Ilonka Venier Alexander’s first story appeared very soon after I began my blog. She found one of my early posts; the one about discovering my own Jewish family, which prompted her to contact me as a kindred soul. Ilonka and I have stayed in touch over the years while she began writing primarily about the world of her renowned grandfather. Since then she’s had three books published and is now working on a fourth. Recently she asked me to help her write a synopsis for a film project she had in mind. That’s when I began to realize that her story is even richer than she revealed in that earlier blog, and why I urged her to write an update.
— Pete Vanlaw
by Ilonka Venier Alexander
I grew up with plenty of material things, but I had no sense of family. I felt unloved and unlovable. Yet I was always striving to be perfect, hoping that my mother would stop rejecting me. The only person who really seemed to care about me was my grandfather.
But let me give you some background first:
My grandfather was Dr. Franz Alexander, a world-renowned psychoanalyst. He was born in Budapest in 1891. Later he became a protégé of Dr. Sigmund Freud, and was the first person to graduate from a psychoanalytic institute, and the only psychiatrist that Freud would allow to analyze his own son, Oliver.
Freud also considered my grandfather to be his “best student”, which resulted in him being the first person to bring psychoanalysis to America. That was late in 1930, when he, his wife and their two daughters arrived in Chicago.
It didn’t take long for my grandfather to become successful in America. Because of his connection with Freud, he analyzed many up and coming psychiatrists in this country. But as he quickly reached the pinnacle of his profession, his reputation spread, and he acquired more and more celebrity patients, while achieving a glamorous life style, bordering on the spectacular. As an example, one of his early patients was Al Capone.
Then as his reputation spread to the West Coast, he moved there with his family, and his list of celebrities grew there as well. On his list of patients were many big names in Hollywood: for example, Marilyn Monroe, Steve Allen and his wife, Jane Meadows, along with her sister, Audrey Meadows, known better as Alice Kramden, from the “Honeymooners”, TV show of the 1950’s. Then, there was Danny Kaye, and his wife, Sylvia Fine, the composer, producer, among others.
My grandfather, Franz’s father – my great grandfather – was Bernard Alexander. He was a noted Hungarian professor, poet, writer and intellectual. While both he and my great grandmother were non-practicing Jews, they were aware of their Jewish ancestry. But Bernard had been educated in Catholic schools in Pest, and chose to raise his seven children in the Catholic tradition as well. That meant my grandfather was baptized as a child, as were all his siblings.
But there was also a dark side to my grandfather Franz’ success. He grew up scarred by the knowledge that his father lost his academic standing when his Jewish heritage was revealed. It left its mark on my grandfather for life. Ultimately our family suffered as well.
As an example of how desperate he was to keep his Jewish ancestry a secret, while he was in school in Berlin, both he and his brother, Paul, were said to have threatened to kill their younger sister, Lila, if she ever told anyone they were Jewish.
Of course it would never happen, but it does demonstrate how driven they were to protect their reputations as non-Jews.
Meanwhile, during his studies in Berlin, my grandfather became the first student to be enrolled at the first psychoanalytic institute in the world…”the Berlin Psychoanalytic”. By then he’d already married an Italian countess, which further helped him hide any Jewish connection.
My mother, Silvia Eva Alexander, was born during that same period in Berlin. And five years later her younger sister, my aunt, Francesca, or “Kiki”, was also born in Berlin.
I remember my mother as being outspoken and rather Anti-Semitic in her thinking. I also remember, as a child of seven or eight, driving in and around our neighborhood in West L.A., she would often use the word “kike” in disgust, probably after a driver had cut her off. I had no idea what it meant nor that it was a racial slur. I tried using it once but was quickly punished for it.
In the fall of 1930 my grandfather moved he and his family to Chicago, where he founded the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis.
Then in the early ‘40s, my mother attended Mills College in San Francisco, but left school at the end of her second year. When she returned home to Chicago, she met the man who would become my real, biological father. His name was George Julian Rotariu. He and my mother met while he was studying chemistry at the University of Chicago. That was just before WWII broke out. They were married in secret in 1943, and I was born a year later in 1944.
George, my father, was born in Los Angeles in 1917, but grew up in Chicago. His parents were Romanian/Hungarian immigrants, who moved there shortly after his birth.
But my grandparents never accepted him as their son-in-law. Even though he and his family were Episcopalians, which should have satisfied them, the fact that he was from a family of Romanian/Hungarian immigrants, convinced my grandparents that they were of a lower social class, and not fit to be part of the Alexander family.
