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Stanford White

Claire Nicolas White, born June 18,1925, in Groet, Netherlands, died May 26 in St. James.

A woman of vast and varied talents, she was a poet, writer and teacher of ballet, French and writing. Daughter of stained-glass painter Joep Nicolas and sculptor Suzanne Nys, Claire spent her early childhood in the Netherlands and a convent school in France. When she was 14, her parents fled the Nazi menace. Her father had a commission to paint a mural in Rockefeller Center, New York, where the family felt at home in a European community of exiled artists and writers. Claire and her younger sister, Sylvia, attended the Lycée Français with the children and grandchildren of other refugees.

When she’d arrived in New York, Claire spoke Dutch and French. By the time she graduated from Smith College, she’d fallen in love with English. In the poem, “Marriage II,” she wrote:

But English I wed for better or worse, 

my reality, my daily companion.

In 1946, Claire, with her mother, sister and fiancé, drove to California to visit her mother’s sister, Maria, and her husband, writer Aldous Huxley. In a 2017 interview, Claire said that her famous uncle had encouraged her to follow her chosen path.

After graduating from Smith College, she married Robert White, renowned sculptor and a grandson of the architect Stanford White. Speaking of the primacy of art in their relationship, Claire said, in that same interview, “Life is chaos; art is necessary to organize it.”

Claire and Bobby had four children. Their oldest, Sebastian, became a physicist; Stephanie, a dancer; and Christian, a painter. Claire’s youngest child, Natalie, died in a car accident when she was only 17. Claire also had six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Until her last days, her close family, including many nieces and nephews, was a continual source of joy. She took pride in the way Sylvia and her son, Diego, have carried on the stained-glass legacy of the Nicolas family.

Because of family connections and her schooling, Claire was accustomed to meeting famous people. She wrote opera libretti for Vittorio Rieti, the composer, a great friend and the father of the artist Fabio Rieti, her Lycée classmate. Cartier-Bresson photographed her as a young woman. She took silent walks with the Indian writer and philosopher, Krishnamurti, who taught her how to concentrate on each step. Through Rieti, she met Igor Stravinsky and introduced him to Aldous Huxley. Through Stravinsky, she met the great choreographer, George Balanchine. When Bobby won a Prix de Rome, the couple befriended the writer William Styron and his wife in Italy.

And yet Claire was not drawn to the limelight. She was fond of quoting the line in Emily Dickinson, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Putting down roots in St. James, she created an astonishing legacy, producing poems, libretti, plays, essays, memoirs, novels, art criticism (Art News, Newsday) and translations of Dutch and French literature. She mentored students of all ages at the Walt Whitman birthplace, in schools all over Long Island and in nursing homes. At Taproot Workshops & Journals, a nonprofit that encourages senior citizens to write in all genres, Claire was, according to its executive director, Enid Graf (in a letter to The New York Times,1995), “One of the organization’s finest teachers.” Claire was also the first editor of Oberon Poetry Magazine, founded in 2002 and still published by the Oberon Foundation.

She wrote into her 90s, both poetry and prose. Writer Orel Protopopescu, like many others in Claire’s orbit, considered her a mentor as well as a friend: “Until late last year, she was well enough to meet with our writing group weekly and would surprise us with unexpected turns of phrase, and a wry wit that was inimitably hers. Poems came to her with the regularity of dreams. There is a short poem called “The Tower” in which Claire describes an old wooden water tower close to her house. Its concluding lines encapsulate her philosophy of life:”

When life is flat I tower it

with a view

of the infinite.

In 2006, Claire donated her work to Stony Brook University Special Collections & Archives. Open to researchers without restriction, the collection comprises 10 cubic feet of newspaper clippings, articles, manuscripts, journals, notebooks, correspondence and published works from 1944 to 2006. 

Reading the titles in this collection, not all listed below, made me dizzy. I had thought that I knew her, but now I see I only had a glimpse. Claire was an extraordinary woman, complex and not always easy. She had a powerful impact on the lives of all of us privileged to know her, work with her, live a part of our lives with her and to love her. 

Some of Claire White’s publications:

Poetry in reviews and anthologies: The New Yorker, Partisan Review, Grand Street, Atlantic Monthly, Witness, Confrontation, The Paris Review, Long Island Quarterly, Paumanok, Poems and Pictures of Long Island and A Taste of Poetry (Walt Whitman Birthplace Association). 

Translations: “The Time of Our Lives (Journal d’une petite fille)” by Martine Rouchaud, 1946 (with Louise Varèse); “The Assault” by Harry Mulisch, 1985 (Pantheon Books, 1985 Honorable mention, PEN Translation prize); “A Night in May (La Nuit de mai)” by Alfred de Musset, 1989; “A Letter of Time” by Hans van de Waarsenburg in 1989; “The Vanishing” by Tim Krabbé, 1993; and “My Father’s War: A Novel” by Adriaan van Dis, 1996.

