I myself detest all Modern Art

Anne Diebel

  • The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer by James Dempsey
    Florida, 240 pp, £32.50, February 2014, ISBN 978 0 8130 4926 7

‘All Thayer has is money,’ Sherwood Anderson wrote to Waldo Frank in 1919 about the man who’d just become co-owner and editor of the Dial. Anderson advised Frank to demand a good price for his work: if Thayer ‘does not surrender the money, he is N.G. to anyone’. Scofield Thayer surrendered a lot of money, lavishing it on the artists he admired, and on many he didn’t, including his former friend T.S. Eliot. Thayer found The Waste Land ‘disappointing’, yet he was its American publisher and gave Eliot the Dial Award, which was worth $2000, the same as his annual salary at the bank. Thayer’s manner could be remote and imperious, but Freud, who analysed him, said he had a ‘most gentle heart’. He was willing to reward talent even when a work didn’t take his fancy, and he rarely tried to take the credit for other people’s success. A friend described Thayer’s commitment to art as so earnest that he ‘remained insulated from the ironical comments about him’, yet he exercised his own tastemaking power with a certain irony – as when he bet Amy Lowell $100 that E.E. Cummings’s work would be seen as part of the canon by 2 June 1935.

Thayer has remained a minor figure in the history of modernism partly because he did so little to promote himself. Before he took over the Dial, he wrote James Joyce a cheque for $700; it came to Joyce from his publisher with a note that read: ‘Please don’t imagine that America is full of rich young men of that kind!’ Thayer wasn’t modest, but he was discreet, especially compared to the most prominent New York salonnier of the 1920s, Carl Van Vechten, who shamelessly made sure his name was associated with those he helped. Thayer had some literary ability – he wrote the Dial’s wry unsigned ‘Comment’ column, and poetry that Marianne Moore praised as ‘reflective, bi-visioned and rather wilfully unconventional’ – but his most important work was as a patron, not a promoter. He left the hawking to people like Ezra Pound, ‘that agitated agitator’, ‘official barker outside the tent – or is it a pagoda? – of imagism et al’.

In The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer, James Dempsey makes a persuasive case for placing Thayer at the centre of modernism. He spent much of the 1920s running a magazine that made no money, buying art all over Europe, and during a two-year stay in Vienna paying handsomely for sessions with Freud. All the while, he kept a flat on Washington Square and supported his estranged wife, Elaine Orr, as well as the child she had with Cummings (at the time Nancy was born, Thayer and Elaine lived separately; they divorced two years later). But Thayer was not entirely at home in the modernist world. As Dempsey writes, he was a ‘curious blend of the Victorian and the libertine’. He was unflaggingly committed to the Dial, which he co-owned from 1919 to 1929 and edited from 1919 to 1926, and quickly established as one of the leading venues for avant-garde writers and artists, but the magazine didn’t reflect his own taste: ‘Although I am the editor of it,’ he wrote in 1925, at the height of the Dial’s fame, ‘no one who knew me would guess this fact … I myself detest all Modern Art.’

Thayer was the only child of Edward Thayer and Florence Scofield of Worcester, Massachusetts. The Thayers had been in the textile industry for three generations, and Edward expanded the family business by partnering with William Scofield, his Harvard classmate and Florence’s brother. A leading wool manufacturer, Edward bought the fanciest house in town (his son would call it an ‘orgulous pile’) and a steam yacht (which his wife promptly made him sell) before dying of appendicitis in 1907. Scofield found his father lacking in everything but money: he was ‘like cold baked beans, coagulated and solid’. Florence came from a humbler background (her father was an insurance agent), and was obsessed with social correctness and the novel ‘sensation of being of that Upper Class’. She wasn’t sure of her place: her ego was ‘permanently raw – like a raw throat’. In her later years, she was ‘permanently convulsed with self-pity’. A friend of Thayer’s remembered Florence as seeming ‘rather to fear her brilliant son’, and for good reason, since his notes on her were quietly vicious: ‘remarkable my mother did not have whipped cream on her baked beans’.

