“I came back to America in 1939, in October, but do not feel that I am at home yet. New York has been most inhospitable – and I am a rebel in a world that has become so regimented that I can find no foothold in it. I have all the more a desire to read your latest book – I know I shall echo it with all my heart. I have been harmed personally by this trend that lurks in more than just high places.” Ruth Graves
The American woman who wrote to George Orwell in July 1949 is definitely Ruth Eleanor Graves (1884-1964) from Wichita, Kansas. I have confirmed her identity by comparing the original letter, supplied courtesy of the Orwell Archive, with her 1924 passport application.
The signatures matched.
One is carefully inked for a passport and the other scrawled, a more casual signature for a letter. Twenty-five years separate the two signatures but they are remarkably similar.
As expected, Graves’ six-page letter has facts not previously mentioned by Orwell scholars (Peter Davison, David Taylor or the late Gordon Bowker*). I was surprised to find that Davison had not included Graves’ home address in his editorial notes. There was no envelope with the letter stored in the Orwell Archive and one assumes Graves found Orwell by posting it to his American publisher (as she did mention knowing about their office in NYC).
Graves was residing at “51 West 69th St New York 23”, a four-story Brownstone with twenty units, located in Lincoln Square. The Art Students League of New York was a pleasant stroll in Central Park away. The screenshot shows what a desirable residential location Graves had in NYC. It would be interesting to compare the current Google Street-view, where one sees too many cars and some amusing graffiti, with a period photograph from the mid-twentieth century.
Graves’ opened her letter saying she started writing it two years ago when Orwell had popped into her mind. She jokes about hoping the “psychic phenomenon boys” can figure out why he appeared there for no reason. Many keen readers of Orwell’s work may not know that this most rational of writers was quite superstitious and interested in such phenomenon. It is probable that Graves included this whimsical or throwaway line as they likely discussed paranormal phenomenon twenty years ago.
A minor point but I will correct it for the record. It seems that Davison was wrong in suggesting Graves had read all Orwell’s essays. My reading of her comment, on listening to the Christopher Morley broadcast about Animal Farm, is that she had read all Orwell’s work but not his essays. Graves’ handwriting is very legible and I am confident this is correct.
Prising between the lines for information about the nature of their friendship, the following passage in Graves’ letter is particularly fascinating:
“I came back to America in 1939, in October, but do not feel that I am at home yet. New York has been most inhospitable – and I am a rebel in a world that has become so regimented that I can find no foothold in it. I have all the more a desire to read your latest book – I know I shall echo it with all my heart. I have been harmed personally by this trend that lurks in more than just high places.”
Does Graves allude to the politics of the art world in New York City when she bemoans such regimentation and her lack of a “foothold”? What else could it be a reference to if not her art? Maybe this is a more personal issue relating to sexuality? Graves never married, perhaps she was a lesbian? To what extent would this be an impediment to success in her chosen profession in 1940s USA? Were her father’s comments about the “undesirability of repressing” the artistic urge in his daughter to be read as acknowledgment of Graves’ sexuality?
There are many other questions worth considering regarding Graves sensation of not feeling “at home” after a decade. Why did she spend so long in France? Her passport notes she was visiting to study art and we know that she returned on the outbreak of war but what kept her in Paris? The 1920s in Paris was a period of great artistic ferment and many creative Americans enjoyed personal freedom to drink alcohol, experiment with drugs and sexuality. There was an artistic and intellectual licence granted that was just not possible in America or Britain. I am reading Women of the Left Bank, by the late Shari Benstock, in an effort to have a greater understanding of the period Graves resided in Paris with so many other creative women.
Graves mentioned that she knew Orwell’s Aunt Nellie (Mrs Adam) had returned to London, from France. This suggests she had corresponded with others in their circle of friends and acquaintances. It occurred to me to map where Aunt Nellie and her husband lived in their top-floor flat at 14 Avenue Corbéra, located in the twelfth arrondissement. Orwell would have had to cross the Seine, passing Graves’ studio en route, to the Adam residence.
Considering our limited information about who Orwell knew in Paris, his connections via Nellie’s husband Eugène Adam are important to making a mental map of acquaintances. These included the first person to publish his writing, Henri Barbusse, who was author of the novel, Le Feu, and editor of the left-wing periodical Monde. It is worth noting that Barbusse was accused of espionage in October 1928 so it is probably not too surprising that MI5 started a file on Orwell in January 1929. Orwell must have also known René Nicole and Henri Dumay who published several of his earliest articles in the radical journal, Le Progrès Civique.
