ELLA WHEELER WILCOX

Towne, Charles Hanson, 1877-1949.
“Ella Wheeler Wilcox” in Adventures in editing, chapter III, p. 93-99.
New York : D. Appleton, 1926.
239 p., [11] leaves of plates : port., facsim. ; 22 cm.


When Ella Wheeler Wilcox was in New York, she stopped with her husband, Robert, first in the old Everett House on Union Square; later, they had an apartment in East Nineteenth Street; and there, one Sunday afternoon, Theodosia Garrison first took me to a winter reception.

Mrs. Wilcox has always been smilingly tolerated in certain "literary" groups; yet men of discrimination like Mr. Walker and the late Edward J. Wheeler, when he was editor of Current Opinion, saw the underlying strength and sagacity-yes, and the beauty-in. many of her poems, which gushed from her heart. She had her faults--that I well know; but I have never encountered a more earnest woman, or one who did more good deeds, quietly and unaffectedly. And she never cared to be thanked for her generosity. "One might as well thank Central for getting one a number,” I have heard her say. She believed, I feel certain, that she was an evangelist who spoke in rhyme to her immense audience. The Creator may not have given her a lute; but he had given her a tambourine, and from it she managed to extract a sort of divine music. Her vanity--or shall one call it her amour propre?--caused her to wilt under criticism; and when we were forced to reject any of her songs, she was deeply hurt, and months might elapse before we would hear from her again.


ELLA WHEELER WILCOX
Her Favorite Photograph

In her youth, Mrs. Wilcox must have been startlingly beautiful. I met her first when she was in her early forties, and she was still lovely to look upon. But she dressed in rather eccen-tric fashion, and was a little too fond of vivid colors. She liked bracelets and rings--jewelry which she had picked up all over the world in her travels; and the Bungalow, at Short Beach, was filled with an odd mixture of beautiful and absurd trophies, collected everywhere and any- where. She lacked fundamental good taste. There were always too many plants in the win-dows, too many doilies on the chairs and sofas. It was a restless, nervous form of decoration which one saw, and one longed to rearrange the furniture, lower the shades, or draw the cur-tains. But she and her husband, whom she adored, seemed to like this strange environment, with a host of admirers forever trooping up the lawn, tapping at their hospitable door. Cats were everywhere, and for years Mrs. Wilcox's ancient mother nodded by the fire, complaining of these animals which her daughter loved, yet never daring to ask for their removal. And very late in life, Ella Wilcox took to the study of the harp, and learned to play it well enough to give small concerts in New Haven. She kept her youthful figure, as she kept her vigor, almost to the very end; and she liked to appear in public. But she was saved from one vice--she never made a speech in her whole life. Articulate on paper, she was oddly mute when called upon to "make a few remarks."

In her autobiography she has told of her early struggles on a sad Wisconsin farm; but she could not tell--nor would she have wished to do so--of how her optimisitic verse saved the reason of many a convicted criminal as, entering a cell which he was to occupy for years, he found a message from the outgoing prisoner--the one thing left behind: some lines of her pinned on the damp, foul-smelling wall. I do not think a woman who did so much good in the world can be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders and a lifting of the eyebrows. She was honest--sometimes, alas! to the point of rudeness--but she had a consuming belief that she was born into this world to be a reformer, and reformer she would be, even if it cost her the friendships of years.

She could never write on assignment; and she used to laugh when she told how a newspaper had sent her to England to write her impressions. She couldn't fulfill her contract; but while she was in London, Queen Victoria died, and Mrs. Wilcox rose in the night and poured forth on paper one of her very best poems, "The Queen's Last Ride," which was cabled to America, and created no small sensation. And once, while I was lunching with her at Short Beach, her pleasant home on the Connecticut shore, something in our conversation caused her to cry out, "Oh, I've thought of a poem!" But she did not leave the table. I urged her to do so, fearing if she did not begin the verses then and there, she would lose the idea. "No!" she smiled. "I never yet have forgotten anything I wanted to remember--except once; and then I wrote a poem about that."

