Looking back: chance meetings that established firm friendships


My first opportunity for foreign travel came in the early 1950s. Roy Allen, the English economist, had read some of my published articles, and out of thin air offered me an honorarium of $200 plus $200 for passage to Southampton and return. I was to give a short course of lectures at the London School of Economics. At that time a third class passage on one of the great liners of the day cost $100, so by spending it all Beatrice and I could both go and return. Don't make a mistake about third class--it was not the old steerage on which my parents had come to Canada, but with wonderful service, luxury we certainly did not enjoy on land, The culture of those great transatlantic liners--the daily newspaper, the swimming pool, the sports instruction, the superb cuisine--was at its peak in the early post-war years.

It was on the boat, the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth2, that Beatrice met a couple, Flore and Pierre Pastier, fairly early in the voyage. She heard someone at the next table saying in French that the waiter had brought sugar but not a spoon, and wondered how to say "cuillere" in English. Beatrice called out "teaspoon" and they continued chatting. We spent much of the subsequent time on the boat with them, talking our hobbled French. The boat stopped at Calais on the way to Southampton, and we disembarked with the Pastiers on a lighter that took us into the harbor.. I was thrilled at the thought that I was now actually on French soil.

Before we separated the Pastier's invited us to dinner for the following evening.What impressed us most was the order and good feeling in a crowded walk-up apartment that was all that was to be had in the early postwar years.

We have kept in touch with the Pastier's ever since, and visited them whenever we were in the area. A self-taught engineer, who starting at the bottom had risen to be head of a major electronics factory. They now live in retirement in Nice. Pierre is in a wheel chair but Flore gets around easily We talk to them by phone from time to time--.


On one of my early trips to Europe I visited Frankfurt in Germany, I had been in a meeting in Belgrade and after the dreariness of Belgrade the charm of Frankfurt was indescribable. There in Naacher's bookstore, I met Hertha Georg. I was thrilled to find that she knew no English. Here was a God given chance to improve my German. She turned out to be a wonderfully up-beat personality, great sense of humor, intense interest in books.

I took her out for coffee and she told me her story that I pass on as showing one type of human character, that combines ambition unchecked by conscience.. (If she doesn't want the following story set down I will remove it.)

At the time I met her poor Hertha was still suffering from being abandoned by her husband Wolfgang, who was an art curator. Her work in Naacher's book store was supporting Wolfgang's art studies. One day he received an offer of a job as Assistant Curator of a large art museum in Berlin. Hertha helped him load their household goods into a truck, and when that job was complete, he started off shouting "You're not coming." Aside from the job he had the project of marriage with the Curator's daughter.

Hertha went to court, and explained that she was working and Wolfgang was a student, and she had paid for the furniture and wanted it back. The court awarded her half of it, and Wolfgang sent back a few unusable sticks. Hertha was too discouraged to appeal further.

Beatrice and I are still in touch with Hertha, and most of what German I know was learned in correspondence and telephone conversations with her. A very sociable person, she has a large circle of friends, and on visits to Frankfurt I got to know some of them as well. She left the bookstore and became secretary and confidante to Theodore Adorno, postwar Germany's most distinguished social scientist, who assembled some other notable scholars in the Institute for Social Research that over the years has had a considerable influence on social science thinking.

Among numerous other activities, Hertha gives poetry readings in various towns, and assists her pastor, Ulrich Schaffert. .


In Paris visiting the Institut National des Etudes Demographiques on the rue du Commandeur, I dropped into a cafe after the Institut closed for the day. Sitting there having a glass of wine I noticed across from me a well groomed young lady and I got talking with her. Before we separated she gave me "her coordinates" in her words, i.e.address and phone number. She was Ray de Dise, who again had the inestimable attraction of speaking no English. I had to leav e the next day, buyt we corresponded and a few months later Beatrice and I met her in a restaurant and she had her daughter Justine (then about 14 years of age) with her. Justine was a very beautiful and very positive young lady. She saw snails on the menu, and insisted--I mean insisted Je-veux-les- ??? --on having them.