Thayer was at Milton Academy when his father died; it was there that he met Eliot. He then went to Harvard, where he despised his ‘gilded wastrel’ classmates, studied philosophy under George Santayana and helped to produce the Harvard Monthly; and Oxford, where he had an intense friendship and possibly a love affair with Vivien Haigh-Wood, who married Eliot the day Thayer boarded the ship back to the US. The newlyweds held him in low esteem: Eliot told Conrad Aiken that Thayer would be a ‘fine dilettante and talker if he loses all literary ambition’; Vivien vowed to forget Thayer’s ‘promising-much & fulfilling-little countenance’ (though not before offering him one last chance to burn a finger in her ‘white flame’). When Thayer learned of their marriage, he was ‘nettled’, even though he was already engaged to the beautiful 18-year-old Elaine Orr, whom John Dos Passos described as a ‘poet’s dream’ and about whom Cummings would write hundreds of poems. Thayer was less annoyed, it seems, at losing Vivien than at Eliot’s sense of superiority. He compared Eliot the critic to a father punishing a naughty child: ‘It hurts me more than it does you, Charlie.’ In Eliot’s prose, he said, ‘one smells the sadist.’

At the age of 26 Thayer went to Chicago to see if he could earn his own living for a month. ‘I want to show you,’ he wrote to Elaine, then his fiancée, who was also from a rich family, ‘that I am not an idler.’ He proved his mettle selling guidebooks door to door. The couple honeymooned in Santa Barbara, where they attended a lecture at the Theosophist school and another by Tagore, whose ‘wide-hooved’ and bovine nobility reminded Thayer of ‘pregnant women waiting their time’. Within a year, Thayer had come to see Elaine not as the ‘virgin of Ashtaroth’ he had fallen for, but as ‘a perfectly banal girl’ in stockinged feet, who seemed ‘good milk’ but was actually ‘a congenitally sucked egg’. ‘In so far as a man marry for sexual pleasure, he kills the golden goose,’ he wrote. ‘To oppose divorce is like opposing funerals; the death in each case has already taken place.’

The couple returned to New York in 1917 and took separate flats on Washington Square, Thayer’s in the bachelors-only Benedick. He became a proponent of free love, which he practised with a number of women, including the journalist Louise Bryant, who said she was getting ‘too serious’ about him, before she sailed to Russia to meet her husband, John Reed; she left Thayer a nude photo of herself and implored him to visit her in Europe, ‘anywhere you say’. He maintained good relations with Elaine and Cummings, and sent Cummings a cheque ‘for the time, energy and other things you have expended upon Elaine’. In 1919 the couple’s child, Nancy Thayer, was born (Thayer wrote in his diary of Elaine ‘expelling “heir” from vagina’), and he supplied her with an income, an arrangement Cummings accepted with bitterness: ‘ST could do it: wealth … i:nothing, only my art.’ (Elaine told Thayer’s mother the truth in 1924, but Nancy learned of her paternity only as an adult, when she visited Cummings, by then her mother’s ex-husband. She was falling in love with him, until he put a stop to it by telling her he was her father.)

The month before Nancy was born, Thayer and his business partner James Sibley Watson Jr bought the Dial from its publisher, Martyn Johnson. Thayer had become involved with the magazine in 1917, when he met Johnson in Chicago and agreed to fund the Dial’s move to New York, on condition that he be hired as a contributing editor. He’d long wanted to buy a magazine or start one of his own, but Dempsey shows that he had had another motive: the high-profile job was a way of dodging the draft. The magazine had begun in 1840 as a Transcendentalist journal, edited until 1844 by Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was revived in 1880 as a political paper by Francis Fisher Browne, who edited it until his death in 1913; in 1916, Johnson bought and radicalised it, hiring John Dewey, Randolph Bourne and Thorstein Veblen as editors. In Thayer’s view, the Dial’s concern with politics was tedious. He and Watson decided to ‘follow their own tastes’, which were thoroughly belletristic, and put contemporary writers and artists side by side. For Thayer, the editorship meant suppressing his own literary ambitions. ‘If you do any permanent work,’ an Oxford friend had prophesied, ‘I doubt if it will be in a genre which will appeal to you.’ Thayer wanted to be a poet, but editing turned out to be his vocation.

