Thursday, May 26, 2016

Elizabeth Morrow's Inscription

Dwight Morrow's widow, Elizabeth Morrow, inscribed a copy of
her late husband's biography for a friend.
In a video that I included with Tuesday's blog ("Morrow, Spratling, & Lindbergh in Mexico: the silver touch") I talked about two powerful men who wielded great influence on the world around them. One of them, Dwight Morrow, was on the board of J.P. Morgan Chase Bank and served as the American ambassador to Mexico during the late 1920s, a critical time in Mexico's history. The other was William Spratling, who was an architect, artist, and artisan, but who also wielded such an irresistible charm that could transform whole towns.

In December 1927, at Morrow's behest, Charles Lindbergh made a good will tour of Latin America in the Spirit of St. Louis that began with a long solo flight into Mexico City. During Lindbergh's stay at the ambassador's residence, he met Morrow's daughter, Anne, who was home from Smith College for the Christmas holidays. She and Lindbergh were married within two years of this meeting.

Then, some other evening on a date I have not yet pinned down, Morrow had his architect over for dinner. Knowing that Spratling was a prime mover among men, Morrow suggested that Spratling take control of some of the silver out of the mines around Taxco. Until that time, all the silver mined in Taxco went into the pockets of foreign mining companies with minimal gain for the Mexicans. Spratling, Morrow continued, would use his artisan skills and his teaching abilities to create a force of silversmiths in Taxco. This could, Morrow felt, could pull the mountain town just outside Mexico City out of the mire of the depression and make it productive.

Spratling began simply by setting up his own shop, Las Delicias (The Delights), where he trained three silversmiths to make jewelry according to his designs, but he did not stop there. He trained other people to work in the precious metal as well and even helped them create competing shops. His goal wasn't to build one shop but many.

In those days, it was common to fly into Mexico City, then travel overland to Acapulco. Spratling used his Hollywood connections to get people to stop at Taxco, which was along the way to Acapulco, and that put the mountain town on the map.

The Mexican adventures of both Spratling and Morrow fascinate me, and I think they will make a fantastic story.

Morrow's active life makes clear that his death in 1931—only four years after Lindbergh's tour of Latin America—was premature. He died at his home in Englewood, New Jersey, of a stroke on 5 October at the age of 58.

To develop my story about these men, I have to acquire a couple of books. Dwight Morrow's biography arrived today, and inside the front cover it has the inscription you can see above. My theory (having done only incipient research and still surveying the literature, I allow myself to speculate) is that Elizabeth C. Morrow, a poet and the wife of Morrow—she was born Elizabeth Reeve Cutter—commissioned the biography from its author, Harold Nicolson, who is no mere ghost writer but an English diplomat, author, diarist and politician, all of which make him particularly qualified to write a biography of Morrow. Nicolson was married to Vita Sackville-West, who was a close friend of Virginia Woolf. Nicolson and Sackville-West were very much a part of that intellectual social circle that revolved around Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell and that included luminaries like Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes.

Since I am only now getting the books, it's that inscription inside the cover fires my imagination. If she commissions a hagiographic biography of her husband shortly after his death, etiquette dictates sending the book to a list of certain people—one's Christmas card list, perhaps? She is a graduate of Smith—where she later served as interim president—and its list of alumnae reads like a Who's Who of culturally important women. The education at Smith places it among the best liberal arts colleges, and when women could attend only women's colleges, it provided an education comparable to what the men got at their schools. Yet such women's colleges have also traditionally prepared women to be the wives of rich and powerful men, and I suspect that hagiography is the thing to do when a woman found herself unexpectedly and prematurely widowed. I don't mean that Elizabeth went to Emily Post or whomever they consulted in that day, but as a woman well educated in the mores of the rich and powerful, she was able to think out for herself the proper course of action.

So I imagine Elizabeth in her study inscribing books. Since her husband's death in 1931, she has endured yet another nightmare, the kidnapping in March 1932 of her 20-month-old grandson, Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. This is the worst possible nightmare of any parent or grandparent.

After Nicolson has done his job, after Elizabeth reads and approves the manuscript, after the editor at Harcourt, Brace and Company makes sure that ever jot and tittle is in place, the manuscript finally goes to the printer. From there, the first few boxes of books are sent to Mrs Dwight Morrow, Englewood, New Jersey. And in one of those boxes is this book, the one sitting here next to my keyboard.

Elizabeth Morrow sends this particular copy to William T. Dewart, the owner and publisher of the New York SunDewart isn't mentioned in the index of the book, so a role in the story isn't why he receives a copy. Publishing a book about a warm friend to many people without sending copies would imply that they are expected to go out and buy the book. Sending them their copies circumvents this vulgarity. I imagine her working through her address book, inscribing books with thoughtfulness, one by one, and passing them on to her social secretary who sees to the details of shipping each book to the appropriate address.
  William T. Dewart
a warm friend of Dwight Morrow
with sincere regards from
           Elizabeth C. Morrow
October 1935.
She is 62 years old, and the deaths of husband and grandchild must feel like a weight of her age. Despite her life of privilege, life and death have taken their tolls.