Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in Americaby Eugene R. Gaddis
The story of Chick Austin is the story, in Virgil Thomson's words, of "a whole cultural movement in one man." Becoming director of Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum at the age of twenty-six, Austin immediately set about to introduce modern art to America and to transform this conservative insurance capital into a cultural mecca that would become the talk of the art world… See more details below
The story of Chick Austin is the story, in Virgil Thomson's words, of "a whole cultural movement in one man." Becoming director of Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum at the age of twenty-six, Austin immediately set about to introduce modern art to America and to transform this conservative insurance capital into a cultural mecca that would become the talk of the art world during the yeasty years between the two world wars.
The first in the United States to mount a major Picasso retrospective, Austin was soon acquiring works by Dalí, Mondrian, Miró, Balthus, Max Ernst, and Alexander Calder. In the museum's new theater (which he designed), he staged the premiere of the revolutionary Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson opera Four Saints in Three Acts (with an all-black cast). At Lincoln Kirstein's instigation, he brought Balanchine to America. And he embraced all the new art forms, making film, photography, architecture, and contemporary music part of the life of his museum. For his own family he built a Palladian villa (now a recently restored national historic landmark), filling it with the baroque and the Bauhaus and inviting all the locals in to see how it felt to be modern.
Austin's instinct for quality proved infallible. Whether acquiring a matchless Caravaggio or a startling Dalí, he balanced the old masters with the modern. Mounting provocative shows that linked the past to the present, he created dramatic installations--and he threw himself into everything, hanging fabrics, creating backdrops, stitching up costumes. He loved to teach, to paint, to act, to give lavish costume balls, and to dazzle audiences of all ages with his performances as a magician, the Great Osram.
Brilliant at using his magician's sleight of hand, he could manipulate his conservative trustees to get what he wanted--but only up to a point. One more purchase of an incomprehensible abstract canvas, one outrageous party too many, one more shocking theatrical role, eventually led to a crisis. Never one to be idle for long, Austin left Hartford and took on a new challenge--to make an artistic triumph of the pink-and-white palace in Sarasota, Florida, known as the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which housed the circus king's moldering but magnificent collection.
Here is the colorful life of Chick Austin, and as we relish his audacious career--the risks he took, the successes he enjoyed along with the inevitable setbacks--we understand what a far-reaching influence he had on the way Americans look at and think about art. Not only a brilliant portrait of an extraordinary man, this wonderfully American story gives us a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the art world as it was then--and in many ways still is today.
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Read an Excerpt
When Chick Austin first saw the palace of Gustav III, near Stockholm, he was so enchanted that he said he must have been conceived in Sweden. It was not surprising that Drottningholm, the baroque residence of the eighteenth century's most captivating king--who fostered the arts at his court, performed on his own stage, and was murdered at a masked ball--made him feel at home. Chick was in his element in any palace fitted out with gilded rococo rooms, formal gardens, fountains, pools, and the private theaters of princes. He reveled in the settings, props, and costumes of Europe's most ornamental era.
Yet he embraced the twentieth century as it unfolded. Fast cars and cocktails, cigarettes, the Ballets Russes, Picasso, Stravinsky, Erik Satie, movies, mobiles, and modern dance, Bauhaus buildings, machines for living, Balanchine, Dalí, and Gertrude Stein--if it was new, if it had quality and style, it was for Chick, first to experience and enjoy, then to share with the widest possible audience.
His arrival, coinciding almost exactly with that of the new century, occurred on December 18, 1900, in Brookline, Massachusetts. Coming into the world seven days before Christmas had a definite effect. As a child, he thought that evergreens and tinsel were hung up to celebrate his birth--a belief he never entirely outgrew.
He was christened Arthur Everett Austin, Jr. To his family he was known as Everett, but throughout his life, his mother, Laura Etnier Austin, addressed him, more often than not, as "Boy Dear." He was her only child, the center of her universe. Just before he was born, she made a will, leaving the bulk of her large estate to him and his descendants, naming her brother as guardian and her late uncle's business partner as sole executor, though the other contributor to his conception, Dr. Arthur Everett Austin--surgeon, professor of medicine, and expert on poisons--was in good health and living with her at the same address.
