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Personal Historyby Katharine Graham
From Chapter One
My parents' paths first crossed in a museum on 23rd Street in New York. It was Lincoln's Birthday, 1908. Eugene Meyer, who was thirty-two years old, had been in business for himself for only a few years, but had already made several million dollars. Agnes Ernst, just twenty-one and a recent graduate of Barnard, was strikingly beautiful. She was earning her own living and helping to support her family as well by her free-lance work for a newspaper, the old New York Sun. She was also interested in the art world, which was what brought her to the exhibit of Japanese prints. Both her interests and her work were unusual for a woman in those days.
On his way down to Wall Street, my father, who was driving a Stanley Steamer, one of the earliest automobiles, noticed an acquaintance whom he didn't especially like. But Edgar Kohler looked frail and dejected and my father felt sorry for him, so he offered him a ride, mentioning that he was going to stop off at a Japanese-print exhibit. Kohler decided to accompany him.
Going into the gallery, they met two friends coming out, who assessed the exhibition this way: "There's a girl walking around who's better-looking than anything on the walls." Once inside, Kohler and my father immediately spotted her — a tall young woman with fair hair and blue eyes, clearly strong, dynamic, and self-assured. My mother always remembered what she was wearing that day, because she felt that her "costume," as she called it, had played a part in her destiny. She must have been quite a sight m her gray tweed suit and small squirrel cap adorned with an eagle feather. My father, on seeing her, said to Kohler, "That's the girl I'm going to marry."
Are you serious?" Kohler asked, to which my father responded, "I was never more serious in my whole life." Kohler, supposing that they'd never run into her :again, suggested that my father speak to her. "No. That would offend her and spoil everything," my father replied. The two men then agreed that whoever subsequently might meet her first would introduce her to the other.
Just a week later, Kohler called my father and said, "Guess what happened?" "You met the girl," was the ready answer. "Damn you, I did," Kohler responded. He had been to a party at the home of one of Agnes's Barnard classmates, where they were giving an amateur performance of The Merry Wido7v in which my mother was playing Count Danilo. When she appeared after the performance out of costume, Kohler realized that she was the girl from the art show. He introduced himself, told her about the pact with my father, and arranged a lunch for the three of them.
My father's friend had fulfilled his pledge by introducing Eugene and Agnes to each other. On Lincoln's Birthday in 1910, two years to the day after Eugene had first seen Agnes in the gallery, they were married. When I look back over my long life, if there is one thing that leaps out at me it is the role of luck and chance in our lives. From this particular string of accidental happenings all the rest followed.
My father came from a distinguished Jewish family with roots going back many generations in Alsace-Lorraine, France. It was a family that numbered many rabbis and civic leaders. Jacob Meyer, my great-greatgrandfather, who was awarded the Legion of Honor, had actually been a member of the Sanhedrin, the college of Jewish notables called by Napoleon I in connection with recognizing the rights of Jews as citizens.
My paternal grandfather, named Marc Eugene Meyer, but always called Eugene, was born in 1842 in Strasbourg, the youngest of four children by his father's second wife. When his father died, his mother was left penniless, and Eugene could stay in school only until the age of fourteen; then, as his siblings had already done, he went to work to help support the family. He first worked for two Blum brothers who owned one store in Alsace and another — improbably — in Donaldsonville, Mississippi, and when one of young Eugene's bosses said he was going to America, my grandfather decided to go with him. In Paris, on the way, he was introduced by Blum to Alexandre Lazard of the firm of Lazard Freres, who gave him an introduction to their San Francisco partner. Eugene traveled to New York on the fastest boat going, a side-wheeler, for a third-class fare of $110, leaving Europe in September 1859. From New York he took a steamship to Panama, crossed the Isthmus by rail, and then caught another steamer to San Francisco, at that time a city of fifty thousand or so people. He spent two years there, learning English and saving a little money from his job at an auction house, until in 1861 he moved to Los Angeles, where a cousin of the Lazards' was said to need a clerk for his store. As described by Eugene himself, the town was made up of only three or four thousand inhabitants, mostly foreigners. There were four brick houses — the rest were adobe with roofs that cracked. There were no paved streets or sewers. The water for both drinking and irrigation came from ditches. My grandfather stayed in Los Angeles for the next twenty-two years.
