Modernists on the Verge: Two Summers with Peggy Guggenheim and Djuna Barnes -The Toast

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Writers have many needs — deadlines, money, sharp editors, and listeners who believe (or can pretend to believe) that their worries about narrative structure are worth endless mulling and debate, to name a few. In centuries past, salons, artists’ colonies, and wealthy patrons supported writers and their fledgling careers with the necessary community and cash. Today, the MFA has emerged as a force in literary culture: not only in terms of how writers get discovered and make a living, but how they connect with trusted readers and critics.

I used to be adamantly against the idea of an MFA, preferring to write alone, feel misunderstood, and imagine myself a Brontë. Now I count my MFA as one of the best things I’ve ever done. For the past two years, summer and winter, I’ve joined the rest of my low-residency cohort for about 10 days of intensive workshops and boxed-wine consumption, all of us shut away from the rest of our responsibilities and solely focused on the writing life. Yet sometimes I do find myself wondering: Could I have found what I was looking for some other way? How did it work, exactly, in the age of patrons and salons?

As I pursued this line of inquiry, the story of Hayford Hall came to light. For me, Hayford represents a serendipitous moment in the lives of the writers who found their way there – the right place at the right time. Though it was no utopia, it was an unwitting incubator for bold, genre-bending narrative. Today, we can consider it as a kind of case study on what happens when friendship, enmity, creativity, and truth-telling are left to flourish in seclusion, unimpeded by structure or small talk.

In the summers of 1932 and 1933, five writers gathered in a fourteenth-century manor on the edge of the English moors. Their hosts were Peggy Guggenheim and her lover John Holms, and the other three who made up the core group were Djuna Barnes, Emily Coleman, and Antonia White. Their intellectual (and emotional and sexual) dynamics and disregard for conformity made Hayford Hall a hothouse for literary experimentation. Nightwood, Djuna Barnes’s dark masterwork of a novel, was born there, and earned her rapturous acclaim as the “American Virginia Woolf.”

Djuna Barnes Djuna Barnes

Incredibly, Barnes remains as much of a cult figure today—author of “that great lesbian novel”—as when her novel was first published in 1936. Nightwood is the story of a tumultuous, crowded love between two women. Its first editor was T.S. Eliot at Faber, who had to “soften” several sections in the original to get it past the censors; a restored edition was published sixty years later. (Editor and author were close; Eliot kept only two pictures in his office: one of Groucho Marx, and one of Djuna Barnes, and signed his letters to her: “My love, whether you take it or not.”) In his introduction to the novel, Eliot wrote: “Only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.” Dylan Thomas offered the dubious praise “one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman,” and William Burroughs saw it as “one of the great books of the twentieth century.” More recently, Jeanette Winterson wrote, “Nightwood is not an escape-text. It writes into the center of human anguish, unrelieved, but in its dignity and its defiance, it becomes, by strange alchemy, its own salve.”

The creative ferment of Barnes’s summers at Hayford Hall resulted in more than just Nightwood. The ideas and writing inspired by those gatherings sparked a wave within modernism in which female and lesbian voices carried farther than ever before.

American headlines in 1932 were monopolized by the Depression, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and the Dust Bowl spreading across the farmland. Elsewhere in the world, the post-Great War peace and prosperity crumbled. The Spanish monarchy was overthrown, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, and Stalin manufactured a famine in Soviet Ukraine.

Nearly all of that was forgotten at Hayford Hall. Only diaries, letters, and memoirs—and Nightwood itself—preserve the atmosphere and events of those tense, languid, wine-fueled days. The news is hardly mentioned in these sources: instead, the group’s fixations turned to books, love, and madness. Today, the major sources for gleaning what happened at Hayford include Rough Draft, a selection of Coleman’s diary entries edited by Elizabeth Podnieks, and the essays in Hayford Hall: Hangovers, Erotics, and Modernist Aesthetics, edited by Podnieks and Sandra Chait.

Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim was about to turn thirty-four in the early summer of 1932. A New York heiress whose father had died in the sinking of the Titanic, she lived in Paris and pursued her passions for taking in art and staying up all night. She hadn’t yet started collecting art or planning a gallery of her own. After an early, abusive marriage to Dada sculptor Laurence Vail, she began an affair with an English intellectual John Ferrar Holms, and he persuaded her to take a house in England for the summer. The place they found, Hayford Hall, was just above Dartmoor, and may have been the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Baskerville Hall. In her memoir, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict, Guggenheim described the place and her enduring memory of it: “It was a spacious, simply built, graystone structure about a hundred years old … I am sure so much conversation was never made in this hall before or since.”

Peggy Guggenheim Peggy Guggenheim

The main instigator of all that conversation was Holms. At Hayford, he was a paradoxical alpha male: he talked the most and wrote the least. He had been a prisoner of war in Germany, and became a literary critic in the 1920s. Holms was a magnetic hero, and his aura of superiority exerted a powerful pull over his and Peggy’s entourage. Djuna Barnes told Holms that his manner reminded her of “God come down for the weekend.” (Holms’s answer: “What a weekend!”) Guggenheim said he “had a magnificent physique, enormous broad shoulders and small hips and a fine chest” and said he “looked very much like Jesus Christ.” At the time no one suspected that the Hayford years were to be the last of his life.