I suspected that there was more than one argument between mother and daughter, and that the daughter won every time. It was not very long before Justine was saying she wants to live her own life, and a few years later, still a student and entirely dependent on her mother for support, she moved out and took her own apartment. Her mother offered some résistance but it was no use. Such determination will carry Justine far in her later work--it is not clear what it will do in family life. She is now 24 and taking her first job.

Ray was involved in Parisian artistic and cultural life. She invited me to a poetry reading in the basement of a cafe on the Left Bank. The poet was Guy Chaty, a mathematician of wide interests with a very energetic presentation of a number of his own poems. His skill and great sense of humor fascinated the audience of about 50 people who had paid admission to that performance. I was thrilled to think I was at a subterranean gathering on the Left Bank.

We had the pleasure of a visit from Ray and Guy and his wife Jeanne at our Cambridge apartment some years later. I will never forget the great dinner table talk that went on for the week or ten days of their visit.


Again in France, also in a cafe, but this one down-town on the Champs Elysses, I saw a young lady drinking a beer. We talked, and her name was Mary Alleyne, and she was indeed English, as I had surmised from the beer. I was on my way to a meeting in Geneva, and I must have impressed her because she came down to Geneva during my time there and we talked a good deal, in English but one can't have everything. She was born and brought up in Leeds, in the north of England--as any native could tell from her speech. When on a later trip Beatrice met her she was impressed: : "She's all wool" she said after they had spent an afternoon together.

Mary was engaged to a man who was working in Trinidad and they were waiting for a chance to marry. In due course they did marry, and settled in a suburb of London.. Her husband, known as "Bug" now retired, saw that the lab equipment in the local school was not properly used or maintained. Once an engineer, he volunteered to set up laboratory equipment and perform similar tasks.

Mary, an early worker with computers wanted to get a job done, visited a small firm consisting of two young men, and had it done. But while in their office she saw papers scattered in fearful disorder. She offered to tidy the place, and was hired as office manager.

The last we heard they had gone down to the Isle of Wight. We fear that Mary, now well into her nineties, may have passed away, and it is extremely unlikely that Bug, her senior by a number of years, has survived. .

Looking back: why do people do the things they do?

My experience on the internet has shown me the limitations of money for motivating human effort. As one of millions of users whose chief recourse in the search for information is the World Wide Web, I note that most of the things I look up have been placed on the web with absolutely no pecuniary objective. Someone has taken the trouble to enter a number of Latin quotes with translation, or else a poem by Emerson, or a biography of Beethoven, to give the three last things I have looked up. In all three cases and hundreds of others someone got satisfaction simply by keying or scanning them from available sources or perhaps by composing them himself (as I am doing now.) . It is not exactly exhibitionism-most often the author does not even show his or her name.. And the Web uses a technology discovered as recently as 1990; it now has some 2 billion sites, the equivalent of a good part of a trillion pages. .So fact No. 1 about people: most of the interesting things do have have no pecuniary motive.

Fact No 2 about people-their proneness to misinterpretation.. Much legislated policy on crime fails because it interprets acts in the framework of one culture, while the actors interpret it in terms of another. Legislators judges and such people are middle class citizens for whom going to jail is a terrible punishment, so they confidently enact laws that will ensure that more criminals are apprehended, and that those who are guilty will spend longer periods in jail. But suppose the drug peddlers interpret jail as a kind of initiation into a profession, which if not honorable in the larger society is at least immensely profitable without being particularly dishonorable in their smaller society. With this interpretation jail is still not desirable, but it is by no means punishment severe enough to cause peddlers to give up their well-paid profession.

Variation of interpretation exists everywhere we turn and not only in reward and punishment. After an exceptionally heavy day of bombing attacks on our troops in Iraq on the last day of October, Mr. Bush said the equivalent of "That is good news. It shows that the enemy is desperate."

When the Palestinians bomb an Israeli home, the Israelis bomb a half-dozen homes. "That will show them Anything they do to us will be visited several fold on them, and that will stop them. The Israelis should no by now that it does nothing of the kind. It stimulates them to new attacks. Neither side can win this kind of war. The war will go on as long as there is no empathy. Or until some terrible weapon is used that can entirely destroy the other other side. ..

