Van Houten's Landing Oral History Project 2006
I think this is a lot of fun. It's sort of like an ego trip, a personal ego trip.
Astrith Deyrup. Of course, Deyrup is a Danish name. My grandfather came over a long time back, from Denmark, and he settled in the middle west, and so that's a little explanation of what the voice tells you.
When my grandfather came and he had to go through Customs, the customs official said that "Deyrup" wouldn't go well in this country. So I guess that Johnson was just something that was just very ordinary. My father used the name Johnson. His two brothers - one was a lawyer and the other was a judge - they kept the name Deyrup.
Then, when we were in the city, and my oldest brother and sister were still in college, there was a general feeling by the grown-ups that the name Johnson was too common, and so they sort of had a committee meeting and had the name changed back to Deyrup. So we were all Deyrups, and that certainly paid off, because there aren't many Deyrups in the telephone book.
My parents had 7 children. First was a girl, then 2 boys, and then the remaining children were girls. They followed the plan of home schooling. Now this was before it was fashionable, but the thing was, my father was a professor and he would get one appointment in California and one in Texas and they'd keep moving, really about every year. So it was hard to get continuity in education, and when they finally came to Nyack in 1918, the schools were not good at all, and the boys were badly treated in the school. In fact there was a beating of them. It's hard to imagine, but that's the way it was.
So my mother, who was extremely enterprising, very hard-driving and well-organized - just a lovely lady, she had a doctor's degree in Philosophy from Columbia, so she knew that she could teach her own children, and my father did a little - like reading plays in Latin - and translating them. But it's really my mother who had the real weight of education.
The story was a success story, because all the children were educated. Up through high school we had no formal education, and then we all went to Columbia - Barnard and Columbia. We were all graduates.
But I was not really very happy in it, because the thing was that the next child above me was Ingrith - she was 3 ½ years older and even as a child, very brilliant - but she decided she'd stop playing. When we went to the city I was a little over 4, so she was a little over 7 - and she felt that she didn't want to waste time playing - she was digging in the books and so on - so I didn't really have anyone to play with. So I missed that. It was no fault of the parents or the family, it's just one of those things. I was not happy in that.
In a way it was sort of an experiment in education, what we were doing. Education was very free until it would be getting near time for the college entrance exams, and then my mother would take whoever was the child getting ready and concentrate and they'd get their topics up. Actually it was very difficult for my oldest brother and my oldest sister when they went to take the examinations. They had had, I guess, a tutor, but they failed all the exams. Evidently - I've just heard this recently - my oldest sister said, "Well, we're just going to fire our parents. We're going to learn by ourselves." So she and her brother, they just sat down and they learned and got in college very nicely. You see - there's a lot of family independence. That was very good.
I think the home schooling fostered that spirit of independence, and that was very good. And then essentially there was a lot of free time when you could do things, and I was always painting, making pictures, so I had plenty of time to do that, and that was very good. That's about it.
My sister Dorothy graduated from Barnard College and then she went to the Art Students League and she became a professional painter. After my sister Dorothy came my brother Alden, and he became a fine research chemist and he got a PHD from Columbia. Then after Alden came my brother Thorald, and he graduated from the law school at Columbia and was a lawyer. And after Thorald it was Natalie, and she became a doctor and went to the College of Doctors and Surgeons at Columbia.
Then came my late sister Felicia who got a PHD at Columbia and became a professor of Economics at the New School. And then came my sister Ingrith who got a PHD at Columbia and was a very distinguished scientist. She'd been the chairman of the Zoology Department in Barnard College. Later she went out to Seattle and did a lot of very fine work there. And then I came along. Of course there's a lot to tell about myself.
I did a lot of drawing and painting when I was a child, and then I felt that I wanted to do something different, so I went in for music and I got proficient on the flute. I went to Barnard and then I got a Master's degree in Music History. But after that - well I did a little orchestra work at that time - it was a very difficult time for a woman to be in that field. My health became poor. So I went back to my first love, which was art.
I went to the Art Students League and I got the idea that I could do textile designing. So I worked up some designs, and with great effort I got around. I showed the designs and got into freelance design studios and sold my fabrics. I did that for quite a long time. Then in 1960 there was an opportunity to teach Batik at the New School and so I got into that - and that was my flowering time. And I did my publications.
The names of the books? Well, the best book was called "Getting Started in Batik" and that was in a series. There were other books - "Getting Started in Enamels" and "Getting Started in Ceramics" and so on. So it was a very good series with very concrete examples. A wonderful editor - she was very fine - she found my work in craft index at the museums, and she felt I would be the right person. She worked very helpfully and carefully with me. So that was very good, and it sold well.
Even before it was completely out, another company got in touch with me, and they wanted me to do a book on Batik and Tie-Dye, and I did that book. Later on I did a children's book for Doubleday on Batik and Tie-Dye. So that was the big stint. All these years, and I have not done any books since.
