23 Jan A Halifax Prima Donna and Theodore Dreiser’s Lover
Yesterday afternoon, I scheduled a portrait session with Dorothy Christie, who reluctantly agreed to sit for me. She kept insisting that there were others better suited for sketching as, she complained, “I am such an old hag.” She has large, wild black eyes and a striped thick mane of white hair. I loved the black hairband worn behind a crest of hair pulled back from the center of her distinct widow’s peak.
Since so many of us in Halifax Center do not have televisions – or a satellite dish with which to operate one – we gathered at Dorothy’s center chimney cape to watch the recent Presidential Debates. Born in 1923 – the year my paternal grandparents were married – in New Haven, Connecticut, Dorothy majored in English at the University of Connecticut, and received her Masters in English from Yale. Ten of us gathered closely together in her cozy living room, furnished with charming antiques, and piled high with books. Sipping on a variety of festive drinks, we settled in on the flashing blue political screen; however, I was distracted by the many oil paintings that filled the walls. They were painted by her father, a devoted regionalist artist, Frederick Lester Sexton, who was predominantly a landscape painter associated with the Old Lyme Connecticut School. I especially liked a small painting of a dark, maroon house obscured by a woodland, with just the back end of a long black ‘39 Packard barely visible. Positively fired up over Obama, Dorothy seized every other comment made by Republicans, and volleyed them with vociferous insults. Justifiably so; she taught in various departments at Vassar College (Russian Drama in English, Assistant Librarian in the Music Library), where her husband was also a tenured professor of English for forty years. She also taught an evening division at Duchess Community College, mostly to Vietnam veterans in the 1970s.
Coincidentally, Dorothy and her husband bought her house in Halifax in 1959 from Kyra Markham, one of the progressive artists in Vermont history. According to Dorothy, Kyra was a prima donna, “very opinionated and conscious of herself,” an actress from way back. Kyra was tall and striking with piercing black eyes. Even though she smoked like a chimney she weathered well. Born Elaine Bushnell, she went to Mrs. Brown’s Theatre in Chicago, where she then changed her name to Kyra Markham. Kyra was very good to Oscar Cody, an elderly Halifax farmer, and Paul Derry, the local plumber, who, incidentally at the age of ninety-two, helped me to locate my well with a divining rod, a thin branch from my fruit tree (he was only eighteen inches away form the exact spot). According to Dorothy, Kyra made no class distinction, appreciating people for who they were.
Kyra Markham performed with Joseph Cotton, and was Theodore Dreiser’s (author of American Tragedy and The Titan) passionate lover. Kyra gave Dorothy a manuscript written by Theo, in which Kyra herself figures as the character Stephanie Platoff. Dorothy said she gave this manuscript to the Halifax Historical Society and they lost it, as well as a mural by Kyra left behind in the house. “I remember in 1978, we had an exhibit of historical treasures in the church in the center, and we were robbed. They took everything on loan from me: two or three crazy quilts with a million colors, fagoted, and blanket-stitched together, an early blue-and-white hand-blown cobalt blue vase, my great aunt’s silver spoons which had been buried during the revolution by Tories to protect them from the Red Coats.”
Kyra later married Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, a union in which Frank was apparently instrumental in breaking up. After subsequent marriages, Kyra moved to Haiti, where she “bought a rotten house that fell down. She did everything under the sun: weaving, sculpture, but considered herself a painter.” Kyra eventually died in Haiti.
Also, prominent among Dorothy’s trio of friends was Norma Millay, sister of Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was on stage together with Kyra Markham.
Dorothy’s husband, a native Vermonter, brought her to Halifax during the summer months, where his father had been a minister in the neighboring town of Marlboro for fifty years. They thought this environment would be how they would engage their three sons during the summer, as opposed to sending them to overnight camp. She described how, as a boy of eleven, her husband was swinging on a strap from one hay mound to the next when, suddenly, he fell on the strap, and had to have his right arm amputated.
A little sidetracked, we hit briefly on the Honora Winery, which is a sore topic of discussion for Dorothy. “Winery comes in…practically greases their palm [the Select Board]. Honora always giving something to the town to get in their good graces.”
Dorothy abruptly reminded me about the “Brick House” in Whitingham, of which her description had totally captivated my imagination when last we spoke in September. I could not believe I had forgotten this treasure because I am obsessed with old, derelict houses – especially elegant ones. “You take Brick House Road on your right after the general store, and go all the way to the end. Goes back to the early eighteenth century. There are cut stone lintels over the windows, and you will see a swing hanging from a tree with chains grown into the bark. A lady lived there from California who was an alcoholic in the worst way, she just lived there and drank.”
It is always such a challenge to draw persons who are wearing glasses, the magnified distortion of their eyeballs popping out from underneath the frames. Dorothy’s right eye was extremely large, and both eyes were set in great deep wells of reddish-brown. To this, I responded with a fairly strong use of red, which, against a bright orange paper ground, proved very effective. I was so looking forward to shaving in swaths of brilliant white to compliment her great white coif but I dropped my white chalk in water and it softened into a soggy mush. However, a pale lavender pastel stick substituted nicely. Nearing completion, I showed her my drawing efforts. “Aaaugh!” she shrieked, “You made me look like an old hag! Your drawing of my lips makes me look so cranky…It’s like when my granddaughter says, ‘Grandma, you have such a slimy mouth when George Bush comes on the TV.’ You bastard cow!”
NB: George Bush, not David Brewster, is the bastard cow of which she spoke.