Elisabeth Szegho - Transcript

Transcription of Elisabeth Szegho
Interviewee: Elisabeth Szegho
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Date: February 22, 2013.
Place: Chicago, Illinois.
Transcriber: Martin Stewart
Total time: 16:49 minutes

Copyright © 2013 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: I’m here with Elisabeth Szegho to thank her for all the work she’s done for the Edgewater community. And congratulations again for being selected as one of Edgewater’s Living Treasures. We are in her beautiful home. She’s just given me a great tour of her artwork. And today’s date is February 22, 2013. Elisabeth, I would like to ask you a little bit about your background and how you came to Edgewater.

ES: Well, you want it said from day one?

DN: Wherever you want.

ES: Well day one started a long time ago because I’m 71 now and quite far away. I was born in the South of France. And the reason why I was born in the South of France was that other than Paris is that the Germans invaded Paris in June of 1940 and everybody who could leave did. So, there was this famous Exodus, not as famous as the Exodus to Israel, but still there was this Exodus of everyone to the South, which at that time was still a free territory. So that’s how it is that my mother met my father down there and so that is how I came to be. And life was very tough there.

There was no food; you couldn’t get a job. It was terrible. So they put me in a convent in the South of France in Montpellier and it was run by the same order of sisters that ran their hospital in Paris that my great uncle happen to work with. So that’s how I got in there because he usually only the older girls it was little bit like a finishing school. But I was only a baby, and infant, but because of that they took me in. And I spent 4-1/2 very happy years, unaware of the war and not worrying about having enough to eat. I was totally spared all of that and since I was too young to go to school I got to run around all day and play. So I had a very idyllic four and a half years.

And then my mother came to get me to Paris. And we had to wait for a ship to the decommissioned and refurbished as a passenger ship. And that took a little doing. And we got on the Ile de France the very famous beautiful Art Deco ship and we came to New York. So when I was five.

And then I lived in New York for a while but mostly in the middle west. We lived in Geneva and then Elgin for a long time. And Elgin is where I got to be a gardener. I lived with my grandparents. They were both city people. You know Berlin, Moscow, Paris; you know nothing to do with plants. You know, my grandmother, we got this house, it was a big house with a double lot, she went around to her neighbors in her charming French accent and asked,” You know what this is?” She just wouldn’t know what to do with it. They became avid gardeners. I had my own garden, then. I have pictures of me toiling away in the room vegetable garden. So that goes back a very long waits in time, my love of gardening.

And then I was mostly in the Middle West. I married, I came back here and married and had kids. And then I was divorced. Much later, when my grandfather died in 1972 I re-met my husband. I had known him since I was eight years old and he actually was my grandfather’s boss. I married my grandfather’s boss, which is pretty weird. But they were very good friends. And he helped me so much when my grandfather died. So that’s how we got back together and he was almost 40 years older than I was. We had a lot in common and got along pretty well. And he lived in the city and he didn’t want to live out in the suburbs and we looked at a couple of houses but he loved the city, he was a city guy.

We looked for a condo and we found this. The apartment was okay, but he was out on that back balcony and said,” I think we are home.” He took one look at that, at the water, the beach, the drive, the city. This is it. It doesn’t get any better than this. So that’s how I came to Edgewater. And I’ve lived here ever since. Since 1973, so it’s been a while.

DN: It has been a while. And since you’ve been in Edgewater you have been involved doing a lot of different things. Could you talk a little bit about how you have gotten involved in community activities and why?

ES: Well, I was always interested in politics and the environment from even when I lived in Riverside which is a beautiful little town, if you’re familiar with it. And with my kids. I made them go to the river and cleanup the garbage and stuff like that. I always had that kind of frame of mind and very liberal politics for the time. I inherited from my family. So I got involved in politics. I did book signing for Gene McCarthy. I almost got fired by Xerox for doing that. I was going to sue them if they fired me. I was going to call the ACLU. Sic them on it. But they sort of backed off on that. I loved the location. I thought of nothing. When you think of the very expensive location, like the Gold Coast. Yeah, it’s like Gold Coast but they don’t have the Lake. You have to go across the outer drive to get to the Lake. And here we are on the beach. I remember sending a picture to my mother. From the beach to our building. And she said I thought you lived in Chicago. I said this is Chicago. This is Chicago. So I thought this is just the most gorgeous place, with the transportation it’s easy to go North. It’s easy to go south, west, wherever. But I thought it elided a lot of worth. There were a lot of people would got involved in the Edgewater Community Council. I was friends with Virginia Marciniak and her husband Ed, who were very involved in that. That’s how I met Sandee by the way.