As I mentioned earlier, he was a college professor and he moved all around, from university to university. When he was in college, at the University of Nebraska, he was a Classics major, but then later on he felt that he could do more good by being in Economics and Social Concerns. He actually came to Columbia and got a PHD - and that made the basis for his professorships. He was a professor for a good number of years, and then he got the opportunity to be an editor on The New Republic, which was a very fine broad-based magazine at that time.
Then, after that, he got an opportunity to be an editor of the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences. This was connected with our move to New York because the offices of the encyclopedia were one floor below an apartment that we got. So it was all very convenient. Anyhow, to get back on the track, he was satisfied with that.
But then, around 1919, a group of professors from Columbia broke away. They wanted to give lectures for adults - not just continuing education, but really up-to-the-minute important topics. So they formed this group - I think there were about 7, and this was then the New School. They had headquarters on, I think, West 23rd Street and they asked my father to join them. I think he joined in the early 20s. I'm not sure, but it's all written down. He was active quite a time and then he was asked to be the director.
The New School had gotten so fashionable - lots of people liked to come and hear the lectures. They had to get more space, so then he canvassed the area with the help of another person and they picked out just the right spot - 12th Street, just off 5th Avenue. They had to get an architect, and there was a choice between Frank Lloyd Wright and Joseph Urban. Now Frank Lloyd Wright was difficult to get, and expensive.
Urban, on the other hand, had done a lot of very important work in Europe. He was very interested and essentially said to my father, "Don't worry about the cost. We'll just go ahead and do it." So he became the architect and the New School got this very fine new building. It was a thriving place. Adult education was the basis.
Then, in the war, when scholars were being liquidated in Germany, my father had really a true inspiration. He would give invitations for teaching, and that would mean they could get their visas. They couldn't get out unless they had visas. There was practically no money at the New School, so the salaries were very small, but they were able to get out. So that was called The University in Exile. This was a very, very important thing, so then other universities did the same thing of inviting scholars. For the New School it was very good, because it provided a wonderful graduate faculty in the social sciences. They were just outstanding scholars. So that was very good. That pattern was copied; there was the Ecole Libre and then was a group of Italian scholars. So that was a very big and important thing.
My father was at this time the president of the New School. He remained that way until, I believe, 1947.
Now I thought you would like to know about this interesting old house. At present the number is 309, but it used to be 200. That was a big change. But many things remain the same in this whole environment. The house was completed in 1887 for Mr. John A. Bennett. He spent a vast amount of money on the house to make it just what he wanted. It was a wonderful Victorian example. It was so sensational that reports took the whole front page of the local paper. He spent a lot of money on it and he did all sorts of wonderful things inside.
He had a very good alarm system. He had the best in plumbing that existed at that time, and a very good system for lighting the house. The bricks that you see around the house - you know the lower level is red brick - they came from Philadelphia. And the slates on the roof came from Vermont. He did a wonderful thing, settling in Nyack and establishing this very beautiful home. He lived in this house from 1890 to 1900. Now there's a little discrepancy there - because if it was finished in 1887 - but I'm just copying out what I read somewhere. I think he was the consul to Bolivia.
After the Bennett family, there was the Cushing family. There were only 2 sets of owners before my parents bought the house. The Cushing family were there from 1901 to 1918.
1918 was a very important year for my parents. At that time they had 5 children. The total was 7, but 2 came later, and I was the last of the group. My parents: my father was Alvin S. Johnson; and my mother was Edith Henry Johnson; and they bought the house in 1918, June 26, for $6,000. Of course money was different then. The land included the barn over here, and there was a small house right at the front, which they did buy, and about 1927 they had it moved behind the barn, and that house is now 307. The barn they transformed into a very nice dwelling.
This (room) was a wonderful all-purpose room, but every so often there would be special banquets or feasts for some of these brilliant scholars that my father knew, and I remember particularly the preparation for Van Hornbussle and his wife - and there would be a long mahogany table with wings you could put it. My mother would make a great feast and we'd get out the best dishes. She would get some help, particularly from Dorothy. There would be some very important guests here. But, on the whole, it was the family room. It would be not at all orderly. There would be a table here in the center and underneath would be stacks of magazines and sometimes my sister Felicia would hide under there for some reason, among those magazines.
The best part, really, was my mother reading to us. Her reading was very influential in our becoming independent, creative people. She would sit right here - she had a green rocking chair and every evening she would read wonderful things like "The Mill on the Floss" and Dickens and so on. It was just really exciting. There would be the 4 children - Natalie, Felicia, Ingrith and Astrith.
I liked very much to paint while we were having the reading. And it was very sweet about Felicia. Felicia was a great lover of nature, and in those days egg boxes had chickens on them; it was so touching - she would cut out those chickens and have them stand up. So that was what Felicia did. Another thing that she did - she had a very nice annual guide and she would gather seeds and then in the evenings while my mother would read to us, she would sort the seeds. So we would often have things we would be doing. Natalie would also paint; I don't remember what Ingie would do, but I suppose she would be painting too. We all made beautiful illustrated books with our stories, and they have been preserved quite nicely. So that was another nice thing - it was a very good room for a large family.
