When I was twenty-five I went to London with my then fiancé, to visit his grandmother. Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham was the youngest daughter of artist Louis Comfort Tiffany. She left America fifty years earlier for Vienna where she became involved with the Freuds and helped to establish child psychoanalysis. We arrived in late May before our wedding in August and spent those weeks with her in London. He had not seen his grandmother for several years and wanted to know her as an adult, to investigate the past for himself – separately from the divisive opinions of his broken family.
Spanish blood perhaps? his grandmother, Dorothy wrote from London, after seeing a snapshot of us the year before we were married. In the photo the two of us are seated on either end of a couch at his sister’s Manhattan apartment against diamond patterned wallpaper. I am waving both hands, about to say something, unconscious of the camera for once, unaware that it’s not okay to talk with your hands. Michael’s blonde hair is standing up like Don King’s, his long legs thrown over mine. He’s wearing a striped rugby shirt. He wrote back – No, she is Italian.
We decided to take the honeymoon before the wedding. Though his grandmother’s house at 20 Maresfield Gardens in London was large, she shared it with her partner Anna Freud. We were not invited to stay there, which seemed un-grandmotherly to me. Later I learn that Dorothy’s oldest daughter, his aunt, had committed suicide in the house, only a few years before. She was one of several suicides, following his grandfather and possibly his father, all manic-depressives who were treated with psychoanalysis instead of medication. None of this was clear to me before our arrival in London, and not much clearer when we left. I was aware of only bits of his family story – a story he was in the process of piecing together for himself.
At first, Dorothy and Anna Freud arrange for us to stay in a nearby Swiss Cottage bed-sit. The room with its clashing wallpaper, garish flowered bed-covers, speckled red, orange, green and purple carpet under a dim bare bulb, is the perfect setting for a horror film. The Pakistani proprietors sit in the lounge watching TV and our comings and goings. After a week, we are moved to the furnished apartment of a mournful faced Austrian cousin who goes out of her way to tell us she has been put out of her place for us.
Hampstead Heath, the neighborhood in London where many of the Viennese émigrés settled, seems to be teeming with analysts and their analysands. We walk along Abbey Road through the adjacent neighborhood of St. John’s Wood, in search of the Burlingham family’s white stucco house. They moved in when Michael was four and stayed until he was ten, so that his father could continue hisongoing analysis with Anna Freud. Michael doesn’t remember much more than bits and pieces of this clouded childhood that isn’t that far behind him. I can picture him, a narrow faced blond boy in grey flannel shorts and v-neck jumper eating Wheetabix at the long dining table, garden light pouring in through the French doors. I hear his childhood stories so many times they become more familiar to me than my own. He points out the corner where they stood with their stuffed dummy begging on Guy Falkes day, a penny for the guy sir, a penny for the guy. He tells me about the mean schoolmaster who yelled at him, Burlingham you’re a horrid boy, horrid! and about the way the American children mocked his British accent when he returned to the states, taunting him with the nickname Hammmburgerrr.
Soon, I’m covered with swollen red splotches on my arms and legs that look like insect bites. His grandmother sends us to see Dr. Stross, the family pediatrician who came over from Vienna with the Freud family in 1938. Michael can’t remember which house is hers – he hadn’t been there since he was ten. Among the manicured lawns and neat plantings there is one untended garden. Standing on the path between swathes of overgrown rushes, a squat gnome waves frantically and growls at us in her Austrian accent, Can you have forgotten your old doctors house? Dr. Josephine Stross is cut from the same mold as her good friends – all three are dressed in the same shapeless dirndls like triplets. In her dingy consulting room under a single lamp, Dr. Stross peers at my spots and shrugs. I have no idea what it is, here, try this, she says, handing me a crinkled old tube of ointment. The rash turned out to be psoriasis. Weeks later when I got back to New York it still had not cleared up. In the stifling August heat before the wedding, I slather my limbs with cortisone cream under layers of saran wrap.
A few years earlier, around the time we met, in the college mailroom Michael showed me a turn of the century photo that had just come to him, a picture of a trio of serious girls in gauzy white dresses. His grandmother Dorothy the smallest, is about nine, a dark sparrow next to two calm blondes. She stands with her older twin sisters Comfort and Julia overlooking Cold Spring Harbor. Their only brother Charles never had children so Dorothy is the last Tiffany from that direct line.
