Pauling’s “Immoral Man”: Nuclear Testing, the Nature of Leadership, and Letters to the Kennedys

[This is post 3 of 3 originally authored by SCARC Student Archivist Ethan Heusser for the Rare@OSU blog.]

For internationally renowned scientist and activist Linus Pauling, the early 1960s represented a time of feverish peace work that matched the dangers and necessities of an ever-escalating international crisis. One of the most interesting (and complicated) examples of his correspondence to world leaders during this time was to President John F. Kennedy.

Most of Pauling’s communications with JFK happened during his tenure as President of the United States between 1961-63. (Pauling, meanwhile, was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1963.) The topics of their letters varied widely between nuclear disarmament, nuclear test bans, international peace treaties, and even the Cuban Missile Crisis itself.

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Though Pauling’s letters frequently asserted an authoritative tone, the two did not always maintain the level of peership this might imply; many of Pauling’s letters went unanswered, and those that did get replies were sometimes written by others on Kennedy’s behalf.

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Pauling was often vehemently critical of President Kennedy’s policies and public relations efforts regarding the cold war and nuclear disarmament, attacking his moral character for failing to take strong enough action to de-escalate rising nuclear tension.

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It’s also worth noting that Ava Helen Pauling played a similar role in advocacy to the Kennedys; she wrote Mrs. Kennedy with a similar message about the threat of nuclear weapons, albeit focusing specifically on the impact this might have on her own children. The Paulings’ two-pronged approach is emblematic of their larger team effort.

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Nevertheless, Pauling’s lengthy diatribes and urgings to the Kennedys ended abruptly after the infamous assassination in 1963. Of particular significance is a brief letter written to the First Lady three days later, within which Pauling expresses remorse over the death “of our great President, John F. Kennedy.”

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The tone of that letter is hard to interpret due to its pithiness, but the typically stoic manner in which Pauling writes reveals here a brief moment of vulnerability. For all his “urgings” and his attacks on Kennedy’s moral character, Pauling clearly also had a certain amount of faith in Kennedy’s ability to listen to reason, make compassionate decisions, and lead the nation through moments of immense political pressure. Not only that, but as someone familiar with death threats due to activism, it’s hard to imagine Linus Pauling seeing November 22nd as anything other than a sobering and uncertain experience. The long and difficult relationship between them was snuffed out, but the legacy of the work, unfortunately, needed more than ever to be continued.

Ava Helen, Linus, and the Push for Federal Union

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[Part 3 of 3]

Soon after its publication in 1939, Clarence Streit’s thought-provoking book, Union Now, became a popular topic of discussion nationwide. As we’ve described in the previous two posts, the book proposed the forming of a federal union of democratic republics in order to protect democracy from being overrun by totalitarian dictatorships. Chapters of the Federal Unionist Club were founded in cities across the country at a rapid pace; by 1941, sixty cities had established a local division of the club and many more were in the midst of starting up. In Pasadena, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling joined the city’s chapter of the club, which was dedicated not only to discussion among members, but also to working towards the goals established in Union Now.

Linus and Ava Helen’s decision to join the Federal Unionist Club was made in direct reaction to the events leading up to World War II. Raised in a large and politically engaged family, Ava Helen had seemingly always been a peace activist at heart. As the mother of four children however, Ava’s time for direct involvement was limited, and her membership in the Unionist club marked an important beginning of her public activism.

Linus, on the other hand, could have happily remained a research scientist for the rest of his days. But gradually he came to realize, with his wife’s help, that his scientific work would prove far more worthwhile if it served the public, and his involvement with the unionist cause likewise served as a first step in pursuing this aim.

By the late 1930s, the dynamic between scientists and world affairs had changed in such a way that Linus could not ignore the negative effects of political issues in the world. In particular, as the persecution of Jewish populations became more widespread, Jewish scientists were discharged from their positions and Linus began to receive pleas from Jewish colleagues in Europe, asking about any available positions at Caltech.

In the midst of changing times, Ava encouraged Linus to read Union Now, which he did. Linus quickly found himself coming into agreement with his wife, and concluded that taking action in favor of Streit’s proposal was – at least for the time being – a better option than passivity. In a letter to Professor Arthur Compton of the University of Chicago, Linus wrote that the state of current events was such that “I can not subscribe to such a policy of nonresistance.” Linus and Ava Helen thus became active in the struggle for peace.


The cover of Ava Helen Pauling's Union Now scrapbook.

The cover of Ava Helen Pauling’s Union Now scrapbook.

As members of the Federal Unionist Club, Ava Helen and Linus played various roles. Ava Helen was more directly a leader, serving as the Pasadena chapter’s treasurer and historian. As such, she amassed the club’s financial records and kept track of their budget, which was mostly used to organize public debates and to purchase books and pamphlets summarizing Streit’s proposal. She also created a scrapbook consisting mainly of newspaper clippings that documented a great many club appearances in the press.

For Linus, club membership came with a less active but still important role, at least in the context of his own biography. Since the time of his graduation from Oregon Agricultural College, Pauling had felt the need to fashion his work in service to the general public. As a chemist in the post-World War I era, Linus was aware of the dangers that could arise when science was used for warfare, and thus had intended to stay tuned to events where his knowledge as a scientist could help prevent the use of chemistry for harm.

Now that a second world war loomed on the horizon, Ava Helen’s involvement with and care for the issues being discussed at club events offered Linus the chance to initiate his own involvement in world affairs. As we have pointed out earlier in this series of blog posts, the Pasadena Chapter of the Federal Unionist Club served as a forum for Linus to deliver his first important non-scientific speech, one in which he publicly stated his support for federal union and came prepared to answer questions regarding specific implications of Streit’s proposal.


Map of Clarence Streit's proposed federal union.

Map of Clarence Streit’s proposed federal union.

Though Linus and Ava Helen, in the minds of some, may have appeared to be supporting an unusual idea, Union Now was an unequivocal hit. The book received numerous positive reviews, including one published in The New York Times, which later listed Union Now as a best-seller.

Given its success, it is interesting to note that Clarence Streit had been forced to hold off on publishing Union Now until the eve of World War II. Prior to 1939, publishers had been unwilling to consider any sort of public release of the book – not only did they believe that it would not sell but they also feared that their presses would lose repute if Streit’s political ideas were interpreted as too controversial.

By 1939 however, the immediate threat of war had created an opportunity for the publication of Union Now, and the book was picked up by Harper & Brothers. Later that year, Time Magazine devoted an article to Union Now that suggested that the western world’s failure to accept Streit’s proposal would inevitably bring about war. Clearly his ideas has entered into the mainstream.


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As copies of Union Now continued to be sold at a rapid clip, its proposal grew to be widely and passionately debated. Pamphlets and articles from the period reveal an interesting discursive battle between pro and anti-unionists, each side arguing against the other’s ideals and main proponents.

One prominent anti-unionist, Lillian Scott Troy, published a pamphlet titled “Union Now…Treason!” in which she stated that the true purpose of Union Now was to bring the United States back under British domination. This argument arose partly in the wake of Streit’s second book, Union Now With Britain (1941), in which he suggested that a smooth transition to federal union could begin with a union of Britain and other English-speaking democracies.

Though discredited by some foes as un-American, Federal Unionists thought of themselves as continuing the legacy of the founders of the United States, largely because they intended to extend the tenants of the U.S. Constitution to Britain, rather than bringing the U.S. under British rule. Troy’s arguments, in particular, were easily dismissed by Federal Unionists because of her questionable reputation. An American citizen, Troy had been deported from Britain for allegedly securing the release of Baron Louis von Horst, a convicted German spy.

That is not to say that unionists did not have contentious figures supporting their side. One such individual was Fyke Farmer, a close follower and supporter of the movement who, much like Troy, was surrounded by controversy. A Tennessee lawyer, Farmer came under national scrutiny in 1953 when he decided to defend Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two Americans who were ultimately executed for treason, having been accused of sharing information about the U.S. nuclear program with the Soviet Union. Like Lillian Troy, Fyke Farmer was considered by his detractors to be a potential threat to the nation.

In spite of the negative press that sometimes appeared, Federal Unionists remained focused on their primary tactics – public discussion and distribution of print materials – to continue spreading the word of Streit’s proposals. This collective effort of Federal Unionist chapters around the country helped to repel the cries of opposition to unionism that sometimes arose.


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While the public clearly engaged deeply with the viability of the ideas presented in Union Now, the historical record would seem to indicate that the United States federal government, and international governments as well, paid little attention to the proposal. Nevertheless, Linus and Ava Helen’s records relating to the Federal Unionist Club offer unique insight into the beliefs and ideals of a collection of citizens who took action in the hopes that their efforts could change the fate of the nation and the world.