He started as clerk and bookkeeper, living in the general store's back room. Sometimes he slept on the counter with his gun, to protect the merchandise. As his reputation for reliability and sobriety spread, some of his new friends began leaving money with him, for there were no banks. Within three years, he became a general partner in the store, which came to be known as "The City of Paris." Within ten years, he and his brother Constant had taken it over. He also started lending money, became director of a bank and organizer of the Los Angeles Social Club, and helped maintain law and order as a member of the Vigilance Committee. He was an incorporator of the city water system, involved in real estate and mining investments, and doubled as the French consular agent. In 1867, he married the sixteen-year-old Harriet Newmark, whose father, a rabbi, performed the ceremony, following which a sumptuous dinner was served at the couple's new home — complete with ice cream, something new to Los Angeles.
My father, named Eugene Isaac Meyer after his father and grandfather, was born in 1875, the first boy in the family after three girls, Rosalie, Elise, and Florence. Four more children followed: two daughters, Ruth and Aline; and two sons, Walter and the youngest child, Edgar. Harriet, not as strong as her husband, became a more or less permanent invalid — whether from having eight children by the age of thirty-two under pioneering medical conditions or because there was some depression involved, or both. As a result, my father's mother-figure in his youth was his sister Rosalie, six years older than he, who left school to help raise her siblings.
These early circumstances help me understand my father's personality. His father was very strict and not particularly loving, as far as I can tell, and the only real mother-figure was a near-contemporary, sweet and sensitive but overwhelmed by being thrust into a position of authority well before she was ready for it. There couldn't have been much parental love for all those children, with the father ambitious and driven and no real mother. My father himself was never very good at personal relations of the intimate kind; the feelings were there, but they went unexpressed.
Early in 1884, my father moved with his family back to San Francisco, a city by then of 225,000 with much better educational and medical facilities than Los Angeles could offer the large Meyer family. It was also safer. I remember my father saying of his early days in Los Angeles that everyone carried a Derringer and almost every night someone was shot. But though my grandfather may have been pleased with the move, my father, a young boy of eight, immediately became embattled. He was a loner and a fighter, forced by his family to wear clothes — including a white starched Eton collar — that made him look "different." Older boys at school would put the younger ones in a circle, pitting them against each other. The fights would stop only when someone had a nosebleed, and this was usually my poor father. Nonetheless, he was forced to learn to fight to defend himself, all the while receiving severe reprimands from his father for his rough behavior. These encounters toughened him to the point where, when the family moved to Alameda, to improve his mother's health by removing her from San Francisco's fog, young Eugene outfought the local bully, who had previously ruled the playground. This victory had the dubious effect of making him the top troublemaker, both at school and at home. He led the younger
children in rebellion against the housekeeper, generally made mischief, and teased the girls, especially harassing poor Rosalie.
Alameda had done my grandmother no good, and it proved too remote to be practical for my grandfather, so after a short time the family moved back to San Francisco. It was the third change of school for my father. After getting hit in the eye by a baseball, he was forbidden to play, on the grounds that it would worry his mother. Football and sailing on a nearby lake had also been forbidden. He was, however, allowed to take fencing lessons, and boxing lessons from Gentleman Jim Corbett, later heavyweight champion of the world, but these too were stopped when a picture appeared in the paper of the lesson with Corbett, who was seeking publicity. He went on having a difficult time in school, and endured being called a sheeny, along with others who were called wops, micks, and chinks.
The family belonged to a Reformed Jewish congregation, and Eugene was instructed in Jewish history, Hebrew, and the meaning of religion, but when it came time for his bar mitzvah, he declined. Asked to declare "perfect faith," he said, "I believe some of these things, but I don't believe them all with perfect faith." He was never overtly religious, yet was later involved in Jewish charities, causes, and international issues. He was not a Zionist, however, believing strongly that he was an American citizen first and foremost.
School didn't interest him, but he read a lot. When he came out third in his grammar-school class, his father reproached him with not being first, largely because he knew the boy wasn't working, but eventually Eugene developed a true passion for learning, enhanced when his father included him more and more in his business meetings and discussions of politics and high finance.
