“Dear Elisabeth, If you had known what a nuisance I’m turning out to be you wouldn’t have started this correspondence, or would you, in spite of it all?” (4/10/1958)
The Penn Museum archives received Vicki Baum’s letters at long last and quite by chance. When Lisa Lyons died, she left her records to the Museum, which were duly filed in the archives. We knew Vicki and Lisa were closest friends in the last years of Vicki’s life, but only one letter from the author came with the collection. In August 2013, the rest of the letters were found behind a filing cabinet in the office of the Ban Chiang project.
Lisa Lyons was not in the habit of keeping copies of her letters, so in all of her correspondence she is silent, except for what can be inferred by the answers she elicited. This is frustrating to the extreme, especially when those in her acquaintance treasured her friendship so dearly. In the wise words of Vicki, “We didn’t discuss you, other than saying you’re a rare, fine girl and we’re glad to know you, and your letters to me are a shining delight” (10/12/1958).
Vicki Baum and Elizabeth Lyons enjoyed the kind of female friendship that some claim does not exist, formed largely through correspondence. Vicki Baum, 70 years old when she began writing to the young academic, Lisa Lyons, clearly found an invaluable companion in her pen pal. Vicki wrote almost daily letters at some points to her friend, making up for the fact that 3000 miles separated them.
Vicki resided in California while Lisa stayed on the east coat. Both women traveled a great deal. The two women drew strength from one another. In this Mad Men era, Vicki was a fiery elder Austrian author, with strong opinions and a dirty sense of humor. Lisa, on the other hand, was an intelligent woman who refused to be pushed to the side in the male-dominated world of academia and museum studies.
Vicki Baum, or Hedwig Lert, was a prestigious female novelist. She originally trained as a concert harpist in Austria, but quickly her writing overtook her musical career. Her most famous novel, Menshen im Hotel or Grand Hotel, was an international success; it was made into a Broadway play and then a Hollywood production with a star-studded cast. Her writing was never taken seriously as literature, but was rather seen as popular fiction. However her work now is undergoing a renaissance as Vicki Baum becomes recognized as an early feminist. Vicki moved to New York and then California with her husband, Richard Lert, and two children in 1931, riding the success of Grand Hotel. Vicki worked as a screenwriter and her husband, an established conductor, became conductor of the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra.
As part of the intellectual sphere in Los Angeles, Vicki had many contacts in the museum and university circles. She met Lisa Lyons at a lecture series run by her friend Barna,[*] and struck up an unlikely friendship. The young Asian art expert and the elder Austrian author connected first over East Asian statues, and then went on to discuss a myriad of other topics. Vicki writes about her garden forever, her Asian poppies and orchid tree and frangipani. Lisa sends descriptions of her surroundings to her friend, of windy skies, dawn over the Brooklyn Bridge, and her travels. Vicki writes about her tiresome daughters-in-law. Lisa writes about her frustrations with her art collection and her teaching job.
Vicki speaks often about her displeasure for the role of housewife and frustration at the men in her life; she lived a life confined by the expectations of an older generation. Her entire extended family seems to barge in on her life at unexpected times, unannounced, and with little respect for their talented matriarch. She comes off as the cliché of the unsatisfied 1950s housewife with the multiple roles expected of her:
“What do you mean how I am when I am working? I hope I’m exactly as I always am. I’m a seasoned wife, mother, grandmother, auxiliary secretary, cook and gardener- I never let my work interfere with my life.” (10/8/59)
Vicki Lert sounds like a Deborah Spar of her time, seeing the futility of juggling her multiple roles. Baum is atypical in every way, and especially for her time. She acted in ways that would be eccentric in our time but seemed positively outlandish in hers. Talking about her frustration with her friend Carl:
“I can see you chuckle about my grim and embittered ways of acting like the kind and helpful matriarch I’m supposed to be. It’s not the mask and costume I chose for myself, life forced it upon me. It pinches and slips like your size 12 tights” (6/16/1958).
I think this is the point from which Lisa and Vicki’s friendship really stems. Lisa, who was battling her way through male-dominated academia, really spoke to Vicki, who also seemed to swim against the current in social expectations. Vicki calls Lisa, “my dear darling non-conformist” (3/16/1960); this is high praise from a woman who makes a mosaic of pelicans eating their young and writes about the sex lives of her art objects.
It seems that Vicki brought out the wordsmith in Lisa during their correspondence. Lisa Lyons sent her manuscript of the murder mystery The Bangkok Case (housed unpublished in the Penn Museum archives) to Vicki, who gave pointers and pulled no punches with her recommendations to her young friend. In turn, Vicki also discusses her struggle with her own writing.
“I found it occasionally a relief to find me work as far removed from my vocation… And use my spare time for real work. That way nobody and nothing can hurt one. But, of course, I’m a writer and everything is grist for my mill; I’d dearly love, for instance, to get a job at Chin Lee’s noodle factory, wouldn’t you?” (3/16/1960)
While they are corresponding, Vicki is working on her autobiography, It was all quite different, (Es war alles ganz anders). Vicki writes about her writing, the frustration she feels with her biography and having to relearn German after years in the States. She saw herself as funny and odd, out of place in glamorous Los Angeles. “I just can’t seem to take myself serious. Where ever I essayed a little self portrait in any of my books, it’s always a funny, very small part. Sort of like Hitchcock, just passing, fat and sly, the screen in his films” (10/8/1959). Vicki was a writer at heart, as is clear in her letters. Her commentary is always apt and entertaining. Her descriptions are wonderful and she knows how to tell a story. But whether it was her subject matter or her gender, her books were dismissed by more serious writers, despite her international following. It’s no wonder she felt frustrated with her work and resented her profile as an author.
