Carl Djerassi: The Poet of Progressive Science

A conversation with the man who gave women a choice

Carl Djerassi ‘smuggles ideas’ on chemistry and theatre at Café Schwarzenberg | Photo: David Reali

Carl Djerassi ‘smuggles ideas’ on chemistry and theatre at Café Schwarzenberg | Photo: David Reali

Chemist, novelist and playwright Carl Djerassi arrived at Café Schwarzenberg by tram from his apartment on Reisnerstrasse in the 3rd District. Although an injury six years ago requires him to walk with a cane, he goes where he wants, still a commanding presence at 88, with thick, snowy white hair and sharp eyes that miss nothing.

He stood in the doorway of the Cafe on that May afternoon, leaning on his cane and talking to the maitre d’ as I approached from the booth I had reserved in the back.

“I wasn’t sure I would recognise you,” he confessed reaching out his free hand. He had given a reading of his 2012 book of poems, A Diary of Pique, a month earlier at Shakespeare &  Co., which had led to our meeting today. It had been a disarming evening of insightful self-discovery in verse – the righteous, and often comic, indignation of a scorned-but-proud lover of a writer, determined to outdo his beloved at her own game – that revealed a man with the nerve to face his humanity head on.


The collector of women

Born in Vienna in 1923, Djerassi is best known for his collaboration in the development of the substance progestin norethindrone, which became the basis for oral contraceptive pills – making him beloved by generations of women (and men) and a central player in one of the most profound sociological shifts of the 20th century.

“The irony was, I lived on both sides of it,” Djerassi told me. “I married my second wife before the pill, in 1949, because she got pregnant. We wouldn’t have married otherwise. That’s unheard of now.” At the time, he was one of relatively few scientists who was interested in both the practical applications and societal implications of the pill. Working in industry as well as teaching at Stanford, he lived in both worlds at once, and began the preoccupation that has defined his life.

The bow-tied waiter came to take the order: a tea with milk (Djerassi) and an Eiskaffee (me). “Ich will auch etwas süsses,” Djerassi decided and got to his feet again. He returned minutes later, followed by the waiter carrying an elegant Esterhazyschnitte, a slice of a layered, cream filled tart, topped with a white glaze dabbled with streaks of dark red. The Viennese custom of a late afternoon sweet had stayed with him, apparently. Or perhaps, as with his mother tongue, he was in the process of finding it again.

Even after so many years, Djerassi remains fascinated by the ripple effects of his work.

“There’s probably no scientific discovery that has such cultural and sociological effects rather than just health effects, even political ones, than the pill. And I became very much interested in this,” Djerassi said. So he lectured about it, wrote about it, taught courses about it. And in his third marriage, lived for 28 fulfilled years with a woman whose life could be seen as a paradigm for what the pill has made possible.

“Women still come up to me after lectures and ask me to autograph their pill packages,” he told me. “I am in many respects a collector of women. They interest me much more than men, because the role of women in my lifetime has changed so incredibly.”


Homeward bound

Djerassi is one of a coterie of Austrian/American scientists, including Nobel Prize laureates Eric Kandel (Medicine) and Walter Kohn (Physics), who fled the Nazis and later made history in their fields.

Djerassi moved back to Vienna in 2009 some 70 years after he and his mother had fled, virtually penniless, to begin a new life in New York. He now divides his time with bases in San Francisco and London, all cities where he is still professionally active.

“I’m in the process of writing one more autobiography and that’s got me, at my age, to still write a lot more,” he said, taking another bite of the Schnitte. “Next year is my ninetieth birthday. Can you imagine?” He looked up. He hardly needed my denial. “So it’s a tough one. It’s got a good title: in English – Treading on Shadows: The Very Last Autobiography of Carl Djerassi… and that’s really the title!” He laughed, although at his pace, producing a couple of books a year, I had the impression that he was racing against time to say all he wants to say.