Like my father, Rosalie became a strong and dominating person. She married Sigmund Stern, and her next-younger sister, Elise, married Sigmund's brother, Abraham. The Sterns were nephews of Levi Strauss, who had gone to San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush with heavy denim material for tents to sell to the miners. Either it didn't sell as tent material or it made better pants, sealed with rivets, but Levi Strauss made his fortune through those pants, and "Levi's" eventually became known throughout the world. Because Strauss was a bachelor, the Sterns, who managed his business, inherited the company, which was handed down through Sigmund and Aunt Ro to their daughter, Elise, and her husband, Walter Haas, and eventually to their children and grandchildren.
My grandfather was offered a partnership in Lazard Freres, and although the family hated leaving San Francisco — which was now the home of the oldest two daughters, who after marrying had built two large houses next door to each other — he saw the offer as a fine opportunity. They made the move to New York in 1893. At that time my father was seventeen and had completed his first year of college at the University of California at Berkeley. For the first time he saw the vastness of this country and the awesome size of New York, then a city of three and a half million, with its great luxuries and contrasting slums.
He went to work as a messenger at Lazard with the full expectation that someday he would succeed to his father's position there. With just three weeks' notice and only an average recommendation from Berkeley, he crammed for the Yale entrance examination and was accepted, settling down to an excessively grueling schedule. He knew very few people — he was a lonely Jewish boy from the West — so he studied all the time and took extra credits, with an occasional break for a workout in the gym, no doubt both to compensate for the lack of social life and because he was driven to excel. He emerged as a Phi Beta Kappa, and, with his extra credits, skipped his junior year and graduated in two years — nineteenth in a class of 250. He was not yet twenty.
After a brief stint back at Lazard, he went abroad for a year and a half to be apprenticed in banks in Germany, England, and France. He arrived first in Paris, where he worked without pay but was rewarded with a beautiful pearl stickpin, which he wore always, at least in my early childhood memories. He also started investing in the market with $600 his father had given him for not smoking until he was twenty-one. (Years later, my father offered all of us children the same deal, but I believe no one took him up on it, or possibly none of us made it to twenty-one without experimenting with smoking. No doubt the $1,000 he offered us meant a great deal less to us than the $600 did to him.)
My father's first exercise in adult independence occurred on his return from Europe. His father had groomed him, and certainly expected him, to enter the firm of Lazard. What he found when he returned there was that nothing had changed: his year and a half of learning banking counted for nothing. He was started at $12 a week and increased only incrementally. In addition, he was working for his brother-in-law George Blumenthal — a difficult man, with a big ego and a quick temper, whom he never really liked. Already an extraordinary foreign-exchange banker, Blumenthal later became even more successful as head of Lazard in the United States. He had married my father's much-loved sister Florence, or Florie, as the family called her.
When she returned to college, Agnes was informed that the faculty had decided to give her the scholarship after all. It was manna from heaven. She didn't have to earn extra money by tutoring, and she could help her mother pay the household bills, to which her father was now indifferent. She sailed through college thereafter, generally popular and beloved by various males. Alas, as she said, this gift "made me conceited and self-centered to an unbelievable degree.... For several years to come I was in love chiefly with myself, an ecstasy that cost me and others much pain before life cured me of this intoxication." Not to put too fine a point on it, life had hardly cured her of her self-absorption.
Agnes was forced to return for her senior year with only two hours of formal study to complete, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it was in her final year that she developed the first of a series of intellectual, yet highly emotional, crushes on men of distinction — most of them in arts or letters. She was often consumed by these strangely passionate friendships with well-known men. My father was once heard to mutter, "There's always a stranger in the house."
The first of these crushes was onJohn Dewey. As president of the college's Philosophical Society, she had invited Dewey to speak and then got to know him better through his daughter Evelyn, a classmate, who would take her home to family meals. And she read everything he'd written. She believed that his teaching to live life on a high plane made her come to terms with "the many frustrations, hardships and disappointments of my college years.... I believe I would never have married the man I did — the greatest good that ever befell me — if Dewey had not counteracted my Sturm und Drang with his inspired common sense."
As she wrote later, when she told her family that she intended to do newspaper reporting, "My mother wept and my father said solemnly: 'I would rather see you dead.'" In those days educated women worked either at teaching or at clerical work, and there were only a half-dozen women in journalism, most of them sob sisters, so it was quite a remarkable feat when my mother first started working on a free-lance basis for the New York Sun. She did "piece work," which put a terrible strain on her to get or think up enough stories to support her family. Her income ranged from a high of $40 a week to a low of $5 or $10, but she persisted and soon became known as the "Sun girl."