And I was the NLCC because I was always interested in architectural preservation. And I did a lot of 40th Ward politicking. And I did stuff that interested me. I’ve attended more meetings than I care to remember. I served with Marion Volini’s traffic committee for two years and went absolutely nowhere. It was a complete waste of time. But I was very concerned with the housing issue both on Sheridan road and they are still issues that need to be addressed.

And of course Winthrop/Kenmore was always a problem. I think it has improved tremendously in the years that I’ve been here. Also, I think, the neighborhood has grown so much to being an attractive destination in the city. Nobody ever went to Edgewater. Why? But we of culture, we have shopping, we have the most wonderful restaurants, nice housing. What’s not to like about it? It’s improved tremendously. And I think Loyola even though it’s might be a problem with the tax base, I’m glad that they are sort of taken over that because that was a very bad area for a long time. It was going nowhere.

DN: You are talking about the area that’s on the north edge of Edgewater.

ES: Yes, just south of Devon and Kenmore. That was just not a good viable part of Edgewater, as far as I could tell. And so I’m glad that they were willing to invest that kind of money in the neighborhood to make it a very important part of the neighborhood

DN: That’s one aspect of Edgewater that we didn’t have before, which was neighbors who were University and college students that would be part of the community supporting.

ES: Yes, it’s wonderful. Like Metropolis coffee house, which I love, is voted the best one in the city. You know that’s right? It was. And it’s full of Loyola students. And I think that does so much for the neighborhood.

DN: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, Elisabeth, but you brought it up. So in your own words, could you tell what you think spreading of Loyola over in from Devon Avenue, South into Edgewater, what impact that will have and why is it important?

ES:, As far as tax base… that’s a problem. A big problem. However, I don’t think that kind of housing they had up there was all that valuable to begin with. And I think that eventually it may have a good impact because I think it raises the values around there. Eventually it may be a wash. So I think overall I think it’s a very good impact. And also I like the fact that this ties us to Rogers Park in a positive way. I think that’s nice. It’s kind of jumped Devon. It leaped over Devon to come here. I think that’s a nice tie-in.

DN: A commonality. What about the vitality of younger people that Loyola will bring into the North Side.

ES: I think that’s incredibly important. When I came here, this particular building was like an old people’s home. Bad news I’m 71; I have nothing against older people. But I married somebody much older but you need the mix: the vitality of young families, people who are starting in business careers, who have ambitions, not just tapering off, sitting on their laurels. By the way it’s very uncomfortable; they’re very spiky you know. But it’s very important to have a complete demographic, from the youngest to the oldest. And different backgrounds. We have wonderful concentration of art and different professions, common laborers, and we have professors, a little bit of everything. That’s essential.

DN: What problems do you still see that need to be addressed other than on the north edge of Edgewater?

ES: I think there are problems along Sheridan Road. There are still some very sub-par structures on Sheridan road that just don’t, they are glaring. It’s like a little bit of a slum in the middle of a very nice. And I don’t know if we should be like the Gold Coast. But I do think the level has to raise all boats not just. The housing overall has improved tremendously. There has been a lot of investment and it’s just so gratifying to see that. I just love it.

DN: Let’s go back to your participation in community activities. One of the things that you said is that, to me privately is that you always enjoyed being a worker bee more than being the president of an organization. Can you discuss that a little bit?

