Jean Hoopes Szentgyorgyi died on Sunday, September 16, a little before one am, of natural causes. She was ninety-one years old.
Born Jean Carmen Hoopes in Chicago, Illinois on July 2, 1927, she was the daughter of Harold Dexter Hoopes and Wilhelmina Loretta Hoopes nee Baumann. Her father worked as an art director with various advertising agencies, as a freelance commercial artist, and as a painter. During World War One he enlisted with the American Field Service as an ambulance driver only to arrive in France on Armistice Day. He was assigned to a detail clearing corpses from the now-silent battlefields, work he rarely spoke of in later years. He preferred to remember time spent in the company of fellow soldiers including Ernest Hemingway, Alexander Woollcott, and a young artist named Walt Disney.
Her mother, Billie, was a trained pianist and dedicated gardener. During and after World War Two she worked as a secretary in the psychology department of Northwestern University. Family legend had it that her line was descended from Queen Mary of England, daughter of Henry VIII and the first female monarch in English history. Jean came to doubt this claim, when, after doing some research, she discovered Mary had had no children. She did not reveal this to her mother.
Jean attended Evanston Township High School, and for the rest of her life would launch into the ETHS school song whenever the opportunity presented itself. A gifted artist, at seventeen she won a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago but chose to enroll at Northwestern University, graduating with a degree in English in 1949. She moved to New York in 1951, where she worked as an art director for Bert Garmise Associates, an advertising agency, and as a researcher for Time Magazine.
On New Year’s Eve 1952, at a party thrown by a friend, she met Andrew Szentgyorgyi, a twenty-nine- year-old Hungarian émigré who had arrived in the US three months earlier. Eight months later they were married, the start of a union that would last almost 48 years, ending with Andrew’s death in 2001.
Shortly after their marriage Andrew began to work as free-lance journalist. Writing under the name Andrew St. George (the English translation of Szentgyorgyi), he started publishing accounts of cold-war spycraft in men’s magazines. In 1957 he traveled to Cuba to report on a nascent rebellion led by a Cuban lawyer named Fidel Castro. Andrew’s coverage of Castro and the Cuban revolution, which extended over the next three years, won him acclaim and briefly vaulted him into the top tier of American photojournalists. Throughout his work in Cuba, and for much of his career, Jean supported Andrew as an unpaid researcher, typist, and first reader of his work.
In 1954 she gave birth to their first son, Andrew Harold Szentgyorgyi. Their second, Thomas William, was born in 1960.
In 1959 she and Andrew settled in Dobbs Ferry, New York, a suburb of New York City on the eastern bank of the Hudson River, where she lived for the next fifty-six years.
She gave years of service to the Home and School Association of Dobbs Ferry, the Westchester Music Club, and the local chapter of AFS, the international student exchange program. But her most deeply felt work was for the Hudson River Museum of Yonkers, where she served as a docent for over thirty-five years, introducing thousands of school children to art and the landscape of the Hudson River Valley. She served two terms as president of the National Docent Council, the nationwide organization of museum docents.
Her great love, besides art, was opera, which she discovered in her early teens when she heard a Saturday afternoon broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera sponsored by Texaco. Because her father despised opera (his mother had been a vaudeville soprano, and hours listening to her rehearse at home had darkened his feelings about “vocalizing”), Jean could only enjoy her passion by taking a radio into a closet and listening with one ear pressed to the receiver and the door firmly shut. Years later their subscription to New York’s Metropolitan Opera was a perennial source of pleasure for Andrew and Jean.
A cheerful rebel with a long-lived sense of social justice, Jean marched with the anti-war protestors of the 1960s, slept outdoors on a Washington DC steel grate in a protest led by homeless advocate Mitch Snyder, and for years demonstrated against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a group of like-minded protestors in Dobbs Ferry. Her longtime motto, imparted in a smiling, gravelly basso, was “Be bad!”
Failing health forced her to move from Dobbs Ferry to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2015, where she lived first with her son Andrew, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and then in assisted living at Cadbury Commons at Cambridge, where she died.
Her younger sister, Patricia Ann Coldren, died in 1965.
She is survived by her sons; her daughters-in-law Nancy Brickhouse and Angeline Szentgyorgyi; and three grandsons: Nick Szentgyorgyi of Cambridge and Lucas and Evan Szentgyorgyi of Los Angeles. Also by her nephew, James “Chip” Coldren, and her nieces Carol Perry, PJ Coldren, and Billie Coldren.
In memoriam donations can be made to the Hudson River Museum of Yonkers or to Midnight Run, a service organization for the homeless.