Gender blending in early Woodstock & our first female genius

This photo is apparently mislabeled — Zulma’s on the right and Edna’s on the left.

The idea that a feminine impulse could save testosterone-driven capitalism from itself is not new. In fact the notion was subtly rooted in Woodstock’s first back-to-nature, Arts and Crafts community, Byrdcliffe. Here a bisexual and lesbian sub-culture prevailed unacknowledged, even by itself. Historians of an earlier era remained at best vague in describing it, and at worst silent. That silence ends now.

In 1899 an American artist named Arthur Wesley Dow was hired by the Pratt Institute of Design to pioneer the first college course offered in the West which approached world art “as design” through a system set forth in a book he published that same year. Composition synthesized aesthetic theories of the East and West into a single curriculum. Among other breakthroughs, Dow saw no distinction between the fine arts and folk crafts. So followers of William Morris and John Ruskin, who hoped to rescue civilization from industrialization through the Arts and Crafts movement, saw Dow as an apostle of a New Age. Woodstock’s future colony maker, Ralph Whitehead, was no exception. Within this reconfiguring a sexual revolution fomented, not simply because more women attended Dow’s classes than men, but because Dow engendered a unique confidence in females, as best exemplified by the career of Georgia O’Keefe, his most famous student.

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What is most important about Dow can actually be found in a newly identified photograph which happens to supply Woodstock with an extraordinary story about itself. To begin the journey, gaze into the face of this fearless beauty and her accomplice, these young women of 18 and 19, each a fledgling in the original four-year Arts & Crafts class of 1899; each flaunting her status as a protected favorite. Do they not seem to defy history itself? If ever briefly, they will.

Amazingly, these two are already protagonists in a love story never written, which turns on a pivotal historical moment scholars can’t name, because it consists of immense courage, devotion, and raw talent set loose upon the world by a teacher who performed the shocking task of freeing a young genius of her chains. 

Woodstock…meet your true Empress…Zulma Steele. 

And not an inch behind her — Edna Walker, full partner and paramour, extraordinaire. 

Four years after this photo was taken the arts begin in Woodstock with Byrdcliffe, a fully formed aberration of an Arts and Crafts college, which opened in 1903. It was simultaneously the idyll indulgence and life-long passion of an English millionaire and his American socialite/artist wife, whose middle names provided Byrdcliffe instantaneous fascination. Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and Jane Byrd McCall were king and queen of a realm neither English nor American but truly mid-Atlantic. Byrdcliffe’s model would refute “the factory” yet remain economically feasible. Its monetary engine, a unique line of art-infused furniture, would utilize guilds of old while steering clear — as best as it might — of machinery.

In all this Mr. and Mrs. Whitehead were as one. After failed attempts they succeeded in bringing two healthy boys into a family possessing more money than any would ever need. Instead the Whiteheads’ problems proved to be of a personal nature.

Though Ralph adored his “Byrd” — whom he often addressed in nearly a thousand letters as “My Twin” — he was serially unfaithful to her, usually, but not always, unobserved. As a result, among Byrdcliffe’s first faculty Mrs. Whitehead welcomed several Chicago-based feminists from the ultra-progressive lesbian stronghold of Hull House. (Although not all Byrdcliffe’s feminists were lesbian.) The idea being that while teaching book-binding and rescuing young women from eons of sexual repression, these authority figures might rein in Ralph’s wandering eye. 

In hindsight it’s sadly obvious. Like most American women, Byrd had no understanding of the Byrdcliffe phenomenon today known as “bisexuality.” It was forced before the eyes of the world with the fall of Ralph’s Oxford classmate, Oscar Wilde, who was incarcerated in England for engaging in extra-marital homosexual relations in 1900. (Previously — if it were used at all — the word “bisexual” referred to a hermaphrodite.)

Aside from a hodge-podge of admired teachers Byrdcliffe’s initial success depended largely on scholarship students who functioned more like interns, most of whom hailed from the Pratt Institute. Yet from the start Zulma Steele and Edna Walker’s contributions were so remarkable that, although neither received a salary, Mr. Whitehead astutely included them within the inner sanctum of Byrdcliffe by building his favorites a private home/studio — of course, without charge.

It would take Mrs. Whitehead a full eight years before she flew into a jealous rage at her husband’s adoration of Zulma, obvious from the entire days he’d spend with “Misses Steele and Walker.” But by then the two had accomplished in tiny Byrdcliffe what no woman artist in America had before. (Unless their brief victories were actually unique to the world, itself.)

It all began simply and humbly enough. According to early historian, Anita Smith, “The first so-called barnacles were Zulma Steele and Edna Walker — who, in the early days…came to live in the Reynold’s barn while their house was being built.” The two were plainly devoted to each other (and so Mrs. Whitehead’s slow-fuse is better understood) as shown in this uncredited photograph of them nuzzling their boot toes as “barnacles.” The image is likely an unsigned work by Byrdcliffe’s most famous and gifted chronicler, Eva Watson-Schutze (unless it was taken by the talented amateur photographer Ralph Whitehead, himself). Since, who but another woman or a trusted confidante would these by now camera-shy lovers pose for so candidly? In any case, it will be the last photograph of the couple taken in the United States.

