Kennerley on Carman

Edited and Introduced by H. Pearson Gundy


In 1932 Dr. Lorne Pierce, then collecting materials for a biography of Bliss Carman, wrote to Mitchell Kennerley in New York requesting his reminiscences of the poet who had been his close friend for some thirty years. Kennerley complied at once, jotting down on twenty-four half sheets of letter-paper, his recollections of Carman just as they occurred to him, in simple, unadorned style, not stopping to correct slips of the pen or to give formal unity to his memories. He certainly had no thought of publication as he fashioned this rough but revealing sketch of Carman the man he knew and admired. Pierce was delighted with the account, and considered it to be of key importance to an understanding of Carman’s character. Shortly before his death in 1961, he sent the manuscript to me at the Douglas Library, Queen’s University, to be included with other Carman memorabilia in the Edith and Lorne Pierce Collection, marking it “Important and Confidential.” Although, at the time, Dr. Pierce might have had some reservations about its publication, chiefly because of Kennerley’s frank comments on Dr. and Mrs. King, times have changed, and as his literary executor, I have no hesitation in now making it public.

     Writing on Carman in Ten Canadian Poets (Toronto: Ryerson, 1958), the late Desmond Pacey raised the question of the poet’s relationship with Mrs. Mary Perry King, a relationship which, he said, would “probably always be a matter of speculation.” It was not clear to him whether or not it had a sexual basis; he thought it “almost certainly did” but believed that Carman came to regard Mrs. King “rather [as] a mother than a mistress.”1 As editor of the Ryerson Press, Pierce wrote to Pacey about this passage: “You hint at a sexual basis for the MPK-BC friendship, and later speak of it as a mother-protectress relationship. What you mean, of course, is that it began as a mistress-lover affair and with the passing of the years became something else.” On Kennerley’s evidence, Pierce agreed with this assessment, although, as he told Pacey, “Odell Shepard believed that it was a purely platonic affair, and raged at me for suggesting that it was something else.”2

     Kennerley was a much older and more intimate friend than Shepard, concerning whom Carman wrote to his friends, the Drakes: “The past week I have been telling the story of my life to an ambitious poet from Harvard who has a commission to write a biographical study of me. . . . You can bet that I didn’t tell him anything of the veritable inwardness of things, and kept the blinds down good and snug.”3

     To Kennerley, Carman was particularly indebted for publishing Daughters of Dawn and Earth Deities, two books of poetic masques written in collaboration with Mrs. King, after they had been turned down by a dozen or more publishers. On more than one occasion Kennerley had rescued Carman from financial embarrassment, and as president of the Anderson Galleries, an auction house for rare books and manuscripts, he sold some of Carman’s first editions and letters to him from men of note for remarkably high prices. In 1928, Carman heard at second hand that Kennerley was thinking of leaving New York to retire in Europe. He wrote to his friend in some distress: “The rumour that you are going to settle abroad . . . is a body blow to my serenity. You are almost all that is left that I care about from the old days. . . . New York might as well settle into the sea now.”4

Within a year and two months of this letter, Carman was dead. Kennerley survived him for just over two decades, during which period his fame and fortune were eclipsed. Through some shady financial dealing, he lost his position with the Anderson Galleries and some of his closest friends. His marriage broke up, and on the verge of poverty he hanged himself in his New York hotel-room.5

 •  •  •

I first saw Bliss Carman in London (about 1894)6 when he came to call on John Lane, the publisher. I was one of the junior clerks and it was my job when anyone came to call to jump down from my stool (we all sat at high stools at our old-fashioned high, sloping desks) and wait on them. I remember Carman coming in, in a dark suit and American soft hat and saying “Mr. Bliss Carman to see Mr. Lane with a letter of introduction from Louise Chandler Moulton.”7 The next time I saw him was in New York in October 1896 [1897] at 140 Fifth Avenue where I had opened a branch for John Lane. I forget why he came in. We were friends at once. He was in Miss Kelly’s boarding house on 57th Street — he had just arrived in N.Y. from the country. I was boarding in Brooklyn. Carman suggested I move to Miss Kelly’s. Charles G.D. Roberts & Will Roberts were there also. (Another boarder was Madge de Wolfe, a young actress from Canada, now Margaret Wycherly.) After three or four restless weeks at Miss Kelly’s Bliss suggested that he and I take an apartment together., which we did at 10 E. 16.8

     We had three rooms and a bath for which we paid $40 a month. There was a little room in the back with Southern exposure which Bliss used as a study and workroom. Then there was a big living room-studio with a couch and chairs and many bookshelves and books and a big bedroom with two beds. We never ate there but went out to Flouret’s restaurant on 18th Street (formerly the Logerot) and Martin’s, then at 9th Street and Lafayette Place, and other restaurants. Everybody came to see us at 10 E. 16 — Hovey, Peter McArthur, Kavanagh,9 Le Gallienne and a host of others.

