Ella Wheeler Wilcox and the Bungalow
By Gardner Arnold Reckard
The Connecticut Quarterly 1(3): (July, Aug. Sept. 1895): p. 219-227

     To a native of Short Beach, one of the most familiar questions propounded by the visitors to that breezy retreat is the query, "Where is the Bungalow?" This question from young and old, women and men, romantic misses and hard-featured elderly persons who would not be suspected of sentiment, indicates that all sorts and conditions of men and women are interested in the fair mistress of the Bungalow, and are curious to see the manner of house she inhabits.

     And surely few poets enjoy so ideal a home, with environments so inspiring to the muse, so artistic to the eye, so restful without a chance for a dull moment. But, before we enter the great stone gates, with their guardian griffins of bronze, it would be well to mention, parenthetically, that Short Beach is blessed in its location and in its public spirited and vigilant residents; there are no saloons, tramps, loafers, billionaires, or other public nuisances. The town is situated on a picturesque horse-shoe of golden sand, studded with bold rocks of pink and gray. On the west are the highest cliffs rising directly from the water, on the Atlantic coast from Key West, Florida, to the Thimble Islands. Midway between the points of the horse-shoe, is situated the Wilcox estate, and having passed the gates we enter Bungalow Court.

      The Bungalow, like a great pelican perched upon its rocky home, has for its companions four cottages on the shore side of the lawn, like a row of "Mother Carey's chickens." These belong to the Wilcoxes, and are cosy cots, named "Sea-lawn, Mid-lawn, Rock-lawn and Oak-lawn," and are occupied by people of the literary, musical and artistic world who thus share a part of the Bungalow life; their relations being fraternal rather than financial. It is therefore a frequent occurrence for them to meet in the Bungalow and to contribute to the general fund of amusement, by music, song and the other accomplishments, and to join in the impromptu dances which almost nightly, in the height of the season, are liable to occur.

     Imagine a great leviathan stranded upon a pebbly beach, around which remnants of a former forest grew, with green grass almost to the water's edge, and a bay of sapphire stretching before you for a mile, where it is merged into the darker waters of the sound. Consider, then, the rock upon which the Bungalow is built as that leviathan; upon its gray back stands the house twenty-five feet above the water. The winds buffet it, and the angry waves thunder in impotent fury against its rocky base, the hurricanes lash it with the spray of the surf in vain. From the windows of the house you can look out, on stormy days, as you might from the windows of a light-house, observing the tremendous workings of the sea and wind. In stormy weather, one hears musical notes swelling like an organ through the wind-harps swinging in the breeze, then as they madly turn they blare as the wind increases, a strange weird accompaniment to the shrieking demons of the storm.


     The front of the house faces the bay and sound to the south, and is reached by steps cut and built into the rock, or on the east side by means of a natural stair-way of rock which was left without any artificial touches, and with the rugged storm-torn cedars clinging to the crevices. The Bungalow was built, so to speak, by letter, Mr. Wilcox being absent. The writer of this article, who superintended the construction of the building, was happy in having a man of Mr. Wilcox's artistic temperament as a coadjutor; consequently not a tree was cut down, nor a rock chipped or blasted that was not actually in the way.

     People living inland can hardly estimate the value of a tree at the sea-side, where their growth within a few feet of the salt water is so much retarded by storms and salt spray: so trees and sea and rocks are quite a precious and infrequent combination on the water's edge. Crossing the verandah, you enter the house through an oak Colonial door, with is quaint fastenings and latch; it is as sound as the day it was made in Branford, one hundred years ago. If I were to pen a verse to place above the door, I should write,--

"Abandon care, all ye who enter here."


     Having reached the old door, we give two or three resounding thumps on the old knocker, and if we listen will surely hear a cheerful, awe-dispelling voice bid us enter; and we raise the latch and find ourselves in a large room, full of vivid oriental color. Yes, the poet is in her "corner" and comes forward. She is a woman of gracious mein; she is clad in some diaphanous garment of East Indian fabrication; the effect is oriental, but for her fair complexion, and the gold-red glint of Anglo-Celt in the hair. You find that her greeting is oriental, too, for she and her genial husband are as hospitable as Arabs. She does not consider that a literary reputation should make one haughty and depressing to others, but lives up to her famous verse,--

"Laugh and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone."

     And now that the introduction is over, you will doubtless find much to interest you in her abode, both in the plan of the interior, which is unique, and in the objects of art, curios, and books without number. You find that the room occupies nearly half of the ground floor, and that there is no ceiling to it; that although the day elsewhere is hot and unbearable, owing to the presence of water on three sides and the lofty room with dormer windows as ventilators, it is delightfully cool in this house. The other rooms are of course ceiled, but the space above, opening as it does into the front and screened by great rattan portieres, precludes the possibility of heat. It is the coolest house on the Sound, by virtue of its construction and location.