Laura Austin was an independent and inventive woman. As she charted Everett's future, she magnified their mutual past. Obsessively, and for decades, she delved into her ancestry, discovering in triumph that her mother's forebears, the Morrisons, could be traced to Scottish chieftains and Norse kings, and that the Etniers, on her father's side, were descended from at least one errant pope and several royal lines of France. But one of Laura's brothers, constructing a rival version of the family tree, reached a different conclusion based on overwhelming evidence: the Morrisons were solid Scottish immigrants, and the Etniers came from honest German peasant stock.
Johannes Eideneier, patriarch of the family in America, arrived in Philadelphia from one of the Protestant German states in 1751, and by 1785 a branch of the family, spelling the name "Etnier," had moved north to the fertile wilderness of Pennsylvania and put down roots in Germany Valley, along the Juniata River. Laura's father, David Etnier, was born on his family's farm outside Mount Union, Pennsylvania, in 1835. After working as a schoolteacher and bookkeeper, he helped establish a company in Mount Union that shipped grain down the Pennsylvania Canal to Baltimore and Philadelphia, and in the early 1870s, he bought a sawmill and a flour mill. He was tall, handsome, and commanding, his dark hair swept back above a reverse widow's peak, his eyes penetrating under graceful brows. Long after his death, beside his photograph in a family album, Laura mounted a picture of her son. The resemblance between the two, even to the hairline, was uncanny, as though Everett had descended exclusively from his mother's line.
In 1862 David Etnier married Hannah Jane (Jennie) Morrison, the daughter of John Morrison, a prominent Pennsylvania state legislator. Like the Etniers, the Morrisons were among the original settlers of Mount Union, having come from Virginia in the eighteenth century. They were well-to-do landowners, and Jennie's father bought the couple a new brick house in Mount Union. There Laura Ann, the second of their seven children, was born on March 14, 1864. Her only sister, Virginia Catharine (Virgie), ten years younger, was the last.
Although stern and self-righteous Methodism defined the Etnier men, they were not immune to the lure of gain. In 1849 Laura's grandfather, Oliver Etnier, left his wife and seven children to look for gold in California, but he returned empty-handed. Twenty-eight years later, when gold was found in California again, David Etnier left his own wife and seven children to go off on a similarly unprofitable quest. Laura may have inherited her powerful wanderlust from them.
In 1878, when Jennie Etnier died unexpectedly, still in her forties, the Morrisons swooped down on the children, persuading their father that life for the young Etniers would be better with them. Laura, then fourteen, and the four younger children were taken in by Jennie's unmarried sister, Mary Morrison, who owned a large house in Mount Union. Their rich bachelor uncle, John Morrison, founder of the Roaring Spring Paper Mill, became their legal guardian. Laura and Virgie eventually went to live with Uncle John in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and they adored him. Unlike David Etnier, he was jovial and tolerant of everything but what he called "professional Christians." He encouraged the girls to broaden their view of the world, sending them off on holidays at the New Jersey shore. Having paid for Laura's education at Dickinson Seminary in Williamsport, he sent Virgie to Wellesley Academy in Philadelphia. When he died at fifty-two in 1890, he left his two sisters and his twelve nieces and nephews the considerable sum of $10,000 each. Shrewdly invested for them by his lawyer, these legacies rapidly grew.
Laura and Virgie, now financially independent, remained in Tyrone. Their brothers had moved on to careers that would scatter most of them far from Pennsylvania. As Virgie was only sixteen, Uncle John had appointed a close business associate, rather than David Etnier, to succeed him as her guardian. The girls had little to do with their father, who still lived in their childhood home. They did not make the twenty-five-mile trip from Tyrone to Mount Union to see him at Christmas in 1891, nor did they come to nurse him when he contracted pneumonia and died early the next year.
Laura, at twenty-eight, was almost on the verge of spinsterhood, but she had grown into a gregarious, determined woman with a sense of humor. Her soft, girlish face and luxuriant dark red hair made her look younger than her age. A carte de visite taken at the time shows her perched on the arm of a wicker bench in the studio of a fancy Philadelphia photographer. In her frothy white summer frock, she seems the picture of innocence, but her keen gaze and the hint of a wry smile suggest a certain calculation. She began to call herself an "heiress" and had little use for her old Mount Union friends. She had had enough of small-town life.
