“On how women should behave”: Reading Other People’s Mail -The Toast

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The summer I was twenty, I spent six hours a day in an empty back office reading people’s mail. These people were long dead and their son had sold their papers to the Harvard Theatre Collection, but it still felt partly illicit, and partly like I was solving a mystery–sifting through hundred-year-old clues to find out what had happened. Because something always happened–someone’s always being catty or evasive or finessing the truth (if not outright lying) or, as in this particular cache of letters, throwing themselves and their whole lives into the life and work of a man who almost certainly did not deserve it.

I can’t remember how many of the letters in this collection were sorted and recorded by me, but it’s over 2,000. I typed the date and description of each in HTML, then put the letter in an archival file folder. Knowing this was in store for my summer, I bought a discman, a cheap off-brand device that would play CDs of burned MP3s, so that I could put multiple albums onto one CD and be set for the day (which would have been cooler if I’d listened to more than Sondheim and Dave Matthews Band and Ani DiFranco and Eminem, but still felt pretty cool). That summer, I drank at a bar for the first time. I wore a bikini onstage for a play and felt okay about it. I watched Christian Bale’s entire oeuvre on VHS on a 13-inch TV and went to see Reign of Fire on its opening day. I met my future husband. It was fantastic.

And this was a fantastic job, and I loved it, even at its most tedious. I had a wonderful boss who quietly commiserated with me over the repetitive nature of the job and trusted me to work independently. The Theatre Collection was a rare book library, and it was located in an out-of-the-way basement, so we would have at most two or three visitors a day in the whisper-silent reading room–but I helped mostly in the even quieter back room and sub basement, helping to go through new material.

That new material? Often people’s private things. Banker’s boxes full of photos of silent film stars. A flat box stuffed with vaudeville posters. Playbills and typewritten scripts and, once, many copies of the sheet music for the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” which I kept finding in every folder of a certain donation, and which subsequently stayed in my head for the next, oh, dozen or so years.

I could see the appeal of becoming a librarian–imposing order into chaos–but I was always more interested in inventing stories to go with the donations and accessions, rather than finding out what really happened and filing it away. Only, this summer, the real story proved much juicier than anything I could’ve made up, and the sheer volume of letters I read made it impossible to imagine different versions of these people, despite how much I wanted to.

edward-gordon-craigYou can still see the evidence of my data entry online and you can go look up the letters themselves if you visit the library. The bulk of the letters dated from around 1907-1930 and they had been sent to a woman named Dorothy Nevile Lees, who had lived most of her life in Florence and who had dedicated herself to the work of a theatre director/philosopher Edward Gordon Craig. Craig (pictured) had “modern” ideas about staging and lighting, lots of high-minded thoughts about how actors were marionettes and directors were the geniuses of the theater, and an overabundance energy and drive.

He also was a total asshole.

(1557) On breakup of current civilization and his role in forming new one.

(491) Instructions for behavior; no “gush” in correspondence.

(551) Instructions on how to behave (no grumbling)

(582) Philosophy of life; renewal of purpose for DNL; no protestation of affection.

(657) DNL should get back to work.

(659) DNL should get to work.

(687) Rules for how long DNL may visit.

Here’s the story I pieced together from Lees’ carefully maintained records, the human drama playing out in the endless “business correspondence”: Dorothy moves to Italy from England to be a writer. She publishes a couple of books. She meets Edward Gordon Craig. (He’s sick, in his hotel room. She’s scandalized to be asked to meet him there, but she does.) He seduces her. (Reading between the lines. But it’s pretty obvious based on what happens later.) She starts working for him as he gads about Europe sleeping with dozens of other women (including most famously the dancer Isadora Duncan) and sending her two and sometimes three petulant, demanding letters a day. (A DAY! This was a dude born for text messaging and blogging, a hundred years too early.)

(707) Instructions on how to cope with life; marked by DNL “a letter to learn from.”

(1131) Reasons for DNL’s mistakes; reminder on best way to work and write; “My continual demands are the life and soul of the machine – now simplify the mechanism.”

