Life in New York City

In New York City, Mayr occupied a small room in the International House at 500 Riverside Drive in upper Manhattan, at about 123rd Street, where he soon met other young Germans. To the museum he took the Broadway subway south or, when weather was nice, he walked the 44 blocks along the Hudson River. In the evenings, he occasionally went with friends from the International House to Times Square, to Radio City Hall, to a movie theater or a concert. They also on occasion sponsored social events, plays, musical performances, etc. In one of the plays Mayr appeared as a Catholic priest. Soon after visiting Europe in the summer of 1932 he moved, with two companions from the International House, to an apartment located at 55 Tiemann Place (Apartment 69 on the 3rd floor) just one block away. Each of them had a bedroom and there was a large living room. One of the other two roommates loved to go shopping and also otherwise running the household including cooking.5 In spite of some turnover of roommates Mayr lived very pleasantly in this setup until he got married to Margarete (Gretel) Simon in the spring of 1935. By then he was 30 years old (Fig. 3.3).

They had met in 1932 at a Christmas party in the International House. She was the niece of a well-known Long Island family, the Dreiers, and had come to the USA as an exchange student at Wheaton College, Massachusetts for one year. After she had returned to Germany in 1933, he proposed to her during his next visit to Europe in the summer of 1934 (when he also attended the VIIIth International Ornithological Congress in Oxford with Erwin Stresemann as President). He left on SS "Veendam" in June and returned to New York on SS "Statendam" on 14 October. Ernst was not certain that Gretel would say "yes" in view of his recent kidney operation (p. 301) and the fact that she would have to leave Germany. However, his doubts were unfounded. He traveled again to Europe on SS "Europa" on 26 April 1935 and they were married in Freiburg in Breisgau on 4 May, a beautiful spring day when everything was in flower. The wedding ceremony was officiated by Gretel Simon's brother Ludwig, who was a minister, and with her younger brother Frieder playing the organ in the church in which their father had been the minister. Following a few days of "honeymoon" in the Alps they had a pleasant

5 The six German and one American young men who had shared this apartment at one time or other during the years 1932-1935 remained in contact with one another into the 1990s, and four of them (with their wives) met in North Bennington, Vermont in May 1986 to exchange memories and renew their friendship. Except for Gustav Stresow who became a publisher in Germany, all the others had remained in the United States. Stresow and Mayr were especially close because both had intellectual occupations and usually worked at home in the evenings. They corresponded into their nineties and occasionally met, when Mayr was in Europe.

Fig. 3.3. Ernst and Gretel Mayr's wedding in Freiburg, Germany, on 4 May 1935. (Photograph courtesy of Mrs. S. Harrison)

steamer crossing on SS "Bremen" back to New York where they met Gretel's uncle and aunt, George and Helen Simon, on 27 May. He was her father's elder brother and vice president of Heyden Chemical.

Ernst and Gretel found an apartment alongside Inwood Park, just above 200th Street at the north end of Manhattan (at 55 Payson Street) with easy access both to the Broadway subway and a ferry to New Jersey. Erwin Stresemann and Phyllis Thomas visited the Mayrs a few months later and spent Christmas Eve 1935 with them in their apartment. Ms. Thomas, Ernst Hartert's former secretary in Tring, had come to New York to assist at the museum with cataloging and integrating the Rothschild Bird Collection.

Almost 2 years later, in April 1937, after the birth of a daughter, the Mayr family moved from Manhattan across the Hudson River to Tenafly, New Jersey, where they had purchased a home at 138 Sunset Lane (Fig. 3.4 a, b). Friends who lived in Tenafly (Professor Franz Schrader at Columbia University) had recommended a real estate agent to them. When consulted, he asked how large a down payment Mayr could afford and how large a monthly mortgage payment he could make. When he had these figures he said "Okay, then let us go to the NW section of Tenafly, where the $8,000 houses are." And indeed they liked one of them and bought it. At that time Tenafly was still relatively rural. Mayr's house was the only one on that side of the street, and there was an old abandoned apple orchard where screech owls and flickers nested and bob-white quail walked around. They tried to have a vegetable garden, but there were lots of rabbits. In later years, the area was completely built up. They stayed in close contact with their families and Erwin Stresemann, and saw all of them on visits to Germany with their two daughters Christa (born in 1936) and Susanne (born in 1937) after World War II.

In the Tenafly area, Mayr did some serious birding. He noticed the nesting trees of barred owls, located display grounds of woodcocks, and studied redwinged blackbirds in a nearby marsh. He always took visiting ornithologists, e.g., Delacour, Lack, Tinbergen, Stresemann, and Lorenz, to watch the courtship flight of the woodcock. Occasionally a field trip was organized around New York City, one of them to the Ramapo Mountains in the early 1930s guided by Ernest G. Holt. He had collected birds for several museums in South America during the 1920s and, from 1933 until 1942, worked for the Department of Agriculture, Washington.

Fig. 3.4a. Mayr's home in Tenafly, New Jersey, in 1948 (Photograph courtesy of Mrs. S. Harrison)
Fig. 3.4b. The Mayr family, spring 1947, with Christa (left) and Susanne (right) (Photograph courtesy of Mrs. S. Harrison)

Mayr remembered: "Holt said he knew all of the trails there, and we would have a wonderful time. My friend Koch-Weser came along and we parked the car at the foot of the mountains. The height of the fall coloring was already past because it was after the middle of October, and it was quite sunny early in the morning. But toward noontime it clouded up and in the later afternoon it was obviously time to get back to the car. But Holt got confused with the trails and pretty soon was utterly at a loss which way to turn. We met another hiker, and as an old New Guinea hand (none of us were smoking), I borrowed some matches from this man. Well, eventually it turned dark and we still didn't know where we were. We stumbled along for another hour or two in the dark, but having lost the trail on a bare rocky outcrop and having fallen over trees, etc., we finally decided we had to stop and make a camp. In the meantime it had started to rain and we had quite a bit of trouble getting a fire started, with the matches I had fortunately begged. We spent a miserable night being hot from the fire on one side and freezing in the back. We had left all our warm clothing in the car. Poor Holt was terribly upset because he was married and he knew his wife would worry. After a long and miserable night, dawn finally came, and in due time we found a way out to a road and eventually to our car. The story, of course, got around that the two famous explorers, Holt of Brazil fame and Mayr of New Guinea fame had gotten lost 'in the outskirts of New York City' and this finally led to a write up of our adventure even in the New Yorker."

In 1938, Mayr spent again three months in Europe and visited various museums to study the types of New Guinea birds in conjunction with the preparation of his monograph, the List of New Guinea Birds, which was published in 1941. He sailed from New York on SS "Europa" on 3 May and returned on SS "Deutschland" on 5 August 1938. Mayr's first visit to Europe after World War II took place during the period April-August 1951, when he gave a series of lectures in Italy, Switzerland, France, Denmark, Britain and Germany having become famous through his 1942 book. He met many of his old friends, especially Erwin Stresemann in Berlin. In later years he has, of course, returned to Europe many times to participate in symposia and international congresses, and to visit his relatives.

Both daughters went to primary and high school in Tenafly and were already teenagers, when Ernst Mayr accepted an Alexander Agassiz professorship at Harvard University in 1953. At that time he sold his home in Tenafly to his old friend Reimer Koch-Weser, one of his former roommates at 55 Tiemann Place.

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