Who Is Stella?
by Rudd Crawford
May I present to you my old and dear friend Stella, whose deep love for non-routine mathematics problems prompted me to begin to develop the library known as Stella's Stunners more than 20 years ago. Many people have inquired about Stella herself, and so with her permission, I present here a short biography.
Stella, as I have known her for many years, is the informal name of Ecaterina Elizabeth van Heemsvloet tot Schattenberg. (Her name is pronounced Ay-cat-er-i'na Ay-liz'-a-bet fahn Hayms'-flute toat Skah'-ten-bairg.) Stella is a Dutch baroness, born in Amsterdam in 1926. She studied piano from an early age, showing considerable talent. She was 14 when the war came to Holland, and she spent five difficult and dangerous years as a message courier in the Dutch resistance, while still keeping up her piano studies. In her university years after the war, she discovered a love for mathematical puzzle problems and would carry a problem around in her purse until she had solved it.
In the early 1950s, Stella went to Paris to study piano and music theory with the famous Nadia Boulanger. She studied there for four years but has thrown a curtain over her life in the later years of that decade. I have never been able to draw her out to talk about that time. What we are allowed to know is that by 1961 she had traveled to Venice, where she studied the complicated geometric patterns in the marble floors of the great palazzi. It was also in Venice that she learned to ride a motorbike and had the misfortune of driving it into the Grand Canal. She was rescued by the handsome, muscular, and aristocratic Graziano Pelligrini, who had seen the accident from the window of his palazzo. He ran out, jumped into the canal, and saved her. The two embarked on a 47-year marriage shortly thereafter. They divided their time between his Venetian palazzo and her elegant flat in the old southern section of Amsterdam, where their matched pair of Steinway grand pianos was kept. She loved to play four-hand piano with her husband (who, she always said, needed to practice more).
It was during her marriage that Stella resurrected her love of mathematics, working her way up through the usual subjects to the level of differential calculus. She thus was able to expand the scope of her problem solving considerably, and her collection of non-routine problems grew steadily through the years.
I first met Stella and her husband in 1965 at a party given by close Dutch friends of ours. I found her charming and, I must confess, somewhat formidable. As an example, I can recount the moment later during the party when I was refilling the guests' wine glasses. When I came to Stella, she smiled graciously and said, "No, I only like it out of the top half of the bottle."
When she learned that I was a mathematics teacher who liked non-routine problems, a bond was immediately established, and she and I began to trade problems by mail, each trying to stump the other. It fascinated me that such an accomplished musician was also a brilliant problem solver. Stella's talent lay in maintaining intense concentration on whatever she was doing at the moment. Even when she was simply peeling a carrot, one felt that the whole world fell away except for Stella, the knife, and the carrot.
In the early 1980s, Stella began asking me pointed questions about what kind of mathematical work I was giving my students at Oberlin High School. She was not satisfied with my answers. When she offered to help me start a collection of more challenging problems for my students to do, I could not resist. The mathematics department ended up hiring her as an overseas consultant. She developed and gave us the Stella Decimal System, which has proved invaluable in managing the large number of problems that have found their way into the library.
Stella, who now, alas, is a widow, is in her 80s. (Ironically, her husband Graziano fell into a canal in Amsterdam and drowned.) In the informal world of today, she maintains her elegance and formality. It is fascinating, for example, to watch her eat a piece of buttered toast with a knife and fork. And she maintains her mental faculties by solving one or two mathematics problems daily. She finds geometric proofs particularly alluring and finds those posed on British examinations especially stimulating. She has also begun studying Spanish, adding it to her repertoire of fluent French, English, Italian, and of course Dutch. She has told me she plans to visit Barcelona next year.
Stella, may you live forever.