     We lived at 10 E. 16 the greater part of two years as I remember.10 We generally had breakfast together when I would go to the John Lane office at 19th St. & Carman would return to 16th St. Often we met at lunch or at dinner or would spend the evening at home reading or writing. We did not talk very much. We never interfered with each other. We did very different things but neither of us did anything that offended the other. We never kept drinks in the house & rarely brought anything in for guests. It just wasn’t a drinking or eating apartment. Carman enjoyed a drink but he didn’t enjoy a lot of drinks. But he did enjoy a lot of fun. He was always ready for fun, to be jolly. He was never depressed or irascible. Often we went on a ‘spree’ — to the theatre or a music hall or to Flouret’s or Martin’s to sit and drink and talk and smoke. Carman smoked a pipe those days — not a lot but regularly.

     Carman was scrupulous and generous about money when he had it. He was always glad to be able to pay. He didn’t need much money for his needs but he was unhappy when he couldn’t pay as he went along. He disliked borrowing and paid back as soon as he got any money. He never aimed to make money or calculated about it. When a check came in he was pleased like a child with a new toy. He liked people if they were the right people. He was glad to go to parties if they were people he liked. But he was always willing and happy to stay at home. He was always natural, unforced. He never cultivated anybody or anything for the sake of getting something out of them.

     He liked outdoors, day or night, rain or shine, but chiefly in the country. He loved riding horseback in the country. Years later, when I had a home in Mamaroneck he came out for weekends and we rode together every Sunday over the hills of Westchester.11

     Carman was invariably affectionate and’at home’ with every member of the household and other visitors and joined in everything that was done or said. He enjoyed all games outdoors but I never knew him to play cards. He was particularly gay when Edna Millay or George Sterling12 or Jo Davidson13 or Witter Bynner14 was with us for the weekend. He was always interested in other people’s poetry as well as his own. He never talked of his own poems unless asked about them. He enjoyed reading his own poems and gladly did so but only if someone asked for them, and he had to be ‘commanded’ to go on. He never overrated his poems: he usually underrated them. I remember his saying to me “Lyric poets die young. You can’t be expected to write poetry after thirty.”

     I have never known another man as physically clean as Bliss Carman. Every morning of his life he took a bath from head to foot, including his hair. He never hurried this procedure. If he had an early train to catch, he got up so much earlier. He was not an absurdly early riser — about eight he was generally moving and about.

     He was scrupulous about his appearance. I never saw him unshaved. He had old and well-beloved clothes but they were never torn or dirty. His shirts and col[l]ars were always clean and his cuffs never frayed. He examined every garment before he put it on.

Sappho

     I had a copy of Wharton’s Sappho at 10 E. 16. When about June 1902 I planned to start the Reader Magazine I gave the book to Carman and suggested that he write a poem for each of Wharton’s literal translations. He has recorded this in a copy of Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics in the Grosvenor Library, Buffalo. (They would gladly supply a photostat.) I printed two instalments in the Reader Magazine, November, December 1902, with the Wharton renderings as headings. Carman kept on writing them for years.

     Carman was modest, even reticent, about all his poems and never picked out any particular poem as his best.

     Carman was fond of a lot of people, in different planes and different walks of life. He did not make a habit of introducing his friends to each other. Quite often he said “Let us go and see ‘So-and’So’,” and when we got there I would find that he and ‘So-and-So’ were old friends though they might not have seen each other for some time. One remained ‘old friends’ with Carman and after not seeing him for a long period it would still be the same. You went on where you had left off.

     He wrote a lot of letters and received a lot from all over the world. He destroyed a great many. I remember one day he destroyed over a hundred letters from Louise Imogen Guiney because his trunk was too full. He destroyed them rather than leave them around. He was never careless or neglectful or untidy.

     He enjoyed reading his poems & read them well in single company. I always thought he read monotonously to an audience, as though he was thinking his words to himself rather than reading them to others.

     He was utterly fearless and unconscious of the attention he attracted, just as he never courted it. It was natural to him to wear his hair a little longer than others, and to wear comfortable shoes and clothing. He treated all his belongings with the utmost respect and brushed an old coat as carefully as he would a new one. He wore his evening clothes as naturally as he did his homespuns.

     Carman was fond of women, to the end of his life. He did not parade it but he did not hide it from his few close friends. He never said “Let us go and find women.” But if we were out on a spree, that is having dinner together, with a bottle of wine, and afterwards walked the city streets, he was open to an occasional adventure with whoever chanced by. These occasions might have been more frequent if we had had more money.

