01-03-2018

McKim, Mead and White

After researching and writing this collection now for more than a decade, it is a pleasant surprise to discover some new bit of Gay history. Listening to All Things Considered on a drive home to upstate New York from Connecticut on New Year’s Day, we listened to author and biographer Mosette Broderick discussing her book, Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America’s Gilded Age (Knopf ISBN-10: 0394536622), a multiple biography of the three architects who shaped the American architectural scene well into the 20th century (the firm still exists, though under a different name, now).

I nearly drove off the road when she dropped this little tidbit into the conversation. “It’s quite clear from their letters that something happened between them while they traveled in Italy.” The “them” she refers to is no less than architect Stanford White and his longtime collaborator – and now it would seem lover – August Saint-Gaudens. Yes, Stanford White was eventually (and now one might suggest “ironically”) shot by the irate cuckolded husband of actress Evelyn Nesbitt, Philadelphia plutocrat Harry K. Thaw. And yes, August Saint-Gaudens was a married man.

 As the French say chacun à son goût!

And as we say: Whatever.

In the book Broderick goes into great detail about the relationship, but some particular things jump off the page to the careful reader. Though Saint-Gaudens was, indeed, married, it seems that this was a classic marriage of convenience, particularly for Saint-Gaudens for whom the marriage meant financial security found in the wealth of his wife and her family. When she attempted to make “an arrangement” for White with her own sister, White wrote to friends protesting,

“’I am sure that she – or any other girl – is not for me.” Broderick goes on, “White’s remarks about women and marriage seem to indicate a lack of interest in any serious relationship. Indeed, beyond  a generic reference to “pooty” girls, there is little other indication of ending his bachelor status.”

 Oh those bachelors! “Pooty” girls. Indeed.

But perhaps the most telling…and dare we say romantic…story Broderick relates is of the two men’s sojourn together in Italy.

“While in Italy alone with Gus [August Saint-Gaudens] who had been in Italy twice before and could act as a guide, something happened between the two of them that cannot be fully ascertained. White’s letters, which were carefully edited by his son in the Depression years, contain references to an incident that almost cost the men their friendship.  With an ocean between them in the following months each writes the other admitting blame and urging the other not to be too serious about what happened. Gus seems to do the bulk of the apologizing for his behavior. The language used by the two—who address each other as “beloved” and even “doubly beloved” and sign their missives as “ever lovingly thine”—indicates a possible pass made at White by Saint-Gaudens. Although probably the act was rejected, an ambiguity toward homosexual moments appears in their letters from this point forward; both words and drawings seem to indicate a shared experience, and their old motto Kiss My Ass, used as an ending for letters, becomes more serious when signed with graphic cartoon drawings.”