ELIZABETH “BETSY” BURKE SCHOTTKE
September 7, 1916 to August 22, 1993
By Katharine Blossom Lowrie
A Beautiful Mind
She was a superb golfer, award-winning painter, fiercely loyal friend, adoring wife and spectacular mother. She was not maternal in the traditional sense, however. Elizabeth “Betsy” Burke Schottke didn’t sew, bake cookies or host Girl Scout meetings. But, oh God, was she ever fun. As her oldest daughter, I can attest to that. She was also shrewd in her advice, profoundly wise and blessed with a delicious sense of the absurd. She was darn frugal, however, as all of us vividly recall. “Mom never bought anything (in terms of clothes) unless it was on sale,” my sister Bonnie Daybell (the middle child) said. “Of course, it always had to come from Saks or Neiman Marcus.” Avoiding family discord was another Betsy trait, said my youngest sister, Julie Larson. “Mom liked to keep the peace. She didn’t want anyone to argue.”
Betsy wasn’t only frugal in terms of buying clothes, she was frugal with food. How many times did we hear her say, “Honey, aren’t you making too much salad?” Her idea of a serving size of mashed potatoes was a scant tablespoon, meat came in slivers. We all used to wonder if she had gorged herself in a past life. “Unless of course,” adds Julie, “you just served yourself up some ice cream for dessert! If you walked by Mom she would say, ‘Let me have just a little bite.’ Well, her idea of a little bite was half the dish of ice cream! I used to try and skirt around her so she didn’t see my dish, but she always knew.”
When she died at the age of 75 on August 22, 1993, Betsy was in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Yet that spark of intelligence glimmered, if weakly, to the end. I remember ascending in the elevator with Mom and her third husband, Lorry Schottke, at Sharpe Memorial Hospital in San Diego, Mom clutching Lorry’s hand, her face turned up to his as she asked in a small, frightened voice, “Can we go out to dinner after this, Lorry?” Although she still knew Lorry’s name and mine, there remained only a tiny particle of that once beautiful mind.
She passed away a week later.
The Art Spirit
Unlike many people who suffer from Alzheimer’s, Mom stayed polite, fragile and, in the main, cooperative. Only once did she flee from me in the parking lot of Jonathan’s, a Rancho Santa Fe market, yelling to all the startled shoppers, “HELP! She wants to kill me and grind me up for hamburger!” Most of the time, however, she was sweet and amusing, conversing in a tiny voice with a bunny under a chair, tying her tennis shoes laces together, or hesitating to walk through the condo entry hall for fear the grandfather clock would bite her.
Throughout her life, Betsy reflected the grace and discipline described in one of her favorite books, The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, a book about painting, yes, but also about striving for harmony, elegance and simplicity in life. “Greatness,” Henri wrote, “can only come by the art spirit entering into the very life of the people. It is to make every life productive of light—a spiritual influence.” In one of only two self-portraits, Betsy stands at her easel, readers low on her nose, her brush poised—the determination to translate the unseen into art alive in her startling blue eyes.
Born September 7, 1916 in Baltimore, Maryland to Katharine Morrow and William “Billy” Burke, Betsy descended from Ohio River Valley pioneers, a Supreme Court Justice, and John Howard, an officer who fought alongside George Washington in the American Revolution and later became the first governor of the state of Maryland. History, like art and literature, drew Betsy’s aesthetic nature. She loved to read and treasured family heirlooms, especially the antiques that had belonged to her mother, Katharine and Katharine’s sister, Blossom Lowrie. Betsy was only three when her mother fell victim to the great flu epidemic in 1919. Her father, too devastated to care for his child, sent her first to live with Blossom and Harold Lowrie in Colorado. When Billy later remarried, he ripped her away from the childless Lowries and shipped her off to Edgewood, a boarding school in Connecticut where she remained until she graduated.
Fortunately, Mom loved the school.
Terrific at basketball, she wrote poetry, read until all hours of the night and loved to draw. She gave the valedictorian address for her senior class, an event her father and stepmother declined to attend at the last moment. Following graduation, aiming for a career in commercial art, she headed to New York, where her exceptional looks and natural poise earned her a job as a runway model at Saks Fifth Avenue. Her first marriage was to Steve Moore, my father, whom she met and fell in love with at boarding school. The marriage lasted about as long as her pregnancy. Steve was a dreamer and couldn’t be counted on for support—either emotionally or financially. Uncle Harold and Aunt Blossom (standing at Betsy’s right in photo at left) beseeched Mom to bring me to California and live with them in Los Angeles. She did and never looked back.
“I was raised to play Bridge and golf”
She next married Tom Russell, Bonnie and Julie’s dad, an attorney to the stars who eventually sought solace in the bottle. Tom, Mom and I lived first in Bel Air, and then moved to Burbank, very close to Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. I used to play jacks with Frank’s daughter, Nancy, and remember legions of bobbysoxers planted on Sinatra’s front lawn. Legend has it I was once plopped on Bob Hope’s lap at Lakeside Country Club, whereupon Hope asked me who my favorite movie star was. “Humphrey Bogart,” I promptly answered. Wrong answer, as it turned out.
If Tom ever had a favorite child, it was surely Bonnie. He used to drag her out during parties late at night to show her off. I was left to seethe in the nursery. Julie, the third child, simply grew up like a wild rose, without much tending. Whatever happened, it sure ended well. She’s thrived as an adult, but so has Bonnie. I was more the black sheep. As for Mom, she became an even better golfer, Poker and Bridge player during those years, but the marriage to Tom didn’t survive his drinking. (In photo at right, Julie, Betsy, Kathy, Tom Russell, and Bonnie.)
