‘Such Friends’: 100 Years Ago, December 1909

In Ireland…

William Butler Yeats’ maternal grandfather, big, bearded William Pollexfen, has died in County Sligo, ending Yeats’ family connections there. Yeats had spent his early years with his mother’s family, and the countryside inspired much of his poetry.

This loss, combined with the recent death of his fellow director of the Abbey Theatre, John Millington Synge, aged only 37, has renewed Yeats’ interest in séances and automatic writing.

Yeats is also concerned about his father, the painter John Butler [J B] Yeats, 70, living in New York City.

J B had gone to America as the guest of their friend, art collector John Quinn, 39, and has refused to return to Ireland.

Quinn eventually commissions J B Yeats to do some paintings, to give him some income while he lives in Manhattan, enjoying Quinn’s social circles of artists and collectors. Back home, Willie is feeling closer to his father from reading his letters, but wants him to come back to Ireland.

J B writes to his son that an American lawyer has described his current situation thus:

“In Dublin it is hopeless insolvency. Here it is hopeful insolvency.”

In England…

The career of painter Duncan Grant, 24, is going well. He has two new pictures exhibited at the New English Art Club, including a portrait of his cousin, James Strachey, 22, brother of Duncan’s former lover, Lytton Strachey, 29.

Over the Christmas holiday, Virginia Stephen, 27, is alone in Cornwall. She lives with her brother Adrian, 26, in Fitzroy Square and is tired of it. She has just inherited a couple thousand pounds from her aunt, and written to Duncan,

“Good God! to have a room of one’s own with a real fire and books…”

Virginia has had a few marriage proposals this year, including one from Lytton, not well thought-out, which they both had the sense to laugh about the next day.

Her sister, painter Vanessa Bell, 30, writes to her husband of two years, Clive, 28, on New Year’s Eve: 

“At Fitzroy Square were Pernel [Strachey], [John Maynard] Keynes, Duncan [Grant], [Tudor] Castle and Irene [Noel]. The evening was awkward in the extreme I thought… Noel and Castle talked the whole time to each other. The goat [Virginia] was silent with occasional attempts at an affectionate whispered conversation with me which had to be curbed. Your presence would have been a great help.”

Then the dog threw up.

In France…

American ex-patriates Gertrude Stein, 35, and Alice B. Toklas, 32, living with Gertrude’s brother Leo, 37, at rue de Fleurus, are proud that their friend Guillaume Apollinaire, 29, has had his first book published. L’enchanteur pourrissant is illustrated with primitive woodcuts by Andre Derain, 29.

Gertrude and Leo had met Apollinaire three years before, and, in 1907, along with Alice, newly arrived in Paris, they had attended the legendary “Rousseau’s banquet.” As described in the The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein:

“Picasso had recently found in Montmartre a large portrait of a woman by Rousseau, …This festivity was in honour of the purchase and the painter…It was…Apollinaire, as I remember, who knowing Rousseau very well had induced him to promise to come and was to bring him and everybody was to write poetry and songs and it was to be very rigolo, a favourite Montmartre word meaning a jokeful amusement…At the head of the table was the new acquisition, the Rousseau, draped in flags and wreaths and flanked on either side by big statues…Apollinaire and Rousseau came in which they did very presently and were wildly acclaimed…Apollinaire solemnly approached myself and my [American] friend and asked us to sing some of the native songs of the red indians. We did not either of us feel up to that to the great regret of Guillaume and all the company… And about three o’clock in the morning…we all went out into the street together, Gertrude Stein and her brother, my friend and I, all in one cab, took Rousseau home.”

Farther north in Paris, nine years after his death, Oscar Wilde’s body has been moved to Pere Lachaise cemetery, with Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of an angel on the tomb. Wilde’s epitaph is from his own The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

In America…

Maxwell Perkins, 25, has been a reporter for the New York Times for more than two years, a job he got through family connections.

After a few boring months as a cub reporter, Max had been moved up to police work, and then the Times general staff. But this past summer he re-discovered Louise Saunders, whom he had met in dancing class years before. Tiring of the erratic hours of the newspaper profession, Max knows that marriage and a family will require a more stable occupation.

Max has just heard of an opening in the advertising department of the publisher Scribner’s, and finds out that one of his Harvard professors is a friend of the owner, Charles Scribner. Max manages to get an interview, armed with a letter of reference from the professor:

“I knew Perkins’s father well; and you as well, if I am not mistaken, knew his mother years ago—a daughter of Mr. Evarts. And I have known and admired all four of his grandparents. So when he came to college, he had a rather hard record to hold in my esteem; and he held it, happily and pleasantly. He has in him the right stuff. He is really the sort one can depend on.”

On 18th December, after his interview, Max writes to Mr. Scribner to tell him,

“So far, I have said nothing here [at the Times] of my intention to leave the newspaper business. But if things so work out that the want of recommendation from my editors alone stands in my way with regard to this position, I shall ask instantly for it.”

Max and Louise end the year waiting to hear from Scribner’s about their fate.

Outside of Chicago, Ernest Hemingway, 10, receives copies of Ivanhoe and Robinson Crusoe for Christmas. This early interest in books, as well as the Scribner’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, who will publish his first novel in 1926, inspires Hemingway to pursue a full-time career as a writer.

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