Elizabeth “Betta” MacCarthy Ehrenfeld

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betta ehrenfeld, The Lincoln County News
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Elizabeth “Betta” MacCarthy Ehrenfeld, 92, a resident at OceanView at Falmouth, passed away Jan. 20. A perfect day for Betta was one spent reading the New York Times, doing the crossword puzzle and reading a book while listening to loons and sipping red wine in her Frank Lloyd Wright inspired small stone house on Muscongus Pond in Bremen. Betta was a lawyer, feminist, philanthropist and author, a role-model to her three daughters and those who admired her intellect and wit. She was in her element conversing about world affairs, a gracious Southern lady with an opinion or two or three. Although she never saw a woman as president, she lived to witness the election of Maine’s first female governor – perhaps with the help of a card Betta sent in October. On the cover was a photo of her in pearls, her head on a pillow. She held a sign that no one could ignore. It demanded simply: “Vote.” Betta was a founding subscriber to Ms. Magazine, a card-carrying atheist and a fan of FDR. She collected bobbleheads and throw-up bags and had a pilot’s license. She cherished her independence. She loved to drive cross-country in Blue Bird, her convertible, with her dog Sister as co-pilot. Born Elizabeth Dixon MacCarthy on Jan. 30, 1926, she grew up in the Depression in Chapel Hill, N.C., the daughter of a geology professor and a librarian. When Betta was 11, her father took a job with the U.S. Geological Society and provided his two children with an unconventional education in Hawaii via New York, the Panama Canal and San Francisco. Throughout the rest of her life she loved to travel. Her signature motto: “Don’t leave home without your passport and bathing suit.”

At 16, she set off by train alone from North Carolina to college in Bronxville, N.Y., a poor southern girl on a scholarship about to meet her fellow classmates who were mostly graduates of exclusive boarding schools. She wrote about her escapades and culture shock in letters to her parents and her best friend, Byrd Green Cornwall. The collection was published in 2010 as “Letters from Sarah Lawrence: Growing up in the 1940s.” Her friendship with Byrd for more than 80 years would spawn another book, “Byrd and Betta,” from emails they wrote to each other in later years. She wrote a third book about her grandfather, a deaf botanist who was hit by a train and lost the use of his legs at 34, collecting plants along a rail line. Three months after turning 21, she graduated from Yale Law School,

one of a handful of women in the class. She practiced copyright law, at one point working on a lawsuit with plaintiffs that included Ira Gershwin and Gian Carlo Menotti. She also was a Legal Aid Society lawyer. She went on to receive a master’s degree in tax law from New York University. Betta and her late husband, Robert, who worked on the Manhattan Project as a chemist, raised their daughters in a brownstone in Manhattan. On a wall was a giant painting of the Bill of Rights that she had commissioned. The family spent summers in Maine, where she designed a special house on Muscongus Pond that fits perfectly with the surroundings. A house in nearby Newcastle was pointed out to her years earlier by her mother. It was the home of another strong-willed civil rights and labor advocate, Frances Perkins, who became the first female U.S. Cabinet member. Betta became a major donor to the Frances Perkins Center and five years ago a Betta Ehrenfeld speaker series was established in honor of her generosity. She sent her three daughters to the 15th Street School, a progressive Summerhill school in New York. When the school closed she managed a foundation supporting other Summerhill schools across the nation. Betta was an intellectual who believed that education should teach you how to think, not how to pass tests, and she lived her life engaged, stimulated and thinking – all the, time. She was predeceased by her younger sister, Margaret MacCarthy Whitmire. She is survived by daughters, Elizabeth Ehrenfeld of Falmouth, Martha Ehrenfeld and wife Carla McKay of San Francisco, Calif., and Emily Ehrenfeld and husband Gary Valaskovic of Cambridge, Mass.; and granddaughters, Grace and Lila Valaskovic. A celebration tour of Betta’s life will include an open house at her OceanView apartment from 1-3 p.m., Sun., Jan. 27. Other events will be scheduled this winter in Florida and New York with the grand finale July 4th weekend in Round Pond. In lieu of flowers, donations should be sent to The Frances Perkins Center, P.O. Box 281, Newcastle, ME 04553, francesperkinscenter.org. — –