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A Remembrance Of Jean Sinclair

In the fall term, l968, at Queens College, I taught one section of my favorite course, Persuasion, "a study of the use of communication to achieve behavioral modification or change." The first day of that class, a woman in her late fifties, questioned me repeatedly about "the ethics and the moral issues" involved in a situation where one individual coerces another individual to do what the other individual would not otherwise do. The lady student became so involved in her pursuit of answers she irritated me, and I asked her what her name was. "Jean Sinclair," she responded. "I am an ACE student who is fifty-eight years old," she continued, "and I am here to finish my undergraduate education. But, right now I am concerned with the ethics of teaching persuasion."

"You see, I am an old socialist. I once belonged to an organization called YPSL, that's the Young Peoples' Socialist League, and we socialists believed persuasion came from within, not without, and....." I cut her off, having memorized long ago "The Education of Hyman Kaplan," especially about one Rose Moskowitz, and learned of the misery older students can inflict on a professor if the professor is not very careful.
"Mrs. Sinclair, or Miss Sinclair," I said. She interrupted me, "Mrs. Sinclair. My husband is David Sinclair, a physicist."

I continued, even more irritated, "Mrs. Sinclair, we will indeed discuss in this course the matter of ethics and persuasion, but that will come later. In the meantime, should you have questions, my office hours are posted. I am the chairman of the department, and you can make an appointment to see me through one of my secretaries." 

"I know who you are," Mrs. Sinclair responded, "and I certainly will make an appointment."

That was my introduction to Jean Sinclair, who remained a closest and dearest friend some twenty-nine years after I met her. I did not know who Jean Sinclair was until perhaps half way through that course in Persuasion. That day I had been illustrating certain theories of speaker or sender credibility by talking about certain prominent American political and movement spokesmen. I spoke of the credibility of one Upton Sinclair, spokesman for reform and social justice during the first half of the century. Jean Sinclair's hand shot up. "The example you just gave, Dr. Windes, came from the EPIC Campaign in California in l934 when Upton Sinclair was running for Governor. EPIC stood for End Poverty in California. By that time Upton had written forty-three books, and most of the American public had read one or more of his books; therefore his credibility was very high and...."
"Mrs. Sinclair," I interrupted, for a change, "how do you know so much about Upton Sinclair? Is he by chance related to you?" She answered, "Of course, he was my father in law, and he just died earlier this year at age ninety in a rest home near our country home in Martinsville, New Jersey, and......"

Her voice sounded like Eleanor Roosevelt's, high, quavering, cultivated, like a Barnard or a Hunter female graduate from the l930s, and very positive. It commanded both attention and respect. Jean Sinclair was not only a relative of the great Upton, by marriage, and wife of a famous aerosol physicist, she was also sister to the author Jerome Weidman.

In the spring of l975 Jean was to have her oral examinations over her thesis on Norman Thomas, a two-hundred page tome which she had written under my supervision and direction. Because everyone on her faculty committee lived in Manhattan, we decided to conduct that oral examination on that very fine thesis at our apartment on East 55th Street. On the day of the examination, the three other faculty members on her committee, Professors DeVito, Hill, and Holford, arrived a bit early, and we sat around the dining table talking about the thesis. One member had "serious questions" about whether Jean had suitably supported some of her conclusions; one liked the thesis; the third was borderline.

And then Jean arrived, bearing boxes of goodies--Danish, donuts and cookies, napkins, paper plates, and so forth. She quickly took over the kitchen, brewing coffee and pouring glasses of milk, and schmoozing with her inquisitors. I could feel the reservations and hostilities already beginning to crumble.

Only after each guest was served did she consent to sit at the large dining table and begin answering questions of an already charmed and appreciative group.

In the midst of the questions and answers, the doorbell rang. Our sixty year old building superintendent, Monsieur Mostenne, a former Jesuit who had spent twenty years in the Congo running a plantation, entered with a new air conditioner for the apartment carried by his young assistant, Edward, who shared Mostenne's apartment and performed various jobs in the building.

I suggested to Mostenne that we were engaging in serious affairs, but Mostenne insisted that the air conditioner simply had to be installed at that moment, even if installation meant interruption of an oral examination, whatever that was. He did promise, however, to be very quiet, and even listen to the "hearings" as he called them. I resigned myself to fate.

