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from Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986

1925: NEW YORK

Walter Tittle, (1883-1966) was born in Springfield, Ohio, and studied art in New York. For many years he contributed illustrations, cartoons, and articles to Harper's, Scribner's, Century, Life, and other magazines. A well-known and popular portrait painter, his subjects included such personages as George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, G. K. Chesterton, Arnold Bennett, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Havelock Ellis, Walter de la Mare, and Presidents Taft, Wilson, Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt. He frequently wrote about his subjects, as well, a practice that culminated in his book Roosevelt as an Artist Saw Him (1948).

In 1925, Tittle did a series for Century magazine entitled "Glimpses of Interesting Americans," in which he both interviewed and drew his subjects. The July issue concerned literary Americans —William Allen White, Ring Lardner, Will Rogers, and Willa Cather. The interview is somewhat refreshing in that it does not become overinvolved in complicated literary theory but pursues other aspects of Cather's life and personality —travel, food, and art. Cather's description of Swinburne is curiously reminiscent of her later description of Clement Sebastian's accompanist, Mockford, in Lucy Gayheart. Her identification with the Midwest seems almost in direct opposition to the disclaimer she had given in the World interview only a few months earlier.


Willa Sibert Cather

Penetrating westward from Washington Square one crosses an area devoted, in recent years, to an industry that may be described by the name that this locality bore when it was a settlement separate from New York. Greenwich Village is now a business, carried on in the spot where the little town of that name once stood. One does not need to be old to remember when its streets were quiet, at least when evening fell; but now it is the haunt of Bohemianism, Incorporated, where from humble beginnings that were more sincere have risen myriad dance-halls, taxi-stands, tea-shops, theaters, and cabarets with couvert charges and like ostentations that promise soon to rival Broadway. Persevere still farther west, and one is rewarded. This modem commerce has not yet obliterated all of the former charm. The crooked streets again resume their quiet, and an Old World touch is contributed by occasional lingering architectural fragments of Georgian flavor. In this pleasant back-water I found the dwelling of Willa Sibert Cather.

In response to my ring came Miss Cather herself, with a friendly smile, and a cordial greeting that seemed particularly hospitable because of its unmistakable flavor of my own Middle West. Her fine blue eyes revealed in their possessor the precious gift of humor, and contrasted pleasantly in their color with her dark lashes and strongly marked brows. Her straight, almost black, glistening hair, growing very low on her forehead, was caught back with effective simplicity from a parting just off the middle, and the harmony of it with her slightly olive skin and a colorful shawl or scarf made a picture that cried for a full palette rather than black and white.

No sooner were we settled, with pose and lighting selected, than tea appeared, bringing with it vivid memories of the importance of this unfailing comfort and promoter of sociability in England. I remarked on the great degree to which social life in that country hinges on this daily function, and discovered that for her the association bore recollections as pleasant as my own. A further pursuit of the subject revealed friends and acquaintances in common, yielding material for a considerable comparison of notes and much entertaining reminiscence. Included in this was an interesting word-portrait of Swinburne, whom she had met by chance at the British Museum with Sir Sidney Colvin. She pictured him as being far removed in reality from Watts's rather sugary portrait of him—a dwarf with a large head and abnormally tiny hands and feet. His stringy blond hair stayed horribly young when he was old, giving an uncanny effect that one could see repeated in the mummy room of the museum where they met. His manner betrayed a self-conscious timidity that seemed to indicate a pitiful sensitiveness to his physical deficiencies.

We found so much to admire and love in this land of generous hospitality, charming people, fascinating tradition, and antiquity that I am sure that even a native of the place could forgive us for the detail that we found least to our liking. A vital detail it was—the national cuisine. I related my actual physical suffering as a result of the heavy Gargantuan diet that possibly is demanded by their drastic climate, regretting that, in a land I love so well, it is so difficult for me to find viands with which my digestive equipment can successfully cope. On three separate occasions I had suffered prolonged tortures as a result of the struggle to adapt myself to the too monotonous and carnivorous cuisine. Twice the services of a physician were required, and I was able to aver that this was not because of over-indulgence!

"Why is it that a people so progressive in other things neglect the development of an art so tremendously important?" I asked. "They insist on fresh air for their lungs; surely an attractive and well balanced diet for their stomachs is just as vital. In France a department of culinary art has recently been added to their Salon, along with painting and sculpture. In that country of supposedly rich food no gastronomic ills exist for me."

Her response to my remarks took the form of a discourse on cooking that was so able and thorough, amplifying so systematically and intelligently numerous phases of the subject, that I record a few of her remarks.

