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The Shadowy Lady of the Street of Dark Shops

[clock] 30-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 1998

I was in college when the excitement of Botteghe Oscure, an international multi-language literary review, arrived in upstate New York to reveal a new era of literature and its possibilities. It was post-World War II, the end of American isolationism, the time of Dior’s new look and of the debate on Ezra Pound as poet/traitor. The English department was agog over the new review. It was the creation of someone fabulous, Principessa Marguerite Caetani—”the legendary aristocrat,” Cynthia Ozick, a later contributor, rather extravagantly termed her—and everyone wanted to be in it.

In its bland-beige fat book format, Botteghe Oscure was named for Via delle Botteghe Oscure, the street of dark shops in Rome, site of Palazzo Caetani where it was edited and issued twice a year from 1948 to 1960. Welcoming to its pages the young and obscure as well as the famed, its emphasis was on the creative writer in his or her original language, and not at all on academe or critics writing about writing. The new review mirrored a new international spirit and the opening to a larger literary world for a generation of writers who would find each other through its pages.

Marguerite Caetani fascinates by her contrasts. On the one hand she became a public figure, having stepped to the forefront of literary publishing by her financial patronage and editorial involvement with two internationally influential journals (her French language Commerce published in Paris in the 1920’s preceded Botteghe Oscure); on the other hand, she stayed illusive and private despite her celebrated hospitality to friends and artists, and this she did by the rigorous reticence she maintained over the deep losses of her life: she was five when her mother died, 14 when she saw the fiery end of her childhood home, and at 16 she was orphaned by her father’s death. After her only son’s death under mysterious circumstances in 1941, she was never heard to mention him again.

She loved to laugh, to be amused: come back to Rome she implores John P. Marquand, you are much needed since we haven’t laughed so well since last you were here; for contributors whose cause she took up at editorial meetings, she would often cast the winning vote because “he made us all laugh so much when he was here last Sunday.” To Eugene Walter, a writer from Alabama who popped up in Paris on his GI bill, met Marguerite, and became her right-hand man with Botteghe Oscure, she reports how in Rome they all screamed with delight at his letters or what a riot Niccolò Tucci was at Viareggio impersonating a Russian grand duke. Eugene enjoyed her confidence and it is through some of the notes he made of their conversations that something is gleaned of her life. She loved the beauty of the Caetani country estate at Ninfa, the power of poetry, and the company of creative souls. What was hurtful she buried deep.

Because there were silences in her story, and turns to her life that kept suggesting more questions, I drove north one summer to look for Marguerite Caetani (née Chapin) in Waterford along the Connecticut shore where her girlhood home had been, and in the contiguous urban center of New London. A veil of oblivion seems to have descended over her long-ago New England haunts: the old home combusted and gone from the earth, vital records non-existent, the familiar New London sidewalks from her youth now fronted by an empty, darkened hotel, a silent theater, rows of abandoned stores. The life and light had departed; they, as she, were shadowy figures from another time.

Who was Miss Chapin before she became Princess Caetani upon marriage to Prince Roffredo Caetani? He was the second son of a distinguished Italian family, and when he succeeded his elder brother as duke and family head, Marguerite acquired the additional title of Duchess of Sermoneta, the last duchess in a succession that had begun with Lucrezia Borgia. But Marguerite’s greatest title, she would have thought, was as Lady Bountiful to hundreds of this century’s writers.

In Waterford and New London the town clerks and curators and librarians did not know her name. She rang no bells in local memory even though Lindley H. Chapin, her father, had built one of the notable estates at Goshen Point around 1870. The mansion, favored by sea breezes and named Aeolia after the god of winds (but also echoing his wife Lelia’s name), occupied one of the finest sites on the Eastern coast. It’s most likely that in June 1880 Marguerite was born there and not in New London as is often recorded, and baptized in the family chapel. Since the Catholic parish of Waterford came under the diocese of New London at that time, Marguerite’s baptismal certificate would have been recorded as issued from New London.

“They weren’t locals,” a historical society curator dressed as a dairy maid told me, “they were summer people. We wouldn’t have anything on them.” The Chapins not local? Dismissed as summer people? I was incredulous.