My correspondence with President Bush

March 12, July 15 July 19, 2003

Following are three letters I wrote to President Bush, along with the replies that came back.

Sunday, March 12, 2003
Mr. George W. Bush,

Dear President Bush,

You must know the phrase of Oliver Cromwell, a pious Christian like yourself, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

You should think of the Korean War, that ended in a draw. You should think of the Vietnam War, in which we were brought to a standstill, and withdrew--after more than 50,000 American soldiers died.

In connecting Iraq with 9/11, you must realize that the men we captured, some 19, I understand, were from Saudi Arabia; none were from Iraq.

Our military technology is far in advance of that of Iraq or of any other country, We can readily establish a battle front in Iraq, and even win there. We read in the New York Times (March 9) that the world is full of nasty regimes, "that we are about to bomb one "that isn't intercepting our planes (like North Korea), that isn't financing Al Quaeda, (like Saudi Arabia) that isn't home to Osama and his lieutenants (like Pakistan), that isn't a host body for terrorists ( like Iran, Lebanon and Syria):" (Maureen Dowd.)

We have just sent home the one Iraqui reporter stationed in the United States, and have the impertinence to ask other countries to curtail Iraqui news and diplomatic representation. We should welcome both news and diplomacy. The more they can learn about us, the more we can learn about them, the better for both. Rather than trying to destroy the Iraquis; we should be trying to educate them.

I am sorry to have to relate these grim facts to you, Mr. President, Please call me if you want further information. My phone number is 617-491-2845.

Yours faithfully,

Nathan Keyfitz,
1580 Massachusetts Ave., #7C
Cambridge, MA 02138

I received the following answer:

Thank you for e-mailing President Bush. Your ideas and comments are very important to him.

Because of the large volume of e-mail received, the President cannot personally respond to each message. However, the White House staff considers and reports citizen ideas and concerns.

The picture given in the Manchester Guardian (Weekly edition July 3 - 9) astounds by the impudence of our unelected President. "The Pentagon is planning a new generation of huge hypersonic drones and bombs dropped from space, that will allow the US to strike its enemies at lightning speed from its own territory...The technology would free the US from dependence on forward bases and the cooperation of allies. This drive for self-sufficiency is spurred by the difficulty of gaining international cooperation for the attack on Iraq." Based on this I am sending a second e-mail letter to Bush

July 15, 2003
Dear Mr. President,

You paid no attention to the letter I wrote you on March 12, and went ahead with a war on Iraq. I can understand that you are miffed by the French and Germans, and Russians, and Canadians for not joining your escapade in Iraq. You smashed the country physically, and destroyed its system of authority. Saddam Hussein was not the kindest of rulers, but at least he kept the country operating and most people eating.

I repeat that you are going to regret having disregarded my letter and gone ahead with war on Iraq.

The world cannot fail to notice that you go from war to war. From Afghanistan to Iraq to Liberia. Where next? Each one is a failure in its intended purpose, but you hope that the next one will keep people from talking about the past failures. You are indeed pursuing a Warfare of Mass Distraction (WMD).

Margaret Atwood, a distinguished Canadian writer, has written a book, Oryx and Crake, that you should read. It is fiction of course, but an excellent picture of a world destroyed by technology, with only one person, called Snowman, left alive. If you find it hard to secure a copy, let me know and I will lend you mine.

I can appreciate your irritation, as head of this great nation, that the world does not like and admire us. You are afraid that they might attack us, and you are going heavy for new weapons. But let me reassure you, Mr. President: No country is contemplating an attack on the United States.

It is all very well for Rummy to talk about enemies--enemies are what the owner of a war machine wants, so that he can show how well his machine performs. In the mid-eighties we collaborated with Iraq in its war with Iran and a picture of Rummy shaking hands with Saddam Hussein is now on the Internet. To see it for yourself just boot up your computer and run


You will find it quite inspiring.

But pay no attention. You can sleep in peace without a dime more of expenditure.

So for heaven's sake tell the Pentagon to call off that drone going at 3,000 miles an hour. You just don't need it.

