“Grand surprise”: distinguished author who immortalised my mother

Once upon a time my mother, Anni, was young. She had been born and went to school in Vienna. Her boyfriend – at least, that’s what he thought he was – was called Paul, and Paul had an older sister called Franzi. In the late 1930s, they all dispersed, fled, emigrated, when the Nazis came to power. Paul and Franzi went eventually to the USA. My mother went to Australia and did not meet her schoolfriends again until 1962, by which time she, Paul and Franzi were all married with children.

Franzi had a daughter called Lore, who came to the UK as one of the Kindertransport children and later attended Bedford College for Women at the University of London. She married David Segal in 1961 and had two children. In 1964, Lore Segal published a book that opened with fictionalised recollections of her mother’s friends – including my mother – and continued with reminiscences of her experiences of growing up in a variety of different English households. The book, called Other People’s Houses, was widely acclaimed.

Lore has since published several other books and taught writing at prestigious American universities including Columbia, Princeton and the universities of Illinois and Ohio.

In 1985, Lore’s third novel, Her First American, was published. The New York Times praised it highly, saying, “Lore Segal may have come closer than anyone to writing The Great American Novel.” It tells the sad and funny story of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Europe and her relationship with a middle-aged, hard-drinking Black intellectual, “her first American”.

I met Lore in 1962 in New York, when my mother and I were travelling from an extended stay in Europe and the UK back to our home in Australia.

Since then, silence. Until now.

I read a few weeks ago about Her First American and her later books and decided to try to contact Lore, now aged 96, through her agent. I received a reply almost immediately, headed “Grand Surprise”, with the message, “This is not how one usually responds to a letter, but I need you to go and get Other People’s Houses, my autobiographical novel, republished in the UK last year. The first chapter is all you need to meet, under a fictional name, your beautiful, witty, blonde mother, who, in those days, was my beloved Uncle Paul’s girl. She used to visit in my grandparents’ house in Fischamend near Vienna.” [Lore, if you read this: I hope you are OK with my posting a quote from your email.]

This group of friends were, Lore said, her childhood’s dream of “grownup wonderfulness”. She continued, “It is thrilling to hear from Anni’s daughter”.

I have responded to her with an account of what has happened to us all in the 62 years since we met – quite an exercise in condensing history.

I too am thrilled to have connected with this award-winning, highly respected author whose book brings to life my mother as a young girl. Other People’s Houses will be next on my reading list after I hurry through the remaining pages of the less-deserving The Sign of the Fish by Peter Quennell.

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