She and Virgie traveled, first in the United States and then, beginning in August 1895, to Europe. Their year-long trip took them throughout the Continent and to North Africa. Box camera in hand, Laura recorded palaces, parks, gardens, cathedrals, and cemeteries from Amsterdam to Potsdam, Munich to Milan. Her well-composed snapshots documented picturesque "types"--street urchins, well-starched nannies, and any members of European royalty who happened to come within range. She aimed her lens at Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin and at Princess Victoria Louise in Postdam. In Corfu, she snapped the huge steam yacht of the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph II.
The Etnier sisters spent the winter of 1895-96 in Berlin, making excursions to Dresden, Nuremberg, and Munich. Among the Americans living in the German capital was Arthur Everett Austin, a thirty-four-year-old physician, a widower, on leave from the faculty of Tufts Medical School in Boston and now teaching at the University of Berlin. A man of solid build, reserved and unassuming, he had a handsome square face and a dark mustache that drooped at the corners very much like Uncle John's.
Laura, Virgie, and Arthur Austin struck up a friendship and traveled together that spring to Athens to attend the first Olympic Games since ancient times. On April 6, 1896, they were among the fifty thousand spectators who watched King George I of Greece open the games. When the unofficial American team won nine out of the twelve track-and-field events, Laura managed to round up three of the gold-medal winners for another snapshot. After the games, she and Virgie continued on their tour, arriving back in Tyrone by the end of August. Arthur returned to his medical work in Berlin and obtained permission from Tufts to extend his leave for a year. Laura kept in touch. As a doctor and a professor of medicine in Boston, Arthur was decidedly a cut above her Pennsylvania relatives and looked promising as the father of a child.
Like Laura, Arthur had risen from a modest rural background. The Austins had come to America from England, migrating from New Hampshire to Belgrade, Maine, by the end of the eighteenth century. Arthur's father, David Farnum Austin, moved to Bos-ton in 1840 at twenty-one, and married Mary Josephine Weaver in 1859. Arthur Everett, the first of their
six children, was born on April 11, 1861. Eight years later, David Austin moved his family from Bos-ton to Readfield, Maine, near his childhood home, where he became one of the region's most prosperous farmers, living to a vigorous ninety-three.
Arthur attended high school in Augusta and in 1883 graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where he was an exceptional student and a track-and-field champion. After a year as principal of Somerset Academy in Athens, Maine, he entered Harvard Medical School, earned his M.D. in 1887, took an advanced degree at the University of Berlin, and then had further training in Heidelberg and Vienna. In 1891, soon after returning to Boston, he married Louise Bunker of New Bedford. But less than two years later, Louise died of kidney disease, and Arthur buried himself in his teaching and research. He joined the original faculty of the new Tufts Medical School in 1893, published a spate of articles on subjects ranging from renal failure to intestinal obstruction and anencephalic monsters, and spent his few free hours at athletic and political clubs.
Arthur Austin was plainspoken, self-assured, and as independent as Laura. In 1896, when Harvard reminded him that he had never received a diploma because he had not paid the graduation fee, he testily replied that he had a certificate from the university verifying his completion of the requirements for the degree and that "if Harvard declines to honor one of its certificates, it is a matter of utter indifference to me."
As he moved into his late thirties, he found the thought of marrying again appealing. Laura, at thirty-five, had lost her slim figure and the freshness of youth, but she still had her beautiful red hair, her pleasing features, and her en-thusiasm. And Laura knew what she wanted. She and Arthur were married on June 6, 1899, at the Holland House hotel in New York City. Her brother Oliver gave her away, and Virgie, then twenty-five, came along to live with the Austins in a house at 93 Perry Street in Brookline on the edge of Boston.
Within a year, Laura was pregnant. In the fall of 1900, determined to anchor her assets to her unborn child, she returned to Mount Union and asked Uncle John's attorney, who managed her investments, to draw up her will. Following the precedent established at her own mother's death, Laura directed that her brother Oliver, not her husband, be guardian of her children should she die. Her grandchildren were to receive the principal on her children's death, but if there were no grandchildren, half the assets would go to Virgie, the other half in equal shares to Laura's brothers. She named an old business partner of Uncle John's as executor of the will. As these arrangements were contrary to the statutes governing inheritance in Massachusetts, Arthur Austin had to agree to waive all his rights. He had his own income, lived simply, and had no need of Laura's money. But his deference to her in relinquishing guardianship of his child if Laura should die foretold the pattern of their family life.
