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Friday, December 16, 2016

131. Frances "Bootie" Zimmer: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Frances "Bootie" Zimmer 

Frances "Bootie" Zimmer was born on Halloween in 1911 at Monongahela General 
Hospital, three years before the country had an income tax or a Federal Reserve Bank, in 
the first flush moments of scientific pedagogy practically realized. She was five years 
younger than dad, two inches taller, born in a country on the gold standard where 
common citizens carried precious metal in their pockets as money. 

She was three when WWI began, six when the Gary Plan riots struck New York City 
schools. In the postwar years, her father, son of a German immigrant from the Palatinate, 
became prosperous by working around the clock as a print shop proprietor and sometimes 
investor in movies, carnivals, newspapers, and real estate. His grandchildren, Moss and 
Taylor, my brilliant cousins, are still in the printing business in Bethel Park, near 
Pittsburgh, one hundred years later. 

Bootie graduated from Monongahela High, where she was a cheerleader, in 1929, a few 
months before the market crash. Besides losing money, some other great catastrophe 
must have happened to the Zimmers then, but I've only been able to unearth a few shards 



of its nature. Whatever its full dimension, it included the sudden eviction of Grandmother 
Moss from her home, the incarceration of great-grandfather Frederick in an old-age 
institution far away, the flight of great- grandmother Isabelle to Detroit at the age of 
seventy-nine, at a time when Detroit and the moon were equally distant, and the severing 
of ties between Granddad and his brothers to the extent that though they lived cheek to 
jowl with us in the tiny city, I was neither aware of their existence nor did they once say 
hello. Ach! 

In the great breakup, Bud ran to Chicago without a penny and without graduating from 
high school; Mother, too, ran off in dramatic fashion, telling her best friend as she 
boarded a train for Pittsburgh that she would wave a handkerchief at the window if she 
intended to return. She didn't wave. And though she did return, she hid ever after, never 
speaking to any of her childhood friends again. I discovered all this when I advertised in 
the local paper after Bootie's death, asking to speak to anyone who had known her as a 
girl. 

Mother was bone-thin with large blue eyes and hair gone white at thirty, just as my own 
did. She lived on a razor's edge between a need to avoid shame and an almost equally 
desperate need to find a way to express her considerable talents, a goal conventional 
assessment would say eluded her forever. Yet everything she turned her hand to was 
marked by electrifying energy. Our Christmas trees were an art form. Our home was 
cleaner and neater than a hospital operating room. Beauty and good taste flowed from her 
fingertips. But the shame, which she would rather have died than acknowledge, always 
defeated her in the end and made her melancholy when she thought no one was looking. 

I think Mother tried to force her fierce spirit into Dad and live through him. When that 
failed, she pinned her hopes on me. This, I think, caused the original breach in the 
marriage. Compared to the driven Germans she knew best, Dad must have presented a 
lifelong frustration. And though we never went hungry or lacked a roof, the absence of 
extra money represented decisive evidence to her of damnation, permanent exile from the 
fairyland of her youth. 

And yet the exquisite irony bedevils me like a fury — never have I met anyone able to 
make such magic out of nothing. When, to her great surprise, she came into a 
considerable amount of money after father's death, like Midas' wish, it offered her 
nothing she really needed. Nor was she able to spend any of it to buy her heart's desire, 
an avenue for her talent and some dignity. 

In 1932 Frances Zimmer went off alone on her frightening adventure, marrying into a 
magnificent Italian family which had pulled itself out of the immigrant stew while the 
patriarch was alive, only to plummet back into the soup after his death. She married all 
alone, without a father or mother there to give her away. 

Giovanni Gatto, my grandfather, had been an enlightened publicista in Italy, an unheard 
of Presbyterian Italian who swept a contessa off her feet in Calabria in the elopement 



which resulted in her disinheritance. Together, Giovanni and Lucrezia came to America 
with their young children and set up house in Pittsburgh. 

Giovanni is another family ghost I worked to discover. After a short time in this country, 
he was hired (personally) by Andrew Mellon to be manager of the Foreign Exchange 
Department of Mellon Bank. He was a man for whom restaurants kept a personalized 
champagne bucket, a man who commissioned stone sculptures for his garden. 
Grandfather Gatto was also leader of the Freemasons of Pittsburgh, the Grand Venerable. 
An old news clipping reported his death in thirty- five column inches with three headlines 
and a dignified photograph. The obituary called him "leader of the Italian colony of 
Pittsburgh," continuing, "fifty-eight cars, each carrying eight persons, were required to 
convey friends of the deceased to the cemetery and back home again." 

His death produced a shock for the living. No assets survived Giovanni. Only a hasty sale 
of the home for much less than its value kept the family out of immediate poverty. The 
children scrambled to find a toehold in the working world and by a stoical acceptance of 
reduced circumstances managed to keep the family together and to support Lucrezia, who 
spoke little English. It was a pulling together the Zimmers had not been able to manage. 

Ten years later, mother was drawn into this family orbit, she holding tight to her secrets, 
Dad doing the same with his own. What the merger should have conferred on Sister and 
me was a striking band of distinctive individuals: big-hearted Laura, elegant Josephine, 
witty and caustic Virginia, crotchety Achilles (renamed Kelly.) There was also Nick, the 
humanist; Frank, the intellectual; and Lucrezia, the contessa. But instead, our private 
hurts kept us apart as surely as the same force divided my sister and me. 

Mother found subtle ways to discourage fraternization with the sociable Gattos, Dad 
eventually taking the hint. Until I was fully grown and well into midlife, the Gattos were 
a palimpsest for me; what cousins that family held, I was strictly partitioned from. When 
occasionally I was taken to visit Frank or Laura or Josephine, or all together, we were 
formal with each other, in Old World style. Each extended courtesy to me, complete with 
those little flourishes of etiquette which give significance to the best encounters of 
children with grown-ups — a quality once common and now rare which transferred 
naturally into my schoolteaching. 

Walking Around Monongahela 

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