Henry Williamson's visit to the United States in 1934

 

 

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Henry Williamson's visit to the United States in 1934: an illustrated timeline

 

 

Thursday, 18 January

 

It all begins with this letter that Mrs Louise Reese writes from her New York club to her friend Mrs Sarah Sheridan in London:

 

 

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Transcript:

 

Dearest Sarah,

 

I hope I have managed in my last letter to inspire you with some enthusiasm about meeting Mr Henry Williamson and persuading him to visit me. I have these charming houses which should be filled with charming guests. He is cautious modest and gentle as can be seen from his writing, he would have to know something of me before trusting himself, what more dignified and well bread [sic] a representative could I have than you.

 

Do let me know what you think & what your plan will be. I leave tomorrow Jan. 19th for Augusta to be there until June. I think I wrote you the Stuart Craig's with the two children have taken my house. Jane [?] goes with me for two weeks. It is bitterly cold here, but New York has been a delightful experience this time, so many interesting contacts.

 

Let me hear your plans for [?] summer, I may decide to take a cheap steamer & go to Germany, to a small place called Partenkirchen near Oberammergau. Would you join me?

 

I am [rest of sentence illegible]

 

Love and [?]

 

Your Louise

 

Monday, 22 January

 

Sarah Sheridan wastes no time in writing and passing on the invitation:

 

 

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(No transcript provided, as her handwriting is far more legible than that of Mrs Reese!)

 

Friday, 26 January

 

HW receives Mrs Sheridan's letter. He records in his diary:

 

An American woman Mrs Sheridan, here in London, asking me on behalf of a friend of hers in Georgia, U.S.A., to go and live on her estate and write and make my home there. A God-send, a miracle. I shall go, & never return: the falcon shall tear my breast no more.

 

Wednesday, 31 January

 

HW goes to London to see Mrs Sheridan, who explains more about Mrs Reese – that she is a rich elderly benefactress of the Arts. He accepts the invitation, and arrangements are made for him to go to America, fare paid, for two to three months.

 

Wednesday, 28 February

 

HW boards RMS Berengaria at Southampton. He is seen off by John Heygate and T. E. Lawrence. The latter is recognised by a Cunard official and asks if a photograph can be taken for publicity purposes. Lawrence, in RAF uniform, refuses, as it might get him into trouble. HW writes in his diary that evening:

 

 

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Sunday, 4 March

 

Mid-ocean, HW writes a lettercard to his eldest son, whose family nickname is Windles, which he posts on arrival at New York:

 

 

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RMS Berengaria was built in Hamburg in 1913 and launched as SS Imperator.

She was transferred to the British in 1919 as reparation for the loss of the

Lusitania, and then sold to Cunard. Renamed the Berengaria she became the

company's flagship. After catching fire in New York harbour in 1938 she was

scrapped later that year.

 

 

Tuesday, 6 March

 

RMS Berengaria docks in New York. HW has not enjoyed the voyage, suffering badly from sea-sickness (as usual). His diary entry for 2 March records:

 

The sea everlastingly surging past in mindless fury. Why am I going so far away, in such a hateful way? Long to be home in England, up in the field, digging and planting trees. . . .

 

He is met by Harrison Smith, who, with his partner Robert Haas, had published The Gold Falcon the previous year. HW books in for a few days at the Hotel Brevoort.

 

 

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Thursday, 8 March

 

HW meets William Rose Benét (founder of The Saturday Review of Literature in 1924) and other members of his staff at the Biltmore Hotel, where he also finds Waveney Girvan selling champagne – at which he makes a great profit: apparently £20,000! Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra, the famous resident band at the Biltmore, are playing in the background.

 

 

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William Rose Benét (1886-1950)

 

 

That same evening he goes to 'the Famous Hollywood Cabaret' restaurant and nightclub, where he meets Rudy Vallée, the singer, bandleader and entertainer – 'Jack Starlight' in The Gold Falcon – and scores of 'extraordinarily beautiful girls'. The hugely popular Vallée, who had a pleasing light tenor voice, has since been called one of the first pop stars, and foreshadowed Frank Sinatra.

 

 

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Rudy Vallée

 

 

He sends this postcard of the Hollywood Cabaret to Gipsy, his wife:

 

 

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While in New York he meets with various people, some on business, some friends from his earlier visit. They include Barbara Sincere (background to their love affair during HW's 1930/31 visit to the US is given in the entry for The Gold Falcon), and his former publisher, John Macrae of E. P. Dutton & Co., who is portrayed as the repetitive publisher 'Homer' in the same book. Macrae is upset over the portrayal, and gives HW 'Cold draught over G.F.'.

 

Friday, 9 March

 

Louise Reese, perhaps concerned about his non-appearance, sends a cable urging his arrival:

 

 

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In The Linhay on the Downs there is a most realistic description of HW's flight down to the Deep South:

 

. . . I left [Manhattan] yesterday by air, flying down the sea coast of the Carolinas.

 

That was an interesting journey. The monoplane had an open cock-pit. Mile after mile we haared over swamps and derelict cotton and tobacco fields, where among pine trees stood bleached wooden shacks where negro families dwelt.

 

We flew sometimes only a few feet above the ground, to feel the speed of a powerful engine and the exhilaration of grey-brown earth rushing upon us.

 

Like a hobby falcon making a point at its own shadow we threw up over trees and glided down again. The soil was reddish-brown for three hundred miles; and after a rest we flew on, coming to a grey sandy land where asparagus and cotton grew. Always the grey-green, semi-ruinous wooden shacks with their sharply defined shadows were beneath us on the flat earth.

 

At last we came to the Savannah, mark of our destination, a river whose yellow waters absorbed our shadows in its lazy tepid flow past yellow mudbank and yellow-sanded roots of great trees washed down by floods. Beyond on high level ground lay the airport, by the polo ground, where we landed in solitude, over which wheeled in spirals seven small black vultures.

 

The truth is rather more prosaic:

 

Tuesday, 13 March

 

HW sets off by train for Georgia, an 800-mile trip, being seen off by Waveney Girvan. He records in his diary:

 

At 3.30 pm Girvan saw me off on the Empress train to Washington and Augusta. I write this at 8.15 pm E.S. time [Eastern Standard] as the train stands on the lower level of Washington Station. The return fare is 45$30 & the Pullman (one way) 6$75. The usual coloured attendants – pleasant, warm-hearted tranquil negroes.

 

Wednesday, 14 March

 

He arrives at Augusta at 12.30 p.m., being met by Mrs Reese and taken to her house, Le Manoir Fleuri. His diary entry gives his first reactions:

 

 

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This postcard of the house is sent by HW to Victor Yeates on 2 June, after his return to England:

 

 

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HW finds Mrs Reese, 'Like most American women, too verbose and too explicit', but nevertheless settles into a round of writing, tennis, luncheons, dinners and parties, at which Mrs Reese shows off her tame writer. Writing to T. E. Lawrence on 19 March, he tells him:

 

Am writing my autobiography THE SUN IN THE SKY and making a novel of it, with imaginary and true-imaginary characters. . . . It's true, but imaginary.

 

While in Augusta HW attends a 'Negro morality play staged in the Negro church, with the Devil in red, an attractive Devil with his capers, grins, winks, and offers of whiskey, lipstick, and children's toys, to tempt to destruction the heaven-bound souls of all ages. The success of the play was assured by roars of happiest laughter!' The date of the performance is not known – perhaps Sunday, 18 March. It was put on by The Junior League of Augusta, of which Mrs Reese was the Patroness, so no doubt HW went with her. He keeps the programme as a souvenir:

 

 

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Thursday, 22 March

 

HW records, in The Linhay on the Downs:

 

I spent all this mid-March day under an incandescent sky, at the National Golf Course, watching the tournament. Bobby Jones is the chief attraction, and he was off form, missing putts of a few yards only, many times [HW clearly did not appreciate that putts 'of a few yards' are eminently missable by the best of golfers, let alone on Augusta's ultra-fast greens!]. . . . The rows of negro caddies, waiting in line outside the clubhouse, with their red long-peaked caps and large bags of clubs with burnished metal heads, looked like a lot of coloured praying mantises waiting there. Thousands of visitors, mostly men and women middle-aged. Two dollars the day to watch, or five dollars for the week. They say the grass (except the greens, which are watered) of this fine course is dry and brown by May-June, when no one plays, it is too hot.

 

Horton Smith looked like winning – a tall, lean, nervous, shambling figure. The prize is five thousand dollare. His first three rounds were sixty-nine, seventy-two, seventy, very good indeed: long drives and many sand traps.

 

The first paragraph is taken almost verbatim from his diary:

 

 

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HW has witnessed the historic first day of the very first Masters Tournament. Horton Smith does indeed win this inaugural Masters, and Augusta is to become a legendary course. The tournament is now one of the four majors in the professionals' golfing calendar, and perhaps the one they would most like to win. Entry, uniquely, is still by invitation only, Augusta National being a privately owned club that jealously guards its reputation. HW later sends a postcard of the fourth hole (which is now the thirteenth) at Augusta National Golf Course to his wife Gipsy (with insufficient postage!):

 

 

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The somewhat confusing message above refers to some moccasins given by John Macrae, of E. P. Dutton & Co., publishers, where two were evidently for the same foot. 'Just off to Charleston' refers to a trip HW is about to make, leaving that day with Edison Marshall (1894-1967), a successful writer of short stories, novels and serials for the American pulp magazine market. HW had met Edison not long after arriving in Georgia, and after a prickly start they had become friends.

 

 

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Edison Tesla Marshall (1894-1967)

 

 

This undated cutting (no source given) about one of Edison Marshall's books – one can hardly call it a review! – is in the HW Literary Archive. The Splendid Quest was published in 1934, so it is likely that Edison Marshall gave HW a copy of his new book:

 

 

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Friday, 30 March

 

HW sends a quick postcard to Gipsy:

 

 

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Friday, 6 April

 

HW sends this postcard to his very young daughter Margaret (her fourth birthday is on 15 April):

 

 

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Monday, 9 April

 

HW and Edison leave for Yemassee on a short fishing trip. HW is no doubt relieved to escape the stifling Mrs Reese, who had an irritating (to HW) habit of constantly talking in a 'characteristic monologue'. HW writes up the first day in his diary, with a frankness in reporting the broad-minded Edison that unsurprisingly isn't repeated in The Linhay on the Downs:

 

 

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The fishing trip is a success, and he and Edison agree to go on another more extended trip to Florida. The day before they leave HW and Mrs Reese quarrel, to the extent of rather childishly burning each other's letters. However, HW records in his diary, 'we parted on amiable and even affectionate terms'.

 

Monday, 16 April

 

HW travels by bus to Valdosta, in south Georgia close by the border with Florida, where Edison Marshall lives. He takes the opportunity while waiting for a change of bus to send this postcard to Windles:

 

 

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He is met by Edison and his wife Agnes at Valdosta. It is a long journey, but HW finds it an 'exhilarating experience despite the heat', describing the journey in The Linhay on the Downs:

 

My seat was just behind the driver, with a cooling stream from the open window. Everything was interesting – the palisade fence made of split boles of trees enclosing fields from the swamp, no posts, lengths of grey wood laid on top of each other, zigzag for self support.

 

We thundered at 60 m.p.h. over old narrow wooden bridges and modern concrete causeways across swamps. We watched convict chain-gangs, in their striped clothes, working beside the roads in the hot sun, uner the alert eyes of guards wearing big straw hats and carrying rifles at the ready. . . .

 

 

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Edison and Agnes Marshall's home at Valdosta

 

 

In his diary he writes:

 

 

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After staying the night in the Sis Hopkins Hotel at Madison, HW and Edison then move on to Hampton Springs Hotel. The hotel, 'semi-ruinous' and with an atmosphere HW finds 'sinister', has clearly seen better days, its heyday being the decade before the First World War, when the rich and famous, including Theodore Roosevelt, came to swim in the sulphur swimming pool that fed from a spring adjacent to the creek. HW records in The Linhay on the Downs:

 

The hotel was once famous. It was built before the World War for rich Yankees from the North, who came for a cure at the sulphur springs. Made of wood, the white paint on which is now faded grey, it stands in the wilderness of sandy soil, among slash pines charred and maimed by fire, rising amidst the rusty spikes of palmetto grasses.

 

It is very quiet in the hotel nowadays. The swimming-pool above the creek is deserted. No one drinks at the sulphur springs. No one comes down from the North. The place is slowly falling into ruin. I am at the moment in a suite of rooms which only millionaires could afford during the fashionable days. The suite, with all meals, now costs three dollars a day. I am the only guest in the entire west wing.

