Portraits of Willa Cather by Lèon Bakst and Nicolai Fechin

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Lèon Bakst (1866-1924) and Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955), both born and educated in Russia, produced the two portraits of Willa Cather known to have been painted during her lifetime.

Bakst was already well-known as a scene and costume designer associated with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russe in Paris. He was also a portrait painter. When the Omaha Society of Fine Arts asked Cather to choose a painter for a portrait they wanted to hang in the Omaha Public Library to commemorate her 1923 Pulitzer Prize, she happened to be in Ville d’Avray for a long visit with Isabelle and Jan Hambourg. Ville d’Avray is close to Paris, and the Hambourgs suggested she ask Bakst to do the portrait.

Cather enjoyed Bakst during the approximately twenty sittings it took for him to finish the portrait in his Paris studio, but she was not feeling well at the time and found the process difficult. In fact, she took three weeks off near the end to go to Aix-les-Bains for a restorative break. She already thought the “likeness” of her face “unusual” when she left for Aix-les-Bains and worried that people in Nebraska would not like Bakst’s portrait when it was finished (August 27, [1923] letter to Duncan Vinsonhaler, Selected Letters of Willa Cather, University of Nebraska Press, 2013, p. 344.). And the truth is, neither Cather nor the good people of Nebraska were pleased by the finished product.

Portrait of Willa Cather by Lèon Bakst (1866-1924)

Courtesy Omaha Public Library, Omaha, Nebraska.

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Willa Cather with Edith Lewis: Grand Manan Photographs

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on February 18, 2014

For twenty years Willa Cather and Edith Lewis spent their summer months at Whale Cove Cottages on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada. They reached Grand Manan by ferry. Current ferries are considerably larger and better equipped than the one Cather and Lewis used. The Grand Manan V pictured below just passing Swallowtail Lighthouse is capable of carrying semi-trucks and busses as well as cars and passengers.

Grand Manan V passing herring weir and Swallowtail Lighthouse.

Grand Manan V passing herring weir and Swallowtail Lighthouse. Photo by Sue Hallgarth, 2013.

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Memories of the “Cather Cottage” on Grand Manan

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on November 4, 2013

When I first visited Grand Manan in the 1990s and found the restored Cather Cottage at Whale Cove, this is what it looked like from the edge of the Red Trail (one of the many hiking trails on the island). Situated a few hundred feet from the edge of a cliff, the cottage faced the Bay of Fundy whose fifty-foot tides quietly rose and fell at the base of the cliff.

Willa Cather and Edith Lewis cottage, Grand Manan

While there I taped several long conversations with Kathleen Buckley, who at that time owned and managed Whale Cove Cottages and took care of what has become called the Cather Cottage for Jim and Helen Southwick. Continue reading …

Grave Matters: Willa Cather and Edith Lewis

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on September 9, 2013

Grave marker of Willa Cather.

It is unclear why James Woodress twice chose to refer to Isabelle McClung as the “great love” of Cather’s life. But doing so set the stage for identifying Cather as a lesbian: a lesbian jilted by McClung, who by implication “returned” to the heterosexual fold through her 1916 marriage to the violinist Jan Hambourg. Ostensibly leaving Cather to mourn her “lost love” and settle for the devoted—and implicitly chaste—companionship of Edith Lewis.  Continue reading …

Romantic Notions: Willa Cather and Isabelle McClung Hambourg

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on July 18, 2013

McClung Family Home

Cather had romantic “crushes” on her female school friends, fell deeply in love with a striking Pittsburgh girl, Isabelle McClung, and, after Isabelle’s marriage, spent much of her life with a devoted companion (and Cather’s first biographer), Edith Lewis. There are very few love letters in the Selected Letters, since Cather destroyed all her letters to Isabelle and seems hardly ever to have written to Edith.
—Hermione Lee, “Willa Cather: A Hidden Voice,” The New York Review of Books, July 11, 2013

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In her July 11, 2013 review of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather,[1] Dame Hermione Lee reminds us of the full range of critical battles over Cather’s life and work during the twenty-four years since Lee published her own Willa Cather: Double Lives (NY: Pantheon, 1989). The battles she describes range from frequently homophobic “hagiographical reverence” to views of “a Cather who belongs to the international modern world.” Lee sides with the modern world. On the issue of Cather’s “crushes,” however, Lee demonstrates an unfortunate acceptance of outdated assumptions: that Isabelle McClung, the Pittsburgh patroness with whose family Cather lived for five years, was the “great love of her life,” and that Edith Lewis, with whom Cather shared the last forty years of her life and who worked closely with Cather in shaping and editing her fiction, was merely her “devoted companion.” Continue reading …

Telling Lives/Telling Lies: Willa Cather Biographers

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on May 31, 2013

An excerpt from an Interview with Andrew Jewell, co-editor of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (Knopf, 2013) by Rebecca Cross in “A New Peek at Willa Cather’s Private Life,” The Big Read Blog, May 21, 2013:

What do you think the anthology reveals about Cather, both as a writer and as a woman?

JEWELL: To my mind, it upends a lot of the stereotypes about her. Many people saw her as sort of reserved, sometimes isolated and grumpy, and as a writer that didn’t have much to do with the world. I think the reality that the letters reveal is just the opposite. She was very vibrant, she was very connected to a wide circle of friends and family. She was funny in ways that people find surprising. You can’t deny when you read the letters the life you feel there on the page. It’s a nice counterbalance to some of the portrayals that have been in her biographies. I think the reason for that [portrayal] in her biographies is partially—consciously or subconsciously—what emerged from the inaccessibility of her correspondence.

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Problematic Sources

The most reliable sources for information about Willa Cather have always been Cather’s surviving correspondence and the memoir Willa Cather Living by Edith Lewis, the woman who lived with Cather and shared her life for almost forty years. But until the recent publication of The Selected Letters, neither the letters nor Lewis’ memoir carried much weight in countering the stereotypes that have defined Willa Cather since her death in 1947 and all but buried her life partner, Edith Lewis. Continue reading …

The Harris House

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on May 9, 2013


Built in 1901-1903 for Sarah Fisk Bacon Harris (1821-1912), the Harris house was new when Willa Cather met Edith Lewis in Harris’ parlor. This house replaced Harris’ earlier Italianate house at the same location: 1630 K Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.

In the introduction to her memoir, Willa Cather Living (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953) Edith Lewis describes their meeting:

I first met Willa Cather in the summer of 1903. I had come home, having just graduated from an Eastern college [Smith], to Lincoln, Nebraska, where I was born and brought up. Willa Cather was spending that summer with her family in Red Cloud. On her way back to her teaching job in Pittsbugh, she stopped off for a few days in Lincoln to visit Sarah Harris, the editor of the Lincoln Courier, and it was at Miss Harris’ house that I first met her. Continue reading …

Willa Cather, Edith Lewis & “Feminine Friendships”

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on May 6, 2013

Now that Willa Cather’s selected letters are finally out, it comes as no surprise that reviewers are again raising questions about Cather’s sexual identity and her attitude toward “feminine friendships,” a term she used in an 1892 letter to Louise Pound. Tom Perrotta in his April 25, 2013 review of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather in The New York Times Book Review points to the 1893 letter in which Cather exuberantly describes her “one-handed” driving feat through the hay stacks with Louise Pound. Joan Acocella notes in her April 9, 2013 review in The New Yorker online, she first got interested in Cather after reading an article by Sharon O’Brien discussing Cather’s attitude toward “feminine friendships” and was later taken aback by the perfect storm of “queer theory” criticism that followed O’Brien’s 1987 biography of Cather. Continue reading …