The Spoken Word
Research, if done correctly, requires primary sources: letters, diaries, notebooks, and record books dating from the period when a subject was active. This virgin material is the only true source for original thinking. Today, whether it is the unprecedented access to YouTube or newly available digitized interviews, we have gained an important new primary source—the spoken word. Historic audio recordings and film footage of artists, writers, and curators speaking in their own voices reveal personalities and emotions in a way that is completely lost in transcription. Looking forward, as archives become increasingly available online, the spoken word will gain a much greater presence in our research and published work.
I knew the first curator hired at the Museum of Modern Art—Dorothy C. Miller—but in order to write about her, I understood that I would have to listen to interviews made in the early 1970s by Russell Lynes for his history of the museum, Good Old Modern. A longtime editor of Harper’s Magazine, Lynes was the younger brother of pioneering photographer George Platt Lynes who, before his untimely death in 1955, introduced Russell to a wide array of influential individuals working in the arts. Russell Lynes was fascinated by the palace intrigue and the power struggles at the Museum, and in his book he focused on the personalities of the early individuals at MoMA, but he completely misunderstood the importance of the Museum’s ambition to assemble a foundational narrative of modernism.
A number of years ago, I attempted to listen to these interviews. The sound quality of the tapes was terrible, and because they were so difficult to understand, they were never transcribed. Recently however, they were digitized and enhanced by the Archives of American Art, and they now provide an important background for someone not afraid to tackle bigger issues and themes surrounding MoMA’s early goals and aspirations. Lynes, who had a journalist’s nose for a story, preferred to interview his subjects over a drink or a meal—the clink of the tableware together with all the background noises of the room that obscured the old interviews have now been eliminated through digitization and one can finally hear their voices.
The composer Virgil Thomson, for example, spoke to Lynes with his lilting nasal voice:
“[Alfred H. Barr, Jr.] had a preacher’s smooth way with the trustees. Daisy [Barr’s wife] never had that. After a couple of dinners at the Rockefellers’ and with the Cranes and so on, they turned thumbs down on her and never asked her again. Because Daisy was far too forthright.”
In four short sentences—a quatrain—Thomson had drawn a portrait of the Barr’s marriage, their working partnership, and their personalities.
“Russell [Hitchcock] and Philip [Johnson] knew each other from Harvard but they were not the same vintage […] Russell will tell you that or Philip will tell you that […] Philip had started life as a Classics major and it was through his friendship with Russell that he discovered modern architecture and they regularly made trips to Germany together to see the Bauhaus and that kind of thing. In the course of that, of course, Philip got extremely attached to Germany.”
The elliptical cadence of Thomson’s sentences is much more evident in the recording than in my transcription, and you can begin to pick up the poetry in his prose.
Lynes built on what he learned from Thomson for his next interview with architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock, who had a long, broad Boston-based accent that barely concealed his condescending demeanor. Unlike Thomson, Hitchcock would pause and reflect, sometimes changing direction as he circled back on a subject. Describing the Summer of 1932 which he spent with Philip Johnson in Chicago:
“I do think, as you can probably remember, there was that curious [pronounced very slowly as cure–ree–ous] attitude about intellectuals; there was no via media; there was either the extreme left or the extreme right.”
He went on to describe Philip Johnson’s conversion to Fascism under the influence of Huey Long and Father Coughlin, and in an aside whispered:
“I would keep off that [subject] if I were you […] Alfred Barr, in his curious way was much too lenient about [Philip] […] some of this was cooking up right there under his nose in the Architecture Department.”
One way that Russell Lynes would extract candid observations from his subjects was to reveal something that others had told him. To Hitchcock, for example, Lynes revealed that Lincoln Kirstein, founder of the New York City Ballet and member of the first generation of the Junior Advisory Committee at the Museum of Modern Art, had written to him: “I resent every minute I spent in this museum and I do not want to talk to anyone about it.”
Hitchcock and Lynes had a good chuckle over this (heard on the tape) and then Hitchcock shot back: “Lincoln is more pathological than ever.”
Although I lament the fact that Lynes didn’t ask the big questions, these newly digitized interviews offer new insights into the relationships and the rivalries that became the fabric of the New York cultural world during the first part of the 20th Century. Listening to these individuals, rather than reading them, I discovered their earnestness, their heartbreaks, and their struggles, thus rendering their critical intelligence in an entirely different light. This new source of primary research—the spoken word—actually contradicts some of the things that have already been written and should prove invaluable going forward.
WENDY JEFFERS is completing a biography of legendary curator Dorothy Miller. She is past chair of the board of trustees of the Archives of American Art.