The Death of an Enigma: The Unknown Hervey White

Photograph of Hervey White by Konrad Cramer.

In 1944, Alf Evers, the 39 year old children’s-book-author-turned-Catskill-historian, was hurrying to an important appointment when he heard his name called from across Tinker Street. Turning, Alf caught sight of creative Woodstock’s Founding Father signaling him on what  proved to be the last day of this most mysterious man’s life. Evers crossed and stood face to face with the 79 year old sphinx, who took his arm and uttered words which would haunt the historian until his dying day: “Alf, I have something of great importance I need to discuss with you.”  

Caught off guard, Evers promised to drive out to the Maverick “very soon.” He then hurried off, only to awaken the following day to discover that “very soon” was already far too late. The news raced through every door and open window in Woodstock. 

Hervey White was dead.

The first person I ever heard allude to White’s suicide was my step-father, David Ballantine, (whose own father, E. J. Ballantine acted, directed, and taught at White’s Maverick Theater through much of the 30’s). This must have been 30 years ago. David raised his head and shook it slightly as he always would before making a pronouncement.

Advertisement

“Dr. Downer was ever-grateful for Hervey’s heroic assistance during the influenza epidemic… and respectful enough of Hervey’s reputation…to never fail to mention ‘a malfunctioning chimney flu’ in that tiny cabin where they found Hervey in that fall of ’44. As a result, Hervey’s death was ruled an ‘accidental asphyxiation,’ in the papers. Though that wasn’t what was whispered among his inner circle, of which Father was a member in good standing.” 

Though today I consider this recollection crucial, it wasn’t until a decade or so ago that Hervey White seemed to reach back among the living and tap me on the shoulder. It was 2008 at one of Eddie Vilchur’s last New Years’ Day parties. I was trading stories with writer and retired English Professor, Tony Robinson (whose father, the famous novelist, Henry Morton Robinson, had been the first struggling writer at The Maverick). Tony recalled walking along the Maverick Road at age 13 on a perfect autumn day in 1944 when he noticed the still-spry Hervey White round the bend. The Maverick’s founder had practically been godfather to the boy, who smiled broadly at the sight of the tall, wiry old man. Tony motioned to the roadside trees spangled with orange, red, and gold and yelled: “When do the leaves start to fall, Hervey?” 

“October Twentieth.” White answered, as if that very question had been on his mind all day. He drew closer, tousled the boy’s hair, and continued to tour his domain as he had for the last 40 years.

“October 20th, of course…” Tony recalled, resorting to an amber-colored liquid in his glass, his blue eyes moist with emotion, “…was the very day they found Hervey in ‘Six by Eight,[as the tiny cabin was known].  I was off at school, but when I heard the news I instantly remembered that strange answer Hervey gave — so quick and cool, like he’d made up his mind…And then I knew…” 

That anecdote marked the beginning of my obsession with Hervey White. Probably more for the fact that through it our original Maverick planted “October 20th” as a time bomb in an innocent boy’s mind where it would explode a few weeks later, and then over and over again on the anniversary of that date, perhaps for rest of Tony Robinson’s life. Except that Robinson passed the gift of the curse Hervey inflicted upon him…onto me.

For a few weeks a couple of years back, while finishing research for a biography of White, I haunted the Alf Evers archives in the Woodstock Guild Building on Tinker Street. Around the corner of a small table from me sat the archivist, poet-activist Ed Sanders, who, although a far more famous man of letters, remained our beloved historian’s tireless champion. For instance, it was Ed who told of Alf hailed by Hervey on that fateful October day in 1944, just outside the building in which we sat. Similarly, as I was packing up a few weeks later, Ed looked up and announced to the shelves above, “I recently found a note of Alf’s which detailed a visit he made to Raoul Hague at the Maverick in which Hague described Hervey White stopping by to say goodbye before taking a suicide pill given to him by a doctor friend in New York. Hague said that Hervey made several such visits to old friends the day before he was found in ‘Six by Eight.’”

