Monday, February 28, 2022

hurly burly Morris with few detachable phrases

Review of Linda Parry, William Morris
Above Opening page of our published review of Linda Parry's biography of Arts and Crafts legend William Morris, as published in PRINT magazine (January / February 1997). Morris is featured briefly in the autobiography of one of his admirers, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. In the passage quoted below, Yeats refers to Morris as having a "burly body." In reference to that, British satirist / caricaturist Max Beerhohm once wrote that Morris was "a wonderful all-round man, but the act of walking round him always tired me."


William Butler Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats: Consisting of reveries over childhood and youth, the trembling of the veil, and dramatic personae. New York: Macmillan, 1953, p. 89—

He had few detachable phrases, and I can remember little of his speech, which many thought the best of all good talk, except that it matched his burly body and seemed within definite boundaries inexhaustible in fact and expression. He alone of all the men I have known seemed guided by some beast-like instinct and never ate strange meat. “Balzac! Balzac!” he said to me once, “Oh, that was the man the French Bourgeoisie read so much a few years ago.” I can remember him at supper praising wine: “Why do people say it is prosaic to be inspired by wine? Has it not been made by the sunlight and the sap?” and his dispraising houses decorated by himself: “Do you suppose I like that kind of house? I would like a house like a big barn, where one ate in one corner, cooked in another corner, slept in the third corner, and in the fourth received one's friends”; and his complaining of Ruskin's objection to the underground railway [the Tube, the London subway]: “If you must have a railway the best thing you can do with it is to put it in a tube with a cork at each end." I remember, too, that when I asked what led up to his movement, he replied: "Oh, [John] Ruskin and [Thomas] Carlyle, but somebody should have been beside Carlyle and punched his head every five minutes.”

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

her broken cuckoo clock hoots at a stranger

So sorry. I have never understood the appeal of Madame Blavatsky (my interpretive portrait above), Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (18312-1891), Russian author and co-founder of the Theosophical Society. The British poet William Butler Yeats recalls his various meetings with her in his autobiography. In the excerpts below, he describes their initial meeting, and various later encounters as well.


William Butler Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats: Consisting of reveries over childhood and youth, the trembling of the veil, and dramatic personae. New York: Macmillan, 1953, pp. 106ff—

I found Madame Blavatsky in a little house at Norwood, with but, as she said, three followers left…and as one of the three followers sat in an outer room to keep out undesirable visitors, I was kept a long time kicking my heels. Presently I was admitted and found an old woman in a plain lose dark dress: a sort of old Irish peasant woman with an air of humor and audacious power. I was still kept waiting, but she was deep in conversation with a woman visitor. I strayed through folding doors into the next room and stood, in sheer idleness of mind, looking at a cuckoo clock. It was certainly stopped, for the weights were off and lying upon the ground, and yet, as I stood there the cuckoo came out and cuckooed at me. I interrupted Madame Blavatsky to say, “Your clock has hooted at me.” “It often hoots at a stranger,” she replied. “Is there a spirit in it?” I asked. “I should have to be alone to know what is in it.” I went back to the clock and began examining it and heard her say: “Do not break my clock.” I wondered if there was some hidden mechanism and I should have been put out, I suppose, had I found any, though [a friend, William Ernest] Henley had said to me, “Of course she gets up fradulent miracles, but a person of genius has to do something: Sarah Bernhardt sleeps in her coffin.” Presently the visitor went away and Madame Blavatsky explained that she [the visitor] was a propagandist for women’s rights who had called to find out “why men were so bad.” “What explanation did you give her?” I said. “That men were born bad, but women made themselves so,” and then she explained that I had been kept waiting because she had mistaken me for some man, whose name resembled mine and who wanted to persuade her of the flatness of the earth.…

