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Harriet Munro: the Untold Story


ISSUE:  Autumn 2001

It wasn’t my idea to say a few words about Harriet Munro, but some think due to my years, I may have information about her that is not already in the public record. I met Harriet Munro at the Columbia Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, Illinois where, if you remember, a few of us turned some no account lake frontage into a celebration of our greatness as a nation. We had Sitting Bull and Tom Edison’s talking machine and a dancer named Little Egypt. Little Egypt was the first belly dancer to be seen in the USA, and she was packing them in wriggling her guts in a place that was made to look like a waterfront café in Cairo, Egypt. We could make anything up out of plaster of Paris, but to this day, I’m not really sure that Cairo, Egypt has a waterfront.

I’ve never been one to ignore the corpus delecto, but it’s always been my motto to balance the pleasure thereof contained with the gratifications of the mind and—if you are so lucky—with the satisfactions of the spirit. So the announcement that this Harriet Munro was going to read some poems she had written at the official opening ceremonies of the Exposition found a welcome seat in my being since I had already watched Little Egypt several times. It seemed only right to bring some equanimity into my life.

Now this reading took place in the immense convention hall that was made to resemble an ancient temple of some sort, but the bigness of the place didn’t suit the occasion. I don’t think anyone heard Miss Harriet that afternoon, because this was long before microphones and the amplification devices we have now that magnify the sounds of the words but pretty much leave their meaning right at the start. You could see Miss Harriet standing on the stage at the very end of the hall—must have been several thousand of us leaning forward—a frail figure that you almost felt sorry for. You could tell she was reading something, because when she came to the end of the page, she’d drop the page on the floor, so we knew she was making some progress through her poetry, and, by the same token, we knew when she came to the end when she dropped the last sheet of paper. We applauded at that point.

Like I say, her reading was part of the opening ceremonies, and she got the job because her brother, Alfie Munro, was one of the architects of the White City. He was a decent fellow, and I’m not saying that one thing went with the other, but I guess the relationship was convenient.

But you did have to wonder when you saw her poems in print. Clearly, Miss Harriet was frustrated by the fact that no one had heard her, so she had some of them printed up on circulars and threw them off from the top spin of George Ferris’s big wheel in the amusement section. They flew all over the place. Right then, some of us should have taken note of the dynamo that was within this small woman that turned on an ambition that was as big as any of ours. To be sure, most of these printed poems ended up in the trash. The Heinz people, also from Pittsburgh like Ferris, used them to wrap up the big dill pickles they were giving away at Booth 57, and I have one of these now, framed and hanging on the wall of my office. The stain of the pickle juice makes for a kind of impressionistic background for the poetry, which always seemed to me to represent the spiritual joined with the corporeal.

But to be truthful no one could make head or tail of Miss Harriet’s poetry. That was nothing against it, mind you, and besides it looked like poetry, short lines and arranged a certain way, and the words themselves had a refined quality to them that made you think you should understand them.

Now as I have said, I had been spending some time at the reconstructed waterfront café where Little Egypt performed three shows a night. She was a hasty collection of colored scarves with only her dark eyes and the lustrous, slight bowl—to refer to the Scripture—of her belly showing. The veils tossed and swirled, swayed and swung, like the woman was caught up in a tornado, and the belly part of her looking even more naked because of a sparkling gem, an artificial emerald, set dab in the center of her navel. It could make you dizzy following the continuous revolutions and evolutions of this jewel and some men became sick and had to be helped out of the place. I learned to take in, from time to time, the dancer’s eyes, to study the whole woman so to speak, thereby making a sort of triangulation with the shimmering tummy that helped me keep my wits. It might be recalled that I had apprenticed as a mechanical engineer before I got into business.

In fact, Little Egypt and I got to be more than a little friendly during the course of the Exposition, and she turned out to be Gertrude Clapper of Wappinger Falls, New York. That woman had more moves in bed than water on a hot griddle, and her gyrations could make a grown man cry—as I did on more than one occasion. After the Exposition closed, she joined the Keith Vaudeville circuit to continue her career and eventually made a good marriage with a successful dentist in Toledo, Ohio. We exchanged Christmas cards for a number of years.

And it was just before the Exposition closed that Miss Harriet walked into my office one day. Someone had told her that I had framed this poem of hers. Let me say that at this time she had not yet developed that stern look seen in her later photographs, the ones where she wears these round glasses that sat like transparent discs before two eyes with the expression of buttons sewn on. So here she was in my office because she had this idea she wanted to talk over with me. Alfie, her brother, had given her the names of those of us who had something to do with the Exposition, a venture that had turned a little profit. And that’s what she was after—a little profit. Remember that Ferris wheel business. She wanted to start a magazine that would only publish poetry.

