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The Martian's Daughter

Marina von Neumann Whitman

by Jan Schlain

From the October, 2012 issue

Bob Whitman joked that his wife, U-M public policy and business prof Marina von Neumann Whitman, should title her memoir Just a Pushy Broad. That's what a Japanese businessman once called her--and the way American men, too, dismissed women who rejected the limited roles (teacher, secretary, nurse) offered to them when Marina graduated from Radcliffe in the 1950s.

She pushed for, and got, much more: she's been an academic economist, a GM group vice-president, and the first female member of the White House Council of Economic Advisors. But in her autobiography, which she reads at the Grad Library on October 2 (see Events), she starts at the beginning. Whitman is the only offspring of mathematician Johnny von Neumann, one of five Jewish Hungarian physicists born at the turn of the last century whose scientific contributions--to game theory, the atomic bomb, and supersonic flight, among others--were so far out of this world that their colleagues called them "the Martians."

In a letter written not long before his death in 1957, von Neumann urged Marina not to marry Bob. "Genetically loaded" for achievement as she was, he feared, marrying an academic would narrow her world. Rejecting his advice but embracing its spirit, she went ahead with the marriage and gave birth to their children, Malcolm and Laura--all while maintaining her own career in academia, business, and politics.

It is Bob Whitman, now eighty-seven, who tends twice a year to his Martian father-in-law's grave in Princeton, New Jersey. But in a tribute to her father's long shadow, Marina titled her memoir The Martian's Daughter. When Laura's father-in-law, retired Washington Post editor Leonard Downie, Jr., read the manuscript, Marina says, the title was the only thing they argued about: "He didn't like [it]. I did, and enough [other] people did, so I said, ... 'I'm keeping the title.'

"For the cognoscenti, it's a natural," Whitman says--even though "most people will say, 'Huh?'" Then she adds, dryly, "Maybe they'll think it's science fiction."     (end of article)

[Originally published in October, 2012.]

 




 
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