Once upon a time, an author looking for information had to advertise in the paper. She or he would place a notice in the New York Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement, saying that he or she was working on biography of so-and-so and would like to speak to anyone who knew him or her. I tried to get a notice like that printed when Sophie Mumford was 96 and we were starting to put her notes and memories together for a book. It was 1996 and I felt certain there would be people alive who had known Lewis Mumford, who had died in 1990. The NYRB did not respond to my letter and I didn’t pursue it immediately. I had plenty of people to talk to and research to do, and I felt sure Sophie would live to 100. There was time.
But there wasn’t. She died far too suddenly. When she knew the end was near we said good-bye, our hands entwined on the quilt that covered her on the daybed in the house where she had lived for 70 years. We laughed together over nothing much, the way we always had. It was weeks before I cried.
The years passed. At first I carried on, doing a few interviews and finishing the book proposal. That book would have been “By Sophia Mumford and Karen Christensen.” But I didn’t want to write “her” book without her.
Several years later, the UK newspaper the Guardian put a feature story I’d written for its weekly literary supplement on its website. My story was a memoir about working with Valerie Eliot, another literary widow, in London. This had an unexpected result: it brought people, and their stories, to me, not only about Valerie Eliot and her husband, the poet T. S. Eliot, but about Sophia Mumford – or rather, Sophie Wittenberg, a young typist from Brooklyn who became enmeshed in literary circles during the nineteen twenties, and a friend and companion of Scofield Thayer. The emails that arrived over the next few years, as people came across my article and the Eliot project restarted, rekindled my interest in the nineteen teens and twenties, in Eliot, and the world that Sophie had stumbled into as a young woman. The intersection of their stories was the genesis of the book I am now writing, about the two famous widows who faithfully guarded their husbands’ legacies.
I had come to loathe Scofield Thayer during the months I spent cajoling Valerie Eliot to focus on finishing up the early Eliot letters so we could meet the Faber & Faber deadline for a volume that could be published in 1988, to coincide with the centenary of TSE’s birth, a story I told in the Guardian article. This inside look at the Eliot world was revelatory to scholars, who had seen one volume of letters appear (on time for the centenary, too, thanks in part to my efforts) and then nothing more for almost twenty years. I mentioned my frustration with Mrs Eliot, who used the fact that we couldn’t locate the Thayer papers or information on what had happened to him in an attempt not to finish the volume Fabers was desperate for.
Thayer had been woven into the T S Eliot story from the time when young Tom was sent east, from his family home in St. Louis, to Milton Academy to prepare for Harvard. One of his classmates at Milton, and later at Harvard, was Scofield Thayer, a handsome and energetic heir to a Massachusetts woolen manufacturer. Both men went to England after college and moved in the same circles.
I first heard of Thayer in 1986 when Valerie Eliot put what she called a “photostat” into my hands. It was a letter from Tom Eliot to Thayer in New York. Eliot suggested that he’d heard that Thayer was jealous when Eliot married his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood, in 1915.
I was intrigued by the drama, but Valerie Eliot had a pragmatic issue to put before me. She had been unable to locate other letters to and from Thayer, who was important not because of whatever happened between him and Vivien but because he had been the owner and editor of The Dial when Eliot’s most famous work, The Waste Land, was published. Mrs Eliot insisted that we couldn’t possibly go to press without the full Thayer correspondence.
VE went to the publishers’ offices at least once a week and she probably used Thayer as her excuse there, too. She was a major shareholder in the firm, but she was now a late author, and I wondered if she tried to avoid John Bodley, the director charged with getting her to finish the book, or if she just carried her head high and dared him to ask when she would be turning in her manuscript. Over the years she had developed an air of command that probably served her well as she moved through the Faber offices.