MOONLIGHT.     No inky raven of insomnia to croak "Nevermore" above sleepless couches, on hot summer nights! he brow is fanned by zephyrs and a musical cadence of the lapping waves in the lullaby that brings sleep,--deep as that of childhood. Even your conscience cannot keep you awake at Short Beach, ordinarily--in the Bungalow, never. A conscience is a needless thing there; you might as well leave it in New York, Hartford or Boston, for all the good it would do you, for you could not live in the Bungalow and be wicked or unhappy: the thought is preposterous! You could not be an atheist, for no one would believe you or listen to you, in the presence of so much of God's creation; nor extremely orthodox, because no one would want to die and risk the harp-playing of Jones or Deacon Smith, while they could lie here in a hammock and listen to to that AEolian harp; nor swear, for there is no cooking, and so no flies; no covet your neighbor's property; nor steal--for you want nothing you haven't already.

     Mr. Wilcox has been a great traveler in many parts of the world, an indefatigable collector, and has many rare and beautiful curios. On one side of the big room, on a Navajo blanket, is a fine collection of American Indian relics. On the other, above a large and luxurious divan, is another of oriental arms and armor,--from a Damascus blade to a murderous, double-bladed dagger: curious wallets, with Mohammedan prayers on parchment; a rug from inaccessible Thibet; a strange little straw-and-wicker-gate to the stairway in the corner leading to the upper library, comes from Corea. Each corner, as well as each central panel, is instructive; over the piano a Bedouin tent; the south-east corner is the poet's own, containing a desk and a great inkstand that holds a quart: she evidently believes in plenty of ammunition, but like a good soldier she does not waste it.

ELLA WHEELER WILCOX Copyright 1895, by Rockwood     The writer's memory lingers around the great open fire-place, with its andirons piled with huge chestnut logs,--drift-wood--that throws so radiant a light that the beautiful Viennese lanterns are extinguished in order that we may enjoy the genial glow the better; prehaps the autumn wind may be wailing, the waves beating on the rocks with a sullen roar; the small boats are safe behind the little break-water, the large ones, inlcuding the naphtha launch, "Robella," are anchored in the straits. All is snug alow and aloft, on sea and shore. Now, warmth and good cheer are at their height, for gathered around that glow are choice spirits of the literary or artistic world. Then it is that wit sparkles as it flies, and repartee from lip to lip is bandied like a shuttle-cock; while droll humor eggs on wit; or, if the wind moans and shrieks more dolefuly than is its wont, and the drift-wood burns low and sheds a ghastly blue, then perchance some actor-friend may tell us some ghostly story that chills the marrow and makes our nervous friend throw on a pineknot after the climax is reached; or maybe we hear the history of some book, old or new--how it went from publisher to publisher, form rejection to dejection,--how all has changed and the publisher (the ruffian) now has to grovel in the dust before the superior genius of "so and so;" or perhaps a thrilling yarn of the sea is told by some old "seadog;" or it may be Wilder, doing the balcony-scene from Romeo and Juliet, from the improvised balcony on the stairs.

     But, oh! the magnificent sunsets from the verandah; and the delightful languorous evenings, so frequent yet never commonplace, when the moon is more like a soft, subdued sun, so brilliant is it, and the gentle ripple made by the soft night breeze throwing a sparkle as of countless millions of diamonds in the moon's path. At such a time we may be rowed by some sons of Neptune, or in the swift launch, while the mandolins and banjos make troubadour music, as we glide in and out among the enchanted islands. On this little peninsula, the spectator always has a view of the rising and setting of the sun and moon across the water, thus having the bull benefit of the gorgeous colors repeated in the mirror of the bay.


From a painting by Gardner A. Reckard.    

 Naturally the Bungalow Hop is the event of the social season, by reason of the prominence of the hostess, and because there is an unusual number of dancing men present, which of course is proof positive that there is sure to be a bevy of pretty girls. One of Mrs. Wilcox's weaknesses is an extraordinary fondness for handsome girls, a fondness shared, as all of her pleasures are, by Mr. Wilcox--a reasonable weakness, a mild form of nympholepsy, most likely--shared too, by the writer, so he does not hesitate to appreciate the feast to the artistic eye which spreads itself through the Bungalow, on the spacious verandah and lawn, these "red-letter nights." The grounds are illuminated by a multitude of gay lanterns and colored fires. The wide verandah accommodates a swarm of brilliant dancers, as well as the Bungalow's great-room; while the lawns are fringed with those who are not fortunate enough to secure the coveted invitation.

"LOVER'S ISLAND." From a painting by Gardner A. Reckard     Many visitors are here from the neighboring cities and from New York. During the evening it has become the custom to implore, inveigle, and cajole the poetess into dancing one of her graceful fancy dances. Mrs. Wilcox is a natural, easy dancer, and to that which nature has bestowed she has added art. The beautiful "fan" dance and other creations are wonderfully rendered; we had expected to be pleased; we are charmed and agreeably surprised at the high technical excellence of her dancing.