Ain’t Misbehavin’

The Paulings, 1976.

The Paulings, 1976.

Creative nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet

Big Sur, 1976-1977

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling are in the kitchen of their home on the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, California. A film crew follows their activities. Ava Helen ladles soup from a large pot on the stove and puts the bowl onto Linus’s plate. Ever careful and meticulous, Linus adjusts the bowl, squaring up its handles so they point directly to his right and left.

Linus Pauling is considered one of the most influential and controversial scientists of the 20th century. Even before becoming the sole winner of two unshared Nobel Prizes – one in chemistry and the other Peace – he was a public and political figure agreeing to interviews, debates, tapings, and photographs.

Pauling had little interest in politics until he met Ava Helen. Growing up in a politically active family, she was familiar with debates around the dinner table. She followed her humanitarian values into activism for civil rights, women’s rights, and peace. In early 1940, she joined the American Civil Liberties Union, working to raise awareness about the internment of Japanese Americans.

She inspired Linus’s entrance into the peace movement. After one of his public lectures in the mid-1940s, Ava Helen voiced a concern to her husband. “I think that you should stop giving lectures about atomic bombs, war, and peace. When you talk about a scientific subject you speak very effectively and convincingly. It is evident that you are a master of the subject that you are talking about. But when you talk about the nature of war and the need for peace, you are not convincing, because you give the audience the impression that you are not sure about what you are saying and that you are relying on other authorities.”

What shall I do? Pauling wondered. I want to earn and keep Ava Helen’s respect. I don’t want her to think I am a coward. And, I have my own self-respect to consider. I won’t be cowed by Communist witch hunts. When other scientists pulled back, Linus didn’t. He attributed his perseverance to his wife. He did it to retain her respect.

“Of course it’s important that you do your scientific work. But if the world were destroyed then that work would not be of any value,” Ava Helen continued, feeling a little guilty. He gets great and deep pleasure from his scientific work, she thought to herself, and he’s so competent and enthusiastic in it. But he must realize that there is a need for people to know and understand the different means of waging war.

Torchlight procession in Oslo, December 1963.

Torchlight procession in Oslo, December 1963.

Ava Helen’s remarks changed the course of Linus’s life. He learned about international relations, international law and the peace movement. He began speaking about the dangers of atomic weapons always keeping his presentations up-to-date with the latest scientific advances and political developments. Linus, who tended to make sense of things through calculations, estimated that he spent half of his time on scientific questions and half on political activism during the 1950s.

Linus and Ava Helen also worked together on many specific political efforts. In 1957, she helped him distribute a petition that gathered 9,000 signatures from scientists worldwide. It was the largest organized political movement among scientists in a decade. Together, they delivered the petition to the United Nations.

During the 1950s and 1960s, she worked with Linus on peace and nuclear disarmament. She accompanied him to peace conferences around the world. Ava Helen also continued her own public life, organizing protests and speaking to women’s groups about peace and ending weapons tests.

Often Linus and Ava Helen faced harsh criticism for their efforts. Pauling’s scientific career suffered as a result of his activism. In 1952 the U.S. State Department denied him a passport and the next year he received notice that his large U.S. Public Health Service grant would not be renewed. Undaunted, they both continued their activism, following their shared humanitarian convictions, despite the consequences from their perceived political misbehavior.


The Paulings, 1977.

The Paulings, 1977.

The filmmakers are creating Linus Pauling: Crusading Scientist, a 1977 documentary that describes Pauling’s scientific achievements and political activism.

The interviewer turns his attention to Ava Helen asking, “Is he hard to live with?”

She wears large, round, dark rimmed glasses with lightly tinted lenses. Her short hair is gray and white. She looks from the interviewer to her husband before responding.

“Yes, he is.” She nods and gazes at Pauling.

Pauling looks at her. “What?” he chuckles.

Ava Helen is laughing and smiling, too, still gazing at her husband who sits between her and the camera.

There’s a long pause. Pauling turns back to his wife, who is wearing a loose sea green turtleneck under a colorful, earth-toned poncho.

Ava Helen looks at her husband and says, matter-of-factly, “I said yes he is.” She smiles at him. The love and admiration they have for one another is evident, even after 55 years of marriage.

“Hard to live with?” Pauling feigns disbelief, turning from his wife to the interviewer. “I thought I was just about the easiest-going person that there was in the world.” He crinkles his nose, squints his eyes, and lifts his shoulders while looking at the camera. It’s his silent way to say, perhaps I exaggerate. He leans down to his bowl of soup and sups two spoonfuls.

“That could be true, too, but still be hard to live with.” She tells him while she watches him eat.

He wipes his mouth with a napkin and responds in a more serious voice. “In a sense I think you are hard to live with.” He leans forward and looks at her before sitting upright and focusing on the cameraman again. “Your principles are so high. Your standards are so high that I have to behave myself all the time,” he says with mock exasperation while playfully rolling his eyes.

Ava Helen laughs. “And that’s a great burden, I’m sure. Well now, you tell me the next time you want to misbehave.”

“O. K.” Pauling laughs tossing his head back slightly and wearing a big grin. “It will be with you though.”

An Incident in The Netherlands

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Linus and Ava Helen Pauling were well known for their support of one another’s work; particularly so when it came to the topic of world peace. As with all activists, the Paulings often found themselves encountering both support and opposition to their ideals. One instance of opposition made headlines around the world and showed that fame was at times both sword and shield for the Paulings.

By the spring of 1964, much of Ava Helen’s work as an activist was channeled through her involvement with Women Strike for Peace (WSP), a network of female peace advocates from across the United States. That year, Ava became one of the primary organizers of a meeting that was to take place in The Hague, Netherlands. The WSP called women peace activists from around the world to meet in The Hague to protest against the transfer of nuclear weapons from the United States to other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries.

At the time, it had been agreed that existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons should not be transferred between countries. The United States, however, was trying to make a case for the legal transfer of nuclear weapons to West Germany on the grounds that, when it came to international agreements, NATO allies functioned as a unit rather than as individual countries. Ava Helen and the WSP were successful in garnering the support and participation of women from every NATO country including, importantly, representation from West Germany.

Ava Helen and Linus’s plans to attend a peace conference in Mexico City just days before the WSP demonstration had made it unlikely that Ava would be present at the peace demonstration in The Hague. WSP members, however, urged Ava Helen to find a way to attend, and last minute arrangements did indeed make it possible for her to fly overseas for the meeting.  Once arrived, however, it was Ava Helen’s absence from the proceedings which changed the outcome of what had been planned as a silent protest.


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Days before the demonstration was to begin, the Dutch government – without informing WSP – banned the women’s peace demonstration and began preventing participants from entering the country. Unaware of this turn of events, Ava Helen boarded a flight from Mexico City to Amsterdam on May 10th, where a copy of The Triple Revolution was found among her belongings. The presence of this pamphlet was evidence enough for immigration officials at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to recognize Ava as a participant in the demonstration.

The Triple Revolution was a memorandum, issued by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, to which Linus Pauling had contributed. The document was addressed to President Lyndon B. Johnson and it rejected both the development of nuclear weapons and the move toward an economy dependent on machine-based labor. Published in pamphlet form, the document became an important component of WSP’s rhetoric, as it was applicable to issues of concern in both the United States as well as many other parts of the world. The Triple Revolution‘s notoriety as a radical proposal, however, placed its supporters in opposition to much of the leadership of the western world’s governments.

This is the context of what awaited Ava Helen when she arrived in Amsterdam. Having made the decision to ban the WSP demonstration, and cognizant of her role in its organization, the Dutch government made the decision to deny Ava Helen’s entry into the country.  Not long after landing she was promptly put on to a different flight, this time bound for Copenhagen, Denmark.


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By the time that Ava landed in Copenhagen, Linus Pauling had arrived at his home in Pasadena, where a call that he received at one o’clock in the morning alerted him to his wife’s situation in The Netherlands. In a personal note written at 1:15 AM on May 11th, Pauling expressed his frustration as well as his intent to notify the press about the incident. In a later note, he recalled the events of that day, condemning the incident as a “dictatorial action of oppression and prevention of free speech.”

Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, Ava Helen was met by news reporters who asked if she had mentioned to the Dutch immigration officials who she was and to whom she was married. To this Ava replied

I was certain they did not recognize my name or that of my husband and I felt that, as a matter of principle, I could not bribe officials by telling them I was the wife of a man who had won two Nobel Prizes.

Ava assured the journalists that the whole affair must have been a mistake and that the mishap would be taken care of. When a reporter contacted the Dutch embassy in Copenhagen, however, they found that Ava had been wrong: the Dutch government had in fact given orders to keep WSP members out of the country. The Danish press promptly published Ava’s story, which made news around the world.

