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Alice von Hildebrand (1923-2022) by Josef Seifert

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Alice von Hildebrand (1923-2022)

Alice von Hildebrand in Rome in 2010. All images courtesy of Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

Dr. Alice ‘Lily’ von Hildebrand, widow of the famous German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), and herself an extraordinary philosopher, teacher, author, speaker, and an enchanting personality, returned her soul to her Creator on January 14, 2022, two months shy of her 99th birthday. By describing her writings, insights, and actions, I hope to convey to the reader a glimpse of the mystery—the unique and irreplaceable person Lily was and continues to be.

A brief biographical note

Alice Marie Jourdain was born in Brussels, Belgium. Her native language was French. When the Nazis entered Belgium in 1940, Lily, aged 17, fled to Bordeaux with her parents, brother, and three sisters. She and her elder sister, Louloute, had received an invitation from their uncle and aunt to stay with them in New York. Lily and Louloute were able to board the last wartime passenger vessel to depart France, arriving in June 1940 at New York, where they were to live for the next six years.

Though she spent most of her life in the United States and felt grateful for her U.S. citizenship, Lily retained a great portion of her native Belgian culture until the end. She never wanted to return to live in Belgium; nonetheless, she remained more European than American in her manner of speaking and acting, and in her literary taste. In this she was like her husband, who always remained more German than American, despite the persecution he had suffered under Hitler and the horrors of the Nazi ideology, which, for his part, he never considered ‘typically German’ but rather high treason against the true genius of the German nation.

Lily had to return to Belgium after the war (in 1946). Determined to complete her studies in the United States, she persuaded her parents to let her go back to New York. This time, she lived in a modest apartment with her beloved sister Louloute and with Madeleine Froelicher (later Stebbins), who would be her closest friend for nearly eighty years.

Soon after beginning her graduate studies in philosophy with Dietrich von Hildebrand, whom she would go on to marry nearly two decades later, Lily began to assist him as his secretary. Over the coming decades, she typed many of his book manuscripts—which he always wrote by hand—and translated a number of his essays into English. Not only did she supply most of the footnotes for his books, but she also became a true philosophical collaborator, reading and discussing his English works in progress.

After completing her doctoral studies at Fordham University, Lily was looking for a teaching position when the chairman of the philosophy department at Hunter College in New York City offered her a short-term substitute position in 1947.  A few weeks later she was offered an assistant professorship in a new Hunter College veterans’ program in the Bronx, a teaching engagement that lasted for almost four decades.

She frequently faced opposition from her own colleagues, in part out of envy (for she quickly became very well liked by her students) and in part because some of her colleagues were quite anti- Catholic and some of her students had converted to Catholicism. In her autobiography, she notes this opposition with some surprise because she never spoke of Catholicism in the classroom.

St. Edith Stein, a former atheist and brilliant student of Edmund Husserl, who perished in Auschwitz in August 1942, would say after her conversion to the Catholic faith:

Gott ist die Wahrheit. Und wer die Wahrheit sucht, der sucht Gott, ob es ihm klar ist oder nicht. (God is the Truth. And he who searches for truth searches for God, whether he understands this or not).

Similarly, Lily would say: “If someone finds the truth, he finds God, because God is the truth.”

Lily retired from Hunter College in 1984. She received the highest student evaluation in the college (from among 850 teachers) and the award for Excellence in Teaching at her retirement ceremony. However, she still remained active. In the years after her retirement from teaching, she lectured in 35 U.S. states, as well as Canada, Mexico, and several South American and European countries, and became well known while making over eighty television appearances on EWTN. These included conversations with Mother Angelica and two series with Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R.: “Suffering and What to Do with It” and “Man and Woman: A Divine Invention.”

Beginning with her first authored work, Introduction to a Philosophy of Religion (Chicago, 1970), her literary legacy includes essays on the nature of education, reverence, liturgy, marriage, and many other themes. She had a particular affinity for Plato, St. Augustine, Pascal, and Kierkegaard, returning to them for inspiration throughout her life. Her book, By Grief Refined (1994), was in part a response to the tremendous impact Dietrich’s death in 1977 had on her soul. The years after her retirement saw further developments in Lily’s philosophy of woman, love and marriage, and her understanding of femininity, as expressed principally in her books, The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (2010). Though informed by her husband’s thought on love, these works are distinctly her own.