The clan, both notable and prolific, descends from Deacon Samuel Chapin who sailed from England in 1635 with wife and children and in 1642 was one of three founders of Springfield, Massachusetts. It was this redoubtable deacon who not only gave his new country a great many descendants, but also his name to the statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens widely known as “The Puritan.” The work depicts a serious-minded, stocky man advancing apace under flowing cloak and clutching a huge tome against his side—for all the world, a man of the book who went by the book. This was Marguerite’s forebear, the no-nonsense founding father who gave America an indelible image of Puritan rectitude some of which stuck to Marguerite despite the lures of dolce far niente in her Roman life.

Generations of other prominent Chapins lived in the Connecticut River valley until the mid-19th century when some moved further south toward Long Island Sound and some into New York City. The old Puritan deacon’s progeny included a good many scientists and railroad magnates as well as divines, Noah Webster, Presidents Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist John Brown, J.P. Morgan and T.S. Eliot on his mother’s side. In New World terms, the Chapins were as endowed with notables as the Caetanis who traced their house, Domus Caietana, to the Rome of the Caesars and included Pope Boniface VIII who provoked Dante’s exile and subsequently found a place in Dante’s Inferno.

Marguerite’s father was a gentleman of leisure with a predilection for farming, and her mother was French-descended Lelia Gibert for whom the Catholic chapel containing a Cellini chalice was built at Aeolia. Marguerite grew up between the New York City townhouse on 37th Street, a few blocks from the old Metropolitan Opera House, and the Connecticut estate in a time and place of easy privilege for America’s moneyed gentry. Although lost to her in childhood, her mother remained the powerful presence of Marguerite’s life, both inspirationally in the French influence and the naming of her own daughter, and also materially through the Gibert inheritance that came to her.

The only glimpse given of Marguerite’s childhood is indirect, refracted from a memoir by a Springfield cousin, Mary Britton Miller (who became a writer with the pen-name Isabel Bolton and appeared in Botteghe Oscure). Through the blended voice of young Mary and her twin comes the picture of summers spent just across the way from the Chapin estate where Marguerite lived with her father and his second wife Cornelia, and the children of the new marriage, Paul, Katherine, and Cornelia in the halcyon last decades of the 19th century.

Waterford had always been a farming community, and Goshen Point on its shoreline is traversed by lush tree-lined roads affording views of seaside meadows, fine for dairy cows which the area specialized in, and spectacular settings for the great houses which once rivaled those of Newport in the Gilded Age. The air there is fresh and briny with the sea, the trees are huge centurions, corn is high, the waysides filled with Queen Anne’s lace and blue chicory, the whole a seascape as beautiful when I saw it as when Mary Miller recorded it. The Chapin property was a large holding of meadow acreage and gardens running to the shoreline; greenhouse, carriage house, and stable, chapel, barn, and manager’s farmhouse were all presided over by the mansion.

The Miller twins, just three years younger than Marguerite, recalled the Chapins coming down from their house to the beach, towels across their arms, to bathe: “Mr. Lindley Chapin, such a very decorative gentleman with his wonderful dark beard and the turquoise rings upon his fingers and such a high-pitched voice and almost always laughing. . . . And there was Marguerite . . .oh, so very handsome with her long dark curls and her perfectly beautiful dresses. . . . She had a donkey and a donkey cart. We’d rather be Marguerite Chapin than anybody on the earth.”

Who indeed would not be Miss Chapin when, at age 21, she came into her inheritance and escaped abroad? Nine years separated Marguerite from her nearest half-sibling. But there were other, greater separations: she was Catholic as her mother had been and went to mass in the chapel with the Irish help while the second Mrs. Chapin and her brood went off in the carriage to Protestant service, and this, a reminiscing Marguerite related to the recording Eugene Walter caused her deep feelings of estrangement. She emphasized the feeling of difference and not getting on with a stepmother she detested. Marguerite was different; she looked to Europe and had a great desire to be on her own. She became the quintessential Henry James heroine; “the original bachelor girl” The New York Times dubbed her.

Lovely looking, Marguerite Chapin also had a pleasing voice and an interest in music. In 1902 she sailed for France to study singing in Paris accompanied by a dame de compagnie with whom she spoke French, all quite comme il faut. She never returned to live in the states. Since the young heiress did not marry until she was 31— unusual in that day—how did she pass a decade in addition to studying voice? She met writers and artists through her teacher, she traveled, she took in the culture, she looked up her Gibert relatives who furnished her with introductions, she sat for leading artists, she read, she learned. Yet missing from the large picture are any details of her daily life—the kind of minutiae that taken together give texture and color and animation to a life.

