William Carlos Williams

A Chapter from his Autobiography

"The Baroness"

Biographical profile of Williams
Along with everything else I was still going in to the city Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, to pediatric clinics, first to the Babies', then the Post Graduate Hospitals, for advanced training. It was tiresome, hot work in summer, and in winter the commuting was hard, but I enjoyed it. On Fridays, which was my day off, I'd stop over sometimes for a party during the evening. The group often met on the second floor of a small Fourteenth Street apartment, most often at Lola Ridge's, that Vestal of the Arts, a devout believer in the humanity of letters; narrow quarters where anyone might on occasion show up.

I can't remember all the names, but once, Mayakofsky, the Russian poet, appeared with his friend and manager who was wearing a particolored vest, half green and half white. Mayakofsky read aloud for us his "Willie the Havana Street Cleaner." A big man, he rested one foot on top of the studio table as he read. It was the perfect gesture. He had a good voice, and though no one understood a word he said, we were all impressed by the tumbling sounds and his intense seriousness. I remember there were two giggling poets of the smarter and younger generation who, while thinking him wonderful, were more, as far as I could tell, impressed by his si~e than by anything else. Two nice little "girls." For myself it sounded as might The Odyssey from the mouth of some impassioned Greek.

Scofield Thayer, so the rumor ran, had proposed to Marianne Moore who had begged off, though continuing to work at the Dial office. Kenneth Burke later took over Marianne's Dial job. Plenty was happening to me those days. The Little Review had been using some poems by a huge mountain of a man from Maine, weighing three hundred pounds, according to Marsden Hartley, and named Wallace Gould. Marsden introduced him to me. Marsden in those years was a kind of grandpapa to us all, male and female alike. But he had a face that doomed him, the nose of a Wellington projecting from the edge of his cheeks like a medieval pike's point. But to get back to Wallace Gould. I was fascinated by the poems' romantic tenor, I suppose, but there was more than that to them. Gould used the local material in a broad way with loose, undulant lines that I greatly admired. In fact, it was not the nostalgic glamour of these Victorian passages at all, but the firmness of the images and a smoothness of diction that I praised to Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap.

Visiting Margaret Anderson's and Jane Heap's apartment-with its great bed hanging from four chains from the ceiling-was an experience: Jane Heap looked like a heavy-set Eskimo, but Margaret, always more than a little upstage, was an avowed beauty in the grand style. In later years she was a friend of Mary Garden and Georgette Le Blanc.

At their apartment I also saw for the first time, under a glass bell, a piece of sculpture that appeared to be chicken guts, pos- sibly imitated in wax. It caught my eye. I was told it was the work of a titled German woman, Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, a fabulous creature, well past fifty, whom The Little Review was protecting. 'Would I care to meet her, for she was crazy, it was said, about my work.

I wrote, fatally, to Margaret or Jane, saying I wanted to meet the woman. They agreed I was precisely the one who should meet her and defend her. But unfortunately she was at that moment in the Tombs under arrest for stealing an umbrella.

Briefly: I went to the Tombs on the day of her release, met her, took her to breakfast somewhere on Sixth Avenue near Eighth Street, and promised to see her again soon. She was about fifty at the time, a woman who had been perhaps beautiful. She spoke with a strong German accent and at the moment was earning a pittance in the city posing in the nude as an artists' model. She was quite in demand--a lean, masculine figure.

Yes. I met her, all right! Once later she had an intimate talk with me and advised me that what I needed to make me great was to contract syphilis from her and so free my mind for serious art.

She was a protege of Marcel Duchamp. She sent me a photo of herself, 8 x lo, nude, a fine portrait, said to have been taken by him--a picture I kept in my trunk for years, finally handing it on to Berenice Abbott. I was sick of seeing it lying around. A first-rate piece of photography, though.

The Baroness pursued me for several years, twice coming to Rutherford, of which more later.

At about this time Wallace Gould arrived in New York from his Maine hide-out and almost immediately found that it would be impossible to support himself here. Some woman who admired his work had loaned Wally an apartment. When I found him he had on a black stock, a black suit with great white cuffs, and if he wasn't trembling with fright, he wasn't far from it.

That day, in fact within the hour, he had been standing at the bottom of the stairs, his hand on the newel post, when his hostess had come downstairs had pressed her breast upon the back of his hand, pinning it there, so to speak. He had been too frightened to withdraw the hand, and there she had him.

The pupils of his eyes must have been half an inch across. "I'm up shit creekl" were his exact words. He had almost dropped dead of annoyance, or so he told me, and begged me to get him out of there as fast as I could. "I'm broke," he said in terror. "What am I to do?"

It was around Christmas. "Look," I said, "get your stuff and come out to Rutherford with me. I've got the car at the door."

He stayed with us all winter, giving little Bill piano lessons for his board, though I hadn't asked it. But when March arrived the Indian blood in his veins--he was quarter Abnaki Indian on his mother's side--asserted itself and he packed his kit. I gave him twenty dollars or so to start him off. He went by train to Washington, D. C., thence to start walking, which he did, to end up after a few days at Farmville, Virginia, where he spent the remainder of his life.

