South Carolina Encyclopedia Guide to South Carolina Writers

By Tom Mack | Go to book overview

Woolsey, Gamel (b. Elizabeth Gamel Woolsey, 1897–1968).

Poet, novelist, memoirist. The exact year of Woolsey’s birth is not known—estimates vary from 1895 to 1900—but what is certain is that she was born and raised on Breeze Hill Plantation just outside of Aiken, South Carolina. The daughter of Charleston socialite Elizabeth Gammell and New York banker William Walton Woolsey, Gamel Woolsey—in adulthood she adopted as her first name a shortened version of her mother’s maiden name—spent what she later recalled as an idyllic childhood on the rural property that her father had purchased and that is still occupied by a branch of the family.

After the death of her husband in 1910, Woolsey’s mother packed up her two daughters and returned to Charleston where both girls attended Ashley Hall, an exclusive school for young ladies. As a member of Charleston society, Woolsey savored the often glittering social opportunities available to young women of her circle but also bristled at the restrictive gender roles imposed by the social conventions of that time. Very early, she sought escape through creative pursuits, acting in student dramatic productions and leading the editorial staff of the school literary magazine.

A diagnosis of tuberculosis in 1917—her father had suffered from the same condition and had moved to Aiken because of its reputation as a health resort—cut short the path that her family had set for her, which included an eventual marriage to a young man of her social station, and freed Woolsey to pursue her artistic inclinations. Accordingly, after a recuperative period in a sanitarium, she set out for New York City, found a place in Greenwich Village, and actively pursued a career as a poet.

All the while, men pursued her. First came a marriage to New Zealand journalist Rex Hunter—although they never officially divorced, the couple separated within four years of tying the knot—and then a long transatlantic affair with British writer Llewelyn Powys, who was himself married at the time to American writer Alyse Gregory—the latter fretted over her husband’s affection for Woolsey but supported his quest to have a child by the younger woman—and, finally, a forty-year relationship with writer Gerald Brenan. Woolsey’s delicate beauty and innate sensitivity aroused in her male admirers a desire to protect her from the larger world.

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