When Linus called the Dutch embassy in Washington, D.C. he was told that the demonstration had been cancelled. Not knowing that the European media was already covering story, Pauling quickly made plans of his own for notifying the press. With journalistic efforts underway on two continents, questions began to arise concerning the legality and the implications for civil liberties of the Dutch government’s decision.

Back in the United States, members of Women Strike for Peace also flooded the Dutch embassy with questions regarding Ava’s denied entry and the suppression of their demonstration. These pressures ultimately compelled the Dutch government to retreat from its initial decision. That same day, the activist women who had made it into the country gathered in a silent demonstration outside of the Peace Palace in The Hague. Two days later, Ava entered The Netherlands and joined the women of WSP for their NATO meeting.


Ava Helen’s contretemps with Dutch immigration authorities stands as another example of the ways in which the Paulings’ fame both exposed and protected the two peace advocates. And while the Danish press had questioned why Ava didn’t use her last name to get into get into The Netherlands, it is clear that doing so was not necessary.

By the early 1960s, Ava Helen and Linus Pauling had become well-acquainted with the art of circulating their opinions through means of peaceful protest. As Ava wrote in a letter to Linus, had she used her name to enter the Netherlands, the meeting might not have taken place. Although initially anonymous, Ava’s role in the Women Strike for Peace demonstration and the attention that she received from the press, were crucial to the Dutch government’s decision to allow the meeting to take place and to making the demonstration news around the world.

A Trip to North Salem High School

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Recently the blog took a field trip a few miles up I-5 to North Salem High School, where Ava Helen Pauling was inducted into the school’s hall of fame.  A grand old building dedicated in 1937, the current school is not at the same location as the facility where Ava Helen spent her high school years, but it is the successor to the original Salem High School, which once existed in a downtown space now occupied by a department store.

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North Salem’s 2013 hall of fame class included a former wrestler, a retired teacher and an alum who spearheaded the creation of a scholarship fund for outstanding students.  Ava Helen was inducted in the Distinguished Lifetime category, her nomination penned by Emily Schwab, a member of North’s class of 2009 and a recent history graduate here at Oregon State University.

And indeed, a strong OSU presence was on hand at the ceremony – along with Emily, representatives of the OSU Libraries and the Linus Pauling Institute were in attendance, as was Ava Helen’s biographer Mina Carson, an OSU professor of history. In addition, Cheryl Pauling made the trip down and spoke eloquently of her grandmother, “a tiny little thing” who taught her to make toffee and “was always full of hugs and love.”

Cheryl Pauling sharing memories of her grandmother in the North Salem H.S. library.

Cheryl Pauling sharing memories of her grandmother in the North Salem H.S. library.

Ava Helen's wedding ring, which Cheryl brought to show.

Ava Helen’s wedding ring, which Cheryl brought to show.

It was also homecoming.

It was also homecoming.

Though she grew up more than forty miles away in Beavercreek and later Canby, in 1918 Ava Helen moved to Salem, Oregon’s capitol, to live with her sister Nettie Spaulding and attend high school.  It is not clear why this decision was made; possibly it related to family finances, Ava being one of twelve children afterall.  It is possible too that the school in Salem was better than anything closer to where the Millers lived.  Or maybe Ava Helen, ever independent, simply needed a little more space.

Ava Helen Miller at left, with some of her high school classmates, 1921.

Ava Helen Miller at left, with some of her high school classmates, 1921.

Much of what we do know about Ava Helen’s high school experience is contained in a journal that she kept during the period.  As Mina Carson writes in her biography, Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary

Her notes suggest a lively, flirtatious disposition.  There were plenty of boys to write down…even if some were cousins….Ralph Hamilton, Wallace Griffin, and Keith Brown also found places in [the journal]….’He joined the navy during the war,’ she wrote of Claire Gaines of Canby, ‘and I have ever felt happy to think I refused to kiss him good-by which perhaps took a bit of conceit out of him. [He] married in 1921.’ On the back of a photograph of Haines she wrote in retrospect: ‘my heart’s first flutter.’

Ava Helen’s lifelong interest in politics was also evidenced during her Salem years. Again from Carson

The Spaulding household…was probably lively and certainly close to the state’s political heartbeat. Her sister Nettie was secretary to one of the Oregon Supreme Court justices, so there was a direct link to affairs in the capitol, and 1630 Court Street, the Spaulding home, was just a few blocks’ stroll from the Supreme Court building and the State Capitol. Ava Helen carried her father’s Democratic politics into her adolescence; of a family friend, an admired physician, she wrote: ‘We quarreled about politics. He is a Republican.’

One senses that the Salem years were mostly happy for the young woman.

[She] graduated from Salem High School in three years. She was class president her senior year. For her senior class picnic at Silver Creek Falls that spring she helped organize the food for a class of one hundred twenty-five. She dared kiss a boy for the camera. She was a girl of fun and will, as well as a sense of duty.

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The many hall of fame plaques lining the entryway into North Salem High School are testament to the institution’s rich history.  In an era where recognition and preservation of the past too often fall prey to tight budgets and the need to cope with present circumstances, it is refreshing to see a school that is honoring its traditions. To us, it is clear that the good folks at North are working to act in accordance with their school pledge:

The Memories of North Salem

Will never fade nor die

We love our alma mater

All hail North Salem High. 

The Second X Chromosome

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[An excerpt from Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary, by Dr. Mina Carson – now available from the Oregon State University Press.]

Like her letters to her global correspondents, Ava Helen’s paper on women, “The Second X Chromosome,” used simple language to deliver a confident and impassioned assertion that it was time for all women to receive the equal standing and opportunities to which, in many places, their legal status already entitled them. Following her initial drafts through her final typed presentation for distribution, it is evident that she wrote easily when she was excited, in many cases framing the ultimate argument in her first handwritten draft. Linus too contributed to the paper, although his surviving notes addressed not rhetoric, but background research that he or Ava Helen thought would be helpful: information about Jane Addams, Bertha von Suttner, and other figures she introduced in the body of the paper.

She indicted American hypocrisy.

While her legal and social status under law are now more or less secure in most parts of the world, discrimination against women is still very real and nowhere more than in the United States which lags woefully behind the more advanced Western Nations and indeed in many respects behind the socialist countries in equality for women.

Whereas women were admitted to Soviet medical schools strictly on the basis of “scholastic ability,” she said, “in the United States … the ratio of women to men in medical schools is smaller than in 1900.” Perhaps in a nod to her more conventional audience, she joked that while Japanese women were often cited as the “ideal of complete subjection to men,” at least a woman walking behind her husband could keep an eye on him.

Ava Helen’s use of genetic imagery (“the second X chromosome”) to frame her argument exemplifies not so much an essentialist position on women’s special nature – although she could never quite separate herself from that possibility – as a Jane Addams-like strategy of promoting a “both-and” philosophy of equal opportunity. Like Addams fifty years earlier, Ava Helen skirted essentialism (the “nature” of women) by discussing women’s social and cultural roles throughout history – even prehistory.

She argued that, because of their role in carrying the embryo, the earliest women were undoubtedly “observant, wary, cautious, and persevering”: the first scientists, as they figured out how to feed and warm their families. Some anthropologists saw women as the stabilizing force in society, as they established agriculture, fire, and private property under primitive matriarchies. Ava Helen argued that historically, as her indispensable skills were recognized, woman fell victim to male efforts to keep her “under subjection.” Ten thousand years ago, matriarchy gave way to patriarchy “and women returned to the status of chattels.”

Ava Helen Pauling, 1958.

Ava Helen Pauling, 1958.

Only in the last two hundred years, she argued, had patriarchy faced new challenges. Women had written two of the nineteenth-century novels that successfully changed social perceptions of great injustices: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Bertha von Suttner’s Die Waffen Nieder [Lay Down Your Arms, or as Pauling translated it, Down with the Weapons of War]. In the twentieth century, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death likewise analyzed the social and environmental infrastructure:

In each of these four books the author, a woman, is attacking and exposing a well entrenched economic asset of society in areas controlled completely by men, eg. slavery, war, poisonous chemicals, and the funeral industry.”

Ava Helen brought her no-nonsense brand of political argument, fronted by her stance against interventionist warfare, to her position on modern feminism. She was not a fan of Betty Friedan’s recent Feminine Mystique, which, she wrote to a friend, “has some very foolish ideas in it.” She indicted Friedan for blaming the inability of American POWs in Korea to withstand their imprisonment on their permissive, smothering mothers. Pauling had no patience for an analysis predicated on the legitimacy of America’s military engagement in Korea. “I won’t agree,” she asserted, “that a woman’s highest role is to teach her sons to fight nobly the kind of war that was fought in Korea.” One can imagine the L. A. Unitarians nodding at this point.

