A Tribute to Ilse Mattick (1919–2009)

Lilian Schapiro and Ilse Mattick, Vermont, 1998. Photo by Phong Bui.

Ilse Mattick died Wednesday, August 26th at Grace Cottage Hospital in Townsend, Vermont.  She was born Ilse Hamm in Berlin, 1919, to an upper class Jewish family. Always notably independent, going against her family’s wishes she participated in anarchist actions against the Nazis as a teenager, until, upon graduating from college in 1939, officials revoked her diploma. She came to America that year with her mother and brother (her father had already emigrated), and in New York worked as a teacher’s assistant at Hessian Hills School, and then directed the Hudson Guild School. At the former she cared for the son of Fairfield Porter, the artist and critic, through whom she met Paul Mattick, a factory worker, political activist, and the editor of Living Marxism in Chicago. After their initial meeting in 1942, when Mattick came to New York to lecture at the Institute for Social Research, they remained inseparable, socializing in both political and artistic circles in New York, where their friends included Willem de Kooning, Edward Denby, Nell Blaine, and Rudy Burckhardt. In 1944 they had a son, Paul Mattick, Jr., and they married the following year. After the war she returned to Germany for several months under the auspices of the American Friends’ Service Committee to establish care facilities for the children of displaced people, and began to specialize in childhood deprivation and trauma. In 1951, tired of the decline of politics in a New York dulled by affluence and afflicted by Cold War ideological struggles, Ilse and Paul moved to Stratton, VT to try a new life, building their own home and subsistence farming. In a community filled with a wide variety of intellectuals and political activists, including close friends Meyer and Lillian Schapiro, they lived in Vermont until 1958. She was hired that year by the Boston University School of Medicine to set up an experimental therapeutic nursery school for the South End Family Project. Her assessment of this project was published in The Drifters, edited by Eleanor Pavenstedt. Following this, she taught early childhood education at Wheelock College in Boston where, together with Frances Perkins, she established the Therapeutic Tutoring Program, in which students worked with the children of poor Boston families, a very early multiracial initiative in the field. Building on the experience in the South End, this program demonstrated that intensive individual attention could undo many of the ill effects of poverty on young children. She was an active participant in the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and many of her students have gone on to play important roles in the education of young children. Paul Mattick Sr. died in 1981, and Ilse Mattick retired in 1984, after which she returned to Vermont, where she devoted herself, among other pursuits, to battling developers in the interest of preserving the local ecology. Ilse Mattick is survived by her son, his wife Katy Siegel, and her grandson Paul Felix.

We at the Brooklyn Rail send our deep condolences to Paul, Katy, Paul Felix and their extended family.