The Twentieth Century
During the twentieth century more women began to pursue higher education and employment in the work force. Women were increasingly conscious of the inequality enforced by law, custom, and sexual stereotyping in many areas. Women with these aspirations had a difficult time breaking into male-dominated fields, such as business, medicine, finance, the sciences, politics, etc. In order to fulfill their goals, women had to leave their traditional role of child-bearer and mother behind. They also had to overcome the objections of men who rejected their desire to enter into these fields.
During World War II, many women entered the work force to replace men who were fighting overseas. The few men who remained in the United States expressed their fears that women might replace them in the labor force or that their employment might destroy the family life. But some of the newly employed women did not let the fears of these men get in the way of their newfound satisfaction. They worked hard to break the confines of their sex and to reach equality between men and women.
Violetta Delafield moved to Montgomery Place in 1921 with her husband, John Ross Delafield, who had inherited the estate in that same year. The previous Livingston owners had worked to reflect the styles of gardening and landscape design that had been popular in their respective time periods, and Violetta desired to do the same. From the time that the couple inherited the estate, to her death in 1949, Violetta devoted herself to creating and reshaping the landscape and gardens at Montgomery Place.
Violetta was raised in the South of France with her wealthy expatriate parents. In 1890, at the age of 15, the family moved back to the United States, to Litchfield, Connecticut. Within a few years of her arrival, Violetta began to study botany. In addition to learning about the planting of flowers, herbs, trees, etc., Violetta studied the cellular make-up of plants by looking at them through a microscope. L.M. Underwood of Columbia University and the New York Botanical Garden and Charles H. Peck of the New York State Museum mentored Violetta because they recognized her high ability in and devotion to the field of botany.
Botany was not just a hobby for Violetta, and botanists everywhere could see that. Through her strong connections, Violetta was able to further her understanding of botany. She was involved in lengthy correspondences with her mentors and other renowned botanists to ask questions and exchange specimens. Although unpaid, Violetta worked as if she were a professional and earned great respect because of it. In a field of mostly men, Violetta published three scientific monographs that are still used as reference today. Botanic specialists valued her interest and commitment to the field and named several mushroom species after her.
After marrying John Ross Delafield in 1904, Violetta began to focus on plants and horticulture that were closer to home. When Violetta and John first moved to Montgomery Place, she wrote down a census of every species of flora and fauna she found on the property. The list that she created in 1922 is still referred to today by biologists. They use this as a record to compare the current health of the ecosystem. Violetta’s concern for the preservation of wildlife and resources led her to join the National Audubon Society. She was committed to protecting the natural world so that generations after her would live to see its wonders.
Violetta’s new botanical focus still prompted her to make connections with professionals in the field. She allied herself with both regional and national organizations such as the Horticultural Society of New York, the Garden Club of America, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and the New York Botanical Garden. Her interaction with the Garden Club of America (GCA) was especially important because they shared the same interest of encouraging amateurs to enter and enjoy the world of gardening.
Violetta found that she had a special talent in flower arranging and gardening. Her skills awarded her first and second place prizes in the 1934 International Flower Show, among other recognitions. The GCA commended Violetta’s abilities and elected to hold their annual meeting at her home, Montgomery Place, in 1936. Her involvement with the GCA did not end there, as she served as chair of their library committee and as a board member from 1942-45. Her responsibility on the library committee was to organize and create exhibitions around garden-related books and manuscripts.
Even with her extreme involvement with these large gardening organizations and competitions, Violetta was still able to tend to her own gardens at Montgomery Place. She decided to create pocket gardens where each little garden had a different theme or style. This was a garden arrangement that was promoted by Beatrix Farrand, an American landscape architect, and others. The pocket-style garden rooms created both an aesthetic and a functional element to the gardens at Montgomery Place. The rooms could be used as recreational areas for extended family when they came to visit.