Coupled with her disdain for Friedan’s tacit acceptance of the normality of the Korean War, Pauling resisted the invidious distinction between housewife-mothers and women who worked outside the home. “[W]ere the brave, napalm bomb throwing heroes of the Korean War the sons of career women? This would make an interesting study.” She went on:

A way to verify the Feminine Mystique would be to conduct a survey among women who work outside the home and compare them to women who work within the home with regard to happiness, contentment, joy of life, and adjustment to family and friends. I believe such a survey would show that work outside the home is not the answer to the American woman’s dissatisfaction and unhappiness. It is an oversimplification of the problem. Many women who work outside the home are just as unhappy as women who don’t.

The answer: equal access to college education; equal weighting of professional and household labor; public nurseries to allow mothers as well as fathers to go to school or work outside the home; and women’s active participation in politics.

Ava Helen Pauling, August 1964.

Ava Helen Pauling, August 1964.

Ava Helen’s feminist reform philosophy reflected her immersion in the Women Strike for Peace movement, whose primary image was that of active mothers protesting on behalf of the generation they were carrying in their wombs and raising, but whose most powerful spirits were women in their thirties, forties, and fifties, veterans of other peace movements, some of whom still had children at home and others of whom were primarily professionals.

Pauling’s evolving philosophy also offered her a way to resolve her own existential dilemmas. She had put her college education aside to marry and bear four children. Her identity for twenty years was the wife who protected her husband’s creative and intellectual life from family demands. Yet she had also excelled in chemistry as well as language and social science at Oregon Agricultural College. She had left her first toddler and a brief manual on modern child rearing in her mother’s hands in order to tour Europe with her husband unencumbered by maternal responsibilities. She had tutored her husband in social justice issues during the Depression of the 1930s. She had plunged into political work as Europe collapsed again into bloody war, and then as the United States imprisoned American citizens on suspicion of hostile loyalties. She had inspired Linus’s activism after the war to help fellow Americans understand the dire implications of the United States’ development of nuclear weapons, and over the following decade had stayed by his side as he risked his career against panels of accusers and political adversaries. And from the mid-1950s on, she had accepted her own career as a peace activist, her skills as a strategist, networker, and speaker enhanced by her notoriety as Linus’s wife and his partner in the petition drives that ultimately earned him the peace prize.

The Paulings at Deer Flat Ranch, 1962. Photo by Arthur Dubinsky.

The Paulings at Deer Flat Ranch, 1962. Photo by Arthur Dubinsky.

Her friend Corda Bauer picked up on Ava Helen’s ambivalence as part of a snapshot Ava Helen sent her along with the manuscript of her “Second X Chromosome” paper. The photograph shows the Paulings at their ranch, with Linus in the foreground leaning on a fence, and Ava Helen slightly behind him. Bauer requested permission to ask an “impertinent” question:

Was it design or chance that kept you in the background of the photo? As an advocate of women’s rights I would have liked to have seen you leaning on the fence too, in an attitude of secure accomplishment. Linus deserves the place between the gateposts, where he can come and go as he pleases. Had you sat on top of the fence, it would have symbolized that women have to overcome many hurdles, but by golly no mere fence is going to stop them.

She was Linus’s equal, yet a step behind him, like the Japanese women Ava Helen had joked about. Linus Pauling, Jr., remembers that by the 1970s – and perhaps earlier – Ava Helen had started aiming sharp comments at Linus as they went about their daily routine. He remembers hearing her mutter that she too might have won a Nobel prize had she not been busy keeping the house and raising the children. This memory probably does not detract from the other things we think we know about the Paulings’ marriage: that the couple shared an unusual intimacy; that they preferred being together to being apart; that within the walls they were colleagues in their peace activism; that Linus always credited Ava Helen for her inspiration and companionship during the years of peace work; that he was most likely not a tyrant behind closed doors. From the year of courtship through his distracted grief after her death in 1981, Linus held Ava Helen as the most precious force in his life. “When asked to name someone else in the United States who might merit recognition for his efforts towards peace,” said Wallace Thompson during a Nobel celebratory dinner, “Dr. Pauling unhesitatingly said: ‘My wife.'”

The Paulings with Mrs. Dubinin at the 7th Pugwash Conference, Stowe, Vermont, 1961.

The Paulings with Mrs. Dubinin at the 7th Pugwash Conference, Stowe, Vermont, 1961.

Nonetheless, in the early years of marriage she suffered the decentered isolation of virtually all stay-at-home parents. This was exacerbated by Linus’s early and persistent fame, and his multiple scientific commitments. After the first few years of their marriage, she could not keep up intellectually with his work, and that must have added another dimension to any resentment she felt at her position in their life together.

Did she encourage their peace work in order to climb to an equal footing with him in their marriage, and in the world’s eyes? If she harbored that motivation, it really seems to have been obscured by her genuine passion for political change, coupled with her anxiety for Linus to be as effective as possible in his advocacy work. Yet by the early sixties, as she received multiple invitations to speak to progressive groups and women’s groups, and as she established a position as a key consultant among peace advocates, as she was for the WSP founders and Canada’s VOW activists, she also articulated her feminist vision of the equal value of all kinds of labor, professional or domestic, paid or unpaid, as well as the power of women to move the world politically. Rosa Parks, Rachel Carson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bertha von Suttner – all applied their personal and intellectual power to identify and redress social wrongs. Corda Bauer understood Ava Helen’s core message when she compared her friend’s talk to Camilla Anderson’s assertion in Saints, Sinners and Psychiatry: “Once women have tested their strength and overcome their rebellion, they are then free to return to homemaking and bringing up children with love and understanding by choice rather than being forced into it.”

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Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary is available for purchase from the Oregon State University Press.

Swirling

Ava Helen Pauling speaking at a "No More Hiroshimas" march, sponsored by Women Strike for Peace. August 1961. San Francisco, California.

Ava Helen Pauling speaking at a “No More Hiroshimas” march, sponsored by Women Strike for Peace. August 1961. San Francisco, California.

[An excerpt from Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary, by Dr. Mina Carson – now available from the Oregon State University Press.]

Linus’s night on the cliff at Salmon Cone proved a stutter but not an interruption of the Paulings’ accelerating peace work from the late 1950s into the early 1960s. Typically, Ava Helen did not pause, at least in writing, over her scare that night and Linus’s post-traumatic reactions. By early 1960 she had plunged into her service as a board member of the United States section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Within WILPF, she had a new cause: the promotion of an international congress of women for peace.

Linda Richards, a student of nuclear politics, has posited that there is a style of activism that might be characterized as “swirling” or circulating: one individual flowing through a number of different networks and organizations, planting seeds of ideas, making connections, circling back to remind people of their promises and possibilities. This is the kind of activist Ava Helen became. Though her name appeared on the masthead of her organizations for limited periods of time, and is not frequently found in the national and international archives of these groups, her correspondence attests to her wide-ranging contacts, her polite yet direct approach to getting things done, and her persistence. In addition, the blunt and sometimes impatient Ava Helen rears her mischievous head.

The Paulings, 1960.

The Paulings, 1960.

Ava Helen’s service in WILPF and her breathtaking international travel schedule, as she talked with and befriended women around the world, fertilized the feminist thought in her approach to activism. More and more she was called on to be the voice of women acting for peace. Claire Walsh at the United States WILPF headquarters in Philadelphia asked Ava Helen after her appointment to the national board if she would be available to give talks to small groups of WILPF members.

I should be very happy to speak … if you think that I have something of interest to say to them. I suppose that you are suggesting that I tell about such matters as our visit to Dr. Schweitzer and other things of interest which I may have observed on our many travels.

She had already given speeches on Russia, particularly conditions for women and children, on conservation, and on the international WILPF meeting in Stockholm. She was mobbed after her speeches, and her skills grew. “I don’t know why you should fret over a speech; you couldn’t make a bad one, not with that delivery power you sway,” a friend assured her. In March 1961, inviting her and Linus to speak to the recently organized Canadian branch of the Voice of Women (VOW), Jan Symons wrote to Ava Helen that, according to the VOW members, she was “becoming as much of a celebrity as your husband.”

When the Paulings traveled together, now most of the time, there was little hiatus from demands on their time and energies. “I only regret that we are such dreadful guests,” she wrote one hostess on returning from New York in late 1960. “The telephone rings every two minutes and I am sure that our hostesses are always glad to see us leave.” The Paulings welcomed the new student movement of the 1960s, and student activists began inviting both Linus and Ava Helen to their events. In May 1960 the Paulings joined the San Francisco Peace March.


Group photo of participants in the Oslo Conference, 1961.

Group photo of participants in the Oslo Conference, 1961.