Dorothy told us how her mother Louise, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s second wife and an independent intellectual, read the early writing of Freud in German with her best friend Julia De Forest. Although her mother died when she was thirteen, perhaps that early model of bluestocking partnership remained with her as a workable way of life. Raised to be a society girl, she was expected only to marry and do nothing more with her life. She and her sisters begged to be educated, but they but could not convince their father to send them on to Barnard after Brearley. He never wanted any of his daughters to leave him. One of the twins became a self-taught scientist, a biologist and medical researcher. Dorothy married Robert Burlingham, a doctor, in 1914.
Looking for a solution to the troubles of her eldest son, Dorothy left her husband in New York in 1925 and moved to Vienna with her four children to investigate the fledgling science of psychoanalysis. Bob (Michael’s father) was then ten and exhibiting the same erratic behavior as his father, Robert Burlingham senior. Dorothy began by first trying it out for herself and entered into analysis with Sigmund Freud. Ultimately, she found her life’s work and partner in Anna Freud. Together they developed child psychoanalysis, which up till then had not existed as a separate method.
Out of necessity Dorothy set up a school for her own and a handful of other expatriate children undergoing analysis. One of the teachers was the young Erick Erickson. In Vienna, Dorothy finally felt useful and needed. She began her own analysis with Theodor Reik, then finished her training as a lay analyst with Sigmund Freud. Freud gave her a black Greek intaglio signet ring with the image of a chariot driver because she drove him around in her car. Michael wore a similar ring of red jasper with a carving of Apollo and a fly – or scarab beetle, a symbol of rebirth that was given by Freud to his father.
Both the Burlinghams and the Freuds lived at Bergasse 19 in Vienna, in apartments on different floors – there was supposedly a secret staircase between them. Anna Freud was not only the sometime analyst for Dorothy’s four children but a second mother. This claustrophobic set up ran counter to the later practice of keeping the analysts’ personal and professional lives separate. But in the early days the boundaries were more fluid. From what I gathered, some seminal analyses consisted of nothing more than a few walks and talks in the woods with Freud. The patient was then considered cured and went on to work with others.
Dorothy’s money allowed the Freuds to live more comfortably. Her diplomatic connections helped them (along with Princess Marie Bonaparte, a patient of Freud’s) to escape from Vienna in 1938 and move to London. By then Sigmund Freud was old and ill with jaw cancer. He only lived one more year, cared for by his youngest daughter Anna whom he called his faithful Cordelia.
When I met Dorothy, she was eighty-seven, but she seemed ageless. Her attention was focused, and she made me feel comfortable. We sat together and talked while she mended heavy beige stockings and old slips. I threaded the needle for her – she couldn’t see the tiny hole and her hands shook. Dorothy’s grandchildren were afraid of her. To them she was intimidating and formidable, a controlling matriarch who held the purse strings. Coming from outside the family, I found her unexpectedly sympathetic. I admired her sharpness, that she still practiced – she seemed to have eluded time and age.
I was a painter and when she looked at the slides of my paintings, she said, Cellos! All the women and the furniture are shaped like cellos. Her son Bob had played the cello and auditioned for Pablo Casals who didn’t encourage him to make a career of it. Her high warbling voice seesawed in an old New York accent with traces of British and Austrian inflection: “garr-ahhge.” She had lived abroad for fifty years, with Anna, in a marriage of sorts, two daughters of two famous men. They raised Dorothy’s four children with the fervent belief that they were doing the best for them.
On the second day of our visit we had lunch at 20 Maresfield Gardens the brick house where they had lived and worked since 1939. There was a round window in the pale blue front door. The dining room walls were covered in faded pinkish brown raw silk with blotchy water stains. Freud looked down from under his beetled brows, from above the fireplace, in a drawing by Ferdinand Schmutzer. They had brought their Austrian country armoires – chests painted deep blue – green with scrolling designs of fruits, flowers and animals with them from Vienna. On a landing midway up the stairs was a sunny window seat and flowering plants. I paid as much attention to their surroundings as to the people, which I suppose was my way of trying to decode the mysteries of the family I was about to enter – a family that was so different from my own.
Sigmund Freud’s library with the famous couch and antiquities was on the first floor opposite the dining room and was usually locked. One day when the two ladies were out we asked Paola if we could take some pictures in the library, Michael set up the tripod and we made ridiculous faces while sitting on Freud’s oriental carpet covered couch. Since there was a religious aura about the place this was quite a transgression. Michael’s pictures were kept hidden.