A great passionate nature, a sort of female Dr. Johnson, impressive I think to every man or woman who had themselves any richness, she seemed impatient of the formalism and the shrill abstract idealism of those about her, and this impatience broke out in railing and many nicknames: “oh, you are a flap-doodle, but then you are a theosophist and a brother.” The most devout and learned of all her followers said to me, “[She] has just told me that there is another globe stuck on to this at the north pole, so that the earth has really a shape something like a dumbbell.”…

One American said to me, “She has become the most famous woman in the world by sitting in a big chair and permitting us to talk.” They talked and she played patience, and totted up her score on the green baise, and generally seemed to listen, but sometimes she would listen no more. There was a women who talked perpetually of “the divine spark” within her, until Madame Blavatsky stopped her with—“Yes, my dear, you have a divine spark within you and if you are not very careful you will hear it snore.”…

a poodle doth spare us the odium of a law suit

Giovanna Garzoni (1648)
Above Giovanna Garzoni, Dog with Biscotti. Oil on canvas, 1648. Public domain.


Abel G. Warshawky, The Memories of an American Impressionist. Kent State University Press, 1918, pp. 131—

An amusing story was told me in this connection by Robert Logan [1875-1942], the American etcher. A wealthy maiden lady of Boston had commissioned a local painter to do her portrait, and when it was finished had indignantly refused to take it on the grounds that the portrait was unrecognizable. Why even her pet poodle, she exclaimed, the loving companion of all her hours, had failed to recognize his mistress in the picture, which, as a matter of fact, was both an excellent painting and a first-rate likeness. Not wishing to risk the publicity and odium of a law suit to recover his fee, the portraitist in his dilemma turned for advice to a distinguished painter of his acquaintance, who also happened to know the recalcitrant lady. The latter in due course received a letter from the portrait painter, informing her that he had effected certain subtle changes in her picture and that if she would come to see it in his studio, she would, he felt sure, be highly satisfied with the result.

The invitation having been accepted, the friendly adviser appeared in the painter’s studio shortly before the hour appointed for the lady’s visit, bringing with him a piece of fresh bacon, which he proceeded to rub over the features of the portrait. When the lady arrived, bringing her poodle with her, she found the distinguished artist admiring her portrait and congratulating his colleague on the excellent resemblance he had obtained. To these eulogies the lady replied dryly that the portrait did not please her, and that even “darling Fido” did not recognize his mistress. “But, dear Madam,” insisted her friend, “are’t you aware that dogs, especially poodles, are notoriously shortsighted? Hold the little darling close to the picture, and then see if he does not recognize you.” Held close to the canvas, Fido, who sniffed the delicious aroma of bacon grease, made frantic efforts to kiss the painted image of his mistress, succeeding in applying several licks to her mouth, eyes, and nose. “See, Madam,” remarked the painter, “how the dog recognizes and adores your likeness.” Needless to say, the lady was won over to admiration and the portrait was paid for.

inoculated bodies, the stench of sick horses

Marcel Ponty, travel poster (c1925)
Maurice Browne, Too Late to Lament: An autobiography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956, pp. 50-51. This is his eyewitness description of what it was like to be a British soldier aboard a troop ship, sailing to South Africa, during the Boer War in 1899. If this isn’t vivid enough, imagine later experiences of American soldiers on World War I troop ships, as they were being transported to France (c1918), stricken by mal de mer (seasickness) and the equivalent then of COVID-19, called Spanish flu

A rolling, pitching ship; packed hammocks; beasts held upright by the sides of their narrow stalls; the stench of horses sick at both ends; on decks slippery with fifith, vomiting men leading voiding horses; a beast falling, a broken leg, a shot: another carcass heaved overboard; aching bodies, inoculated for typhoid, strewn about the deck; hard-bitten faces at poker round a barrel: “Keep out of this, young Browne—it’s no game for children”; the stillness of tropic seas; long glamorous days; endless blue; uproar amid endless hush.

