrant is a terribly, terribly burdensome thing, and they put everything into their children. Get their children over their heads; you see Bob’s parents doing it, my grandparents doing it.  But my grandmother was therefore given for adoption to a rich family in Riga, so she grew up an elegant and beautiful, and for the time, well educated, but not in formal education, young woman. And…

[RV] In Riga?

[DSB] In Riga. Now this is the province of Kurland, in Latvia, and they were German speaking, although my grandmother spoke what she called Lettish, which is Latvian, and Russian. Not much Yiddish. They disdained Yiddish. The Lithuanians maybe didn’t disdain Yiddish. So then her husband to be, Willy… Willy Hepker, had already left Kurland for South West Africa, which was German speaking, and he was a great horseman, he was a very… you see in the pictures of him, oh, was he handsome! And standing in front of a mud hut, but looking like an American, in American kind of garb, very elegant. And, by the way, they spoke such beautiful English.  Where they learnt that… I really think, by the way, that Sidney Brenner is wrong in saying his father was uneducated and did not read. I’m sure he read Yiddish very, very well, he just didn’t read English. That’s not uneducated. Uneducated is having no books when you grow up, coming out of slavery having a huge problem to find an education, because there’s no one before you who had one. That’s uneducated. But this tradition that our people brought, and Bob’s people brought, there were books all round Bob as he grew up. Books of architecture in Italy, we’ve still got them. So, from that point of view, my grandmother was this elegant young lady, and Willy wrote from home and said, send me Ellie. Now, Ellie was not Becky, my grandmother, and Ellie was just engaged. So he said, ‘Oh well, I’ll take Becky’. And Becky said, ‘The hell he will, I won’t go’. And then she says, ‘I’m not going to Africa’. But anyway, they prevailed upon her, and she landed at Cape Town, and he went up from… living where he then was, Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, to meet her, and saw her and fell in love. And then she was taken, this elegant young woman with the housewifely arts of Riga, to live in real primitive surroundings in a mine camp, which is… my grandfather was… well he was a mixture, he was a tobacco farmer, a cattle farmer, and then eventually a miner, and a ne’er do well in everything he did. Nothing ever succeeded. All his relatives did well and he did not. And there was Becky, this elegant young woman living in, in the veld, in a mud hut and making elegance around her, and in true fashion, if you’ve ever seen The Flame Trees of Thika, which is about British – the ‘right stuff’ people – in Kenya, that’s what my grandmother did in Northern Rhodesia. The grand piano came by ox wagon over the dry sluits as they call them, sluits which are dry-bedded rivers, the river runs dry.  They took the grand piano that way to the house. We had, in Switzerland where my mother and father lived the last 30 years of their life, the teapot that she had in Rhodesia, the Georgian teapot that is silver, made in Birmingham. And it was that kind of mixture, and she became, from an elegant young Latvian woman, she became very, very English, and she talked about going home to England, and I was a xenophobe from an African culture which said, the ‘ought’ of Europe, and the ‘ought’ of England in particular, does not apply to me in Africa.

So here was my grandmother saying, ‘Going home in England’, and I’d say, ‘She’s never even, she wasn’t even born in England’.  But she did live there, and so, she, from… she used to say, ‘When I first got to Rhodesia, I used to serve wine when guests came, and then I later changed to serving tea the way the English did’. And then my mother and her brothers – there were five of them, though one died very young and another died later – they grew up in this wilderness on this farm, where my grandfather tried to be a cattle merchant and a tobacco farmer.

And they were known as the wild children, and they didn’t have schools nearby, so my grandparents imported governesses from Europe, and my mother in fact learned to speak French in Northern Rhodesia from an English governess who’d lived many years in Switzerland, and then later from a governess from France. So when she went to live the rest of her life in Switzerland in 1961, which she did, surrounded by the sepia photographs pinned up on the walls, of her life in Africa – she just died in 2003, surrounded by all of this – an amazing life.  But she spoke the French she’d learnt as a child for the rest of her life.

Internationally renowned architects Robert Venturi (1925-2018) and Denise Scott Brown (b.1931) have helped transform contemporary design through their innovative architecture and planning. Winners of numerous prestigious awards, their designs have championed multiculturalism, social activism, symbolism, pop culture, history and evolving technologies.

Listeners: Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes is Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books include Human Built World, Rescuing Prometheus and American Genesis. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society, US National Academy of Engineering, Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Duration: 7 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010