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 On the issue of Cather’s “crushes,” however, Lee demonstrates an unfortunate acceptance of outdated assumptions: that Isabelle McClung, the Pittsburgh patroness with whose family Cather lived for five years, was the “great love of her life,” and that Edith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.”

Twenty-five years ago, Lee was in flamboyant company. In 1970, James Woodress made an off-handed comment about McClung being Cather’s “great love” in Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (NY: Pegasus: 1970). By the late 1980s, critical reactions had settled anywhere on a continuum from silence about even the remotest hint of sensuality in Cather’s fiction or her life to applause from feminist and queer-theory critics whose controversial re-readings grew so noisy that Joan Acocella declared in a November 1995 New Yorker: “Perhaps it is time for Cather to become a non-topic again, for the professional critics to give up and leave her books to those who care about them—her readers.” Acocella disagreed with feminists and queer theorists, but unfortunately all of them agreed about Lewis: as Cather’s “literary wife,” Acocella said, Lewis could never “replace Isabelle in Cather’s heart” but “took care of all the practical details of their household…fended off the callers…helped correct the galleys…and after Cather died…wrote a good book about her.”[2]

This romantic canard about Isabelle McClung being Cather’s one great love is long overdue for updating, but Lee continues to assume its truth. And Lee is not alone. Better to agree with the editors of Selected Letters that McClung was Cather’s “longtime friend and one of the great loves of her life” (Selected Letters, 525). [My italics]

There is no question that soon after Cather met Isabelle in 1899, she was giddy with delight. Her first description of Isabelle to Dorothy Canfield, a college friend from Lincoln, Nebraska, gushes with the same kind of “spooniness” she confessed to Mariel Gere in an 1893 letter about the first of her “great loves,” Louise Pound (Selected Letters, 22).  In her 1899 letter, Cather says she is visiting at “chez the Goddess,” and Isabelle “is so good to me that she’s making me positively kiddish. She’ll have me playing with dolls next. We’ve been tramping over the hills and hearing the [Walter] Damrosch orchestra every day and having no end of a frivolous good time”  (Selected Letters, 52-53).

So, two early loves. Both revealed in letters to college friends Mariel Gere and Dorothy Canfield and described in the sort of teasing braggadocio she often used with them. Only with them. These are clearly letters to close friends, both in age and apparently in temperament. They would “get” Cather’s meaning. There is no such letter to Gere, Canfield, or anyone else about Edith Lewis. Perhaps it was lost. More likely it was never written.  When Cather met Lewis in 1903 they were both in Lincoln. Cather was visiting from Pittsburgh, where she lived with Isabelle. Lewis was still in Lincoln, her hometown, where she would have known Gere and Canfield as well as Cather did. The only description of their meeting appears in Lewis’ memoir, Willa Cather Living, written fifty years after the event. It is not “spoony,” but it is loving. (See my blog entry “The Harris House,” posted May 9, 2013), something Hermione Lee and others need to acknowledge.

Lee compounds her error by suggesting that Cather wrote regularly to McClung but “hardly ever” to Lewis. Only two pieces of correspondence between Cather and McClung apparently survive, and only two to Lewis have been found. In a 1908 postcard to Isabelle, sent from Venice after Isabelle sailed home before Cather during their second trip abroad, Cather asks Isabelle not to give away the images of Bacchus and Ariadne because she wants them for “ourselves.”  The postcard does not make clear who “ourselves” refers to, but Cather and Lewis were just then moving together into an apartment at 82 Washington Place in Greenwich Village, the first of five residences they would share during their forty years together. Most likely Cather meant for the images to hang there.

In the one letter to Lewis that survives, probably written in 1936, Cather wrote from their rooms at the top of the Shattuck Inn in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Cather was there to work, as she was each fall after they returned from Grand Manan Island and Lewis went back to her job in New York City. Addressed to “My Darling Edith,” it describes the movement of the planets in the nighttime sky, but the whole is lovely, intimate, and loving in tone (Selected Letters, 519). To expect more or more explicit letters is beside the point. For forty years their familial, social, artistic, professional, financial, and domestic lives were intimately entwined. They lived together.

