Sunday, November 3, 1996
A lady's gift: culture and good works

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Elaine Mack thinks we are working on her obituary. So she remembers things for me that ordinarily she would not speak of. One does one's duty, but quietly.

She worked - 60 years or more ago - at the Garden Lovers Club, the USO, the Modern Art Society, the Bake Shop, Longview Hospital and the Crippled Children's School in Avondale.

That's what some women with energy and conscience did in those days. They did not work for money. Most of them had plenty of that. But they worked. They gave us art museums and schools and orchestras. And other things.

During the 1930s, Elaine Mack helped organize city tennis leagues for children, insisting that those of color be included. She is tiny. But very stubborn.

No unseemly display

When she and Buddy (Edgar Jr.), her husband of 65 years, celebrated their wedding anniversary last summer, she greeted guests in her wedding gown. Yards of ivory satin swirled at her feet. Mme. Lanvin would have been pleased to see that the dress still fit perfectly.

On this day, Elaine Mack wears pants. Last weekend, a New York cabbie slammed the door on her leg. Thirteen stitches at Lennox Hill Hospital. She does not limp or complain. Or display the bandage.

Her red nails and lips match perfectly the shell under her black wool pantsuit. Small, round silver buttons line the jacket. One ring. A small silver pin at her shoulder. Improbably dark hair and dark brown eyes, an astonishingly clean profile.

She is lovely.

Although she speaks of dying, she is not ill. She has just been around for a long time. She is one of a generation of women whose names may not be on the bronze plaques but who nonetheless leave their mark on our institutions.

Often, these ladies are Jewish. Westheimer, Weston, Ransohoff, Joseph, Kaufman, Lazarus, Mack, Seasongood, Freiberg, Johnson, Pollak, Stern, Fleischman, Straus, Strauss, Hoffheimer.

''It's almost Talmudic,'' says Stephen Birmingham, author of two chronicles of Jewish life in this country. ''Where would our cultural institutions be without these philanthropic Jewish families? Particularly the women.''

In a history the Macks wrote for their children, Buddy Mack says, ''If you take from the community then you should return something to it. You get a lot back, and it's a lot of fun.''

What about the time, speaking of fun, that Elaine helped raise money for a swimming pool, then jumped off the high dive in a white evening gown and red shoes?

I am asking too many questions.

''I thought you were going to write about me after I die,'' Elaine Mack says.

''Maybe Mrs. Pulfer can't tell the difference,'' her husband cracks wickedly. And prods her to tell about the Symphony Ball, the year she had charge of the decorations. Or when she served coffee, tea and cakes to ''the boys at the Terminal.''

Meeting the monsignor

For a time, she was busy enough with her own boys. She reared three sons, and the Mack home often teems with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, some of whom speak languages other than English. And some of them are not Jewish. When the Macks' eldest son was to wed in St. Mary Church in Hyde Park, they were invited to meet the monsignor, who greeted them ''in full regalia.''

He began by asking if ''you have any objections to putting your hand on the Bible and swearing to tell the truth.''

Buddy responded, ''I have no objection, monsignor. As you well know, my ancestors wrote that book.''

The cleric roared with laughter, and they became lifelong friends.

Buddy and Elaine have noticed that I am probably still asking too many questions. They continue to answer politely, trusting that I won't do too much damage. They are not people who seek publicity. But they are proud of their lives here.

Elaine Mack remembers the grand charity balls and the ladies who did the work. ''In those days, we put up all the decorations ourselves,'' she says. ''I can still see myself at the top of the ladder.''

So can I, Elaine. So can I.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Mondays on WVXU radio (91.7 FM).