Browsing Tag

New York University

People Things

Unearthing a piece of a puzzle

May 19, 2017

What would get me to make a special trip to Northampton, Massachusetts, when neither Cornelia nor Emily ever attended Smith College?   It turns out, in fact, that Smith does have a tie to them, or at least to the story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay:  it is at Smith College where Margaret Sanger’s papers are kept.  And those who have read Hearts will remember that when Cornelia, Emily and Cornelia’s parents went to H.G. Wells’ house at Easton Glebe, Ms. Sanger was also a guest there that day, as Cornelia recalls:

“There was another American present, Mrs. Sanger, better known as Mrs. Birth Control Sanger.  Mr. Wells said she was crusading for a noble cause and Emily and I, who hadn’t the remotest idea of what Birth Control even meant, said, Yes, indeed, wasn’t she?”

Along with Margaret Sanger, the girls met an additional guest, “a very distinguished gentleman with a shock of white hair.  Mr. Wells [introduced the man], ‘This is the greatest educationalist in all England’… And that was the nearest approach we got to an introduction to him.  We never did learn his name…”

One other tidbit of information which eluded the girls that day, and seemed to elude Cornelia and Emily even when they were writing their book twenty years later, was that Margaret Sanger and H.G. Wells were lovers at the time of the girls’ visit, and had been so for a couple of years.  From the first time they met in 1920 until his death in 1946, Sanger and Wells “carried on an infrequent, but often fervent [extramarital] love affair…” according to The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

One can’t blame Cornelia and Emily for not knowing this.  Heck, I had never heard it before I stumbled upon the NYU article.  And I must admit, once I found out about their relationship, I was eager to go snooping in Ms. Sanger’s papers and read some of the couple’s correspondence to each other.  What actually compelled me, though, to visit Smith College was not love letters between the couple, but a photograph of them with Otis Skinner, which appears on the Sanger collection website.

In Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Cornelia and Emily write about taking photographs during their visit that day, and that Emily was the only one with a camera.  What is the likelihood that Otis Skinner and Margaret Sanger ever visited Easton Glebe simultaneously beyond this one occasion?  Next to nil, one would assume.  Which leads me to believe that the photo in the Margaret Sanger collection was taken on the day of the girls’ visit.

But that is still not the main reason for my visit.  According to Cornelia, “Emily managed to get one successful exposure and while it is not a thing of particular beauty… some day someone may recognize the Great Educationalist and be able to enlighten us concerning his identity.”  Could it be that this photo of the Mystery Man still existed?

Knowing that Margaret Sanger had at least one photo from the day led me to hope that she might have received and kept others that were sent to her by Emily, or Maud Skinner (who was an early supporter of Ms. Sanger’s, by the way).  It seemed worth a shot to look through the photo archives.  So, I paid a visit to the Special Collections Department of the Neilson Library.

The Sanger collection is so well organized that it didn’t take long to narrow down the search.  While I didn’t get to put my hands on any love letters, within twenty minutes I was looking at the picture I had seen on the website of Sanger, Wells and Otis.  And then, a couple of envelopes beneath it, in that same folder, it was there:  the mythical photo of The Great Educationalist.  Or at least I have to believe that is what it is.  The photo appears to be of Cornelia and Emily sitting on the steps in the garden with Mr. Wells, his son and his son’s friends (they are mentioned briefly in the book), and a very distinguished gentleman with a shock of white hair.

It was a needle in a haystack.  And it was there.  Sometimes you get lucky.

So who is The Great Educationalist after all?  That’s a story and a conundrum for another day, which involves the H.G. Wells Society, conflicting dates and a sudden, dramatic demise.

Gift Shop Report:  As a way to make up for postponing on the Bryn Mawr bookstore, I hit two gift shops today.  The first was at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Home and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.  It’s a nice size, right inside the front entrance at the Visitors Center, and it is loaded with marvelous books, good looking shirts and some nice tchotchkes.

The bookstore at Smith College, located in the Campus Center, seems to have a really pleasing stuff-to-books ratio.  I was able to score a cool sticker for my luggage (which survived two airline flights in good order, aside from some black marks here and there, that I’m thinking a magic eraser might just fix).