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Interview with Marina von Neumann Whitman

My memoir, The Martian's Daughter, has two overall themes:  getting out from under the shadow of my famous mathematician father, John von Neumann, and how the world changed, particularly for ambitious women, over the 50-plus years of my professional life.  But it is also, as many readers have noted, a love story to my husband, Bob Whitman, whom I met as a Harvard-Radcliffe undergraduate, aged 17, and continues to this very day, nearly 70 years later.

Trained as an international economist, I have practiced my discipline in several different arenas: as an academic, starting at the University of Pittsburgh and ending at the University of Michigan; in government, as a member of Richard Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers; and as a corporate executive at General Motors, first as vice president and chief economist, later promoted to group vice president of Public Affairs, which included economics, environmental activities, government relations, and marketing.  I learned a lot from each job and enjoyed all of them except the second half of my time at GM, after my promotion, when I felt out of my depth and GM was going downhill.

Encouraged by my husband, I began to focus on writing a book-length memoir that became The Martian's Daughter.  I started by dictating several stream-of-consciousness sessions to a close friend who was both a super-smart corporate executive and a very fast typist.  I then took the 70-plus pages that emerged and started trying to organize them into an outline that made sense.  A couple of years later a draft emerged that got very necessary and helpful editing from both my English-professor husband and Leonard Downie, my son-in-law's father and then the executive editor of the Washington Post.  I had hoped to find a commercial press to publish it, but in the end the publisher was the University of Michigan Press.

Where did the title, The Martian's Daughter, come from?  My father was one of five Hungarians who had emigrated to the United States and became critical in the American victory in World War II, several of them, including my father, as members of the Manhattan Project.  They collectively became the Martians, according to the following story, that may or not be apocryphal: One evening, several of the bachelor younger members of the Project were sitting on top of the mesa, shooting the breeze, when one of them told the following story about how the title originated:  "those geniuses were really not human beings but Martians, but in order to conceal their non-human-ness, the spoke to each other in Hungarian, which no one else could understand."

What has made me happiest in this life is my wonderful family.  In addition to Bob, they include our son Malcolm, a PhD professor at the Harvard Medical School, who runs a lab in cellular and developmental biology, and daughter Laura, a physician in internal medicine who is medical director of Yale's primary care program.  Laura's two children haven't fallen far from the tree.  William (Will) is pursuing an MBA focused on sustainability at the University of Oregon, well tutored by his father, David Downie, a professor of political science at Fairfield University focused on the international politics of environmentalism.  Their daughter Lindsey, who will graduate next month from Colorado College, plans to go to medical school and add a Master's degree in Public Health, in order to advocate more effectively for the elimination of  the structural racism that underlies medical inequities so often experienced by people of color.

Bob and I contribute to a number of charities, and I wouldn't put any one ahead of the others.  But the least-known one is the Salzburg Global Seminar, an American-based independent non-profit organization whose functional headquarters is a converted castle in Salzburg, Austria.  Founded in 1947 by three Harvard graduate students in order to promote dialogue between young Americans and their counterparts in former enemy nations, it today organizes and presents sessions on a wide variety of globally-important topics that, in total, bring together young or mid-career fellows from over 50 countries, each with one or more distinguished faculty members to pull the discussions together.  The SGS has a global network of former fellows, many of whom keep in touch with each other through a digital network managed by theSeminar's digital technologists.  The link is www.salzburgglobal.org. Bob and I have been participants and, sometimes, board members for many years, and find it an organisation well worth supporting, as both faculty and financial contributors. 

What shape will all this material take?  I trust I will have a chance to see and comment on it before it takes final form.  And who are its recipients?  I look forward to hearing from you.  Sincerely, Marina Whitman 

Marina v.N. Whitman

Professor of Business Administration and Public Policy emerita

University of Michigan