[Spring New Series 2 (1993): 57-69]

In 1924, E. E. Cummings, on the verge of an unhappy divorce from his first wife, Elaine Orr, and needing a pied-à-terre, moved into #4 Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, where he would reside for the rest of his life. The cul-de-sac known as Patchin Place had become a favored residence with people connected with The Dial, whose offices at 125 E. 13th Street were not far away. Alyse Gregory and her husband Llewelyn Powys lived at Patchin Place, on the first floor, while the studio on the third floor was leased by Dr. James Sibley Watson Jr., who was Cummings' close friend from Harvard days and who, as co-owner—with Scofield Thayer—of The Dial, had been boosting Cummings' career since 1920.

Watson used the studio to pursue his hobby, photography. But seeing his friend in need, the magnanimous Watson gave him the keys. Cummings kept them for the rest of his life, a space of nearly forty years. When Gregory and Powys moved out of the first floor in 1925, Charles Norman became the tenant. Although he moved elsewhere in 1928, it was then that he and Cummings became acquaintances.

Norman shared Cummings' passion for poetry and painting. He also, as time went on, became a biographer, writing the lives of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Dr. Samuel Johnson---which he described as based upon non-Boswellian sources. In regard to Cummings, Norman himself became a modern-day Boswell, following Cummings' career closely, injecting himself wherever possible into Cummings' life, initiating a lengthy correspondence, and, eventually, in 1959, producing the first full-length Cummings biography, The Magic-Maker.

For twenty-two years Norman's volume remained the only major attempt at a Cummings biography. It served a considerable purpose, [end page 57] providing an entire generation of scholars with whatever facts they knew about the poet's life story. It was a solid job, well written, thoroughly reliable as to the facts it presented, and nicely illustrated. But it was also deeply flawed, the result of its being essentially an authorized biography. In return for Cummings' cooperation, Charles Norman was obliged to close the lid on a Pandora's box. Vital aspects of the life were omitted altogether. In the end, his book was fatally compromised. It is my purpose here to question whether Norman, by his voluntary donning of the intellectual blinders handed him by Cummings,did not in the end sabotage his own long-term interests and, perhaps unnecessarily, cause his book, over time, to self-destruct.

During the decades preceding his biography, Norman—then a journalistmade a number of preliminary forays into Cummings' territory. As early as 1941, Norman interviewed the poet at home for his newspaper, PM. Cummings was then forty-six, long-divorced from both his first wife and his second, and involved in a common-law relationship with the fashion model and budding photographer, Marion Morehouse. Norman's interview appeared on schedule and met with Cummings' approval.

That Norman hoped to write even more about Cummings became clear in 1951 when he broached his plan to do a biographical essay for Time magazine, his then employer. The poet was upfront in remarking that he wanted nobody to publish anything that might, as he said, tend to make his "present existence less private,even by a whisper." [1] This comment should have raised a warning flag with Normanas perhaps it did. In any event, he was put on notice directly when Cummings cited four restrictions as the price of his cooperation. First, Norman must let Cummings see his essay before Time got a copy and must let him change or omit whatever he pleased. Second, no photos were to be taken during the interviews. Third, in a nod to his wife, then embarking on her career as a photographer, only photos furnished by Marion Morehouse may be used, with a credit line given for each shot. Fourth, Cummings must be assured that Time would print "only and exactly what [Norman] wrote [and Cummings approved]." [2] [end page 58]

Norman took a fateful stepone which would have later consequenceswhen he acquiesced to Cummings' demands and agreed to work with such limits placed upon him. The totality of his capitulation is expressed in his telegram of 25 June 1952:

OF COURSE YOU CAN SEE ARTICLE AND OF COURSE IT WILL APPEAR AS OVERSEEN [BY YOU] STOP THERE WILL BE NO PHOTOGRAPHER [WITH ME] STOP NEVER DOUBT A CERTAIN PHENOMENON STOP. [3] The Norman essay was featured in the "Personality" section of Time for 30 October 1952, along with a photograph credited to Marion Morehouse. The essay opens with a description of Patchin Place, where Cummings spent his winters and from which he emerged every morning for a bracing walk to Washington Square. It closed with a view of Cummings at Joy Farm, his summer retreat in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The essay is important because, allowing for expansion by detail, it is identical with Chapter One in The Magic-Maker, published six years later. But the chief point to be made here is that years before undertaking his longer biography, Norman had been alerted to the fact that any such study which hoped to secure Cummings' cooperation would be allowed to proceed only under the strictest supervision. And Norman had established a precedent by accepting that condition.