Miss Chapin, the bachelor girl, lived well within the bounds of propriety during those Paris years. Although she performed in her teacher’s private salon-theater, she avoided a public career and seemed never to have ambitions for herself as an artist, nor desire to be in the limelight. As Marguerite’s life was to prove, she preferred to be in the wings, “the Diaghilev of literature,” as her nephew Schuyler Chapin would define her in his own reminiscences.

In one of their conversations, Marguerite gave Eugene a witty account of her meeting with Roffredo Caetani: she was at the opera with a certain gentlemen who, having pressed his courtship to no avail and becoming convinced that she had no interest in him, nor perhaps even in marriage at all, finally said, “I’ll find someone for you to marry. You should marry. I know just the person for you even though he’s decided not to marry.”

“Who’s that?” said Marguerite.

“Prince Caetani, the composer,” replied the defeated suitor.

For two such handsome people as Marguerite and Roffredo, so immersed in the musical arts and so cavalierly disinterested in marriage, it was a perfect match. “We became engaged in about a minute—just like that,” Marguerite said of their first meeting.

They married in London in 1911 and headlines blazed in New York: “U.S. Heiress Becomes Bride of Italian Prince in Brilliant Ceremony.”

Roffredo and Marguerite Caetani followed their own course and settled in Versailles in 1919 at a residence he patriotically called Villa Romaine where they were known by one of his titles as Prince et Princesse de Bassiano. There they brought up their two children, a daughter Lelia born in 1913 and a son Camillo, born 1916.

In the 1920’s, the great period of blowing the lid off the creative arts in Paris, Villa Romaine was a center for the Parisian literary-artistic world. “All the time we lived in Versailles,” she told Eugene, “we used to have Sunday luncheons that went on and on—always at least 30 to table; afterwards we talked or played charades with writers, musicians, artists of all sorts—Joyce, Stravinksky, Paul Valéry, Gide, Bracque, Colette, Picasso, Claudel, Valéry Larbaud.” From the spirited talk and exchange of ideas at these gatherings was born her first financed literary review. Should the ideas exchanged in conversation take the written form of a series of letters? No, thought St. John Perse, a future Nobel laureate, why not a periodical? And it was he who suggested the title Commerce, as in commerce des idées.

Marguerite had become one of the beautiful people of the années folles, though strangely unrecorded by many of her close associates in their own reminiscences of those times, Sylvia Beach, in Shakespeare & Co. is one who does remember Marguerite. At the luncheon given by Marguerite at Villa Romaine to celebrate Commerce and the publication in its first issue of selections from Ulysses, James Joyce was an honored guest. He had hardly been seated at the table when Marguerite’s huge dog bounded in and put his paws on Joyce’s shoulders. The princess laughed with delight, then, when she understood Joyce was not amused, had the dog removed. Joyce hated dogs; the Irish writer Michael Sayers has said that Joyce actually kept stones in his pocket to throw at any he met on his walks. Marguerite, the dog-lover, said that hers was harmless, although she allowed that once it had chased a plumber out the window. “I had to buy the man a new pair of trousers,” she laughed. Sylvia Beach, recounting this incident said that Joyce shuddered and whispered to her, “She’s going to have to do the same thing for me.”

By the 1930’s political and economic storm clouds were gathering in Europe, while economic depression in the United States sharply reduced Marguerite’s income. She was forced to give up Commerce, and it ceased publication in 1932, the year the Caetanis closed Villa Romaine to make their home in Italy.

From 1932, for another decade, there ensues, as in her early years abroad, a period of silence. There were the emotionally trying war years when Marguerite, American by birth and still proud holder of her American passport, but Italian by marriage, must have been sorely tested. As Harold Acton, the elder of the Anglo-Florentine expatriate world put it, their world became despondent and divided, deeply troubled about their Italian friends or family connections who loathed the Axis Powers yet were obliged to do their patriotic duty. This was the dilemma of divided loyalties experienced and recorded by Marguerite’s friend Iris Origo, also married to an Italian, in her War Comes to Val d’Orcia.

The Caetanis had been leaders of Italian government since the country’s unification in 1870; they were, as Schuyler Chapin has expressed it, the very sinew of the state. For them the question of loyalty was to Italy their country, not to the regime of Il Duce.