So now I knew that Ed knew that Hervey took his own life. And that Evers had known it, without ever divulging the fact publicly. This newest revelation also revealed much in Jean Gaede’s 1968 interview with Lucile Blanch. Over the years, Jean told me all she knew about Hervey, and she did not know he’d taken his own life. Yet according to David Ballantine and Raoul Hague, Hervey’s inner circle did know and kept the secret as in this recollection by Lucile Blanch…

The day before he [Hervey] had such a good time. I saw him walking from [Pierre] Henrotte’s where he’d had lunch, and a very good lunch it must have been…They had an old friend there, some musician that he enjoyed. It was a beautiful warm October day and he in his wide-wale corduroy pants and his sash…his beautiful sash…orangey red. There were apples on the trees along the road and he picked an apple off the tree and went down the road eating it…chomping big bites out of it, you know. That’s how I last saw him alive. The next morning he was dead.

And then finally…

There was a young chap that had had a rough time in the war…He was living on the Maverick that summer…a bit of a burden on Hervey [who was] forced into the father role and too kind not to accept it. Well, that morning this boy came down the hill and built a fire outside, where Hervey cooked, put the coffee pot on the fire and went to wake Hervey. And Hervey couldn’t wake up, of course…he had died. So the boy came down and woke me and took me back with him and asked me please to tell him if he was dead. I put my hand on his forehead…and he was indeed dead.

Hervey, in 1916, nearing completion of his proudest achievement — The Maverick Concert Hall.

What Blanch doesn’t say is that Hervey was, presumably, a perfectly healthy old man who all but cheerfully took his own life. But she does leave a hint as to why. For the violinist and conductor Pierre Henrotte (whose lunch White so enjoyed) was the French figurehead in the changeover from the German-dominated classical music at The Maverick Concert Hall. Obviously, the orange-sashed, apple-chomping Hervey White was happy as could be with the concert hall, and likely intuited that it would prosper for many years. And so, when he pulled down the curtain on his own life, it would be there upon his concert hall stage where those who loved him would say their goodbyes. And at this last work of theater Woodstock’s great impresario was evidently most pleased, indeed. 

Now if I were a propagandist seeking a fan club for my pet project on Hervey White — that’s all you’d ever know about his end. And that would fall into line with a local history which leaves Woodstock unaware of its actual creative parentage. Which, by eerie coincidence, was the exact fate of Hervey White, who, (as we saw in Part I of this series) never learned the identity of his actual father. So it becomes doubly appropriate that we now briefly examine the last years in the long, strange ride of that rider who mythologized a horse too wild to ever be ridden.

By 1944 the heyday of the Maverick had been over for at least fifteen years. In ’31 the last boozily overblown Maverick Festival was marred by a rape, and so the predecessor to The Woodstock Festival actually ended with a first whiff of Altamont. After that last blow out, Hervey White, as writer, was finally relieved of competing with his own best idea: the festival, itself. So? He persisted and self-published with little or no attention to sales. For he’d long before enlisted his own considerable talents in the creation of coded fictions and verses which soon deteriorated into confusing bores. The result? People loved Hervey White. But almost no one read him.

The Depression was on. Work was scarce. Hervey cooked delicious dinners for a sprawling group of handsome young bachelors, not all of whom became his lovers but might as well have. They hung on his every word. Compared to Tolstoy and Christ, himself, Hervey taught the gospel of brotherly love, communal living, and passionate poverty. To make a meager living through the creation of life-and-love-affirming art? This seemed, to White, the worthiest path forward through a greed-wrecked age. 

Then FDR began providing fledgling artists a modest income through WPA grants, and the mission of Hervey’s colony was undercut. Damage was also incurred, earlier, when Juliana Force’s pocketbook (its purchases soon to fill The Whitney) awoke competition among artists on the Maverick, where spouse-poaching had previously filled that bill. Success and the comforts of real homes pulled the original colonists into Woodstock, proper. And while the Concert Hall delivered magnificently, its companion just next door, The Maverick Theater, too often stooped to regrettable commercialism. Worse yet, Hervey’s more frequent tirades seemed to contradict his teachings — sometimes even in print. And so? The old Pied Piper’s flock began to wear thin. 

