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Archive for November, 2009

A Writer’s Life

Red Cloud, Neb.

Willa Cather home
241 North Cedar

I’ve written on this blog about Willa Cather’s (1873-1947) adult life in Pittsburgh, but now we turn to the place most associated with her in readers’ minds: Nebraska. Cather set six of her best-loved novels (including O Pioneers! and My Antonia) and several short stories in Red Cloud, the small town in which she lived from the ages of 9 to 17. “My deepest feelings were rooted in this country,” she later wrote of the region where she grew up, “because one’s strongest emotions and one’s most vivid mental pictures are acquired before one is fifteen.” Even after she left the area to attend college and start her career as an editor and writer, Cather repeatedly returned to Red Cloud to visit. Though she lived most of her adult life in New York City, Cather’s small-town roots continued to feed her creative work.

The Cather family home is a modest frame structure built in 1879, which Cather depicted lovingly and realistically in her novel The Song of the Lark. So faithful were Cather’s descriptions of the house that guides there read from Cather’s texts as they escort visitors through the various rooms. (You can take a virtual tour of the house courtesy of the Cather Foundation.) The most interesting part of the house is Cather’s attic room, which was sealed off for years and has remained largely untouched since the late 19th century, when the writer occupied it. Cather’s siblings lived in a separate, dormitory-style room, but as the oldest child, she rated her own space. The room is still papered with the wallpaper (“small red and brown roses on a yellowish ground,” she wrote in Lark) that Cather purchased herself with her earnings from working at Cook’s Drug Store, and appointed with the shabby, secondhand furniture she sketched in such detail in Lark.

It was in this home at age 14 that the budding lesbian created a male persona for herself, William Cather Jr., which she identified with throughout her teen years, trimming her hair to a crewcut and donning boys’ clothes. For more about young William and his influence on Cather’s work, pick up Sharon O’Brien’s insightful biography of the writer, which examines her life and work with an eye to her sexuality and gender presentation.

In addition to the Cather home, Red Cloud boasts many other sites related to the writer’s life. The Willa Cather Foundation offers a walking tour, which you can now also take online.

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From the Dark Tower

New York, N.Y. (Harlem)

“The Dark Tower”
108-110 West 136th Street

This was the site of A’Lelia Walker’s (1885-1931) home and famous salon, “The Dark Tower,” which she hosted for writers, musicians, and other artists during the 1920s. It was named after a sonnet by queer poet Countee Cullen, which has been said to capture the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance (see below).

A’Lelia Walker’s fortune came from her mother, Madame C.J. Walker, an enterprising woman who created a million-dollar empire from beauty salons and hair-straightening products for black women, and who died in 1919. With her inheritance, A’Lelia purchased these two Stanford White-designed town houses on West 136th Street in “Sugar Hill,” combined them into one residence with a new façade, and furnished them lavishly. Here the woman dubbed “the Mahogany Millionairess” hosted cultural soirees for the Harlem and Greenwich Village “glitterati,” white and black, serving caviar and bootleg champagne and providing entertainment by queer performers Alberta Hunter and Jimmy Daniels. Langston Hughes later wrote that A’Lelia’s parties “were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour.” She herself was a striking figure, whom Hughes called “a gorgeous dark Amazon.”

Sadly, Walker’s historic home was demolished by the city in 1941. Appropriately, the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library now stands on the site.

We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made to eternally weep.

The night whose sable breast relieves the stark,
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.

– “From the Dark Tower,” by Countee Cullen

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Indianapolis, Ind.

Janet Flanner birthplace
952 North Delaware

It’s a paint store now, but it was at this location in the St. Joseph Historic District – a fashionable neighborhood of large homes and wide avenues – that journalist Janet Flanner (1892-1978) was born. Her father was a mortician who co-owned a funeral home, ambulance service, and the state’s only crematorium. Her mother was a published poet and producer of amateur theatricals. Though his family was embarrassed by his profession, Frank Flanner’s social position in Indianapolis was suggested by a notice in a local newspaper: “A newcomer to our fair city asked what she might do to become adjusted socially and correctly in our city. The reply was join the Riviera Club, send your children to Mrs. Gates’ Dancing School, and be buried by Flanner and Buchanan.”

Sadly, when Janet was 20 years old, her father poisoned himself in his own mortuary. The scandal rocked Indianapolis, and gossip-mongers blamed everyone from his wife to his business partner to his mother. In her novel The Cubicle City (1926), Janet Flanner based the idealistic, yet suicidal real estate broker, James Poole, on her own father.

Flanner became a journalist after a brief stint at the University of Chicago. After a few years in New York mingling with the literati and married to a man she didn’t love, Flanner spent most of her adult life abroad, following her first love, journalist Solita Solano, there in 1922. The two women settled in Paris, becoming part of the American artists’ community. Flanner was a regular at Natalie Barney’s salon, and she and Solano were so well known among expatriate lesbians that they appeared as “Nip and Tuck” in Djuna Barnes’ lesbian roman a clef, Ladies Almanack. (She is shown above in a 1927 photo by another lesbian expatriate, Berenice Abbott.)

Flanner is perhaps best remembered for the column “Letter from Paris,” on French culture and personalities, which she wrote for The New Yorker for 50 years, from 1925 until 1975. For her pen name, New Yorker publisher Harold Ross suggested “Genet,” a Gallicized “Janet.” The best of her columns were later collected in the volume Paris Was Yesterday (1972).

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nyackhouse2

Nyack, N.Y.