During the war Marguerite and Roffredo remained with the peasants who worked their lands, sheperding them through the difficult times of the invasion by taking them into the walled courtyard of the Castle at Sermoneta—people, livestock and all. And in Rome, in Palazzo Caetani, they sheltered two escaped young Polish women related to Roffredo through his grandmother.

Marguerite Caetani, the champion of writers, left no writing of her own recording her life, her thoughts on the arts and literature, her experience of social life in Europe between the wars and her existence during World War II. Did she meet Ezra Pound again, after Paris, during his long residence in Italy from 1925 to 1945, and how did she react to his pro-Axis broadcasts during the war in which her son died? Had Marguerite with her sense of American freedom of speech been overheard to speak against the regime? Was that what imperiled her son, Camillo, who served as an officer in the Italian army during the ignominious invasion of Albania and was rumored not to have been killed in action as officially reported but by his own men on Mussolini’s orders? Did Camillo, who was at Harvard just before war broke out (and is remembered by his American relatives as a dashing, handsome blade as were all the Caetani men) father a child during his affair with a young woman in Boston? Did Marguerite ever try to determine if she had, in fact, an American grandchild who would be her sole descendant in a line that became extinct with Camillo’s death?

These are heavy questions and the posing of them renders ever more complex, more profound, and more transcendent the woman who avoided the foreground, the factual daily record, and any figuring or precise accounting to keep to the realm of some remote, ideal world. Poetry was more real to her than society; shadings and suggestion more agreeable than blunt full exposure. Perforce she kept no diary: the vanity of documenting herself in order to insure her prominence and position was not her way. She honored and believed in the Artist.

One of her poets, the Austrian Hugo von Hofmannsthal, responded thus to her notable charm: “It is an exquisite pleasure to think of you. You surround yourself with poets and artists, and the air around you remains very pure and very clear, with no shadow of snobbishness. You talk to dogs as one should talk to dogs, you talk to plants as it is fitting to talk to plants, you talk to poets as one should talk to poets—and you remain yourself, of an unfailing grace. You are admirable.”

Marguerite kept rank and remained a loyal Caetani, still devoted, in her way and in her separate quarters, to Roffredo, their common interests cementing the long marriage that had become more companionable than connubial. There are no details of their life together; she is said to have much earlier “closed out” Roffredo from her emotional life when his affairs with other women became flagrant. But she remained committed to his music, approaching Samuel Barber in the late 50’s about having Roffredo’s opera Hypatia—”a most beautiful work,” she wrote him—produced in the states, it having not been heard since Weimar in 1926.

The glittering characters from the 1920’s had become less so after World War II. For Marguerite there is the deep loss of her son and the disillusionment of her marriage. Marguerite was a believer, as intensely as her kinsman T.S. Eliot who had written her on Camillo’s death: “One just makes do and carries on the rest of life. I don’t even maintain that faith makes loss easier; it just, if I may say so, improves the quality of the suffering and makes it sometimes fruitful instead of useless.”

Her suffering was fruitful. She emerged from the war’s aftermath imbued with a noble mission and conviction: the way to insure the open communications between nations and the good will that would avoid future conflict was through cultural exchange, through the medium of literature in a review that would be international in scope and that would focus, above all, on the young, untried writer. Her review would be dedicated to the proposition that literature—as all Art—exists in a world beyond political, narrow nationalism, and boundaries.

“When I gave up Commerce,” she told Eugene Walter, “I missed it so that I began thinking of another review.” However, when she said that she wanted to launch a review in several languages, everyone, including cousin Tom Eliot, who had experience editing a journal, said she was mad—it was quite difficult enough to make a go of a single-language journal.

Marguerite was willful and determined and also rich enough to make Botteghe Oscure happen. In a 1948 letter to E.E. Cummings, when only the first issue of the review had appeared, she thanked him for his delightful poems and hoped her check (a generous $300 sent pre-publication, at a time when the big glossies were offering $75 a poem) was sufficient.

Botteghe Oscure I came out in the spring of 1948, the only all-Italian issue. It included Eugenio Montale’s marvelous poem “L’Anguilla” (which snaked its way into Robert Lowell’s version as The Eel), poems by Sandro Penna and Attilio Bertolucci, and stories by Guglielmo Petroni and Giorgio Bassani who was Marguerite’s Italian editor. “The review is a great success in Italy,” she exulted in a letter to Theodore Roethke, “they’ve never had anything quite like it before. . . .”