The quest for copy led her one day to a new modern-art gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. There, for the first time, photographs were presented as art, and she thought that the very avant-garde group of Photo-Secessionists working there, led by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, and including the painters Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, and Marius de Zayas, made a real story. She became so excited about the ideas and people she found there — they were ever after to be known as "291" — that, ignoring the rest of her duties, she sat down and talked for six hours straight. Though my mother had no sympathy with political radicals, she related totally to the artistic rebellion led by the group at 291. She made great friends there, especially with Steichen, and with Marion Beckett and Katharine Rhoades (they were known as the Three Graces), after whom I was named.
From then on, she had quite a flourishing artistic and social life. Despite my father's interest in her at that time, he seems to have been only one of several beaux, and not taken very seriously except, possibly, for his affluence and what it could bring her. One important thing it brought her was a companion for her long-planned and yearned-for European sojourn. She had borrowed $500, which she thought could last her six months, but two days before she was to leave she confided to her wealthy new suitor that her friend Evangeline Cole — or Nancy, as she was known — found that she couldn't afford to go with her. My father, wanting her to have company and a chaperone, loaned Nancy the money to go too. The two girls set off for France on August 4, 1908.
Agnes Ernst's determination to go to Europe, undeterred by her pursuit by Eugene Meyer and at least two other young men, took her away from her family problems — leaving it up to her father to support his family while she was gone — and exposed her to a whole new world. In Europe, she plunged into a rich life of museums, theater, ballet, music, and opera, often standing in line for hours for tickets. The two girls, Agnes and Nan, found a four-room apartment in Paris for $36 a month, including food and laundry and all minor expenses. This apartment quickly became a gathering place for students of all nationalities. The half-day-aweek cleaning lady earned thirty cents, including a five-cent tip.
Her only real entree to the artistic and literary world was Steichen, who was in France with his family, but he proved to be enough. Through him, she met and became friends with many of the artists and intellectuals in France at the time. It was here that she deepened her friendship with Steichen, who remained close to her and to all of us for life. She met Leo Stein and his sister Gertrude — Leo, she admired and even adored; Gertrude, she dismissed as a "humbug." She came to know contemporary French musicians, led by Darius Milhaud and Erik Satie. She dismissed Picasso as superficially clever. The only woman in Paris who impressed her was Madame Curie, whom she met twice a week when they appeared at the same place for fencing lessons. Here was a woman to emulate, my mother thought — the first woman to so inspire her.
Two of the more important relationships she began while in Paris were with Brancusi, who also became a lifelong friend of hers and our family's, and with Rodin. It was my father, passing through Paris, who introduced her to Rodin. Rodin was famous for his amorous advances to young women, and she felt threatened one day when he locked the door of the studio, turned off the telephone, and started to embrace her. She pleaded with him that she loved him for his great art and his teaching, which she didn't want to lose, and, amazingly, he accepted this. He still couldn't understand why she was unwilling to pose nude on horseback, javelin in hand, for a statue of Boadicea, but he nonetheless took her under his wing.
My mother fell in love with Paris. She lived it up in the Latin Quarter, attended high mass at Notre Dame and Chartres, studied voice and singing, took French lessons, attended endless lectures, and generally delighted in her youth, her encounters, her gay life. A diary she kept in Paris displays her high values, a good deal of learning, and a great passion for all that was going on in the world of art and ideas.
When my father appears in the diary, he is described by her, with some condescension and little apparent interest, as her rich Jewish beau. Judging also from the many letters she wrote from Europe, he was regarded as the giver of loans to her friend Nancy and other friends and the provider of lavish meals that the Left Bank student group all enjoyed enormously. On his few visits to her in Paris, my father was principally greeted with joy for taking everyone out to dine at the Tour d'Argent.