Selected books, poetry and prose: “The Death of the Orange Trees” (Harper and Row, 1963), a novel; “Joep Nicolas, leven en werk” (life and work) (Van Spijk, 1979); “Biography and Other Poems” (Doubleday, 1981); “Fragments of Stained Glass” (Mercury House, 1981), a memoir (Spanish tr. “Mosaico de Una Vida,” Sabina Editorial, 2017); “The Bridge” (Cross Cultural Communications, 1987); “River Boy,” 1988 (ed.); “Stanford White: Letters to His Family” (Rizzoli,1997); “The Elephant and the Rose” (The Vineyard Press, 2003), a memoir’; and poetry collections: “Riding at Anchor” (Waterline Books, 1994); “News from Home” (Birnham Woods Graphics, 1998); and since 2004: “Elusive Harbors” (poetry), “An Armful of Time, Snapshots” (memoir), “Ernestine” (novella), “Robert White, Sculptor,” “The Land of the Smiths” (2014) and “Five Generations Painting with Light” (2019).

Submitted by Kathy Donnelly with contributions from poets and writers.

Hundreds of residents gather at the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational & Cultural Center to learn about Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

More than 100 years after his great-grandfather designed and oversaw the construction of Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe laboratory in Shoreham, Sebastian White, a renowned physicist and St. James native, filled a local lecture hall to discuss all things surrounding the Serbian-American inventor.

White, whose famous ancestor Stanford White’s architectural achievements include Washington Square Arch, the original Madison Square Garden and what is now the Tesla Science Center, took time out of his busy schedule as a particle physicist for CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research — to engage a roomful of science lovers Aug. 27.

The presentation was in conjunction with the center’s summer-long Tesla exhibit in Stony Brook and ended with a screening of clips from “Tower to the People,” a documentary made by a local filmmaker about the laboratory.

The physicist, and chairman of the Tesla Science Center’s Science Advisory Board, examined the litany of Tesla influences in modern-day technology and the late-19th century culture that helped shape his genius.

Dr. Sebastian White, the great-grandson of Nikola Tesla’s architect Stanford White, discuss the importance of inventor Nikola Tesla and his work. Photo by Kevin Redding

“Today it’s very clear that Tesla is trending in much of the science that’s showing up, such as wireless transmission of energy, which is a new field, and the Tesla car, but I think we shouldn’t only remember him for what he did, but also the incredible time in America he became part of,” White told the 130 residents packed into the lecture hall on the top floor at The Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational & Cultural Center. “I think the story of Tesla, who many of my colleagues don’t even know, is an important one as it tells us how we got to where we are.”

White explained how Tesla’s grand vision for wireless transmission of energy, which eventually culminated in a torn-down tower on the Shoreham site in 1917, remains a much-pursued concept.

“There’s a very lively industry happening today, mostly because people keep forgetting to charge their iPhones and they want to find a way to do it without needing cords,” he said.

Through a process called energy harvesting, industry scientists are actively working on ways to charge cellphones while they sit inside pockets by capturing energy just from the environment.

“It’s an enormous field now — new companies are very interested in it and a lot is happening,” White said, pointing out other examples of wireless power transmissions over the years. “In 1964, on the Walter Cronkite TV show, a guy named William C. Brown demonstrated a model of an electric helicopter powered by a microwave. The United States, Canada and Japan have experimented with airplanes powered by radio waves. I would say, probably, if Tesla were around today, he’d be more happy about all the things people are inventing with new techniques rather than always quoting him and saying, ‘Well, Tesla said this.’”

White said Tesla’s emergence as one of the most influential scientific minds of all time coincided with what he referred to as “an incredibly important time” in the late 1800s, a period referred to as the American Renaissance.

Among the prolific figures with whom Tesla interacted were writer Mark Twain, physicist Ernest Rutherford, American businessman John Jacob Astor IV, and, of course, Stanford White. The physicist said a huge year for Tesla was 1892, when he lectured and demonstrated his experiments at the Institution for Electrical Engineers at the Royal Institution in London.

Residents eagerly listen and learn about the life of invetntor Nikola Tesla during a lecture. Photo by Kevin Redding

Speaking on his great-grandfather and Tesla’s friendship, which proved itself through many projects prior to Wardenclyffe, White referred to one particular exchange.

“Stanford White [once] invited Tesla to join him for an outing with William Astor Chanler, an explorer,” he recounted. “Tesla said, ‘I’m busy in the lab.’ White kept pushing him and then wrote to him, ‘I’m so delighted that you decided to tear yourself away from your laboratory. I would sooner have you on board than the Emperor of Germany or the Queen of England.’”

David Madigan, a Tesla Science Center board member, said after the lecture that having White’s perspective on this near-and-dear subject was integral.

“It’s important having Dr. White give the talk, who’s a physicist himself and whose grandfather was Stanford White, who was intimately involved in Tesla’s advancement of his many ideas both as an investor and also as an architect,” Madigan said. “It’s a good triangulation of today’s event, the Tesla exhibit, and Dr. White bringing in the scientific and family history.”

White said he has always felt a strong connection with his great-grandfather, who had a home in Smithtown, since he was  young.

“He was part of our life for sure,” he said. “We all felt very close to him. My son is an architect, my aunt and uncle were architects, my grandfather was an architect, and even continued in the same firm.”

East Setauket resident Michael Lubinsky said he was drawn to the lecture through a lifelong interest in Tesla.

“I always felt that Tesla was not appreciated that much in his time,” Lubinsky said, laughing that much of the lecture went over his head with its scientific terms.

Paul Scala, a software engineer living in Centereach, said he too gravitated to the event to explore more of Tesla’s story.

“I think [Dr. White] did a very nice job,” he said. “It’s very cool seeing that in the tech world they’re still trying to harness wireless energy.”