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Good and Faithful Servant

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Poets are dangerous. They write what they feel, not what someone pays or authorizes them to write. Poets set people free and —a bureaucrat might say—on the road to ruin. And, really, aren’t we all bureaucrats?

Communist bureaucrats considered Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko the most dangerous man in the U.S.S.R. after he published “Babi Yar,” which denounced Soviet anti-Semitism, in 1961. They banned him from foreign travel. In the 1950s, Southern sheriffs, newspapers and the Ku Klux Klan (the bureaucrats of segregation) chased poet-activist Don West out of Georgia
for poems that revealed the miseries of the state’s factory workers, sharecroppers and African-Americans.

Which brings us to Bryn Mawr poet Elinor Wylie, who, as a student at the Baldwin School, first encountered the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley, who’d denigrated religion and monarchy and celebrated individual happiness, emotions and spontaneity, abandoned his pregnant wife and child in 1814 to run away with another woman. A century later, in 1910, Elinor followed. After five years of a difficult marriage, she ditched her husband and 3-year-old son for a married man. In all, Elinor had three husbands and several affairs. Both Philip Hichborn, the first spouse she deserted, and their son died by their own hands.

“Most women instinctively sensed that, like Byron, she was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know,’ particularly if they had husbands at risk,” wrote Wylie biographer Stanley Olson. “Elinor had a fatal effect on many of the lives she touched. She left behind her a wake of suicides, misadventures and tragedy.”

Yet Elinor was considered a foremost poet of the 1920s. She also painted and wrote eight novels. But her poetry—based in emotional and intellectual contradiction—caught the disillusioned mood that followed World War I. Elinor wrote with a tone suggesting she’d been lied to for a reading public that knew it had. Her 1921 poem, “The Eagle and the Mole,” for instance, was a clear call to shun what was popularly believed: “Avoid the reeking herd/Shun the polluted flock/Live like that stoic bird/The eagle of the rock/The huddled warmth of crowds/Begets and fosters hate/He keeps above the clouds/His cliff inviolate.”

Born in Somerville, N.J., Elinor Morton Hoyt was the granddaughter of prominent Philadelphians who used their influence and money to draw the young family back to Rittenhouse Square and the Main Line by the time the child was 2. The family alternated between a townhouse on Locust Street and a house on Lancaster Avenue in Rosemont. Her paternal grandfather, Henry Martyn Hoyt, had been a colonel in the Civil War and had served one term as governor of Pennsylvania. Her maternal grandfather, Morton McMichael, had been editor of the Saturday Evening Post before serving as mayor of Philadelphia and, later, ambassador to Great Britain.

Elinor’s father, also Henry Martyn Hoyt, was a lawyer who would serve as U.S. solicitor general during the Theodore Roosevelt and Taft administrations. Elinor’s mother, Anne McMichael, was a domineering parent who chose her children’s playmates by the Social Register while using her chronically ill health—carefully maintained for 60 years—to control her family.

At Baldwin, Elinor followed an unusual curriculum designed to prepare students for admission to Bryn Mawr College: arithmetic, geometry, geography, observation and gymnastics. Her parents disapproved of higher education for women, but chose Baldwin for its general excellence—and especially its emphasis on literature.

“[Mama] held the belief that ‘schools and colleges are the last places to send girls,’” wrote Olson, “‘for the primary reason that they leave out training in goodness in the old religious sense.’”

Alas, Elinor also discovered Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” the 1816 poem in which he uses the bird as a metaphor for poetic inspiration: “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!/Bird thou never wert.”

Like Shelley, this poet would follow her muses where they led.

In 1897, to Elinor’s distress, her father was appointed an assistant attorney general by President William McKinley, thus requiring a move to Washington. On K Street, however, the Hoyts continued to live their upper-crust Philadelphia lifestyle. In the winter, there were formal balls and receptions; in summer, long visits to grandparents in Devon, idyllic months in Bar Harbor, Maine, and grand tours of Europe.

In 1903, after finishing classes at the Academy of Fine Arts—where she spent hours looking at the work of John Singer Sargent—Elinor made her social debut, which meant she was available for marriage. This interested her little, but neither was she interested in higher education. A career was out of the question.

“As the eldest of three daughters, the pressure to get married was fierce,” wrote Olson. “Spinsterhood was an embarrassing state, and the family had two unmarried aunts who brought no credit to the Hoyts. Elinor was virtually shoved at men.”