Following publication of the Time essay, Cummings and Norman became better friends. They visited often together, and during Cummings' summer absences they corresponded regularly, even though it was Marion Morehouse who usually wrote the letters Norman received from Silver Lake, New Hampshire. In these, Norman was given valuable descriptions of the poet's daily life and his love not only for the natural setting but also for the wildlife that abounded in those peaceful mountains. Every letter was of special value, containing, as James Boswell had put it in his Life of Johnson, "authentick information for biography." [4] In return, Norman was of considerable use to the Cummingses. Inevitably, with the passage of time, their supply of city friends both reliable and able-bodied [end page 59] dwindled. But they could always count on Charles Norman to deliver a message, pick up an article at a store--a book perhaps, or supplies for Cummings' paintingand rush the desired item by mail to Silver Lake.

In 1957, as soon as Norman openly admitted his wish to work on a full-length life study, Cummings reiterated his demand that he be given the manuscript before it went to any publisher, and that Norman respect his right to make any changes or omissions he wished. [5] Cummings became considerably more explicit. "Let's completely understand each other," he wrote from Joy Farm that summer. "Since I'm so very old fashioned as to consider my private life my private life(& nobody else's)comma all questions impinging upon the said pl are out." He provided an example whichbe it calculated, happenstance, or Freudianwas a crucial one: "'when you were first married & to whom' is out." [6]

Here we must linger, if we are to see what Norman lost in selling his birthright as a biographer. I have said that in 1924, immediately prior to the first meeting of Cummings and Norman, Cummings was in the process of divorce from his first wife, Elaine Orr, daughter of a prominent paper manufacturer and the "Helen of Troy [New York]" of Cummings' poems. Orphaned as a girl and privately educated, Elaine was eighteen months younger than Cummings and grew into a woman of breathtaking beauty. In 1916 Cummings was an honored guest at Elaine's marriage to his own close friend and patron, Scofield Thayer, the immensely wealthy son of a Worcester, Massachusetts, woolen manufacturer. A devotee of the arts and a young man whose psychological turmoil must even then have been somewhat evident, Thayer had long been convinced of Cummings' poetic genius. He commissioned his young friend to write a poem celebrating his marriage. The result was "Epithalamion," the second-longest poem Cummings ever published. For it, Thayer paid Cummings the extravagant and uncalled-for sum of $1000.00--worth perhaps ten times that in current dollars. Whether or not Cummings himself had already fallen in love with Elaine, her beauty had inspired one of the earliest works of his poetic maturity. By no means would it be the [end page 60] last.

Immediately following World War I, Cummings and his circle regrouped in the vicinity of Washington Square, already the residence of his Harvard friend James Sibley Watson. In 1919 Watson, married to Hildegrade Lasell, was completing his medical studies at NYU. Also living on Washington Square were Scofield Thayer and Elaine. But since 1916 "something withering" [7] had happened to their marriage, for while Elaine resided in an apartment furnished her by Thayer at 3 Washington Square, Thayer himself was located at 80 Washington Square East, owning luxurious bachelor quarters in a building aptly named The Benedict. Thayer was absent a good deal, having made a connection with the Chicago Dial, which eventually he would purchase and revamp in partnership with Sibley Watson. The new Dial from its very first issue, would serve as a showcase for the poetic and painterly talents of young Estlin Cummings. [Ed. note: for more on EEC's contributions to The Dial, see Milton Cohen's "The Dial's 'White Haired Boy'."]

Meanwhile, Cummings saw much of Elaine Thayer at her Washington Square apartment. They became lovers, and by the spring of 1919 Elaine knew that she was pregnant with Cummings' child. For a way out of their dilemma, she and Cummings appealed to their physician friend, Sibley Watson, who advised an abortifacient, but one which proved to be ineffective. [8] And so Elaine decided to have her child. It is important to state here that the love affair was carried on with apparent knowledge, acquiescence, and perhaps even with the complicity of Scofield Thayer, whose psychological difficulties were mounting. So open and above board did it all seem to Cummings that later he could write his mother: "You may be sure that, so far as Thayer is concerned, there never was the slightest deceit involved, and that we three (Elaine, Thayer, and myself) are now and always have been the best of friends." [9]

There is more to the story than can be told here, but Elaine subsequently divorced Thayer in Paris and was persuaded by Cummings to marry him. The baby Nancy became Cummings' obsession. Up until the time he married Elaine, Cummings had not acknowledged that "Miss Nancy Thayer," [10] about whom he so often wrote hometoo often it might be suspectedwas in fact his parents' [end page 61] sole grandchild. To know Cummings' father was to understand why the son might avoid this truth, for the elder Cummings, who measured in at six-foot-two against his son's five-foot-nine, was a thunder-voiced preacher, pastor of the South Congregational Church in Cambridge, a pillar of the Boston community, a super-patriot, and a man already half convinced of his son's worthlessness. But now Estlin could write home with some credibility to announce that he and Elaine were to be married immediately and to askthrough his motherthat his father perform the ceremony. "I don't know whether father will like to officiate," wrote the son, "when he understands that our idea in marrying is principally this: once married, I can adopt [Nancy] becoming legally the father of my own child." [11] To Cummings' surprise, his father agreed to the plan.

