I recently pitched a book review to the editor of a Washington, D.C., newspaper:
Dear [Editor X],Queen Elizabeth II called Oscar Nemon “the only man who could get Winston Churchill to do what he was told.” After reluctantly agreeing to sit for him, Sigmund Freud became an admirer and friend of the “gaunt, goatee-bearded artist.” The Queen Mother, the Queen, and the Princess of Wales all numbered among Nemon’s subjects, as did Margaret Thatcher and Dwight D. Eisenhower.This would be quite an accomplishment for anyone, and it was especially so for an unprepossessing Jewish sculptor from Croatia whose upper-class English in-laws tried to have him deported as a spy during World War II.Although Nemon sculpted some of the world’s best known people, few have heard of him in the U.S. I hope that will change with the publication in this country of Finding Nemon: The Extraordinary Life of the Outsider Who Sculpted the Famous, a biography by Nemon’s daughter, Lady Aurelia Young.Finding Nemon is part coffee table book — the generous black-and-white illustrations are wonderful — part quirky biography. Neither sentimental nor recriminatory, the book provides an intimate, sometimes gossipy portrait of the artist as a perpetual outsider, even when he was rubbing shoulders with the great. It also gives unusual insight into the process of biography writing, weaving in portions of Nemon’s diary and often detailing Young’s adventures in research during the years she spent trying to track down her father’s work.Full disclosure: I was one of the people Young contacted during this search; I’d made a casual reference to one of her father’s subjects on my family’s genealogical blog, FreudButcher.com. As a result of our correspondence, I became interested in Nemon, and wrote several pieces about him, including for PsychologyToday.com; see Did Vienna Repress Freud and Oscar Nemon: Forgotten Sculptor of the Royals—and Freud.
I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog detailing how family members keep turning up and how meaningful that’s been to my life. I have, however, neglected to credit one of the friendships formed as a result of these musings. Which is rather rude. I owe Aurelia Young several debts: She inspired my first trip to Vienna since the 1970s and she was instrumental in getting the Sigmund Freud Museum Vienna to host the talk I gave there.
I e-met Aurelia Young in 2013 when I posted here: Richard Tauber: “How Can I Be a Jew”? In response, I got a long, very interesting comment:
Thank you for an informative and amusing blog.
As you mention Richard Tauber I thought you or one of your readers might be interested in my quest to find out if my father sculpted the singer.
My father was a Jewish sculptor, born Oskar Neumann, in Osijek Croatia in 1906. He studied in Vienna when he was 18 and sculpted many of the leading singers of the day including Domenico Borghese and Leo Slezak. Arnold Schoenberg advised him to leave Vienna after a year so he went to Brussels and changed his name to Némon. He was summoned back to Vienna to sculpt Sigmund Freud in 1931. Némon also sculpted many of Freud’s disciples including Sandor Ferenczi, Ernest Jones, Paul Federn, Princess Marie Bonaparte and Rene Laforgue.
I’m emailing you because I have just read a 1927 press report about Nemon’s 1927 medallion of Charles Lindbergh which also says that Nemon sculpted Richard Tauber and Tino Pattiera. Many of my father’s papers have been lost during his many moves from country to country. His mother, brother and grandmother were murdered in the Holocaust.
What immediately followed, surprising absolutely no one who knows me, was a blog post about Nemon and Freud and Freud’s dogs and Topsy, the dog of Freud’s friend Princess Marie Bonaparte. Nemon sculpted Topsy but did not sculpt any of Freud’s dogs; he did, however, write about the one pictured below with Freud and Nemon (Vienna, 1931), below:
But I digress.
In 2014, upon learning that Aurelia Young was to give a talk about her father at the Freud Museum, I decided to use the event as an excuse to go to Vienna for the first time since the 1970s. After two years of research and writing about the city, it was time to face down my ambivalence. Putting on my travel writer/cultural critic hat, I thought, might protect me against the emotions inevitably linked to a return to the world capital that had been both beloved home to my parents and their vile betrayer.
The Nemon talk was delightful and Aurelia and I ended up spending a good deal of free time together, including going on a fruitless search for Freud’s summer home in Pötzleinsdorf, the Vienna suburb where Nemon sculpted Freud (and met his dog). We may or may not have found said summer home and may or may not have trespassed on the property if we did. I blame the fact that there is no plaque marking the spot for any possible infraction.
Over the years, we maintained a steady correspondence, much of it relating to Nemon’s statue of Freud that had been planned to be erected in Vienna in 1936. A version was installed in Hempstead, London, in 1970, not far from the home where Freud spent the final year of his life, but Aurelia was determined to get Vienna to pay tribute to one of its most famous citizens — and to her father — by having the statue installed in its intended locale.
In 2018 she succeeded and I tagged along to see it. In June, I was in London for a family reunion and traveled with Aurelia and her younger sister and daughter to Vienna for the installation ceremony, described here.
As for Aurelia’s role in helping me secure a talk at the Freud Museum in October of that year, suffice it to say that the support of a friend who has a title and whose father knew Freud is impossible to understate.
Back to the book
The phrase “full disclosure” suggests an admission that my proposed review might not be entirely disinterested, that my acquaintance with the author might undermine my neutrality about her work. But the story of one of the most talented sculptors of the 20th century and his close relationship with some of the most renowned figures of his time is inherently interesting. And as I mentioned in the pitch, the illustrations — of the work, its subjects, and Nemon’s family — are superb. I was only biased insofar as my contact with the witty, open, and warm-hearted author led me expect that her tale would be well told.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Perhaps my only surprise was how well Aurelia managed to be both sympathetic and clear eyed. She was able to write dispassionately about her father’s affairs and his conflicted relationship to his wife and children. For example, with regard to his thwarted wish to emigrate to America at one point, she writes (p. 125): “Nemon loved his children and was always an affectionate father, but he was also a reluctant one…Whether his plan was to invite his family to join him later or whether he was planning to abandon us we will never know.”
Why query a Washington, DC, paper, you ask (aside from the fact that it’s a national one that I wrote for once before and would love to write for again)? Aurelia Young will be in the city in October, giving several talks about her father–and of course selling books.
The main event: “Winston Churchill’s Sculptor: The Life and Works of Oscar Nemon,” to be held at National Churchill Library and Center on October 23rd at 6pm. It’s free and open to the public, and reservations are not required.
As for the book, I posted the US Amazon link for the hardcover, above, but the paperback Finding Nemon is also available in the US on Wordery, which was how I ordered it. This online distributor is based in the UK but delivery was free and the book arrived within ten days.