She was a beautiful young woman and she did have admirers. But she wasn’t really interested in men, except to satisfy her mother. After one awkward courtship that ended badly, Elinor was so embarrassed by her continuing singleness that she said “yes” to another young fellow who had been pestering her unsuccessfully for a year. They were married in 1906, in a small wedding at the Hoyt mansion. President Roosevelt was among the guests.

Philip Hichborn was a lawyer, but not a successful one. His greatest accomplishment was being charming. He was passionate about riding horses and hunting, played tennis well, and was an excellent dancer. In the social circles in which he and Elinor moved, this counted for a lot. But there was also an unattractive side to his character. Hichborn was enormously jealous, often to the point of tantrums. “These unmanageable outbursts of temper destroyed any relationship they might have shared,” wrote Olson.

Elinor Hoyt Hichborn bore a child in 1907, only 10 months after her marriage. But her husband was jealous of the attention she gave the infant. Miserable, Elinor confided in her parents. Her mother, concerned first about appearances, urged her to suck it up. (“There is such a thing,” she wrote, “as being too bad to be true.”) Her father, however, was prepared to help negotiate a divorce.

Meanwhile, she met Horace Wylie, who was 17 years her senior. Like Phil Hichborn, he was a half-hearted lawyer who preferred to spend his time on gentlemanly pastimes—golf, hunting and bridge. He also relished the ungentlemanly game of chasing women.

“Horace Wylie,” wrote Olson, “suffered from an intemperate weakness for beautiful women all his life.” And he thought Elinor was beautiful, describing her as “the most beautiful person I had ever seen. I almost gasped” on first seeing her.

In Elinor’s domesticated world, she was seldom alone, but Wylie was shameless and persistent. One day, he made up a story about needing to check out the references of a furnace repairman to call on her. Elinor’s mother-in-law was in the next room, so between Wylie’s loud queries about the functioning of her heating system, he whispered his real mission. He recited, “at considerable length,” wrote Olson, the charms of her hair and wrists. There were accidental meetings in theaters and on the sidewalk that weren’t accidental at all. Eventually, in
Washington’s Rock Creek Park, they kissed in Wylie’s automobile.

The 1910 death of Henry Hoyt may have been the turning point. Her father’s sympathy for her marital misery, Elinor discovered, had been rooted in his own. He’d had a mistress for years, possibly a secretary at the Department of Justice. The woman had come to the house only once—to say goodbye as Hoyt lay dying—but Elinor’s mother refused to let her in. Elinor was determined not to let her own life pass in the same way.

Horace wrote a letter to his wife; Elinor, to her husband. In Atlantic City, her mother received a letter from Elinor that read, “Don’t let this kill you … I have run away.” She fainted.

Elinor’s brother and husband searched ships in New York, but the couple had taken a train to Canada, then a ship to Europe. And there, in the face of lurid newspaper stories, and despite entreaties from both families, they remained—under assumed names in a cottage in England. They only returned to the United States at the outbreak of World War I, when the British government insisted that aliens leave the country. In 1916, after extensively reported divorces, they finally married and Elinor Hoyt Hichborn assumed what would be her pen name, Elinor Wylie. They returned to Washington in 1919, and Elinor found herself moving in literary circles.

Wylie had always written, but her new friends—among them the writer John Dos Passos and the critic Edmund Wilson—convinced her to pursue writing seriously. Poetry magazine published four poems in 1920, which was followed by her first book, Nets to the Wind, in 1921. That same year, Elinor left her second husband and moved to New York. The difference in their ages had finally caused them to drift apart. They later divorced.

There followed three more volumes of verse and four novels, several of which won high praise from America’s most influential critics. Her notoriety did not hurt sales. One critic, William Rose Benét, became Elinor’s third husband in 1923. They separated in 1926, but remained married and sometimes lived together. During the last year of her life, she became romantically involved with Henry de Clifford Woodhouse, the husband of a friend. The relationship inspired the love sonnets in her last book, Angels and Earthly Creatures. She finished the final draft one night in December 1928, then died of a stroke.

Elinor was buried with a laurel wreath around her head, placed by another poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who had a similarly interesting personal life. The verse on her tombstone—“Well done, thou good and faithful servant”—was from Shelley and undoubtedly referred to her poetry.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at dixon_mark@verizon.net.

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