Far from taking him seriously as a suitor, my mother — for the entire time she'd been in Europe — had been writing to Otto Merkel, a German-American friend of the family, living in New York, to whom she seemed to consider herself engaged. The whole correspondence with Merkel was saved — he must have returned her letters. He is obviously withdrawing — disappointing her by not coming to visit after saying that he's coming — but she seems not to notice and keeps on writing passionately and in detail about her life and their future together. At one point she says she bought a beautiful first edition for "our library" instead of a fur coat she had saved up for. Anyone reading these letters can tell that he's lost interest, but, not untypically, she doesn't understand that his continuing nonappearance and his increasingly infrequent and colder responses are sending a message.
Nancy left for home in February 1909, and my mother moved into a room in a sixth-floor flat with neither bathroom nor heat. She earned enough to stay in Europe by sending stories to the Sun and a few magazines, including St. Nicholas, for which she also took some photographs. That spring she went to London for Easter vacation and, quite by accident, stumbled upon a small room of Chinese paintings. There she suddenly and inexplicably "fell in love at first sight completely, hopelessly, and forever with Chinese art." She vowed to explore this "attitude toward life" to "its uttermost depths," which she did over the next several years.
After a stimulating swing through Germany, Austria, and Italy, she finally returned home to discouraging problems. She was torn between devotion to her artist and bohemian friends and my father's renewed attentions. And she must have discovered the awful truth that the beloved Merkel was no longer interested in her. In any case, she grew more interested in my father. At a lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria she told him that she felt the need to go back to Europe to think things over. Having decided that problems in the Taft administration would lead to a recession, he had converted his assets to cash to wait out the inevitable effect on Wall Street, so he responded, "I have decided to get away for a bit myself," and told her of his plans to take time off for a trip around the world.
"Why, how long are you going to be away? " she asked in hurt surprise.
"Oh, at least six months," he replied.
When she suddenly realized that he might not be there waiting for her forever, she quickly responded, "I'm going with you."
"I know," he replied. "I have your tickets."
Three weeks later, they were married at her home in a very simple Lutheran ceremony with only the two families present. Even the accounts in the New York papers mentioned that their friends were surprised. He was thirty-four, she only twenty-three. What were her motives? And, indeed, what were his? Did she marry him to escape the problems of her family, for security, for money? Certainly she conceded that his money was not irrelevant to her decision. In her autobiography, she admitted:
. . . it would have been impossible for me to marry anyone who was not well-to-do. For the only dowry I had to bring a
husband were my father's debts and my own. The fact that I could confess to Eugene the perpetual nightmare of my
relationship to my father was a release from deep inner tensions. It gave me the sharpest realization that I was no longer
alone in the world and the added blessing that henceforth I would be free of a crushing burden of debt. Let no one
undervalue the importance of economic independence.
Hers was secured, to be sure: my father not only paid off her father's debts even before they left on their honeymoon, but also generously supported Frederick Ernst until his death, in 1913. And her mother was secure.
And yet Mother certainly loved my father in her own peculiar way all her life. She looked up to him, admired his brains, strength, and qualities of leadership. Perhaps one passage in her European diary provides some insight into why she married him, as well as some insight into her own consuming sense of self:
I wrote E.M. Jr. a birthday letter yesterday — one of the greatest things I have ever written. If I had any doubts of the
value of his personality, they would be swept aside by this one fact, that he demands greatness of me. With all people
that is the test of tests for me.
For his part, he was ready to be married and have a family. Her pictures show her as marvelously good-looking, and she was obviously a highly sought-after, intelligent young woman. From the first sighting in the museum, he must have been dazzled, determined, and patient.
Did the fact that he was Jewish trouble her? I think it must have. She refers to it in her early letters home from Paris. Despite her strong Lutheran background, my mother was not particularly religious either, but clearly she shared the latent anti-Semitism of the period, at least to some extent. My guess is that from her point of view his being Jewish was outweighed by his other strengths and appeal. I think she also was so young and unrealistic, and had had so much go her way despite her family problems, that she thought his being Jewish wouldn't affect her. I can only surmise that her ego and self-assurance were such that when she married my father she thought he might come to be considered as not Jewish rather than she as Jewish. She was deeply hurt, however, after her marriage by suddenly being touched by social discrimination in New York.
Her decision to marry Eugene Meyer sprang, no doubt, from a mix of reasons. In any case, she certainly startled everyone by this marriage, and there were those who thought it wouldn't last. But of one thing I am sure: despite moments of great stress and difficulty in my parents' marriage, they never looked back.