Her mail was enormous. I have never seen so much come to any single author; and she would plunge into it with the enthusiasm of an editor seeking genius. If she loved nature, she loved human nature even more, and she was never so happy as when some derelict wrote to her for advice, or when some word of praise came to her of one of her poems or articles. It must have been the dynamic energy in her which had appealed to Mr. Walker; for how he liked a worker and a doer!

I have spoken of Mrs. Wilcox's dislike of rejections; but once there was an unfortunate happening concerning one of her accepted poems which gave her more anguish than anything. She had opened a certain set of verses with one of her most cosmic lines, typical of her style:

My soul is a lighthouse keeper,
but the printer, in setting it up, caused it to read,
My soul is a light housekeeper.
Mrs. Wilcox never forgave that linotyper; and neither did I; and her followers must have thought their beloved leader had gone out of her mind.

If Mrs. Wilcox was convinced of the spiritual integrity of any one, there was nothing she would not do to help that person along. I know of one case where she did immeasurable good. she had learned of a man in prison, convicted of a crime of which he was probably innocent. At any rate, his story rang true, and it touched her heart. When he came out of jail, she and Mr. Wilcox decided to finance him in the restaurant business. The man opened a tiny place near a great factory, and Mrs. Wilcox obtained permission for him to sell sandwiches to the factory hands at noontime. She left a luncheon given in her honor to go down town in the subway to consummate this arrangement on behalf of her protoge'. Afterward, this ex-prisoner paid back every cent he owed the Wilcoxes. Moreover, Mrs. Wilcox found a good wife for the man, and when she died the grateful couple sent a wreath for her coffin.

Perhaps she was not a great artist, but she was a great humanitarian.

Temperament, Ideas and Reputation
If Mrs. Wilcox was sensitive about rejections, she was not the only well-known writer similarly affected. Authors, like other artists, are, in the final summing up, merely children grown to man- and womanhood. they have to be coddled and sometimes flattered. Money is not much to them; a word of praise is everything. I have known a novelist to leave her publisher in a huff, simply because no friendly letters or telephone calls had been sent her for several months. Temperament--there is plenty of it in the publishing world. The wise editor nowadays knows the value of the casual luncheon or dinner with contributors. Indeed, such entertaining has become a business, a veritable part of the game of magazine and book-making. If a table of contents becomes a table of discontents, trouble is in store for the editor. But the pleasantest relationships are generally retained. We see now the blurb with the intimate touch--somewhat overdone, I think; yet intimacies between editors and contributors often lead to an exchange of happy ideas.

Gelett Burgess wrote his essay, "Are You a Bromide?" coining a word of his own, it is true; but the initial thought of it was the result of his overhearing a conversation between Theodosia Garrison and a certain editor. He received



Towne, Charles Hanson, 1877-1949.
“Ella Wheeler Wilcox” in Adventures in editing, chapter III, p. 163-164.

An All-Star-Authors Number

I had dozens of friends among writers by this time--yes, I am happy to say, perhaps hundreds of them. Suppose I should have the termerity to write to some of them and ask for contributions for a special number, even though I could not pay them the usual high rate that they received. Just once. I had no intention of "sponging" upon their goodness. And artists, too. They were necessary--quite as important if the idea I had in mind was to work out successfully.

So I took my courage in my hands. I made out a list. It embraced Booth Tarkington, Julian Street, Rupert Hughes, Mary Stewart Cutting, Theodosia Garrison, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Edwin Markham, and I don't recall how many more--at least fifteen successful writers, and quite a number of illustrators, including James Montgomery Flagg, May Wilson Preston and F.R.Gruger. It is pleasant to record that not one of them refused my request.

[note: the magazine was the Designer, probably a fall/holiday issue, sometime between 1908 and 1917. I have been unable to track it down more closely. Rich Edwards]