At the beginning of 1961 the Paulings launched two related projects: a new petition drive to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and a May meeting in Oslo of world scientists and intellectuals to precede a scheduled NATO ministers’ meeting in the same month. The young Kennedy administration seemed willing on the one hand to go forward with test-ban negotiations, and on the other to share nuclear weapons with NATO allies. The Paulings shifted their focus slightly to take on the issue of proliferation. The petition drive of 1957 to 1959 had worked very well. Now they sent the new petitions to two thousand of their previous signers and received seven hundred signatures back, including thirty-eight Nobel Prize winners. These Pauling presented to the United Nations, as before, and immediately broadened the appeal. The Pauling home again became command central for a mailing drive of international proportions. The response was positive, though there was a bit of confusion about a simultaneous petition circulated by SANE calling for an end to testing. Ava Helen had to explain to at least one correspondent that both petitions were “worthwhile,” but that theirs focused on nonproliferation.

Simultaneously, the Paulings started rounding up support for the proposed meeting in Oslo to bring together scientists from Soviet satellites as well as western countries, to contest the NATO stance that it was impossible to cooperate with Soviet-dominated governments. Underlining that this project was theirs alone, they had stationery made up under the title “Conference Against the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, Oslo, Norway, 2 to 7 May 1961,” under their names and home address in Pasadena. Individuals listed as sponsors included Karl Barth, Max Born, Mrs. Cyrus Eaton, Erich Fromm, Lewis Mumford, Gunnar Myrdal, Alan Paton, Bertrand Russell, Albert Schweitzer, and Hideki Yukawa. The Paulings had emphasized to prospective attendees – only about seventy-five were invited – that there were no organizational sponsors except a Norwegian group handling local arrangements. The Paulings also offered to pay the travel costs of participants.

Always on the move - the Paulings in 1961.

Always on the move – the Paulings in 1961.

Ava Helen used her network of connections to push the petition and raise money for the conference. Her friend Jan Symons, a recent migrant from New Zealand to Canada, warned her that some of her new acquaintances in Quebec shied away from the Paulings’ petition for several reasons, chief among them the Communist bugaboo. Their new Canadian organization, the Voice of Women, was feeling the anti-Communist heat, and the Paulings were perceived as leftwing and untrustworthy (Linus’s warnings about smoking apparently representing a medical fringe element). Within VOW, Symons claimed, Ava Helen was declared to be “as much of a celebrity as your husband,” but outside the group, both VOW and WILPF were suspect. “One nice Quaker woman psychiatrist told me that it undoubtedly had a bad name in the U.S. as Communist.” Like Ava Helen, Jan Symons was exasperated.

We are told we are peace-loving, that it is the Russians, the Communists who want war … I notice that when people get Russian scientists to sign petitions against war, however, they are dismissed as only another Communist front.

Despite some peace workers’ reluctance to sign the petition, the Oslo conference was a heartening success for the Paulings. On the way they visited France, where Linus received a prestigious award from the city of Paris; they arrived in Oslo on May 4. Sixty scientists, intellectuals, and peace activists attended from around the world, including the Soviet Union. Else Zeuthen, international chair of WILPF, joined nine or ten other WILPF leaders at the conference. Without agendas in hand at the beginning of the meeting, the participants shifted into high gear almost immediately to draft, collectively, a statement for post-conference circulation among the citizens of the world. The group included members of the test-ban negotiating teams of both the United States and the Soviet Union; the collective level of expertise at the conference was high, attesting to the Paulings’ global credibility. The statement the group hammered out called for a ban on the spread of nuclear weapons to any more nations or groups of nations; universal disarmament to prevent a “cataclysmic nuclear war”; and international controls and inspection of nuclear weapons “such as to insure to the greatest possible extent the safety of all nations and all people.” Linus Pauling and Ava Helen Pauling were the first signatories – and the only ones directly under the statement text (other original signers were listed on the back of the copies circulated throughout the world for additional signatures).

Ava Helen opened the conference on the first night, and Linus gave a speech. In the mornings and evenings the Paulings circulated around the tables, checking in with people. Their friend from Berkeley, Dr. Frances Herring, remarked in a diary of the conference that Ava Helen looked “tragically tired.” Herring discovered that few of the attendees realized that the Paulings had underwritten the conference financially as well as morally.

There is to be a torch parade, winding from the Nobel Institute to the Grand Hotel (about a mile) tomorrow night, to honor the Paulings. That should make them feel good!

In fact, despite their exhaustion, both Paulings were delighted with the conference. “Everything has gone along almost perfectly,” Linus wrote. “The Aula meeting was grand. The Vice-Rector gave a speech thanking us. Friday night there was a great torchlight procession in our honor – quite a sight!” Else Zeuthen offered a longer reflection on the evening in her report to the WILPF membership.

A most striking moment of those eventful days was one evening after sunset, when the Paulings received the homage of a torchlight procession, standing on the balcony of their room on an upper floor of the Grand Hotel. Many members of our Norwegian Section were among the procession, whereas Inga Beskow and I enjoyed the wonderful show from the vantage point of a neighboring balcony of the Hotel. The torches flared beautifully in the soft spring night and filled the whole of Karl Johan, the impressive main thoroughfare of Oslo, as far as the eye could see. Numerous cries of ‘Thank you, Pauling’ sounded from the procession. The Paulings were much moved by this beautiful display of confidence; and how they deserved it for their brave and indefatigable work! Marie Lous Mohr [a Norwegian WILPF leader] at the festive dinner given to the Conference made a speech expressing a hope that Oslo might once more welcome Professor Pauling, and then as Nobel Peace Prize-Winner.

They stayed on in Oslo for several days. Linus gave a radio address and both Paulings spoke at the university as well as holding a press conference. They attended a cocktail party at the Russian Embassy. As always, every meal was an event. To Peter, Ava Helen admitted that they were exhausted, but “fairly contented” with the outcome. She too was impressed with the ceremony called out by international meetings: in this case, the NATO ministers meeting that directly followed their own. “The 50 star USA flag did, I must say, look beautiful waving in the spring winds. All the flags looked fine. I see why there must be a flag.”

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Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary is available for purchase from the Oregon State University Press.

Deer Flat Ranch

Outside the old cabin at Deer Flat Ranch, 1962.  Photo by Arthur Dubinsky.

Outside the old cabin at Deer Flat Ranch, 1962. Photo by Arthur Dubinsky.

[An excerpt from Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary, by Dr. Mina Carson – now available from the Oregon State University Press.]

After Linus won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954, the Paulings could afford to realize a dream. They staked out a place along the rugged central California coast where they could get away from the constant demands of colleagues, children, and friends. In the 1950s Big Sur was a wild, grassy, weather-beaten area of ranches, ranger stations, and primitive living conditions, not unlike the coast of Scotland in some patches. Artists and writers had been drawn to its isolated beauty for decades. The Paulings seem to have chosen the site for its remoteness and natural beauty. Linus recalled that by 1950 they had been thinking about “a place in the country” where they could escape the clamor of their everyday lives. Five years later, on a trip up the northern California coast, they decided on a whim to drop over to Route 1, a narrow, winding coastal road of breathtaking landscapes. Linus’s attention wandered to a piece of land —”a point of land projecting into the ocean, with a cabin and barn, and with cows grazing on the grass there.” In hindsight, it was one of the magical affirmations of their good fortune as a couple. “I said to your mother ‘There’s the sort of place that we ought to have,’ and she replied ‘Yes, and there is a sign saying that it is for sale.'”

Some days later, having tracked down the owner’s whereabouts and gotten a key to the gate, the Paulings wandered the property. They took a sleeping bag and made camp on one of the cliffs. The 160-acre property was called Salmon Creek, after the adjoining creek and national forest area; the Paulings renamed it Deer Flat Ranch. The next year they bought another five-acre parcel at Piedros Blancos, complete with a Chevron station and store, which they rented out for some years, fixing the monthly rent at the amount of gas sold at the station times 2 cents per gallon. Their property was scattered over a long stretch of Highway 1, with the station twelve miles north of the ranch. The gate to the ranch, which they kept locked when they weren’t there, was about a quarter mile from the Salmon Creek ranger station.

The Paulings started visiting and developing the ranch right away, though Big Sur was a three-hundred-mile drive from Pasadena. Ava Helen loved gardening and always maintained a flower and vegetable garden at home, but a ranch was a new enterprise for the couple. They dove into the project. By January 1957 they had arranged to graze cattle on the land and had begun the licensing procedures for that enterprise. The numbers were small: in 1960 Linus wrote to Peter that they now had thirteen head on the land. The windy oceanside perspective offered a chance to hike and observe wildlife. In 1958 Linus wrote to a biologist about the sea otters he and Ava Helen had spotted along the Big Sur coast.