It is in her routine correspondance with her contributors and editors concerning Botteghe Oscure that she emerges as a warm-hearted and generous backer of writers—but especially the poets!— whom she adores. She is concerned for the poets individually, she honors their work and is responsive to it, she worries about their illnesses, she sends money or pays their hotel bills when she can’t put them up, she invites them to stay at her palace or country home or says she will set loose her flat-hunters to find them digs if they’ll only come to Rome; she writes letters for them to fellowship and award committees and is furious when they don’t win. If they are English poets, she has their teeth fixed. Always in a hurry— “in a pitiful hurry”—she always sends her love.

With the time Dylan Thomas spent writing her long contrite, self-flagellating letters of apology and requests for money, he might well have completed Under Milk Wood which he had persuaded Marguerite to pay for in entirety with the promise that he’d finish part two rapidly. She received only the first part. It appeared as “Llareggub, A Piece for Radio Perhaps” in Botteghe Oscure IX, Spring 1952. When, after infinite patience and after all her payments, she asked an intermediary to implore Dylan to send her the rest, he sent word that he’d rather let her down than himself. He then sold the work elsewhere. Still, her faith in Dylan the poet never wavered and, grieving at his death in November 1953, she movingly commemorated him in the 1954 spring issue of her review.

She was to become, according to George Plimpton who was among the callers at her Paris apartment in the 50’s when he was starting The Paris Review, I’esprit of that time. Please, she implores Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Dylan Thomas, send your poems! And send advice that would be precious to her about young, new poets. At the same time she warns, “I am terribly anti-poetry critics and criticism.”

“I do hope for great honor and joy of having your name . . . in this coming number,” she wrote E.E. Cummings early on and did indeed get him for Botteghe Oscure II. After Cummings came to Rome in 1951, Marguerite wrote to thank him for the gift he had made her of Pound’s Collected Letters and got in her own last word on il miglior fabbro. Pound, when asked in a pre-war interview who were some of the day’s great poets said he would name only one—E.E. Cummings. Cummings, in turn, became one of Pound’s staunchest supporters. Perhaps he and Marguerite had had some words in Rome about Pound. “How generous of you to let Ezra share your travels!” he wrote her rather ironically after she said the gift book would accompany her to Lausanne. Not to be outdone, she replied that she enjoyed the Letters in great part because she was also engaged in editing a little review, but that she also understands still better why she never cared much about Pound as a poet since “a poet for me is a being so high so apart that a sort of miscellaneous creature like that. . .well you know what I mean if anyone does. . . .” Cummings surely knew what she meant: the most devastating thing that Marguerite could have said was not that Pound was a Fascist-sympathizer and traitor, but too miscellaneous a creature to be a real poet.

The problem of a U. S. distributor for Botteghe Oscure was always a great strain for Marguerite and took up enormous energy and time as she penned dozens of letters, trying even to secure advice from her American writers. “How I long to discharge my decisions onto you,” she writes poor Lowell, and on the last day of 1951 she informs him that she will try Farrar, Straus although she is horrified that Roger Straus wants to put a price of $2 per copy on the review. “Is he dotty?” she wonders. It proved to be an unhappy alliance on both sides: she wanted to do it her way but Roger Straus felt that the time and energy and detail that would be necessary would be counter-productive.

So much was she the champion of the young unknown writer that she finally canceled the Anthology culled from 14 issues of Botteghe Oscure writers that was to have been brought out by Farrar, Straus. She charged them with wanting to include only the big names and leaving out those Botteghe Oscure had discovered and published for the first time. Exasperated, she wrote to Frances Steloff of the Gotham Book Mart in New York which stocked Botteghe Oscure, “I chucked the Anthology after all that work and worry as it would have had nothing of the letter or spirit of Botteghe Oscure . . . .I could have made a marvelous lawsuit!! . . . What propoganda for Botteghe Oscure . . . I would appear as the defender of the interests of the young and unknown etc. etc. . . .”