The first time we met, Anna Freud admired my shoes- iridescent dark blue sandals. She wore thick-toed flats and a boxy Gertrude Stein-like dress. Dorothy – who was very slight – had on a dress of paisley viyella. Anna Freud looked me up and down. When she got to my face, she blurted out a question: So how does it feel to be the oldest child of six?
Anna Freud was always in charge. Dorothy deferred to her, saying it was not her house, so she had to ask Miss Freud’s permission before inviting us in. Maybe that was her way of gaining time to make decisions together- they presented a united front. When Michael photographed the two of them in Freud’s library he rearranged the chairs so they faced each other, hung the drawing of Sigmund Freud behind them, and placed a Buddha statue and an Egyptian mask between them on the table. Dorothy looked into Anna’s eyes and said I don’t mind looking at you at all. They were in their late eighties.
Paola, their housekeeper, who came over from Vienna with them, served lunch. There was Wiener schnitzel, a simple green salad dressed at the table in a glass bowl and apple strudel with brush hairs stuck to the crust. The pastry brush is very old and shedding bristle but they won’t let me buy a new one, she explained. Later, she offered cafe mit schlag. Michael said he liked the avocado in his salad and the next time we came for lunch he was served half an avocado as a special treat. They called us the children and led us a closet filled with boxes of chocolates – gifts from patients – and told us to choose one to open for dessert.
More often we were given lunch alone in the kitchen at Paola’s sturdy wooden work table- ham sandwiches on thin white toast and tea.She had old-fashioned scales for weighing out the flour and sugar, and glass fronted cabinets held mixing bowls and pitchers. In her thick Viennese accent Paola said und here is the bride, the little housewife as she passed me the teapot to pour for Michael. I didn’t mind. Her hot tea bread was moist and crusty with golden raisins. She said to come and visit her anytime we wanted something to eat. Paola talked plaintively and histrionically, as if she never got a chance to be heard, with her flat shovel face and colorless hair pinned back in a bun. She called Sigmund Freud the professor.
Paola walked us all over the neighborhood on a quest for the elusive Northbridge House School that Michael had attended until he was ten. We never did find the school. She said I must stay away from you when the ladies are home, because grandmother wants you all to herself. She had known the Burlinghams as children I’ve been with them for fifty years and still they treat me as a servant – I call them Miss Freud and Mrs. Burlingham. Paola implied that she could tell us even more but…it seemed as if she had been ordered under no circumstances to answer certain questions. What was Dorothy’s husband like? What was Michael’s father, Bob like as a boy? Did they want Bob to marry his mother? How did Bob die? What happened to Mabbie? Dorothy’s eldest daughter had died in her house – but no one talked about it. There were mysteries.
On the second floor of the Maresfield Gardens house was Dorothy’s room, next door to a good-sized sitting room. Down the hall were large closets, bathrooms and some other small bed and sitting rooms. Anna Freud’s bedroom was an adjoining dark closet, which one entered through Dorothy’s room. It contained only a narrow bed with an ugly brown ribbed cover that seemed unused. They spent most of their time in Dorothy’s big sunny room.
Both women had had tuberculosis, contracted during the war, which kept them in bed for various periods. After several operations, Dorothy had only a third of one lung left. Her room had a fireplace, photos, paintings and a Wedgwood postal scale that I coveted- the trays were made of blue porcelain with white cameo style silhouettes. The scale seemed a fitting symbol of a balanced relationship. I bought an antique brass one with weights that was not as nice-as a wedding present for Michael.
Although Michael downplayed Dorothy and Anna’s alliance in his book, their fifty-year relationship appeared to be a true marriage on all levels. Because he did not have concrete evidence that they were in a sexual relationship, he vaguely hinted without coming out and saying it, but from what I saw, the two ladies were more than close friends. In the country house, they had only one bedroom with one big bed.
Dorothy was not the forbidding matriarch her grandchildren spoke of.Passionately consumed by her work, in her late eighties she still saw patients every day. The third floor of the house was her open office/consulting room, with sofas, a big worktable and many plants. Dorothy was a deeply intuitive person, a receptive listener, attentive in a way that seemed intrinsic – beyond her psychoanalytic training. She had the gift of stillness, of bringing people into the present moment. She didn’t feel compelled to talk. She’d lived a full and useful life – helping the Freuds out of Vienna, working with war damaged children, starting the Heitzing School in Vienna, and writing several books, including The Sighted and The Blind and Twins: A study of three pairs of twins (her older sisters had been twins).