Just give me a call if there is other information I can provide. I will drop everything to set you on the right track.

Nathan Keyfitz
Tel: 617-491-2845

I received the following answer:

Thank you for e-mailing President Bush. Your ideas and comments are very important to him.

Because of the large volume of e-mail received, the President cannot personally respond to each message. However, the White House staff considers and reports citizen ideas and concerns.

And today--Saturday July 26--I am sending my final letter:

Dear Mr. President,

I think that writing you is a waste of time, and this letter is my last.

But I urge you to think of the cleanup job your successor who will be elected in 2004 is going to have. You should try to make it easier for him by back-tracking on some of the things you have done.

To get the national budget back to the surplus condition in which President Clinton left it you would have to cut expenditures on arms drastically. There is no risk indoing that--as I have repeatedly insisted no one is going to attack us.

You would also have to take back those tax cuts, those give-aways, and raise taxes on the rich. Those taxes would have to be higher than when you came into office, because in the meantime you have been running deficits, anything up to a trillion dollars for the present two-year period. (Think how much a trillion is, Mr. President. It would take you thousands of years to earn one.)

Then about Iraq. You will have to apologize to the Iraquis, to France and other European counrries for that ill-fated war. You would say that we should have been more patient, and let the UN Inspectors continue and complete their work. And since the Iraquis are naturally mad at us now, and are shooting down our soldiers, it would be better to get other countries, known to have been against the war from the beginning, go into the country to restore order. But no one is going to move one soldier or spend one Euro except through the United Nations. You left the UN in shambles; this will bring it back.

Moreover you know that you have a lot of crooks in your government. Insider trading is one of the least of their crimes. You would get right after them, and see that they are appropriately punished.

You would either release or try those people whom you are now illegally holding in Guantanamo in Cuba.

Moreover you should get the American people to see your policies in a long-term perspective. During the Iran-Iraq war we backed the Iraquis. On the Internet there is a picture of Rummy shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in the mid-1980s. You can see it yourself by running


on your computer.

Moreover you should cut taxes. I mean that. But cut them on the poor and middle class. They will spend the money, will spend us right out of the present recession--that otherwise will continue indefinitely.

The rich don't spend the money you have given them. That is aside from the kick-back in the form of contributions to your political campaign.

So Mr. President, this is the last time I will write you. I just hope you will go out of office gracefully.

Nathan Keyfitz

I received the following answer:

Thank you for e-mailing President Bush. Your ideas and comments are very important to him.

Because of the large volume of e-mail received, the President cannot personally respond to each message. However, the White House staff considers and reports citizen ideas and concerns.

Dear Mr. Bush,

I see in the New York Times that you gave a talk to the American Legion on the day when the number of U.S. deaths since May 30 came equal to the number during the war. "We will never yield to terrorism" By terrorism you apparently mean small scale operations including suicide bombers. You think that suicide bombers are morally despicable, while bombing from the air is OK. What you have to wake up to is that each of us fights with the weapons we have. The Iraquis cannot acquire weapons to match your hi-tech. But one weapon they have that you cannot match--their faith in the cause of Islam that makes so many of them lay down their lives for it. How many Americans would similarly demonstrate such confidence

On the matter of guilt, we have to take the bigger share, since we started it all.

Beatrice's autobiography

What one remembers: Novel by L. Trilling, Middle of the Journey, of which I remember only the little girl and her recitation at the school concert of Blake's poem, and how the meaningless, stupid interference of the completely uninteresting central character leads to her death--all I remember of Trilling's only novel. I was much taken with some of T's ideas at the time--well, they were important then. How explain this? Whittaker Chambers! Who he?

How do you start writing a memoir? And why? I think of Ruth Jaeger a couple of years before her death throwing old letters, a lifetime of correspondence with her parents who had lived into their nineties, and other family letters, including her surviving brother, then well into his nineties, into the fireplace, in that fine old house whose address I can no longer recall. The house where we met every Monday to play duets. After Nathan and I moved to Vienna--we always called our place of residence "Vienna" although we never lived there beyond a few weeks before we moved to Baden bei Wien (so that Wally wouldn't have to climb stairs). We spent a month in that funny inn in Baden waiting for the Wilson house in the Trostgasse to be available. We had a lease for the two years they expected to stay in Saudi Arabia, but after a year IBM decided they could use Wilson's personality and charm more advantageously in Europe and called him back.