After two weeks at my fathers farm in Mount Kisco, New York, which he had bought some years earlier, the newlyweds set out in a private railroad car, the Constitution, for their honeymoon trip around the world, he with a valet and she with a maid. They made their way across America, stopping at one point in Montana to see my father's copper-mining friend "Big Bill" Thompson. My mother was wearing her wedding present, a string of perfectly matched pearls. Though they were not especially big, this was in the days before cultured pearls, and these were quite rare; she wore them all her life. As they were leaving, according to family lore, Mrs. Thompson turned to her husband and said, "Bill, do you see those pearls?" When he said yes, she queried, "Well, what are you going to do about it?"
By the time the newlyweds reached San Francisco, where they were to visit with the California members of the Meyer family for a week before going on, my mother's maid hadn't worked out. Rosalie found a trained nurse who wanted to travel and was willing to do what was necessary, although she knew nothing about what was expected or needed. So the unsatisfactory maid was replaced by a lady named Margaret Ellen Powell, a practical nurse and a Christian Scientist and the salt of the earth. It was the luckiest thing that ever happened for all of us Meyer children, since Powelly, as we all came to call her, stayed to bring us up.
When my parents returned from their honeymoon and settled back into New York, my mother was pregnant. My father went back to Wall Street, and she had to begin making the necessary adjustments to being a married woman. Overnight she found herself living a wealthy life and running households. She once told me of thinking, as she rode in a chauffeurdriven car, "Can this really be me?" As she herself acknowledged, she had a difficult time, especially in the first years, long before I was born, the fourth child of five. She had rarely thought about what marriage entailed m the way of relationships to spouse and children. I'm not sure she was ever really able to.
She seemed to regard her marriage as a contract she would always keep, and in her way she did. Her duty, as she saw it, lay in having and rearing children, running the houses, and being there when needed to fulfill her obligations as a hostess. After that, like so many of today's women but way ahead of her time, she was determined to maintain her own identity and intellectual life. In her own world, she went her own way. Later, in a memoir, she explained how she felt at the time:
I ... rebelled inwardly and outwardly against the suddenly imposed responsibilities of marriage. During the first few
years . . . I behaved as if the whole world were in a conspiracy to flatten out my personality and cast me into a universal
mold called "woman." So many of my married college friends had renounced their intellectual interests and lost
themselves in a routine of diapers, dmners, and smug contentment with life, that I was determined this should not
happen to me. I wanted a big family but I also wanted to continue my life as an individual.
I believe she was often desperately unhappy in her marriage, especially at first. She went to a psychiatrist, on whom she leaned heavily. She tried to escape any problems with her marriage and motherhood by studying Chinese art and language and by maintaining her connections to "291" and developing an interest in collecting modern art. She had already met a man who was to be one of the great influences in her life, the industrialist and pioneer collector Charles Lang Freer. They met at an exhibit of Chinese art, and he, having heard of her interest, invited her to Detroit to see his collection. She responded, "Next week I am going to have a baby, but I'll come as soon after that as I can." My father went along as chaperone and he, too, became a friend of Freer's.
From January 1913 until his death, my mother studied under and collected with Freer. Often they would divide up the shipments from his personal representatives in China. She had already studied the Chinese language at Columbia from 1911 to 1913, and for the next five years, with the aid of a Chinese scholar whom she often had in residence at Mount Kisco, she amassed research materials for an analysis of the contributions of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism to the development of the T'ang and Sung dynasties. This resulted in the publication, in 1923, of her book Chinese Painting as Reflected in the Thought and Art of Li Lung-Mien. Unfortunately, Freer, to whom it was dedicated, had died in 1919. She visited him constantly throughout his long, agonizing illness. At his death, Freer designated five trustees for his gallery in Washington, of whom my parents were two.
As another outlet for her mind, she enrolled in postgraduate study in biology, economics, and history at Columbia University, where she met and became involved with the historians Charles and Mary Beard. When the Beards, John Dewey, and others founded the free and liberal New School for Social Research, she helped modestly to fund it and also helped in psychology classes when it opened in 1919.
At the same time, she grew even more involved with "291" and with Steichen in promoting modern art, especially that of John Marin, who sent over his watercolors from Paris. She was instrumental in founding the periodical named for the gallery, "291," and became an editor of this first avant-garde journal in America. My mother was already caught up in these activities by the time the first baby, my oldest sister, Florence, was born. She later told stories of deciding to nurse the baby but forgetting to come home from her "extramural activities" and racing home to find a screaming baby being pacified by poor Powelly.
During these first years of my mother's struggles with marriage, my father had some business setbacks. He had entered the budding automobile business in a big way, investing heavily in a company called the United States Motor Company, which produced the Maxwell. This company had run into trouble, and my father had helped reorganize it into the Maxwell Motor Company, which was still in trouble. His heavy investments in copper had not begun to pay off, and, for the first time, he felt financially squeezed. My parents had moved into a large, elegant house at 70th Street and Park Avenue. In an effort to retrench, they sold the house and moved into an entire floor at the St. Regis Hotel — not exactly poverty row, but enough to set off rumors that Wall Street's boy wonder had gotten into trouble.
He eventually emerged from the tumultuous experience with Maxwell with a substantial profit and went on believing in the automobile business. A little later he made a brilliantly successful investment in the Fisher Body Company, run by seven able brothers. When Fisher sold to General Motors, however, he chose cash rather than stock, passing up the chance to become one of G.M.'s largest stockholders.
Around the same time, my father made another — less important — mistake. With his friend Bernard Baruch he invested in a gold mine, Alaska Juneau. The value of the mine went up and down, but at some point water, not gold, was found in it. For some reason, my father had invested in the mine for all of us children and told us about it. The price of Alaska Juneau was the subject of dinner-table merriment for many years, along with discussion of whether each child had profited or not. Eventually, it dropped farther and farther and finally disappeared altogether. Phil and I later named our golden retriever Juneau in honor of the mine — a much better investment.
My father's investments in copper, cars, and, later, chemicals were all indicative of his desire not only to make money but to participate in creating new frontiers. He very much admired E.H. Harriman for creating a railroad when railroads were new. That was the kind of thing he aspired to do, being in on the birth of an industry. He once asked James Russell Wiggins, when Russ was editor of the Post, what he would do if he could do exactly what he wanted. Russ replied that he supposed he'd write history, to which my father responded, "I wouldn't. I'd sooner make it."
In addition to his business problems, the first years following his marriage brought a number of personal troubles and tragedies. The worst was the loss of the youngest Meyer, Edgar, his partner and much-loved sibling, who went down on the Titanic after putting his wife and baby daughter in the last lifeboat. He was only twenty-eight. My father had been his much older brother — almost a father figure, and certainly a mentor — and he was painfully bereft. He was not close to many people; Edgar had been one of the very few.
He had my mother, of course, who always stood behind him staunchly when he needed it, but who seemed increasingly to resent running the big houses, who disliked social obligations, and who was shocked and discouraged by the pains of childbirth. She asked her obstetrician during Florence's birth why anyone had a second baby. As she herself wrote, "I became a conscientious but scarcely a loving mother."
By 1914, she had had my second sister, Elizabeth — or Bis, as she was always known — and was chafing so over what she felt as the "crushing" of her personality that my father encouraged her to go abroad. They initially thought of going together, but the gathering war clouds concerned him and he decided to stay home to look after his, by now, very large business. In addition, given her frustrations in acclimating to marriage and a family, they both saw the need for some distance between them, so they agreed that she would take the trip to Europe alone and they would correspond often. Indeed, all her life my mother found it easier to communicate from a distance, and she conversed with us children at least as much through letters as she did in person. I took this form of communication for granted.
For some reason, when she was in her old age and during my middle years, she suddenly gave me the letters that she and my father had exchanged while she was abroad in 1914. I'm not sure why. The strains between them were ill-concealed in these letters, which freely expressed their differences, his fairly unreasonable anger and jealousy, and her conflicting emotions.
Her first letters to him were written in May 1914, while she was still on the German steamship the Vaterland, headed for Bremen. Her very first letter asked why he had left the boat so long before it sailed. She was quite crushed, and ended the letter with "Kiss my babies. I have left my heart with you and them." She seems to have quickly got over any sadness at leaving them, however, since the next letter was full of details about her active social life on board — she had been taken up by the very distinguished Mrs. Stotesbury of Philadelphia. She alternated these social details with more intimate comments. At one point she asks,
Are you thinking of me lovingly in spite of the fact that I have temporarily deserted you? This is a revolutionary age
even for the marital relationship and I hope that you will not cease having confidence in me and loving me when I have
a period of thinking things out. It only means that my feelings for you will be clearer and therefore finer.