Monday, February 21, 2022

imagine making your mother an arrangement

Title Slide (2013) © Roy R. Behrens
Above Although it seems like yesterday, it has been eight years ago that I was invited to speak about writing compared with image design at a writers' festival at Luther College in Decorah IA. I chose to give a slide talk, of which this was the title slide. I have always loved this portrait photograph of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (whose father and brother were visual artists), by George Charles Bereford (public domain). 

No, that's not a nose bleed. It's a perfectly purposeful devious use of his fantastic signature—WBYeats. And below, don't miss out on the chance to read his autobiography. There's nothing quite like it. And it doesn't let up for a minute.


William Butler Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats: Consisting of reveries over childhood and youth, the trembling of the veil, and dramatic personae. New York: Macmillan, 1953—

My two sisters and my brother and myself had dancing lessons in a low, red-brick and tiled house that drove away dreams, long cherished, of some day living in a house made exactly like a ship’s cabin. The dining-room table, where Sinbad the sailor might have sat, was painted peacock-blue, and the woodwork was all peacock-blue and upstairs a window niche was so big and high up that there was a flight of steps to go up and down by and a table in the niche. The two sisters of the master of the house, a well-known pre-Raphaelite painter, were our teachers, and they and their old mother were dressed in peacock-blue and in dresses so simply cut that they seemed a part of every story. Once when I had been looking with delight at the old woman, my father [Irish painter John Butler Yeats] who had begun to be influenced by French art, muttered, “Imagine dressing up your old mother like that” (pp. 16-17).

…I was happy when partly through my father’s planning some Whistlers were brought over and exhibited, and did not agree when my father said: “Imagine making your old mother an arrangement in gray!” (p. 50).


Maurice Browne, Too Late to Lament: An autobiography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956, pp. 138-139—

One day [in Chicago] a Skyscraper [member of an elite arts society club] called to see me; his chains of office clanked about his neck. I bowed deeply. He regarded me with disfavor: “You are a friend of Nicholas Vachel Lindsay [the American poet]?” I pleaded guilty; the Skyscrapers mocked Lindsay for the way he read his rhymes and despised him because he traded them for bread, hawking his pamphlets from door to door through the farmlands of the Middle West.…

“Do you know Lindsay’s address?” the clubman asked. I did, “may I have it?” I replied that I had not Mr. Lindsay’s authority to disclose his present whereabouts but would forward a letter. “The matter is rather urgent; could you reach him by telephone?” I could but didn’t. The clubman hummed and hawed, then plunged like Doris Keane [a well-known American stage actress] but the splash was louder: “We are giving a luncheon in honor of Mr. William Butler Yeats tomorrow and would like you and your friend to be our guests.” I trust that I concealed my amazement and was courteous in conveying my regret that despite my admiration for Mr. Yeats I would be unable to attend; I could not of course answer for Mr. Lindsay. The clubman grew urgent: “Do you think that he will come?” My silence was duly interpreted: “But we must get him; we have to.” The conversation was growing interesting; I waited. “The fact is,”and this time the diver took a bellyflop which resounded through Chicago—“we announced that Yeats was coming, and now he says he won’t unless we get Lindsay.”

When the clubman had departed…I went into the hotel next door where Lindsay was staying and we laughed ourselves sick. But Lindsay had never met Yeats, and the latter’s demand moved him deeply; so he decided to attend the luncheon and insisted on my coming with him to hold his hand.

[In the concluding half-hour of the luncheon] as though no one else were present Yeats talked directly to Lindsay, and to Lindsay alone. He spoke of the poet’s task, the poet’s reward, the poet’s joy; poet to poet, equal to equal. Then he [Yeats] walked down the room, shook hands, turned again to his hosts, thanked them once more in a sentence, bowed, left. The mandarins were too flabberghasted to show their chagrin; besides, Yeats was a great poet; they themselves had said so.… [pp. 138-139].

[At the end of 1931, two years after the Wall Street Crash, distraught by poor health and financial concerns, Vachel Lindsay took his own life, at age 52, by drinking a bottle of lye.]