One of the interesting additional facts in Graves’ letter was that she still communicated with Edith Morgan twenty years after living in Paris. I noted that she was contacted by her friend in 1948:
“I have heard briefly from Edith Morgan, at Christmas. She was visiting in Rome.”
Who was this mutual friend? I am tantalisingly close to confirming the identify of Edith Morgan. Mostly this has been done by eliminating who she is not and there are many possible “Edith Morgans”. It has been frustrating and difficult as several times it seemed the mystery was solved. I am currently waiting on a document, stored in a French archive, to be located and copied. I now believe that Edith was an artist who exhibited in Paris during 1928. If this is confirmed there is more chance that information about Eric Blair will be uncovered.
I have pondered over Graves’ letter when she says, “I can hardly expect you to remember me after more than twenty years” but then goes on to write about taking turns with dinner and “the hours of good talk late in my little cluttered place”. How would Orwell forget such a relationship or perhaps she is just being polite? Either way it is clear that there was no further communication after Orwell left Paris in December 1929 until Graves wrote in July 1949.
More biographical details
Many snippets of information, mostly from newspapers, have enabled a more complete story of Graves’ life to be assembled since my original post. It is now certain that her mother was born into a French-speaking community in Sherbrooke, Canada and that Ruth visited this region into adulthood.
Graves was celebrated for her determination, as well as her artistic and literary talent, while residing with her parents in Wichita at University Avenue. Often called “Eleanor” rather than “Ruth” by her father and in the newspapers, she demonstrated remarkable self-reliance. There is one report from 1899 of Graves walking, in terrible “twenty below zero” weather, six miles to attend classes. She particularly valued her art and English lessons and did not want to miss them. Graves was often in the newspaper for her intellectual endeavours, including readings at literary soirées and publishing poems.
In 1904 it was noted in the local newspaper that “Miss Graves” has been chosen as a replacement teacher in Wichita and then is teaching in Chicago, from 1906, where she was studying art. In 1914 Graves’ artwork is displayed in the window of Martin’s Art Store. Her technical innovation is highlighted as the “pictures are unique” and she is “painting in oil on paper” to create monotypes. The “delicate beauty of a well executed water colour and a freshness of tint seldom attained” is reportedly a huge improvement compared to using canvas.
A letter Graves wrote to her father, twelve years before she knew Orwell, on Christmas Day 1916 is quite remarkable. The letter from “Eleanor” was published in The Wichita Beacon. Graves was holidaying in Lancaster, New Hampshire where she was spending the winter:
“I have seen the Flume at last. It was a little late for the trip and I supposed I would see only the skeleton of things to clothe with imagination, but November has its charm as well as June. All thru the Flume, the wet rocks were plastered with leaves, here and there was a flock of October glory.
The paths were beautiful. The forest was a mist of bare trees, warmed by the russet boughs of the graceful winter beech and the thick leaf carpet of softer brown – the purple of the mountain peeping thru from beyond.
The pool was like a huge green gem. Mist was floating and scurrying about the tops of the mountains, and the Echo and Profile Lakes were silver under it.
It seemed just the time to see the Old Man of the Mountains. He belongs to greys with his stern face, like some sharp-featured old pioneer. What legends must have been woven about him? Generations wander thru the valleys and carry on little enterprises and always he is there in the sunshine or the mist gazing out over their heads into distance.
The snow up here hasn’t anything on white frost. It comes like September dew and glistens on every twig and pine needle. I woke the other morning to see this exquisite fretwork against the most wonderful pink dawn from behind the mountains. The Little Folk of the Ice King never did such work as this.”
The letter goes on to describe experiences in Quebec.
“I stood there on the steps and looked back over the landmarks of bygone days. I saw the missionaries, Indians, voyageurs and dashing adventurers of the old St. Lawrence days. The sky was a dark blue and the river a darker sliver. Lights like those in Never-Never Land twinkled faint and fainter along the bank until they were lost in darkness. Above me the orchestra was playing and the promenade was becoming gay with people.
Mountain Hill Street was another favourite of mine in Quebec. I stood by the postoffice steps under the sign of the Golden Dog and looked down, watching the picturesque old carts clatter up and down the cobble stones. It is a graceful street as it curves around the rampart of the lower town. Gray-green willows peep over the majestic gray walls at the left. On the right the shops descend like steps. Between them you catch a tiny glimpse of the river.
This, too, is best at twilight, when the golden haze comes from the shops and carts with their shadows take on romantic shapes.
