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. 

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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.

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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.

An Interview with the Author of “Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary.”

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[Part 1 of 2]

We’re dedicating the entirety of this month to celebrating the release of the new book, Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary, the first biography of Ava Helen Pauling, now available from the OSU Press.  In the coming weeks, readers can anticipate lengthy excerpts from this exciting new publication, but for today and next week we offer an exclusive interview with the book’s author, Dr. Mina Carson.  Dr. Carson is an Associate Professor of History at Oregon State University and an alum of the Special Collections & Archives Research Center’s Resident Scholar Program.  Transcribed video of her 2009 Resident Scholar presentation, “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Life of Ava Helen Pauling,” is available here.

Pauling Blog: What was the genesis of this book?

Mina Carson: Really and truly the genesis was that I ran into a graduate student, Linda Richards, in Milam Hall in the upstairs hall and she said “did you know that nobody has worked on the Ava Helen Pauling papers and that the [OSU] Press may be interested in publishing a biography?” And I thought, “that’s very interesting.” And she knew that I was interested in peace studies and she knew that I was interested in women’s history and we had worked together on a course before. So I came over and looked at the papers and chatted with the Press and that was that.

PB: Had you any concept of Ava Helen before then?

MC: No and in fact I looked up Trevor [Sandgathe]’s Wikipedia article and that’s all that was out there. I had worked as a faculty member when I first came here in the early ’90s – I came in ’89 – but in the early ’90s I was appointed to what was then the Ava Helen Pauling Peace Lectureship when Linus was still with us. And for a year I was actually chair of that and so I knew about Ava Helen from that experience. But nothing, I didn’t know anything, I had no concept of her personality or activities or anything like that.

PB: Can you talk about your research process once you started in on this project?

MC: Yes, it was actually very funny. The process itself began in a very, in retrospect, humorous way because the summer that I started doing research I broke my wrist. And it was, fortunately for me, the left hand which I don’t use but I started with her general correspondence, not the very personal family stuff but the general alphabetized correspondence and I started by trying to read the letters into a dictation program. And I came up with some very funny wordings and so I quickly figured out that that was not going to work and fortunately I quickly got my typing hands back again. But I started with the general correspondence and that was not a bad idea because it really gave me a sense of the overall list of her correspondence and it also plunged me into her adult life. So I really did get a pretty quick exposure to the range of her correspondence in her 40s, 50s, and 60s and maybe even 70s actually.

Dr. Mina Carson, Spring 2013.

Dr. Mina Carson, Spring 2013.

And then I went back and read the love letters which are, of course, largely from Linus to Ava Helen. But that also was just a complete eye-opener, it was so much fun because I could picture where they had been here on the campus. And then I just dropped into various places, filling in the blanks. I did this in a very non-linear way, which is sort of my way when I research, and I finally figured out that I needed to look at the family financial stuff. And that was wonderful and filled in a lot of blanks and also gave me a sense of how the Paulings lived, because your priorities come popping right out in your financial records.

And finally I went beyond – so as I said, extremely non-linear – finally I went beyond the wonderful collection of photos that are accessible on the web and went into the physical boxes of photographs and, wow, that filled in a ton of blanks for me. What I learned from that, that I hope to keep in my mind, is that the photographs create a narrative; they’re not just a sub-narrative and in some cases they’re a parallel narrative. But they really are a narrative in and of themselves partly because they were so well cataloged and also partly because you see people, faces, and you make connections that you didn’t have before. You know where people were in particular years, for example, or what schools the kids went to. That was very helpful.

PB: And one of the interesting and somewhat unique aspects of the book is that it does intersperse a lot of photographs throughout the text rather than just having a couple sections of photos. It’s kind of dedicated all throughout.

MC: Yeah I really wanted that. When I’m reading a book, I keep the photos section for a special treat, you know, and I was tempted to do what I do myself. But then I decided that definitely was not the way to go because there are so many parts of her life that are not really accessible in the papers but that the photographs do fill in. So having the photographs available all the way along was really helpful; I thought they’d helped the reader to picture people.