On December 18, in the house on Perry Street, Laura gave birth to a healthy baby boy weighing nine and a half pounds. She noted that among the gifts Everett received were "silver spoons, sweaters and sacque from Papa's grateful patients." So began Laura's compulsively thorough record of her boy. Her light blue clothbound album, with "Baby Days" spelled out in gold letters on the cover, eventually bulged with mementos of Everett's progress through life--tiny envelopes with baby teeth and locks of light chestnut hair; records of his playmates, pets, houses, and schools; passenger lists from ocean liners, documenting his crossings; his acceptance to college; and newspaper clippings of his appointment as director of the Wadsworth Atheneum. There were photographs of him in costumes, from American Indian buckskins and feathered headdresses to German lederhosen and Scottish kilts. Framed copies of these pictures covered Laura's walls.
Early in June 1901, Laura took her six-month-old son to York, Pennsylvania, to visit her brother Carey and his new bride, Susan Smith, an old friend of Virgie's. On June 24 Everett was baptized in the Mount Union Methodist Episcopal Church, and then whisked off to Atlantic City, Laura's favorite summer resort. After being photographed in seaside attire against a studio backdrop, "Baby" was weighed on a boardwalk machine, the paper slip annotated and preserved. In mid-October Laura noted that Baby had eight teeth and liked to entertain his parents. He would blow a horn, vanish under a table, and magically reappear from the other side.
That same year, before Everett had reached his first birthday, Laura and Arthur, like other comfortable New Englanders at the turn of the century, decided to build a summer cottage on the coast of Maine. They chose three and a half acres on a point of land along Ash Cove on Harpswell, a peninsula in Casco Bay. Their lot was a dozen miles down the road from Bowdoin College, Arthur's alma mater. In September, Laura bought the land with her own money and in her own name. She liked to intimate that she was the architect as well, and later, her son, who enjoyed dramatizing his mother's exploits, told friends that at the end of their summer holiday, she had sketched the design on a paper bag, handed it to a local contractor, and said, "That's what I want when I come back."
In reality, the cottage was designed by a Boston architectural firm. It was a substantial two-story Dutch colonial house built of cedar and spruce, with five bedrooms upstairs and a generous veranda on the front, facing south down the bay to the open sea. Because it stood on the edge of a forest of birches, maples, beeches, and pines, Laura named it Wildwood. The Austins and their maid would take a steamer from Boston to Portland, where they would transfer to a steamboat in the Casco Bay Line and be met at the Harpswell dock by their caretaker in a motorboat. Pastimes were simple. Occasionally, Laura would host a quilting party, and there were amateur theatricals at the local recreation hall. Laura's brother Carey and his wife, Susan, were soon drawn to Harpswell and built their own summer cottage on the other side of Ash Cove. Their son Stephen, who became a well-known painter in the region, was one of Everett's closest boyhood playmates.
In 1903 the Austins moved from Brookline to a larger house at 163 Suffolk Road in nearby Chestnut Hill. Not long after they had settled in, however, Arthur took another leave from Tufts to teach in Vienna for a semester, if not at Laura's urging, then certainly with her approval. On February 27, 1904, he, Laura, Virgie, Everett, and a nursemaid sailed from Boston on the Romanic.
This was three-year-old Everett's introduction to Europe. Laura had him photographed in Vienna, squealing with delight in a sailor suit, an outfit to which she was so attached that she put him in identical versions of it for the next six years. While Arthur worked in the Austrian capital, Laura and Virgie toured the Continent from Budapest to Venice, much as they had eight years earlier, but this time with their darling boy. Everett contracted chicken pox in Vienna in March and scarlet fever in Dresden in May, which sent him to a hospital for weeks. Laura thereupon decided that he had a delicate constitution and, throughout his early life, continually urged him to rest, insisting that exercise would damage his health. The Austins returned home to Chestnut Hill in the fall of 1904.
