Some Personal History

Here’s an addendum of sorts to “Tolerant, Up to a Point,” posted yesterday.

During the discussion of the Vineyard’s lesbian and gay history at the Spectrum Film Festival, an audience member mentioned Margaret Webster (1905–1972), the eminent Anglo-American actor and theater director. Webster, a Vineyard summer resident. had at least two long-term lesbian relationships, first with Eva Le Gallienne, another theater notable; and later with the prolific British novelist Pamela Frankau.

postage scale

Margaret Webster’s postage scale

Strange but true, I have a little postage scale that once belonged to Margaret Webster. It was given to me by the late Mary Payne (1932–1996), who founded Island Theatre Workshop (ITW) in 1968 and was its artistic director until her death.

Mary recognized me as a lesbian sister almost right off the boat and within a year or so had roped me into ITW and the island’s then-vibrant theater community. True to form, it was a magnet for misfits and nonconformists — lesbians, gay men, creative types, pagans, recovering alcoholics and relatives of alcoholics . . .

My people, in other words.

At one point Mary hired me to help her clean up and paint what had been her bedroom. She needed extra money, the room had a separate entrance, and she was planning to rent it out. This involved going through lots and lots of stuff and is probably when she gave me the postage scale. First-class postage on the scale is 8¢, which suggests it was made between May 16, 1971, and March 2, 1974, when first-class postage went up to 10¢. Webster died on November 13, 1972.

We talked a lot, Mary and I, during that project. My poem “The Lapsed Archivist Attends a House Cleaning” grew out of our conversations. The “mentor” referred to in the second stanza is Margaret Webster. The “woman lover” is Pamela Frankau. I’m not sure “thirty years” is accurate; one source says Frankau and Webster’s relationship began in the mid-1950s, though they may have known each other longer. Millie Barranger’s Margaret Webster: A Life in Theater” says that Webster was devastated by Frankau’s death in 1967 and that “eventually, she returned to her beloved cottage on Martha’s Vineyard and gathered friends around her.”

This would have been when Mary was starting Island Theatre Workshop, and I’m guessing it’s when she and Webster knew each other.

 

The Lapsed Archivist Attends a Housecleaning

In memory of the voices we have lost
–motto of the Lesbian Herstory Archives

You are outside painting furniture, I
am working in the bathroom, sanding through
three colors of cracking paint. We
are getting ready for your summer tenant.
The diamond window frames are splintered,
gouged with previous efforts; “Sappho’s Coming!”
exults a sticker on the mirror, perhaps
announcing me, you said, a lesbian poet
making poems today with brush and scraper.

Inside you sort through piles and boxes,
deciding what to keep and where to put it,
calling me to see the glossy pictures
of your high school yearbook. You tell
me of sitting by a fire, burning letters
one by one, the letters of your mentor.
Thirty years of letters to and from
her woman lover. You honored her request.

And what if you, or someone else,
willed me to burn her letters?
I once spent hours haunted by
the voices we have lost, unfolding
brittle papers not a decade old,
cataloguing, laying each one flat
in acid-free gray boxes. Could I
consign your letters to the flame,
or would I think of living widows
dying on their husbands’ pyres?
Would I close my eyes and cast in
unread bundles, or try to take
the ones in my own writing back?
Would I hear crackling in the fire
the voices we have lost?

As I complete the second coat, golden
flames are dancing in the diamond panes:
daffodils, from bulbs your mother
planted nineteen years ago. “Sappho’s
Coming!” sings the mirror, Sappho
whose tenacious legacy of fragments
survives two thousand years of burning.
Still some say she pined for some man’s
love. This Sappho shreds all drafts
of each completed poem; each jewel forgets
being chiseled from the vein.
Purged of dross, your mentor’s life
is found in theatre files. I
would not have known had you not told me.

Published in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, volume 10, no. 3 (1989).

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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8 Responses to Some Personal History

  1. I’m so happy you republished this poem. Hadn’t read it before, loved it.

    Like

  2. Jennie says:

    What a lovely and personal story, Susanna. Had to enjoy reading it twice.

    Like

  3. And by the by… I seem unable to access the previous post to comment, so I will comment here: Totally AWESOME tee!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I don’t know what the inability to access thing is about, but I hope it’s a temporary computer glitch. It is an awesome T. That evening people were saying they ought to be reprinted, and I was thinking, “Nope. If you weren’t around in about 1993, you don’t get one.” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I so loved the poem….letters and living widows… sad we have all burned ourselves when we should have been merely warmed through…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love rereading something I wrote about 30 years ago and thinking, “Goddamn that’s good — I’d like to meet the woman who wrote it.” 😉 I just ordered ThriftBooks’ only copy of a 2004 Margaret Webster biography that’s supposed to be very good — and if the few pages I could read in Google are accurate, it deals honestly with her relationships.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. mvrhs1970@yahoo.com says:

    Susanna, Nice story. I was involved with Mary Payne’s theater for several years while student at MVRHS and afterwards in her adult theater presentations. Most memorable was working with her for Tisbury Tercentenary play in 1971 and getting to meet Katherine Cornell who attended one of the final dress rehearsals. Ms. Cornell after the rehearsal had concluded asked Mary if it would be ok to make a few comments regarding blocking and some other minor things she noticed that might improve the performance.

    Probably the only time I ever saw Mary Payne speechless. Here was the Grande Dame of Theater asking Mary if it would be ok to make a few comments. Of course Mary said yes and sat down before she fell down. The comments were on point and made a difference in the performance. What was almost as memorable were the cast parties afterwards.

    Thanks for the story.

    Edward Pachico MVRHS Class 1970

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love this story! Mary Payne speechless indeed. 🙂 I arrived long after the tercentenary, but Mary gave me a copy of the published script. It’s somewhere in the mess that is my apartment. IIRC Edie Yoder did the illustrations.

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