     The little cove to the east of the Bungalow, is at high tide the meeting-place of a swarm of good swimmers, of whom Short Beach has a large number. The poser and the girl who never wets her bathing suit, would be discountenaced here, where aquatic sport is a fact not a myth. Consequently the bathers are more than usually gay and good-humored as well as athletic, the girls not a whit less than the men; and it is a pleasant sight to see frequent trials of distance-swimming by the latter. The writer has often accompanied Mrs. Wilcox and her swimming parties, and can vouch that as an amateur she is very expert. The swim to and from Green Island, a quarter of a mile away, and sometimes in rough water, is frequently made by her; she has a very beautiful stroke, is an excellent instructor in the art, and she has converted all her young dryad friends into naiads. Old Neptune owes her a heavy debt. Short Beach is truly nymphiparous. There are more Lurlines, naiads and mermaids here than you could read of in Greek or German mythology.

     The Illumination Night is an annual holiday, peculiar to Short Beach. It consists of a night a day, set by a committee of the Short Beach Association; the night selected is one on which there is no lunar light. A programme is prepared and committees selected, for Amusement, Music, Yachting, Shore sports, and Finance. Boats and houses are covered with decorations, flags, and innumerable lanterns, which are kept in stock here and added to, year by year, by all cottagers. The yacht, naptha, rowing, and swimming contests, are all for cups and prizes, presented by cottagers, including the Bungalow cups offered by Mr. Wilcox; the fine trophy of Mr. William H. Lockwood, of Hartford, for launches, is at present in the possession of Mr. Wilcox. These prizes are for the encouragement of local sports only, and are stimulating it greatly.

     The illumination commences at dark and is marvellous in its beauty. It is the transformation of a pretty little seaside town into fairy-land. It is the result of
seven or eight years of growth and development of the idea, and its beauty is partly due to the natural features,--trees, cliffs, and water, which when lit by thousands of lanterns on the trees, houses, piers, boats and rigging, and the colored fires on the rocky shores and islands, form a scene of enchantment which attracts visitors from all over the state. This is surprising in a place so small, but it is due to the harmonious efforts of all the cottagers. One of the events of last year was a creation of Mrs. Wilcox; a Colonial Float, with the Goddess of Liberty (impersonated by a well-known society lady of New York, of superb Juno-like figure and face) surrounded by certain handsome damsels who posed as the thirteen original states.


From a painting by Gardner A. Reckard.

     Mrs. Wilcox can be described as neither a spasmodic nor a strictly methodical writer. She is very industrious, and although she has no regular Medo-Persian rules as to time, she generally writes some every day. She works with great intensity and earnestness; and what her literary conscience tells her has been neglected one day, she more than makes up the next day, being capable of rapid and effective writing under pressure of circumstances. She also possesses a happy faculty of concentration of mind, under conditions that would madden most persons. Ordinary conversation, music and laughter sometimes act as a stimulant. But at times, when some puzzling problems are by well-meaning bores who unthinkingly or selfishly monopolize her valuable time by ill-timed or nonsensical conversation; or by occasional boorish idiots, who allow their curiosity to drive them to the indecent act of peering through windows, as if at some wild beast show. She writes most frequently without the use of notes or books of reference, and what is written generally stands, without much, if any, change or correction. After a good bit of work is done, she rises contentedly, and is as happy and gay as a child, joining in any of the pastimes or pleasures of the moment, like the merriest idler of them all.

     But, before we leave this Arcadian retreat, let me describe our hostess to those friends who know her only through her writings. She is of medium height. The shape of her face is distinctly oval; the complexion air; with a glint of red-gold in the waving hair; the eyes, deep topaz in their tinting, are at times dreamy, but more
often sparkling with vivacity and life; their expression is full of candor, and they indicate the directness of purpose which is one of her strong intellectual traits.
Her nose is regular, mouth very mobile and prone to betray her many moods, the chin that of an affectionate nature. The head indicates more than the physiognomy of a strong will, the love of approbation of her friends, strong social and friendly faculties, well developed as to individuality and the intellectual faculties; a brain
of good proportion and showing evidence of its fine quality; her temperament is a blending of the mental, motive and vital, in the order named. Her figure is girlish
in appearance, when clothed in her pretty dresses, designed by herself, and which permit the freedom of limb movement and quick motion characteristic of her. One would hardly guess her weight or strength, for her appearance does not indicate it. She is athletic, and believes in health, beauty and love, for women and men.

     Love is not more her theme in verse and prose than it is a part of her life. She is often called "the poetess of passion." But, I imagine that it is a pretty safe
variety of passion; for she holds to that beautiful old way of bestowing love's choicest gifts upon her husband, who most happily deserves every morsel. With some
writers, marriage ends the love-story. To her mind it is the mere beginning. It was not she, most certainly, that first put the query, "Is marriage a failure?" and her
life is a romance of love that answers the question in the negative, decidedly.

     Her husband is an inspiration to her; he is an artist and poet at heart, although to the world he may seem only a successful business man; and many a fine idea of his is embodied in her verse and prose. But, I must not open the Bungalow door too wide, and disclose so many of these secret little cabinets of the heart, even though Castle Wilcox is too new to have a delightful ancestral ghost, and has no spare closet for a skeleton.