The following summer Arthur launched a new sloop, built on Harpswell, which he named The Flying Dutchman. It was a wedding present for Virgie, who married a young man from Tennessee named Hazen House at the family cottage in September 1905. To Everett, at the age of four, the departure of Aunt Virgin, as he called her, was a great loss. She felt the separation, too, as it became clear that her life would be centered in Knoxville. The next year, on the Fourth of July, she wrote to her little nephew, giving him The Flying Dutchman: "now since you are the Captain, you must always act like one--you must always behave well--not cry not fuss and always be brave."
With Aunt Virgin gone, Laura became the center of Everett's affections. His earliest surviving letter, written in 1906, was to her, then on one of her jaunts to Atlantic City:
i am a good boy. i love you so much. i will not eat any candy so bring me something nice with love and kiss e. everett
The bonds between mother and son grew stronger, and as Laura molded her boy into an extension of herself, Arthur receded further into the background, directing his energies toward his profession. He seemed more like a slightly bemused acquaintance than her mate. This was hardly surprising in light of the fact that from the time Everett was born until he was eleven years old, he, not Arthur, shared Laura's bed at night. It was a habit that did not die easily, and even after Everett was married, if he happened to be visiting, he climbed into bed with his mother on Sunday morning and discussed the week's events.
Early in 1907, Arthur accepted a position as a visiting professor of physiological chemistry at the University of Virginia, and the family moved to Charlottesville for a semester. Although the Austins returned to Chestnut Hill in the fall, the dislocations continued a year later when Arthur formally resigned from Tufts Medical School to become a professor of chemistry and toxicology at the University of Texas in Galveston.
For a man who found the scholarly atmosphere of German universities congenial, the University of Texas was not wholly satisfying. In the summer of 1909, having taught for two semesters, Arthur packed up his family and headed for Europe again, this time to Dresden.
On the way, the Austins stopped in Ireland, where they were photographed riding horseback through the Gap of Dunloe in County Kerry--Laura riding sidesaddle, swathed in a voluminous dark dress and wearing a huge hat secured under her chin; eight-year-old Everett in a well-tailored dark coat and Scottish cap; and Arthur, a pipe clenched in his teeth. It was the only image of the three of them together that Laura kept.
They crossed from Ireland to Scotland so that Laura could see the homeland of her Morrison ancestors and delve into local histories. She wrote that she did not find the Scottish landscape "more beautiful than along the 'Blue Juniata' " of her childhood, but was delighted to discover that the Morrisons could trace their ancestry back to "Makurich, the son of a Norwegian King." In Aberdeen, she bought Everett a custom-tailored Scottish costume, complete with kilt, sash, stockings, and cap in the Morrison plaid.
When the family arrived in Dresden, Everett was enrolled in a local school and quickly learned to speak and write German. Many years later, he told a reporter that it was in Dresden--known for more than a century as "Florence on the Elbe"--that he first began to paint. Perhaps inspired by a production at the Dresden Opera House, he also made miniature sets in a toy theater for Wagner's Flying Dutchman and presented his own rendition of the opera to his school friends.
In April 1910, the Austins left Dresden for Paris, where Everett attended a French school on the rue de la Grande Armée and began to learn his third language. One of the highlights of his stay was witnessing a famous circus act, Bostock's Jungle, at the Jardin Zoologique. On the back of a postcard of lions and tigers in performance, he inscribed, as though documenting an important historic occasion, "Everett Austin has seen this in Paris, 28 April 1910." By this time, the nine-year-old boy, having developed a taste for performing himself, had begun to dabble in illusion and sleight of hand. Calling himself Professor Marvel, he presented a magic show to his French schoolmates.
On May 24, 1910, after nearly a year in Europe, Everett and his parents sailed on the Cunard Royal Mail Steamship Ivernia from Liverpool to Boston. They moved directly into a tall brick town house at 110 Marlborough Street, a fashionable address in Boston's Back Bay, where Arthur opened a private practice. This would be the Austins' official residence for the next twenty-eight years. The imposing four-story house was built in 1868. A wide staircase ran up a central hall to the top story, with railings around each floor. The kitchen was located beneath the ground floor, which contained the dining room and Dr. Austin's waiting room and office. It was a dark house, with heavy draperies and Victorian furniture, almost too spacious for a family of three. Laura joined Trinity Episcopal Church in nearby Copley Square, an ediface of Byzantine grandeur designed by H. H. Richardson. According to her address and place of worship, at least, Laura had joined the Boston elite.