"Preparation of food is one of the most important things in life, and the reason the Anglo-Saxon has so little sense of it compared with the Frenchman is due to the fact that in all matters of art and taste the French are older, more sensitive, backed by traditions of greater purity and age and are instinctively connoisseurs in the art of living, a gift that the English and Americans have not yet received. Our native American dishes are better than the English ones, but, among other shortcomings, cream and sugar seem to be the universal panacea here for rescuing almost any dish from failure. If in doubt, add sugar and smother with cream! The French, who build a menu as an artistic and scientific composition of perfect balance, look with horror at our indulgence in butter at the same time we eat soup, duplicating the fats, or at the consumption of fried potatoes with meat. Many similar incongruities exist in our combinations of food that are to them not only an unmusical discord against the sense of taste, but a scientific affront against digestion as well. They prefer to enjoy their vegetables as separate courses, resenting the confusion of flavors and odors that result from our method of eating meat, vegetables, and often salad, at the same time. Their use of wines and liquors is in marked contrast to ours. They do not start a meal with an apéritif so violent that the senses are dulled, following in haphazard fashion with wines that have no place in the beautifully balanced scheme of their repast. French restaurant cuisine in America never was as good as the best that Paris offers, but its late woeful decadence is due largely to prohibition. Not only is the chef denied the wines that were so imperative to him as ingredients in his creations, but the restaurants cannot afford to serve such excellent viands, with increased costs due to the war, and the profit from sale of wines and liquors as beverages denied them. This has taken the heart out of the really good chefs who had pride in their product; they depart, giving polite excuses for returning to France. They must go back because of the death of some relative, or to comfort their old parents in their declining years; they have inherited a little house perhaps, anything to get away. I had an excellent French cook who made life a joy, but I lost her. An expensive and extravagant negro followed who did very well when she kept to the dishes she knew, but no matter how often I objected, there was always cream in the soup. Sugar and cream and butter were the invariable solutions to any doubtful problem.

"I can easily comprehend your difficulty with English food. A friend of mine had the same experience, her troubles vanishing, like yours, as soon as she arrived in Paris. The things that any sensitive person eats must attract the palate and the eye in order to fulfil successfully their function. Is cooking important? Few things in life are more so! My mind and stomach are one! I think and work with whatever it is that digests."

"Aren't you tempted to desert your native land and live abroad? It is easy for writers to go where they choose, their necessary impedimenta being small."

"No, I cannot do my work abroad. I hate to leave France or England when I am there, but I cannot produce my kind of work away from the American idiom. It touches springs of memory, awaking past experience and knowledge necessary to my work. I write only of the Mid-Western American life that I know thoroughly, and I must be here, where the stream of that life flowing over me touches springs that release early-caught and assimilated impressions. I cannot create my kind of thing without American speech around me and incidents that cause memories to rise from the subconscious. This is probably not true of all writers, but it is of me. I stayed for a time at Ville d'Avray, and loved the life there so much that I could hardly tear myself away; but I was so busy drinking in the beauty of the place that I could not work. Those wonderful French skies! They fascinated me. They are so different from the usual hard, bright skies of New York. I went from there to Paris, hoping to achieve a working state of mind, but again it proved impossible. The Seine absorbed my thoughts. I could look at it for hours as it reflected every mood of the ever-changing skies, and the colorful life surging around me was utterly distracting as well.

"The American language works on my mind like light on a photographic plate, or on a pack of them, creeping in at the edges. In Paris, whatever it is that makes one work got used up from day to day. New York has no such effect upon me. I come here for seclusion from my family and friends for five or six months of the year, and do all of my actual writing in that period. Then I return to my family in Nebraska, Colorado, and New Mexico with no thought of work. This is a period of relaxation, absorption, and refreshment at the fountain-head of the life I write about. Then I return again to my task, systematically. I work as a pianist practises, who does his daily stint just as he takes his bath or breakfast. This enables me to achieve a great deal in a comparatively short period. Of course I don't publish everything that I write. Sometimes the Lord gives us grace to tear up and destroy."

A portrait on the wall of George Sand by Couture, done in the lithographic medium that I was employing, turned our talk to artists of the brush and pencil. The Impressionists take a high place in Miss Cather's predilections, Manet standing out, for her, above them all. Among contemporary Frenchmen the powerful Forain spells for her only horror and brutality. I was amazed at her accurate memory of the pictures in the Commondo collection in the Louvre. Each canvas seemed indelibly stamped upon her memory; my own was put to shame even though these rooms were a favorite haunt of mine. I should have been warned by this when later we argued about the authorship of a picture that I have known for twenty years, a work of Tintoretto, the original of which I had seen in the Doge's Palace rather recently in the same room with some paintings of Veronese. Being a bit less robust in treatment than the former master's usual manner, I attributed it to the latter, persisting despite Miss Cather's objection. A wager was the outcome of the argument, payment proceeding promptly to my antagonist when a book on Tintoretto had heaped upon me chagrin for my fickle memory.

Century Magazine, July 1925.