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Between the sheets of Yaddo

December 22, 2008 |  7:42 am


Yaddo is the sylvan New York retreat that has been welcoming writers and artists since 1926. The elite artists' colony is remembered, collage-style, in a new book, "Yaddo: Making American Culture." Susan Salter-Reynolds writes that editor Micki McGee has gathered "photos, letters and other ephemera from the Yaddo archives to create a portrait of collaboration and community."

The book accompanies an exhibit at the New York Public Library that opened in October and will remain on display until Februrary, good news for those who will be in New York over the holidays.

Notable members of the Yaddo community include James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Leonard Bernstein, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Truman Capote, John Cheever, Aaron Copland, Sylvia Plath and Flannery O’Connor. Its alumni have won 59 National Book Awards, 63 Pulitzer Prizes, 45 Whiting Writers Awards, 25 Macarthur Fellowships and one Nobel. Yes, they work very hard at their art.

But as the New York Times noted in its review of the show's opening, many of them also played at Yaddo -- and played around. "John Cheever used to boast that he had enjoyed sex on every flat surface in the mansion, not to mention the garden and the fields," writes Charles McGrath. Other Yaddo pairings include Truman Capote and Newton Arvin and Henry Roth and Muriel Parker. As for secret dalliances? Who can keep track.

Not that such behavior was encouraged. Notes show fears that Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Henry Miller might all cause too much trouble. It's interesting that the book and exhibit include these traces of poor judgment alongside rhapsodic memories.

And the fact that the committee sometimes makes mistakes must be reassuring for the hundreds of applicants that are turned away by Yaddo each year.

-- Carolyn Kellogg