In September 1910, Everett entered Noble and Greenough School in the class of 1917. Nobles was one of Boston's finest day schools, located in a mansion on Beacon Street within walking distance of the Austins' house. Its faculty was rigorous and progressive, and a high number of its graduates went on to Harvard College.
Everett had grown to be a handsome and beguiling child, and Laura put him in the most elegant clothes. Classmates, even at that age, thought of him as glamorous, and teachers singled him out as special. He and his friends came up with nicknames for one another early in their school careers. Whether it was because he was slightly smaller than his classmates, or more spritelike, the name bestowed on Everett was "Chick." Laura, however, made certain that his formal name was drummed into his head. Once a year, beginning when he was seven, she had him inscribe "A. Everett Austin, Jr." on the same page of the baby book. For most of his life, he would automatically introduce himself as his mother had taught him, including the "A." and the "Jr.," and then say, "But call me Chick--all my friends do."
He was eleven when he embarked on his third trip to Europe, on June 11, 1912, on the Cunard steamship Franconia. He spent most of the summer in Switzerland, where he was enrolled in the Institut de Jeunes Gens at Ouchy, near Lausanne, while Laura toured the Continent and Arthur studied medicine. Chick practiced his French and took up painting pictures again.
On August 30, 1912, Virginia Etnier House, not quite thirty-eight, died in Knoxville, and Laura set out alone for Tennessee from Boulogne-sur-Mer on September 21. After returning to Boston with his father, Chick wrote to Laura frequently while she was away:
I had such a good time at school and have just got home from Dexters we have two new teachers. The Latin is quite hard. We are going to the Electric Show to night "Little Boy Blue" the opera is coming I wish you would let me go. I hope you slept well last night. I drank my milk for you this morning give my love to Uncle Carey won't you? Vickery (who is in long pants) told me that Pfaelzer had already gone to Groton so I wrote there. May I ask Leland or Vickery to dinner. With Love and kisses Everett.
As a postscript he added, "We are going to have a telephone on the third floor which room shall we put it?" The next day he wrote again, reporting that "the Electric Show was pretty good I have been playing football out at Dexters all afternoon would you let me go to the swimming tank with Greenwood?"
She issued orders from afar even though Arthur was on the spot. When she forbade Everett to go on a boat ride, he wrote to her in Knoxville on October 10, meekly asking her to explain: "please tell me why you dont want me to go in the motor boat? there is no danger but I wont go if you dont want me to[.] come home soon I am lonely."
Much as he missed his mother, her absence gave him an opportunity to entertain his friends. The eleven-year-old Chick Austin organized a party without first clearing it with her. "I am afraid I have done something bad," he confessed disarmingly. "I have invited four boys to dinner on Holloween but I dont think you will mind once in the year I am so lonely here without you so come home soon. Yours Everett" [in the margin: "Red Sox 3 Giants 2 HURAH"].
Presumably, she let the invitation stand. Chick learned early that when
he wanted to carry out some novel, and therefore suspect, scheme, it was easier to get it launched and then use his powers of persuasion to see it past the authorities.
By twelve, Chick was developing a facility with language, using drama and hyperbole to entertain his audience. In a school essay inspired by the loss of the Titanic in April 1912, he imagined himself on the world's largest steamer, the Emperor Napoleon, crossing from New York to Europe in the distant summer of 1998. One day out, at two in the morning, the ship struck something and began going down. "Alas! the ship would sink in a very few minutes[.] I jumped and swam around a little while[.] there were awful groans and shrieks around me as men[,] women and children were drowned[.] I clung to a piece of wood and fainted. The next thing I knew I was flying through the air."
An airplane had saved him at the last minute. "It was the worst wreck in history except the Titanic away back in 1912."
Chick relied on personality more than scholarship to carry him through school. He finished his third year at Noble and Greenough with an erratic report card: A's in Reading, Spelling, and French, B's in English and Algebra, a C in Latin, and a D in History. He worked hard in subjects that interested him and let the others go.