Two images of Marguerite take shape in the last part of her life as, with dedication and boundless enthusiasm, she gave herself over to the two enterprises she loved best: editing Botteghe Oscure and gardening at Ninfa, an abandoned medieval town which had been a Caetani holding since 1297 and long fallen into ruin. Some 35 miles south of Rome, it had become a place for family picnics where Roffredo’s English mother, with English romanticism, planted rose cuttings among the Piranesi-type ruins. Gelasio Caetani, Roffredo’s brother, restored the old town hall into a dwelling which became the family country residence. At Ninfa, on her four-day weekends from Rome, Marguerite continued the Sunday lunches, begun at Versailles decades earlier, with tables set out among the greenery.

With a passion shared by her daughter Lelia, Marguerite took up her mother-in-law’s hoe and trowel and created Italy’s premier romantic landscape at Ninfa where roses clamber up medieval towers, wondrous freshets of calla lilies sway along river banks, wisteria twines across old stone bridges, and corners of New England birch and American redbud set off the remains of crumbling chapels.

Marguerite was extremely close to her daughter Lelia and the two gardened together until the hot summers drove them to travel to France, Switzerland, and England from July to October. “My daughter and I are very earthy gardeners,” she wrote Ted Roethke, “. . .so you see one of the many reasons I love your poetry.” She keeps mentioning the beauty of Ninfa, wishing she could entice him over for a visit. Especially with Roethke she seemed to find echoes of her own voice, her own longings. He was a poet attuned to the rhythms of the natural world and in his long, lyrical sequence, “The Lost Son” (echoing childhood losses which Marguerite could identify in her own life) with its images of greenhouses, plants, soil, and empathy for all animate life, he spoke directly to her in her green kingdom at Ninfa.

“It’s a beautiful spring day in the garden,” she writes Lowell from Ninfa on the 4th of January 1951. And references to Ninfa keep cropping up in her business letters to Eugene Walter: “What are they called,” she asks him, “those imitation owls we have at Ninfa that squeak all day and night, too?”

The perfect connecting symbol between Marguerite’s role as literary patron and her passion for gardening was the oft-described garden basket full of submitted manuscripts which so many guests at Ninfa remember seeing near her chair, always at hand. In 1954, her favorite French poet, René Char, dedicated a new volume of verse: Pour Marguerite Caetani, au milieu des oiseaux et des coquelicots. And still later, Pour Marguerite, par qui les forêts deviennent jardin.

But was there, as in all enchanted gardens, a curse? Did Lelia like Rappaccini’s daughter fall prey to the lush surroundings? Though she finally married in 1951 when she was in her late 30’s, she remained childless, and it was wondered if all that gardening with chemical solutions might have affected her adversely.

In time, when it was clear there would be no children from Lelia, Marguerite successfully petitioned the Italian parliament to decree that no other claimants to the title and inheritance of the dukedom of the Caetani di Sermoneta would be recognized. The Caetani name exists now in two Foundations which administer the family holdings: one named for Camillo, the other for Roffredo.

In her Italian years Marguerite truly came into her own. With her expanded view and a more international format realized through the several languages it featured, Botteghe Oscure was to make Marguerite Caetani finally as known in America as she was abroad. She took direct charge of her new literary journal making Botteghe Oscure more an expression of her personal tastes and more generously open to new, young writers than Commerce had been.

It was the right time both for contemporary Italian writers and for Marguerite Caetani. Following the years of Fascist repression when Italians had had no access to American literature, she bridged the gap by bringing American writers to Italian readers at the same time as she was affording Italian writers an international outlet for their own work. She was part of the notable postwar creative ferment in Italy as the words and ideas that had been forbidden there for two decades once again circulated freely.

Marguerite Caetani was not a remote patron-in-the-skies. She worked nine to ten hours a day on Botteghe Oscure reading manuscripts, doing correspondence, proofs, arrangements, paying bills. She had no office, no secretary; manuscripts she didn’t like were stuffed under the bed, all correspondence was written in her hand, in a hurry, and with no copies made. She corresponded constantly—on Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve. Occasionally, with unabashed self-deprecation, she’ll call herself a pig for not having written sooner, or stupidissima for forgetting to mention something. Understandably she forgets details and often repeats and is uncertain of paid-up subscriptions, accounts, who’s received copies or not, if her editors have been paid or not. For a whole year she forgot to pay the faithful Eugene who, being a Southern gentleman, didn’t remind her but kept on as her Paris assistant editor and managed barely to survive on his book royalties until someone mentioned his plight to her.

