Academic portrayal of an American socialite who became integral to the Austrian Nazi Resistance.
In many ways, Muriel Gardiner’s existence was the embodiment of the American dream. Though she was born into privilege to two of Chicago’s most prominent meatpacking families, her grandfathers were both self-made men, with stories straight out of a Horatio Alger story. Both were born in 1839 to poor families and ended up scions of American industry, but they took very different paths. Gardiner’s maternal grandfather started as a butcher’s assistant on Cape Cod, while her paternal grandfather, a German Jew, was sent to America at age 12 to apprentice with his traveling-salesman uncle. Gardiner wasn’t a typical society girl. Starting with a controversial student agenda at Wellesley, she eschewed the life planned out for her in the hopes of helping others. She traveled to Europe, where she became a disciple of Sigmund Freud and a close confidant of his daughter, Anna Freud. Gardiner earned a graduate degree from Oxford, married and divorced, had several scandalous affairs, began raising a child on her own and enrolled in medical school in Vienna. It was there, on the dawn of World War II, that Gardiner began her most radical work after falling in love with a revolutionary. She became a key member of the underground Austrian resistance, putting herself in great peril and enduring the anguish of sending her daughter away in order to harbor and arrange for the escape of hundreds of Jews.
With a keen eye for detail, Isenberg (English/Marist Coll.; A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry, 2001, etc.) explores Gardiner’s life and admirable sacrifices, but the narrative lacks the emotional depth readers may expect from such riveting raw material.