Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life

By Desley Deacon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIXTEEN
A Modernist Death

"WHAT a rather uncanny feeling it gives one to be at the end of an epoch," Mary Simkhovitch wrote Parsons in 1940, anticipating the fortieth anniversary of Greenwich House. The previous November she and Parsons had attended the fiftieth anniversary of Barnard College. But neither had come to the end of her active life. Simkhovitch published her biography in 1938, looking back, at the age of seventy-one, over the years when she and Parsons were building their experimental institutions and families. But she did not retire from the directorship of Greenwich House until 1946, and she continued as vice-chairman of the New York City Housing Authority until her death in 1951. In May 1940, Parsons was sixty-five years old and had just returned from a field trip to Ecuador. Before she left on that trip, she was elected first vice-president of the American Anthropological Association--in effect the president-elect for 1941.1

When Parsons returned to New York in 1940, it seemed in many ways the end of an era. Marie Howe, Heterodoxy founder and leading spirit, had died in 1934 while Parsons was in Chapala; and she was not back in time to attend the memorial held in Alice Duer Miller's home, where her old friends and associates Vira Whitehouse, Floyd Dell, James Weldon Johnson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Ware Dennett were among those who paid tribute to the feminist pioneer. Inviting Parsons to speak in 1937, Mary Knoblauch noted that Heterodoxy's last speaker had been Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, "who has been absent also, much too long." Parsons began to attend that long-lived discussion group again; but, like much else, Heterodoxy received its deathblow with the onset of war in the early 1940s.2

Clarence Day, crippled by the arthritic disease that had tormented him for many years, died in 1935, just as he was finding happiness in what his friends saw as a "miraculous" marriage and fatherhood.

-365-

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