Detective Work

Detective Work

How do you solve a mystery involving a famous Italian poet, an international romance, and the struggle for tenure? You go to the SLC Archives, of course.

Irma Brandeis taught Italian, French, and literature at Sarah Lawrence starting in 1932. She was also the muse of Eugenio Montale, the famous Genovese poet, who called her “Clizia” and, channeling Dante, “Beatrice ebrea americana”—the “Jewish-American Beatrice.”

The correspondence between Brandeis and Montale was not available to scholars until 2006, so their relationship was the subject of much speculation. Italian faculty member Judith Serafini-Sauli ’63 decided to do some detective work on her own. She immersed herself in the College Archives, scrutinizing telegrams, old copies of the campus newspaper, and mimeographed letters printed on onionskin. The resulting article, “Clizia a Sarah Lawrence: 1932–1942,” was published in the July–December 2006 edition of the Florentine literary journal Studi Italiani (Italian studies).

Serafini-Sauli soon became fascinated with “Clizia’s” turbulent teaching career at Sarah Lawrence. When Brandeis started her part-time teaching position, she was still a graduate student at Columbia University. She became an active faculty member who held independent studies with students and ran school events, including the annual Christmas party.

Yet Brandeis was never appointed to a full-time position. She exchanged correspondence about her plight with Constance Warren, president of the College from 1929–1945. The letters, which are included in the article, detail Brandeis’s struggle with an unwieldy workload and what she saw as unfit compensation.

As a member of the language faculty, this discovery was rather personal to Serafini-Sauli. “I was struck by how precarious the Italian curriculum was” at that time, she says.

After 1941, the language program at Sarah Lawrence was marginalized into private lessons that were independent of the curriculum. The wartime atmosphere made it difficult for Brandeis to press her case, and she left the College in 1942.

Serafini-Sauli enjoyed seeing how things at Sarah Lawrence have changed—and how they’ve stayed the same. “I had never written anything like this before, but it was fun.”

by Christina Mancuso ’08