ES: I’ve never been a committee person. I really don’t like committees. I love to work; so if you give me something to do, I’ll do it. And God help me if I do it well, I’ll be stuck doing it for the rest of my life. But I don’t mind being given the task. Even if it’s very menial and just doing that for the greater good. I have been in charge of things. Sandee and I did, I don’t know how many benefits together for the chamber music, for Arts North, for thirty, thirty-five years. I was doing that. I helped the Marine Room, for ECC. I just don’t want to be in charge. I will do whatever, I even catered benefits myself and I don’t mind doing the hard work were doing whatever I’m asked to do, but I just don’t want to be in charge. And I don’t want to have to go to committee meetings. I really really do not like them.

DN: So I think it would be fair to say that since you’ve been here in the 1970s, which has been, well, we won’t count the years, it’s been a significant number of years, you have been involved in community activities, devoted a lot of time to that. So that, those organizations would succeed and you would do whatever you needed to do to see that their events or activities would be successful. Why do you think it was important to do that? Why would it be important to have these community organizations be successful?

ES: I believe that if you care enough to buy a place in a particular neighborhood, if you’re willing to invest that kind of money, I would think you need to care about the context you are in. Not because it’s just a question of dollars, yes it increases your value, if it’s a nice. It’s not going to happen by itself. And if anybody’s going to say let him do it, it’s not going to happen. So I’ve always been a hands-on person, in everything in life I’ve done. I don’t find it a burden at all. And if I can do it, I will do it. For people to just not be interested in investing in their neighborhood is something I just don’t understand. I literally do not understand this. The lack of interest in, it makes no sense to me.

DN: What personal satisfaction do you get out of doing these activities? I mean, we talked about a reason why you feel empowered to do this. Is this part of being who you are and what it means to be in the neighborhood, more or less? I mean if you live somewhere then you should invest. Those are the words you said.

ES: Well, it’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. And if you can’t do the work than you help in some other way like to contribute to a cause or were some kind of program that they’re trying to improve things with. In some way you just don’t sit there and say let George do it. As far as I’m concerned that’s almost immoral. Almost immoral. It’s part of the social contract. From reading too much Jean Jacques Rousseau I guess. But, it’s true. I can’t envision anywhere and not caring about what goes on around you. To me it’s a foreign way of thinking. So yes it’s a personal satisfaction. There’s a lot of frustration because you could beat somebody over the head when they, you’re telling them what you think is reasonable. And it goes nowhere for years. That can be depressing. But, so what? You still have things that you can point to that say, “Yes you did that or you helped do that.”… and you get to meet a lot of cool people. And one of the nicest people are the people who of course think the way you do. But they tend to be engaging and engaged. They tend to be well-educated and I enjoy the company of people who are educated or cultured. And say that snobbish, but so be it. But say you had that kind of friends who have similar tastes. And that’s always very gratifying. You can share a lot of your life with people.

DN: You have lived in different areas both in Chicago and elsewhere. Do you feel the Edgewater is unique in any way, and if so what would you characterize that uniqueness in?

ES: It is unique; I think I said it at the outset, what a fantastic location it is. Because we are unique except for all the way up in Rogers Park, where there are apartments on the beach. And all the way down on South Shore. But really, truly we are the only place where you can live on the water. To me to be able to live on the beach in a large city is amazing. Yeah, unless you live in Rio or someplace like that. Even in New York, where I lived for six years, it was not so easy to accomplish. I’ve always liked the water. And I’ve been attracted, when I was a little girl, living in the convent, they had a summer convent. On the Mediterranean, and I have a picture of me, swimming in the Mediterranean, when I was three years old. And I think that was so grated into me that I had to be near the water. So I’ve always love the ocean and I love the Lake. So, there is that. And it has this wonderful diversity of architecture and people. It has all these great shops and restaurants, and the transportation is amazing. I can get on the #147 and in 15 minutes I’m down at the heart of the city. It’s just, without any of the hassle that you would have actually living there. And I think it is unique in that way. That’s also kind of the connection between the city and the Evanston and the rest of the Northwest suburban. So, I think it’s fantastic.

DN: You see any difference between Edgewater/Rogers Park and other areas in the sense of the community organizations that you participated in?

