Reading Evelyn Stefansson Nefs autobiography is like watching time-lapse photographs of a rose in the process of blooming. Each petal in random sequence breaks free from the bud and stretches out in all directions. The intricately textured flower in full bloom gives little hint of its humble beginning.
Born in 1913 the child of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, Evelyn grew up in Brooklyn. Her memories of her early years are dominated by a sense of joylessness, a remote and fragile mother, and a father she adored who died suddenly when she was thirteen. While studying art at high school in Manhattan Evelyn frequently visited a Greenwich Village restaurant called Romany Maries, a popular gathering place for artists and writers. Among her new acquaintances was the futurist inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller, who became an intimate friend.
As a bright, talented, and attractive young woman, Evelyn moved freely within New Yorks theatrical and literary worlds of the 1930s. Under the tutelage of master puppeteer, Bil Baird, with whom she had a passionate but short-lived marriage, she became accomplished in the art of marionettes. In 1939 Evelyn took a position to manage the private library of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the renowned, and controversial, Arctic explorer and scholar. Their personal relationship blossomed and they married in 1941. She was twenty-six- he was sixty-one.
In her new role she quickly developed skills as an editor, researcher, and writer, and came into her own as an authority on the Far North. At the request of Charles Scribners Sons she wrote a book about Alaska. First published in 1943, it went into four editions and sold over 100,000 copies. After Stefs death, Evelyn moved to Washington, D.C. where she married John Nef, a University of Chicago professor. He introduced her to the world of modern art and to French culture. During this period she became part of the close friendship John had with Marc and Vava Chagall, with whom they vacationed every year.
Chagall honored their bond in 1971 by creating and installing an enormous mosaic on a wall in the Nefs Georgetown garden. Following a bout with depression when she was in her late fifties, Evelyn decided to study psychotherapy as a profession and completed a three-year program qualifying her to take on her own patients, which she did until her eightieth year. Evelyn writes with refreshing candor about her disappointments as well as her accomplishments.
She is particularly insightful about the inability of many men of genius to communicate compassion to other human beings. Her story is permeated with her remarkably ebullient outlook on life and her determination to make her last decades as fulfilling as the preceding ones.