Now, you can see right off how excited some of us might have been by this idea. At the Calvert Club, over lunch, a bunch of us mulled over the concept. Remember, this was long before the current specialization you see on the news stands crammed with journals devoted to every small knot in the cultural afghan. Of course, we did have magazines around then devoted to poultry or some science or other and Budge Harriman regularly followed a journal whose subject was wood chopping. But poetry?

One evening at the Everleigh Club, I raised the question with Dolly Everleigh before I retired with a new girl just arrived from Memphis, Tennessee. Very refined, fluent in several languages, she was already talked about for the inviting table settings she made in the bordello’s dining room.

Dolly Everleigh wasn’t all that sure about a magazine devoted only to poetry, so she called her sister over who was something of a reader. Nellie thought such a magazine would make a valuable contribution to the cultural climate, and she could see them having several copies of it distributed around the different parlors of the whorehouse. I always respected the business sense of the Everleigh sisters, and we talked long into the night about the prospects of Miss Harriet’s venture. The new girl, whose name was Ruby Lee, fell asleep on the settee beside us, and Dolly walked her upstairs and put her to bed. I went home with my brain on fire with the possibilities of Harriet Munro’s idea. A magazine that published nothing but poetry.

So, let history record that Verse, the magazine, was started with the loot of a few of us entrepreneurs—capitalist thugs as the yellow press fondly called us—and the blessings of the madams of a ritzy brothel. Come to think of it, isn’t that how a lot of those paintings in museums and books in the library got done? Take the family in Italy, the Medici bunch, building all those palaces and then having important artists decorate them while at the same time they might be slitting some fellow’s throat in the shadows of their splendid duomos. The same thing goes on today, doesn’t it, helping out a struggling artist, building museums and libraries for ordinary folk to enjoy out of doings it’s better not to talk about?

To the surprise of some of us, Miss Harriet turned out to be not much different than we were; that is, she carried within that small constitution a lust that was as big as any of ours. We wanted to make money; she wanted to see her poems in print. Now, a lot’s been written about Verse, the magazine, and how Miss Harriet started it to give struggling poets a venue—as some call it—and it’s true she was the first to publish the likes of Carl Sandcurd, Richard Frost and Rachel Lindsay, but I can tell you what she really wanted all along was a place for her own poetry to be printed. It was like that trick she did with the Ferris wheel except this one was kept on the ground. More acceptable, you might say, as well as accessible. It’s a curious business—this business of poetry, and I can speak with some authority because from the beginning Miss Harriet put me on the Board of Trustees of Verse, the magazine.

In business, I’m used to seeing a person do anything, go to any lengths to get ahead, so it came as no surprise to me to see poets doing anything to get their poems printed, to get the prizes that people like us were to make up for poetry. It’s good for business. My old friend Hank Frick could take lessons from some of these poets—lying, cheating, bending over to shoot the moon. They had nothing on any of us. I think some of them would kill if they could get away with it, so I guess putting pretty words on a page doesn’t change human nature all that much.

After a few years, Miss Harriet’s poetry was not only appearing in Verse, the magazine—by now she was also publishing the likes of Oscar Pound and Edna Millet—but quatrains and villanelles under her name began to show up in the hallowed pages of Harper’s, the Atlantic, and the Century. This part of her history is an example of that nature in her that made some of us catch our breath with appreciation. She had a sharp eye for a person’s weakness, a shrewd sense of how to use another for her own good. She had guessed rightly that the editors of these highbrow magazines all had a poem or two in the bottom drawer of their desks, so she made them a simple deal. She’d publish their lyrics in Verse, the magazine, if they would print hers in their pages. Now that was an arrangement all of us understood.

Now if you’ve been following what I’ve been saying, you know what I’m talking about is not so much about poetry as it is about power. If you think it’s laughable to put poetry and power together, just remember that the ant that makes it to the top of the hill feels the same tingle that J.P. Morgan felt when he cornered steel. You could recognize this light in Miss Harriet’s eyes when she tramped into the board meetings. Despite her seeming fragility, she tread with a ponderous foot. As a trustee of Verse, the magazine, I often watched her turn over a poet’s future like she was playing solitaire, putting the ones that could do something for her poetry up with the aces at the top, burning another one in the pile. She became a force field that drew other poets around her, all of whom stepped around slightly bent over from the waist in a kind of permanent crick of deference. And she would publish them now and then and, in turn, they would describe the importance of her work to others. It was like compounding interest, how a certain value can grow and grow and grow from the original, modest sum.