Hervey White

But Hervey was still a living legend, one which a never-identified publisher provided a whopping thousand dollar advance to pen an autobiography. Money in hand White took to the open road. His driver and owner of various jalopies was Howard, one of the two Barnes boys who’d been like foster sons, ones who, together with their father, had assisted in the building of The Maverick Concert Hall. 

Advertisement

Hoping for a southern revival, Hervey bought a couple hundred acres of lowlands in Georgia. Harkening back to Socialist Christianity, he mounted vastly ambitious Passion Plays utilizing a hundred or more amateur African-Americans as singers and actors. Such extravaganzas were said to have mixed white and black performers on the same stage. (If true, it’s a miracle the enterprise fizzled without a lynching.) Whatever the exact fate of the failed colony, Hervey continued to winter in Georgia, where he finished his memoir in the winter of ’38, before returning to the Maverick. 

Though romantically active even into his seventies, Hervey, as usual, fell in love with an unattainable heterosexual. His last love’s name: James Cooney, a literary activist who, together with his wife, Blanche, took over Hervey’s Maverick Press to begin The Phoenix Magazine. As depicted by Blanche in her autobiography In My Own Sweet Time, Hervey never failed to greet Jim Cooney by kissing him full on the lips. And at least the intellectual component of this infatuation was fully returned by Jimmy, to whom Hervey would eventually write his last letter. (Yet in it, unlike communications with other older friends, White conveyed not the slightest hint of a death wish.)

In August of ‘39 Hervey read at The Historical Society of Woodstock for two hours from his memoir, “with the assistance of James P. Cooney,” as reported by The Overlook in: “Hervey White Discloses His Autobiography.” But disaster soon followed. White’s mystery publisher wrote off the thousand dollar advance and refused the untitled (and presumably repeatedly redrafted) work which today remains an uneven, elusive, and overly chatty read. Secretly illegitimate, White’s aversion to humiliation would’ve boiled over into panic, with the memory of that lengthy reading before dozens of old friends, like salt rubbed into a public lancing. 

To escape, Hervey took to the road more often, and remained in Georgia longer. Though visits from his long-absent sons cheered him, in ’42 Hervey lost his dearest companion, Carl Eric Lindin, (previously distanced by marriage) and the US finally entered WWII. With this “the American War Machine” relegated White’s contempt for technology hopelessly out of date. White increasingly seemed a tattered revolutionary without a revolution.

In 2006 historian Tom Wolf criticized White for an anti-Semitism many assumed he picked up at the side of his first great benefactor, Ralph Whitehead. In fact, an even younger Hervey White adopted the unfortunate disease at Harvard where (although loathe to admit it) he was venomously looked down upon for being a mid-Westerner, and a dirt poor one at that. Hervey’s desperate solution was to find “an enemy in common” with Harvard’s elite and so he stooped to anti-Semitism. Elsewhere, Hervey’s well disguised bouts of fervent Christianity likely stirred long-held antipathy towards Jews. Also, what amounted to vows of poverty taken among colonists at the Maverick (including several Jewish artists) defied what Hervey perceived as the money-worshipping Jew. Yet the rise of Hitler and — by the autumn of ‘44 — the inevitability of Germany’s defeat held a dark mirror up to White’s “old fashioned” anti-Semitism. Here was a prejudice a man of Hervey’s enlightened intelligence should of course have long before disavowed, except that shame tacitly permeated his experience of self,  thus rendering apology a near impossibility. So in lieu of admitting wrong Hervey worked harder at doing right.