(1116) Wants cooperation, and silence.

(1117) Reminder (last one) on how women should behave.

Meanwhile Dorothy’s stuck in an attic apartment–there’s a picture of an amazing pigeon-hole-filled desk buried somewhere in the collection–writing almost all the articles for his theater “magazine” under pseudonyms, paying printers out of her own pocket, and dealing with fans/students/subscribers/various other insanity. She made little or no money from her work with him; what money did arrive came infrequently and unpredictably. In fact, most of the bills were paid from her own pocket.

Then, after ten years of this (literally) thankless enterprise, on one of Craig’s extremely rare visits to Florence, he gets her pregnant. So now she has a kid, David, by herself a strange country where she has no friends, only creditors and Craig’s hangers-on, and her child’s father is off complaining about the state of the theatre, criticizing her writing, and haranguing her about some meaningless nonsense, like the type of stationery she used.

(118) Stationery annotated by EGC as “cheap and vile;” letter annotated by EGC — “Please please don’t talk so much. All this letter is nervous chatter about nothing;” concerning design and quality of Mask stationery; DNL’s and EGC’s need for money; nature of Magnus’ leadership.

And here’s the proud papa, in the letters dated around the birth of David:

(915) Publication business; words of encouragement for facing sad things in life; signed “ever yours.”

(916) On arrangements for DNL in hospital; should not register under EGC’s name; [baby] should have plain name.

(917) Concerning baptism; EGC does not want name in it (on it?) at all.

(918) New prospectus for the Marionnette.

(930) How to write succinctly; Mask /Marionnette business; includes copy of DNL letter to EGC edited by EGC with unnecessary parts crossed out, including long passage on her satisfaction with her baby and her life.

Obviously I sympathized with poor Dorothy. This guy was such a perfect villain–callous and self-important and cruel–so she had to be the hero, right? But there were times that I found myself agreeing with Craig. Her writing did tend to be flowery and excessive. She was often jealous and vindictive with other assistants Craig hired/seduced, especially Anna Lark, who he had hired to run things during Dorothy’s “maternity leave.” And, from my 21st century perspective, she clearly kept expecting him to give her something he was in no way capable of giving. He told her again and again what he wanted their relationship to be, which was that of a genius and his amanuensis, and some part of her could never believe it.

(164) Suggestions for more appropriate business behavior

(171) Personal nutrition advice

(414) “Be obedient and patient.”

She lived for him fully, completely; her loyalty was absolute. He may have written her several times a day, but it was obvious that he thought of her as an employee at best and a nuisance most of the time. They would never magically become equals. She would never really capture his attention except for the moments when he realized he was in need of a book.

(1237) Printing, binding issues; asks that DNL not carry his photograph anywhere; child won’t understand photo; “photos are for idiots only, people who read Vogue and Vanity Fair.”

I became obsessed with Craig and Lees and the situation they had created for themselves. He was such a larger-than-life person; she was simultaneously a doormat and a woman of incredible independence and resourcefulness. Looking through the collection record now, I can see my interests playing out in what I decided to note about the contents of the letters. I can sometimes hear my own voice exclaiming over a particularly good zinger of Craig’s, or spy a note of judgment or pity in the repetition of his demands. Sometimes I picked out and noted threads I felt made Craig look ridiculous, as big a fuck-you as I could come up with on Lees’ behalf.

(350) EGC suspects director of the Moscow Art Theatre of plotting against him.

(797) Needs books and socks sent immediately.

And then sometimes I found myself sympathetic to the spoiled, arrogant monster. His fastidious insistence on things looking a certain way–I could understand that. His grand ambitions butting up against his constant worry about money. His pathetic need for validation. His human attachments (to people other than Dorothy, of course). I remember coming to this letter–I can’t remember if I had to look up the info in the parenthetical, or if Lees had helpfully noted it for me.

(490) “News of great sorrow of an old friend;” probably 19th or 20th – children drowned Apr. 19. (Concerning death of children of Isadora Duncan in Paris; her daughter Deirdre was Craig’s child.)