The next year, Chick's writing became more polished, as could be seen in a paragraph describing his father, whom he called "Our Doctor":
He is fifty two years old and six feet tall, a gruff and outspoken man. His clothes are pressed carefully and have a look of freshness about them. His shoes are always shined and his necktie pulled closely up to his collar. His twinkling gray eyes look smilingly out at you from their setting of long lashes and a pair of gold-rimmed glasses are perched jauntily on his long straight nose. His mouth is small, and an even row of pure white teeth, scrupulously brushed, peep out from their frame of red lips when he smiles. A dimple in his chin completes an altogether jovial face. The top of his head is crowned with silvery white hair, precisely parted, which shows unmistakable signs of approaching baldness. A frock coat and tall hat complete the appearance of this very lovable and extraordinary man.
But Laura made it difficult for him to love his father, constantly reminding Everett that he was only "half a Yankee" and steering him toward her own interests. As the years went on, the distance between his parents developed into an unhappy tension. "I never really knew my father very well," Chick told a friend. "He shut himself up in his office and I would not see him for days." Chick was caught between a father who was emotionally absent and a mother who smothered him with affection. Irrepressible as his creativity was, his toy theater, his magic, and his painting provided an escape into a happier world.
In the summer of 1913, Laura took steps to find a special place for herself and her boy. The cottage on the Maine coast, the address in Boston's Back Bay, and Chick's enrollment at Noble and Greenough were all outward signs of the Austins' increasing social status. Now Laura wanted to join the landed gentry.
"Never had I seen the beautiful hills and mountains or lakes of New Hampshire until ," she wrote in a rhapsodic memoir of her search for an estate, "when I decided to buy a farm in the country, where my boy could have a taste of country life, which I think is the inheritance of every boy, rather than a city street." As usual, she had definite requirements in mind. "The house must be absolutely Colonial, facing south. . . . It must be located on a high hill . . . and there must be water for the boy for skating, boating and to swim." It had to be close enough to Marlborough Street so that she and Everett could "run up any holiday or over Sunday, as other New England boys go to see their grandfathers, their uncles and aunts, but as my boy could not do."
She heard of a piece of property on Range Road in Windham, New Hampshire, a tiny town about fifty miles from Boston. Comprising eighty acres of woods and fields, which Laura eventually enlarged to a hundred, it ran along the crest of a hill and included a farmhouse, two barns, and the colonial house of her imaginings, already furnished with antiques. The land went down to the edge of Cobbett's Pond, a picturesque body of water about four miles long and less than a mile wide. The main house looked out across forested hills to Mount Monadnock, sixty miles away.
Laura bought the property immediately and christened the house Uncle John's, in tribute to John Morrison, whose legacy paid for it. (Later she turned the barn next door into a Pennsylvania Dutch-style house, which she called Barn Manor.) With a decisive speed that would be characteristic of her son, she moved in less than a week later, accompanied by a party of ten, including three great-nephews and one great-niece of Uncle John, to celebrate the acquisition.
Looking over the deed, she discovered that an early owner of the house was a Morrison. She had been certain that "I had not a drop of 'Yankee' blood in my veins," she wrote, "and was only a 'Yankee' by marriage." But now she conceived the notion that she was actually related to the Morrisons who had come to this New Hampshire town. Poring through historic records and collecting family lore--and soon progressing beyond rational thought--she began constructing an ancestral legend at least as grand as anything her Back Bay neighbors could produce.
Before long she was convinced that old porcelain held the key to her past. The scene painted on a blue and white dish from her grandfather became Robert the Bruce slaying the Moors, assisted by the Morrisons; a picture on a pink china platter, reputedly brought by her family to America, illustrated the expulsion of the Morrisons from Scotland after the uprising of 1715; a sugar bowl she found in the caretaker's room at Uncle John's documented their settlement in New Hampshire. And when the pattern of a cream pitcher she "repossessed" from the cottage of an old woman in Windham almost matched that of her soup tureen, Laura knew that the Morrisons of Pennsylvania and the Morrisons of New Hampshire were one and the same. "Now, to me," she recorded excitedly, "china seemed to be not only a useful bit of pottery for one's sugar and tea, but a book bearing messages from the great beyond."
