Interview with Frank Ottiwell: the Early Years
By Pamela Blanc
Published in AmSAT News , Issue No. 67, Spring 2005
PB: Judy had spent summers going to London, right?
FO: Yes. That was before I had lessons with her. She and Gladys Lee used to go. They went and had lessons with FM for at least three summers, maybe more. Gladys may have met FM when he came to America. During and after the war, she regularly sent him food packages and cigars and various things. There was a whole rack of letters from him that I used to have that were mainly thanking Gladys and talking about the weather and ordering more food, although in one of the letters he did, somewhat indirectly, acknowledge Judy’s teaching. So it was probably during the late forties and early fifties that Judy worked with F.M.
PB: What did you do in those first years as a young teacher? Did you start teaching right away?
FO: Yes, I did. Gladys Lee was a singing teacher and had a big apartment on East 50th Street. Judy was teaching in one of the rooms there. It was where we had our training course. Gladys and I had become close and when I qualified she offered me a room to teach in, too. It was a small room but it was right next door to Judy’s room. So Judy and I taught out of that apartment on East 50th Street for several years.
Gladys used to send all her singing students for Alexander lessons. Judy’s practice was pretty full by then, so Gladys started sending them to me. That was how I got a reasonable practice going quite quickly.
PB: Is that how you met Barbara Kent?
FO: Barbara Kent! Yes! Barbara was a student of Gladys.
PB: So were you Barbara’s first Alexander Teacher?
FO: I was, yes. She had lessons with me until I left for California.
PB: Let’s back up a moment here. What else do you remember about your early days as a teacher in New York? When did you first meet teachers who were trained with FM? Weren’t Lulie Westfeld and Alma Frank living in New York?
FO: Alma Frank, Debbie Caplan’s mother, had died, I think really not long before I started to have lessons, sometime in the early fifties. Lulie Westfeld was alive and teaching then, but I never met her. You know Judy was training with her privately (Lulie did not run a training course but agreed to train Judy), and then they had some terrible falling out. I’ve never known the details, exactly. I suspect that it was that Judy wanted to teach people and Lulie thought that she wasn’t ready. We really didn’t know Lulie existed when we were in the training.
After the five of us had graduated, Judy said she thought that we would be more effective reaching the public as an organized group, instead of just being five people teaching in our separate apartments. The group didn’t have a name at that point, but it developed quickly into ACAT (The American Center for the Alexander Technique.) The name was my idea, by the way!
Judy was very ambitious for the work. She saw this as a beginning of something that could lead eventually to the work being taught in a university degree program. That, of course, is happening widely now, though her bigger dream that the work itself could lead to a degree hasn’t happened yet that I know of. Judy’s drive combined with her ability was very good for the Technique.
After we formed, we needed a place to be the Center. We found a big apartment on Central Park West and 83rd. It is hard to believe now, but it was a seven-room apartment on Central Park West and the rent was $285 a month.
FO: Which we didn’t have. I mean that was a lot of money in those days. So the five of us paid $60 a month each, which covered the rent, and I guess maybe the electric bill or something. I paid a little more because I moved in and lived there. There were four more rooms where people taught. Judy never taught there. She paid her $60, but she lived nearby and continued teaching in her own space. She was very much a guiding force in the organization. We became a non-profit corporation, got a brass plate for the outside of the building, and generally went the whole way.
Of course, ACAT itself didn’t make any money. After I moved away and Judith Stransky, (who had helped in the formation of ACAT and become the seventh member as soon as she graduated from her training with Judy,) came out to California we continued to send our $60 a month for a long time to support the burgeoning ACAT.
It was shortly after we moved in and had that center that Patrick Macdonald first came to visit us in New York. I don’t remember how was arranged for him to come. But, come, he did. It was during that period also, between the founding of the center and before I left for California that Walter and Dilys Carrington came over and gave us all lessons.
PB: When did you first meet Patrick Macdonald?
FO: In 1961 I wrote to the Alexander Foundation at Ashley Place — the only Alexander address I knew — and made arrangements to visit and have lessons. Patrick was teaching in F.M.’s old teaching room, and that is how and where we met.
PB: That must have left a big impression. I’ve only heard tell and seen a few limited photos of that room. What was it like?