The most touching exchanges however, come about in 1959. Lisa, suffering from what she thought to be a flu, went to see her uncle, a doctor, and was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. Vicki suffered from leukemia for most of her adult life, going through cycles of remission and reoccurrence. She had much empathy for her young friend, with the black humor of a survivor. When the doctors first took samples, Vicki sent Lisa a magic ring she received from a Balinese priest for good luck;”My dear, of course you may wear the ring wherever you wish, through your nose, if you’re in the mood” (4/22/1959). Memorably, when she was informed of Lisa’s operation, Vicki sent back a telegram stating: “MY DEAR NOTHING WRONG WITH AMAZONE BEAUTY” (6/17/1959). Vicki tried to keep Lisa entertained in the hospital and even counseled her through her worries on how her stay might appear: “And don’t kid yourself, nobody will think you had piles, but they will all be sure you’re having an abortion” (4/22/1959). But despite her cutting jokes, Vicki’s concern is real. She writes, “If there’s a moment when you’d like to hold on to my hand – it’s stretched out to you across all the miles and waiting” (6/12/1959). It is here where you see the true depth of their friendship. Vicki is sincerely concerned for her friend, but still cracking jokes, trying to cheer up her friend in the best way she knew.
Vicki has an acid wit and this is most wonderfully expressed when dealing with the bigger names in her social circle. Vicki was no beauty, but she had an intellect that was unrivalled when surrounded by the Hollywood celebrities of the time. What follows is my favorite:
“And for the first of my Mammoth Hollywood parties, at Marion Davis’ palace at the beach, I wore what I still consider a stunning number from Klein’s. Terribly expensive, 30 bucks, white silk with huge blue flowers, long and low cut and a little train and a little cape, oh so beautiful. And in marched Joan Crawford in the same dress, frock or gown or what have you, and I bet hers was 200 dollars, and her great entree and her evening was spoiled while I didn’t notice until they brought me next day’s gossip column.” (10/15/1959)
Sometimes Lisa encounters people she has heard about from Vicki. She apparently recounts running into Agnes de Mille, the famous choreographer, at a New York party. Vicki responds, “I giggled as I imagined you facing Agnes de Mille, as to which (whom?) there is no more monumentally self-centered and out-of-proportion woman within my ken. But such a great choreographer and so articulate in her writing” (3/16/1959).
So it’s no wonder that Vicki didn’t take to the Los Angeles/Hollywood scene. Perhaps this is why she sought intellectual friendships, even across long distances. Vicki had been a boxer when she was in Austria and effectively supported her whole family. She had little to no patience for the phonies of Hollywood:
“[F]ake, pretense and pretensions are the things hardest to bear up with for me. Give me a good soundly drunk streetwalker, a colony of lepers, a bunch of head hunters (who are the most formal and polite people, as you know) or a ward full of madmen – I’ll get along fine and we’ll soon find that we’ve got a lot in common, worthwhile to chat about. But heavens save me from fakes and phonies, amen.” (1/4/1960)
In writing about art Vicki claims an affinity for the ancient artisans; “as a rule I understand primitive people better than those of Madison Ave” (9/22/1958). When discussing Lisa’s possible move to California to look for museum or teaching work, Vicki strongly warns against it. She cautions: “The mental climate of this town is godawful, and I don’t mean Hollywood, but this whole octopus of Los Angeles” (10/27/1958).
The friendship between the two women is palpable. I feel that each found a kinship in the other. These women were ambitious and brilliant in a time when that was not often recognized in women. Though they could not visit much, they missed one another dearly. Vicki writes about Lisa’s trip to Bangkok, “I don’t think you’ll be by far away because, as you know, on clear days I can see the pacific from my lanai, and what’s an ocean between friends, after all?” (5/21/1960).
Vicki Baum’s last letter to Lisa Lyons is dated two weeks before her death from the persisting leukemia. She does not mention any suffering. She worries that her letter is not going to reach Thailand, and Lisa. She suggests wearing no underwear on hot days. She compares writing to being a brood sow, being used for litters and milk. She signs off, “Please, be happy” (8/4/1960). It’s best to think of her writing in her garden or in her study, looking out across the Pacific Ocean, thinking of her young adventurous friend whose travels had only just begun.
Elisabeth Lyons (1912-1989) was a scholar of Asian art. Her work with the US State Department took her to Asia in 1955, and in Thailand she found a second home, where she also assisted with the creation of the National Museum in Bangkok. She came to the Museum in 1968 as Visiting Lecturer, and helped establish the Museum’s project at Ban Chiang, Thailand. She eventually became Keeper of the Asian Section, a position she held until her death in 1989.
 “Our relationship is based very simply and successfully on letting Barna talk until I drop with exhaustion. My, what a bitch I can be, can’t I?” (5/29/1958)