     One morning in 1897 at 10 E. 16 Street Carman said to me “I want you to meet a pretty lady at lunch today.” We met at Flouret’s, the delightful French restaurant — a sort of Junior Martin’s — at 18th Street & Fifth Avenue, which we all frequented, and I met Mary Perry King. She was a “pretty lady” indeed — gay and witty and gentle and well-dressed, and graceful and good to look at and be with. I had never heard of her before and of course Carman made no explanations — he never did and one never expected it of him. I got the impression that she had just returned from somewhere & that Carman had not seen her for many months. Mrs. King — ”Mary Perry” she was familiarly called —  and I were friends at once & the three of us had many lunches and other parties together. We dined often at Mrs. King’s apartment, 257 W. 57. Dr. King, a fussy nonentity was always present at dinner at the apartment. Mrs. King was an accomplished housekeeper and hostess. The apartment was charming and the food was excellent and Dr. King supplied first-rate whiskey & claret. King was amiable & harmless and everybody cheerfully tolerated him. He liked Carman & admired his fame and enjoyed Carman’s friends and the literary parties he was allowed to come to. Mrs. King spent a lot of time with Carman — most afternoons at 16th St or 57th Street but King, in those early days, was always along at public meetings and nothing much was thought or said about it. The Hoveys came to town and we saw a lot of them. Mr. and Mrs. LeGallienne came to N.Y. and were with us a lot. Often we had a box at the theatre — or Weber & Fields15 — together. One night we had a box at the Casino to see Francis Wilson16 in a revival of “Erminie” (?) and at the end we went to see Wilson in his dressing room and I gathered that “Mary Perry” had played with him in the original production.

     Mrs. King was beautifully devoted to Carman but, at that time, there was nothing tragic about it & Carman was not romantic about her. On rare occasions they had intimate relations at 10 E. 16 which they always advised me of by leaving a bunch of violets — Mary Perry’s favorite flower — on the pillow on my bed.

     As we grew older Mrs. King seemed to lose her sense of humour, & hung on to Carman with increasing weight both spiritual and physical & people began to talk and King lost his na´vetÚ and I believe there were some diffficult moments. Hovey died17 and Le Gallienne sailed away and others departed and grew up and Carman and Mrs. King were left pretty much to themselves. It seemed to weigh on Carman. Then the Kings went off on a long trip and Carman was his old gay self. I remember the day the Kings came back we were lunching with Tom Mosher at Martin’s and Carman didn’t say a word.18

     After that I didn’t see so much of Mrs. King. She did not seem happy about conditions & lost her good humour as well as her looks and health.

     Carman never ‘posed.’ With him pose was truly ‘the projection’ of an ideal. He was always his natural self and never tried to be anyone else.

     No one ever called him “B.C.” He was “Bliss” to his friends and “Carman” to his acquaintances. No one ever pretended to know him or took a short cut to his friendship by way of initials.

     Carman was never aggressive, yet he was the surest person I have ever known. He dismissed things by avoiding them. “I don’t want to see him” meant “I don’t like him.” He argued for his own ideas rather than against yours. He never got bad tempered. His excitements were all about things he enjoyed. He never, never gossipped.

11 June 1932


Notes

  1. Ten Canadian Poets (1958; Toronto: Ryerson, 1966), pp. 78, 79.[back]

  2. Hand-written draft of letter, undated (1957?), in the Pierce papers Queen’s University Archives. See H. Pearson Gundy, “Lorne Pierce, Bliss Carman and the Ladies,” Douglas Library Notes, 14, no. 4 (Autumn, 1965), 19-20.[back]

  3. Letters of Bliss Carman, ed. H. Pearson Gundy (McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press,1981), p. 242. The “study,” Bliss Carman, was published in Toronto by McClelland and Stewart in 1923.[back]

  4. Letters, p. 359.[back]

  5. New York Times 23 February, 6 April, 1950.[back]

  6. The date was June, 1896, and the second meeting in October, 1897.[back]

  7. A minor American poet and literary patroness.[back]

  8. On 29 October, 1897, Carman wrote to his sister: “I am just moving into very modest but comfortable quarters on 16th St., sharing a bachelor apartment with Mr. Kennerley, a very nice young Englishman, the manager of John Lane’s publishing business here” (Letters, p. 117).[back]

  9. Dr. Frank Edge Kavanagh was an early friend of Carman and Hovey.[back]

  10. By January, 1899 Carman had moved to 18 West 75th Street.[back]

  11. On June 7, 1905, Carman wrote to Irving Way: “I spent a week in Mamaroneck . . . riding twelve or  fifteen miles a day and getting in fine form” (Letters, p. 147).[back]

  12. The American West-Coast poet.[back]

  13. The American sculptor.[back]

  14. The American poet and friend of Millay.[back]

  15. A New York Music Hall that opened in 1895.[back]

  16. The American actor and playwright whose greatest success was Erminie, a light opera which had a long run at the Casino. (The question mark is Kennerley’s.)[back]

  17. 24 February, 1900.[back]

  18. Dr. King left for the Orient in May, 1904. Mrs. King joined him in Japan early in 1905, and returned with him from Europe in February, 1906. On 20 February, 1906, Carman wrote to his sister: “Dr. and Mrs. King got home last week much to the relief of their friends. . . . Mrs. King is thin, but otherwise her old self”(Letters, pp. 152-153).[back]