Category Archives: Robert Lowell

The Yaddo Files

It’s a wonder that nobody has yet filmed a thinky, sepia-toned, Oscar-bait-y film about Yaddo, given all the sexual, artistic, and political conflicts that seem to have occurred at the artists’ colony. A recent AP story on Yaddo, tied to a current exhibit at the New York Public Library, reveals some of the tensions:

In 1949, an Army report alleged that [executive director Elizabeth Ames] was a Soviet spy; FBI agents soon arrived. After interrogating Yaddo officials and artists, they concluded that no subversion had taken place, but not before convincing [poet Robert] Lowell and others that Yaddo was “permeated with communists.” Lowell, whose history of drinking and nervous breakdowns had well begun, demanded an emergency board meeting and the ouster of Ames.

A literary battle royale began. Critic Malcolm Cowley insisted that Yaddo was under siege from “the Communists, the fanatical anti-Communists, the homosexuals, the alcoholics and the Catholic converts.” Katherine Anne Porter thought Lowell’s crusade “vile beyond words” and critic Alfred Kazin wondered, “WHAT has happened at Yaddo?” Meanwhile, John Cheever consoled Ames: “It must have been a great shock to find yourself calumniated (slandered) by people you counted among your friends….”

Sex, drinking and general carrying on was an unofficial tradition. Yaddo resident Carson McCullers was madly in love with Porter and reportedly flung herself upon her fellow author’s doorstep, to no effect. Porter, in turn, despised Truman Capote, bragging that her students at Stanford University were wise enough to “vomit up such as little T.C.”

Lowell appeared to always be of two minds about the joint, if his letters to Elizabeth Bishop were any indication. In a recent review of their correspondence, Michael Dirda points out a choice line describing the Yaddo grounds: “rundown rose gardens, rotting cantaloupes, fountains, a bust of Dante with a hole in the head, sets called Gems of Ancient Literature, Masterpieces of the World, cracking dried up sets of Shakespeare, Ruskin, Balzac, Reminiscences of a Happy Life (the title of two different books), pseudo Poussins, pseudo Titians, pseudo Reynolds, pseudo and real English wood, portraits of the patroness, her husband, her lover, her children lit with tubular lights, like a church, like a museum . . . I’m delighted. Why don’t you come?”

The exhibit has been open for a while (it closes in February), but just last week the NYPL posted a brief video showing some of the highlights, including the very tall wall of books ostensibly produced by Yaddo residents: