“Among the letters in Orwell’s possession at his death was one from Ruth Graves, whom he had known twenty years earlier, in Paris. She had, she said, read all his essays but had been prompted to write on hearing Animal Farm described on the radio…as the ‘outstanding political satire of all time.’” Peter Davison (CW XX p. 150)
My research into George Orwell’s time in Paris, when he was still Eric Blair – the young, unknown, unemployed ex-police officer – faces the same challenge that his many biographers have confronted. Paris just did not remember Orwell. There are almost no primary sources and few seemed to know anything about or correspond with the struggling writer at that time.
From the moment I read Peter Davison’s editorial notes about Ruth Graves’ letter, in the final volume of The Complete Works of George Orwell, she seemed to have been a person who could have offered unique insights into those distant days. If only we knew who she was.
Only two of Orwell’s biographers have mentioned Graves. David Taylor explicitly asking the question, who was Ruth Graves? He noted that she is not hinted at anywhere in Orwell’s writings. None of his friends knew or mentioned Graves either. We have no record of Orwell ever replying to the caring letter she wrote to him on the 23rd July 1949.
Another biographer, Gordon Bowker, thought she was probably a young, affluent American visitor, as Orwell himself had said, “tourists were as much as part of the scenery of Paris as tobacco kiosks and tin urinals” and tended to spend money like water.
We do not know for certain when Graves became aware that Eric Blair, the young man she had been friends with in Paris during the late 1920s, was George Orwell, the writer but it was probably not until 1949, when she listened to the radio broadcast.
Graves’ letter indicated she was looking forward to reading Nineteen Eighty-Four and that they had a mutual friend, Edith Morgan*. She also knew “Mrs Adam”, Orwell’s bohemian Aunt Nellie who lived in Paris and was married to the Esperantist, Eugène Adam. Most significantly for biographers, Graves fondly remembered “the very good talk of a tall young man in a wide-brimmed pair of Breton hats, who was as kind as he was keen of mind” recalling:
“…those Saturday evenings in Paris, when we took turns about the dinner, and the hours of good talk later in my little cluttered place in rue de la Grande Chaumière. You showed me sketches of your experiences – some of the material I recognised when ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ came out. Perhaps I was your first critic?”
It was also evident from her letter, written six months before Orwell died, that Graves knew her friend was seriously ill. She offered to procure medicine but knowing that there may be difficulties importing it to England, volunteered to act as courier. They must have been very good friends or, less generously, the allure of Orwell’s fame burned brightly.
Tellingly, Graves also confides in her letter, that since returning to America ten years ago, on the outbreak of WWII, she still did not feel at home.
Ruth Graves lived near Boulevard Montparnasse, in what she described as “my little cluttered place in rue de la Grande Chaumière” which Google Maps reveals is about a twenty-minute walk from where Orwell’s residence at 6 Rue Pot de Fer, in the fifth arrondissement, was located.
Orwell, the quintessentially English writer, was always interested in his French ancestry. He was very literate in the language and the translator for Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) told Orwell his written French, in their letters, was “not merely correct, but elegant”. In his memoirs, Anthony Powell articulated a belief that “Orwell’s quarter-French ancestry” was important to both his “temperament and approach to writing”.
Eric Blair moved to France ostensibly to live cheaply while he kickstarted his career as a writer but after five years serving the British empire as a police officer in Burma (1922-27) Orwell must have fantasised about escaping to the cultural mecca of Paris, as many thousands of expatriates endeavouring to paint, write or at the very least affect a bohemian lifestyle had done before him. He wrote, in his first novel, Burmese Days (1934):
‘Paris – it’s all a kind of jumble of pictures in my mind; cafés and boulevards and artists’ studios and Villon and Baudelaire and Maupassant all mixed up together…Sitting in cafés with foreign art students, drinking white wine and talking about Marcel Proust?’
Orwell claimed to have written two unsuccessful novels (and regretted destroying the manuscripts) during his time in Paris. Some of his first published articles, written in French, appeared in Monde and Le Progrès Civique. We also know that he wrote at least three short stories that were never published and the feedback received suggested his work was “immature…you deal with sex too much in your writings”. Orwell would review a biography of Baudelaire, the dissolute poet of modernity, for a journal after departing France.
Even though evidence suggests Orwell worked hard on his writing, I always wondered who he spent his spare time with during the dying gasp of les Annees Folles, ‘the Crazy Years’? There is a terrible paucity of primary sources for the eighteen months, in 1928-9, that Eric Blair spent in the capital. In fact, letters (mostly rejection letters) from editors, are all that really exists.
There are a few clues from interviews that Steve Wadhams conducted in 1983, including Louis Bannier, an Esperantist and close associate of Eugène Adam, Aunt Nellie’s husband. There are some interesting insights from Mabel Fierz (who knew him in Southwold and London rather than Paris) into Orwell’s “girlfriends”. This included one “trollop” that Orwell claimed he would have married, except she absconded with his possessions.
The reality, there is simply a lack of documentary evidence about this period from people who knew him. There are a scattered remembrances in Orwell’s journalism and prefaces. His first published book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), is reportage but very much reflective of his last months in the city. Orwell always said the book was based on lived experiences and interestingly, he illustrated this by annotating a friend’s copy.
It is worth remembering that biographer and Orwell scholar, Bernard Crick, always cautioned against conflating literary works with the man. Other sources are essential.
Orwell’s biographers never identified Ruth Graves and most readers assume she was a “girlfriend” from the content of that one letter, written to a dying man.
Looking for Ruth
One would have thought that having Ruth Graves’ name and knowing she was an American in Paris interwar would be enough to trace Orwell’s friend, who so admired his “Breton hats”. Not so, it would seem. However, since the last major biographies were published in 2003, on the centenary of Orwell’s birth, online databases have improved significantly.
Knowing that Graves returned to the United States in October 1939, from Peter Davison’s editorial notes in the final volume of The Complete Works of George Orwell, I started searching the passenger records of vessels bound for the USA. This simple line of enquiry proved very fruitful.
A Ruth Eleanor Graves, born January 8th 1884, was listed as passenger on the S.S. “Saint John”. This steamer departed for New York, from Bordeaux, on the 14th October. She appeared to be travelling alone and is recorded as “single” rather than “married”. There are no other Ruth Graves’ returning to New York from France during this period but was this fifty-five-year-old passenger, who would have been in her mid-forties when she knew Eric Blair, the Ruth Graves?
Besides her birth date, I now knew this Ruth was born in Lexington, Illinois and that her hometown was Wichita, Kansas. Her passport was easily found and indicated she likely departed for Paris from New York in early 1924. Did that mean she resided in Paris for fifteen years? If so, Ruth Graves was not “young” or “a tourist”, as suggested by Bowker.
Who was she really?
Photos, even those for passports, can prove hypnotic. I stared at Ruth Graves, who did not look directly back at me from New York in 1924 but gazed slightly off to her left. She looked surprisingly modern. Examining the passport more closely, I noticed that the section of the form for the “object of visit” was not tourism. Graves had simply written in a neat, cursive hand, “study of art”.
Nearly convinced that this was very likely the Ruth Graves, returned from a very lengthy French sojourn, I searched online but without much luck. Did she become an artist or was she merely another wealthy dilettante? The Archives of American Art, a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution and Google seemed to confirm the latter.
Then, a hardworking librarian’s years of research saved the day.
Susan Craig, Art & Architecture Librarian at the University of Kansas, compiled a Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945) in 2009. This was the lead I needed to leap over the research brick wall to truly find Ruth.
The Genealogy of the Greenlee Families in America cleared the fog of Graves’ ancestry. A local newspaper, the Wichita Eagle, provided most of the treasure and an article in The Shocker, a publication for alumni of Wichita State University, was invaluable.
Ruth Eleanor Graves (1884-1964)
The only child of Walter and Mary Graves, Ruth grew up in Wichita and was educated at Fairmount College (now Wichita State University). Her father was a physician and one of the college’s board of trustees. Mary (née Brooks then Mrs Paddock) had a son to a previous marriage before being widowed and remarrying Walter. She was a keen reader, founding the Fairmount Library Club after the previous collection had been stolen.
From an early age Graves exhibited an interest in art and a determination to succeed. Her father related an anecdote, to a local newspaper, showing his daughter’s self-reliance. Walter says “modelling clay” for his young daughter was just not available (in late nineteenth century Wichita) so this small child simply solved the problem by successfully making her own from a recipe.
Ruth Graves had a privileged life and was extremely well-educated. It struck me that she had a very upper middle class background, as Orwell did. One portrait, when she was about eighteen, taken twenty-one years before her passport photo shows an expensively dressed, sophisticated and confident young woman. She was the art editor of college publications, such as The Sunflower and Parnassus, which contained her line drawings, including a stunning, gold-leaf representation of Mount Parnassus on the cover.
Graves, with her aptitude for art, graduated from the college in 1903 and moved to Chicago. She spent a number of years studying at both the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute before working independently teaching. She continued her studies by moving to NYC and commenced a long association with the Art Students League of New York (records indicate she won a scholarship and later supported the institution financially until her death). During these formative years, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, her instructors commented that Graves was an extraordinarily diligent young woman, highly independent and original:
“Before she had had anything except the mere rudiments of drawing, she showed intense earnestness in everything pertaining to art. She was eager to learn and one of the most interested pupils I ever had.” (Elizabeth Sprague)
“If she could imitate, she would get along faster at first. But she is a strong individualist.” Professor Seymour (sp?)
I was struck by the attitude of Walter, Ruth’s father, towards his daughter. He had come to believe that it was very undesirable to repress the artistic instincts of any individual and encouraged his only child to pursue her passion for art. It made made me reflect on Orwell knowing:
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books. (Why I Write)
Perhaps Walter could afford to be so enlightened in a way that Orwell’s parents could not.
Feeling disappointed with her lack of success in New York, Graves moved to Paris in 1924, where she was to live for the next fifteen years. She had some reasonably immediate professional success exhibiting three paintings at the prestigious Societé Nationale des Beaux-Arts (Society for Fine Arts), known as the Salon or Salon de Paris, in 1926.
We know, from a celebratory article in The Wichita Eagle newspaper back home (Sunday Magazine 13 June 1926), Graves paid $30 a month to rent a studio in Paris and was quoted as saying it “would be considered quite pretentious in New York”. This pretentiousness had paid dividends.
It is probably not completely safe to surmise this studio was located at the address, Rue de la Grande Chaumière, mentioned in her letter to Orwell. One would usually assume that such a studio was in a separate location but was Graves able to afford a small apartment too? It is worth noting that the Italian artist Modigliani (1884-1920), opium-addicted and living a wild lifestyle, had had a studio in the same street before his death, a few years prior to Graves arriving in Montparnasse.
Another American, the translator Samuel Putnam, in his memoir, Paris Was Our Mistress (1947), vividly described the neighbourhood:
“…the Montparnasse we knew: a weird little land crowded with artists, alcoholics, prostitutes, pimps, poseurs, college boys, tourists, society slummers, spendthrifts, beggars, homosexuals, drug addicts, nymphomaniacs, sadists, masochists, thieves, gamblers, confidence men, mystics, takers, paranoiacs, political refugees, anarchists, “Dukes” and “Countesses,” men and women without a country; a land filled with a gaiety sometimes real and often feigned, filled with sorrow, suffering, poverty, frustration, bitterness, tragedy, suicide. Not only was there never any place like it; Montparnasse itself had never been before and never will be again what it was in the 1920’s. For it was essentially a part of the first après-guerre, and from 1929 on it began dying.” p.116
One of the paintings exhibited in 1926 was a cityscape of Paris, viewed from Notre Dame, which Graves later presented to her alma mater on the fiftieth anniversary of her graduation (where it is still prominently displayed).
One of the other three paintings from this exhibition, was a portrait of Joel Martin Nichols Jr. (1895-1991), an American veteran of WWI, journalist and published author when Graves knew him. The story of how they met, reported in the local newspaper, is of its time:
“Early one morning, Mr. Nichols, searching for the abode of a friend, wandered into the labyrinths of the Latin quarter, where the artists congregate. Miss Graves had locked herself out of her studio, and while she was trying to boost a too-stout janitor through the window so he could unlock her door, Mr. Nichols spied her. Mr. Nichols gallantly relieved the situation by opening the door himself, and remained to pose for Miss Graves on the promise of a cup of ‘real American coffee.’”
Interestingly, Nichols published many short stories in pulp magazines, including Weird Tales. His writing was popular with fans. He went on to work in advertising on returning to New York in 1926 and was to become the director of the Federal Advertising Agency. I can find no record of him in Paris during Orwell’s time but it is likely they would have had much in common. The long-lived Nichols, also wrote to his dying day.
Ruth Graves, on returning to America, never married and lived most of her life in New York. Her father passed away in 1941 and Graves’ mother, who may have been a French-speaking Canadian, died years before when her daughter was studying in Chicago (where many of the extended family of her mother’s previous marriage lived). There is a good record of her addresses documented via her association with the Art Students League of New York. In 1940, she had become a life member.
Sadly, Ruth Eleanor Graves died in a New York State mental hospital in 1964. She was probably suffering from an undiagnosed dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s disease, unable to “treasure all the memories” of her years in Paris. I am yet to find her will but an obituary (Wichita Eagle, May 29) lists a niece, Miss Beatrice Paddock (who died in 1997, aged 95).
The Significance of Eric Blair’s Relationship with Ruth Graves?
Orwell, in his seminal 1940 essay on American expatriate Henry Miller, Inside the Whale, writes amusingly about Paris when the exchange-value of the franc was low:
“Paris was invaded by such a swarm of artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sight-seers, debauchees and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen. In some quarters of the town the so-called artists must actually have outnumbered the working population—indeed, it has been reckoned that in the late ’twenties there were as many as 30,000 painters in Paris, most of them impostors. The populace had grown so hardened to artists that gruff-voiced Lesbians in corduroy breeches and young men in Grecian or medieval costume could walk the streets without attracting a glance, and along the Seine banks by Notre Dame it was almost impossible to pick one’s way between the sketching-stools.” (CW XII p. 86)
Ruth Graves, having lived and exhibited in Paris for several years before Orwell arrives, was not an “impostor”. The young Blair would have learnt a great deal from the older woman, devoted to art, who was to spend so many years as an expatriate. Graves’ personal and professional life is deserving of study – not just because of this connection to Orwell – but in her own right.
This highly-educated American woman (and her friend, Edith Morgan) were certainly not “down and out” or prostitutes and I would suggest that Orwell was likely associating with a well-heeled, artistic milieu in Paris far more often than he would have us believe or his later reputation suggested. For example, in 1931, Orwell wrote to TS Eliot at Faber & Faber about his suitability for translating particular French novels:
“I have just read a rather interesting French novel called Á la Belle de Nuit, by Jacques Roberti. It is the story of a prostitute, quite true to life so far as one can judge, & most ruthlessly told, but not a mere exploitation of a dirty subject. It seems to me worth translating, & if Messrs. Faber & Faber would like to try a translation I think I could do the job as well as most people. I don’t pretend to have a scholarly knowledge of French, but I am used to mixing in the kind of French society described in the novel, & I know French slang, if not well, better than the majority of Englishmen. I don’t know whether such a book would sell, but I believe Zola’s novels sell in England, & this author seems to have some resemblances to Zola.”
Eliot did not take Orwell up on his offer to translate Á la Belle de Nuit. That was completed in the USA by Samuel Putnam, who described Montparnasse so vividly in his memoir. His translation of the novel was titled, Without Sin (1933) which contrasts significantly to the choice made by Mary Ford, another translator, Houses of the Lost (1932).
Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in London and Paris, was reviewed positively and sold well, being reprinted twice during the month it was released. It was the beginning of Orwell’s reputation for being a writer who more explored proletarian experiences, than those of his own class.
My research into Ruth Graves continues apace and gives some cause for hope that more evidence about Orwell’s time in Paris will emerge. At the very least, the hunt is always fun when there are so many interesting questions to be answered. Did Orwell reply to Graves’ letter? Did Edith Morgan*, their mutual friend, correspond with Graves? Did Graves keep diaries and letters? If so, where are they to be located? Do the “weekly” postcards from Paris that her father kept still survive?
An important question is did Graves sketch or paint Orwell, maybe in his “Breton hat”?
One does get the sense of a joke, or gentle ribbing, being shared in her letter to Orwell. The visual image (of the rarely photographed) Eric Blair wearing this style of head-ware has occupied more of my time than warranted (and I now have some expertise in the evolution of the Breton cap from the nineteenth century). However, I am still uncertain if the “wide-brimmed pair of Breton hats” Graves mentions are the style of cap popularised in the sixties by The Beatles (perhaps even earlier by Vladimir Lenin) or if it is some other kind of “hat” that is less familiar to contemporary readers? Visualising Blair, perhaps with a beard (as there is some suggestion he was not always clean-shaven) is made very possible if he wore this cap at a jaunty angle…but I digress.
If you are able to assist with my research, please make contact by commenting at this post or emailing dfjmoore AT gmail.com or contacting @Darcy1968 via Twitter. I am particularly keen to make contact with the family of Graves’ niece, Miss Beatrice Paddock, mentioned in her obituary.
I am currently drafting a monograph on Orwell, as well as preparing a number of related papers for conferences, journals and presentations to Higher School Certificate students in NSW. In May, I am fortunate enough to be learning more about George Orwell by visiting Spain with The Orwell Society.
More of my posts, articles and research into Orwell can be found here.
* I am becoming more confident that Edith Morgan has been identified but am still seeking more information and will post when confirmed.
A very special thanks to Connie White and Wichita State University’s alumni magazine The Shocker; Stephanie Cassidy at The Art Students League of New York; Mike Maxton; and Robert Tucker, Special Collections Librarian at Wichita Public Library for their generosity in greatly assisting my research.
Bowker, Gordon (2003) Inside George Orwell, New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Craig, Susan (2009) Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945), Lawrence, KS. [online] Available at: http://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/dspace/bitstream/1808/1028/4/BDKAversion2.pdf [Accessed 12 Jan. 2019].
Greenlee, Ralph Stebbins and Greenlee, Robert Lemuel (1908) Genealogy of the Greenlee families in America (privately printed)
Hanley, T. (2019). Joel Martin Nichols, Jr. (1895-1991). [online] Tellersofweirdtales.blogspot.com. Available at: https://tellersofweirdtales.blogspot.com/2011/08/joel-martin-nichols-jr.html [Accessed 13 Jan. 2019].
New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957. Year: 1939; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 6413; Line: 4; Page Number: 11
Orwell, George (1997 ) Down and Out in London and Paris, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol.1, London: Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1997 ) Burmese Days, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol.2, London: Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1998) A Kind of Compulsion (1903-1936), The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 10, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1998) A Patriot After All (1940-1941), The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 12, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1998) Our Job is to Make Life Worth Living (1949-1950), The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 20, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (2006) The Lost Orwell: Being a Supplement to the Complete Works of George Orwell, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Timewell Press
Perleberg, Anna and Platt, Dr George (2008). “A Girl Who Went From Wichita to Paris and Won Success” – Spring 2008 – THE SHOCKER. [online] Available at: http://wsu.wichita.edu/the-shocker/story.php?eid=1&id=231#.XDm8lM8zbOT [Accessed 12 Jan. 2019].
Powell, Anthony (1983) To Keep the Ball Rolling: The Memoirs of Anthony Powell, Penguin Books Ltd
Putnam, Samuel, (1947) Paris Was Our Mistress: Memoirs of a Lost and Found Generation, Viking Press
Salmon, André (1961) Modigliani – A Memoir, New York: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
Taylor, D. J. (2004) Orwell – The Life, London: Vintage
U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line]. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C., 21 Feb 1924-25 Feb 1924
Wadhams, Stephen (1983) Unpublished Recordings from CBC Radio (courtesy of the Orwell Society)
Wadhams, Stephen (1984) Remembering Orwell, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin
Wichita Eagle (1926) “A Girl Who Went From Wichita to Paris and Won Success” Sunday Magazine, June 13 (Courtesy of Wichita Public Library)
Wichita Eagle (1964) “Ruth Eleanor Graves – Obituary” May 29 (Courtesy of Wichita Public Library)