You can start with your earliest recollection. I couldn't have been more than three or four when I woke up one morning--it must have been about 6a.m. because it was still dark. Someone, a man with a lantern, walked by my window, the light from the lantern following him on the bedroom wall. I knew--how did I know?--that it was the hired man on his way to the barn. It must have been on the farm in Dugald, Manitoba, which my father had bought soon after I was born. I don't remember anything more. I probably felt asleep again. Why does this memory stay with me? Nothing happened. I wasn't scared. That's all.

My memories of Winnipeg are few and scattered. Years later I knew that my parents had settled there immediately after their marriage. He had been living in Montreal with the family of his older brother Jacob. Why did he want to move so far away fom them? He had two brothers in Montreal, both much older than himself--the eldest, Samuel, was twenty-two years his senior, with a large family. Jacob was nearer to his own age, married, with three children. Papa was about 36 or 37. He had already quarelled with Samuel because of his refusal to change his name to Freedman, the name Samuel had taken years before when he slipped out of Lithuania to avoid service in the Czar's army. He was angry with Jacob for the same reason. He thought it outrageous that three brothers should have different surnames.

The break with Jacob was more mysterious. For one thing, Papa always spoke of Jacob with great affection and never spoke of Samuel at all. His nephew Harry, Samuel's eldest son, was two years younger, already married and a father. One of us must have asked Papa about his reasons for leaving Montreal; his only answer was that one day Jacob looked at him in a certain way--he never described it any more fully than that--and he decided to move far away.

In Winnipeg Papa opened a store that sold millinery and ladies' clothing. It must have prospered, for he soon sold the house in Winnipeg, where three of four children were born, and found the farm he had always dreamed of owning. His business was prospering; the future looked bright. Then he acquired a partner, a man whom my mother mistrusted at first sight, but Papa never thought anyone else knew anything and my mother least of all. A few years later a suspicious-looking fire broke out in the store during the night. The police started an inspection and the partner disappeared. My father was arrested and charged with arson, and my mother, with three young children and another rather obviously on the way, was left to handle the situation as well as she could. With no legal advice or experience she set about trying to raise bail for her husband. First she appealed to a business acquaintance who, reluctant to get involved and ashamed to tell her so, kept her waiting for hours in his office on the pretext that he was expected to arrive at any moment (He was in fact there all the time). At the end of the day she appealed to another business friend she knew slightly--"a Christian", as she repeated with gentle bemusemen when she told me the story many years later, whose immediate response was, "Of course. How much do you need?" At the susbsequent trial the judge threw out the case and kindly advised Papa to be a little choosier the next time he did business with a plausible stranger.

I don't think Papa learned anything at all from this experience or from any other experience. He was an infuriating man in many ways, but Mamma loved him with heart and soul and he adored her. I don't believe they ever quarelled. The oddest outcome of all from this drama was that the "pregnancy" that undoubtedly won her the sympathy of judge and jury at the trial turned out to be a misdiagnosed and neglected ovarian cyst whose removal very nearly cost her her life. One year later my youngest brother Mark came into the world. I remember how we three children stood in the hall awaiting the birth of the baby sister Mamma had promised to give me. I remember how the door opened and Papa came out, his face shining with tears and relief, and said a little shamefacedly "It's another boy."

I was three months short of my fifth birthday when I faced this grave disappointment as bravely as I could. The baby was impossibly small and fragile, and his life was further complicated when my exhausted mother could not produce enough milk to keep him alive. The product of the cow had to be modified for his infant stomach with something called "gripe water"; one could only imagine what his appalling gripes would have been without it. His only comfort was to lie on Mamma's stomach, and his early weeks were spent as close to his original habitation as could be arranged. The mohel came to the house to perform his ritual and apparently made a poor job of it, and the poor baby had some unnecessary suffering in addition to his dietary difficulties.

