In Memoriam – Elizabeth (Betty) von Klemperer

CHESTNUT HILL – Elizabeth Gallaher von Klemperer, daughter of Hugh Gallaher and Catharine McCollester Gallaher, died Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Chestnut Hill.

Esther Cloudman Dunn Professor Emerita of English Language and Literature at Smith College in Northampton, where she taught for over 40 years, she was known for her generous teaching and consummate scholarship. Her broad interests in comparative literature, film, art history, and landscape were integrated into her teaching well before such interdisciplinary studies were commonly accepted. Her work in the Northampton community, her unfailing dedication to her family and friends, and the simple selfless values of an older New England culture made her a model to many. The balance which she managed between her family and her work as a scholar and teacher was exemplary. She dedicated herself fully to both halves of her life, at a time when such dual roles were not always wholly understood or supported.

Elizabeth von Klemperer was born July 9, 1923, under the green slopes of Mount Ascutney in Claremont, New Hampshire, in a Victorian Mansart-roofed house that had been built by her great-grandfather Josea Parker, a U.S. Congressman and lawyer. When she was one year old, her family moved from New York to Paris, where she lived until age seven. She first knew that city as a place where horses were more prevalent than cars, and developed a lifelong love for all things French.

Returning to the U.S. after the crash in 1930, her family re-settled in Darien, Connecticut. Along with her younger sister Mary, she attended the Thomas School in Rowayton, Connecticut. There, Greek and Medieval History, and lessons of drawing and painting were taught in wooden structures whose floorboards spanned over the lapping waters of Long Island Sound. Next, she attended the Brearely school in New York City. She often said in later life that it was the Brearley that truly educated her, and upheld its teaching as a model of imagination and rigor.

In 1940, she entered Smith College, where her mother and grandmother had graduated. There, she majored in English studying under, among others, Helen Randall and Esther Cloudman Dunn. During her junior year she was “procured” by the U.S. Navy to break codes for purposes connected to the war effort in the Pacific, specifically the Battle of the Coral Sea. For this success, her unit received a citation and she a medal of distinction.

After graduating from Smith in 1944, she entered the Navy, stationed in Washington, D.C. for two years in a cryptanalysis unit. This group worked first in decoding Japanese naval correspondence, and later French communications. She remarked that the latter turned up few findings of any strategic military importance, revealing little more than stories of the extra marital indiscretions of high officials. With the end of the war, she enrolled at Radcliffe College in the doctorate program in English Language and Literature, where she studied with Albert Guerard. Classes were taught at Harvard where preference for entry to seminars was given to males. Towards the end of her time as a graduate student, she received a Fullbright scholarship, and spent a year in Paris researching the connection between late 19th Century English and French literature, including the novels of Henry James.

On returning to the U.S., she finished her doctorate, and took a position in 1949 in the English department at Smith College. Over the next 44 years she pursued her love of literature as a teacher and a scholar. As a junior instructor, she graded the exam blue-books of an exceptional student, Sylvia Plath. Later, she employed her skills of organization and her gifts of diplomacy and fairness in serving as the chair of the department. Her sense of duty to her colleagues, to the institution of her college, and to the welfare of generations of students was unfailing. As she progressed through her teaching career, she introduced and experimented with such courses as “Imagination and the City”, “Aestheticism and Decadence”. Writers on whose work she focused especially included Charles Baudelaire, William Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. She was known by her students as a demanding and occasionally intimidating task master, but her sparrow-like stature and always civil demeanor would remind them of her deeply nurturing intentions. Her appreciation of literature was broad, ranging from Beowulf to Pynchon, from Ronsard to CĂ©line.

Soon after arriving at Smith, while dining at French House, she met another young instructor, Klemens von Klemperer, a German-Austrian emigre who had just come to Northampton from the history department from Harvard. The two were married two years later and for the next 59 years built a rich life of friendships and family, pursuing the search for knowledge that bound them together. The continuum of life in the small New England town was complemented by summers in Europe, summers at their farmhouse in Conway, and sabbatical years at Oxford, Cambridge, and Universities in Vienna, Bonn, and Berlin. Travels were always educational family ventures, designed in part to expose their daughter Catharine and son James to the worlds of painting, architecture, history, cuisine and other riches of the cultures that she loved. With Guide Blue in hand, she would explore every niche of a Romanesque church, looking for historical adventure.

In addition to her own continued literary studies, she became the faithful editor of her husband’s historical texts, transforming his long sentences from tangled Teutonic mouthfuls into well tempered English prose. His longer tomes on the German resistance to Hitler required five to 10 years of dedicated collaboration. In their house next to the campus, she used her Cordon Bleu culinary skills to entertain a steady stream of friends and visitors. From the modest salon of their professorial home, they welcomed such writers, artists, and thinkers as Hannah Arendt, Ben Nicholson, and V.S. Pritchett.

As the years wore on, both she and her husband Klemens became known increasingly as mentors to young academics. Their fundamental belief in the positive achievements of culture and the benefits of living an examined life were shared generously with their friends and colleagues of all ages. Towards the end of her academic career, Elizabeth was honored with a chaired professorship. After retiring in 1993, she wrote pieces on “Landscape in Literature”, and “The Attitudes towards Work in Victorian Literature”, and lectured widely on Virginia Woolf. Her interest in her own family background led her to publish a study of 19th Century social history Love and Letters in New England. She balanced these pursuits of the mind with more earthy regimens of vegetable gardening and baking bread. She volunteered religiously for over a decade at the Northampton Survival Center, cooking and delivering trays of food into her late 80’s. [Betty also greatly contributed as a member of NSC’s Board of Directors and served on our Program Committee for many years.]

In 2010, she transplanted herself with her husband Klemens to the Lathrop Community in Easthampton, where she entertained him with daily piano recitals of Mozart and Bach. After his death at age 96 in 2012, she moved into the household of her daughter Catharine and son-in-law Robert Utzschneider in Chestnut Hill, outside of Boston. There, she was cared for lovingly by her family. A self-denying Yankee to the end, she dedicated her life to others, and left behind a belief that the closest thing to immortality lies in preserving and furthering the beauties of our collective culture.

She is survived by her sister Mary Leigh of Washington, D.C.; her daughter and son-in-law Catharine and Robert Utzschneider of Brookline, and their children Annie and William; and her son and daughter-in-law James and Alison von Klemperer of Darien, Connecticut, and their daughters Elizabeth and Caroline.

Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Saturday, October 17, 2015