~Writing a Biography ~ THE STORY OF SARA BARD FIELD and CHARLES ERSKINE SCOTT WOOD
In 1910, the gifted, vibrant Sara Ehrgott, 28—a Christian Socialist, an aspiring poet, and the intensely unhappy wife of Rev. Albert Ehrgott, an orthodox Baptist minister—came to live in Portland, Oregon with her husband and their two small children. There, she was introduced to the city's most controversial freethinker, Charles Erskine Scott Wood.
Fifty-eight-year-old C.E.S. Wood, known to his intimates as Erskine, was a mesmerizing figure. A wealthy and much-admired corporate attorney and a former army officer in the Indian wars, he was now a poet, painter, and patron of the arts, an outspoken atheist, a "philosophical anarchist," and a vocal social critic. Like Sara, he was unhappily married, to a leader of the city's stuffy upper crust. Despite the conspicuous differences in their ages and social positions, the two discovered that they were soul-mates.
The affair that ensued scandalized Portland society and the Ehrgotts' congregation. But Erskine's confidence in the strictly-raised Sara gave her the courage to reach out for a larger life as a crusader in the successful 1912 Oregon campaign for women's suffrage. Within a few years she had become "Mrs. Sara Bard Field," the nationally famous suffrage orator, the first American of either sex to cross the United States by automobile for a political cause, and a divorced woman respectable people were entitled to consider an "anarchist and a free-lover."
In 1919, after nearly a decade of emotional conflict, turbulent separations, and horrific personal tragedy, Sara and Erskine finally set up as "free lovers" on Russian Hill, and a few years later built a rural estate above the village of Los Gatos. There, for almost twenty years, they lived the life Sara had always dreamed of: writing books and publishing poetry, supporting the cause of social justice, and entertaining such friends and admirers as Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, Bennett Cerf, and William Rose Benét.
Eventually, after the death of Erskine's wife, who had refused to divorce him, they decided to end their celebrated "free union" with a marriage ceremony (conducted by a rabbi): Sara at 58, her lover at 88. Erskine died in 1944 at the age of 91. Sara followed him three decades later, a respected California poet, a venerated former suffragist and icon of San Francisco's silver age, and a symbol of love's revolutionary power to triumph over the blind tyranny of convention.
THE PAPER TRAIL
Over the years, Sara occasionally toyed with the idea of writing her autobiography. Her friend Bennett Cerf, the editor-in-chief of Random House, implored her to do so: "I know that I need not tell you," he wrote in a March, 1938 letter, "that I stand ready to be of as much help as I possibly can.....It seems to me that tale of your whole relationship with Erskine is exactly the sort of thing that we need more and more of if we are to cling to anything decent while everything around us goes plunging on into absolute chaos." *
Sara never wrote the memoir Cerf was hoping for. However, in 1958, having published three books of poetry and dozens of poems in Poetry magazine, The Nation, and The Saturday Review of Literature, she agreed to tape a series of interviews for the University of California at Berkeley about her crusade for women's rights and her evolution as a poet. The tapings became an oral history, "Sara Bard Field: Poet and Suffragist," in which she talked about her relationship with Erskine and the role her need for intellectual and emotional freedom had played in her life.
Sara also carefully preserved nearly 3,000 letters that she and Erskine wrote during their many separations, along with many more to and from their friends, families, and former spouses. She gave most of these, as well as numerous manuscripts and Erskine's collection of rare books and art, to the Huntington Research Library in San Marino, California.
I first saw this treasure-trove on a visit to the Huntington in the late 1990s. I read portions of her oral history and found myself captivated by her warmth, intelligence, and passionate spirit, by her dramatic life, and by the richness and poignancy of her memories.
But I was flabbergasted by the lovers' correspondence. Their letters alone filled 31 boxes, and reading them was as electrifying as eavesdropping on a private dinner conversation a hundred years ago—a living conversation between two people who, though tormented by the knowledge that they were tearing apart the lives of those who loved them, were nevertheless prepared to risk any amount of pain to be together. For Sara, the stakes were especially high because of her touching certainty that if she and Erskine were ever permanently united, they would, through their writing, help to lead Americans to a new and liberating sense of the supreme importance of love, individual freedom, and social justice.
I decided that I wanted to reconstruct Sara's life and her long journey with Erskine—the inner, psychological journey as well as the outer, public one—in a biography that would at the same time be an exploration of the extraordinary period in American history they inhabited: that flawed, glittering, idealistic Age of Progress that ended with World War I, and that historians long referred to as "the end of American innocence."
To trace Sara's epic progress from a life stifled by religious orthodoxy and social convention to a life of empowerment, freedom, and personal happiness, but also of notoriety and social ostracism, I am drawing not only on her letters and Erskine's but on the testimony of their friends and family members, as well as on oral histories, interviews, diaries, published writings, and unpublished autobiographical notes and manuscripts.
In addition, to understand and corroborate what my protagonists are saying to each other, and to reconstruct the complicated historical background for the reader (and myself), I consult a wide variety of contemporary sources—photographs, scrapbooks, church records, newspaper clippings, legal documents, and even weather reports—as well as work by modern historians. By bringing these numerous sources to bear on my evolving interpretation of Sara's story, and by constantly cross-referencing what I read, I can better assess the truth and accuracy of my own understanding.
Recreating a detailed but accurate context for someone's life and career, especially from thousands of (frequently undated) letters, often requires painstaking detective work on the part of a biographer. But the result, I hope, will be the same sense of immediacy I have when I "eavesdrop" on an intimate Ragtime-era conversation in a 1911 law office in Portland or a parlor on Russian Hill.
By sharing this experience with my readers, I can also share my own fascination and amazement at the gallant journey of a remarkable woman who succeeded in liberating herself from the chains of the past by embracing, not always happily, the new and different morality of the twentieth century.
• Center: Maurice Prendergast, "Park by the Sea", 1922 watercolor with graphite on paper: Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Gift of Mrs. Charles Prendergast. • 1912 photo of Sara Bard Field, 1911 letter from Sara to Erskine courtesy of the Huntington Library. © (It is unlawful to reproduce or copy these images in any form without written permission from the Huntington Library.) • Sidebar: Composite photo: "Mrs. Sara Bard Field, 1916" (Courtesy Library of Congress) and Charles Erskine Scott Wood in 1905, age 53; photographer unknown. Reproduced with the kind permission of Mrs. Beth Rondone.
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