Mary Mothersill Remembered


Linda Nochlin

I first got to know Mary well my senior year at Vassar, in 1950-51, although I had met her before and heard all about her classes from my friends, who took her famous Philosophy of Modern Literature course, the only place you could read European contemporary literature in translation. I never actually took a course with her, but we talked about all sorts of things – people, books, ideas. She was my most important teacher, in the sense that I tried to model myself on her in such a variety of ways, important and trivial. It was her style I admired, palpable yet elusive at once, not necessarily the substance of her thought, although that impressed me too. Mary was so different from the usual tweedy, gruff, unfashionable and to me, highly unalluring women faculty. She had an seductive air of seriousness and casualness, self-assuredness and diffidence, which got to me and helped make me who I am today, for better or for worse. I loved her beautiful Canadian voice and her open-toed shoes; her shapely suits and her faded, worn blue jeans. She gave me the Collected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which I have to this day, and Harte Crane as well. I remember a heated group discussion in her apartment of Pound’s Pisan Cantos when they came out. Did he deserve the prize on aesthetic merit alone, despite his vocal anti-semitism? This was soon after the end of the war, and feelings were strong. Her stories of Canada, or Harvard Graduate School, her family in Victoria, British Columbia were the stuff of myth, of legend. I still remember the magic names: Orrie O’Boyle, Bathroom Bill, Arnold Isenberg. Her life seemed mysterious and transfigured, as did British Columbia when I finally got to visit her and her family there: the retired British colonels, the white elephant sales at the church, the manicured lawns, the seeming evenness of temper and charming manners of the inhabitants, although Mary carefully explained that the rate of alcoholism and nervous breakdown was high. To a Jewish girl from Brooklyn, even after Vassar seasoning, it seemed as though I were participating in the exotic rituals of a Pacific Island tribe. When, much later, I saw Annie Hall, I understood the contrast of mores perfectly. I have blurred black-and-white pictures of her on board her brother’s sailboat, as we sailed around the islands, Mary laughing up at the sun, a cap pulled down over her eyes.

We would sit on the rocks in the Pacific and look out to sea and talk over the expanse of reddening water as the sun set. Here, we would share intimacies and insights and sometimes she would lead me in philosophical discussions. I remember talking about David Hume and causality with her at great length. Here was my problem: the summer before I had lived in a tenement overlooking the third avenue El. Each morning, exactly at the moment when I flushed the toilet, the train would rush by. Did my flushing cause the train to appear? Causality seemed slippery after that, needless to say. In the afternoons I would do water colors of the view from her parents’ house out over the straits of San Juan de la Fuca. I thought of these weeks as a kind of utopian interlude before I had to enter “real life”, an interlude spent with the person I most wanted to be with.

Mary never let me get away with intellectual sloppiness. “Your teachers think you are so smart they don’t bother to challenge you, to criticize you,” she said. She criticized me, but even better, she showed me alternatives to cliches or lazy assumptions. Later, when I graduated, we continued our friendship and it grew and changed. Through her, I met all sorts of interesting people, her friends: Sidney Morganbesser and, although I only met her briefly, a poet whom I greatly admired, Muriel Rukeyser. Mary was staying in her apartment and I remember vividly that she had a big, round bed: another legendary detail to add the biography of Mary’s people. Later, when I graduated, we continued our friendship and it grew and changed. Mary accepted the task, half joking, of being the godmother of my oldest daughter, Jessica. She gave her a beautiful silver key ring and said she would take charge of her moral education. Sometimes we saw her a lot, sometimes very little. Later in life, when I moved to New York very near her on the upper West Side, and still later, when we bought a house near hers in Long Island, we saw each other more. She got to know my other daughter, and her god-daughter’s children as well. Sometimes she would come for Thanksgiving, bearing her own drink in a miniature bottle, or a gift for my grandson, or I would visit her in her wonderful tripartite house house with its extraordinary gardens. We would sit at the outdoor table talking about our work, or gossiping, or just looking or listening to music.

It is hard to explain how extraordinary Mary was. To say she was unique is to say little. Everyone is, in some way, unique. It is harder to suggest the qualities of that uniqueness, the quirks of mind, the turns of gesture, the nuances of putting down a glass, phrasing a criticism, commenting on a piece of music that were particularly Mary’s. No matter how funny or off-handed or oblique she might be talking about ordinary things, when it came to ideas she was lucidity itself, a model of rationality, always open to argument or further discussion and clearly enjoying the process . I couldn’t really understand her later writings on aesthetics very well because I think about art in such different terms, but it is clear how serious these writings are. I can only say that the ways in which her uniqueness of spirit effected me many years ago, and continued to touch me over the long years – more than half a century – of our friendship shaped me in a multitude of ways, many of which I am hardly aware of , some of which, knowingly, I cherish.

It is clear I think, that in mourning Mary, I am mourning myself and my own lost youth and approaching death as the past closes in and the lines of the future converge more and more rapidly. In losing her, I lose a significant part of myself and my experiences. I will end by quoting the final lines of a poem by Hopkins that I have read many times in the volume she gave me for graduation, and that I think Mary liked it, too: The poem, “Spring and Fall” begins: “Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?” and ends: “Sorrow’s springs are the same. / Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / What heart heard of, ghost guessed: / It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.”