Upon her second divorce, according to Bonnie, Mom complained to a friend that she was ill-equipped to support three children. “I was raised to play Bridge and golf,” she moaned. “That’s all I know how to do.” The highly practical Virgo was not unemployed for long, however. She quickly landed a job as a receptionist at General Petroleum for $125 a month. Later, she sold perfume as a partner in Parfumes Fragonard at the famous Famer’s Market in Los Angeles. The idea of starting her own business with someone else scared her to death. Much later, when I encountered fears about my own career, she told me how she subdued her terror by making a list. “I remember the first thing I wrote,” she said. “Scissors. After that, I was pretty much okay.”
We had moved to an old, rented house near Wilshire Blvd. by then, very near to Sally and John Caster and their three children. While I became close friends with Marylee Caster, modeling in Assistance League fashion shows and spending vacations in Balboa, Julie was buddies with young Johnnie Castor, who she has stayed in contact with to this day. All three of us recall those raucous swimming parties at the Casters’ house, not to mention the day Mom announced her engagement to the love of her life.
Betsy did not turn to serious painting until after she married her third husband, Lorry Schottke, a financial consultant and former Navy pilot who flew the Berlin Airlift after WWII. Eventually, we all landed in a gray-shingled tract house in La Canada. Bonnie tells a great story that is classic Betsy.
Just fine with all the kissing
“We had moved to La Canada about six months earlier and Mom suggested I have a party in hopes that I would make more friends from school,” Bonnie said. “I was in the sixth grade and had spent the prior year at an all-girls boarding school — so boys were pretty new to me. The party was co-ed and at some point, one of the guests suggested we play Spin the Bottle or Post Office. I hadn’t a clue as to how to play either of these games and was terrified my mother would find out we were kissing!! Ha. As we sat on the family room floor in a circle, who should walk in the room but my mother? Mrs. Schottke took one look at us and immediately said, ‘Oh my, you are doing it wrong. Let me get you a better bottle and I’ll explain the rules.’
“She was just fine with all the kissing,” Bonnie said. “That was my mom for you!” (In photo at right, Betsy shares a kiss with her husband, Lorry Schottke.)
Despite her late start as a painter, Betsy earned the admiration of her favorite teacher and mentor, the late Sergei Bongart, an acclaimed expressionist painter. Betsy’s still lifes and portraits, although reflective of Bongart’s style, bear her own trademarks: frugal brush strokes and glorious color. Many paintings feature her beloved heirlooms: a Sterling silver coffee server, the grandfather’s clock, and leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare, Robert Browning and Oscar Wilde. She so loved Aunt Blossom’s Minton china soup tureen, in fact, we laid her ashes to rest there…before Lorry and I buried her, illegally, under an Oak tree on the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club course.
A resident of Glendale before moving to Rancho Santa Fe in 1980, Betsy adored life in the pristine Mediterranean village nestled high above the sea in Northern San Diego County. The Schottkes bought a condo just steps from the golf club and remodeled the garage into an art studio. “Mom was in heaven,” adds daughter Bonnie, who introduced her mother to “The Ranch”, as it was called. A super golfer, Betsy continued to play even after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Bit of an airhead
But it’s the healthy Mom we all miss so, the one who could be a bit of an airhead at times, like when she would lose her reading glasses and find them in the freezer. Bonnie tells of another situation. “When my firstborn was about four months old, Mom and I took her shopping in Laguna Beach – why not? Jamie was a colicky baby, and on the way home, she cried and cried until I pulled over so that I could hold her while mom drove my car. I thought she was being rather cautious as she drove the freeway back to La Canada, and thought it funny when she said, ‘Bonnie, this car of yours drives like a ten-ton truck!’ That may have been because she drove the whole way with the emergency brake on,” Bonnie said.
One incident had me seeing red. Mom had decided to get her eyes done but was afraid to tell Lorry. She managed to have the surgery when he was out of town on business for a few days. When he came home, her eyes were all black and blue. “What in the hell happened?” he asked her. Her response? “Kathy hit another car when she took me shopping and I banged my head on the dashboard…”
Lorry didn’t speak to me for weeks.
While Mom loved her role as a grandmother, she sometimes introduced questionable ideas to our kids. When my daughter, Jennifer Stark, and Bonnie’s daughters, Jamie and Susie Kilpatrick, stayed overnight with her, for example, she would serve them milk in wine glasses along with dinner. She thought the wine glasses made the meal more festive.
But what was so memorable about her, so valuable to all three of her daughters, was her immense loyalty, how you could tell her anything, any secret, and she would hold it close, give her advice, and never judge. Well, unless it came to money. Mom valued a dollar and always tried to caution us on the side of thrift when it came to relationships. Both Bonnie and I remember her worrying about our divorcing our first husbands. Not because she was hell-bent on our staying with them; she was hell-bent on keeping us from leaving husbands who were well off! (At right, Julie, Bonnie, Kathy and Betsy.)
Betsy Schottke is survived by her three daughters, Katharine Blossom Lowrie of Redondo Beach, CA; Patricia O’Brien Daybell of Gig Harbor, WA; Julia Safford Larson of Sedona, AZ, six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.