Monday, February 14, 2022

i can always remember the place on a page…

Max Eastman, Enjoyment of Living. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948, pp. 54-55—

I never remember anything without remembering its position. I can always predict the place on a page where I will find a missing quotation, even when I cannot remember the book that contained it. I can recall now the exact position in which I sat, and the position in which another person sat in relation to me, when he or she threw a cigarette stub and burned a hole in my sweater, but I cannot remember who it was, or where it was, or when it was, or what color the sweater was, or how I felt about it. This keen sense of spatial relation has something to do, I suppose, with my pleasure in putting things in order whether in a room, an essay, or an argument. I am not overconfident of my taste in colors or sounds, but I am always ready to state categorically whether a composition is good. Sometimes in a hotel room I feel so crisscross that I move the bed and bureau into their places before I can go happily to sleep.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Samuel Chamberlain's elaborate failed volvelle

Above Drawing by American artist Samuel Chamberlain. Born in 1895 in Cresco IA, he can’t have stayed there for long. He is buried in Marblehead MA, where he died in 1975. He grew up in Washington State, studied architecture at MIT, and served in both World Wars. He went on the become a widely-admired architectural illustrator and printmaker. His exquisite pencil renderings were often published in art-related periodicals, including the architectural journal Pencil Points. In the passage below, he seems to be describing his proposal (never published) for a wheel-like “information chart” (commonly called a volvelle), not unlike those included in Jessica Helfand’s book, Reinventing the Wheel (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003) [see cover below].


Samuel Chamberlain, Etched in Sunlight: Fifty years in the graphiuc arts. Boston: Boston Public Library, 1968, pp. 94 and 98—

Along with so much printmaking, I spent most of my spare time [c1938] on a totally different project—a wine chart. My interest in the red and white wines of France has always been intense and relentless, and I was determined to combine the graphic arts with gastronomy in one package that would appeal to all gastronomes and oenophiles. A richly decorative chart, brightened with maps, vignettes and pen-and ink sketches, was the result. Everything was hand-lettered. Openings of various sizes were cut in the chart, and these revealed information on various wines, lettered on a disk. Turn the disk to the right place and all the pertinent data on red Bordeaux, red Burgundy, or Cotes-du-Rhone wines would be progressively revealed. There was a descriptive essay on each wine, mention of good culinary companions, proper serving temperature, good recent years, and the significant names of each type of wine. On the other side of the disk was assembled the same information on the great French white wines, those of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Vouvray and Anjou, and Alsace. On the two faces of the chart were drawings of typical bottles and wine glasses, and suggestions of what harmonious wine to serve with food, from oysters, soups, fish, shellfish, chicken, red meats, game and cheese, down to desserts and pastry. There were pointers on the technique of serving wine and on secondary vintages, and a list of gastronomic enemies of wine, from anchovies to Tabasco sauce.

I am absolutely appalled at the magnitude of this undertaking, and feel now that my days would have been spent far more usefully…Once the chart was finished, I showed it to several publishers, all of whom turned it down because it presented too many production problems. It has been in my portfolio all these years, a reminder of a magnificent and earnest way to waste one's time.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Iowa Source / beware gertrude drives herself

Above By fortunate timing, this essay on Gertrude Stein’s Iowa friendships (Carl Van Vechten from Cedar Rapids, and William Edwards Cook from Independence) was published in The Iowa Source at the beginning of this month, coinciding with the release—online here—of our new 60-minute video on the same subject, COOK: The Man Who Taught Gertrude Stein to Drive. We are grateful for the unusually strong interest in both.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

ode to Phyllis / love and golf must not be mixed

Above Advertising poster for Anic cigarettes by Sepó (Severo Pozzati), Italian-born artist and advertising designer, 1938.


Alfred D. Godley, “Love and Golf” in VERSES TO ORDER. London: Methuen and Co, 1892, pp. 51-52—

Hear my swearing, fairest Phyllis!
—Golfers all know how to swear—
Though, of course, your presence still is
Most attractive everywhere,
Links were ne’er designed for lovers:
Do not, Phyllis, deem me rude,
When I hint that man discovers
Charms at time in solitude.