No one would have blamed me if the book had been delayed, but I felt responsible, and I wanted to be done with at least part of the vast work we had underway. I cringed when we spend precious days working on letters from the forties, or the fifties, long after the early period we were supposed to be working on. But I fell in with her because I loved all the stories, and wonder now if that’s how she worked: going from interesting bit to interesting bit. (There’s a lot, as reviews of the volumes appearing now make clear, that is dull dull dull: “The prospect of reading TS Eliot’s every last letter is boring beyond tears,” said a recent review.)
Scofield Thayer was far from dull, but it would be twenty years before I learned more about him. He was mysterious, Mrs E and I were in agreement about that: highly visible in the arts world for many years, then no trace. Thayer had truly dropped out of sight.
I eventually heard the story when James Dempsey, an English professor at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute who had begun work on a biography of Thayer, came across my Guardian article online and emailed me. We soon met, and I learned that Thayer had been mentally ill and became incapacitated by his illness. Because he was rich, he had spent the remaining decades of his life traveling in the care of a manservant, all his papers locked away in the family house in Worcester, Mass.
In the material Jim was working with, there were references to the young editor Sophia Wittenberg. She’s mentioned in other accounts of that era, a time when New York and London and Paris were sizzling. Reading accounts from the period leave me with the impression that they were every bit as connected as we, even though telegraphs and letters and meeting in person were the means of communication, not telephone or email or Skype. They would casually remark in New York that they would meet again soon in London. Visiting Paris was an annual thing for some Americans – and not only for the rich. Even when they were very young and poor, Sophie Wittenberg and Lewis Mumford planned trips to England quite casually.
Lewis Mumford was a young writer and had been fired with the rest of The Dial staff when Thayer took it over, Sophie being the only person kept on because she knew how the practical runnings of the magazine. Lewis did make a long trip to England in 1917, and we’re fortunate that he did because he wrote Sophie longer letters than he might have if he’d stayed closer to home. Sophie was a typist from Brooklyn who had left school at 15, but as secretary and then assistant editor she had developed relationships with a host of people with much grander backgrounds. She too longed to travel, and was working out with Lewis a way for her to follow him and get a job there, and wondering how she would explain to her family and friends that she was going to England with a man who was a comrade, not a lover or prospective husband.
Lewis had a different perspective. He saw the beautiful Sophie as a mate, a future wife, although he didn’t want to commit himself to marriage when his professional prospects were so uncertain. Sophie’s friendship with Thayer irked him for years, even after they were married, and I’d often talked to Sophie about her days at The Dial.
Thayer had no interest in what he called Mumford’s “sociology.” He was a man of the arts. He not only introduced Picasso in the United States but created a publishing home for many writers and artists, and had a passion not only for young women but for education of a sort – The Dial took modernist writers and artists into homes across the United States, and was much bolder, more daring, than the New Yorker, where Mumford went on to write for over forty years.
I learned from Jim Dempsey that Thayer had particularly enjoyed deflowering virgins, which made Sophie’s insistence that their relationship had been completely innocent hard to fathom. They often had tea in his apartment or went to dinner after work. She was a beautiful, innocent young woman. She was sexually curious, too, and she and Lewis discussed sex freely, but I am now certain that she was neither attracted to Thayer or awed by his education or wealth. That is completely typical of the Sophie I knew in her nineties: she might be self-deprecating, but she was always in command of herself, and she knew what she liked.
Towards the end of her life, after insisting that there had been none of that modern sexual harassment at the Dial, she told me that he had once asked her to come sit on his lap, at his desk. She was 96 or 97 at the time, her face soft and wrinkled, her memory flickering, but when she said this I saw her youthful incredulity, straight shoulders and head held high, a slight smile on her face. The office virgin must have responded to Thayer in exactly the same way, with a slight toss of her hair to make it clear that she knew he must be joking.