It was about this time that she took to wearing that narrow forage cap familiar to our doughboys in uniform in the First World War. As the pictures of this period show, she’d wear it at a jaunty angle, indoors and out, and some felt she might be paying homage to the young men who had died for Standard Oil and Verse, the magazine. But the truth of the matter, as one biography has already noted, Miss Harriet was going bald. I don’t know why vanity comes as a surprise to some people—we all take our vainglorious turns at the wheel of life—so why her attempt to disguise this transformation should be the subject of scurrilous gossip is beyond me. I put it into the same trash box; the smothered laughter that accompanied identification of the freckles that sometimes appeared on the back of her neck. So she was dying her hair! On more than one occasion I explained these spots as the emblems of the artist she was; rushing to meet her creative impulses, which sometimes produced the stigmata of a being oblivious and above an ordinary practice.

I only re-introduce this trivial matter to bring up a more pertinent fact of her history. Miss Harriet had stopped writing poetry. Losing her hair seemed to go with losing her muse. It didn’t seem to matter to her, for the entrepreneurial side of her took over—this side that some of us had seen from the beginning and which had inspired our trust. Verse, the magazine, was in a stronger position than ever. There seemed to be no end to the poets who wanted to break into print; also, more magazines had started up in the shadow of Verse, the magazine, and it was hard to tell which came first, the poets or the magazines. But Miss Harriet had gone them one better and had begun to publish whole books of poems which made her even more influential. Because, it’s one thing to have a poem or two printed on a page in a magazine, but to have a whole book of poems published means even more to a poet. That’s understandable. A book is a substantial thing you can hold in your hand, give to relatives and friends at Christmas time, or, if you’re lucky, have end up in a library somewhere. In fact, collections of Miss Harriet’s older poems were done by a press started up by some of the poets she had been publishing. So, the perpetual wheel of enterprise she had initiated kept turning. Different forums around the country—even the world—invited her participation, and those of us still on the Board of Trustees had become only names on the letterhead.

Some schools invited her to teach how to write poetry—that seemed hard to believe, but the idea caught on. I can see her striding across a campus, that forage cap set at a perky angle on her head and with an armful of books, most of which she had published or collections of her work that another poet had put out to pay his or her respects. To be truthful, the number of universities that give degrees in poetry writing amazes me, and it’s all due to Miss Harriet, but to be completely honest I’m also dumbfounded by the schools that give degrees in business. You can see old John Rockefeller or any of us sitting still in class for that one! But I have to admit for the same record that my sons have acquired such degrees from Harvard.

It’s clear to me that Miss Harriet could have held her own with Hank Ford and Andy Carnegie, but her pilgrimage toward power led her into the arbor of a different vineyard. She had a head for business equal to none and never let her pursuit of Euterpe (as you see, my own head is not just a receptacle for sums and figures) get in the way of the practical agenda.

To mention my studious progeny, it is only appropriate to introduce the fine woman who has given me these sons and who has been my constant companion and inspiration on the road of life. One day, I was in Marshall Field’s department store. This was about the time Miss Harriet received the Longfellow medal from the Poetry League of America. The Field family was looking for fresh capital, and I had dropped by to take a look at their books. I found myself in the home furnishing department and came face to face with the young woman who had been ready to pleasure me a couple of years before—the night I had discussed Miss Harriet’s idea with the Everleigh sisters. Ruby Lee. During the times she wasn’t occupied at that Venusian spa, this young woman had studied up on decorations and fabrics and such and she was now head of the Home Decoration Department at Marshal Field’s. If you remember, she had fallen asleep while we had discussed Harriet Munro’s idea, so she was ignorant of the different strategies we formulated to launch Verse, the magazine. It was this innocence that drew me to her immediately on the fifth floor of Marshal Field’s, not to mention the different talents for which Dolly Everleigh had recommended her but which Harriet Munro’s ambition had curiously denied me. Our life has been blissful and fecund, and she has made our home the center of society’s admiration. The pictures of her elaborate table settings appear regularly in the rotogravure and the more important journals devoted to style. In my private moments, I like to think how our union epitomizes business and pleasure joined as was exemplified by Verse, the magazine.

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