But not only did they disapprove of the marriage, in 1944, the year I was born, my grandfather took the next step and tried to bribe my father by offering him $50,000 to stay away from my mother and me. While my father grudgingly agreed to disappear, he was too proud to accept the bribe.
Under those circumstance there was no way to sustain their marriage. So my father and my mother split up in January of the following year. Then a few months later my grandfather intervened once again, only this time to have me baptized and change my name from Nina Alexandra to Ilonka Frances Alexander.
But my grandfather’s intervention could never remove the feelings my mother and father had for one another. They remained in love and stayed in touch until their deaths. Sadly, I never met my father until I was 19, a week after my grandfather died. And then only because my dad had made a promise to “stay away” and would only make contact after my grandfather’s death.
To make matters worse, I was never told any of this while I was growing up. So I never knew he was my real father until many years later.
Adding to the irony behind this whole sordid affair, after their split, my father continued his education and obtained a PhD in chemistry and physics. As Dr. Rotariu, he later became a world-renowned nuclear physicist, on a par with my grandfather in scientific circles. Plus, as you’ll see, my father was by far the best husband my mother ever had compared to any of her subsequent marriages.
Later in 1945, after my parents split, my mother and I move to La Jolla, where my grandparents had their summer home. There she met a man by the name of D. Nigel Thomas, who lived across the street. He was an aeronautical engineer and the son of a more famous aeronautical engineer. His father was credited with designing the Jenny biplane, which became famous during WWI. An example of it currently hangs in the Air Museum at the Smithsonian.
Even though his father received the accolades, obviously my grandparents considered Nigel to be a much more appropriate choice for my mother than my real father had been.
The following year my mother and Nigel were married, and, shortly after their wedding Nigel adopted me. Then in 1948 they had a daughter together, and named her, Marguerita. And two years later a second daughter, Pennie, was born.
Their wedding photographs were sent to relatives world wide, undoubtedly at the urging of my grandfather, who hoped to further the belief that this was my mother’s first marriage. In this way my grandfather successfully erased my real father’s marriage to my mother from our family’s history, while simultaneously erasing my own family history from me.
The five of us – my mother and I, plus Nigel, Marguerita and Pennie – all lived together in sprawling Spanish hacienda with maid’s quarters, in Century City, not far from 20th Century Fox.
Century City is also where I started school. But the marriage became acrimonious and by 1951 it had dissolved.
At that point my mother left the family behind, and only took me with her. The two of us moved to an apartment in Westwood, which was nearby.
Meanwhile my two half sisters remained with Nigel. The three of them continued living in the “hacienda” until Marguerite and Pennie graduated from high school and went off to college. He never remarried.
What I find so incredulous is the fact that my mother walked away from the marriage leaving my two younger sisters behind, and showed no further interest or concern for them, their welfare, or their future. They were only 3 1/2 and 1 1/2 years old at the time. But she never looked back, providing early evidence of her inability to be a loving, nurturing mother – a pattern that would have severe consequences for me for good part of my life.
Ironically many years went by before I learned that Nigel was not my real father, because my grandparents forbid anyone to mention my real father’s name in my presence. I assume it was to further the illusion that my mother’s marriage to Nigel had been her first.
I was in the 2nd grade when my grandfather intervened yet again. But this time it happened when he decided that my mother was not “fit mother material”. He had learned that she had been entertaining men in our one bedroom apartment.
So for my protection he spirited me away to a swanky, expensive and very exclusive boarding school in nearby Palos Verdes, called “Chadwick School”. That’s where I spent the next seven years of my life.
Of course my grandparents paid for my tuition, as they did many of our bills.
Naturally my mother had another man waiting in the wings. She married him almost immediately after her divorce from Nigel was official.
Husband #3 was George Gray. The two newlyweds moved to South Bay, but I ended up spending most of my weekends and vacations with George’s parents in Inglewood. I rarely stayed with my mother and new her husband.
By now my life was unraveling. I felt completely abandoned by my mother, and just wanted to feel that I belonged somewhere. But that was impossible since she always wanted to be the center of attention. Obviously she had no interest in being a loving, nurturing parent. Instead, she relied on sitters, teachers, boarding schools, and anyone else who had the where-with-all to care for me.
Then, a few years later that marriage broke up as well. I never saw George again…nor know what ever happened to him.
At the time, my grandfather was spending part of the week at his office in L.A., and would return to their home in Palm Springs on weekends to be with my grandmother. But because he didn’t like living alone, he suggested that we all move in together when my mother’s third marriage unraveled.