Putting aside the issue of Cather’s partnership with Edith Lewis, it is well past time to take a closer look at Isabelle McClung and Willa Cather’s relationship with her. Facts first: Isabelle was born November 4, 1877, the eldest of three children. Her parents, Judge Samuel A. McClung and Fannie Merritt McClung were prominent members of Pittsburgh society. Judge McClung, who grew up in western Pennsylvania, is described in the Genealogical and Personal History of Western Pennsylvania (v. 1, 1913, p. 29) as “a man of the widest reading, a brilliant writer, an impressive and effective speaker and a powerful debater, [who] is withal intensely and tremendously in earnest.”  Elsewhere he was called a “dour conservative.” Fannie McClung, who grew up in Cherry Valley, New York, where the McClungs continued to keep a summer home, is described in the same volume as “one of those rare women who combined with perfect womanliness and domesticity an unerring judgment, traits of the greatest value to her husband, to whom she was not alone a charming companion, but a trusted confidante,” and their home was “a center of gracious hospitality.”

Judge McClung gained his reputation as jurist early in his twenty-year tenure. The year after his appointment in May 1891 to the Third Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, he presided over the trial of Alexander Berkman, the Russian-American Jewish anarchist who tried to assassinate the steel magnate Henry C. Frick during the Homestead Strike of 1892. Berkman defended himself during an unannounced trial and before a jury selected in secret. The trial lasted approximately four hours, after which Berkman was immediately convicted by the jury and served fourteen years of a twenty-two year sentence. Cather, who seems to have gotten on well with the Judge, actually sympathized with Berkman in an article she wrote about the trial for the Nebraska State Journal in 1897, two years before she met Judge McClung.

Isabelle’s brother, Samuel A. McClung, Jr. (Alfred) was born about 1881 and her sister, Edith, 1884. At Isabelle’s invitation, Cather moved into the family home at 1180 Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill (see picture above) in the spring of 1901. At that time Isabelle was twenty-three, Samuel twenty, and Edith seventeen. Cather was twenty-seven, older than Edith McClung by ten years and Isabelle by four. The house was large and comfortable with four bedrooms on the second floor, one at each corner. Isabelle’s bedroom was next to her parents’ and connected through a closet. In a 1901 letter to Dorothy Canfield, Cather describes Isabelle’s room as “a beautiful place to dwell in, with big windows that face on a wood and the sunset” (Selected Letters, 59). Isabelle’s brother and sister occupied bedrooms on the opposite side of the house. In between are staircases, one large and stately going down, the other small but serviceable going up to a third floor. On the third floor are three smaller rooms, one of which, the sewing room, is known to have been Cather’s study.

It is unclear exactly where Cather stayed in McClung home. Some have guessed that she shared Isabelle’s second-floor bedroom and used the third-floor sewing room as her study. Others that Isabelle and Willa shared the three rooms on the third floor. A few that Isabelle used her own bedroom while Willa used the rooms on the third floor as a separate apartment. What is clear is that Cather lived in the McClung family home from 1901 until she moved to New York City in 1906 to take a job with McClure’s Magazine.

Cather originally came to Pittsburgh in 1896 to edit the Home Monthly Magazine before shifting to newspaper work on the Pittsburgh Leader. When she met Isabelle in 1899, Cather was a struggling journalist desperate to make ends meet and find time to do her own writing. Isabelle was a patroness of the arts, especially music, which they both loved. The Judge had already helped Cather find a job teaching high school—leaving her summers free to write and to travel—and moving into the McClung home solved both Cather’s financial and writing-place problems. As Cather said in a 1938 letter to her niece, Margaret Cather, written shortly after Isabelle’s death: “Thirty eight years ago Isabelle McClung…took me into her father’s well-ordered house in Pittsburgh. I was a poor schoolteacher, at sixty dollars a month, living in a boarding house. I was a raw, densely ignorant, but very happy girl from the west—found everything jolly. I knew something about books. Isabelle knew very little about books, but everything about gracious and graceful living. We brought each other up. We kept on doing that all our lives” (Selected Letters, 562). During the five years Cather lived with the McClung family, she managed to have two summer vacations with her family in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and a European tour with Isabelle. Not inconsequently, she also gained new levels of sophistication and social polish. And she produced a volume of poetry, April Twilights, and a small book of short stories, The Troll Garden.

