Friday, June 11, 2010

Guest Post: The Mystery of Mary Nordmeyer

Detected, Translated, and Submitted by Jack/Youngstown and Ilona/Youngstown

(Above) Mary (or May) Nordmeyer, Spencerian. Below the inscription, the colophon shows S. Fischer Verlag gathering popular and literary authors in its net.

“Unserer lieben Käthe herzlichst ----------.
Hannover, den 22 Dezember 1917
Carlot-- ----
Mary Nordmeyer”

The inscription appears to have been written with an extra fine nib. Faded only slightly by my guess, the ink is black, less color-saturated than today’s Private Reserve, with a slight chocolate cast. No feathering or bleeding. The consistency of color saturation throughout, and the absence of overlap strokes suggest, in my view, a fountain pen was used rather than a dip pen.

(Left) Title page, Die versunkene Glocke, The Sunken Bell, 1913 printing of the 1896 play. Yes, the small type beneath Hauptmann's name says "85th edition"!

German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann had written Die versunkene Glocke, The Sunken Bell, and the above inscription was found on the book’s flyleaf. Published first in 1896 (one Web source gives 1897) by Berlin’s S. Fischer Verlag, this 1913 edition remained in near pristine condition on its remarkable journey from the Leipzig printer nearly a century ago to the university library giveaway in Youngstown, Ohio, which is where I found it a few years ago.

(Right) Prozac penman. Gerhart Hauptmann's collected works to date, shown here, joined those of Emile Zola in France, and Theodore Dreiser in America as exemplars of literary naturalism, sometimes criticized for its deep pessimism.

But, back to the inscription. My German has veered somewhere between near native speaker to tourist grade. These days it’s the latter. Still, why was a routine gloss in a book so puzzling? One word was unintelligible, possibly misspelled, or a colloquialism of the day. Another seemed to be a botched signature, of all things, because the other possibilities seemed even less probable.

I’d recruited my sister, and, armed with a Cassell’s and Duden, we set out to decipher the inscription. Here’s what we came up with:

“[To] our dear Kathy, most heartfelt blessings.
Hanover [Germany], 22nd [of] December, 1917
Carlotta Hartl
Mary [or May] Nordmeyer

My sister and I calculated we’d “earned” as “freelance translators”, hobbyists really, a small coffee each if we’d been on the clock. Freelance translators, the real ones, occupy America’s vast ghetto of high-skill jobs that pay next to nothing. How do you put it politely? The minimum-wage day laborer is likely to earn more than many of America’s adjunct professors, academic abstractors, and computer code writers.

Do you see the inscription’s mystery yet? Mary [or May] Nordmeyer’s signature is not written in the spidery German Lateinisch, but in an elegant hand that seems to be a modified Spencerian!

(Above) Fraktur type, which still suggests Merrye Olde Europe. Mary and her friends had another wartime "turnip winter" ahead, then the peacetime food blockade. Higher speed press runs, popular literacy, and increasing disposable incomes called out for more tractable typefaces.

America had declared war on Germany in April. Was Mary an enemy alien, an American citizen awaiting repatriation to the States? Was she German-born but raised in America, and found herself once again in Germany at a bad time in history? Had she travelled to Germany for school or work? What was her connection to Carlotta and Kathy? What happened to all of them?


  1. Thanks to PB for running this lengthy post. I thought it might interest nostalgia buffs, pen collectors and pen connoisseurs, and bibliophiles. We're non-experts here, and welcome any comment or criticism.

    Jack/Youngstown and Ilona/Youngstown

  2. I love reading old book inscriptions, and wondering about the givers and recipients. I think its important to put in an inscription when you give a book as a gift.

  3. I have a question for those who speak German. I would assume that the "Kathy" to whom the givers refer is German. Kathy would be the nickname for what German name?

    To further enhance the mystery, after enlarging the print, I am certain that there is an "r" in there, and the name is definitely Mary. If the giver were German, wouldn't her name have been Maria?

  4. Hmmm, this is interesting and was something I just noticed from enlarging the picture as Reeda mentioned she did--Mary Nordmeyer's handwriting is different from whoever wrote the rest of the inscription. Two different writeres, I'd say. Anyone?

  5. Reeda, "Kaethe" can be rendered as "Kathy" or "Kate", short for "Katarina". I'm pretty confident other accepted German spellings likely also exist for Katarina. I agree, also, Reeda, that's definitely an "r", not an introductory or superfluous stroke preceding the "y", making that definitely "Mary". Like the amateurs we are, we'd hedged by including "May" as an alternative.

    A young German girl christened "Maria" might well have used "Mary" had she emigrated as a very young child with her parents to America and spent her formative years here. Had that same "Mary" returned to Germany for school, work, or marriage, she might have insisted on retaining "Mary". But---speculation. A quick 'n' dirty Web check shows a Nordmeyer family resident in Southern Illinois with roots in Hanover.

    Yes, Diane, those are two signatures. Sorry for not making that clearer in the text. Thanks, too, for making the layout (captions and all) work.

    Thanks, Anonymous, for the kind words. I'm a semi-retired tech writer and ad salesman. People will tell you their "up-front" stories; they're far less inclined to talk about their back stories. I confess to being fascinated by those back stories. I'll guess that Kathy, Carlotta, and Mary preferred in later years not to be reminded of that winter in Hanover.

    Thanks for your wisdom. Jack/Youngstown and Ilona/Youngstown

  6. My guess is that the book was originally dedicated to Kaethe, but not by Mary. Mary simply bought the book second hand, probably as a college student, and then wrote her name in it.

  7. Mary Barker (Andrews) Nordmeyer, a British-born woman, married to Ernst Nordmeyer, secondary school teacher of French and English. Their son, H.W. Nordmeyer was Chairman of German Department, University of Michigan. I have a book he owned, thats why I came across.


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