By Kathleen Dixon Donnelly
New York City, Spring, 1913
All the buzz was about the Armory Show.
From mid-February to mid-March cars and carriages pulled up in front of the 69th Regiment Armory at Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets, loaded with people eager to see America’s first International Exhibition of Modern Art. Office girls came on their lunch hours; working class families came on weekends, and the social elite came again and again. They stared and laughed at the horrors they had read about in the press. Was it Nude Descending a Staircase? Or Staircase Descending a Nude? Who could tell?
Those more sophisticated, who thought of the Impressionists as the latest thing, were surprised to find that indeed the Post-Impressionists were now the rage in Europe. One of the most well represented artists was Cezanne, in Paris considered an old master by now; the most talked about was Matisse; and that “Paul” Picasso? Just plain crude.
Nineteen-year-old Dorothy Rothschild—“No, we’re not related to those Rothschilds”—was on her own in her hometown of New York City for the first time. Her father died that year; her mother had passed away when she was three. She got a job using the skills she had learned at finishing school—playing the piano at a dancing academy. When she was younger, Dottie and her father had written nonsense poems back and forth to each other. Now she was trying light verse, sending it to the newspapers and magazines that published that sort of filler, hoping to get her name in print.
Robert Benchley, 23, newly married and relocated to Manhattan from Boston the year before, was doing social work in a “settlement house” on the Lower East Side, though he really wanted a writing job. He was looking forward to an upcoming meeting with a magazine editor that a friend had arranged.
Before the end of the decade, Rothschild would become Mrs. Parker, go to work on Vanity Fair with Mr. Benchley, and begin lunching with a group of writer friends every day at the nearby Algonquin Hotel.
Paris, Spring, 1913
The art dealers in Paris were awaiting the verdict from New York. How would the wealthy American collectors react to the paintings in the Armory Show? Would they really pay US$48,000 for a Cezanne? Hundreds of dollars for drawings by the young Spaniard, Pablo Picasso? And the Show organizers were going to send some of the most valuable paintings off to other cities—Chicago! Boston! What were they thinking? The few Americans who came to Paris to buy were always shocked by what they saw in the dealers’ galleries. How would they react when they saw the same scandalous works lined up with the latest by their own American artists?
But seven of the Armory Show’s paintings were actually lent by American collectors living in Paris. Gertrude Stein, 39, and her brother, originally from San Francisco, had used their family money to put together quite a collection of works they personally felt connected to—Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, Braque. They enjoyed meeting the painters and talking to them in their salon at 27 rue de Fleurus. Late at night, Gertrude would sit at a desk in front of the paintings and try to create in words what the artists were creating on canvas. A few of her attempts at translating Cubism into prose had been published in the States recently and were being publicized as part of the Armory Show.
Another San Franciscan, Alice B. Toklas, 36, had come to visit a few years before and then moved in with Gertrude. She had quickly taken on the role of handmaiden to the writer, cooking, cleaning, typing. Their relationship had grown so close that Gertrude’s brother felt he had to move out. Soon.
Gertrude and Alice would tire of the painters. At the beginning of the next decade they would begin to welcome writers to their salon: To listen to Gertrude’s theories about English literature, to eat Alice’s little cakes, to admire the paintings, still hanging on the walls.
London, Spring, 1913
This spring, Gertrude and Alice were visiting London. They had come to find a publisher for Stein’s work, and they spent time socializing with artists and writers there.
London’s Second Post-Impressionist art show had just closed—early, so that some of the paintings could be sent on to the Armory Show. The Second show had a better reception from the average Brit than the first had, mounted just two years before. Once the English had gotten used to Cezanne, they were more open to Matisse.
The Second show was organized by artists and writers who lived in the bohemian Bloomsbury section of London. They had come together in the homes of two sisters, Virginia Woolf, 31,married less than a year before, and Vanessa Bell, 34, a painter whose work was included in the London show. The family had decided early on that Vanessa would be the artist and Virginia would be the writer. Neither had traditional schooling, although Vanessa attended art school and Virginia had the run of her father’s library. Some reviews and small pieces of hers had been published in local papers, but now she was working on her first novel. The only person she would show it to, and not until she felt it was finished, was her new husband.
Virginia’s Bloomsbury friends were encouraging her; she’d gotten to know them through her brother when he was at Cambridge. They got together most Thursdays at Vanessa’s house to have dinner; then to walk over to Virginia’s for whiskey, buns and cocoa—and conversation and cigarettes late into the night.
Ireland, Spring, 1913
In Ireland all the talk was of the recent passage of Home Rule in the British House of Commons. Would this be the first step towards complete independence for the restless colony?
A strong Irish nationalist movement had been agitating for years, through political organizations to keep the language alive, like the Gaelic League, and cultural organizations to keep Irish folk arts alive, such as the Abbey Theatre. The Abbey presented plays in English, but based on Irish folk tales and legends gathered in the west of Ireland.
One of the theatre’s founders, the poet William Butler Yeats, 47, was in England at the time, visiting friends. He was still involved in the operations of the Abbey, but most of the work now fell to his original collaborator, Lady Augusta Gregory, 61. At her house in Coole Park outside of Galway, they had gotten together with a few others at the turn of the century to bring their dream of an Irish theatre to life. For six or seven years they had written, fought and worked together, in Galway and in Dublin. Eventually some of the group had gone on to other endeavors, but Yeats and Lady Gregory stayed closely connected to the theatre.
That spring, Augusta was touring the United States with the Abbey. They had legal trouble in Philadelphia because they performed the scandalous play The Playboy of the Western World, but it was nothing compared to the riots that had broken out in Dublin when it premiered there six years before.
But now her trip was almost over. She was in New York where she intended to take in the Armory show, where some of her old friends’ works were exhibited. Mostly, she wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
The Great War, 1914
Eighteen months after the Armory Show opened, The Great War exploded on the continent. It changed everything.
For Yeats, Lady Gregory and their friends in the Irish Literary Renaissance, the war meant a distraction from Ireland’s fight for independence from Britain. That would have to wait until after the World War was over.
Virginia, Vanessa and their friends in Bloomsbury paired off with others and moved out to London suburbs and country homes, continued writing and painting, but didn’t spend as much time together.
For Gertrude and Alice, trapped in London at the start of the war, it meant a time of feeling truly American. They volunteered for the ambulance services, were decorated by the French government for their efforts, and after the war ended, welcomed the new American expatriate writers to their salon.
For Mrs. Parker and Mr. Benchley, the war was something to be lived through. Dorothy’s husband was off fighting the whole time; Robert was exempt because of his wife and children in the suburbs. When it was over, other writers who had served, many on the Stars & Stripes in Europe, came back to start new lives in a city full of promise that was waiting for them—New York.
In all four places, in different cultures, in city drawing rooms and country homes, in cafes and restaurants, they got together with their creative interesting friends. They talked, they fought, they wrote, they talked some more.
But each group, throughout the years they ‘hung out’ together, became, in Yeats’ words, ‘such friends.’
Read more about all the groups by clicking on the pages or categories to the right. To follow them throughout the year, check out the postings on the ‘Such Friends’ Facebook page or follow @SuchFriends. For annotated reading lists about your favorite authors, leave a comment or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.