"Please come down here soon. The house is full of pianists, painters, pederasts, prostitutes and peasants ... Great material."
--Mabel Dodge to Gertrude Stein, summer, 1913
America's first avant-garde (circa 1913-1917) contained the most outrageous group of con artists ever found outside a New Age convention. Yet it also included real artists, men and women who put Modernism on the map and in the books, created the astonishing Armory Show, reinvented photography, wrote breakthrough poems and fiction, and turned the century on its head. Psychologist and historian Steven Watson has crammed them all into this raucous carnival of a book.
Understandably, the main attractions take up the most space, but Watson also pays close attention to a vast sideshow of freaks, clowns and barkers such as Mabel Dodge. Salon-keeper to the stars, she cultivated every important artist within reach. Before devoting herself to loftier interests, however, "she pursued Italians--including a penniless homosexual descendant of the Medicis, and her chauffeur, whom she aestheticized into 'a knight, a page, a courtier.' But her affairs ended disastrously. Bindo Peruzzi de Medici committed suicide, and when she found herself unable to respond sexually to her chauffeur, she swallowed shards of glass and a bottle of laudanum."
Dodge lived, of course; the avant-gardists had a knack for survival. After operatic wails and forehead-smiting, they always managed to re-enter the egomania sweepstakes.
Floyd Dell was prototypal. The butcher's son from Davenport, Iowa, emigrated to Greenwich Village, where he bombinated against middle-class hypocrisy. In between speeches, he pushed the new art, nine-tenths of which, he privately confessed, "seems to me to have no aesthetic value at all"; wrote a play (when the actors forgot his lines they ad-libbed their own); boosted feminism while referring to women as girls, and wore silk underwear beneath his proletarian flannel shirts. Any spare time was devoted to his favorite avocations: novel-writing and adultery.
Arthur Crafan was a Swiss-born heavyweight who journeyed across the ocean for sex and self-dramatization. In the boxing ring, he would call out his resume: "Hotel thief, muleteer, nephew of Oscar Wilde, sailor, gold prospector, poet with the shortest hair in the world." Eventually he married Dodge's friend, a Symbolist painter called Mina Loy. But he was unable to support her and suggested a suicide pact. Loy replied: "How can we die when we haven't finished talking?"
Loy provided the emblem for an epoch. While they wielded brushes and pens, America's new artists and writers chattered, boasted, wrangled, whispered, wailed. If silence had been worth a dollar a second they would have starved to death, and in his entertaining fly-on-the-wall pose, Watson seems to have caught every conversation and monologue.
Here is Ezra Pound at dinner, declaiming a poem "with such force that the management promptly erected a folding screen around him to shield the restaurant's other customers."
Here is the cigar-chomping dreadnought Amy Lowell, "a one-woman Chautauqua circuit, stumping for modern poetry in Chicago and St. Louis, Springfield, Ill., and New York. . . . She invariably ended the reading of her first poem by looking up at the audience to offer a mock challenge: "Well? Clap or hiss, I don't care which; but for Christ's sake do something!"
Here is Sherwood Anderson, fresh from walking out on his family in Elyria, Ohio. In Chicago he read the manuscript of his first ovel, "Windy McPerson's Son," to anyone who would listen. The author "eventually became so loquacious that he would talk to chairs if he had no other audience."
Here is Alfred Stieglitz, smitten with Georgia O'Keeffe, ordering her to a sickbed, where he "hovered over her, supervising her convalescence and talking endlessly. 'Into one week,' he wrote his niece, 'we have compressed years.' "
Here is Marcel Duchamp, preparing to paint his provocative "Nude Descending a Staircase," proclaiming his awareness "of how far one's gray matter is from one's lips."
And here is the entire cast of early 20th-Century culture: T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Edward Steichen, John Sloan, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, Eugene O'Neill and their fellow geniuses, theorizing about art, yammering of education, expatiating about wardrobes, advocating political or aesthetic revolution. Many of their celebrated anecdotes and adventures have been pinned to the page before this, but seldom with such editorial wit and verve, and never within the confines of a single volume.