We had some really good games - we did blind man's bluff, that was very good, and tag, that was good. On week-ends, croquet, which we loved very much. And then in the city we had backgammon and we had tiddely winks. We loved marbles, and I remember a wonderful marble I had. You know, when the big ones came along, that was exciting. So we had very good games.
We had music. My oldest sister and Natalie, they liked to play the piano, and then we had this Victrola and we loved to play the records - that was good. Later on of course we had music lessons. We would listen to very high brow music like Shubert's The Erlking - very scary, and Amelita Galli-Curci and really, very high brow, good stuff. We still have the records, and the Victrola was really good so it was really an all rounded sort of life.
I was in Puerto Rico - that the hotel at San Jose - and the mountains and the red tile roof tops.
That's Alaska. That's Mendenhall Glacier where all tourists go. I was there with my sister Natalie. It was a Nature tour, and I just loved everything in Alaska. We were in these small planes - that was the only way to get around, and that was exciting and lovely. Then I have my flower series. I'm hoping, in October, to have a week-end when I will go to this little store place up here and have a week-end art show when I show my flower paintings and my textiles.
Over here - always in the Fall I'm overcome by the power of the trees. That sounds very overly dramatic, but I think the Fall trees - they just do something, and then the shapes.
This one is very sweet. My sister Felicia was a great lover of dogs, and this was Penny; she was a little Border Collie. She was so sweet - and it was very touching, Felicia's dogs, they loved me too. That was very sweet. At one time she had 5 German Shepherds, and they had the run of the house. They made very good protection for her, so that was good.
Joseph Urban said that my father's office needed a statue; there was a round area in his office. My father said, yes, he would like to have one, but he couldn't afford it. So Joseph Urban said, "Well, I will give you a statue. I will have it made for you of Carrerra marble. It's a Venus de Milo - a copy, that is. But on one condition, that it should never leave the family." So now it's going to go to the grand-niece.
These are what my sister Dorothy did. This is Felicia, my older sister; here's my father; here I am as a pianist. This is a family friend over here, a lovely young woman - and two rabbis. And she did these lovely scenes. I don't know where she did that - looks like Rockland county.
It looked very different from the way it looks now. In the front you have lawns, and hydrangea plants - this is what I remember. In the back, a fine lawn sweeping down to - well, you can't see it, but sweeping down to the end of that level. There were grape vines, and also grape vines on the north side. The land looked very different.
In recent years there has been a growth of plants and trees and shrubs, but in those days there was a lot of clear land. The land here was in levels, because of the quarry. Bricks had been taken out for brownstone front houses in Manhattan. So it did look very different, but my older siblings developed flower gardens, and my father had a wonderful vegetable garden. Then the bank going down to the Hudson was all covered with high grass, and he would mow it - sort of the rites of spring.
Physically it was very different, because the winters were very cold, and evidently quite often the Hudson would freeze over. I remember the wonderful snow forts my brothers and sisters would make, and they would last a long time. They would make them out here.
You've certainly read about the years of the dust bowl. That time was very dry here - terrible droughts. The gardens would suffer very much, and here's a little personal note: my father loved to play croquet with all his children. We'd play on the back lawn. The lawn would be so dry, and the main arch, and the balls would roll different ways. My father loved to just shoot the ball and make the other people unhappy. It was very dry.
I'm 81, and I can remember things pretty well until I was 4. When I was 4 the family migration started - we would go back and forth between the city and here. We'd come here in the summer and then in the fall we'd pack up and go for the winter into the city. So I have a pretty good memory of how it was here until I was 4, but then I haven't lived in this house, really, until a short time ago. I would be here on week-ends and I would spend quite a lot of time in the summer.
The last two years, during my sister's illness, I was here a lot of the time. It's just as if I've kind of dropped down from Mars, but I dropped in here. It was a kind of rugged and really sad experience to live here - because as an adult I hadn't been living here.
It used to be that the forsythia was solid here, and it was so beautiful - and it would make very nice shade. This was a lovely place. Now you can visualize this as a lovely lawn, a row of grapes there, and grapes here, and then my sister Dorothy had a lovely garden, right here. It would have a ring of pink and blue forget-me-nots, and then later she had 2 rose arbors - one here and one there. One had red roses on it, and the other had pink roses on it - yes! She was a great gardener, and one of my best memories - she had a lovely flower garden on the lowest level here, and when she'd come home from college, she would put her finger down, and I could hold onto it, and she took me down to see the garden. She grew wonderful poppies - I remember those - yes…
I think we were all curious and I think that was one thing our education did. It fostered curiosity. And then there were some family models. My sister who became a pediatrician, she had, we had 2 excellent aunts, both doctors. There was that role model for her. My older sister who became the fine painter, there wasn't any role model, but she just had it in her. It just came out - she knew she wanted to be an artist. My sister Ingrith, she was early interested in scientific things. I think the freedom of the home education did a lot to foster individuality and opportunity to go in different directions. So that's what I think.
I have only a very good and loving feeling towards my parents and all my brothers and sisters. It's just wonderful to be at this stage in life and be viable and to be with such fine, enterprising young people as all of you!
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