Guggenheim and Holms deliberately composed the rest of their household, drawing on artistic acquaintances and former lovers. Djuna Barnes was a Greenwich Village journalist turned expatriate novelist who had published a book of poems with Beardsleyesque illustrations (The Book of Repulsive Women) and two daring novels, Ryder and Ladies Almanack. Barnes came to Hayford from Paris, where her long-term relationship with artist Thelma Wood had just bitterly dissolved. Guggenheim took her in and remained her patron through the following years, though Barnes could be an abrasive presence. At Hayford, she stayed indoors and worked furiously, terrified of the vast, empty moors outside. When she spoke it was in a booming, nasal voice, and she dressed with extravagant care; Guggenheim noted that she “had no suitable clothes for the country, but in the evening she wore one of two very beautiful French gowns.”

Emily Coleman was an American writer who had fallen in with Guggenheim and Holms in France, where she had worked as secretary to Emma Goldman. “Emily,” said Guggenheim, “unlike most people who are mad, did not hide it.” Coleman drew on the traumatic birth of her son and postnatal institutionalization for her surrealistic novel, The Shutter of Snow (1930). As her marriage faltered, she too moved to St. Tropez and fell in love with Holms. He eventually rejected her for Guggenheim, and while he never revisited his initial affair with Coleman, he openly admitted she was more his intellectual match. During their summers together Coleman was moody and provocative, prone to smashing glasses off the dinner table when she was feeling low. She loved the moors, and her diary entries meld observations of the limpid Devonshire nature around her with a frank record of life within the house.

Antonia White Antonia White

Antonia “Tony” White wrote her first novel when she was nine at a convent school outside London. The nuns discovered the story and sent it to her father, who was so aghast at his daughter’s active imagination that he disowned her. White would grapple with writer’s block for the rest of her life. After a short, unconsummated marriage, she fell in love with another man, and the experience precipitated her into a nervous breakdown. (Ironically, when her father signed the papers to commit her to an asylum, he recorded her profession as “Authoress.”) Both she and Coleman knew what it was to be institutionalized by the time they came to Hayford, but Coleman was different in that she willingly dissected her “madness” with whoever would listen.

Their routine was part country-house idyll, part debauch. Breakfast in the ivy-clad hall was often a round of prairie oysters—a hangover cure made with an egg yolk, brandy, Worcestershire sauce, and Bloody Mary spices. “Wakened by the maid, feeling horrible, about eight o’clock, with letters,” reads one of Coleman’s late-August diary entries. The children Pegeen and Sindbad, Guggenheim’s from her marriage to Vail, stayed in a separate wing so as not to disrupt the adults’ slow mornings. The middle of the day might include a day trip to a seaside town for tea at a hotel, or card games with the children, or a ride on the moors.

Peggy ran the household; John ran up a few bottles from the wine cellar; Djuna and Tony wrote; Emily rode the moors and kept her diary. There was an excellent cook who served up liver, crisp bacon, and peas. They played music continuously: Mozart, Beethoven, and Elizabethan composers. Evenings were filled with talk about writers, ranging from Blake to Zeno, Coleridge to Santayana, Tolstoy to O’Neill. At night they played a continuous game of “Truth,” in which they said exactly what they thought of one another. One night Emily read aloud from an old diary, and the group “howled with laughter, they doubled up and shrieked.” Rabelaisian nights turned into absurd antics or impassioned fights. One time Holms went down to the cellar to fetch more wine and “Peggy lifted up her voice and began to yowl like a little dog.” Djuna massaged and spanked her friends, partly as seduction, partly as performance. Emily confessed to violent urges toward Peggy and Djuna, once telling Holms, “For two days I have wanted to hit both of them over the head with a cleaver.”

Holms monopolized the talk when he could, and relished the attention of the women around him, though his reliance on Peggy was clear and fraught. One night, Djuna “threw herself on John … [Peggy] said, ‘If you rise, the dollar will fall.’” He accused Peggy of being a controlling “serpent”; she later said he had hit her. Emily liked to provoke: “Took a long walk over the moor, the children, Djuna, Peggy, John,” she wrote. “I said to Djuna, ‘Why do you hate men?’ to make her laugh and perhaps answer it, and she said she did not, etc. Much later in the evening… she said, off her guard, ‘But, my dear, I hold no brief for men, I’d just as soon stick one of them with a poker as another.’” Sometimes she followed Peggy up to her bedroom and watched her undress, dispensing barbed compliments (“You shouldn’t let yourself get fat; your beauty is in thinness”). In the morning, any bad blood would seemingly evaporate over the clinking assembly of a fresh prairie oyster.

