Researching The Parrish Women

Back around 2009, I came upon an interesting book called The Make Believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin by Alma Gilbert. As an artist, my work is based on photographs, and I’ve always admired the work of Maxfield Parrish, who also used photographs in his work. Gilbert’s book gave a fascinating glimpse into Parrish’s working methods. She displayed his paintings next to his original resource photographs. As I read, I learned how his most frequent model, Susan Lewin, was also his lifelong companion of fifty years. I was intrigued. What was that like? I wondered. There’s a story I’d like to know more about.

But there wasn’t much written about the relationship between Parrish, greatest illustrator of the early twentieth century, and his model. As I’d always wanted to write a novel, this seemed like a good subject for me to tackle. It seemed all I’d have to do is a little research, add some dialogue, and I’d have a novel. If I’d known how wrong I was, I might never have started!

Some seven years later, I completed a rough draft 140,000 words long. With my wife, Chris, I’d traveled to Vermont and New Hampshire. At Dartmouth, we spent a week at the Rauner Special Collections Library, photographing (with an iPad) hundreds of handwritten diary entries and letters, plus photographs. Haverford College, which Parrish attended, had some more letters. It took nearly a year to transcribe it all.

I read. A lot. Both fiction from the period (Wharton, Howells, Cather, Dreiser) and nonfiction, giving myself an education in the world of fin de siecle America. I learned about the Cornish Colony, where the Parrishes lived, as well as the artists and writers who were their friends, especially Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the great sculptor.

By the time the rough draft was complete, I realized the story I wanted to tell was not Parrish’s, but his wife Lydia’s. Her story was much more interesting, more compelling. Parrish’s life story is fascinating, but as material for a novel, it’s pretty dull stuff. He was not the prototypical struggling artist, battling with inner demons, and so forth. He was, in fact, appallingly happy and well-adjusted. Everything fell into place for him, and he had a brilliant career lasting nearly 75 years. Dull, dull, dull. So I set to work with my editorial ax, and chopped out 40,000 words.

But Lydia: now there was a story. She left behind hundreds of pages of diary entries and letters, telling of her life as the wife of a hugely famous artist. She’s the one who had the struggles. She had to deal with a marriage falling apart, a husband building a studio next to their home and then moving into it with his pretty young model. For her, motherhood is unremitting drudgery and boredom. She wants something more from life. And she finds it in the most unlikely place: the Sea Isles of Georgia, hundreds of miles away from New Hampshire. She discovers the Gullah people–former slaves with a unique culture and language–and finds herself drawn to them. She ends up spending most of her life living among the Gullah and writing a book about their songs. The book, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Isles, published in 1942, was a pioneering work.

The Parrish Women is the story of Lydia’s journey of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and, finally, self-realization, as well as a look at the little-known Cornish Colony and its most famous resident, Maxfield Parrish.