Befitting this rediscovered lineage, Laura had bookplates and stationery engraved for Everett and herself with the Morrison family crest, bearing three Moors' heads surmounted by a double-headed Moor and the motto Praetio Prudentia Praestat (Wisdom is better than wealth). And for the little finger of Everett's right hand, she ordered a signet ring in platinum, which he wore for life. She wore an identical version in gold.
Chick's imagination took him elsewhere. As he entered his teenage years, he returned to his career as prestidigitator. In the summer of 1914, Professor Marvel entertained an appreciative crowd with his magic tricks at the Congregational Church in Windham for the benefit of the Junior Christian Endeavor Society. The program included a vocalist and a pianist, and ice cream was served at the end. The local press, prompted by Laura, was impressed: "Prof. Marvel, who is none other than Everett Austin, 13 year old son of Dr. and Mrs. A. E. Austin[,] . . . certainly is gifted in his line. He has performed in Paris and other places abroad as well as in this country and always draws a large audience." Chick also took his show to Harpswell. He gave performances at the Auburn Colony Recreation Hall and turned a boathouse next to the family cottage into a miniature theater. His cousin Stephen Etnier remembered that "he was what we called a sissy at the time. Boys didn't go around having little theaters in their boathouses, the way he did. He wasn't much interested in sailing or sports of any kind."
Chick graduated from Noble and Greenough in June 1917, one of twenty-one students. Though he took the college entrance examination in eight subjects, the results were apparently disappointing. (Laura cut off the scores on the bottom of the report when she pasted it into "Baby Days.") As he was still only sixteen, Chick was sent to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, for a second senior year.
At Andover, as at Nobles, classmates found him fascinating. "He was a very handsome and attractive male," said one, "and he also had a vivacity that made a great impression. . . . He was someone you noticed." At the same time, he made light of his accomplishments. He tended to leave his homework until the last minute, but he impressed his friends by being able to dash off a page of Greek in twenty minutes on his way to doing something more entertaining. Chick also showed an appreciation for modern design. To a fellow student he declared, "I don't want to drive a Rolls-Royce, and I don't want to own a Rolls-Royce. I'd just like to have one to park outside the house because they're so beautiful."
Laura was never far away. Chick often recounted the tale of one of her unexpected descents on the school. Although she had informed the administration that he was not to have any exercise, the physical education department wanted him to have some kind of outdoor activity. One day, Laura arrived to find him running around the track. "Everett, Everett," she shouted, "take those clothes off immediately! You're never to do any physical exercise, and you're to get your regular pants on!" Chick told the story to entertain, but there were clearly times when Laura was deeply embarrassing to the adolescent boy. Remembering his frustrations with Laura, he would tell his own children, "I loved my mother very much, but she was a very stupid woman." Yet he spent most of his life pleasing her, placating her, circumventing her, and at some level enjoying her eccentricities.
By the time Chick had arrived at Andover in September 1917, American troops were fighting in Europe in the World War. His father, a captain in
the Reserve Officers Medical Corps, was promoted to major by the end of the year, and for much of 1918, he was the debarkation medical officer for the port of Boston.
Laura and Chick decided to make their own contribution to the war effort: they organized a party. In July 1918, for the benefit of the Red Cross, they recreated an old-fashioned market and fair on the grounds of what the local paper called "the Austin estate" in Windham. The news story recorded that they offered "fruits and vegetables, hot dogs, sandwiches, tea, tonics, cakes, ices and pink lemonade, also a punch and judy show, fish ponds, grabs and side shows for the kiddies," along with a balloon ascension and a barn dance. Huge crowds came from neighboring towns, and the profits reached nearly $300. The paper gave full credit to the two organizers, "Mrs. A. E. Austin and son, Everett Austin, who worked untiringly to make it successful."
The Windham extravaganza, with mother and son unleashing their combined talents, was in a sense the perfect climax to Chick's childhood. He had graduated from Andover the previous month and, having made a respectable showing on his second attempt at the college entrance examinations, seemed poised to live up to Laura's expectations. He was going to Harvard.
From the Hardcover edition.
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