The Baroness, though, didn't leave me so easily. She reminded me of my "gypsy" grandmother, old Emily, and I was foolish enough to say I loved her. That all but finished me!

November 11, 1918: The war was now really over. Pop had lived it through. England had once more come through on top. But on Christmas Day, 1918, he died. He never at any time complained of any pain or made the slightest difficulty for anyone during his illness. But when he went he carried the secret of his birth with him. I should have liked to have known something from him of my grandfather.

Certainly that is one thing I shall never know. For, after Irving's death the next year, the old lady who remained, the sole survivor of her clan, having buried all her children, my father, his two half-brothers as well as my Aunt Rosita, the epileptic, also remained as silent as he to her death.

I'll never forget Pop's death. Only after the hardest trying did I manage, the day before, finally, to get the tube into his emaciated body for the enema. I knew I had forced it through only by unjustifiable pushing--a stiff tube with a loose wire core to give it added rigidity, and I knew I could never do it again. He had not so much as parted his lips in complaint at the maneuver.

Christmas morning, 1918, he had all his gifts for the family laid out, each in its place, and labeled. The one for me was a small cubical bronze bell, as a handle for which he had had fitted, the support welded in, the ivory figure of an old Chinese philosopher. Himself? Mother woke and they spoke to each other. She fell asleep again. At seven she arose. He remained apparently sleeping. He was almost finished.

She called me, and I went up from Nine Ridge Road as fast as I could. It must have been a cerebral accident, perhaps from my efforts to relieve him the day before.

"He's gone," I said. But he shook his head slowly from side to side. It was the last thing I could ever say in my father's presence and it was disastrous.

The young woman must have been dropped by the Godwins she always said she had never received her just rights--and after an apparent delay of five years came to America in a sailing vessel loaded with car rails. The ship was driven by a storm to the Azores and later ran adrift on Fire Island shoal. Pop once told me that as a child of five he recalled being on deck, in his mother's arms perhaps, and seeing the bowsprit and prow of another vessel loom above him out of the fog and strike the side of the ship he was on.

The woman and infant disembarked at Castle Garden, moved to a Brooklyn boarding house and there met a Mr. Wellcome, up from Saint Thomas to buy photographic supplies. He saw the young woman, married her and took her, with her son, back to the West Indies. There, the boy who was to be my father grew up. Grandma had wanted to be an actress; that was her objective in coming here. She had plenty of sand. All she wanted of it, finally.

We brought Grandma's body from the shore--her fabulous shore where she bathed daily in summer until she couldn't get up from the pebbles for the weight of her wet old-fashioned bathing dress. She lay in state in my front room where I did a pencil drawing of her really impressive features. The old cat slept under her coffin.

But back to the Baroness. All the old gals of Greenwich Village were backing her: coal scuttle on head on Fifth Avenue, black Mother Hubbard with moons cut out front and back for ready reference. Her attacks were persistent to a point where it con- cerned me seriously. But I never have been particularly concerned with others' ideas or opinions when they controverted mine. I couldn't be moved.

I called on the woman one day, gave her small amounts of money. Ashes were deep on her miserable hearth. In the slum room where she lived with her two small dogs, I saw them at it on her dirty bed. But she herself at that moment was courtesy itself. We talked and that was all. We talked well and I was moved. But when later she went into her act, I put up a fight.

Wallace Stevens at one time was afraid to come below Fourteenth Street when he was in the city because of her. And there was a Russian painter who on turning in one night in his small room had her crawl out naked from under his bed. He ran, ducked in at a neighbor's across the hall. She refused to leave the premises until he agreed to follow her to her own apartment.

Bob McAlmon was here at supper one night when I received a call to see a sick baby at Union Avenue. I took my bag and went out to my car which was standing at the curb. But as I went to get into it a hand grabbed my left wrist. It was she.

"You must come with me," she said in her strong German accent. I was taken aback, as may easily be imagined, and nonplused besides, because--well, she was a woman.

It ended as she hauled off and hit me alongside the neck with all her strength. She had had some little squirt of a male accomplice call me from supper for this. I just stood there thinking. But at that moment a cop happened to walk by. "What's the matter, Doc, this woman annoying you?" "No," I said, and she lit out down the street. "Let her go."

I bought a small punching bag after that to take it out on in the cellar, and the next time she attacked me, about six o'clock one evening on Park Avenue a few months later, I flattened her with a stiff punch to the mouth. I thought she was going to stick a knife in me. I had her arrested, she shouting, "What are you in this town? Napoleon?"

But she promised from the local jail, sticking her hand out between the bars, never to do it again.

It was funny to see her walking down the street trying to take hold of Officer Campbell's arm and he pushing her away. I was really crazy about the woman.

Later I gave her two hundred dollars to get out of the country. It was stolen by the go-between. I gave her more and finally she went, only to be playfully killed by some French jokester, it is said, who turned the gas jet on in her room while she was sleeping. That's the story.


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Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:29:14 EDT