Jean, however, never "resigned" herself to adversity. "Adversity is merely disguised opportunity," she would say. She invited both Mostenne and Edward to sit and have refreshments, and explained fully to them what the "hearings" were all about. The two of them immediately became both fascinated by it all, and de facto members of the inquisition.

From that moment on, Jean orchestrated her own orals like she was fine tuning a string section before a concert. Like a good Jewish mother, she became the host and the mistress of ceremonies, and the agenda setter, seeing to it that her colleagues conducted their business on a full stomach and a happy heart.

It took only minutes for Monsieur Mostenne to pull his chair close to the table and begin studying one of the copies of the Sinclair thesis, munching his sweet roll and calling for a coffee refill. And shortly later he interrupted Professors DeVito and Hill, who were in the midst of an argument over some esoterica, with a brief and profound question directed not at Madame Sinclair, but at Professors DeVito and Hill. His question was so unfailingly Jesuitical, having to do with basic definitions and conceptualizations, that the Professors forgot the thesis completely, and for at least fifteen minutes they struggled to deal with the "new enemy Mostenne," who, they were discovering, was neither a dummy or a super without education and knowledge.

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Each time they counter-attacked, the pesky and persistent Mostenne showed no mercy. His attack did not let up until he noticed me frowning at him, at which point he turned to "Madame Sinclair," asking a number of questions of her, questions Jean was delighted to play with. (We wondered if she had not fed Mostenne the questions in the lobby of the building on her way up.) She answered with convincing, if not entirely accurate, responses, and Mostenne nodded agreement to each answer and smiled broadly. And now the professors realized that they would have to take on both Jean Weidman Sinclair and Alfred Claude Mostenne, a formidable task indeed. I'm sure that alarming possibility reduced the number of questions substantially.

Soon Mostenne was behaving as if he had attended the l936 Socialist Party Convention in Chicago and spent months working for Thomas himself, rather than living in Brussels and attending seminary that year.

After he had finished installing the air conditioner, Edward joined the six of us in conversation, grabbing a pillow from the couch and throwing himself on the floor near the table in a position which clearly distracted everyone. Jean left Mostenne and Professors DeVito, Hill and Holford to continue their spirited debate over definitions, a debate which by then had moved on to an argument over Belgian colonial rule in the Congo. Mostenne defended colonialism, and Professor Molly Holford almost expired attacking it.

Jean, momentarily oblivious of the fracas, took donuts and milk to Edward, patted him on the head, and sat next to him for a few minutes explaining carefully what was unfolding, so to speak, in the room, beginning with trying to compare the proceedings to an inspection of an air conditioner after the installer had finished his work. I doubt that Edward understood or bought the analogy. She returned to the main group in time to respond to another Mostenne friendly question having to do with the differences in interpretation of the socialism of Norman Thomas, Franklin Roosevelt and Leon Blum. She was now inspired to new heights of wisdom and rhetoric, even tossing into her answers quotations from "my father-in-law Upton Sinclair." The assault was so great that within minutes Professor Hill raised the white flag and the faculty committee surrendered unconditionally. Her questioners never had a chance. The final score was six ayes and no nays, and Jean had won her Master of Arts degree. I thought about having Mostenne and Edward sign the approval form, but finally thought better of it.

When David Sinclair met Jean in early l944, it took them but a brief time to fall in love. Jean recalled the April Fools Day marriage ceremony, which was in front of a woman judge in Brooklyn, who had discovered in looking through the record that David's first wife had gotten a divorce from him on grounds of adultery.
In New York at the time the only grounds for divorce were adultery. In order to save time and money David agreed that Betty could sue on those grounds, and he would not contest the suit. Before the judge would marry Jean and David, she delivered a ten minute lecture to him on his past sins and ordered him not to make the "same mistake" with the "second Mrs. Sinclair."

Jean said the judge "wore her Catholic Cross on the outside of her black judicial robes." She added, "It was very embarrassing for David, and for me, too. David, after all, is the last person in the world who would commit adultery."

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David and Jean loved to entertain on the porch of their New Jersey home, as well in the living room. Their large living room was a wall of glass on the south side facing the porch, and had a massive stone fireplace. On each side of the fireplace, David had built floor to ceiling bookcases which housed, among other things, all of Upton's books and David's hundreds of albums of classical recordings. David and Jean both loved serious music, and during much of the l970s and 80s the four of us together attended concerts of the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony.