Gradually, ideas began to take form and brew in the house. Djuna’s Nightwood grew from concept to manuscript, while Tony’s first novel took shape and her writer’s block temporarily lifted. In amongst the tipsy confrontations, the group agreed that the expression of talent was of the utmost importance, especially for women. Barnes kept her manuscript either hidden or directly beneath her pen, anxious because Coleman had threatened to burn it if Barnes “repeated something Emily had confided to her by mistake,” according to Guggenheim. Despite the danger she posed to the book early on, Coleman would be instrumental in the discovery and success of Nightwood. It was she who first sent it to Eliot and started it on the road to publication. 

Barnes relied on Peggy’s money, John’s conversation, and the comradeship of Emily and Tony to write one of the canonical works of modernist and gay literature. She dedicated the book to both Guggenheim and Holms, and through future years she kept up her literary mentorship with the others. In 1937 she wrote to Tony, who had stopped writing: “It’s getting the awful rust off the spirit that is almost insurmountable … Keep writing. It’s a woman’s only hope, except for lace-making.” White’s 1933 novel Frost in May has been hailed by Elizabeth Bowen as a female counterpart to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Eliot, as assistant editor of the Egoist in 1917 (long before he read Nightwood), once wrote: “I struggle to keep the writing as much as possible in Male hands, as I distrust the Feminine in literature”—a sentiment that was vocally affirmed by Ezra Pound. But at Hayford, the women let their writing loom large as world events were muted by the walls of Hayford. They could be artistic or emotional sounding boards for one another, depending on the need — and the two were frequently intertwined. In her diary entry of May 12, 1936, White remarked on “the share Emily had in Djuna’s book, of the share Emily will have in mine if I can write it, of the small share I have in hers.”


The writers’ colony was not meant to last. In January 1934, Holms sought surgery for a broken wrist that had set badly. He went into the operating room as drunk as he’d ever been. The king’s own anesthetist was in attendance, but did not notice when Holms’s heart went still. He was thirty-seven.

Guggenheim was devastated. Eventually, she would begin a relationship with Samuel Beckett, and then a more enduring one with art. In her old age, Guggenheim lived in Venice and still wrote to Djuna Barnes, once noting: “I adore floating [in my gondola] to such an extent, I can’t think of anything as nice since I gave up sex, or rather since it gave me up.” White returned to her advertising job and wrote novels, plays, and children’s books. Coleman returned to America and married a cowboy, later converting to Catholicism. She once wrote to tell the group that she had “channeled” Holms in a seance.

Guggenheim and her entourage, which still included Coleman, returned to the English countryside in future summers, but they could never replicate the alchemy of Hayford. In 1934, they were in an eighteenth-century farmhouse called Warblington. Guggenheim said it was “perfect in proportions,” but no match for the antic retreat of years past. “Hayford Hall was a dream place, a lovely, heavenly poetic garden, a Paradise, far from nowhere,” she wrote. “Nothing could ever be like that again.”

In a few months, the more structured academic “salon” of my MFA program will end. My ultimate mission now is not only to finish my manuscript; it’s to find readers who will take my writing and play Truth with it.

It’s a sign of exceptional trust to be able to exchange frank judgments with someone and their work. Today, aspects of the Hayford commune would be labeled as toxic: liquor in the morning, barely contained violence, spying, and a disregard for boundaries. And maybe it was an unsustainable way to live. Financially, the group relied on the Guggenheim mining fortune, itself a feature of a profoundly unequal society. Peggy had a share of a robber baron’s takings at her disposal, and the rest of the group enjoyed her patronage because they were already part of a select set: white, educated, and bohemian. Their eccentricities went hand-in-hand with great privilege.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the fact that the Hayford Hall gatherings enriched both the individual writers and the larger literary landscape. I am at a loss as to how to deliberately create its equivalent today, even if I had the means or the desire, but there may well be something we can learn from Hayford, even now: art thrives on honesty, and often on a sense of danger, too. Guggenheim and her entourage were determined to be absolutely real — abrasively so — with each other. They excused themselves from conventional lives in favor of the pursuit of art and authenticity. There is something to be said for a dash of insecurity and dark, late, secret-baring nights when it feels like anything could happen.


Barnes, Djuna (with introduction by Jeanette Winterson). Nightwood. New York: New Directions, 2006

Broe, Mary Lynn, editor. Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

The Emily Holmes Coleman Papers. University of Delaware Library Special Collections, University of Delaware in Newark, DE.

Field, Andrew. “Minor Work of a Major Writer, in The New York Times, January 9, 1983. Retrieved September 8, 2015 at

Guggenheim, Peggy. Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict. London: Andre Deutsch, 2005.

Podnieks, Elizabeth and Sandra Chait, editors. Hayford Hall: Hangovers, Erotics, and Modernist Aesthetics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

Podnieks, Elizabeth. Rough Draft: The Modernist Diaries of Emily Holmes Coleman, 1929-1937. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2012.

White, Antonia. Frost in May. London: Virago, 2006.

Stephanie Gorton Murphy is a writer, editor, and MFA candidate living in Providence.

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