Parrish’s women

Sue Lewin nude

Susan Lewin, model, muse, and life-long companion of Maxfield Parrish.

Perhaps the most important woman in Maxfield Parrish’s life was Susan Lewin. Sue walked into The Oaks on April 30, 1906, aged sixteen, and didn’t leave for fifty years, when, at age 70, she married for the first time (spoiler alert). She was Parrish’s primary model, costume maker, housekeeper, cook, and she lived with him in the studio building at The Oaks. It’s safe to say Parrish’s great success was due in no small part to Sue Lewin’s uncanny ability to bring to vivid life the characters Parrish imagined. The two were co-creators, though I don’t suppose Parrish ever thought of it that way. Finally, with Lydia away in Georgia for most of their marriage, Susan became his true lifelong companion.

Parrish had several romantic interests during his years at Haverford and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, but it was Lydia Austin who finally captured his heart. Lydia grew up in Woodstown, New Jersey, where her father owned a very prosperous dairy serving Philadelphia.

Lydia A Parrish 1895

Lydia Austin, taken on the occasion of her engagement to Maxfield Parrish, 1895.

After three boys, a girl was born to the Parrishes in 1911. She was named Jean, though Parrish referred to her in her teenage years as a “barracuda,” due to her direct approach. Jean was the only one of the Parrish children who grew up to follow in her father’s footsteps, becoming a successful landscape painter living in New Mexico.

Jean Parrish in hat

Jean Parrish, ca. 1920

A dozen years after Maxfield Parrish began his professional career, he was the toast of the Big Apple, and he and his wife Lydia were invited to the after-show party of the hit Broadway show everyone was talking about, Captain Jinks. There the Parrishes met Ethel Barrymore, the biggest new star on the Great White Way. She visited Cornish once briefly in 1902, then stayed for the summer of 1906. I found a letter at the Rauner Collection from Barrymore to Parrish which made it clear the two were good friends, perhaps more.


Ethel Barrymore as a young starlet of the Broadway stage, early 1900’s.

In his mid-sixties, Parrish met a young ivy league graduate who stole his heart. The girl, Nancy Roelker, was in her early twenties, and was younger than Parrish’s own daughter. The affair continued for four years, as documented by a large cache of letters that have recently come to light. Though outraged, the other women in Parrish’s life–Jean, Lydia, Susan–were constrained by the fear of public exposure, the need to pretend that the marriage is stable, and that all is well.

Secret letters

“Maxfield Parrish: The Secret Letters” by Alma Gilbert

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