Linguist, art collector, philanthropist, dies at 97


Felice Massie, born Fela Oserowicz on Nov. 28, 1910, in the agricultural village of Sczcuczyn, in northeastern Poland, died of natural causes at the age of 97, in San Mateo, Calif., near San Francisco on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2007. Formerly of St. Louis, Mrs. Massie moved to California in 1990, following the death of her husband, Edward Massie.

Michael Newmark, a St. Louis attorney and past president of the Jewish Federation and the St. Louis Jewish Light, said, “Felice was a loyal and inspiring friend. She had a love of learning, a determination that allowed her to survive so many challenges in life, and a great heart that led to a commitment that created opportunities for the less fortunate.”

At great financial sacrifice and against the prevailing custom of primarily educating boys, Felice was sent to gymnasium (high school) in Vilna (now Vilnius, Lituania). The city was then a renowned center of learning. Later, she was sent to a university in Nancy, France.

On graduating with a doctor of dental surgery degree from the University of Nancy in 1935, Felice could not stay in France, nor find employment in Poland due to the anti-Semitic laws being passed there, and decided to leave Poland and the increasing Fascist tide in Europe.

“By this time,” a family member said, “Felice was a bold and beautiful young woman with a command in Polish, Yiddish, Russian, German and French.” Although her father refused to consider emigrating because of his business, he arranged a “paper” marriage to a resident of Palestine. She made her way from France to Lebanon, but at the crossing into Palestine, the British Army officer correctly perceived that she was using a fictitious marriage certificate to cross the border. Felice recounted how the officer asked her what language she would use to communicate with her husband, since she did not yet know Hebrew. “The language of love,” was her reply. Taken by her answer, the British officer let her cross into Palestine.

Her first job was in an Arab dentist’s office in the port city of Jaffa, where female French-speaking dentists were needed to treat Arab women. On April 19, 1936, the first largescale uprising occurred in Jaffa in reaction to growing Jewish immigration and many Jews were attacked, but Felice’s employer saved her life by hiding her. She was also threatened by Jewish residents for “fraternizing” with Arabs. She decided to emigrate to the United States, arriving at Ellis Island in 1937. Penniless at the time, she stayed with her uncle in New Haven.

She answered an advertisement in The New York Times, placed by the president of Yale University, and she became the governess and French instructor for his step-daughter. A year later she won a scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis to finish courses needed to get her dental license. There in 1938, she met and married Edward Massie, a medical resident. Later, he became a nationally prominent cardiologist and author of pioneering textbooks on the new field of electrocardagraphy that were published in eight languages.

Felice Massie never practiced dentistry in the United States, but raised a family and turned her attention to earning a graduate degree in Spanish literature, where she wrote a thesis on the writing of Frederico Garcia Lorca and to Abstract Expressionist art, later becoming a lecturer in both fields at Washington University and in the St. Louis community. She also made the first translation of Jean Piaget’s autobiography from French to English.

Mrs. Massie first discovered Abstract Expressionism in the early 1950s, when she walked into a New York gallery to escape the rain. She was immediately captivated by its energy and raw emotion. By dint of her early penetrating, interpretive grasp and excitement over the social and artistic significance of Abstract Expresionism, she befriended and supported several of the painters who became leading figures. She also collected paintings from several artists who subsequently became recognized pioneers of this movement.

Her father survived the war, because he was sent by the Russian Red Army, along with other Jewish intellectuals to Soviet Russia before the Nazi occupation of eastern Poland. there he taught anatomy at the University of Smolenck and later managed a grain mill in Siberia. After the war he lived for a time in St. Louis before moving to Israel to join his younger daughters. Felice’s mother died in Treblinka, and her brother died fighting in the Jewish Resistance outside Bialystok. When Mrs. Massie’s husband Edward died in 1990, she joined her two sons in San Francisco. She gradually used her art collection to support philanthropic causes. She endowed the Edward Massie Lectureship in Cardiology and the Felice Massie Visiting Professorship in Romance Languages and Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. She also remembered the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, which had awarded her a small grant that made it possible for her to attend Washington Universtiy in 1938, by making a major gift to support its endowment and expansion.

The brief time Mrs. Massie spent in Palestine led her to support many projects for Arab-Israeli coexistence and peace activism through the Jerusalem Foundation, the New Israel Fund and the San Francisco-based human rights organization Global Exchange.

Survivors include a sister, Hanka, of Israel; sons, Henry Massie, a psychiatrist, and Barry Massie, a cardiologist, both at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine; their spouses Bridget and Ellen; three granddaughters, Kate, Jennifer, and Rebecca, of the San Francisco Bay Area and a great-granddaughter, also named Felice, “who brightened her final months,” according to a family member.

Donations in the memory of Felice Massie may be made to the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, Faith Sandler, director, 8215 Clayton Road, St. Louis, Mo. 63117.