Carson McCullers home
131 South Broadway

This rambling, three-story house in the sleepy village of Nyack was home to the writer Carson McCullers (1917-1967) from 1945 until her death. The front of the grand Victorian house faces one of the main streets of Nyack, while the rear sun porch enjoys a stunning view of the Hudson River. It is still a private residence, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

After the death of Carson’s father in 1944, her mother, Marguerite Smith, didn’t have the heart to remain in the Georgia house where she and her husband, Lamar, had raised their family. At the time, Carson’s husband, Reeves, had gone into the army, and she, too, was faced with living alone. She loved the scenic village of Nyack, just twenty-five miles up the river from New York City, so she, her mother, and sister decided to take up residence there in the fall of 1944. Nyack reminded Marguerite of the small, friendly towns she had known in Georgia, so she felt immediately at home.

Carson’s family first rented a specious apartment at 129 South Broadway, and then in the spring of 1945, moved to the house next door, which Marguerite purchased with $9,000 from the sale of her Georgia home. When her mother’s funds dipped in the early 1950s, Carson purchased the house from her with the money she received from selling the screen rights to The Member of the Wedding.

Carson used Nyack as her base in between trips to the artists’ colony of Yaddo, where she did much of her writing, and speaking and teaching engagements all over the country. It was at this home that she gave a luncheon to honor her idol, Isak Dinesen, after the two met at a literary function in 1959. Other guests included Marilyn Monroe and husband Arthur Miller. The high point of the afternoon was apparently a spellbinding tale Dinesen related – in true Scheherazade fashion – about killing her first lion in Africa.

Plagued by ill health, depression, and alcoholism through much of her adult life, Carson suffered her final stroke in this house in the summer of 1967. According to her biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, the last words she spoke were to the young actor who rented living space in the basement. He stopped by her bedroom and told her he was appearing in the play Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. “Oh, darling, isn’t that a marvelous title,” Carson said. “Ahh, to get off. Wouldn’t that be something. Wouldn’t that be marvelous.” She suffered a massive brain hemorrhage twenty minutes later and died at Nyack Hospital.

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Henry-st-settlement

New York, N.Y.

Henry Street Settlement
265 Henry Street

Lillian D. Wald (1867-1940) was one of many women of her generation who felt the need to make a contribution to society rather than settle into a comfortable, middle-class life. After training as a nurse, an experience that brought her into contact with the dire health-care needs of the immigrant poor on New York’s Lower East Side, Wald and classmate Mary Brewster decided to start a settlement house in the neighborhood in 1895. International banker Jacob Schiff provided the red-brick building that became the Henry Street Settlement and Visiting Nurse Service, which is still standing and in operation today.

Like Jane Addams in Chicago, Wald attracted a group of dedicated women to live and work with her at Henry Street, providing low- or no-cost health care to the poor in their homes. Within the next dozen years, the Visiting Nurse Service included 100 nurses, who made almost a million house calls a year. One nurse recalled later that Wald was always “the first to hear a knock at the front door to respond to an incoherent stumbling appeal for a nurse.” But Henry Street became more than a health care facility; it acted as a community center, too, providing classes and cultural experiences.

Wald shared her life with a community of women and enjoyed intimate relationships with several. Among them were Mabel Kittredge, a wealthy donor, and Helen Arthur, a lawyer and theater producer, who once wrote to Wald of longing “to get back to your comfortable lap… instead of being solicitously hustled from your room at ten o’clock.” Wald’s intimate companions quickly discovered that her relationship with Henry Street Settlement would always be primary.

During World War I, Wald became actively involved in the peace movement, which made her work and travel schedule more hectic. She purchased a country house in Westport, Connecticut, in 1917, and periodically took time off there as a retreat. She finally retired from her settlement work in 1933 and spent her remaining years in Westport.

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“I Won’t Grow Up”

weatherford-mama-s-wish

Weatherford, Texas

Mary Martin birthplace
414 West Lee Avenue

Broadway legend Mary Martin (1913-1990) was born at this address – “a big, rambling house,” as she called it; it’s now a B&B – to a father who was a lawyer and a mother who taught violin. Martin attended elementary school right up the hill from the house. The family later moved to 314 West Oak Street. When Martin was an 18-year-old wife and mother, starving for meaningful work, her older sister encouraged her to open a dance school, and her supportive parents built her a studio at 311 West Oak. There she ran the popular “Mary Hagman’s School of Dance” for three years, serving several hundred students during that time.

While growing up in Weatherford, Martin was a tomboy who preferred “boxing gloves, punching bags, [and] bicycles” to the dolls her mother kept buying for her. An avid reader, she claimed to have read the lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness at age 11. (Not possible, since it wasn’t published in this country until 1928. She also claimed that she didn’t have “the remotest idea what [it was] all about.”)

Married twice, the first time at age 16, Martin left her first husband and young son (actor Larry Hagman) to pursue a career in Hollywood and on the stage. Her second husband, Richard Halliday, liked to shop for antiques with his mother and decorate their home and Martin’s various dressing rooms – you figure it out. Martin enjoyed a lifelong companionship with actress Janet Gaynor, whom she called her “closest, most special friend” and who was in a lavender marriage with costume designer Adrian. Martin’s intimate circle included other queer theater figures, such as Katharine Cornell and Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne.

One of the greatest Broadway musical stars of all time, Martin created the roles of Maria Von Trapp and Nellie Forbush on the stage, but is probably best remembered for her portrayal of the boy who refused to grow up, Peter Pan. In the 1950s and ’60s, she flew into our living rooms in a televised taping of the stage play, singing such classics as “I Won’t Grow Up” and quickly becoming a lesbian icon. She epitomized the popular lesbian aesthetic of resistance to gender norms. In her honor, a statue of Peter Pan sits in front of the Weatherford Public Library. Martin is buried in the East Greenwood Cemetery in town.

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