Sous-le-Cap Street is best in the bright sunshine, tho there are the same smells at any time of the day, and the same shrill cries of the children signalling the approach of the penny-bearing tourist. Green petticoats, red table cloths and patchwork quilts hung across the streets add cheer to the weather-beaten stairs and passageways between the buildings, only a wagon-width apart.
There was little picture houses, such as the cardinal, in gorgeous silks, pale-faced and Franciscans friars in their heavy robes, beautiful French chidden with their sense of dress down even to the poorest, a great pile of carrots in the open Champlain market, many scenes that I remember from my excursions.
Following one of the hard Canadian thunderstorms, I went out for a walk and got lost. In a French town, no lady is out after nightfall. I was down among the shipyards and I began to feel a little uncertain. I soon found a little French boy that I knew and he guided me back to my station.
In the rain I had ruined my last decent pair of shoes. Shoes are doomed in Quebec. The rain completes what hills and cobblestones begin. Across the narrow sidewalks run many little rivers which no-one has thought to train under the walk, just as ice is left at everyone’s door because no-one has thought to deliver it in any other way.
During the ten days I spent in Quebec, I had been away not only from noise and ugliness but also from efficiency. I was glad to get across the river again for in the morning I could see the gray city on the cliffs once more. I had an excellent chance to say goodbye to it. My ride to Sherbrooke was charming as the ride to Quebec, but nothing satisfies after the visions I have had in Quebec.”
One can see why a proud father had the letter published. Graves has a poetic turn of phrase as well as an observant eye for people and places. It make one rather hungry to find her postcards from Paris or other letters to friends.
An Artist in Paris
In 1928, it appears that Graves exhibited for a second time at the Societé Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Orwell arrives in Paris in the early April of that year and it is possible he saw her work then. I was surprised to discover that besides Graves, fifty-four other Americans were featured at this exhibition including twelve painters or sculptors from the “middle-west” and two other artists from “Illinois”. I was even more surprised to learn that the 1926 census suggests Paris was home to nearly 10 000 American expatriates during this period and probably many more who were not officially recorded. Not all of them would be visiting Algiers, as Graves did in 1926, to stay with a daughter of JP Morgan in a mansion where she was able to appreciate the “North African colour”.
During the course of my research I have come to admire what Amanda Curtin has achieved with a book that restores Australian artist Kathleen O’Connor (1876-1968) to public consciousness. O’Connor had a studio in the same street Graves did at Rue de la Grande Chaumière. Amanda suggested that I access catalogues for the 1926-28 Societé Nationale des Beaux-Arts which has proven more challenging than one would hope but potentially these documents will confirm a number of details about Ruth, including her exact address in Paris.
There are only three paintings by Ruth Graves that I have been able to locate. There must be more but the Morrison Library, which housed thirty-two of her artworks, burnt to the ground in July 1964, two months after the artist’s death. Graves donated these paintings in the 1930s so possibly some were moved prior to the fire.
Two landscape oil paintings sold in 2012 for $250 each. Only one of them is signed. One suspects that Graves’ art may increase in value, if anyone can find her works. You can view the third artwork, held at Wichita State University, by reading Part One.
This blog post has been challenging to write but I wanted to publish it as quickly as possible for a number of reasons. Firstly, I wanted to to confirm that Ruth Graves was indeed Ruth Graves. It has helped order my thoughts and made Graves real as I discovered more of her life trajectory through print media reports from when she was in her mid-teens to her death in 1964. Finally, I return to work tomorrow and have limited time to write-up my research.
My hope is that another post, about Edith Morgan, will not be in the too distant future.
It may be a long shot but at one of the best chances for finding out more information about George Orwell’s time in Paris is via Edith Morgan or Ruth Graves’ correspondence or diaries.
The search continues…
I would like to acknowledge the research of Mike Maxton who has generously shared what he has found searching through microfilm at Wichita Public Library. Connie White phoned me from Kansas which helped greatly in understanding a number of issues contextually. Thank you both.
*It has been very sad to learn that one of Orwell’s best biographers, Professor Gordon Bowker, passed away on Monday 14th January. Vale.
Bowker, Gordon (2003) Inside George Orwell, New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Orwell, George (1997 ) Down and Out in London and Paris, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol.1, 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
Taylor, D. J. (2004) Orwell – The Life, London: Vintage
Wichita Beacon (1914) “Wichita Girls is an Artist” February 27
Wichita Daily Eagle (1899) “Fairmount Notes” February 19
Wichita Daily Eagle (1903) “Poetry and Football” July 12
Wichita Eagle (1916) “Paints Fairyland in Letter Home” December 25
Wichita Eagle (1926) “A Girl Who Went From Wichita to Paris and Won Success” Sunday Magazine, June 13