Wikipedia has a summary of the incident, in which Duncan’s children and nanny drowned after their car fell into a river. And in that letter I could glimpse, for a moment, a larger life outside of the correspondence I had in front of me. No one could ever convince me he wasn’t a monstrous asshole, but there was more to him than I could see.

There was more to Dorothy, too. I only had occasional copies of the letters she wrote back to Craig–the ones she felt were particularly important, mostly when she tried (and failed) to stand up for herself, to ask Craig to visit, to take her seriously–because there’s no way that Craig kept anything she sent him the way she kept his letters. There was so much I didn’t know about her.

And there was a lot she was keeping from me. Take this note from the guide: The series also contains DNL’s notes for organizing her collection of correspondence with EGC, made in March 1957, including her comment that “At the beginning of the war I destroyed many of the most intimate & precious.” Part of me thinks she wrote this to save face, claiming that there were tender moments between them at all. But it would be nice to believe her, that there existed sweet letters, and that what I saw was only the worst parts of a relationship that brought her at least some happiness.

Nobody gets any just desserts. Nobody lives happily ever after. But people continue on: David Lees fought in World War II and then became a photographer for Life Magazine. I copied pages from a book he wrote that I had requested via interlibrary loan–it was in Italian, so I didn’t get much out of it. I also bought a copy of the magazine from eBay that featured a haunting photo of his of a group of monks in a line–I thought Craig would’ve appreciated it, and I wanted that to mean something. There are notes in the collection about David meeting Craig, late in his life, and I get the sense he had mellowed and they got along decently. David took a picture of Craig that makes him seem like a kindly grandpa. It was hard to get a feel for David but I like to think he managed to avoid inheriting the worst qualities of both parents–neither Craig’s raging egotism or Lees’ nearly pathological self-effacement.

The closest thing to justice is that practically no one remembers Edward Gordon Craig now. He used all his energy on stationery and books and never completed a work that would stand the test of time. (I, who was obsessed with the two of them and also actively a “theater person,” couldn’t stand his book On the Art of the Theatre and have actively blocked most of it from my memory.) Very few people would cite him as an influence; I’d be surprised if more than a dozen people had ever looked up the letters I spent a summer cataloguing.

But Dorothy, in a way, succeeded. She saved all these letters–ostensibly, “for Davidino,” but also because she believed that they were worth preserving. To her they were the efforts of an important artist, and future scholars would benefit from reading his thoughts. All she wanted was to promote his work. And despite how often I wished she’d tell him to fuck off and go back to writing her own stuff, I know that she’d be glad his papers ended up at Harvard, in 54 black preservation boxes and thousands of folders on a set of shelves in a climate-controlled sub-basement.

Of course I still don’t think it was worth it, the years of him belittling her and taking advantage of her and taking her for granted. I wanted a freedom for Dorothy she couldn’t even imagine. But the life she had, she had chosen–and it was unconventional and difficult in ways I probably didn’t give her credit for as a twenty year old listening to her cheap discman at her cushy university job. I took for granted that I could go to college, live on my own, and have a career of my own, whereas Dorothy had to make harder choices.

My first urge when discovering this story was to steal it–I wanted to write a play about charming, arrogant Craig and turn Lees into the heroine of her life. But I couldn’t figure out a way to do it. There was no shape to the narrative, there were just a couple of wild lives and poor decisions. Plus, and more importantly, who was I to judge? To try to “fix” her story so that it fits what we think is fulfilling, “strong,” accomplished? I may find Craig distasteful, and the idea of sacrificing so much just so some thoughtless idiot can be remembered sounds like total garbage, and he probably deserves to be forgotten–but he’s not.

She wouldn’t let me forget.


(All quotes in italics taken from “Dorothy Nevile Lees papers relating to Edward Gordon Craig and The Mask: Guide.”)

Maggie Lehrman is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. Her first book, The Cost of All Things, comes out in May 2015.

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