Ava Helen Miller, 1922.

Ava Helen Miller, 1922.

PB: You gave a talk in 2009 where you asked the question “how does the biographer write the life of a wife? Especially one so infused with the work of her husband?” How did you go about trying to answer that question?

MC: It’s a question that honestly I’m still working on. And in fact, one of the early manuscript reviewers said that – say she – could just see me all the way through the manuscript saying “oh wait no, it’s not a biography of Linus! Oh wait no, it’s a biography of Ava Helen, I have to focus on Ava Helen!” And that reviewer actually wanted more information about Linus to get the whole tapestry in there. One of the things I tried to do – and this really is kind of my thing, it’s what fascinates me – is I tried to knit together her external interests, her public interests with her private interests. And since she never held elected office, although she was an officer of a major peace organization for a brief time, she never was a public figure in particular. It wasn’t challenging to tell her public story but it was really easier to tell her story as a private person who developed a public side as her passions for various causes became more pronounced through her life, and as she became clearer about who she was in relation to her marriage. So her public persona became more pronounced as she got older. She hadn’t started as a public person and then buried it, rather the reverse.

But the challenge was how do you tell the story of a wife? And the story was she was a wife, first and foremost, and in a sense fortunately. Although she had a very strong personality, she married a guy who really did want her to be front and center if she wanted to be. At least that’s who he was by the 1950s. That doesn’t really answer the question very well, but it was a struggle. It was a struggle to try and balance Linus’ huge personality and public presence with the real sparseness of records for Ava Helen. And fortunately her personality emerges so strongly through the records that I could at least sketch in a little bit of who she was and reconstruct her record from there.

PB: You talked a little bit about a shift in Linus’ perspective towards his wife’s public persona – maybe that’s not characterizing it quite right – but do you see evidence that there was some sort of a mutual agreement beforehand where she would keep a lower profile? That the two of them had agreed that she was going to stay in the house and raise the kids and there was a shift at some point?

MC: Linus seems to go in different directions on that. I mean there was one point in their early correspondence, their courtship correspondence, where he actually says “so are you going to study science and take a Ph.D.?” And I don’t know that he was just fooling around. He always believed – and bless his heart, because it’s not particularly true – but he always believed that she was brighter than he was. And I think in his heart he knew that he had the kind of mind that was a world changing mind. And that she had a really quick intelligence, without the kind of major suppleness of his.

And so she could have, I think, done any number of things. And later in her life she decided that she maybe should have, or at least had dismissed her possibilities too fast. And I think that’s right. I think that’s particularly correct because mothering is not the thing – I mean she made a job of it but not always a good job, it wasn’t really her thing. But I think that Linus, had she said “you know what, I need us to devote some of the family resources to my finishing college and I need to be a teacher or I need to be a lab assistant or I need to be a professor,” he would have probably said “okay then, let’s go in that direction.” That’s my guess. I think it was her set of priorities that she had, in a sense, hammered into herself and had hammered into her by the culture that a woman’s duty was to her husband and to raise beautiful, healthy children, that she kind of went in that direction. And led him to assume that she was going to do that.

Pauling family portrait, 1926.

Pauling family portrait, 1926.

And also I think it’s clear that she made it her job to push his career and that fit the culture for women at the time. I mean, to be ambitious for your husband was a fit with American culture at that time. So she kind of settled for that but, you know, you just watch her with these toddlers, you watch her with Linus Jr. in the early years, and she just doesn’t know what to do with this kid. And then you watch her with toddlers and she is overwhelmed at one point by three toddlers basically, three little kids, and it’s like, that’s not her thing. It’s just not her thing. She does it with energy and resolutely but it’s not her thing.

PB: Yeah. And then when Crellin came around it was really not her thing.

MC: No, exactly. And that really was unexpected and not particularly welcomed by her.

PB: Well this leads into the next question. The book is in part a family biography and that’s one of its strengths; could you talk a little bit about the family dynamics?

MC: Oh wow, yeah. I think, like most biographers, I didn’t look for the places where I connected with my own experiences but you feel them as they come along. And one of the places is – and a minister at the Unitarian church here in town helped me understand this in the context of the Pauling history, which was that they joined the Unitarian Fellowship in Los Angeles in the early ’60s but they connected up with that church in the ’50s. And they really, interestingly, represented a very strong cultural strand of humanism in the middle of the 20th century.

And part of that was an emotional style and a family style. It was rationalist: the kids will emerge as good citizens if we just give them good educations and launch them out on their own. And so a lot of the lack of warm fuzziness in that family jibed with the kind of ideology that they had absorbed or were comfortable with in terms of raising children. So the kids are really left very much on their own. The parents worry about them, they’re proud of them, they have concerns – are they really going to use their capabilities to the fullest extent? They worried about Linus because at one point Linus Jr. had – what was it, it was hilarious – I think it was an accordion for heaven’s sake and he wouldn’t practice. Well who of us had not had a kid who wouldn’t practice the accordion? I mean who would? But this was a serious concern for them.

The Pauling family, 1946.

The Pauling family, 1946.

And so Linus Jr. – and he’s told us this time and time again – Linus Jr. grew up with the assumption that he had to be a scientist. That was what he was expected to be, and of course it wasn’t his thing. He remembers actually reading psychology very early on and finding it fascinating but he was also interested in history and social science, he was a literature guy and none of that was really rewarded in this family. Plus his education was interrupted by World War II and all the confusion around that, so he never was allowed to, in a sense, put down roots in one place. And I think the longest he probably spent anywhere after Polytechnic in the early years in Pasadena was Harvard Medical School. So Linus Jr., the oldest child, had to emerge as his own person pretty late in life, and with a lot of kind of discouragement, both subtle and overt, from his parents. A lot of worry over who he was and who he was going to be.

And actually, I have to admit, this was very much my parents’ approach to life too and it’s a cautionary tale for me as the parent of teenagers. I watch Linus and Ava Helen raising Linus Jr. and the other kids and think “oh boy, I’ve got to start doing things differently at home.” Because all three of the boys came out with really kind of low self-esteem shall we say, wondering how they could ever fulfill the Pauling expectations. And part of it was Linus and part of it was Ava Helen, a big part was Ava Helen. And when her kids did not perform to specs she was tough, she was scornful, she had expectations. A lot of parents think that’s what we’re supposed to do as parents but having become very familiar with that family I have my doubts.

PB: Well there is a sense that Ava Helen may have come from a somewhat difficult background herself. It’s not as well documented.

MC: It’s not well documented at all. She was eight or nine when her father left the household so she was very young. Her sisters reported quite late in life that she was the favorite of the father who vanished but she never tracked him down. She met him, I think, maybe once more when she was a young woman and had just married Linus but there is no track record of her trying to reconnect with him, even though she apparently ends up with his politics, which is interesting.

Nora Gard Miller in front of the house that she maintained for her children on S. 15th Street, Corvallis, 1924.

Nora Gard Miller in front of the house that she maintained for her children on S. 15th Street, Corvallis, 1924.

I think her mom was a huge influence on her but I also think her mom was a heck of a lot more easy going in many ways than Ava Helen. But what her mom apparently instilled in her dozen children was a respect for education. I don’t know where that family got its resources but most of the kids went through OAC. Granted, Oregon Agricultural College was, relatively speaking, a lot cheaper than Oregon State University is today. But still, her mom came to Corvallis and rented a house here, while four or five of her kids went through school including Ava Helen. And she discouraged Ava Helen from an early marriage, wanting her to finish her undergraduate career.

The family history on her side is really sketchy. I think her sisters, particularly after she married Linus, kind of wanted her to stay in touch; there were polite sisterly relations among them. But Ava Helen also, I think, was a bit snobbish about the rest of her family and that was a point of difficulty. That really was.

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