The Spring Run home was filled with their memories, photographs and keepsakes from their trips around the world, their safaris to Africa, their visits to Mexico and South America. Most of all the home was awash with memories of Upton. In spite of his feuds with his father over political and social differences, David was almost reverent when he spoke of "father," as he often did. After Upton's death Jean and David became the executors as well as the heirs of his estate, including the vast numbers of manuscripts, documents, letters, files and other memorabilia Upton left. Jean spent much of her time on estate affairs. "I am the landlord of Upton's literary estate," she said.

One of their first tasks after Upton's death was to transfer estate materials to the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, the repository of Sinclairiana. "Eight tons of Upton's papers had to be catalogued," said Jean, "and that was an enormous burden."

Jean possessed a strange objective fondness for Upton, although out of David's earshot, she would always confess to great resentment over the way Upton had treated David and his willingness to allow Craig to exclude and banish him.

Jean and David loved evenings in front of the fireplace, especially with several guests present, when they could talk at length about the dozens of productive and fascinating people they had known during their years together, including Upton.

Both in New Jersey and in New York City, they could never have too much company. Jean was unbelievably gregarious. She never gave up a friend, and constantly she made new ones. Had she had her way, she would have dined with friends every luncheon and dinner of the week, and hosted or gone to parties every weekend night.

In the seventies and eighties Sunday night dinner at the Sinclairs at 77 West 55th Street was a weekly affair for us. And the invitations for Saturday dinners in New Jersey were frequent. Every Thanksgiving Day from l972 to l990, Ralph and I spent with David and Jean at their home in Spring Run.

In Spring Run, we would usually arrive in time for an early afternoon snack. Ralph would work with David in the yard, helping him plant something, or pull up something, or cut something, for a couple of hours, while Jean and I sat on the porch, or at the kitchen table schmoozing. Cocktails were served at six, just after David had started the fire in the fireplace and put on some classical recording, and dinner was served on their massive table, which had belonged to Upton and Craig, one hour later.

Whether we were invited to Spring Run for the day and evening, or whether we were invited to 77 West 55 Street for dinner, we learned to expect a number of additional guests. Jean liked for all of her friends to know the rest of her friends. "It takes all the guesswork out of my social life," she explained, "I don't have to keep on describing and explaining friends to other friends."

We met all of their neighbors in Spring Run, like Joe and Dorothy Deck who dabbled in the occult and in writing books, and Earl and Vivian Knutson, Earl the director of the Environmental Measurements Laboratory.
We met all their friends and relatives in New York City either in New Jersey or at 77 West 55th Street. For two decades we met and enjoyed dozens of exciting people at Jean's and David's, a parade of people who had been central to their New York existence for half a century or more, and, often interesting new acquaintances.

We dined with Sarah and Aaron Slotkin, old friends of Jean since her YPSL days, both of whom were figures in the New York City Public Schools and lived at Peter Stuyvesant Village in Manhattan. We met numbers of visiting scientists from abroad who were temporarily at the Environmental Measurements Laboratory, like Bella Kraskom, a woman scientist from the then communist government of Czechloslovakia, who was strongly anti-communist but frightened somebody would turn her in if she said so. We dined with Eleanor Smith, librarian at New York University and collector of books on the occult; we dined Dorothy Rodgers, wife of the composer; with Irving Howe, writer and critic; with A. H. Raskin of the New York Times; with Reba Pommer, neighbor on West 55th Street and close friend of the Bronfman family (Seagrams Liquors). We dined with Reba's daughter in law, Linda Nochlin, who taught at Vassar and was a leading feminist art historian, and Reba's son, Jeffrey, who also taught at Vassar. We dined with Jean and David's personal friend and favorite physician, Dr. Irv Klompus. We also dined quite often with Jean's brother Jerome Weidman, his wife, Peggy Payne Weidman, and their two sons, John and Jeffrey. Jerome, writer and playwright, whose first article had appeared in The New Yorker in l938, and whose book, "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," became a best seller a year later, the first of more than a dozen novels, memoirs, and plays (including the very successful musical,."Fiorello"). Peggy had worked for years on the New York newspaper PM.. John Weidman earned both his A.B. and his LL.B. from Yale. He did not practice law; rather he wrote for the tv hit "Sesame Street." He had collaborated with Stephen Sondheim, writing the book on the plays "Pacific Overtures" and "Assassins." Jeffrey received his Ph.D. from Indiana University and was librarian at Oberlin College. He was an art historian.