In addition to the modern and somewhat formal pocket garden, Violetta created an ellipse garden, a rough garden, and an herb garden. The rough garden that Violetta created at Montgomery Place was originally intended to be a rock garden with a small brook running through it. During World War II, though, many of her workers left and the garden became overgrown, but Violetta continued to tend to it by cultivating and grouping certain plants. And, instead of using exotic or foreign plants, she decided on native plants. Violetta was interested in keeping an ideal scale and to display prominent landscape features. She wanted to emphasize the natural form of the land, rather than her planted gardens and man-made brook.
On top of entering competitions, serving on committees, and maintaining her own gardens, Violetta worked on the design and creation of the first “wayside stand.” This structure was to be used by farmers so they could sell their products on American roadsides in an enticing and attractive way. It was also used to promote motorists to buy fresh fruit and produce. The design of the wayside stand was influenced by the current determination to beautify the environment. After winning some prizes in competition, Violetta’s wayside stand was used for selling Montgomery Place Farms’ produce. A part of the original structure was built into the stand that is now used to sell the farm’s produce on Route 9G.
Violetta saw nature as more than just a subject to study under microscopes, but as having a major impact on personal health. She believed that spending recreational and leisure time outdoors and consuming fresh produce and dairy were crucial for a long and healthy life. She commissioned the building of a tennis court where the old conservatory once stood, a squash court, new trails, and added a screened porch on top of the North Pavilion. Violetta and John, both, spent time outdoors to achieve this healthier style of living. For pleasure, they would ride horses and ponies and swim in the lake that they had turned into a swimming hole. Violetta’s grandchildren would also spend time outdoors with her in the gardens.
Violetta died in 1949, at the age of 74. Her husband decided to donate her collection of greenhouse plants to the New York Botanical Garden. Violetta left her mark on Montgomery Place over the twenty-eight years that she spent there. The greenhouse and potting shed that she commissioned during her time there are still standing and in use today, her gardens have survived and can be seen by visitors, and parts of her wayside stand still exist as part of the stand that sells the farm’s produce today.
Frances Hunter Zabriskie
Frances Hunter Zabriskie was married to Captain Andrew C. Zabriskie in 1895. She was the youngest daughter of Charles F. Hunter, president of the Peoples Bank of New York, and Juliana M.W. Zabriskie. Frances was interested in charity work and piano playing. She was also a socialite and managed to maintain a large circle of friends among their home in New York City, a lake house in Canada, and their Blithewood estate in the Hudson Valley.
The Zabriskies bought the Blithewood estate in 1899. The original mansion at Blithewood was in a state of disrepair. So, the building that had been built over fifty years earlier under the Donaldsons’ ownership was torn down. The Zabriskies hired architect and landscape designer Francis Hoppin to design a new mansion and gardens for their Hudson River home. The only building that remains from the original structures owned by the Donaldsons and the Bards is the gatehouse that stands at the top of the road leading to the mansion. The present Blithewood mansion was built in classical Georgian style and contains thirty rooms. There are porches on each side of the building, allowing for a clear viewing of the gardens and the beautiful Hudson River that lie west of the mansion.
Captain Andrew C. Zabriskie enjoyed his clear view of the Hudson River for sixteen years, as he passed away in 1916. After his death, Frances remained at the estate to live and maintain the property. She was interested in horticulture and would spend the majority of her time tending to the Italian style walled gardens that Francis had designed for the estate. She remained at Blithewood until her death in 1951.
Before Frances passed away, she was concerned with the relationship that Bard and its students had with her property. She was upset when Bard students would trespass to use her outdoor pool that stood next to the rambling waterfall of the Saw Kill, use her meadow for a playing field, or pull pranks or damage her property. At times, she would have a generous change in heart and allow the admittance of students to her grounds and grant them the use of her amenities.
In the 1920’s Bard College greatly expanded and had to enlarge its sewage plant. Unfortunately the discharge from this plant flowed down the brook across the Blithewood estate to the Hudson River. Frances objected to this situation as it disrupted her beautiful home and estate. The solution to this problem was simple: to pipe the sewage north, along the road to the gatehouse to Ward Manor and down Cruger’s Island Road. It was all just a matter of money, money the college didn’t have. So, Frances and Bard went to court. The case would have been long and drawn-out if Frances weren’t a pragmatic woman. She decided to loan the college the $15,000 to carry out this operation and remove the sewage drain from her property. But, she expected the advance to be paid back in increments of $1,000 per year.