ES: I can’t really comment too much on that. I don’t really know that much about it. I was part of the Uptown Chamber of Commerce because I did a portrait commission for them. So I was involved in that. You know what, I’ve never really been involved in them enough to give a meaningful distinction.

DN: That’s fine. I’d like to get back to Artists North or Arts North. Could you talk a little bit about that organization and your involvement in it?

ES: It was Jean, who started that. And it was Frank Williams, a publisher and writer, a standup kind of guy. Helped with the graphics. It was the precursor to Chicago ensemble, which is a wonderful children, art group that has been together now for 30 some years. And what we did was we had concerts in uptown, in Edgewater and in Rogers Park. And some of us went around to all the churches looking for suitable venues. And we did this for several years. And I hand-lettered all of their programs because I had taken architectural drafting. So that was my contribution, aside from scouting the locations. We had a lot of fun doing that. We saw some beautiful churches. So we did that for quite a long time and I don’t remember, I think it was Chicago ensemble that took over, it kind of morphed into Chicago. And Sandee and I had gone. She was on the board for a long time. As you know I don’t do boards. But we worked together on their benefits for years and years and years. My husband and I were great supporters of that. And they were all over they did the fine arts club, downtown and they played all over the place. So that was a very nice thing to get involved in. It was really beautiful.

DN: It’s wonderful when the things in your personal life can blossom into a larger venue or that you can continue to do those kinds of things. You see yourself being fulfilled in all kinds of different ways that maybe don’t have your name on it but still bring a lot of happiness, right? I’d like to ask you the last two questions. One, what you regard as your most satisfying personal achievement, so far?

ES: That’s a difficult question. I mean the natural thing is to say that I have wonderful children and grandchildren. That’s certainly a biggie. As far as any other achievements, I can’t really claim into any one thing. I’ve done so many different things, I started at the merchandise Mart. I work for Xerox. I worked at the Spertus shop at the Spertus Museum, I love doing that. I was a sculptor and did portrait commissions. I worked in a bank. I mean I’ve done so many different things. I think one thing that I’m very pleased that I stuck with it is I had never deviated from involvement in spiritual to the ideas of literacy music and art. I’ve never gone away from that. I’ve always been very involved in those things. And that’s not an achievement but it’s one thing that aside my kids that is what meant the most to me.

DN: Those kids are more vibrant as we get older.

ES:, It’s so important. And, of course, gardening how could I forget that.

DN: What advice would you give the younger people?

ES: Pay attention. My grandson, who is 14, pretty smart, says, Grandma, how can you know so much? You don’t do the Internet… you don’t do. I said you don’t need any of that. All you have to do is pay attention. If you pay attention if you keep your eyes and your ears and your mind open, believe me, you’ll get there. That’s my advice.

DN: Now this is your story. So is there anything else you’d like to add for posterity, while we are film?

ES: Posterity, please. Like I need to start building my pyramid. No, I worry about the world. But who wouldn’t, who hasn’t been aware of all the things that are going on. But, I think we live in a, we are blessed, compared to the rest of the world. And I don’t think that people appreciate that enough. We are always worrying about things that we don’t have. Like, I like to have Maserati instead of a Ford. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I don’t feel people, really appreciate the standard of living that they have. Which is unheard of in human history of the world. Absolutely unheard of. You flip a switch you get a hot water. You live in beautiful places. We have enough to eat. We go see marvelous movies. I saw a fantastic movie, Quartet. You have to see it. So they need to appreciate what they have. And they should be more involved in helping other people achieve that. It’s because they undervalue what they have.

DN: So if you are more aware of what you have you think that comes with the social responsibility?

ES: I would think so, because then you’re aware of the contrast between what you have and what others don’t have. Ergo, you hope to do something about it. I’ve always given a lot to charity. Not because you know. I think it’s important that if you yourself cannot help people by going there and doing something for them where you should at least help other people solve these problems.

DN: That it’s not really part of the social contract. It’s part of being fully human.

ES: Absolutely being human. And I think a lot of people fall short. And I think the world would be a nicer place if more people were on top of this.

DN: I can’t think of a better way to close the interview. Thank you so much, Elisabeth.