The alternative to the LGBT community is to be invisible. There is strength in numbers and in community and that is why we band together. Historically, we have a collective history of living in the shadows — out of self preservation in a homophobic society. But living in the shadows was and is unhealthy. It has led to isolation, dishonesty (in particular with opposite-sex heterosexual spouses) and all the guises of self-destruction, including substance abuse and suicide. Recently, I read two books — Therese And Isabelle By Violette Leduc originally censored but in 2015 published by The Feminist Press and Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason (2015; WoodstockArts) by Joseph P. Eckhardt — that brought these issues to the surface of my thinking.
I had heard about the book by Joseph P. Eckhardt Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason (2015; WoodstockArts), but it took a visit to the Historical Society of Woodstock to really pique my interest. I was visiting the area when friends who lived nearby told me that the show — based on the book and the lives and some of the original artwork of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason who were life partners and residents of Woodstock, NY, for decades was a “must-see.” So I went. The show, which ended in early September, featured a 1920s silent film which the more than six feet tall, larger than life, Wilna Hervey had a role.
I went with my partner and some old friends from the area and as we were leaving, one of the women said to me, “Doesn’t it make you angry that so much of our history had been lost?” I am, by nature, an optimist, so I agreed with her. One way to look at it, is that this is just one slice of our history, most of which has been lost. But I have to admit that I had the feeling of an absolute afterglow in thinking about these two women. I’m sure the fact that I, too, am a lesbian in a long-term relationship, and that I am over six feet tall (like both Wilna and Nan) and that my last name is the same as Nan Mason and that I have a raucous laugh like Nan did brought some bearing on my fascination. We all like to see ourselves reflected in the world.
Living Large is billed as “a rollicking dual biography of one of America’s earliest ‘out and proud’ same-sex couples” and it does not disappoint. Eckhardt did a thorough and meticulous job of telling us the story of their lives and relationship. Wilna Hervey was a comedic silent film star. Nan Mason was the daughter of Wilna’s co-star and friend, Dan Mason, and the two women hit it off with the father’s blessing. He wrote a letter to them, saying:
“I am happy when I know you are both happy. I want to see that harmony grow and expand in your two lives. Both giving and taking for your mutual welfare and happiness. Love is the great vital force. Love is life, without it life is a void. Poor indeed is the man or woman who do not or never have known true love.”
Nan and Wilna were both visual artists and in 1924, they moved to an art colony in the Catskills which became their permanent home. In the epilogue Eckhardt writes:
“It is their enthusiasm, their eagerness to explore the adventures that each new day might bring — and their joy in sharing them with each other — that the most important legacy of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason is to be found. Their enduring companionship serves to remind us of a profound and timeless truth: enthusiasm and love are the secrets to a happy life, and the essence of Living Large.”
Eckhardt emphasizes that Wilna and Nan did not experience discrimination based on their sexual orientation. This is unusual, but it is easy to believe. They lived protected lives as artists in a community of artists and also (Wilna was an heiress) came from protected class backgrounds.
Still, Living Large left me with some questions. Was my friend (who I saw the exhibition with) right? Would Wilna Hervey be as well known as Charlie Chaplin if it wasn’t for the sexism and heterosexism of the time? Would they have had better luck as artists if the climate was different? In particular, the artwork and fine art photography by Nan Mason (reproduced in the book) is nothing short of stunning.
We may never know, but it is no small thing that we know about their lives in Living Large.
Therese And Isabelle By Violette Leduc was censored in the author’s time but in 2015 was published by The Feminist Press which explains, “In 1966 when it was originally published in France, the text was censored because of its explicit depiction of young homosexuality. With this publication, the original, unexpurgated text–a stunning literary portrayal of female desire and sexuality–is available to a US audience for the first time.”
Leduc lived from 1907 to 1972. She was respected by the well-known writers of her time and place including Camus, Cocteau and Genet. Simone de Beauvoir was her close friend and champion. Even so, she was ahead of her time and was largely unrecognized in her lifetime with the exception of her autobiography La Batarde, published in 1964.
Still, as a writer she accomplished her goals. Of her work that was censored, she wrote:
“I am trying to render as accurately as possible, as minutely as possible, the sensations felt in physical love. In this there is doubtless something that every woman can understand. I am not aiming for scandal but only to describe the woman’s experience with precision….”
This precisely explains Therese and Isabelle. Leduc takes sensuous writing to new heights in capturing the erotic energy between two French school girls:
“….Clasping her against my gaping open heart, I wanted to draw Isabelle inside. Love is an exhausting invention. Isabelle, Therese, I pronounced in my head, getting used to the magical simplicity of our two names.”
The sensuous language is not reserved for the erotic scenes, but stay with the reader as the protagonists turn from lovers back into school girls — “Girls flew off toward their violins, their primers, their pianos.” Hers is a language that captures the subtlety of forbidden love: “…I linked my arm in hers: twining together, our fingers made love.”
The book includes two essays at the end. In “A Story of Censorship” by Carlo Jansiti and the “Afterward” by Michael Lucey, we learn about Violette’s struggles as an author, including the heartbreak of censorship. Despite the way that she may have felt in her lifetime, Violette Leduc’s work endures, and it is absolutely necessary.
To view the photos of “Living Large” at the Woodstock Historical Society, click here.
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