Frances Hunter Zabriskie had two children, Julia Romeyn Zabriskie and Christian Andrew Zabriskie. At her death in September of 1951, Frances left the Blithewood estate to Christian. Within two months of inheriting this land he donated it to Bard College. This included 825 acres, the mansion, three barns, two garages, seven tenant houses, a tennis court, and a swimming pool. Needless to say, the college was grateful and Christian was relieved. He did not enjoy the country style of living and wanted to be in the city where he could enjoy his passion for books. He felt isolated in a dull and unsophisticated neighborhood when he was living at Blithewood.
Christian was also bitter towards the taxes that kept on increasing. He did not want to pay the neighborhood officials for services he did not use or approve, i.e., schools. So his gift of the estate to Bard College, a tax-exempt institution, put it out of reach for tax collectors. This gift also made it possible for him to move to a more “cultured society” where he could assume the life of a clubman and a bibliophile.
Early Women Students
John and Margaret Bard founded St. Stephen’s College in 1860. The institution was created for young men to learn about the Episcopalian Church and to prepare them for the seminary. The college remained theologically oriented for sixty years until in 1919 it started to become more secular and teach a broader base of education. Dr. Bernard Iddings Bell was the warden then and he integrated the social and natural sciences into the school’s curriculum. Then, Donald G. Tewksbury, who was appointed dean in 1933, changed the name of the institution to Bard College in 1934 to honor its founders. Ten years later, under Dean Charles Harold Gray, Bard began accepting women into its student body.
Eva Thal Belefant
Eva Thal Belefant enrolled in Bard College in 1946, just two years after it became coeducational. When Eva was at Bard there were very few men students on campus and she felt that this lessened the amount of competition among students and allowed the women of the student body to achieve more. One of the achievements that Eva made was being secretary to the student government and being involved with organizing the first two International Student Conferences at Bard in the spring of ‘47 and ’48. These conferences were designed for foreign students who were studying in the United States to come to Bard and discuss designated political topics. During the time that Eva was a student at Bard, Eleanor Roosevelt showed great interest in the International Student Conference’s panels and discussions and even came to speak at one of the conference weekends.
After graduating from Bard in 1949, Eva became an economist and maintained her relationships with the school, the faculty, and the students. Eva was a member of the school’s Board of Trustees from 1957-1962 and had a direct influence on the college and its decisions. She was the first woman graduate to serve on this board. She was also awarded the Bard Medal in 1976. In addition to these honors and recognitions she continues to remain active on the Board of Governors of Bard College.
Kit Ellenbogen, class of ’52, was another woman who was enrolled in one of the first coeducational classes at Bard College. Her father did not believe in women going to college and tried to sway her from pursuing higher education. He refused to pay for her tuition, so she applied for a scholarship. She spoke with Phyllis Holmes, a representative from Bard, who said that she could arrange for a scholarship on Kit’s behalf. But, during her first year at Bard, she almost lost her scholarship. Fortunately, she was able to continue on as a student at Bard and her son and grandson were students here as well.
Kit learned to value her own opinion over critical sources while being a student at Bard College. She was specifically encouraged to do so in a class about Anna Karenina taught by Professor Irma Brandeis. She also tried programs outside of her own division of Psychology. She registered for a music class taught by Clair Leonard during one of her semesters at Bard with no previous knowledge of the subject matter. By taking classes outside of her comfort zone and major division, Kit was able to learn skills that would remain with her for the rest of her life.
Early Women Faculty
The same year that the first women students were admitted to Bard, 1944, the first women were hired as faculty members at the college. A lot of the professors and staff that came to Bard during the 1940’s, 50’s and early 60’s were European émigrés. The college opened its doors to many distinguished writers, artists, intellectuals, and scientists that were fleeing Europe during the political upheavals of the mid-twentieth century.