 

The hotel is burned to the ground in 1954, and today only ruins remain.

 

Wednesday, 18 April

 

Diary entry:

 

 

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Thursday, 19 April

 

HW sends Gipsy a postcard of the hotel, and when he leaves takes a brochure, blotters and a handful more postcards as mementos of his visit:

 

 

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The brochure: back and front cover, and inside pages:

 

 

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Hotel blotter:

 

 

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Information sheet for guests:

 

 

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Friday, 20 April

 

Diary entry:

 

 

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Tuesday, 24 April

 

HW feels ill, and is not sure whether it's because of the four ice creams and a hurried meal (to get to the movies in time) or the sulphur water at the hotel, whose meals he describes as 'poor'.

 

Wednesday, 25 April

 

HW posts this card to his father-in-law, Pa, writing, 'Magnolias etc, alligators, big fish, bass, rattlers, tropic sun – a grand place is Florida, ospreys, eagles, humming birds, etc etc. Can't decide whether to come home or go to Newfoundland for salmon. HW':

 

 

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HW returns the same day to Augusta and Le Manoir Fleuri, to collect his remaining luggage and say a mutually amicable farewell to Mrs Reese (larger trunks have already been sent to Barbara Sincere in Washington; he now asks her to forward them to New York). He writes in his diary:

 

 

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Thursday, 26 April

 

HW travels by train back to New York. In The Linhay on the Downs he says, 

 

Walking over the rails followed by the coloured porter wheeling my baggae and bewildered by my cheap cotton pants and forty-nine cent shirt I came to the Dixie Flyer which every day runs its thousand odd miles between Florida and New York.

 

And indeed, there is in the archive an advertising card for the Dixie Flyer:

 

 

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However, this cannot be the train that HW caught for, as the card states, the line runs from Atlanta to Chicago. Tony Jowett surmises, in his detailed and recommended narrative ‘Dixie Days of 1934: Henry Williamson in the Deep South’ (HWSJ 45, 2009, pp. 81-99), that as HW had decided on 22 April to visit Barbara Sincere in Chicago, he could easily have picked up this card, perhaps at Hampton Springs Hotel where he was then staying. Though he subsequently changed his mind about the visit, he retained the card. No doubt using the romantic name, so redolent of the Deep South, was difficult to resist when writing The Linhay on the Downs!

 

Friday, 27 April

 

Back in New York, HW has talks with Rhinehart Publishers regarding future books, which come to naught. He then spends his last weekend at Harrison Smith's mansion in Connecticut, where Smith delays a decision on whether he will take the book that HW has been writing in Georgia, The Sun in the Sands.

 

Wednesday, 2 May

 

Back in New York, he dines with a new literary agent, a woman with whom he does not get on well. He also sends this annotated postcard to Gipsy:

 

 

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Later that day he sees Harrison Smith again, who informs him that they have decided not to take The Sun in the Sands, a decision he was half expecting in view of Smith's previous prevarication. Later, back in England, HW receives a letter explaining that although they consider the book 'sensitive, beautifully written, tragic', they think sales would be limited because it is neither biography nor novel. The Sun in the Sands is eventually published in 1945 by Faber.

 

Saturday, 5 May

 

Having taken the overnight train to Montreal, HW boards the Canadian Pacific SS Montcalm. Inevitably, he feels queasy, and finds the trip boring.

 

Monday, 14 May

 

The SS Montcalm docks at Southampton. After going to London HW goes to see Ann Thomas and then the Edmonds family.

 

Tuesday, 22 May

 

HW returns to Shallowford. His first diary entry is: 'Very quiet here in the Bray valley, nothing doing.'

 

Monday, 12 November

 

The Linhay on the Downs is published, with its generous dedication to 'Miss Louise'. He posts a copy to Mrs Louise Reese, who acknowledges it with this postcard, featuring part of the grounds at Le Manoir Fleuri:

 

 

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The postcard reads: 'Nov. 22 – Our book has just reached me. I am looking forward with pleasure to re-living our Georgia scenes. I will write you at length in a few days – the dedication very charming – thank you – Sincerely yours, L. de l'A. R.'

 

However, in his own copy of The Linhay on the Downs HW was privately scathing, writing on the dedication page:

 

 

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Christmas (probably 1934)

 

Edison Marshall sends a Christmas poem to HW:

 

 

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