| If it had been left to my imagination to describe the
home of Ella Wheeler Wilcox I should have pictured blue skies, the languorous
atmosphere of the south, roses embowering the house and the music of nightingales
breaking the hush of woods that made a green background. On a gray
November day I found Mrs Wilcox at home, with the sweep of blue sea at
her very doorstep. Her home nestles between the crevices of rocks.
She has another charming home in New York, but she loves best her cottage
on Long Island sound, and lives here eight months in the year.
Luncheon was waiting, and I spent teh first hour in the most delightful dining room that ever enhanced the pleasure of a meal. The room is all windows, and they look out on the water. Before the largest of them, a spacious bay window, stands the dining table. The room is filed with the memories of people who have dined here. Their pictures gaze at you from every side. There are half a dozen portraits of the statuesque Julie Opp; there is the droll, mirthful face of Marshall Wilder; the fair Ellen Terry; Mrs Brown Potter; William Gillette's inscrutable countenance; that placid old lady, Mrs Jefferson Davis; Isabel Irving; Kathryn Kidder; J.E. Dodson and his pretty wife, Annie Irish. Some of Mrs Wilcox's guests have left autographs on the cream-painted walls. One comes from Edwin Markham. It is printed in fine, large characters, with splendid vermilion initials. He said:
On the way, and be their best."
Here are others:
"The Bubble winded at me and said,
Mrs Wilcox laughed when I explained to her that a housekeeper is as keen for a novel recipe as a reporter is after news.
"We must have Madame Grace in, then, to be interviewed," said the poetess.
Madame Grace is Mrs Wilcox's housekeeper, a genial, handsome woman, who looks as if she loved good eating as well as good cooking.
"For the oysters," she explained, "I take a half pint of milk and heat in it three bay leaves. I add a pinch of mace and a grating of nutmeg, two tablespoons of butter, salt and pepper. When it is about to voil I take out the bay leaves and add to the milk two tablespoons of cracker crumbs. Into this I put a pint of oysters, cooked in their own liquor till they curled up. Of course I drain them dry before adding to the crackers and milk. The folks who come here have named this dish Bungalow oysters."
"And the puff ball muffins?" I asked.
"For them," Madame Grace said, "I mix a coffee cup of mulk, one well-beaten egg and a pinch of salt. I add flour enough to make it like a thin cake batter and I beat it till bubbles are rising all over the surface. Then I add three teaspoons of baking powder and beat with a whisk. It begins to foam now, so I put a spoonful into buttered gem pans so hot that they hiss as the mixture touches them. I bake them for twenty minutes in a hot oven."
"Before you turn from cooking to poetry," said my hostess, "I want to give you the only original recipe I ever concocted. A hundred guests, I dare say, have asked for it, and it has been christened lobster a la Wilcox. I make it in a chafing-dish. Put two tablespoons of butter in the pan and let it melt, then add two cups of shredded lobster meat. Cover and allow it to cook for ten mintues. Season with salt, pepper, cayenne and the juice of a large lemon. Serve with delicate saltines. It is tart and delicious."
| After luncheon we went upstairs to Mrs Wilcox's writing
room. It has a wide view of the ocean, and the desk fills the window.
Everywhere else there are books.
"Here's my morning mail," said Mrs Wilcox when she seated herself at her desk. She laid her hand on a pile of letters large enough to constitute the mail of a rural postoffice. "They come from all sorts of people. I have a column every day, you know, in a New York paper. It reaches the most cosmopolitan readers that an author could hope for, and thousands of them lay open their very hearts to me. It is interesting, extraordinary, and--sometimes pitiful. I thought I knew human nature before I began these newspaper letters, but I did not. I had only seen shreds of it. It is such letters that provide the material to write day after day. They give one an entree into thousands of human souls, and the wonder of it is, each soul is different. Critics have said my poetry shows a wide acquaintance with humanity. Some poets go to nature for their inspiration, some to art; I find the human soul, with its sorrows, its temptations, its gladness, its passions, its hopes, its fears, a place to which a poet can ever turn for inspiration."
"How long have you been writing poetry?" I asked her.
"It makes me feel like an old woman," and Mrs Wilcox laughed, "when I tell you my first book of verse was published in 1872. Before that, let me show you one of my treasures." From a drawer in her desk she lifted a tiny book. It was made of notepaper sewed laboriously together and a childish hand had written on the cover an elaborate title, with the author's name, Ella Wheeler.
"This was my very first book;" Mrs Wilcox turned the yellow pages tenderly; "I was ten years old when it was finished. I had copied into it all the poems and essays I had written, and my ambition was to have it published." She read one poem. It began:
So quiet and so chilly."
"A few years later I made my debut as a poet in the corner of a Milwaukee paper. Proud! I was so proud of these verses and at the sight of my name under them that I verily believe the paper was worn out from being tucked, night after night, under my pillow. For my first volume of verses, Drops of Water, I received fifty dollars, and I felt as if a wonderful career were opening before me, with fame and fortune in the distance. The little book has had an extraordinarily long
|life. I have even had a volume of it from Japan, translated into
that strange language. In 1883 I had published Maurine, Shells, and
Poems of Passion. After that I began to find publishers calling for
my work, instead of me calling on them to take it, and so--life has gone
on--writing constantly, enjoying my work and the friends it has brought
I have not spoken of the poetess and how she impresses one. The first thing you notice is her eyes. They have the coloring of a yellow-brown topaz, and the tone is repeated again in her hair. She has a very expressive face and expressive hands. While you watch her talk it impresses you that if she had not become a successful poet she might have been an equally successful actress. She has a melodious voice and a youthful, graceful figure. The gowns she wears are of a different style from anything you find in a fashion magazine. Ten years ago she adopted certain styles, which were becoming and comfortable, and ever since her gowns have been something like an idealized Empire dress.
"I have always rebelled against the slavery of fashion," said Mrs Wilcox. "I remember a gown one season which I knew made me look like a guy, only it was fashionable. When I scolded about it, my friends comforted me by telling me it was a most stylish costume. One day at a Turkish bath, when the attendant knotted a sheet about me, I tought, 'Now, here is comfort, common sense and the most graceful lines imaginable.' Next day when I went to my dressmaker, I carried a fine linen sheet in my bag. I took it out and draped it about myself. The woman stood looking at me in amazement. Her amazement turned to consternation when I told her I wanted a gown made exactly after this style. She declared she could not do it. She would be wasting material, ruining her reputation and making me look perfectly ridiculous.
"'Very well,' I said, calmly, 'I can find somebody who will make it.' She relented, and my first loose street gown was the result. The public of our little shore resort was shocked as much as the dressmaker, but gradually they ceased to look their wonder. With one gown after another improvements have been made, till now I have all my clothes, house, street and evening gowns, cut after the same comfortable, graceful style. I also consider myself the pioneer in another emancipation. I was the first woman--in this part of the country, at least--to bid defiance to style and don a short skirt, such as you find to-day in nearly every feminine wardrobe. I had grown perfectly tired of the combination of country life and trailing gowns, so ten years ago I had a skirt made that just reached my shoe tops. What freedom! What exhilaration! The woman of to-day realizes the comfort of it as I did."
The Bungalow is a curiosity shop, with strange Indian handiwork, pottery from Mexico and rare needlework of the Orient. The rest of the furnishings are books. I do not know if the curios give place to the books or the books give way to the curios, but one could read there for years and years and years.