The Janet Gerry Story
A friend recently asked how I had become so interested in Robert Strong Woodward, and I found, rather to my surprise, that I couldnt answer her. So immersed have I become in the details of his life and work that I had to stop and think back to a time when I was not. Robert Strong Woodward's life and mine overlapped only briefly, when I was far too young to appreciate his company, and he too worn by ill-health to have enjoyed mine (probably only my parents found my conversation scintillating then).
My family and the Purintons moved to Upper Street in Buckland, MA in the late 1950s, so it was by the merest good fortune that I lived just 2 houses down from RSW's last studio. Of course, to me it was just Laurel's house. Dr. Mark and Barb's daughter and I became friends as pre-schoolers. Early on, our squabbles were fierce, frequent, and inconsequential. Our mothers agreed at the outset never to get involved, and their wisdom has been borne out by our enduring friendship. Some years ago, Laurel introduced my husband and me, a good deed on the whole, though there are doubtless times when he might beg to differ.
As children, Laurel and I were in and out of each other's homes constantly, and so I absorbed almost unconsciously the Woodwards hanging in every room. For an early aesthetic education, one could hardly do better. They looked right to me then, and even with the benefit of many art history courses, they still do. Years passed. A couple of years ago, wearied, perhaps, by yet another of my inane Christmas letters (the epistolary equivalent of a fruitcake), Laurel decided to channel my writing energy into more useful outlets, and suggested I write a children's biography of RSW. How hard could it be? I figured I would talk to a couple of people who had known him, and bang out something from that. But once I started talking to people who had known RSW (there aren't many), I began to see that these first-person accounts covered only his later life. To fill in the gaps about his early years, the material is scanty indeed: a monograph created by Deerfield Academy students in 1970 and some newspaper clippings. Before long (but not before writing a good bit of the story), discrepancies among the sources made it clear that the Deerfield students had made the best of dubious sources. The few newspaper accounts were often at odds and far from accurate, some downright flights of fancy.
So I recited the history majors credo (dont believe anything you haven't confirmed yourself), started digging, and have hardly looked up since, except to share some delectable new morsel of information with the bemused person across the room. Our house is now cluttered with files, folders, paperclips, and highlighters, and I have started clamoring to put on an addition. An acquaintance of my mom passed on this hot tip in the early stages of my research: just tell her to go look on the internet, everything's there! Would it were so easy, though it did lead to an early triumph. Some accounts said RSW was 20 at the time of his accident, some said 21. I suspected the date was likely to be 1906 because in that year he was both 20 (before his birthday) and 21 (after). All I had to go on was an undated newspaper clipping, but clues in the text led me to place it in Los Angeles, so I took a chance that it was the LA Times. Their archives just give you a date and headline, you have to pay to see the article. But I found it! And I didnt have to pay, either, since I already had the text and just wanted to prove the date. On September 3, 1906, Robert Strong Woodward was 21. After a while you can easily recognize which sources more recent writers on RSW have consulted, by whether they say that Redgate studio was converted from a milk house or a sugar house. A newspaper article in 1920 by Margaret Getchell of the Boston Evening Transcript asserts that it was originally a milk house. Ernest Watson, in his feature story on RSW in the American Artist of September 1946, claims it was a sugar house. On the whole Watson is the more reliable of the two, but in this case I think the sympathetic but occasionally fanciful Getchell is probably right (extant photos of Redgate do not show the characteristic roof vent of a sugar house). The circumspect just call it an outbuilding. A radio program on RSW, written by Clifford A. Richmond in 1934 uses this memorable phrase: "...the lifetime necessity for a small retinue of nurses and attendants. " Someone writing an essay on RSW in 1985, used the same phrase verbatim. I figured that writer had taken it from the 1970 Deerfield Academy monograph (he probably did), but the joke is on him, because they lifted it from Clifford A. Richmond.
But this circle of borrowing has perpetuated numerous RSW facts that are simply not true. Almost everybody has insisted that RSW was studying civil engineering. Yet though a civil engineering major was available at Bradley Polytechnic Institute in Peoria, his school records reveal that he followed no such course of study. More interestingly still, RSW himself never repudiated the statement, even when contesting other parts of an article making that claim. What is the real story? I have my theories.
Janet Gerry Nelke has since published a book about the life of Robert Strong Woodward which is available for purchase.