Lips like yours should never utter
Ugly words that golfers speak—
“Dormy,” “stimy,” “mashy,” “putter,”
“Driver,” “brassy,” “bunker,” “cleek”!
Sooner read—though Cultured Woman
Is a thing I hate and shun—
Horace, that distinguished Roman,
Than Horatius Hutchinson.

Though, in hours of deep dejection,
When the disappointing ball
Takes, if hit, the wrong direction,
Sometimes can’t be hit at all,—
Though whate’er the golfer says is
Justified by reason due,
Still I hold his Saxon phrases
Most unsuitable for you.

Tennis be your sole endeavor
If you must aspire to fame!
But at golf—believe me, never
Can you hope to play the game.
There, your “swing” but courts the scoffer,
Boors and clowns your “driving” mock;
Fate, who made the clown a golfer,
Meant you, Phyllis! for a “crock.”

Meet me then by lawn or river,
Meet me then at routs or rinks,
Meet me where the moonbeams quiver,
Anywhere—but on the links!
Thus of you I’ll fondly ponder
O’er the green where’er I roam,
(Absence makes the heart grow fonder),
Only, Phyllis, stay at home!

Thursday, February 3, 2022

new documentary about Gertrude Stein 2022

I am pleased (albeit exhausted) to say that, as of yesterday, I completed what may be my most ambitious undertaking in recent years. It is a sixty-minute documentary voice-over film biography of the life of William Edwards Cook (1881-1959), an American expatriate artist, who grew up in Iowa, but spent his adult life in Europe, living in Paris, Rome, and Mallorca.

Titled COOK: The Man Who Taught Gertrude Stein to Drive, the film is freely available to everyone here online. More specifically, it is a detailed account of the life-long friendship of Cook with the American writer Gertrude Stein. It is based on her frequent adulation of him in her writings, as well as on the contents of 250 pages of their unpublished correspondence.

Cook was never a well-known artist, but he did acquire some renown for two other reasons: In 1907, he was the first American artist to be allowed to paint a portrait of Pope Pius X. Later, in 1926, he used his inheritance to commission the then-unknown Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier to design an early Modernist home (the "first true cubist house") in Boulogne-sur-Seine, which is still intact, and widely known as Maison Cook or Villa Cook.

The friendship of Gertrude Stein and William Edwards Cook (including the roles of their partners, Alice B. Toklas and Jeanne Moallic Cook) was first documented in (my earlier book)  COOK BOOK: Gertrude Stein, William Cook and Le Corbusier (Bobolink Books, 2005). This new documentary film corrects, updates, and adds to the information in that book.

This film project (as well as the earlier book) was made possible by the earlier work of such Stein scholars as Ulla Dydo, Bruce Kellner, and Rosalind Moad, as well as the Stein / Cook correspondence in the collection of the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

In 2005, when COOK BOOK was released, Ulla Dydo (the pre-eminent expert on Stein, and author of The Language that Rises) praised it in the following way: "This book jumps out at my eyes, my ears. It comes from everywhere, never drags those even blocks of print that dull the mind. Look at it, read it, let it tease you: It's researched with all the care that keeps its sense of humor and its visual and voice delights. Travel with it, leave home, go and explore the many ways for a book to be a house for living."

The distinguished critic Guy Davenport wrote: "This is as good as topnotch Behrens gets!"

This film is not without humor, and at times it shares surprises. It may prove of particular value to viewers (both scholars and the rest of us) who are particularly interested in American literature, Modernism, Gertrude Stein, art, architecture, horse racing, Harvard, William James, art collectors, expatriates, Paris, Mallorca, the American Midwest, Iowa, art history, the training of artists, Cézanne, Cubism, Picasso, Le Corbusier, LGBT, and gender identity issues. 

Maison Cook