All's well that ends well? Not so, by any means. Two months after their March 1924 wedding, the already unimaginably snarled marriage situation was complicated by Elaine's sailing for her accustomed summer in Europe, along with her daughter, Nancy, accompanied by Elaine's maid and Nancy's nurse. Unexpectedly, on an otherwise fine day in June, Elaine reappeared with a crushing announcement. On the boat she had met a wealthy and handsome Irishman, Frank MacDermot. The two were already lovers, and her immediate wish now was to divorce Cummings and marry MacDermot. Stunned, Cummings plunged from exhilaration to despair. He raged, he argued, he cajoled, he pleaded, all to no avail. Elaine was adamant. He consulted at length with his parents, who by this time had an important stake in the future of their own relationship with Nancy. But Elaine could not be moved.

The entire episode had the effect of an emotional earthquake on Cummings, on his sense of his own manhood, and he was driven to speculate on what it might be in his makeup, what flaw, what lack of aggressive spirit, what cowardice etc. held him back from assaulting MacDermot physically. It seemed clear to Cummings that he was a failure: why else would his beloved Elaine be so ready to abandon him? He saw only two options: to give Elaine the divorce and then go on living with his own pusillanimous self, or else to kill himself. A [end page 62] third course of action, even more depressing, occurred to him. He could refuse to agree to the divorce and face the unbearable knowledge that Elaine would sleep with MacDermot anyway. [12] He was miserable.

It was at this stage of the matter that Cummings left Elaine's apartment and came to live at Pathchin Place. When Norman moved there soon afterward, the struggle between Elaine and Estlin had reached its most bitter pitch, and Estlin was about to have torn from him the only child he would ever have. Nancy was raised in Europe, under the belief that Scofield Thayer was not only her putative father but her actual parent.

And so, three decades afterwards, when Charles Norman capitulated to Cummings' conditions, he agreed implicitly to close the door on this immensely important chapter of his subject's life, on the Helen of Troy who had inspired Cummings' two lengthiest lyrics, "Epithalamion" and "Puella Mea," as well as the majority of his early love sonnets. His lips were to be sealed concerning the woman to whom, even after their unhappy divorce, Cummings would dedicate his next volume of verse. [13] They were sealed as well on the daughter Cummings had lost but never forgotten. And the entire tragic story of Scofield Thayer was to be bypassed as if it had never occurred. This was a critical moment in the poet's life, as I see it, the most deranging emotional crisis of Cummings' early manhood, more threatening even than the trauma he suffered during the war years, perhaps. Those months of romance, marriage, and breakup became the fountainhead of a galloping sense of disillusion with human society. Both his withdrawal from events and the note of cynicism in his writings seem to have intensified as of this date. "Pain has an element of blank," wrote Emily Dickinson, and for Cummings that element of blank" seems to have been far preferable to opening old woundsor even admitting their presence. But the blank that would be left in the biographical record would leave a gaping hole in our understanding of what Cummings was and what he stood for.

Charles Norman was well aware of Cummings' cautionary distancing from the world of men, for he made a number of notes [end page 63] concerning it, including a discerning appreciation of the manner in which the poet barricaded himself against unwelcome intrusion at Patchin Place by having visitors bellow out their names in the hallway and, even then, opening his door as guardedly as if he were operating a 1920s speakeasy. But as Norman assembled his notes into manuscriptand undoubtedly with Cummings' proscription on his private life ringing in his inner ear--Norman in his draft parenthesized the remark--possibly at Cummings' commandwith the written notation "cut". [14]

It is apparent now that Cummings, from the start, had never wholly trusted Norman, who through the years of World War II and following had pursued him rather relentlessly by mail. In 1950 Cummings turned him down for a Guggenheim recommendation, begging off on the dubious grounds that he had already sponsored his fair quota of applicants for the year. Cummings' refusal came on a postcard, which in itself suggests a kind of spontaneity, and it was couched in clever syntax: "this burro's already over(And How!)loaded with Guggery:in fact am pretty sure I'll 'sponsor' nobody henceforth except the Wash Sq owl." [15] But the fact that the humor serves as a mask becomes apparent when we understand that Cummings composed three drafts of the postcard message before reaching a version he was content to drop into the mail.