Djerassi’s decision to return to Vienna was, at least in part, a reaction to the death in 2007 of his third wife, the Stanford literature professor Diane Middlebrook, biographer of poets Anne Sexton and, jointly, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. (“She was my third wife and I was her third husband; I make a point of that, because it is important for statistical reasons.”)

After that, “I wanted a neutral place,” he told me. “So I thought I would pick a German-speaking city, to see if I can get my mother-tongue back.” It would be Zurich, Berlin or Vienna. But Zurich he quickly rejected (“too boring, too Swiss”). Berlin was “the most exciting city in Europe,” and he even found an apartment on Hannah Arendt Street. But in the end, he chose Vienna, because he knew more people here.

He had been invited to give a talk at the University of Vienna in Nov. 2008, on the 70th anniversary of the Anschluss, “on my views, my recollections – I was 14 years old, so I was not a baby, I still remember something of the time.” It was just after a pivotal election when the voting age had been lowered to 16; contrary to most predictions, young people had voted heavily for the anti-immigration platforms of the far right – for the Freedom Party (FPÖ) of H.C. Strache and Jörg Haider’s Party of the Nation’s Future (BZÖ) – with a combined total of 27% of the vote.

“What bothered me particularly was the xenophobic message,” Djerassi said heatedly. “They were under the illusion that they were on an island in the middle of Europe, and they could just enjoy their Marillienknödel and Schnitzel, and not face the demographic facts of life.  This is a country that has roughly 1.5 children per family and in 100 years, if there were no immigration, they would be half the size and they would all be old. It’d be suicide.”


Staging in print

Djerassi’s current investigation is with the relationship between the natural sciences and the stage and is the subject of his next book, now in proofs, entitled Chemistry in Theater. “I’m making a case for plays on the page compared with plays on the stage,” he said, which he described as “an interesting intellectual argument with which few playwrights would agree – G.B. Shaw of course being the exception.”

His thinking goes that a lot of good plays get lost because of the vetting process, by which no play gets published until after someone has decided to stage it. He thinks it should be the other way around, or even a three-stage process of print, radio and then stage.

“Radio is a theatre of words; it’s theatre for the blind,” Djerassi said. “In the U.S., we don’t do radio plays anymore; but we do plenty in Germany, and the BBC does a lot, and here as well. I’d already had five of my plays on the radio, by the WDR and the ORF. So I’m not talking about some wishful thinking.“

This becomes important when you are interested in raising challenging ideas, looking at plays “textually rather than just dramatically.” Theatres are also “scared shitless” of anything dealing with science. The German and Austrian tradition is one of Regietheater, where the director is king. “They are not even interested in talking to the author,” Djerassi said, “because they assume they can just change [a play] to suit themselves – which is illegal in the U.S. or England.”

His answer is to go into print. “I want to become an intellectual smuggler,” he said. “I want to smuggle ideas into the minds of people who either haven’t thought about them, or could object to them, or claim they don’t understand them, or don’t want to hear them. So I said, come read a novel of mine, and when they’re finished, they’re contaminated. They may not have liked what they’ve read, they may not have agreed with it, but I’ve stimulated them to think about it.”

In 2001, Djerassi looked back at a half century of change in a book – This Man’s Pill: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Pill – that changed the dialogue once again. What would sex and reproduction be like, he asked, if the pill had never been invented. The conclusion he reached took many by surprise.

“Maybe in principle, it wouldn’t have made much difference,” he told me. “People think that the sexual revolution was caused by the pill. That it was facilitated by it, there is no question. But remember when it all happened: The 1960s, which was the rock ‘n roll music scene, the drugs scene, the hippy scene and the real flowering of the women’s movement. All these, really did promote a type of sexual freedom.

“And then, along came the pill. It was the ideal time for it. But if the chemical work had come fifteen years later, there would have been no pill to this day. Not because nobody else would have come up with it, but because the time would have passed.”

For a preview of Djerassi’s next piece “Insufficiency” premiering at Londons Riverside Studios Theatre 20 Sept., see TVR Jul./Aug. 2012.

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