Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

I Met May Swenson Just Once

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

I Met May Swenson Just Once

Article excerpt

at the Dorland Mountain Colony

in Temecula, California, midway

between Los Angeles and San Diego,

in the week between Christmas

and New Year's, 1979.

I'd been selected as the first

writer in residence at the artists' retreat,

situated amidst 300 acres of hilly chaparral

homesteaded by Ellen Dorland, a world

famous concert pianist, and her

husband Robert in the 1930s.

Mrs. Dorland, widowed, in her nineties,

still lived on the premises, now

overseen by a nature conservancy.

Twenty-six years old, recuperating

from a serious automobile accident

(limping on one crutch), I had spent

a lonely six weeks, late October

to early December, in a rustic cabin

(I was the only resident; none

of the other cottages were finished

yet), trying to write poems, drinking

scotch into the night, waking

each day to the same desolate landscape-

sunlight burning the mist off

endless sagebrush. A dubious

honor, this fruitless residency:

I felt as if I had failed those

who'd bestowed their faith in me.

A few weeks after I returned home,

I was invited back to participate in a salon

with the second resident, May Swenson.

I didn't want to miss the opportunity

to meet her, so my sister drove me

down from L.A. for the day.

Everything about Swenson

screamed old-school literary lesbian:

butch Dutch Boy bangs, mannish

shirt and slacks, durable footwear.

Her weathered face seemed frozen

in a defiant book-jacket stare.

She had an unassailable air.

The salon was held in the main

house, Mrs. Dorland's, in a room

heavy with timeworn, out-of-place

objects: dark antique furniture,

framed photographs, silver

candlesticks, ornate jug-shaped

vases, bookcases with grilled doors,

brown-and-red rug on the floor.

Low-beamed ceiling. Cracked

adobe brick walls painted a dull yellow.

Mrs. Dorland sat at her Steinway

piano, white hair done up in

a Katharine Hepburn-esque bun,

and played something for us.

This was the fulfillment of her

and her dead husband's dream-

to provide a place for artists to

come together and share their work.

Zan Knudsen, May's companion, read

a chapter from a young-adult novel

about a misfit adolescent girl jock. …

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