No stranger to the importance of dramatic timing, Hervey surely realized that a hushed-up suicide “before war’s end” would allow, during his funeral in the Maverick Concert Hall, for his “better angels” to eclipse those fallen. So he reveled in what remained of love and friendship, and what vestiges of his considerable battle against materialism remained here in this, his ramshackle kingdom, itself, stuffed full with anecdotes long since forgotten. But back then? They were everywhere in everything, nailed into the rough carpentry of those dozens of cabins and cottages Hervey built for devotees and dried-out derelicts alike. Old Woodstock would, of course, recall his astounding Maverick Festivals with ever-more amazing stages rearing up from quarries and fields. These being the bacchanals wherein American Performance Art was born, generations before the term was coined. But above all, for those with whom he shared his colony, Hervey would be remembered for the guidance, comfort and a spiritual sustenance he supplied hundreds of personalities and talents, great and small. Tangential to that kindest of souls, however, remained the sly fox in White, and over the fox hovered the black raven — always “half in love with death.” Perhaps at his end these aspects merged as Hervey White realized that leaving Earthly life on October 20 — the day before his planned departure for his Georgia property — would cast the vague suggestion of suicide among those just outside his inner sanctum (who already knew the truth) without providing anything like firm proof to strangers. Although surely it would come out, eventually. What — these 75 years later? So that yes, to the very end Hervey White would embody the anatomy of an enigma.

My thanks to Eila Kokkinen, Fern Malkine-Falvey, John Baker, and especially Jean Lasher Gaede

For important personal remembrances by Hervey’s grand daughter (and the only known photo of “Six by Eight”) see herveywhite.com


(Photo by Dion Oust)

Burying Hervey

Tony Robinson’s mother, Gertrude, in her thick German accent, recalled  preparations for Hervey’s funeral to Jean Gaede. 

“There is no suit…he never wore one. So we went and got his Russian blouse, and I remember washing it and ironing it…and his blue scarf. Lucile combed his hair. Mr. Lasher dressed him, of course, and he looked ‘just like Hervey.’

Jean, herself, wrote:

“Just imagine this gathering arriving at the Concert Hall to say goodbye to Hervey. Some coming in their cars, circling the Hall and dropping off their saddened passengers. All this against the background activity of the walkers converging from every direction; up the paths, across the bluestone and through the woods, like quiet shadows sliding through the October day.”

And Raoul Hague recalled to Jonathan Richards (interspersed with his recollections to Jean Gaede in italics).

“At Hervey’s funeral the artists got together and we cut [boughs of] maple and sumac, oak and hickory and put that all around [the Concert Hall.] And then they brought in the coffin [of rough-sawn pine.] I was at the entrance of the Concert Hall, watching them come in one by one. All kinds of people came to the funeral…it was like costumes again [as at the Maverick Festivals.]  Ohmacht came, Hervey’s farmer. A carpenter friend of Hervey’s came whose wife walked behind in a wrinkled coat. Betty Barnes, with Howard, came in…[she] with a long purple handkerchief and mascara running down her cheeks. Madame Kosloff came in, dressed like a whore. George Finckle came in. And Horace [Britt] (Finckle’s cellist rival.) There was a big fight over who was going to play. When Finckel came in they wouldn’t let him play. There were some crazy things.”

But to begin with it was solemnly perfect.

On the stage Hervey lay in a plain pine box festooned with pine boughs, dressed in the Russian tunic Carl Eric Lindin had given him, his abundant white hair tamed at last. Martin Schutzë gave the eulogy. Everyone behaved while Schutzë (who’d founded the historical society) spoke and at the end read two of Hervey’s poems. Then came the tussle over who would play. Finally that was settled and Horace Britt likely performed the Elgor Cello Concerto. 

“The only time I cried was when the concert started,” Gerdie Robinson, recalled. “It was just so poignant to have Hervey lying there with this beautiful concert going on…Hervey still there, with all his people.”

Towards the end of the Britt’s cello, Jim Cooney burst in, almost in a state of shock. He’d driven over pot-holed roads all the way from Massachusetts and fixed five flat tires — desperate to see Hervey before he was boxed and buried forever beneath the hillside of the artist’s cemetery. Oblivious to the silent throng filling the hall, Cooney rushed up the aisle to the coffin and froze beside it, plainly overwrought. Finally, he become aware of the outraged whispering from the old guard which momentarily created an uproar threatening the stark beauty of a scene no one who beheld it would ever forget.

Read other articles in this series.

Post Your Thoughts