Much of the European trip was a reconstruction of the artistic life she had created as a student there. She looked at and bought books and art in Berlin, Vienna, and Paris. She went with de Zayas to see what she called the "ultra-moderns." She "expected to be horrified" — particularly by Picasso's work, since she had heard he used "pieces of wallpaper, newspaper and other actual things with which to construct his pictures" — but she found his work "large as life and fascinating" and bought a small still life of "a pipe, a glass, a bottle and some grapes," the grapes having been set in sawdust. She called it a "real work of art," and paid $140 for it.
Fairly early on, she committed an almost fatal error from the point of view of her relationship with my father. She went for tea to the apartment of an old friend, Alfred von Heymel, whom she had met in Berlin through her onetime beau Otto Merkel the summer of her student year.
Instead of making things better, as she thought her writing from this distance would, her letter about this unchaperoned visit prompted a wonderfully old-fashioned row. She had told my father quite casually about going to von Heymel's apartment alone, but added that he should not be shocked, since the place was "full of domestics." There followed from my father — all carefully preserved — two letters of uncontrolled and repetitive rage at her having "gone alone to a man's apartment."
She cabled and wrote back that there was a misunderstanding and tried to give her side of the incident, but it was no use. The details didn't matter to him; what did matter was that he had to have confidence in her. He enumerated other occasions when he felt she hadn't used good sense. He felt that the liberty he wanted her always to feel was hers was being abused, and that if she really cared she would understand the serious consequences of her thoughtlessness. Incredibly, after saying all this, he said he hoped "nothing in this sounds like lecturing and preaching," signing the letter "with fondest love."
Despite the misunderstandings on both sides about this ill-fated von Heymel visit, she carried on with her trip and her letters. She wrote my father that she recognized that her whole existence had been devoted to life, whereas his had been devoted to work. She also said she hadn't been giving to him, which she concluded was not entirely her fault: "We have often scarcely seen each other. We have lived in the market place instead of building up a shrine of our own." She thought even their town house reflected this distance between them: "We have no room where one feels you and I actually live." She admitted to him that in the last year she had been terribly restless and dissatisfied and could feel his uneasiness: "I do not blame you. Only a blind man could have failed to be uneasy about the woman who left you but I do not think you will be uneasy about the woman who returns."
Indeed, in the letters she wrote during this interlude she tried to be supportive of him and analytical about herself, but to little avail. He wrote a final letter complaining that she hadn't written as often as she had promised, that she was always in a hurry, and that she would be coming home tired instead of rested. This letter ended with:
You say "Be happy and know that I shall work for you always in any and every way." This is a smart expression and I
am sure you would do so — if you happened to think of it. Thinking after all is what counts.
Her last full week of what turned out to be more than two months in Europe she spent with the Steichens in their simple house in Voulangis, where he was growing and breeding delphiniums, a lifelong passion. With little to do, she wrote my father that she had grown "uneasy about you, the kids, the cook, the strawberries that weren't being preserved...."
She sailed for home on a Dutch steamer on July 31, as promised, and luckily, too, since it was one of the last boats to leave Europe before World War I erupted two weeks later. Steichen's house was near to what became the front as the Germans threatened to break through at the first Battle of the Marne. Ignorant of his extreme danger, Steichen cabled my father asking what he ought to do. "Suggest immediate orderly retreat," was my father's firm reply. The Steichens were just able to leave for America and took refuge at Mount Kisco with my parents.
On her way home, my mother had a nightmare in which she saw herself as her father, irresponsible and self-absorbed to the extent of ruining his family's life and hers. She made up her mind not to be like that. And, in fact, the time away, despite the stormy exchanges, seems to have helped. She returned with a new commitment to this difficult relationship, determined to make it work. In a letter she had mentioned resting up before enduring more of "the baby business." I suppose her assumption was that she would have one every two years — and, indeed, she had my brother Bill a year later. And two years after that, on June 16, 1917, I was born.
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