In May 1920, he reported to Pound that he and Watson had already spent $60,000 on the Dial and expected to spend $40,000 more within the year (about $1.15 million today). The next year, he established the annual Dial Award; the first recipient was Anderson, followed by Eliot, Van Wyck Brooks, Marianne Moore (who joined the staff in 1924 and succeeded Thayer as editor), Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Pound and Kenneth Burke. And despite Thayer’s distaste for high modernism (Pound’s Cantos were ‘silly’, Joyce’s later work ‘unreadable’), he resolved to print what few others would touch. He was especially kind to Cummings, who had been his friend since Harvard. Despite his private misgivings about Cummings (‘a sentimentalist with protective cubist coloration’), the Dial ran his poems and drawings so frequently that Cummings wrote to his father about his good fortune in ‘having what amounts to my own printing-press in Thayer and Watson’. Despite Thayer’s personal and aesthetic differences with Eliot and Pound, he didn’t hesitate to accept their work, and took strategic advantage of their connections in London and Paris to ensure that the magazine maintained its international scope. He was often abroad himself, scouting European talent (he brought Thomas Mann’s work to America, and made sure that Burke cut the ‘the’ from the title of his translation of Death in Venice), even as he micro-managed the Dial by means of copious, detailed correspondence. Occasionally, his fastidiousness could seem excessive: he once reacted to Yeats’s wish for a minor last-minute change by pulping the entire run and reprinting the issue.

He hosted monthly dinners at the Dial office and entertained writers in his flat, where there were rare first editions, Beardsley drawings, Chinese and Japanese furniture, a Japanese manservant called Oni (who subscribed to the Nation) and no chairs. The décor expressed both Thayer’s aesthetic lushness – Adolf Dehn portrayed him in a caricature as ‘le Byron de nos jours’ – and his monkish severity. At one point he started inviting contributors over one at a time after each contribution; Moore thought this was ‘a killing thing’.

A nervous, mercurial creature, Thayer was described by his friend, colleague and possibly lover Alyse Gregory as being ‘ice on the surface and molten lava underneath’, with a mind ‘like the swinging tail of an aroused lynx’. He had a Proustian sensitivity to noise and paid a monthly sum to his downstairs neighbours to turn off their gramophone when it annoyed him. In 1919 he entered psychoanalysis with the American Leon Pierce Clark, the ‘psychobiographer’ of Napoleon and Lincoln, before seeking out Freud. Dempsey points out that Thayer and his companions in England – Eliot, Vivien and his cousin Lucy, who had introduced him to Vivien – all had serious mental breakdowns, and all but Eliot would end their lives under care. Breaking down was common enough in this crowd for it to become a subject of grim humour. When Vivien wrote to Thayer explaining that she would be taking over her husband’s ‘London Letter’ while he recovered from an illness, she grumbled that she hadn’t yet finished her own breakdown. To what extent Thayer benefited from analysis is unclear; in a 1922 letter to Gregory, he regretted that he was ‘not in agreement’ with ‘the essential foundation-lines of Dr Freud’s diagnosis of my neurosis’.

