The English millionaire (and future founder of Woodstock’s first art colony) Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, was a painfully polite and cautious man. For example, two names of great personal importance to him never appeared in any of his surviving letters. These were: his favorite poet and secret role model, the luridly bi-sexual Lord Byron; and Whitehead’s Oxford classmate, Oscar Wilde (also bisexual), who’d be incarcerated for homosexual indecency in 1895, until released in 1897 after two years of hard labor. The following year, in Chicago, Whitehead met Hervey White, a slender, pretty and highly gifted young American firebrand (whose unpublished first novel was likely the second “gay novel” attempted in America). A year later Hervey would travel extensively with “Mr. Whitehead” in the American North West and, in 1901, they partially fulfilled their fantasy of an extended vacation in Europe together. But initially and most life-changingly, in 1899, Hervey became the Whiteheads’ summer-long house guest at their Tuscan-styled villa, “Arcady,” near Santa Barbara, California. Already most mysteriously called “Niccolo” by Mr. Whitehead (as well as by Mrs. Whitehead and, eventually, their two small boys), Hervey would certainly have been informed by his patron that “Niccolo” had been the first name of Lord Byron’s favorite young Greek lover, Niccolo Giraud. This reference would not have been lost upon any of Whitehead’s chums at Harrow (where Byron had schooled in the early 1800’s, and which had since become a living museum to his memory). But Americans were a charmingly illiterate lot and so no one ever broke the Byronic code, until now.
The fact that Whitehead and White’s apparent mentor/protégé relationship germinated exactly after Wilde re-entered public life, “a ruined man,” required the only known photograph of Ralph and Hervey — the actual parents of Creative Woodstock — to add a third man.
This was Fritz Van der Loo, who Woodstock historians remember primarily as the absentee partner in Hervey White’s revolutionary “Maverick” colony, land for which they purchased together in 1905, fast following White’s never fully explained rupture with the Whiteheads. However, the White/Whitehead/Van Der Loo portrait in fact bears witness to a highly decadent period which has never been chronicled before. It began when Whitehead’s quest to build an Arts & Crafts colony returned him to England briefly in 1901. This same trip also provided him excuse for a reunion with “Niccolo” in Paris (even after Hervey and another of Whitehead’s young artist-companions had broken free of their patron, to live together, briefly, in and around Boston. Though in Hervey’s case this declaration of independence was short-lived.)
What resulted next fast descended into a sultry romantic comedy.
The reconciled lovers finally rendezvous in Paris, but Hervey had an “adventurer” friend with him named Fritz. Yet shy as Whitehead might have seemed in public, in private he was far more daring, as demonstrated by the fact that Ralph lavishly entertained both young men in Paris, supplied funds for their even further travels, and then finally shipped Fritz off (to retrieve an inheritance in Buenos Aires, Hervey’s memoir ridiculously claimed) while Ralph, himself, squired Hervey to Florence, there to write sincere and ever-loving letters home to his sickly wife in California, while nostalgically recalling this, the city of their own early courtship. Lastly: Fritz, Hervey, and Whitehead re-united once again in Paris to steam back to New York together. Their sleeping arrangements? Anyone’s guess.
Obviously Whitehead would have needed to find a very different sort of “adventurer” were he to bring the party to an end and accomplish something tangible. And so, without at first even informing Hervey, in early 1902 Whitehead hired a married-with-children, extremely masculine, and self-proclaimed genius named Bolton Coit Brown. It being “Mr. Brown,” who, in early May of that year, would singlehandedly discovered the sleepy little Catskill village of Woodstock.
At the end of April of that year the three men had split into two parties — Brown zig-zagging across the Catskills on foot, Whitehead and White traveling by train and carriage through more southern American states. Whitehead had salaried Brown handsomely, having earlier provided Hervey a generous allowance; it being the Englishman’s stated intention to bankroll a unique Arts and Crafts community as soon as an ideal location was identified.
While standing in a meadow atop Mead’s Mountain and surveying Woodstock at the base of a long slope, with a hazy blue Hudson River in the distance, Brown was instantly convinced he’d discovered that ideal location. A telegram sent from the village drug store (today “Clouds”) in the valley below soon conveyed the same highly confident opinion.
A short few weeks later, Whitehead’s enthusiastic letters home paralleled most of Brown’s own description of that last day in May of 1902, when all three men revisited his triumphant look-out atop Mead’s Mountain. Impressed by all they saw, the three convened to a lower meadow, “one of those sightly spots,” Brown recalled decades later, “from which all the world was visible,” to discuss a future plan.
Of the third partner Brown remembered: “Hervey White was a young man in those days — very much the poet — long hair, whiskers, no hat, red necktie, and strong radicalism in every form. The underdog was always right, with Hervey.”