No one ever explained this to me, but I had a long memory even then, and thirty-some years later when my own son was born I had the job done in the maternity hospital by the obstetrician to the consternation and indignation of the local man in Ottawa of that time. Beyond the shocked reactions of all four grandparents, there were no other complications. Mamma was sure that the doctor, however experienced and competent he might be at delivering babies, would not do the thing properly, but all went well. I had been permitted to stay in the hospital longer than usual because my husband was in Newfoundland on Census business; my room was close enough to the operating room that I could hear the little patients one after another being called down athe hall and a few minutes later telling the world what they thought of the indignity that was being visited on them. When I heard "Baby Keyfitz" being called I quaked as I awaited the usual howls, but there was not a sound. What terrible thing could have happened? The nurse came into my room laughing to tell me that Robert had taken his little nip of brandy and sugar like a man and slept through the whole thing.

Personal Computers: When did they enter our lives? Of course we knew about Univac, which Nathan had encountered in the course of successive visits relative to his work in the Dominion Bureau of Statistics to the Bureau of the Census in Washington, and later at the University of Chicago there was a monster that occupied the (air conditioned) top floor of a building on (I think) 59th Street and spewed out pages of information extracted from statistics punched out on piles of Hollerith cards (often by your wife) in a room on a lower floor. That was if you were lucky, in which case the printout appeared in a roll of paper when you came to collect it several hours later. If the roll was several pages thick that was good news. If it contained only a page or two your heart sank. Someone had made a mistake. I loved dull routine jobs, as long as they involved machinery of some kind, and became quite skilled as a Hollerith puncher.

The University of Chicago computer was in operation 24 hours a day. It soon became routine in our home in Madison Park for Nathan to feel an irrestible urge to visit his new love at three in the morning rather than wait for me to collect the good or bad news the next day. Then came the event that changed our lives forever. For some reason that I no longer recall he was attending a conference in Calgary or Edmonton, Alberta. Suddenly I got an excited telephone call from a distant airport. He had arrived there early (or perhaps his flight was delayed--this happened more often than not in those days) and sharing a bench with him in the waiting room was another delegate who had with him--wonder of wonders--a portable computer, perhaps the very first on the market, called Osborne. This he was more than happy to display. My orders were to lose no time in finding out where and how in Columbus it was possible to obtain this marvel and, if possible, order one immediately.

We were already familiar with computers and indeed had already bought one, a TRS80, from Radio Shack. This wonder, about the size and shape of a smallish present-day monitor, was operated by a computer language called Fortran and came with a thick manual and half dozen or so programs for the buyer's amusement. These showed on the screen some stick figures or cartoons, some text which I no longer recall, and of course clear and simple instructions for making your own. Nathan caught on to Fortran right away and set TRS80 to work producing prime numbers. It was quite happy to go on doing this for hours. I was mostly interested in doing the few visual tricks that came with the instruction book and creating some rudimentary ones of my own. There was no printer and no way of connecting one. There must have been some way of saving your work, but I have forgotten what it was.

In any case, by dint of much telephoning I was able to contact a computer store in a shopping center not too far from our home. Yes, they knew all about Osborne. It was possible to order one and one might have to wait as long as a month. I forget the cost, but our children were grown and we could afford it. In the end we ordered two, one for each of us. The printer was more complicated; it produced something that looked like typescript--it worked like a typewriter, with keys striking a ribbon--I think it was called a Daisy Wheel, or something like that, and did beautiful work.

The computers arrived and we were immediately enslaved. The operating system came on four diskettes--in addition to the operating system which was called cp/m there was a word processor and a spreadsheet. No pictures, but a new art form arose that must have whiled away many hours of one's employer's time in offices all over the country and consisted in forming designs with the letter x, rather like cross-stitch embroidery and printing them on squared paper. I never tried to do it. It was ingenious, no doubt, but a waste of time that many found irrresistible.

Another waste of time that one experienced by mistake was unfortunately irreparable--forgetting to save one's work before turning off the computer. Usually once was enough to teach one a lesson, but some people never learn.