Written accounts of Byrdcliffe primarily survive through the recollections Whitehead’s rivalrous lieutenants, Hervey White (who fails to even mention Steele or Walker), and renaissance man Bolton Brown, who claims Zulma “was really our outstanding lady, both visually and in a quality we may call style.” Now…does this statement (or does it not) neglect to mention Zulma’s art — which happens to have surpassed the importance of Brown’s own work at Byrdcliffe? Either way, it’s about at this time Steele slips into history as a shapeshifter, who publicly dresses in a “style” highly pleasing to Brown, while preferring masculine attire at home. 

A Zulma Steele designed bench, with the pattern inset.

Ralph Whitehead’s first great inspiration (aside from the bisexual Lord Byron) was his own beloved Oxford don and the Father of the Conservation movement, John Ruskin. Ruskin believed plants native to a region should be celebrated within it. Armed with this notion Zulma and Edna collected local specimens and — with what could only have been Ralph’s ecstatic encouragement — produced hundreds of remarkable drawings, prints, and stencils of local Sassafras berries, lilies, ferns, etc.

Several of these images were found on beams, mantels, lampshades and bookcases in the home/studio Whitehead built for Zulma and Edna, he named The Angelus, or “the angel,” which neighbored his own grand domicile of White Pines (where Zulma’s works and drawings were also featured.) More importantly, these same motifs came to represent the colony, itself, by adorning masterpieces created by a team of top-notch cabinet-makers and carvers. 

A majority of the plans for the 50 or so known pieces of Byrdcliffe furniture completed between 1903 and 1905 were supplied by Steele (with stencils predominantly credited to herself and/or Walker.) So — even if historians are shy to say it — Whitehead obviously preferred Zulma’s designs to the Art Deco-inflected grandiosities contributed by the faculty member and fully salaried Mr. Dawson-Watson. Exactly what Riulf Erlenson (master cabinet-maker), Olaf Westerling (Swedish woodcarver), or Fordyce Herrick (best of Woodstock’s local carpenters) thought of following a woman’s plan in fulfilling their most manly art of furniture, is not recorded. It had never happened before.

Because Byrdcliffe furniture was discontinued by 1905, it became a lost colony in American furniture, and so the unique achievements of Steele and Walker were essentially forgotten until the late 1970’s. By this time — around the death of Steele at 98 — the Whiteheads’ surviving son, Peter, also died, and White Pines was inhabited for a summer by an ambitious young antiquarian named Robert Edwards. It was Edwards who fully catalogued Mr. and Mrs. Whitehead’s rare possessions, rain-damaged and neglected though many were. 

Although quick to alienate himself from mainstream scholars, Edwards brought Byrdcliffe furniture to the attention of the world almost single-handedly, and so, too, the legacy of Zulma Steele and Edna Walker was in part revived. Elsewhere, it was Edwards who first took Byrdcliffe historians to task for turning a blind eye to male bisexuality and the gender-blending promiscuity of Byrdcliffe in general. Yet to be fair, the now-long-dead individuals who lived such remarkable lives here at the turn of the century, also covered for each other (regardless of artistic and romantic rivalries), and so maintained a façade of relative normality, where a bucolic bacchanal actually reigned.

For instance, read between the lines of Annie Thompson’s often-cited recollection of “an unusual party at The Angelus” and see what results. “There were few of the younger men around [suggesting the older presence of neighbor Ralph Whitehead] so we decided to have half our special group come in male costumes to remove that social deficiency.”  Here “our special group” suggests a lesbian contingent, yet the complaint of “few younger men around” representing a “social deficiency” sounds more like a heterosexual group of young women  deprived of swains. So which is it? Probably both. 

Further along in Thompson’s recollection we learn that hosts Steele and Walker were themselves dressed as art students (or essentially asexual garb.) But now reference the Pratt Institute class photo of Steele proudly preening in Walker’s lap in art student dress and an entirely different connotation emerges, as here in Woodstock, a Brave New World takes shape. At home in The Angelus, Professor Dow’s boldest protégés have become the youngest and most attractive of Byrdcliffe’s lesbians, and in honoring them, many a couple step proudly out of the closet — very likely to the full appreciation of Ralph Whitehead. (Who either has already or soon will seduce the gender-blending Zulma Steele.)

There are 2 comments

  1. Suzette Green

    Brilliant, Tad. More, more, more! Is this a series, a beginning of a book? Having worked with Peter (Whitehead) in his library, I find this fascinating, as so little e seemed to be known at the time I was living in Woodstock, ’68 – 74. I missed you on my visit late June this year. Looking forward to more of your writing. Suzette

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