A Look At Another Branch Of The Louisa May Alcott Family Tree

Posted: January 15, 1995

With Winona Ryder's Little Women doing well in theaters, interest in Louisa May Alcott and her family is at a new high. But one biographical note has been overlooked: The quintessentially New England clan has a little-known Swiss- German branch, which took root when youngest sister Abba May (Amy in Little Women) traveled to Europe to study art and married Ernst Nieriker, a Swiss tobacco merchant.

Her wedding provided an interesting, real-life postscript to the fictionalized tale of the four March sisters in Little Women. In the happily- ever-after novel and the film, Amy marries Laurie, the boy next door, and Louisa May's alter ego, Jo March, finds love with a German professor.

Although in real life Louisa May Alcott never married, her German great- niece was a chip off the writer's block, if ever there was one.

Interviewed in 1978, a year before her death, Ernestine May Rasim Ammer - Abba May's grandchild - described herself as a bit of a rebel and a feminist, like Louisa May. She never trusted her great-aunt's "little sugar- coated story," Ammer said in fluent English. "It was simply fantasy, what (Louisa May's) father wanted his children to be."

Ammer was in a sanitorium near Munich recovering from hip-replacement surgery, but she was lively and outspoken about the Alcotts. Her voice was deep and she had a warm, infectious laugh when she talked about the Alcott foibles.

Her grandmother, Abba May, had little time to fulfill her artistic or marital desires. In London, the sister who became Amy in the novel diligently copied Joseph Turner's watercolors and continued her studies in Paris. At age 38, she married Nieriker, 16 years her junior.

A year later, in 1879, Abba May died after giving birth to a daughter, also named Louisa May. Because the child's father traveled constantly for work, the infant, nicknamed Lulu, was shipped to Concord, Mass., where she lived with her namesake and her grandfather Bronson until both died in 1888.

With Louisa preoccupied by her writing, Lulu became attached to her Aunt Anna (known in the book as Meg), who was married to John Bridge Pratt of Concord and had two sons. Still, Louisa May found time to write her niece three special stories, known as Lulu's Books, which were passed on to Ammer.

To hear Ammer tell it, her mother was very spoiled in Massachusetts: "She had many governesses and if they didn't do what was just right, they were fired because Louisa was always on Lulu's side. Lulu used to get angry and want this and want that and would lie on the floor until she got what she wanted."

But the child's life changed dramatically when her father summoned her back to Switzerland at age 10. Nieriker was very severe, Ammer said, and his family treated Lulu like a foreigner and a "silly little girl."

Lulu lived in Zurich until she married Emil Rasim, an Austrian businessman, and moved to Vienna. When he died five years later, the widow and Ernestine moved to Villingen in the Black Forest area of Germany to live with Swiss- German relatives.

The once-pampered youngster had grown into a very severe matron, Ammer recalled: "She remembered her own tantrums and told me, 'The way (the Alcotts) educated me wasn't right.' She said, 'I don't want to have a child lying on the floor kicking and screaming.' ".

"She terrorized me," Ammer continued. "I was afraid of Mother even when she looked at me. She stopped it when I was about 10, after my father's death. She saw that I was the only person she had and after that, we had a very good time together. She always spoke English to me. When I was 4 or 5, she said, 'I won't give you an answer unless you speak English.' That was a very good thing."

Lulu made a few trips back to Concord during her life. And, because she detested German politics, she relocated to Switzerland during World War II. She died at age 96, all of her faculties intact, at Ammer's Reutlingen, Germany, home in 1975. Ammer, then 75, died four years later.

Ammer said she learned more about the Alcotts from Martha Saxton's biography, Louisa May. However, she was startled to read about the genetic theories of Bronson Alcott, an idealistic transcendentalist who was content to let his wife and Louisa support the family. According to Saxton, Bronson believed that blue-eyed blonds like himself were closest to God, and contended that dark-skinned people, such as his wife and Louisa, were demonic.

"I didn't know we had a Hitler in the family until I read that book," Ammer, a brown-eyed brunette, noted tartly. "I couldn't understand it because mother always told me 'Grandfather had to close his (Boston) school because he let black children attend.' "

In Germany, the post-World War I depression, which served as the breeding ground for Hitler's rise to power, frustrated Ernestine's desire to study medicine and psychology. She took her entrance exams in Switzerland, where she met Charles Nieriker (no relation to her grandfather), a chemistry student who became her first husband. But the outlook for work was so bleak that they decided to try their luck in Australia.

For six months, she worked morning to night, cleaning and cooking at a hotel near Melbourne. ("That's another thing I didn't appreciate about Bronson. He didn't like to work.") Then they tried farming, but a year-long drought stymied those efforts. She and her husband, who didn't want children, parted company when their son Rolf was born. After five years in Australia, she returned to Germany with Rolf.

In 1934, she married Ernest Ammer, the son of a Reutlingen farmer. After a year in the Germany army in France, he was excused from further service in order to run the farm. During the war, Ernestine refused to join the National Socialist Party, but did serve as an air-raid warden.

Meanwhile, she was busy raising their five children: Jurgen, who now sells machines for iron foundries; Sigrid, who teaches German in Athens; Eckhard, who is in the paper-making business; Heike, a costume designer for the Bayreuth festival; and Ursula, a teacher in Frankfurt.

Unlike many German parents, Ammer said, she taught her children the truth about Germany's war crimes. And she encouraged her daughters to be independent.

"I told them, now we've had two wars, you may lose money or your house, but what you've got in your head, nobody can take away," she recalled. She also warned them against the hostility of some feminists to men, advising them to bring male friends into their discussions.

About that early feminist, Louisa May Alcott, Ammer theorized, "Of course, she had womanly needs - that's why she was so angry and uncontrolled sometimes. But I'm sure she never dared to have a love affair."

Although she was unaware of Alcott's romantic novel, A Long Fatal Love Chase, to be issued for the first time next year, Ammer said she had read some of her great-aunt's "sexy" stories.

"They had a real erotic quality," Ammer said with a smile. "No, I wasn't shocked. I laughed!"

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