If we hadn't been introduced by Darrow I would probably never have—I won't say, never met him....
I remember so well the whole meeting....[He had] a most beautiful complexion and the keenest and kindest eagle blue-gray eyes I think I have ever seen....And he had very curly gray hair....He was then in his late fifties, fifty-eight or fifty-nine, I think—and he was so handsome that everyone wherever he went turned round to look at him again....
I asked him if he was reading Wells, who was then the most talked-of liberal writer of our time—H.G. Wells, and he had written a book called Ann Veronica....
Well, I went home with a great turmoil in my heart, realizing that I'd been with a group I belonged with and that my life didn't otherwise fit into....And the sense of chasm gave me a feeling of more utter loneliness than I can explain. — Sara Bard Field, 1961.
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 by the famed labor lawyer Clarence Darrow to his dazzling colleague and fellow freethinker, Charles Erskine Scott Wood.
Fifty-eight-year-old C.E.S. Wood, known to his intimates as Erskine, was a mesmerizing and controversial figure in Portland. 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. He was also a man with a colossal and undiminished appetite for life, and he shared not only Sara's radical social views but also her ardent love of books and poetry. 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 soulmates.
Even as their affair scandalized Portland society and the Ehrgotts' congregation, Erskine's confidence in the strictly-raised Sara gave her the courage to begin reaching out for a larger life as a crusader in the successful 1912 Oregon campaign for women's suffrage. A few years later she became "Mrs. Sara Bard Field," a 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 known to respectable people around the country as an "anarchist and free-lover."
Erskine's wife refused to give him a divorce, but 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. A few years later they built a rural estate above the village of Los Gatos, where for 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, Sara Bard Field and C.E.S. Wood 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.
Gradually the tapings grew into a massive, 600-page oral history, "Sara Bard Field: Poet and Suffragist," and the work in which Sara finally bequeathed to posterity the story of her relationship with Erskine and her own testimony to the importance of intellectual and emotional freedom. In addition, she carefully preserved over 2,300 letters that she and Erskine wrote during their many separations, along with roughly 1,000 more to and from their friends, families, and former spouses. She gave most of these, as well as the couple's many poetry manuscripts and Erskine's rare books and paintings, to the Huntington Research Library in San Marino, California.
I first saw this treasure-trove on a visit to the Huntington in the 1990s. Having read portions of her oral history, including those describing how she first met Erskine (see EXCERPT at the top of this page), I was captivated by her warmth, intelligence, and passionate spirit as well as by her dramatic life-story and the richness and poignancy of her memories.
And I was flabbergasted by the correspondence. Sara and Erskine's combined manuscripts, photographs, and other papers filled more than 300 boxes, and reading their letters to each other (31 boxes alone) was as electrifying as eavesdropping on a private dinner conversation of a hundred years ago—a living conversation between two people who, while tormented by the knowledge that they were tearing apart the lives of those who loved them, were nevertheless willing to risk great pain to themselves and others to be together and fully alive at last.
To Sara, the stakes were especially high because she was touchingly certain that if she and Erskine were ever united, her lover would, through his writing (and with her assistance), lead Americans to a new and liberating sense of the supreme importance of love, individual freedom, and social justice.
It is this conviction, to which Sara held unswervingly for the rest of her life, that make the letters a window on a special time and place in American history: that flawed, glittering, idealistic Age of Progress that ended with World War I, the age that historians long referred to as "the end of American innocence."
In SARA AND ERSKINE, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE, I am tracing Sara and Erskine's long journey—the inner, psychological journey as well as the outward, public one—from unhappy marriages and lives stifled by religious orthodoxy and social convention to a life of freedom and personal happiness, but also of notoriety and social ostracism.
Using their own words as well as the words of their friends and family members in letters, oral histories, diaries, unpublished autobiographical notes, published and unpublished poems, and other writings, SARA AND ERSKINE attempts to combine the careful research of traditional biography with the immediacy of historical journalism and the narrative drive of the nonfiction novel as it follows the arc of their epic romance and Sara's individual voyage from True Womanhood to New Womanhood.
By telling the story this way, I hope to make SARA AND ERSKINE, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE a different kind of biography—one that can reproduce for its readers the experience its author has had of listening in on a living conversation from the age of Ragtime and watching the gallant struggle of one remarkable yet essentially ordinary woman as she tries to liberate herself from the chains of the past and embrace, not always happily, the new and different morality of a modern era.
• Sara Bard Field, Sara Bard Field: Poet and Suffragist, pp. 190-203 passim. Typescript of an oral history conducted 1959-1963 by Amelia Fry, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1979. Courtesy The Bancroft Library. To read Sara Bard Field's oral history online, click here.
• Bennett A. Cerf to Sara Bard Field, March 23, 1938. The Charles Erskine Scott Wood Collection, the Huntington Library, Addenda Box 10, Folder 58.
• 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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