When they hired her at The Dial it was in part because she was not a “Village girl,” but instead lived at home with her family. Her moral standards allowed her to live with Lewis before marriage, but would never have allowed her to be seduced by her boss. She seems to have been a true innocent, high-minded and full of zeal. She loved being at the Dial but knew she wasn’t quite one of them, and that was fine. They needed her, to get the magazine out on time. She was practical and down to earth, as she herself said, “My feet have always been so firmly planted on the ground; I have always wished there were more flightiness in my makeup. . . . Aesthetically I think I’m middle of the ground. Beauty, poetry, music, painting, etc. give me true joy – but I would never go hungry to buy a rose.”
Once she left The Dial and became a mother, around the time Mumford’s first big success, she put that life behind her. Perhaps that was part of her complaints to Lewis, when he began to have love affairs, about his having no interest in her friends. Before they agreed to have a baby, several years after their marriage, Sophie had had her own friends. She’d continued to work, bringing in a much-needed salary, and often left Lewis to fend for himself while she stayed at the office or went out with Thayer and other office friends. Lewis’s jealousy focused on Thayer, but he knew that Thayer was no special interest of Sophie’s – but there were other men, and she did think about sexual experimentation. Their marriage had never been conventional and sex had been a disappointment to her. But I saw no sign that Thayer was ever on her mind as a possible partner, nor that he had seen the beautiful Sophia Wittenberg Mumford as a likely prospect.
Jim Dempsey’s engaging and frank biography, The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer, was published in 2013. The review in the Wall Street Journal focused, correctly, on his role in literature and art, as “Modernism’s Unlikely Hero,” calling it a “sympathetic and pleasing study of this often overlooked patron and critic.” The book opened a door to the world Sophie and Lewis inhabited when they were very young, and gave me a fresh perspective on the milieu in which T S Eliot published his London Letters and The Waste Land, and introduced me in full to a man who was a significant figure in Sophie’s education.
One of the decisions Jim Dempsey had to make, as I have to make now in writing about the Mumfords and Eliots, is how much sex to include. “Thayer was in the habit of scribbling his private thoughts and ideas into small notebooks bound in red leatherette. . . . There are scores of these red notebooks at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where Thayer’s papers are kept, and as I slowly deciphered the tiny writing it soon became obvious that sex was hugely important to Thayer. He thought about it and wrote about it a great deal.”
Sophie would have been dismayed, I think, by his rampant and promiscuous sexual activity, and by the way he obsessed over sexual conquest. I laughed at this comment, but don’t think Sophie would have: “The great trouble with being an unmarried millionaire is the difficulty one encounters in one’s relations with the opposite sex, the difficulty of obtaining that resistance to one’s sexual advances which is requisite to any satisfactory sexual life. They are all on their backs like steel traps. . . .” She and Lewis were more high-minded, but they thought and wrote a good deal about sex, too (their letters, from their earliest acquaintance, are in the Special Collections at Penn). They wrote about sex in the abstract long before they even kissed, as far as I can tell, but they went to bed together, both virgins, and lived together before getting married. That was a time when, at least among their set in New York, sex before marriage was common and a satisfactory sexual experience was considered something for women as well as for men. It was a time, like the sixties, when a new form of easily available contraception (the diaphram) created a sexual revolution.
Thanks to Jim, I do not have to try to read Thayer’s tiny writing in the little red notebooks at Yale. Thayer did not write about his young, beautiful, virginal assistant editor, but I now know much more about the man Sophie describes in her lively letters to Lewis, and I can see him asking her into his office to look at paintings. He may have thought of sex, but Miss Wittenberg (”may I call you Sophie?” he asked one day) seems to have become more interesting to him as a companion who was innocent in another way. He wanted her reactions to paintings, and explained to her what made a modernist painting meaningful and important. She was not always convinced, but she reveled in the chance to learn. And she was argumentative. Though she often sounded self-doubting in her letters, every indication is that she was not only a stunner but efficient and independent, and she was ready with laughter, too. It’s no wonder that the people she worked with, as well as younger women who knew her only when she was old, found her such an appealing companion, and I’ve come to like the mysterious Scofield Thayer because he appreciated Sophie Wittenberg, and because she so clearly liked him, too.