*

Freud’s diagnosis isn’t known, but it was probably schizophrenia. Dempsey is frustratingly circumspect about this: he lacks some information (medical records from Thayer’s sessions with Freud and his many visits to psychiatric hospitals), but also displays a reticence at odds with his book’s title. (Do Thayer’s warders, who in the 1960s permitted Nicholas Joost to write Scofield Thayer and the ‘Dial’ only if he didn’t mention mental illness, continue to meddle?) Dempsey does detail the symptoms of Thayer’s paranoia: he believed that the magazine’s staff were plotting against him and made Moore go through the wastepaper baskets in search of proof; he thought his mail was being read and that his flat in Vienna was ‘filled with dictaphones and electrical wiring’; he believed his attempts to buy paintings were being thwarted by unknown persons of great wealth; and he had his water tested for typhoid bacteria. He did have legitimate fears: he had a long-standing feud with the art collector Albert Barnes, who threatened to expose him as ‘a pervert – and illustrate the story with photographs’. (Barnes also encouraged Leo Stein, who was quarrelling with Thayer, to ‘attend to him physically with a horsewhip’.) The Dial art critic Henry McBride attributed Thayer’s final breakdown, as well as the magazine’s collapse a few years later, to the ‘strain of this conflict’ with Barnes, whom Thayer blamed for ‘fantastic and sinister happenings’. In early 1926, he told Gregory that his ‘plight’ had moved Freud ‘to tears’.

Thayer had often complained that he had no time to write; his illness seemed to help him write more freely and he contributed 20 poems to the Dial in two years. In 1926 he resigned as editor, though he remained an ‘adviser’ until the money-losing magazine was shut down in 1929, at the urging of his frugal mother. Moore, Thayer’s successor, was greatly respected, but as modernism became mainstream the Dial lost its cachet. In 1927 the New Republic mocked it for favouring the old innovators (the previous year’s Dial Award had gone to Williams) at the expense of the new generation. An embarrassed Williams wrote to Pound calling the magazine ‘a dead letter among the publisher crowd’ and mentioning a rumour that it might be bought by the spiritualist George Gurdjieff. Pound surely relished this news: in 1920, he had told Joyce that the Dial would ‘never be any real fun’ (meaning it would not print enough Pound or Joyce), and in 1929 he advised Lincoln Kirstein, who as a rich Harvard undergraduate was starting a magazine of his own, that the Dial had ‘gained not a damn thing by its excess of caution’. Pound repeated the charge in his 1930 essay ‘Small Magazines’: Thayer, he said, ‘could have had more fun for his money’ had he followed through with his earlier plan to back a review edited by Pound and Eliot. Instead he chose a venue that would ‘look sober and authoritative’, and whose main benefit to American culture was that it filled the pockets of needy writers (among them the 1927 Dial Award winner).

Thayer was hospitalised in 1926 and declared insane in 1937, the year after his mother died. He wasn’t capable of defending himself or his magazine. Besides, Pound missed the point. ‘Fun’ wasn’t really Thayer’s thing. He lived until 1982, and had a pretty nice life: he travelled between Bermuda, Florida, Boston and his house on Martha’s Vineyard, attended by nurses; he wore flowing white robes, and wrote all day in English, French and German; once in a while his servants would hear him scream. Even in his programmatic madness, aspects of his personality came through: he had his cook cut the crusts off his sandwich bread, then put them back in place; he would eat only the crustless sandwich. Similarly, broccoli tops were removed and boiled, then reunited with the raw stems on the plate; he would eat only the tops. In his will he bequeathed his collection of more than four hundred artworks to the Met, 22 Aubrey Beardsley drawings to the Fogg Art Museum and the rest of his fortune to four friends (including Gregory and Moore), all of whom had died years before.

During the last decade there have been several biographies of New York patrons of modernism, including Van Vechten, Kirstein and Mabel Dodge. These figures championed the arts and artists they loved but their generosity has recently come under suspicion, recast (especially in Van Vechten’s case) as a kind of exploitation. Unlike his contemporaries, who invited posthumous scrutiny by puffing up their own achievements, Thayer has been neglected, and Dempsey’s book is a project of recovery rather than revision. As a result, he is sometimes too kind to his subject (who thought women over thirty should wear mourning ‘for their youth’, and commended himself for being big enough to ‘forgive’ Freud’s Jewishness). Before he slipped into obscurity, he looked back on his life with self-aggrandising despair: ‘I was like a beautiful angel beating his wings in a … void in vain,’ he wrote in 1927 at the age of 38. What, exactly, was in vain? Certainly not his work at the Dial. The allusion to Shelley hints at the deeper issue: Thayer thought of himself as an artist, but he succeeded as an impresario.