Willa Cather's Greenwich Village: New Contexts for "Coming, Aphrodite!"

Article excerpt

Early one day in June 1913, Willa Cather left her house at 5 Bank Street in Greenwich Village to do the day's marketing. She had just finished off a breakfast made from fresh raspberries, brioche, and strong Chinese tea, and she was in good spirits to haggle. She walked south toward the Jefferson Street market, chatting about France with her friend Elizabeth Sergeant, who had recently arrived in New York. As the two women walked, they passed near the home of John Sloan, a painter and illustrator who had been submitting regularly to The Masses since Max Eastman took over the editorship in 1912. But Willa Cather was probably not thinking about radical journalism; she was probably thinking about a good French Camembert. (1)

The weather was agreeable and the two women decided not to walk directly to the market, but to stroll east to Fifth Avenue and south to Washington Square. They liked to admire the old houses, and Cather particularly wanted to show Sergeant the Church of the Ascension, where she often went to vespers and gazed at John La Farge's frescoes. Across the street from the church was a mansion whose upper floor was rented out to Mabel Dodge, a woman recently returned from Europe who was hosting regular gatherings in her home, inviting people like Big Bill Heywood, Carl Van Vechten, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, John Reed, and Lincoln Steffens to stir up the conversation. But Cather had not met Mabel Dodge yet, and so she passed by without comment; instead, she pointed out the Brevoort Hotel, where, only a few years earlier, she and Edith Lewis were taking their dinner as often as four times a week. (2)

They walked near the old house of Richard Watson Gilder off Fifth Avenue on Eighth Street. The Gilder house had hosted a distinguished salon at the end of the nineteenth century, drawing such artists as August Saint-Gaudens, John Burroughs, Helena Modjeska, and Stanford White, the architect who designed the Washington Memorial Arch in nearby Washington Square. As Cather and Sergeant walked under the Arch, Cather pointed directly south to 60 Washington Square South, the first building she lived in after moving to New York to work for S. S. McClure in 1906. Next door, at 61 Washington Square South, was the "House of Genius," a building that had known Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, O. Henry, and a variety of other artists and journalists as tenants. After they walked through the park filled with local Villagers, mostly Italian immigrants, they turned west, walked past the studio of William Glackens, and, crossing MacDougal Street, looked south toward Polly's restaurant, home of Heterodoxy, a local radical women's group. After O Pioneers! was published, Willa said, she got all sorts of invitations from local women's groups, and she hated the very thought of belonging. "Perish all social clubs for women!" she exclaimed. (3)

They soon made it to the Jefferson Street Market, and Willa and Elsie bought a chicken from an Italian man with a ragged blue hat, an unshaven chin, and one fang-like tooth pushing against his lip and forcing his ready smile into an eccentric shape. Cather, nodding at a well-dressed young man in a black-banded straw hat who was walking near, said to Sergeant, "Surely that one sells bonds on Wall Street, and no doubt his mother had his teeth straightened! Mouths should be left as nature made them--mouths are as individual as ears or eyes, ... but the dentists insist on deadly conformity." (4)

After getting back to Bank Street with armfuls of food for Josephine Bourda to cook, Cather excused herself and told Sergeant that she must be alone for two and a half hours, as it was time for her to write.

"Greenwich Village does not exist"

Two assumptions confront anyone exploring Willa Cather's relationship to Greenwich Village. First, that Willa Cather, who lived in the Village from 1906 until 1927, and made New York her permanent residence until her death in 1947, was at American modernism's geographic center: around her in these years was the highest concentration of artistic talent that twentieth century America ever knew. …