So, after seven years in boarding school, in 1959 I left Chadwick and moved in with my mother and my grandfather in a Westwood Village duplex. I also enrolled at nearby “Uni” (University) High School. I was in the tenth grade. It was the first time since I began boarding school that I actually lived with my mother.
But two years later my mother decided that she had enough of living with her father. She didn’t like the way he continually nagged her about her parenting. So the two of us moved nearby, into a smaller apartment on Veteran Ave., which allowed me to remain in the school district. We stayed there for a year.
The following year I turned 17. That was 1962, when I graduated from Uni High. .
On my graduation day I found flowers on my doorstep after the ceremony. They were from my real father, Dr. George Julian Rotariu. It was my first contact with him ever since he was forced, or should I say “persuaded”, to leave our family back in 1945. Ironically he had learned of my graduation from my grandfather.
One week later my mother married yet again. This would be husband #4. His name was Fred Dodge. But this time she moved to Reno after the wedding. However, I chose to stay in L.A., and lived at the Sisters of Charity Service for a few months. At the same time I also did some typing for my grandfather. Then I moved in with my aunt and her new husband, who lived in Pacific Palisades.
By then my life had become quite chaotic. I didn’t begin college for another year, when I enrolled at Santa Monica City College and then transferred to Cal State, Los Angeles.
Then in March 1964 Dr. Franz Alexander, my grandfather, died. The funeral was held at the main Catholic Church in Palm Springs, but he was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in San Diego.
But my memories of that entire event were extremely painful for me. For reasons I will never understand, I was treated like a pariah. Ignored by my mother and ostracized by my grandmother, my aunt finally took enough pity on me to put me in a local hotel by myself, while the rest of the family stayed at my grandparents’ house.
At this point I think it’s important for me to clarify my feelings about my grandfather. While he may appear to have been more villain than hero in my story, Grandfather Franz was the only adult to express any interest in me. He was a very private person, but he could also be fun and playful. Yet he always expected excellence from me. While I know the incredible lengths to which he went to avoid what happened to his father, at the same time he was the only father I ever really had.
Later, after graduating from UCLA in 1968, I had to taste life, while searching for a way to belong. After a couple of failed marriages and odd jobs in and out of the medical field, I wound up in graduate school at USC in 1983. That’s when I began to realize that I was destined to enter the field of my grandfather. Growing up as an unwanted child with so many secrets kept from me, I think I was destined for it to learn about myself and learn how to deal with my overwhelming feelings of abandonment.
Back in 1977, while working at UCLA in Academic Medicine, I wanted to reconnect with my mother and began writing to her. But it took until the next year when she finally relented and allowed me to come to visit…the first time in 16 years.
For a while I saw her once or twice a year. But that tapered off and our relationship became increasingly awkward a difficult. After 1992 I never saw her again. She died in 2003.
Now I often think of where my life was before 2009, and what it would have been like had my friend, Julia, not proved to me that our family was really Jewish, and not Roman Catholic, as I had firmly believed.
After that I was able to uncover my real family, the one that had been hidden from me for all those years. It’s taken a long time for me to learn that family is the essence of life that I had been searching for. As I began meeting cousins literally all over the world, I realized that I was special; that I was loved, wanted, and appreciated.
From there I began an amazing journey of discovery. A journey that has taken me almost around the world to meet other fascinating people who have both enriched my life and continue to be a part of it. Finally I’m finding a real sense of belonging.
My life is full, yet I often wonder why it was so important to hide the truth from me, while hiding me from the rest of my family. Despite it all, I am grateful to have been born into a family of survivors.
Ilonka reached the pinnacle when the American Psychoanalytic Association asked her to speak at their annual meeting in 2016, held, ironically in Chicago.
She also had the honor of addressing analysts at the Sandor Firenczi Society in Budapest.
Plus, she’s been interviewed in magazines, on the radio, on pod casts and on TV, because of worldwide interest in her grandfather, and his influence on the field of psychiatry.
In addition, she’s written three best sellers for Karnac Books:
“The Life and Times of Franz Alexander: From Budapest to California”
“ Love and Survival in Budapest: The Personal Memoir of Artur Renyi”
“Growing Up Alexander: My Life with a Psychoanalytic Pioneer”
She’s now working on a fourth book about her grandfather’s legacy: a historical treatise of his ideas within the context of the time in which they were written, compared and contrasted to their relevance today.