Brown, however, didn’t quote a single word from the hatless fellow. Instead he described Whitehead still pushing for establishment of the colony in warmer environs; a decision which would have again postponed the vast undertaking (most of which Bolton Brown would, himself, oversee.) But according to Brown’s same account, Whitehead finally acquiesced with: “Well, all right; let’s have it here. We’ll buy this row of farms along this side of the mountain.”
And with that…the search was over.
It would be here — or so he thought — that Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead would provide the world an example of how civilization might proceed without smokestacks polluting the air, without mills poisoning rivers (exactly as his own family fortune was made). Here the visual arts would flourish while craftsman’s guilds, as in days of olde, would provide a man sufficient income to steer him and his family clear of the soul-erosion of the modern city. Yet the idea of Whitehead’s idealized community had, from the start, also been the pet project of Ralph’s American wife, Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead, and so free-thinking women would also have the same opportunity within the Whiteheads’ colony as men. Thus the vision of Ralph’s legendary Oxford don, that recently departed prophet John Ruskin — mentor to all three men and Mrs. Whitehead — would be modified slightly, and by such modification, redeemed.
Whitehead easily possessed the money to finance the entire undertaking. Almost as impressive was his instinct to place Brown and White in tacit competition; for each man was, in his own distinct mode, a genius. Even if the dirt-poor, though Harvard-educated, Hervey White, had muzzled his earliest instinct to shock the world by writing of his own homosexuality, partially because the Oscar Wilde scandal had reversed a slowly growing tolerance towards bisexuality, and partially because Hervey now had both the reputations of Mr. and Mrs. Whitehead to consider, as well as that of their shared future colony. So Hervey’s prolific vision as writer was gradually forced into ever more obscure allegories, until — during the excitement in Woodstock — he went silent altogether, to function more as a Master of Ceremonies for the more reticent Mr. and Mrs. Whitehead.
Whereas Bolton Brown, who’d proven himself comparable to a modern-day Michelangelo (with bragging rights as America’s premiere mountain climber, to boot!) hardly spoke a word or performed an action that wasn’t stamped with an undying conviction of his own immortal worth. However, to be fair: if Brown had in fact remained at the helm of the “arts college” soon to take shape on the slope he’d personally discovered, Woodstock would today likely host a school much like Bard College.
So who’d have guessed on that early spring afternoon at the outset of what would be called “The American Century,” that it would be the all-but-dismissed third man, the wild-haired poet Hervey White, whose Maverick colony in decades to come would actually realize Ruskin’s far-reaching dream? That as a cross between Henry David Thoreau and John Paul Jones, it’d be Hervey White leading his own passive American Revolution, who’d bypass the bolder Yankee while outmaneuvering the infinitely wealthier, better supplied and better organized English power — this older aristocrat who, at the moment, “Niccolo” all but stood in awe before?
In little more than a year this hillside would boast over ten new buildings, some of them massive, and “Byrdcliffe” would take its rightful place among the most lavishly appointed art colonies in America. Yet this astounding achievement — even more astoundingly — would be reduced to a side-show by the man without a hat.
A few weeks earlier as Brown’s clothes were ripped to shreds by the briars and brambles of the Catskill undergrowth, Ralph and Hervey completed another most pleasant if “unsatisfactory” investigation of the Carolinas and Virginia — a trip in which, one distinguished historian wrote, Mrs. Whitehead was also present, (this representing the clumsiest and most obvious suppression of the White/Whitehead affair yet observed.)
But Brown, as explorer, proved swifter in fulfilling his objective than even Whitehead was likely to have foreseen. Indeed, Brown’s telegram prompted the trio’s highly pleased inspection from Overlook Mountain which, likewise, prompted Whitehead’s sudden decision to move forward in Woodstock. Yet tangentially, Ralph must have also known those idyllic days and nights beside his beloved Niccolo were quickly drawing to a close. And despite the excitement of onrushing events, neither of these worldly men could feign ignorance of the fact that this “safely unobserved” period in their long relationship was all but over. Furthermore, all that would become doubly true since (as certain as I might be after several years of study) the compromise Ralph made with his conscience was this. After an earlier affair with a certain Californian “neighbor’s daughter” which all but wrecked his marriage, Whitehead confined his extra-marital dalliances to travel adventure, after which he was once again transformed into a loyal husband and dutiful father.
Yet could he and his young protégé have searched longer and chosen better while leisurely enjoying each other’s company for another stolen year or two? Despite Whitehead’s letters home specifically stating the unsuitability of the mid-Atlantic states, Bolton Brown’s account insists Whitehead indeed sought to prolong the search in just such a manner — specifically, while exploring Pennsylvania.
But the Poconos, too, proved unsatisfactory. And so? With Whitehead assuring his Lady Jane of few, if any, Jews present…Woodstock it would be!