Clara Mayer

Clara Woolie Mayer (1895-1988) is possibly the most important forgotten figure in New School administrative history. The New School Library had boxes of her institutional papers and some personal papers but, since none of the library staff had been working here when she was here, we knew nothing about her. Then, one day in the 1990s, we had a visitor who changed all that. Kenneth Craven, a former chancellor of the City University of New York in the 1960s, had decided to write a tribute to three women who, to him, exemplified the spirit of Greenwich Village. He wanted one of them to be Clara Mayer. (Kenneth Craven did eventually write his tribute to Clara Mayer in a pamphlet he gave to us entitled Greenwich Village and the Soul of a Woman).

Mayer was from a German Jewish family that had made its money in real estate and was wealthy by the 1920s. She had studied under James Harvey Robinson uptown at Barnard College, graduating from Barnard with a B.A. degree in 1910, and had followed him when he joined the New School founding faculty in 1919. Alvin Johnson saw her leadership potential and the support to the fledgling school that could be forthcoming through her contacts and moved her into administrative positions. She had an immediate impact. Mayer helped organize a student committee in 1922 to raise funds for the school, and encouraged music, art, and psychoanalysis in the New School curriculum in the 1920s, complementing Johnson’s interests, which ran to the social sciences. Her brothers’ J.M. Taylor Construction Company built the building at 66 W. 12th Street building that Joseph Urban designed. Her brothers, Charles and Albert, have been credited with recommending Urban as architect; her father, Bernhard Mayer, contributed $100,000 for the project and the auditorium was originally dedicated to him. Albert also sat on the Board of Trustees and taught in the continuing adult education program. When Alvin Johnson gave her a copy of his autobiography, Pioneer’s Progress, he inscribed it, “To my co-founder,” though nothing like that level of credit appears in the book itself. She did not seek the limelight as long as she could have power behind the scenes, which is a major reason why she is not better known today.

Mayer rose from secretary to vice-president over a 37-year period, serving under four presidents: Alvin Johnson, Bryn Hovde, Hans Simons, and Henry David. These are the numerous slots she filled, chronologically detailed from information in the New School catalogs:

  • 1924-1925; 1926/1927-Spring 1930: Member, Board of Directors
  • Fall 1931: Secretary and Assistant Director
  • Winter 1931: Member, Board of Directors, Secretary and Assistant Director
  • 1932-1933-Spring 1936: Secretary and Assistant Director
  • 1937/1938-1939/1940: Secretary and Associate Director, Member of Faculty Council
  • 1941/1942-Spring 1943: Associate Director, Member of Faculty Council, Member of Executive Committee, Member of Board of Trustees, Secretary
  • 1943/1944-Spring 1944; 1945-1946: Dean, School of Philosophy and Liberal Arts, Member of Board of Trustees, Secretary
  • 1946/1947-Spring 1950: Dean, School of Philosophy and Liberal Arts
  • 1950/1951-Summer, 1960: Vice President and Dean, School of Philosophy and Liberal Arts
  • Fall 1960-Summer 1961: Vice President and Dean, New School

Clara Mayer’s departure from the New School was a dramatic one, and is briefly described in the memoirs of Arthur Vidich, a major shaper of the sociology department at the Graduate Faculty. Referring to President Henry David, Vidich wrote that “David moved very fast. After one year as dean [of the Graduate Faculty], he was appointed president of the New School. … Late in his first year, he fired Clara Meyer [sic] as Dean of the Adult Education Division, presumably because her influence with trustees was greater than his and because she opposed his plans.” [1] Historians Peter Rutkoff and William Scott suggest that “Mayer’s personalized style of direction” bothered David, as he characterized the New School’s administration as a “’mom-and-pop operation,’ sorely in need of a rational and bureaucratic organization.” [2] Vidich believed, however, that firing Mayer was “David’s fatal mistake. At the end of his second presidential year, the board fired David.” [3] This was meant as a reconciliation to Mayer but she never got over the betrayal and disassociated herself from the school and stopped subventing the school’s constant deficits. “In one stroke the New School lost its most loyal administrator, the generous financial support of her family, the backing of its German-Jewish constituency, and the loyalty of much of its most effective faculty,” Rutkoff and Scott summarize. [4]

As far as we know, Mayer only returned to the school once for a Christmas party in 1973-74. According to Edith Wurtzel, a longtime administrator at The New School, weeks in advance people were buzzing when they found out Mayer would be attending the party. She remembers Clara attending the party in a wheelchair and as gracious as ever.

Mayer never married or had children but was a mother figure to her brother Albert’s (adopted) children. Some say Clara was married to her work and was dedicated to a life of the intellect that left no space for romance. When Alice Van Heuven spoke to Mayer’s grand-nephews, Ross & Eric Wasserman, in Spring 2017, they mentioned that Mayer did fall in love with someone who was involved with the school but, since he wasn’t Jewish or from a high-class family, they never married.

After her departure from the New School, Mayer continued to live in New York City at least through the early 1980s. The New York Times notes her participation as a wheelchair-using 87-year-old in a nuclear disarmament demonstration that took place in Manhattan in June 1982. She was named Dean Emerita and was the ninth recipient of the Founders Medal, the highest medal the school bestows, at the school’s May 1987 commencement. President Jonathan Fanton declared then that “only Alvin Johnson played a more important role in the life of the New School.” Her niece, Stella Saltonstall (Albert Mayer’s daughter), received the award for her aunt. The following year, on July 16, 1988, Clara Mayer died of pneumonia at age 93 in a Los Angeles nursing home.

Clara Mayer’s papers can be found in the New School University Archives here. A collection of her short writings was published as The Manmade Wilderness (NY: Atheneum, 1964).

For more in the New School Archives on Clara Mayer, see Clara Mayer papers 1879-1976


[1] Arthur Vidich, With a Critical Eye: An Intellectual and His Times (Newfound Press, 2009): 388.

[2] Peter Rutkoff and William Scott, New School: A History of the New School for Social Research (Free Press, 1986): 238.

[3] Vidich: 389-90.

[4] Rutkoff and Scott: 239.


Clara Mayer. Communications and External Affairs (CEA). New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 09 Nov 2014.