The Lamp Was a Clue to a Life I Didn’t Know My Mother Had

My mother saved an immense amount of stuff. That’s something of a burden: What to do with it all? But it’s also a gift. Because she died of cancer in 1992, at 53, when I was just 15. And yet she still finds ways to speak to me, through the things she left behind.

One of those things — a pendant light I recently discovered — offered a clue to a life I didn’t realize she had.

I first heard about it a few years ago, when I came across a yellowed envelope with a label bearing the stylized spiral logo of Wheel-Garon Inc., a now-defunct New York architectural lighting firm. I asked my father about it, and he told me the story.

My mother, Helen Lamb, went to work there in early 1961, after answering an ad in the newspaper, he recalled. A newlywed, she had left her parents’ home in Alabama a few months earlier, less than a year after graduating from the University of Georgia. She was 22 years old.

The firm, which was new, hired her as a draftsman, bookkeeper and typist on the basis of her bachelor’s degree in interior design and the five months she spent as a fabric designer and colorist after her arrival in New York. In short order, however, she worked her way up, Peggy Olson-style, into a role as a lighting designer.

Wheel-Garon’s big client was Hilton Hotels. Sometime in 1962, the firm’s principals, Lesley Wheel and Martin Garon, entrusted her with an important project: designing a set of pendant lamps to hang above the blackjack and craps tables in the casino at the Caribe Hilton hotel in San Juan, P.R.

It was possible, my father told me intriguingly, that one of those fixtures had survived and was in the attic of my childhood home, in Arlington, Va.

ImageMrs. Lamb in the offices of Wheel-Garon Inc., a New York architectural lighting firm, circa 1963.
Credit…Courtesy William Lamb

My first effort to find the lamp — as my father and stepmother were preparing to put the house on the market a year ago, in preparation for a move into independent living — was unsuccessful. Instead, I found boxes of other things my mother had saved: my report cards from grade school; all of my letters to Santa Claus; and a note she wrote to me on my 10th birthday, which reduced me to tears.

But I also came across something else: a file folder overflowing with ephemera from my mother’s Wheel-Garon days, including business cards and a series of black-and-white photographs taken in the firm’s offices, with her sporting a pillbox-bob hairdo. And I found several crisply folded technical drawings of light fixtures, one labeled the San Juan.

This prompted a longer conversation with my father, Denis Lamb. I was curious about how my mother, a young, inexperienced woman working in a field dominated by men, managed to find a measure of success so quickly.

A lot of it, he said, had to do with Lesley Wheel. According to a 2001 profile in Architectural Lighting magazine, she was the first — and, for years, the only — woman to practice full time as an architectural lighting designer.

Ms. Wheel, who died in 2004 and whom my father remembered as “a forceful, dynamic person,” took my mother under her wing. Mr. Garon did, too, to some extent, he said, “but Lesley — it may be because she was a woman — was more her patron there, more of her mentor than Garon was.”

The other factor was something my mother found in herself. “She just acquired an enormous amount of confidence,” my father said. “That’s what I remember changing in her personally. That just became her world, the lighting design world, and she was functioning in it and she was very confident.”

By 1963, Wheel-Garon had moved into larger offices at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street, and Hilton had embarked on an extensive overhaul of its Caribe Hilton hotel in San Juan. It was one of about 20 Hilton projects for which Wheel-Garon handled the lighting design during my mother’s time with the firm.

“Your mother was working on the fringes of various of these projects — not in the field, not meeting with clients, just drawing and maybe some creative input, very much in the background,” my father said. “And then somehow, I don’t recall exactly how, she got this particular project,” to design the fixtures for the Caribe’s casino.

Credit…William Lamb

I asked if he remembered her being elated.

“I do,” he said. “But also it was a project with a lot of problems. Stress. Deadlines. It was a design challenge, but also a business challenge. She had to get the project done. These things had to be manufactured.”

She traveled to San Juan twice, the second time to supervise the installation. Among the attic discoveries was a Caribe Hilton postcard that she sent to her in-laws in Cleveland in January 1963. “Here on business — working like mad but enjoying the warm weather,” she wrote, signing it “Lonesome Helen.”

The casino project was a triumph, but there were setbacks. While she was working on it, or shortly after, my father lost his job as the editor of an advertising media guide when the publisher folded. With her encouragement, he enrolled full time at Columbia University to finish his bachelor’s degree while she supported them. They downsized, trading their one-bedroom apartment at Bleecker and West 10th Streets for a studio in the same building.

My mother was also — unsurprisingly, for a young working woman in the early 1960s — a victim of workplace sexual harassment. One of her colleagues, an engineer, had a habit of getting in her personal space and saying inappropriate things, my father told me. There was no human resources department to deal with such things, which were more or less accepted then, so she was left to manage them on her own.

By 1965, my father had his degree and had been accepted into the Foreign Service. And just like that, my mother’s career in lighting design was over. They moved to Martinique, and then to Paris, where they hung the Caribe Hilton fixture in the dining room of their apartment overlooking the Seine. It was packed away before I was born, and shifted in and out of storage as we moved from Virginia to Brussels and back, then again to Paris before we came home.

My mother returned to work for a few years in the 1970s, taking a job with a company that planned office space. And she found various creative outlets, learning to silk-screen as part of an artists’ collaborative in Marblehead, Mass., in 1969 and 1970, while my father was pursuing a master’s degree at M.I.T. (Her handmade Christmas cards from that time survive, as do three silk-screened op-art shadow boxes.) Mostly, though, she threw herself into her role as a mother and, later, the spouse of a United States ambassador.

Last fall, with my father and stepmother’s move fast approaching, my wife and I went back to visit them, and I climbed into the attic to look for the lamp one last time.

I rummaged around for a while and was about to give up when I spotted a mound of pink insulation in a dark corner. I peeled the insulation back, and there it was: a green bowl pendant with a plastic diffuser and decorative brass underplate. The lamp was dusty and a little grimy, but otherwise intact.

We took it back with us, along with my baseball card collection, a few books, toys and other things I hadn’t seen in decades but couldn’t bear to donate or throw out. I had it rewired, with a new stem attached, and our handyman installed it in our living room in Jersey City, where it casts a warm emerald glow on the ceiling.

After a half-century in storage, it offers a daily reminder of the talented young woman who created it.

To me, it looks both contemporary and perfectly suited to its 1960s setting, ready to absorb cigarette smoke and flirtatious conversation floating up from a roulette table, a short distance from the Caribbean Sea.

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