In addition to her many years at Hunter College, she taught at several other institutions, including the Catechetical Institute of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York; Franciscan University of Steubenville (where she served on the board of trustees for 13 years); the Thomas More Institute in Rome; Ave Maria College in Michigan; and the Notre Dame Institute in Arlington, Virginia. She served on the board of Veil of Innocence—an organization that helps parents protect their children from ideologically perverse programs in schools—and lent her support to innumerable Catholic apostolates and causes. Throughout her career, she received numerous awards and three honorary degrees. In 2013, she was invested as Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory for her dedicated witness and leadership within the Catholic Church.

She died peacefully at her home in New Rochelle, New York. She had lived there for well over half a century, first with her husband, and from 1977 on as his widow.

Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand in Salzburg in the late 1950s.

Love and marriage: Lily and Gogo

One of Lily’s philosophy professors at Manhattanville College was Balduin Schwarz, the most important first-generation student of Dietrich von Hildebrand. In 1942, Balduin invited Lily to attend an evening talk at which Hildebrand—or ‘Gogo,’ as he was known among friends—spoke on “the readiness to change,” the theme of the first chapter of his major religious book, Transformation in Christ.

Lily recalls this first encounter with her future husband in her autobiography:

From the first moment he began to speak, I felt that he was feeding my soul with a food that I had always longed for. He spoke out of a deep recollection, and I drank in every word.

Her impression of Hildebrand’s thought was so deep that, even before completing her B.A., Lily began taking classes with him at Fordham University in 1943. She became a member of Hildebrand’s inner circle of friends. Thirty-four years his junior, Alice married Dietrich von Hildebrand in July 1959, two years after the death of his first wife.

Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand outside of Florence in 1969.

Lily shared her husband’s profound love of beauty in art and nature, especially for that of Florence, where Dietrich was born, and of other Tuscan cities, such as Siena, Pisa, San Gimignano, and Lucca. In Florence, they particularly enjoyed the Palazzo Signoria, the Duomo and Campanile, San Miniato, and Santa Maria Novella. Among artworks, Michelangelo’s late Pietà, also in Florence, as well as the early one in St. Peter’s in Rome, and his Dying Slave in the Louvre, were objects of their intense aesthetic delight, as were many paintings, far too many to enumerate here.

Likewise, she shared her husband’s enthusiasm for classical music: Bach, Mozart, Schubert—and especially Beethoven, most deeply his “Missa solemnis” and the late string quartets. Both had an immense appreciation for Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 130, with its unmatched fifth movement, the Cavatina, and also for Op. 127, 131, and 132, the latter with the magnificent Adagio (“Thanks to the Godhead”), written after Beethoven’s recovery from a grave illness, and for the last of his sublime String Quartets, Op. 135.

They also were enchanted by the three Razumovsky Quartets, from one of whose scherzos they took a joyful melody as their “family whistle tone,” by means of which they found each other on their joint trips when one had temporarily lost sight of the other. Along with the “Missa solemnis” and Mozart’s “Ave verum,” “Laudate Dominum,” and “Great Mass in C-Minor,” they considered Bach’s St. Matthew Passion the deepest religious work of all classical music. Apart from their intense love for Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and Verdi, whose music accompanied their life almost daily, they richly appreciated the music of Richard Wagner, whose operas Gogo had experienced as a child, at the invitation of Cosima Wagner. Given the important role love played in the life and thought of both Lily and Gogo, they preferred “Tristan and Isolde” to all other Wagner operas.

They were also moved, both aesthetically and religiously, by the sacrality of the ancient Roman Rite Latin Mass, which they attended daily. Even after this Mass was reduced to the status of a liturgical stepchild by Paul VI (a move they deplored), they attended as often as they could. They loved the Latin official prayer of the Church, the Breviary (every day they prayed at least Vespers and Compline in Latin). The liturgy very much formed their religious life, just as Gogo described in his book Liturgy and Personality. They also relished Gregorian chant, which they called “music from a higher angelic region.”

Lily’s own work and thought

After Dietrich’s death, Lily dedicated herself primarily to the preservation and dissemination of the truths he had discovered and to which he had introduced her. In 2000, she published The Soul of a Lion, a biography of her late husband based on his memoirs. She also devoted two EWTN series to her husband’s life: A Knight for Truth with Thomas Howard, and He Dared Speak the Truth with John Henry Crosby. In 2004, she joined John Henry Crosby and John F. Crosby to establish the Hildebrand Project as a vehicle for perpetuating her husband’s legacy. She was particularly instrumental in procuring the support of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, which proved crucial for the Hildebrand Project. She collaborated with John Henry Crosby in the production of My Battle Against Hitler, featuring her husband’s memoirs and anti-Nazi essays and also worked closely with him in writing her own Memoirs of a Happy Failure.