Though Dorothy was honest with us, she avoided directly answering certain questions. She explained the end of her marriage in a way that later came back to haunt me. When her husband Robert had outbursts of irrational behavior she became extremely sick to her stomach, and entered a kind of helpless weakened state. He had fits of nervous anger – reactions that made no rational sense in proportion to situations. His father, C.C.B, Charles Culp Burlingham was a maritime lawyer for the White Star Lines in the cases against the Titanic. He suffered his own nervous breakdown and was said to have been hovering and interfering. A numberof family members on both sides suffered from various degrees of what would later be termed bi-polar disorder. From the very beginning, I must admit, I paid far more attention to the décor than to the family’s mental health history.
Most mornings Michael interviewed Dorothy up in her bedroom for his documentary script about her father, Louis Tiffany. The son of Charles who founded Tiffany and Company, he started out as a painter, then became a stained glass designer. He built an enormously successful business as an interior decorator and his many commissions included the White House in 1882 and the Pallacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
Dorothy tried to help Michael to reconstruct the past he’d lost when his parents split up fifteen years earlier. She told us how she and her sisters reluctantly posed for their artistic Papa in picturesque costumes. He insisted that his daughters take part in his extravagant pageants. In the Peacock Feast, they served roasted birds while dressed in filmy Grecian costumes and winged headpieces – ornaments to his cinematic vision. He lived by the pleasure principle. According to his daughter, beauty meant everything to him.
At the Hampstead Clinic we sat in on a presentation of psychoanalytic cases and were ushered up to the front of the room at the heels of Dorothy and Anna. I felt scrutinized as room was made for us, the American grandchildren, progeny of a failed experiment. I include myself, because in London I was made to feel a part of the family. Almost a Tiffany. The psychoanalysts lined up in front… and added their comments. Anna Freud gave a good and witty speech – I was surprised by her sense of humor and timing.
The endless case studies made me fidgety, so I focused on the afternoon sunlight on an art deco glass water jug shaped like the Guggenheim Museum, in front of a chartreuse yellow curtain printed with a black grid design. We could not stop ourselves from laughing as a young woman presented the case of two-year-old Bobby who could only defecate if standing up in the corner of the living room while his mother sang “Tiptoe through the Tulips.”
Later, as an antidote to what seemed to us a surreal day- we went to the movies in Piccadilly Circus that night and saw Mel Brooks in High Anxiety, which takes place at the ” Institute for the Very, Very Nervous.” We laughed hysterically when he sang the title song – a Dean Martin style lounge tune – tripping over the microphone cord.
I had never met anyone like Dorothy and Anna. Their focused psychoanalytic attention and presence had an almost spiritual dimension. They had been part of a developing science – still new at the mid century – and lived to see it become frozen in the late twentieth century into what struck me, in my ignorance, as a kind of cult. I had never been in analysis, and knew little about Freud, but I saw the two women as human beings who had lived useful lives.
Each family has their myths. I would hear the Burlinghams talk about the pain and damage wrought on Dorothy’s children by a rigid adherence to psychoanalytic principles, by their insistence that Bob’s chemical imbalance could be cured with talk therapy instead of drugs.
It was hard to imagine that the circumstances Dorothy recounted could have been powerful enough to motivate her to uproot herself and her children, to leave her husband and the protection of a comfortable home. Later when I found myself at the end of every possibility, with no hope for improvement or change in my own marriage, I understood that she had no choice. To save oneself at any cost is sometimes all one can manage.
The day we left London, Dorothy gave Michael a suitcase full of family photos and artifacts to use in his research back in New York. She also gave him a small stained glass “dragon fly” lamp that her father had made of a tea tin – which later served as our children’s night-light. I forgot my hairbrush, and when I went back for it Paola stood waiting in the doorway, handing it to me and saying the professor would say it means you want to come back. We did return the following fall for a longer stay. By then Michael had solidified his project and had many more questions to ask his grandmother. That fall was the last time we saw Dorothy. She died at age eighty-eight – a few weeks after her October birthday.