She had her own editing style and reservations which must have been apparent to Roethke quite early, for he hoped words like bitches or references to Lesbianism wouldn’t offend her; she rejected a poem of his about T.S. Eliot and later another from a young poet, Richard Selig, although she found it excellent, because Eliot is “a distant cousin and what’s more important, a friend”; likewise, some passages of Roethke’s prose piece “The Last Class” are left out because they mention friends. Carolyn Kizer, recommended by Roethke, is “slightly exuberant” for Marguerite’s taste; but James Wright who at first was “not quite quite” became first-rate when he evinced a strong interest in translating Rene Char of whom Marguerite was the great champion and had been pushing other poets for years to translate.

Once again, as in her Commerce days, a story from Hemingway was rejected; and she didn’t like a story from Nabakov, she told Robert Lowell, because it was “all full of quips and quirks and tricks!” She refused a story from Moravia because it was the same old Communists and sex series all over again but thought it might do well in George Plimpton’s Paris Review which had, after all, published Jean Genêt.

And yet with all that work, she is in her prime, telling George Plimpton that her very happiest moment was hearing the thump outside her door that meant a delivery of manuscripts had arrived and with it the possibility of finding some major new talent. Among those she found were Truman Capote, Alfred Chester, and Muriel Spark who debuted in her pages along with Giuseppe Lampedusa’s first chapter of The Leopard. Some of Dylan Thomas’ finest poems, as well as the first part of Under Milk Wood, appeared first in Botteghe Oscure.

As Botteghe Oscure grew in esteem and elicited attention in American magazines from Vogue to Time (which headlined its report “Highbrow Refuge”), so did Marguerite’s vexing problem with distribution in the states grow. In 1954, even as she was wrestling with those problems and the Anthology affair, she was being awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French Embassy in Rome.

By 1958 Marguerite is constantly with a failing Roffredo who cannot be left alone. Already described by Marguerite in a letter to Ted Roethke as pathetically old and helpless, with no memory, Roffredo lived until 1961. Before his death, some incidents point to Marguerite’s own decline. Demonstrating dubious judgment, Marguerite listened to the invidious suggestion of a staff member that Eugene, whom she had always called her treasure, was leading “a double life” in regard to the review. At the same time, Giorgio Bassani had for the past few years been dividing his time between Botteghe Oscure and being editorial advisor to the new publishing firm started by Giacomo Feltrinelli whom Marguerite described as young and ignorant but with heaps of money. She kept Bassani and fired Eugene with the high-handed offer to pay his fare back to the states, an offer he could and did refuse. Eugene maintains that she was already showing personality alteration and was under terrific pressure from her son-in-law to stop draining her fortune on the review. Her eyesight was going and her hand-writing grew shakey. A foreboding sign came at the end of 1959 when Marguerite no longer dashed off a hurried, hand-written reply to Dearest Ted on her blue tissuey paper but had a friend type a response on formal letterhead saying it was on behalf of Princess Caetani who is quite tired following her return from Paris, but do send a poem.

In 1960, following the tragic death in a car accident of her irreplaceable printer, Luigi De Luca, everything must have seemed too much finally for Marguerite as she began her 80th year. The final issue of Botteghe Oscure appeared with Giorgio Bassani’s Farewell note paying full tribute to the invigorating American influence of its founder. Although so Europeanized, Marguerite had always kept her American citizenship (almost as a talisman, noted Bassani) and her American zeal and enthusiasm was very symbolically, he wrote, the generating sap for the new growth rising out of war’s desolation and decades of repression.

“I think you can be proud of your years of service, of bringing the many nations together, and of pepping up so many young poets,” Robert Lowell wrote her. Archibald MacLeish noted in his Introduction to the Botteghe Oscure Index that an astonishing 650 writers of 30 nationalities had passed through the review’s pages.

In August 1963, Roethke, died suddenly, face down in a friend’s swimming pool. Marguerite, who had remained young and vital through her constant contact with young and creative people, did not long survive her beloved poet whose very beautiful sequence, “Meditations of an Old Woman,” could be identified with her in these lines:

I am benign in my own company.
A shape without a shade, or almost none,
I hum in pure vibration, like a saw . . . .
I live in air; the long light is my home . . . .

The lady of the street of dark shops died at Ninfa, her beloved garden-home in December 1963.


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