Apparently Cummings' standoffishness was prompted largely by Charles Norman's ties with the world of newspapers and magazines, those prying media that would take a "Juicy" story and publish it for the titillation of anyone who possessed a nickel. To his most trusted friend and benefactor, Hildegarde Watson, Cummings confided: "Journalism is the enemy." [16]

As Norman's research proceeded toward composition of manuscript, his attention inevitably turned to Hildegarde and to another woman who knew a good deal about Cummings' interdicted private life: Marianne Moore. Moore had begun her involvement with Sibley Watson and his wife roughly the same time that Cummings was most heavily involved with Elaine Orr--1919--the year that closed with the birth of Nancy. Exactly how much Moore knew about these [end page 64] goings-on may be debatable, but as Scofield Thayer's assistant editor at The Dial during the most tumultuous years of his illness, she knew just about everything there was to know about Thayer. But the inner circle at The Dial guarded nothing so carefully as the personal scandals of its members, and Marianne Moore was nothing if not a trusted friend and loyal employee. In her journals she might record the fact that she really did not like Cummings, that she thought him disgraceful. She and her constant companion, her mother, agreed on this.

But Moore was a most circumspect person. Out of loyalty to Thayer, and in deference to Sibley and Hildegarde Watson, with whom she was heavily involved personally and upon whose benefactions she increasingly depended, Moore was loath to voice her true feelings about a man whom they both admired professionally and whom Hildegarde adored as the epitome of the artistic personality in America.

During the spring of 1957, Cummings invited Moore to visit him and discuss a California lecture series on which both were scheduled to appear. It may well have been during this conversation that Cummings informed Moore of the Norman biography then in process. [17] However that may be, during the following month Moore reported to her beloved friend Hildegarde Watson--in her cautious and euphemistic style--that Charles Norman had a contract with Macmillan and wished to speak with her about his subject, Cummings. Attempting to avoid a face-to-face interviewafter all, one can never be certain what might slip outMoore had responded: "Send me questions" in the mail. But, Norman persisting, she agreed to see him at her Brooklyn apartment and immediately afterward wrote Hildegarde a report of their conversation, again, characteristically, without revealing anything of what might have been said, but commenting that Norman appeared to have been prompted by a sense of duty to tell her that he would not ask to come again. "Estlin," she added, "seems to approve, and I hope [he] will be allowed to participate in the memoire." [18]

Moore's comments on the entire episode would lead one to [end page 65] believe that Moore may well have inquired of Cummingsor of Marion Morehouseas to whether she should cooperate with Norman and had not agreed to the interview until she had received their approval (it would be so like her to do so). Her remark concerning Cummings' "participation" seems a thinly-veiled anticipation of his right of veto. It goes without saying that Moore, whatever she knew about Cummings' private lifeor about Thayer'swas not about to spill the beans, and that her method of reporting openly to the Watsons was her way of assuring them that her lips were sealed.

When Hildegarde Watson heard that Moore was answering questions for Charles Norman, her only written response was, "How exciting for Estlin." But "exciting" in what manner? Exhilarating? Or hazardous? She must have known already about the biography. For one thing, Cummings had spent a number of days at the Watson home in Rochester, New York, during the spring of 1957, and it seems inconceivable that the subject would not have come up.

For Norman to approach the Watsons directly was tension-producing. Of the few who were really close to Cummings, they were the most intimate and knew the most. A remark written to them by Cummings would seem to match their own sense of hazard, and the words, interestingly, were Norman's own: "'anyone who lets a newspaper man into his house deserves what he gets'." [19] Norman's visit during the summer of 1957 threw the Watson household into a mild panic of apprehension. They had, perhaps, counted on the distance between Manhattan and Rochester as providing sufficient insulation. Norman took care to write Cummings that he was flying to Rochester, an act that would give Cummings whatever opportunity he might wish to put his friends on their guard, even though the ostensible purpose of Norman's visit was to view Cummings' paintings (the Watsons held the largest collection then in private hands). [20]

Their concern seems to have been unwarranted. We have Hildegarde's report of the visit, which occurred on a Friday in August. Written to Marianne Moore, it conveys a sense of relief that all had gone so much better than anticipated. Norman had remained at the Watson home for hours, and Hildegarde's summary descriptives for [end page 66] his easy manner were "soothing" and "restful." [21]