Elisabeth Hirsch was one of the many intellectuals that entered Bard after escaping Europe and the devastating affects of World War II. She was born in 1904 in Mainz, Germany and grew up in Berlin. Her father was a linguist and was the director of a large Jewish orphanage and her mother, the daughter of a rabbi, received an education in teaching, but never worked in education once she was married.
After her schooling at the Berlin Gymnasium during World War I, Elisabeth passed a written exam that allowed her to attend the university of her choice and earn a degree. She decided to go to the University of Freiburg and study Philosophy. “There was no doubt in my mind that I would pursue such a career that was open for my generation of women for the first time.” Her parents were happy with her choice of school, but not by her decision to study Philosophy. Despite her parents’ disapproval Elisabeth continued on with her course of study and eventually ended up at Marburg University where she studied with Martin Heidegger and earned her Ph.D. She was part of a small group of students that he invited to his home every two weeks to discuss phenomenology.
At age 33 Elisabeth immigrated to the United States. Upon her arrival in 1937, she began working at Yale University as a Sterling Research Fellow. Shortly thereafter, she learned the whereabouts of Felix Hirsch. They had been fond friends while they were both still in Germany. He was an established editor in Berlin while Elisabeth was still receiving her education. She had not been ready to settle down and marry then because she wanted to finish her schooling and get some experience in the world. When Elisabeth found out that Felix was working as a librarian and a history professor at Bard College, she moved here to be with him. They were married in 1938 and had two sons, Roland and Thomas, in 1939 and 1942, respectively.
Elisabeth devoted all of her time to her two sons. Only when her boys were in school and receiving good grades did she return to work. She was hired as a professor at Bard College to teach political science and philosophy. She was also asked to teach one of the first classes of the newly created “Common Course” in 1953. She and other professors’ teaching of the Common Course was so effective that it has remained a part of the institution’s curriculum to this day.
Elisabeth was a valued member of the Bard community and there were many dinner parties held on her and her husband’s behalf. She felt as though she was receiving so much grace from the Bard faculty and was not able to accurately reflect how grateful she was for them. So, she would pull out a cookbook she had received as a wedding gift and cooked dinners to honor her colleagues. The Bard community outwardly loved Elisabeth Hirsch and she loved them all back.
Irma Brandeis started teaching at Bard College in 1944. She was part of the first faculty at the college that contained women. During the time that Irma was a professor at Bard, a lot of parents did not want their children to enroll. They thought that the school wasn’t well enough known and wasn’t on the level of the Ivy League. Irma, on the other hand, appreciated every part of Bard; she was fond of the few students that did study here and was interested and original. She encouraged her students to be serious about their individual passions, and she herself followed that same advice.
Between 1933 and 1939, Irma became close with the Italian poet Eugenio Montale. She was his muse, but did not want to be recognized for that. Instead, she wanted to be remembered for something that she had worked hard for, like her writings and book on Dante, The Ladder of Vision: A Study of Dante’s Comedy. James Merrill, a friend of Irma’s, created the “Irma Brandeis Professorship of Romance Cultures and Literature” at Bard College in her memory. This professorship at Bard allows us to remember her how she wanted to be remembered, how highly she valued hard work and commitment towards your passion.
Dorothy Dulles Gray
Dorothy Dulles Gray came to the college in 1949 to join the sociology department and grew to be an important figure at Bard until her retirement in 1962. After starting at Bard College as a professor, she successively became student counselor, dean of students, and Dean, all while continuing to teach her sociology classes. The college appointed her Acting President for the fall semester of 1958 while President Case was on a leave of absence for illness. During the 1950’s, Dorothy greatly shaped the college’s courses through her teaching, in faculty councils, and being an administrator.
The first women students, faculty, and staff members at Bard paved the way for more women to come to the college and experience its progressive education style. The first women students at Bard enjoyed the liberties that being part of a coeducational and progressive student body gave them. They also enjoyed the small classes and the close attention they got from professors. Most of these first women at Bard say that their experience at Bard changed their lives forever. The first women faculty and staff were considered special to the members of Bard because they were active in their fields and could share what they did, rather than just talk about it. They brought more to the classroom than other professors and other schools may have and in turn, made lasting impressions on their students.