Some personal notes

I had the good fortune to know Lily for 74 years (I met her at the age of three). From 1948, Gogo began to return annually to Europe during his summer vacations, combining his regular trips to Europe with being a most personable, extremely knowledgeable, and wonderful ‘tour guide.’ It was his passion to open as many minds as possible to the unique culture and values of his beloved Italy, but also to those of Austria, France, and Germany, to which he introduced interested friends and students—among them Lily.

As my parents were friends of Gogo, he always spent some time at my parents’ home near Salzburg, and later in Salzburg itself, accompanied by close friends, including Lily. From their wedding day onwards, Gogo and Lily spent a part of their summer vacation each year with my family in magnificent Italian places such as Lake Garda and Bocca di Magra on the coast.

During these summers, I got to know Lily very well. She was a wonderful wife to Gogo. They loved each other deeply, and Lily shared in a unique way—and with a great sense of admiration—all the truth, beauty, philosophy, and intense joie de vivre which he embodied. They fully shared a joy in the faith, attending daily Mass with the greatest fervor, though Lily more quietly and discreetly than Gogo, whose heart overflowed with love of Christ and the Church, which he often expressed in words.

During his tours of Italy, he would invite his friends to give a ‘Wertantwort,’ a value response, first to God and beloved persons, but also to the beauty of art and landscapes, especially those of Tuscany and other parts of the “blessed country,” Italy. He was so overjoyed when Lily learned to drive the little Volkswagen that carried them through the Italian countryside that the car received the name Desirée.

“Drinking Youth,” an 1872 sculpture by Adolf von Hildebrand, located in the Albertinum in Dresden.

Greek philosophy and culture was another passion of theirs. The collection of texts that Lily edited, Greek Culture: The Adventure of the Human Spirit, and her main philosophical work, Introduction to a Philosophy of Religion, were very much a fruit of their dialogues and shared reflections. Their intense symphilosophein (philosophizing together) took place everywhere but, besides New Rochelle, especially in the villa San Francesco di Paola in Florence, Gogo’s birthplace. There I spent much time learning to appreciate Lily’s talent, sense of humor, deep understanding of her husband’s philosophy, and her sublime faith and love of Christ and the Catholic Church.

I also encountered Lily’s brilliant mind and great gift as a teacher when I sat in on some of her classes at Hunter College in New York during the Spring semester of 1966, which I spent entirely in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of Lily’s sister Louloute and her family, five minutes from Lily and Gogo’s apartment. Another guest there, with whom I had close contact, was Gogo and Lily’s ingenious philosopher-friend, S.J. Hamburger.

My most wonderful recollections of Lily, however, and those that most make her present to me now, date from the last few years of her life when, until the COVID-19 pandemic prevented it, I would make a short annual visit to her in New Rochelle. She always received these visits gladly, though, due to weakened health, they began to tire her once she reached her mid-nineties. Nonetheless she was filled with a patience and endearing kindness to an extent that I had never before noted. In the midst of her increasing sufferings, her extraordinary cordiality and gratitude for all the gifts of God she had received were deeply moving.

Almost a century old, she still took a vivid interest in my philosophical works and in the events, joys, and sufferings of my life. During these last years, the closer she came to eternal life, the kinder and more patient she became, more filled with that deep charity of which her husband had written so insightfully.

These last memories of her are my sweetest. Her mind, which had been so incredibly sharp up to her mid-nineties, began to fail, but she retained till the end her charm and ability to laugh at herself. Once, after a long stay, she recommended that I get to know a very good, young Austrian philosopher. When I asked for his name, she gave my own. She laughed very sweetly when I told her that this man was me (though I was far from young by then!).

I am deeply convinced that Lily now lives in the eternal presence of God, for Whom she ardently longed, united, in the fulfillment of all love, with Gogo and with the family and friends who preceded her. If she is not yet in her eternal home, she is at least, I am sure, very close to entering the door to heavenly bliss, through which we all hope to follow her one day.

Josef Seifert is the founding rector of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein. He studied with and was friends with the Hildebrands his entire life.

This review appears in the Spring 2022 edition of The European Conservative, Number 22: 102-106.