Letter from Linus Pauling to Karl Kenyon, May 19, 1958.

Letter from Linus Pauling to Karl Kenyon, May 19, 1958.

When the Paulings weren’t there, the ranch and cattle were overseen by a series of caretakers and caretaking arrangements, with varying satisfaction on both sides. The first was their Pasadena handyman, who mysteriously disappeared back east to his home state of Tennessee within a few months. Caretaking the caretakers generally fell to Ava Helen, who managed the long-distance relations with a combination of intimacy and matter-of-fact command that sometimes ruffled the employees’ feathers. Writing a check to the Paulings for the monthly phone bill, probably for the cabin, to settle up accounts, caretaker Michael Hall commented, “I think your charge of $4.00 for cleaning the cattle truck bed is one of your lower grade things I’ve seen you do.” In the mid-1960s the Paulings had a caretaker with a drinking problem whose friends regularly plied him with liquor and pilfered his money on payday. “Things were getting so bad that we had told him we would absolutely not allow him to stay on the property if he continued to have these people come. He says that he does not even know their names, but we are not quite sure about this.” Wishing to protect her employee, she nonetheless lost patience with his willingness to put up with his “low life,” “derelict” acquaintances.

The Paulings initially used the original cabin on the property; it was simple, with a large central room and a rear bedroom, as well as an indoor bathroom. There was running water to the main room and the bathroom, and a refrigerator. There were two single beds in the big room, and a collapsible double bed that could be maneuvered into the small rear bedroom. Larger groups could pitch tents outside the house. By the late 1950s, spending a few days each month at Deer Flat Ranch, they already viewed the ranch as a healing escape, a breathing space from their increasingly busy lives. Linus remembered his wife saying, “Do you know, we have been here for one week, you and I, without seeing a single other person. This is the first time in our 40-odd years of marriage that this has happened.” Ava Helen wrote to an associate in 1960, relative to the breathless pace of their lives in peace work, “We get a great deal of pleasure from our ranch and have now stocked it with wonderful animals so that we feel not only a very close connection with the world and its people, but with the earth itself. This is a good feeling and does a great deal to restore us both spiritually and physically.” Continuing a wistful theme of those busy years, she wrote: “We hope that we shall be able soon to spend much more of our time there.”

The Paulings at their ranch, 1964.  Photo by Arthur Herzog.

The Paulings at their ranch, 1964. Photo by Arthur Herzog.

The ranch proved an anchor in their lives together, but they did not use it solely as a retreat. Over the years friends and family visited, and from early on, trusted friends were invited to borrow the ranch when the Paulings weren’t in residence. During the summer of 1957, when Ava Helen and Linus were traveling in Europe, they loaned the house to several of Linus’s colleagues. The service station manager — Luther Williams, initially— agreed to hold the keys to the ranch house and tool shed for visitors.

When they could stay for longer periods, they made improvements on the original cabin. In 1960 Linus became engrossed with building bookshelves from birch boards and brass rods in both the bedroom and the main room. He stocked them with that intellectuals’ favorite, the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, though the scientist in him was understandably bothered by the archaic factoids (Los Angeles with a population of six thousand, for example).

But a few years later the Paulings had outgrown the old cabin and had enough money to dream larger. In 1965 they built a new house at Deer Flat Ranch and gave the cabin over to the caretaker. In 1970 part of the ranch burned in a grass fire that swept through Salmon Creek. Undiscouraged, but feeling besieged by family, the Paulings decided to build a bunkhouse on their property, “so children and grandchildren can come there without interfering too much with us,” Ava Helen wrote frankly to a friend in New York. The bunkhouse also made it possible for the Paulings to host even more friends.


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At the end of January 1960, Ava Helen experienced one of the most frightening episodes of her life. She and Linus drove up toward Big Sur on Wednesday, January 27, via Asilomar, where Linus attended a spectroscopy conference. They arrived at the ranch on Friday, probably anticipating much-needed rest from their world tour that fall. On Saturday morning, Linus left on a walk, telling Ava Helen that he would be checking the fence lines, possibly to prepare for an exploratory discussion about exchanging some of their land for land in Los Padres National Forest. When he wasn’t back by noon she began to worry; by early evening she was frightened. She left him a note saying that she didn’t know where he was and had gone to the ranger’s station for help. The ranger quickly organized a search, but halted it at 11:30 p.m. and then sent out a much larger crew in the morning. Ava Helen’s diary entry for Saturday, January 30, read tersely: “Paddy lost.”

Ava Helen's note to her husband, January 30, 1960.

Ava Helen’s note to her husband, January 30, 1960.

Linus had gotten stuck on a cliff during his walk the previous day. Rightly alarmed when he realized he could move neither forward nor back without risking a rock slide that would propel him far down onto the rocks by the sea, he sat down, sat still, and thought —about Ava Helen, about chemical bonds, about the periodic table — about anything that might keep him awake through the long night. Though his actions to stay safe were quite rational — digging a depression to stay immobilized on the ledge, moving his arms and legs, staying awake, and keeping warm — his retrospective account suggests that he was paralyzed by fear. “It seems to have been beyond my decision; I had got frightened enough so that I was unable to leave the ledge.” In the morning a crowd of searchers, and a crowd of reporters, gathered at Big Sur to continue the search. A reporter precipitously called in a story that Pauling was dead. That was the news Linda and Crellin heard.

Just before 10 a.m. Pauling spotted a lone searcher on the beach, and called out to him. The searcher in turn summoned the deputy sheriff, making his way along the cliff above the ledge. The sheriff actually joined Pauling on the ledge; one could get down to it or up to it, but not, Pauling had believed, down from it. While the searcher ran to tell Ava Helen that Linus was all right, the sheriff eased them both down from the treacherous ledge.

After Linus was found and shepherded back to the cabin on Sunday morning, Ava Helen dispatched telegrams to family to let them know that he had been saved. Then they stayed at the cabin to try to recover from the ordeal. “I found that Mama was very much upset by her long wait,” Linus later wrote to the children, “and the uncertainty as to what had happened to me.” That was putting it mildly. But Linus had little reserve to offer Ava Helen; he himself, without yet knowing it, was in shock. Ultimately he would have to retreat from his university appointments the next week and take to his bed. News of the crisis had gone out over the wires and appeared in newspapers around the world. Perhaps for his children, perhaps for his parents, perhaps to allay his own shock, Crellin had already written a detailed account of his own perspective on his father’s accident, including having been told that Linus was dead. Pauling made amends as best he could to his wife and his family. “I am very sorry that I caused you and Mama so much anguish and concern,” he closed his long account to his children of the horrific night at Big Sur.

ahp-bio

Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary is available for purchase from the Oregon State University Press.

Young Love

Ava Helen Miller with Linus Pauling, 1922.

Ava Helen Miller with Linus Pauling, 1922.

[An excerpt from Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary, by Dr. Mina Carson – now available from the Oregon State University Press.]

As a senior Linus Pauling was quite clear about what he wanted to do – Chemistry – and where he was going – to graduate school at Harvard, Berkeley, or the new California Institute of Technology – until his infatuation with Ava Helen briefly threatened to derail his life project. Occasionally he wavered. “Up until the time you came into my life,” he told her, “my work was sufficient for me.” Perhaps he should marry her right away, work for a while to save money for graduate school, and follow his dream later? He worried about her being idle or anxious; he nursed some guilt at keeping her waiting while he followed his passion.

Their mothers wanted nothing to do with an early wedding. Nora Gard Miller wanted this daughter to finish college. Belle Pauling probably wanted no interference with her own claim on Linus’s earnings, but she argued that he needed to go to graduate school and get his Ph.D. before he committed himself to this marriage. She did tell Linus’s sisters and cousins what a “sweet” girl Ava Helen was. The young couple was determined to marry, but complied with their mothers’ wishes and laid plans for several years away from each other.

As early as June 1922, just a few months after they had begun to date, they were sharing intimate details. Linus wrote not just about his reading, but also about his finances, his diet, his sunburn, and his conviction that he was getting broader across the chest.

When I stand in my birthday suit in front of my big mirror my chest seems larger than it used to be. My hips are broad compared with my waste [sic], but not compared with my chest. I have a number of rather fine dark hairs on my chest too — perhaps some day I’ll be all fuzzy. I don’t think so, though, and I don’t care to be.

Linus Pauling (second from right) with the paving crew, 1922.

Linus Pauling (second from right) with the paving crew, 1922.