Cather also made several new and lasting friendships: George and Helen Sibel, with whom she read French literature; May Willard, a librarian at the Carnegie Library who lived near Murray Avenue; Lucy Hine and Edith Acheson, who later allowed Cather to pitch a “writing tent” near their summer home in Jaffrey, New Hampshire; and Ethel Litchfield, a well-known pianist and the person Edith Lewis first contacted to come and help her the day Willa Cather died. After Cather left Pittsburgh, Isabelle, too, remained a devoted friend: visiting Cather and Lewis often in New York City and, before her marriage to Jan Hambourg, inviting Cather to use her old room in the Pittsburgh home as a place to write whenever she could get away from New York. In the autumn of 1910, Isabelle offered Cather still another quiet place to write, a house in Cherry Valley, New York, where the McClung family spent their summers. Isabelle lived with her that fall to run the household. Edith Lewis travelled back and forth from New York to Cherry Valley, as her job at McClure’s permitted.

By the time McClung and Cather were in Cherry Valley, however, the security and comfort of the McClung’s Pittsburgh home had been shaken. In 1908—the year Isabelle’s brother Alfred became a member of the bar, Isabelle and Cather made second trip abroad, and Cather moved with Edith Lewis into the apartment at 82 Washington Place in Greenwich Village—Judge McClung was diagnosed with severe neurasthenia and resigned his judgeship. Neurasthenia, a term used to denote a condition that includes such symptoms as fatigue, anxiety, headaches, neuralgia, and depression, was thought to afflict people who were overwhelmed and emotionally paralyzed by the gap between their expectations and reality.

One was “cured” when he or she could accept reality, recognize what was possible, and then take small steps in that direction. In other words, when the person gained perspective and a kind of stoic acceptance. Called a “rest cure,” hundreds of people, including Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Marcel Proust, and William James, went through it. That Willa Cather was familiar with both the symptoms and the cure Judge McClung experienced is clear from her fictional treatment of the professor in The Professor’s House (1927), where the house resembles the McClung home and the professor’s study the one Cather used.

The year 1912 brought additional changes to Cather’s life and to the McClung household. Cather resigned her editorial post at McClure’s Magazine, published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, and again moved with Edith Lewis, this time into 5 Bank Street in Greenwich Village, which they would call home for the next fifteen years. On March 12 of that year, Isabelle’s mother suffered a stroke. She died May 5. The next three years brought still more changes. In 1914, Isabelle’s sister Edith, who trained as a nurse, married John L. Sawyer, a newspaper editor in Cherry Valley, New York. And on November 12, 1915, Judge McClung died.

Isabelle, thirty-eight years old, unmarried and without a profession, had some serious decisions to make. On April 3, 1916, she married Jan Hambourg, a Jewish Russian-Canadian violinist, and the McClung family home was sold. Cather found Jan “not very congenial,” as she wrote Dorothy Canfield on March 15, 1916, a month before the wedding: “He’s a strong personality—one likes him or one doesn’t.”  But she added, “I am glad, for [Isabelle] is very happy.” Still she expected to see them only seldom in New York and found the sale of her “old home” and “the final closing of that Pittsburgh chapter…very hard” (Selected Letters, 219).

In 1910 Jan had emigrated with his family, all musicians, from London to Toronto where his father established the Hambourg Conservatory of Music. At the time of their marriage in 1916, Isabelle was 38, Jan 33. Jan’s father had also died and his brother Boris had taken over as head of the Conservatory. Jan and Isabelle began married life in New York City, soon moved to Toronto, then Paris, and finally to Ville D’Avray, near Versailles. Cather visited them in each of those places and if she still described Jan to her brother Roscoe in a July 8 [1916] letter as a “very brilliant and perfectly poisonous Jew” (Selected Letters, 226), two years later in a March 13, 1918 letter, she could write a friend in Nebraska that she had “really learned to like him” (Selected Letters, 254). When Isabelle died in 1938, Cather referred to Jan as “Isabelle’s poor devoted and now desolate husband” in a November 6, 1938 letter to her brother Roscoe (Selected Letters, 561).

