Photographers Unknown, The Very Apocalypse of Fertility
“For Alwyn’s grandfather, who was known as “the greatest talker in the country,” used words which no one else understood, words which he did not understand, and words which do not exist, to swell a passionate theme, to confound his neighbors in an argument, and for their own sake. He would say, for example, “My farm was the very apocalypse of fertility, but the renter has rested on his oars till it is good for nothing,” or “Manifest the bounty to pass the salt shaker in my direction.” Something of the Bible, something of an Irish inheritance, something of a liar’s anxiety, made of his most ordinary remark a strange and wearisome oratory.”
—Glenway Wescott, The Grandmothers: A Family Portrait, 1927, Harper & Brothers
Born in Kawaskum, Wisconsin in April of 1901, Glenway Wescott was an American poet, essayist, and novelist. The oldest of six children born to Bruce and Josephine Wescott, he was an openly gay figure of the 1920s American expatriate literary community in Paris. Wescott, who socialized with Ernest Hemingway in Paris, is considered the model for the young novelist character, Robert Prentiss, in Hemingway’s 1926 “The Sun Also Rises”.
Upon his graduation from Wisconsin public schools in 1917, Glenway Wescott enrolled on a scholarship at the University of Chicago. He was a member of its literary circle which included such future writers as Elizabeth Madox Roberts and Arthur Yvor Winters. In the spring of 1919 at a Poetry Club meeting, Wescott met Monroe Wheeler, the twenty-year old founder of the Poetry journal. Their relationship together as a couple would last for almost seventy years until Wescott’s death. Both of their careers grew through these years, Wescott as a published writer and Wheeler as a publisher and the museum director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
In the later part of 1919, Wescott contracted the Spanish flu and withdrew from the university. For health reasons, he relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico where he stayed for several months with friend and poet Arthur Yvor Winters. While recuperating, Wescott produced his first series of poems that was published by Wheeler in 1920 under the title “The Bittems”. He and Wheeler traveled to Europe in the fall of 1921, first staying in Sussex with English writer and critic Ford Madox Ford before continuing onto Paris.
With Wheeler’s return to New York City, Glenway Wescott traveled across Europe in 1923 employed as a factotum for the family of banker and philanthropist Henry Goldman. Returning to Wheeler in New York, he finished his first novel, “The Apple of the Eye”, a reflection on his Wisconsin childhood that was published in 1924. In the following year, the couple took up residence in the French Riviera town of Villefranche-sur-Mer where they quickly became members of its literary and artistic circles. Among their friends were dancer Isadora Duncan, German pianist Elly Ney, and artist Jean Cocteau. .
In 1925, Wescott published a second collection of poetry entitled “Natives of Rock: XX Poems”. The following year, the couple met George Platt Lynes, a minister’s son from New Jersey who, living in France, was preparing for college. Mutually infatuated, the three men would share a home for seventeen years. Wescott published his second work of fiction in 1927, “The Grandmothers: A Family Portrait”, a series of portraits drawn from his early memories in Wisconsin. This novel won the Harper Prize for that year; the critics’ praise for the best-selling work gained Wescott further recognition. Wescott published a 1928 collection of short stories entitled “Good-bye Wisconsin” that dwelt on the oppressive nature of Midwest life.
By 1930, Wescott, Wheeler and Lynes had settled in Paris, where Wheeler and the wealthy American heiress Barbara Harrison established Harrison of Paris, a book publishing enterprise with the goal of producing high quality limited editions. Although not officially a partner, Wescott provided literary advice and selected manuscripts for publication. Their first venture was a 1930 edition of Shakespeare’s poem “Venus and Adonis” with a cover design by Wescott. After a successful five years, the press was closed in 1935 due to prohibitive cost of production.
After publishing his 1930 novella “The Babe’s Bed”, Glenway Wescott wrote two underwhelming works of nonfiction, the 1932 “Fear and Trembling” and the 1933 “Calendar of Saints for Nonbelievers”. In 1935 with the closing of the Harrison press, he and Wheeler moved back to the United States where they shared a series of Manhattan apartments with now-noted photographer George Platt Lynes. The next year, the three men alternated living between New York and a farm house, named Stone-Blossom, on Wescott’s brother Lloyd’s dairy farm property in Union Township, New Jersey.
In 1940, Wescott published his most critically-praised novel “The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story”. The short novel describes the event of a single afternoon in the life of Alwyn Tower, an expatriate novelist living in Paris. It is still considered one of the finest American short novels, on par with Faulkner’s “The Bear”. After his 1946 novel “Apartment in Athens”, Wescott ceased writing fiction and concentrated on publishing essays and editing the works of others. His last full-length book was the 1962 “Images of Truth”. Beginning in 1938, he worked in earnest on his journals documenting his life and thoughts. One volume of this extensive work was published posthumously as “Continual Lessons” in 1990.
In 1959, Glenway Wescott and Wheeler moved into a two-story farmhouse, Haymeadows, on Lloyd Wescott’s new farm in Rosemont, New Jersey. On the twentieth of February in 1987, Glenway Wescott died of a stroke in Rosemont and was buried in the small farmer’s graveyard behind a rock wall at Haymeadows. Two days after Wescott’s death, Wheeler had a stroke that left him blind and partially paralyzed. He died eighteen months later on August 14th in 1988 and was buried alongside Wescott.
Notes: George Platt Lynes ended his relationship with Wescott and Wheeler in 1943, after falling in love with studio assistant George Tichenor. After a long career as a successful and renowned photographer, Lynes was diagnosed with lung cancer in May of 1955. He took one final trip to Europe and, upon his return to New York City, lived with his brother’s family. Wescott was at Lynes’s bedside when he passed away in December of 1955.
The Monroe Wheeler Papers, consisting of correspondence, manuscripts and photographs, and the Glenway Wescott Papers, containing notebooks, journals, and correspondence, are housed at the Yale Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities of Yale University’s Department of History.
Chelsea Station, an online magazine devoted to gay literature, has an article written by author Vinton Rafe McCabe entitled “Glenway Wescott: The Man Behind the Writer” that discusses Wescott’s “A Heaven of Words: Last Journals 1956-1984” and “A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories”, both posthumously published. The article can be found at: https://www.chelseastationmagazine.com/2014/05/glenway-wescott-the-man-behind-the-writer.html
Top Insert Image: George Platt Lynes, “Glenway Wescott” Date Unknown, Gelatin Silver Print
Second Insert Image: Bernard Perlin, “Glenway Wescott and Wheeler, Stone Blossom Farmhouse, Hampton, New Jersey” circa 1947, Gelatin Silver Print
Third Insert Image: George Platt Lynes, “Glenway Wescott”, 1938, Gelatin Silver Print, David Hunter McAlpin Fund
Bottom Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “George Wescott and Monroe Wheeler, Nice, France”, 1927, Film Clip Shots, From “When We Were Three””, 1998, Arena Editions