From Linus’s work site in Warrenton, Oregon, that summer of 1922 Ava Helen received daily letters from her doting and busy fiance. When he wasn’t doing his paving inspector work for the state highway department, he was reading French and working physical chemistry problems supplied by his soon-to-be Caltech mentor, A. A. Noyes. A special office for the paving inspector had yet to be built at Astoria, and Linus got to oversee that project. She read letters filled with cheerful reflections on his co-workers, his chemistry problems, his hopes for the future, his successful attempt to secure a loan from his Uncle Jim (“The Miller girls are splendid women and I am quite sure this particular one will make you a good helpmate,” Linus quoted his uncle), and his overflowing love for her (“you are the dearest girl in the world”).

Although we have few of Ava Helen’s letters to Linus from this period, his own daily letters respond to hers in detail. She wrote to him about her financial worries, and he reassured her that he would share his loan and his earnings with her. For the first time in his life he felt free to spend or save the money he earned, without accounting to his mother for every dollar. A loan of $1000 from uncle Jim Campbell was earmarked for his mother and sisters, so Linus could move on to graduate school without lingering worries for them. To his future wife he reported that he had “never become intimate with my family.” Despite his mother’s high expectations of his dutiful obedience, and his own guilty feelings as he tore away, he kept a large part of his inner life barricaded away from them. Once he admitted to her that he did not help them much financially, whereas his sister Pauline did.

He was eager to protect her, too, from the careless comments of their friends, who suggested that a long separation might lead to Linus looking at other girls. “Being apart won’t make us forget each other, sweetheart – nothing can separate us in spirit.” They spent the July 4 weekend together that summer, and other evenings every so often. By the end of July, Linus’s restlessness had issued in a new plea to his beloved: Would she consider marrying this September, rather than waiting another year, or two, or three?

This query came out of the blue. The prolonged separation ahead while he completed graduate school in California and she slogged through OAC was suddenly intolerable. But more pressing even than their families’ reluctance to bless a precipitate union was the money question. Linus knew that he must do his graduate work. As he saw it, the only way to assure her lifelong happiness was for him to be “out-of-the-ordinary.” Though this sounds hilariously narcissistic now, there was wisdom in his reasoning. He needed his work to be happy: to be complete. He reassured her that, if he had to choose, he would choose her over his chemistry, but this was not always the tune he played, and fortunately for him, Ava Helen did not want him to make that sacrifice. For the next fifty years she hewed to the same standard. She relied on him to be extraordinary. The time would come when she would look back with regret at having failed to seize that kind of ambition for herself. But she did not begrudge him his fame, won by brilliance, persistence, and her own household management. She thrived on his fame.

Linus and Ava Helen with Pauline Pauling and Wallace Stockton, Pauline's first husband. 1922.

Linus and Ava Helen with Pauline Pauling and Wallace Stockton, Pauline’s first husband. 1922.

In the summer of 1922, Linus tried to figure out how much money they would need to live together in Pasadena as he pursued his graduate studies and she continued her education at one of the California universities. How much of a loan would they need to supplement his $600 stipend? He wondered if she would be willing to share a house with his OAC friend Paul Emmett, who would also attend Caltech, and Paul’s mother. He worried that they would not be able to afford a piano for Ava Helen. He knew they could hardly afford the wedding they hoped for. As he wrote, he started to talk himself out of what he knew was an impractical scheme. Yet he waited anxiously for her reply. Touching back to the vivid everyday world, he asked her about the crabs he had sent over from the coast. He returned to his fantasy.

A few days ago this would have seemed like the wildest dream. Now it seems not improbable. I’m not building my hopes high, tho, sweet. I wish you could talk it over with your mother.

Before she answered he rushed a second letter into the mail. He called himself “careless” for proposing an early marriage. “Dear heart, I so abhor mediocrity. I want our life to be wonderful.” He knew he must devote his energies to graduate study and somehow simultaneously carry out this agonizing long-distance courtship.

Ava Helen wrote back to Linus and offered a plan. They could get ahead financially if she got a job to supplement their income while he studied. He nixed that idea. “You are not equipped for work you like nor can you make a great deal.” During the last week of July Linus’s feelings racketed around like a pinball. He brought himself to the point of believing that they would certainly marry, and even planned the day of the event and the honeymoon (a night in a hotel).

Then he spoke to his mother. Onto his longing Belle poured all the cold water she could chill. Why didn’t Ava Helen’s family finance her schooling? Why hadn’t she worked over the summer? Why couldn’t she work in Oregon over the coming year? What if something went wrong in his graduate studies? What kind of gratitude would an early marriage show for the “sacrifices” his family had made for him? Surely he owed them the Ph.D. (an interesting assertion from the woman who had begrudged him his bachelor’s studies). What if poverty embittered the young couple? What if they had a baby? What if one of them fell ill? Further, the Emmetts could not provide a suitable place to live in Pasadena. Mrs. Emmett disapproved of Paul even dating before he finished his graduate work. And they too were struggling financially.

Linus Pauling and Paul Emmett: life-long friends and two of the twentieth century's greatest chemists.  Posing together as OAC undergraduates, 1920.

Linus Pauling and Paul Emmett: life-long friends and two of the twentieth century’s greatest chemists. Posing together as OAC undergraduates, 1920.

It was a litany of disasters that only a mother’s mind could marshal. Linus’s dreams were shattered. He had planned to write to Ava Helen’s mother, but now he even gave up that step.

Dear heart, I believe now that perhaps it would be unwise of us to be married….I think that my rather blind enthusiasm has caused me to forget things.

Now repeatedly he asked her not to tell either of their mothers that he was helping her out financially. The young man’s agony and the irresolution of life in two places resonates through the correspondence. Even his mother had to admit that she had “never seen a couple so completely gone on each other.” However, Linus’s unquenchably cheery disposition provided ballast. While he was being pulled apart by irreconcilable desires, he was also enjoying crab fritters, mayonnaise, malted milk, and Ava Helen’s candy. His appetite was healthy and his taste for his chemistry problems unabated. He made friends easily at the work site and enjoyed his neighbors across the hall and the woman who ran the restaurant where he ate most meals. He was not a man waffling in his love or evading his beloved, but he believed in the future and could face disappointment in the present. “We are making our small sacrifice now so that our gift to the world may be perfect.”

And Ava Helen was a woman who, for all her little-girl flirtatiousness, could cut to the heart of the matter. “It hurt me a little,” Linus admitted in a letter a few days later, “that you thot it was just because of my mother’s wishes that we aren’t married.” He wrote that he would do whatever Ava Helen wished — though he did not see how he could resign his assistantship or manage his loans. She had acutely assessed his dependence on Belle’s good opinion, and perhaps used it to poke him after her disappointment. But she also stuck to her sensible belief that they needed to minimize their financial dependence, and she too resigned herself to waiting for marriage.

Ava Helen Miller, 1920.

Ava Helen Miller, 1920.

In early September Linus detoured through Corvallis on his way to stay with his family in Portland for a few days before taking off with Paul Emmett for their big adventure at Caltech. “They are too dense to ask if I had been to see you, and I’m not going to tell them outright.” He planned to circle back through Corvallis one more time. There is an unusual break in the daily letters between September 6 and September 16, so the couple probably spent a few days together in that period of time, either in Corvallis or perhaps Portland. “Did you get to Corvallis all right? Did you cry because your bad boy left you?” Linus wrote on the 16th.

Her fiance’s description of his trip to California, and his lyrical portraits of Pasadena, the mountains, and the coast, suggest one compelling reason the Paulings made their lifelong home in California. From the beginning Linus was entranced by the state’s natural beauty and its architectural charms. Housing was expensive, though. He stayed in a hotel while he waited to move into the Emmetts’ new house, bought for $6500, which struck Linus as very high. “Our house is a beautiful little place, as are all of them here. Pasadena is lovely — there are all kinds of palms — some forty feet tall and some three feet thru. There are orange groves a hundred feet from our house, and all the way to school, and there are palms in front of the house. It is all beautiful. The pepper trees are delicate lacy things. I’m enclosing some leaves,” he wrote, sending her a bit of his new world; ” — they may lose their odor, tho.” He fantasized all year about how they would hike the hills together, and perhaps have their own little house.

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Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary is available for purchase from the Oregon State University Press.

Mina Carson Interview, Part 2

Dr. Mina Carson.  Photo taken by her daughter, Lyn.

Dr. Mina Carson. Photo taken by her daughter, Lyn.

[Part 2 of 2 of our exclusive interview with Dr. Mina Carson, author of Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary.]

Pauling Blog: How would you describe Ava Helen’s style of activism? I know that Linda Richards used the word “swirled” in reference to it.

Mina Carson: Yeah, I think that’s right. Ava Helen really loved to have a big important correspondence and she was quite honest – I mean she was a good correspondent, she was quite honest in her letters and that’s where you get a lot of her personality, her style. She didn’t suffer fools – what she took to be fools – gladly and she didn’t mince words. At the same time, she was difficult with her kids and she was difficult with some people because she was pretty forceful, but she also liked to flirt and she liked to be nice and she liked to be considerate. So many, many people liked her very much and a number of young women took her as a mentor and model and really worshiped her and I think that’s fascinating.

But her style, she did do committee work for a while – actually off and on for her whole adult life – but it wasn’t her favorite thing to do. I think she liked to give speeches, I mean she developed that – she deprecated her own ability but I think that was just “oh I’m not so good at that…if you think I have something of worth to offer then I’m happy to make a speech.” But that’s really what she liked to do. And she loved to travel with Linus and she loved to travel period. She loved to be made much of – I mean who doesn’t? But she loved to be made much of, so that style of being able to travel around the world and connect her Australian friends with her Canadian friends and with her South American friends, that was her all the way through.

And when she was disgusted with the red baiting she saw in some American chapters of WILPF and the Women’s International League and some of the European chapters as well, and when Women Strike for Peace came along in the early ’60s, she didn’t jump ship, she was loyal to WILPF, she didn’t jump ship. But she immediately joined WSP as a number of her WILPF colleagues did, and that really suited her because it was a no holds barred “let’s do this action here, let’s kind of shock them a little, let’s show them that women in hats can really live on the dangerous side.” And she loved that. So she was very much a maker of connections rather than a person behind the scenes who liked to work on committees and start a project that would go on for years. Yeah, I really think that’s right.

PB: How about her style of feminism? It seems to have evolved over time.

MC: It did. And at the same time she ended up in the camp of liberal feminism really about the time that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. And of course she had a very strong critique of Betty Friedan, which was interesting. She felt that Friedan put down homemakers and homemaking, and of course Ava Helen had so much ego tied up in that identity that she rejected it. But at the same time she was what we call “liberal feminist” and she, for the most part, believed that women should be offered the same, or earn the same opportunities as men. And that she really didn’t like to look out into the world and see young women not taking opportunities – you know, not finishing college as she had not and not creating opportunities for themselves to have independence, financial independence and professional independence. From time to time, she loved to go back into the history of women through the world – not very carefully, but in broad strokes.

It’s interesting to try to figure out if she was an essentialist, believing that women are essentially different from men. She kind of skirted that. She was more of a functionalist in that she believed that women had filled certain roles because their societies has pressured them into doing that because they did it well, not because they were born to certain fates as people. It’s hard to sort out. She’s not a deep thinker – she’s an eager thinker, she’s a smart person – but she’s not really a philosopher. It’s fun to go through her papers. It’s fun to follow the threads of argument. I do not put her down. She makes better speeches than I do. But what I’m saying is that it doesn’t repay, really probing her philosophy, because that wasn’t her thing. She was more of a political activist, political thinker, than a philosopher.

Ava Helen in the 1950s.

Ava Helen in the 1950s.

PB: The title of the book is Ava Helen Pauling: Activist, Partner, Visionary. We’ve touched on the activist and partner piece of it, but I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the visionary piece.

MC: She really could see, as did Linus. And I think she saw without the deep scientific insight that he had. She saw immediately that if we continued down the road, for example of atmospheric testing, that we would destroy the next generation’s Earth and, in many cases, lives. She felt passionately about the public health risks and the ecological risks of atmospheric testing and the nuclear race in general. She was infuriated by our dedication of such a huge percentage of public funds to the military. I’ve made the point – and it’s not a very profound point – that she and Linus were not pacifists per se. They certainly were interventionists in World War II, but they did not see another conflict that they believed that the United States should enter over the rest of their lives. And they were internationalists and they believed that human energies and human resources would go a lot more usefully into maintaining peace and building education and so on.

She left part of her money in her will to Sempervirens, a California Redwoods Foundation, and was very much involved as she had the energy to be in her last few years as she was ill, but very much involved in saving the wilds. It was a natural trajectory for her interests to move toward ecology and environmentalism and so she really was, in that sense, a visionary. And I think that, again, she had many allies. And it’s not that she had really a number of original thoughts, it’s that she could see the interconnections of all these issues and it was clear to her and it made her very impatient and very angry. And of course, a number of us can certainly understand that passion.

PB: Where do you think she was happiest? Do you think it was the ranch?

MC: I wonder. She loved the ranch and she loved the times that she and Linus – she remarked at one point that “I can’t believe we haven’t seen a single soul in a week, two weeks, and that has not happened since we were married.” But she thrived on human contact, so I think that she saw the ranch as he did, as a kind of blessed relief from the relentless social and political round that they had. But I suspect that she was happiest in the middle of an adoring crowd. I just suspect that in some cases, at least, that the celebratory moments were the times when she was happiest.

But it could well have been too, as she got older – and this is really important – that her grandkids remember her, Cheryl Pauling for example, remembers her as a wonderful grandmother. And Linda’s and Barclay’s kids too, sensitive to their uniqueness, sensitive to their needs, their desires, their needs as children. It’s so interesting. And Stephanie makes the same comment about her kids with Linus Jr. So I think that she did like the large family gatherings. There was often friction, because she had raised a bunch of strong-willed kids. So it can be difficult. At the same time, she wasn’t one to wilt under difficulty and conflict. She didn’t have a thin skin. So I think she liked being in a lot of different places, but probably not home alone with young children when she was a young woman.

Thanksgiving with Linda Pauling Kamb and her family, 1968.

Thanksgiving with Linda Pauling Kamb and her family, 1968.

PB: What were some surprises for you as you went through this process?

MC: I was really surprised about how active and open their sex life was in the 1920s. I mean, I was really just flabbergasted and really enjoyed Linus’ letters to her and really was taken aback. And that led me to search the secondary literature on college students’ sexuality in the 1920s. And I found that there is not a whole lot of literature. I tried a whole bunch of search terms and I really need to follow that up because I think that’s fascinating – you’d think that there would be much more research on that. And I’ve a couple of scholarly friends that I want to follow up on after the fact just because it’s fascinating. So that was a big surprise.

I think that I wasn’t surprised but I was interested to see how Linus matured as a parent. When his kids hit their 20s, all of a sudden he was very involved as a parent. And I think it was fun to see – it’s not surprising when you think about who he was. He was pretty laissez faire when the kids were small, but at the same time he didn’t really know what to do with them and he was pretty uninvolved with their day to day raising. Whereas when they became young adults he could talk with them. He had things to write to them about and he had money that they wanted and he had ways to control their lives in that way. So that was also interesting to watch the trajectory of his parenting over time.

And again, I wasn’t surprised but I was really deeply touched by his devotion to her and by his massive – I mean, he was shocked when she died. He was shocked at his own response. And he writes about his response and that was really interesting, that he writes some pieces for his kids about how he is doing. And he did this off and on throughout his life as if he were his own research subject. And he shocked himself “Oh my gosh, I have emotions and these are what they seem to be!”

Linus and Ava Helen at Deer Flat Ranch, 1977.

Linus and Ava Helen at Deer Flat Ranch, 1977.

PB: Is there something, a cache of materials or a specific document that you couldn’t find or that doesn’t exist that you really wish did exist or that you had found?

MC: Yes, several. I’m really sad that we do not have her love letters. I’m deeply sad about that because her personality kind of has to be reconstructed from the few letters that survived the mowing down of her correspondence by family members. And I so understand what they were doing, I so understand it, I just wish I had them. I wish we could have talked with Linda [Pauling Kamb]. She was so understandably tied up with Barclay’s recent death. And I was able to use the wonderful interviews that she did with Tom Hager, so I don’t feel like I was completely in the dark about her retrospective ideas about her family. To have those materials that Hager gathered was just really valuable. Yeah I wish I had more of her. We have so much of her personal correspondence as an adult and I just wish I had a little more.

…If I could go back in – I mean I’m very glad to have this project done and launched but if I could go back in, I did love casting it as a family history but I think in that sense I slighted some of the important points about women’s committee work that I could have made in the book. And I would be interested to see if reviewers find that a weak point. I think one of the strong points of the book is the history of the marriage and my attempt to connect that with some notion of 20th century marriages. But we’ll see about that too. But I think one weak point is not having done more with the importance of reinterpreting women’s committee work in the 20th century. So that’s a flaw.

PB: Well, the last question is what’s next up for you?

MC: I have no idea! I have like fourteen different interests. I really love the history of photography and I have a history of photography blog, so to beef that up is really, I have time for that now. And as I mentioned, I am really interested in what seems to be Lacanian in terms of this lack of research on college students lives in the 1920s and I’m really interested in that. I’m fascinated by the history of psychotherapy and haven’t yet written my grand book on that. So I think the short answer is I’m not sure. I need to decide really soon but I don’t know what I’m doing!

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Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary is available for purchase from the Oregon State University Press.