The person who continued to dislike Jan was Edith Lewis. In a February 21 [1923] letter to close friends Earl and Achsah Brewster (Achsah was Edith’s roommate at Smith), Cather explains, “Edith does not like the Hambourgs at all—never has. They irritate her, rub her the wrong way; Isabelle even more than Jan….It’s nothing Edith can help; their personalities simply hurt her. She feels that their attitude toward her is rather patronizing” (Selected Letters, 337). Cather thought Edith was probably overreacting and, in any case, what Edith thought would not affect her friendship with Isabelle. In the meantime, since Edith was not joining Cather during her current visit with the Hambourgs, she asks the Brewsters to keep Edith company through frequent letters. She knew Edith preferred to stay home or, as she had in 1914 when Cather was with the Hambourgs in France, to stay with the Brewsters in Italy. Ever since they roomed together at Smith, Edith had been close to Achsah, and after Achsah and Earl married, close to both of them and their daughter, Harwood. Cather never managed to persuade Edith to feel comfortable with Isabelle, but by then Cather was perfectly comfortable with Isabelle and Jan together. Yet in any tradeoff between the Hambourgs and Edith, Edith was the one Cather chose to be with. When for several years Cather and Lewis had no permanent address other than the Grosvenor Hotel in New York and Isabelle invited her to move in with them in Ville D’Avray, for example, Cather chose instead to return home to New York and Edith Lewis. She always did.

That does not mean she did not love Isabelle. Only that she was clear-eyed about her choices and the differences between Isabelle and Edith. In the midst of her grief over Isabelle’s death in 1938, Cather wrote that Isabelle cared more about her work “than any living person” (Selected Letters, 561). Some have taken that to mean that Cather wrote all of her books for Isabelle. In a letter to her young niece, Margaret Cather, probably written November 9, 1938—the year Margaret married Richard Shannon and Cather’s brother Douglass preceded Isabelle in death—Cather is more specific about what she meant. Trying to explain why she is still at the Shattuck Inn in Jaffrey rather than greeting the newlyweds, she says that being alone is “the only way I can pull out of things.” Douglass was one blow, Isabelle another: “there are some people who have been a part of one’s inner and outer life for so long that one does not know how to go forward without them. For most of my life in Pittsburgh (five years) Isabelle and, I think, your father [Roscoe Cather], were the only two people who thought there was any good reason for my trying to write—was it merely an excuse for not getting married? Isabelle has always been my best and soundest critic,—in some ways better than Edith, who knows much more about the technique of writing” (Selected Letters, 562).

Here Cather has listed the three people she considered her most important readers throughout her career: Isabelle McClung, whose taste and judgment she trusted; Roscoe Cather, the only member of her family Cather thought took a real interest in her work; and Edith Lewis, whose skill and editorial experience Cather could rely on to help shape her fiction and develop her career during their forty years together. Cather always felt especially close to Isabelle. They had “grown up together,” and as she says in the same letter to her niece, “in mind we were never separated…. As long as she lived, her youth and mine were realities to both of us” (Selected Letters, 562). Isabelle McClung, an inextricable part of Cather’s youth, was clearly one of the great loves of her life.

But Cather chose to share the major portion of her life with Edith Lewis. Theirs was a mutually enriching, four-decade partnership between women of similar backgrounds, interests, and tastes who were well matched in sophistication, culture, and professional accomplishment. They were each other’s “other half.” And their committed relationship should be recognized and celebrated. Nothing less.

[1] Back to Post. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, eds., The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (NY: Knopf, 2013). Quotes from Selected Letters in this blog will be in parentheses following the quotes.
[2] Back to Post. Joan Acocella, “Cather and the Academy,” The New Yorker (November 27, 1995), 71, 6.

4 thoughts on “Romantic Notions: Willa Cather and Isabelle McClung Hambourg

  1. Who’s on first? It takes some chutzpah to create a scorecard of Willa’s private life. And what does ranking her lovers do to further our appreciation of Cather’s work? The proclamations about her private life sound more like the stuff of movie magazines than enlightening scholarship.

    It seems like Sue is the only scholar to base her conclusions about the Cather/Lewis relationship on data–the four-decades during which they shared a life. She didn’t need to create a romance ranking nor did she presume to know the details of Cather’s romantic history with her dearest friends. That Cather counted Isabelle McClung as one of her most important readers–that fact has relevance to an understanding of Cather’s work. It would be fascinating but probably impossible to know what kind of communication Edith and Isabelle had about drafts of Cather’s work.

  2. Good, interesting essay–thank you.

    Please note a mistake in the following sentence:

    When Isabelle died in 1938, Cather referred to Jan as “Isabelle’s poor devoted and now desolate husband” in a November 6, 1937 letter to her brother Roscoe (Selected Letters, 561).

    The year 1937 should be 1938.

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