We spent evenings with Bertha Klausner, octogenarian literary agent who lived on lower Park Avenue and had been agent to dozens of important American writers, including Upton, over a fifty-five year period, from l920 on.
We met half dozen of Jean's "instructors" at the New York Sculpture Center where she both studied sculpture and people. We visited with Walter Goldwater, whose Village bookstore on 8th Street specialized then in works on Black culture and history. Walter and David had been close friends since that trip to the Soviet Union in l928. Walter had suffered from leukemia for years, but was still a marvelous raconteur, full of closing phrases like, "We are all doomed, and there's nothing we can do about it."

We dined with Ruth Senior, anthropologist and collector of African art; Alma Pritchard, art historian and writer and editor of books on Renaissance and Italian art, who had gone to school with Jean in New York and had lived in Italy for two decades; Florence Osterweiss, editor and writer; Mina Rees, assistant to the Chancellor of the City University of New York; Robert and Eileen Glasser, also in the publishing and book selling business; Leon Harris, writer who was working on a biography of Upton Sinclair. We enjoyed evenings with Eugene and Dorothy Winnick, he the attorney for the Upton Sinclair estate; Max and Dorothy Delsen, Max a successful New York attorney with offices in the Pan Am Building, also a former YPSL friend, whose vocal volume rarely rose above a whisper, which fact caused absolute silence when Max spoke. Even his wife often had to say, "Louder, Max, even I can't hear you." We enjoyed Frank and Helen Trager, Frank a much traveled Professor of Asian Studies at New York University, who was also employed by the Department of Defense teaching at the Monterey Language School, and consultant to the Department of Defense and the State Department on Vietnam policy. He was very pro Vietnam war which put him in constant battle with everyone else who came to Jean and David's home.

Rarely did Jean sculpt anything but animals. She had above her bench at the Sculpture Center a quotation from Walt Whitman, "I think I could turn and live with animals,/ they are so placid and self-contained./ I stand and look at them for long and long."

She claimed that the epiphany that served as the catalyst for her inspiration was glimpsing hundreds of wildebeest racing by outside their hotel window when she and David visited East Africa in the late l960s.
There were no domestic animals in her repertoire. "I prefer my creatures uncornered, to borrow John Dickey's apt phrase." There were in her collection, however, a delightful winged and horned dog from Chinese mythology and a dinosaur or two. But the majority of her critters are worldly wild animals in their natural surroundings.

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Much to her credit, Jean made her viewers identify with the creatures without humanizing them in a cute Disney-esque manner. Rather she retained the creaturely integrity of each species, even when an old lion sitting on his haunches reminds one of a wise sage, or a bear rising up on his hind quarters resembles a posturing politician.
Jean gave to us many of her sculptures. One charming piece is a camel, sitting in that peculiar way that camels have of propping themselves up on their knobby knees. We also have a sculpture of several koala bears hugging each other, which evokes the deep and abiding affection that one feels for another one loves. We have a smart and cute "Mostenne Monkey," she called him, that is laughing at its own joke. We have a proud and confident lion we call Bertha, after Bertha Klausner, of course. And our favorite of all, is a sculpture of two happy and contented seals cuddling together on the rocks. Jean assured us that they were gay.

These are, indeed, the "peaceable kingdom" of Jean Sinclair. She had fulfilled her dreams for herself, and, at the same time, she had shepherded David through over forty years of his. The two of them made a perfect fit, a perfect team, the fiddle and the bow.

Dear Jean was never the same after David passed away. She came to California, to San Diego, to visit us twice, in l990 and in l992, each time for two weeks. During my last good conversation with Jean, she said,  "I want to be with David. He was my life." And she was his!

The wine and roses David and Jean Sinclair brought into our lives can never be recaptured or repeated. They invited us into a world of a fascinating past in which people fought for the big issues. They brought us a flower garden, a dazzling world of the present in which "kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains."
We deeply and dearly miss our two dear friends and those dear times. They were perfect role models on which to build a life partnership based on love, respect, support, and busy and productive social and cultural lives.

Russel R. Windes 

Ralph R. Smith

June 24, 1997
San Francisco CA

 

 

 

 

 

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