Wednesday, October 31, 2012

the lady and the legacy

Precursor to the garage band.
Power is still out at my studio, so last night one of the staff members invited me and an equally powerless nonfiction writer to stay in Hillcrest, the MacDowells’ old farmhouse house at the top of the hill. Now it’s where they put up board members and fancy visiting artists. The place is a bit of a labyrinth. There’s a story about Edward Albee getting turned around, stumbling through a sort of closet/tunnel thing and ending up in Michael Chabon’s bedroom, where he was lying around in his underwear.

Hillcrest is huge—I think there are at least eight bedrooms—but cozy because it was built for nineteenth century farmers, who were apparently all about 5’ 3”.

The staff member herded a big group of us into Edward MacDowell’s music room, which has been kept as the MacDowells left it. There’s embossed wallpaper, a grand piano, walls of bookshelves, beams that don’t quite meet and a draught that circles your ankles like a cat. Imagine if you converted your garage into a Victorian parlor, and you’ll get the idea.    

She screened a 1956 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie called Lady in the Wings, a Marian MacDowell-approved biopic about the early days of the colony. Mrs. MacDowell spends a lot of time telling people that she’s no artist, she just wants to feed and house her husband and his brilliant peers. The movie celebrates female self-sacrifice, but most scenes end with characters gazing admiringly at Mrs. MacDowell as she embarks on a new tour or fundraising project. So it celebrates independence and enterprise in the same breath.

It was live television, so every scene is shot from the same distance, the passage of time is shown via a hand haphazardly tearing off calendar pages and the big 1938 hurricane scene is represented by a chunk of wood landing in front of Mrs. MacDowell.

We all laughed at glossed-over aspects of artistic life, like when Mr. MacDowell gets a tenured teaching position at Columbia:

Academic Dude A: “Let’s hire a European.”

Academic Dude B: “What about that American fellow, Edward MacDowell?”

Academic Dude A: “Who is he?”

Academic Dude B: “Who’s Edward MacDowell?! Why, he wrote ‘To a Wild Rose’!”

Academic Dude A: “He did? Everyone knows that song! Write him at once and tell him he can teach at Columbia for the rest of his life!”

But then they showed actual footage of the old colony, which looks a lot like present-day MacDowell. There was the red dorm building. There were the lunch baskets being delivered by truck. Breakfast was at 7:30, dinner at 6:30, just like now.

Maybe it’s because I’m a West Coaster or a public school kid or gay, but I tend to be suspicious of traditions, especially the WASP-y variety, even as I have a certain longing to be part of them. I think the nice thing about MacDowell is that the legacy is held lightly—you can laugh at the clunky script even as your heart fills with affection at the sight of a lunch basket.

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