Apparently Norman's stated interest was the Cummings paintings. But one can understand the Watsons' concern. They not only possessed the most information but had the greatest incentive to guard their tongues. Dr. Watson just then was establishing a medical reputation in radiology at Rochester's principal hospital, and it would do him no credit to have it known that as a young physician he had violated medical ethics by directly participating in the Cummings-Thayer attempt at abortion. Nor was Watson about to reveal that he had in his possession correspondence from Cummings which laid bare in excruciating detail the truth about his marital agonies of the mid 1920s. And after Watson's careful suppression for so long of the truth concerning Scofield Thayer's mental collapse, the havoc it created at the Dial office, and Thayer's ultimate confinement for schizophrenia, the good doctor was not likely to respond to questions from a stranger. The secrets regarding Cummings and Thayer would continue to be guarded until after Cummings' death and then another twenty years until the demise of Watson himself.

As soon as Norman left the Watson home in 1975, Hildegarde called Cummings on the telephone to tell him how well the visit had gone and to repeat some of the glowing praise Norman had offered concerning the paintings. Her chief regret was that, in her nervous state, she had not thought to be the gracious hostess and invite Norman to stay for dinner. It would have been safe, she realized, and having among her servants an excellent cook, it would have been a simple matter. [22] It is small wonder that Cummings, in his will, named Sibley and Hildegarde Watson as his best and most constant friends.

In The Magic-Maker the entire five-year agony was passed off in a single reference to "'E. O.,' the former Elaine Orr, Cummings' first wife by whom he had one child, a daughter. Her first husband was Scofield Thayer." [23] Cummings, by way of thanks, dismissed the book as "mere journalism," [24] but he felt good enough about the final manuscript to allow unlimited quoting from his works and to permit the reproduction of two of his own paintings, as well as a selection of early sketches, plus line drawings that had originally graced the pages [end page 67] of The Dial in the 1920s. Cummings had every reason to feel good about the manuscript, for he knew that his proscriptions had been successful in avoiding the type of "warts and all" portrait that was James Boswell's great contribution to the art of biography. There is evidence that Norman, in Cummings' thinking, was closely identified with relentless and, to him, highly-threatening scrutiny of the Boswell kindand not only because Norman himself had produced a Johnson biography. Following publication, on a visit to Joy Farm, Norman was told by Marion Cummings, "We happen to have a complete set of Johnson's Lives of the Poets and Estlin and I have talked it over and decided that you would most appreciate having these books, and so we are going to make you a present of them." [25]


Key to abbreviations:

1. E. E. Cummings to Norman, n.d. but 1951 (HRHRC).

2. Ibid.

3. Norman to E. E. Cummings, 25 June 1952 (Houghton).

4. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, L. L D., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 770.

5. E. E. Cummings to Norman, 6 July 1957 (HRHRC).

6. E. E. Cummings to Norman, 7 April 1957 (HRHRC).

7. Richard S. Kennedy, Dreams in the Mirror (New York: Liveright, 1980), 191.

8. Kennedy, 199. The medical-student friend is not identified by name, but the description offered by Kennedy rather clearly designates Dr. James Sibley [end page 68] Watson, Jr., Cummings' great friend and patron, co-owner of The Dial.

9. E. E. Cummings to Rebecca H. Cummings, 25 March 1924 (Houghton).

10. E. E. Cummings to Rebecca H. Cummings, 3 March 1921 (Houghton) .

11. E. E. Cummings to Rebecca H. Cummings, 15 March 1924 (Houghton).

12. E. E. Cummings to Rebecca H. Cummings, 18 July 1924 (Houghton) .

13. E. E. Cummings to Rebecca H. Cummings, 20 March 1925 (Houghton).

14. Norman's notes for The Magic Maker, n. d. (HRHRC).

15. E. E. Cummings to Norman, 13 April 1950 (HRHRC).

16. E. E. Cummings to Hildegarde Watson, undated but probably March 1958 (Houghton).

17. E. E. Cummings to Hildegarde Watson. 12 May 1957 (Houghton).

18. Moore to Hildegarde Watson, 13 June 1957 (Canady).

19. E. E. Cummings to Hildegarde Watson, May 1958 (Houghton).

20. Norman to E. E. Cummings 13 August 1957 (Houghton).

21. Hildegarde Watson to Moore, 8 August 1957 (Rosenbach).

22. Hildegarde Watson to Moore, 18 August 1957 (Rosenbach).

23. Charles Norman, The Magic Maker (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1964), 123.

24. E. E. Cummings to Hildegarde Watson, May 1958 (Houghton).

25. Norman, The Magic Maker, 233.

[end page 69]

Back to:
Contents, Issue 2
SPRING Contents Index

SPRING home page