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Kathryn Hamill Cohen (September 11, 1905 - January 2, 1960) was an ex-showgirl and psychiatrist. In June 1949, after the breakdown of the relationship with Marc Brandel, Patricia Highsmith travelled to Europe to stay at the London home of her British publisher Dennis Cohen, founder of the Cresset Press. Here, Pat fell in love with Dennis’s beautiful wife, Kathryn, who worked as a doctor at St George’s Hospital. Sophisticated and intelligent, Kathryn had been born in America and had worked both as an actress and, briefly, as Aneurin Bevan’s secretary. During a two-week stay at the Cohens’ house in Old Church Street, Chelsea, Highsmith confessed to her about her tumultuous emotional life and her perceived hormonal problems. “If you were added up,” Kathryn told her, “I think you’d have a little more on the male side - from your reactions to men I mean.” From London, Highsmith travelled to Paris, and then Italy, from where she wired Kathryn begging for her to join her. The two women met in Naples in September 1949, where they embarked on a short affair. “I feel I am in love with her, really,” Highsmith wrote in her diary after she had returned to America, “as I have not been with anyone, anything like this, since Ginnie.” The relationship, she knew, was doomed - Kathryn returned to her husband, and later, in early 1960, the 54-year-old woman killed herself by taking an overdose of barbiturates.
Kathryn Hamill Cohen was one of the first female students to enter the Medical School when St George’s again admitted women in 1945, for the first time since the First World War. There had been considerable resistance to the idea of female students, and it was only in 1915 that first female students were admitted to St George’s. Even then, their time was limited, and after the war the doors of the medical school were again closed to women.
Cohen was admitted to study at St George’s alongside with four other women in 1945: Ruth Clare Cornford (Chapman), Patience Proby, Adrien Patricia Dunlop and Zaïda Megrah (Hall / Ramsbotham). Furthermore, while the other women were in their early 20s, Cohen was 40 when she began her studies at St George’s.
Prior to her medical studies, she had led an eventful life. Born in New York in 1905, she had worked as a dancer at Broadway with the Ziegfeld Follies, who were hugely successful, glitzy revue performers with elaborate choreographies.
In 1927, Dennis David Myer Cohen founded the Cresset Press in London. The publishing house specialised in lavishly illustrated limited editions of classics like The Pilgrim’s Progress or Paradise Lost, before going on to produce well-designed literary editions as the demand for expensive books waned. The Cresset Library series was set up in 1935/6 and revived after the war.
On a visit from London to New York, Cohen (most likely) attended a performance of Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band. After financial failure in Philadelphia in 1927, a revamped version of the musical opened at New York’s Times Square Theatre on January 14, 1930. It had a run of 191 performances. Ziegfeld dancer Kathryn Hamill was a member of the cast. The couple met and clicked. Their wedding took place in London in 1931.
In 1930 she moved to the UK; her arrival is recorded on a passenger list from New York to Plymouth on 30 Dec 1930. She was 25 years old, and her occupation on this list is given as actress. She had married Dennis Cohen, a publisher at the Cresset Press, who may have been an MI6 officer, and who was also involved in organising Kindertransport from Germany during the war. They eventually moved to Chelsea.
Cohen was actively involved in the support of Jewish refugees and advanced the work of designer Serge Chermayeff. Born Sergius Ivanovich Issakovitch into a wealthy family at Grozny, Chechnya, in 1900, he was privately educated in Britain. He was at Harrow in 1918, by which time the family had been ruined by the Russian Revolution. He spent four years working as a journalist, and later as a professional ballroom dancer in Buenos Aires. On returning to London in 1924, he changed his name by deed poll and began a career in design. Employed at the modern art department of London’s leading furniture manufacturers Waring & Gillow, Serge organized (together with Paul Follot, director of the firm’s branch in Paris), the acclaimed 1928 exhibition Modern Art in French and English Furniture and Decoration which occupied more then an entire floor of the premises with sixty display rooms. In 1932 he founded Plan Ltd., a firm that produced modernist furniture from premises at 173 Oxford Street. Cohen acted as a director to promote the undertaking. In 1933 Chermayeff went into partnership with architect Erich Mendelsohn, a Jewish refugee from Prussia. They erected De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill, Sussex, the first large public building of the modern movement in Britain. Based on Mendelsohn’s original concept, Chermayeff contributed the interior design. When Cohen and Kathryn envisaged the construction of a spectacular avant-garde home in 1934, they turned to Chermayeff & Mendelsohn to design the house. The result was a white villa at 64 Old Church Street, opposite the Chelsea Arts Club, known as the “Cohen House” after its first owner (after Cohen’s death in the early sixties, the property was acquired by Berlin-born publisher Paul Hamlyn [born: Paul Hamburger]). The contemporary style of Cohen House was a revelation to a city that up to that moment was largely ignorant of the revolution that modernist architecture would bring.
At some point prior to 1945 Cohen worked as a secretary to Aneurin "Nye" Bevan, who in 1948 went on to establish the NHS: perhaps this work prompted her to consider medical studies, rather than politics. Between 1941 and 1944 she was a student at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. She enrolled as a student at St George’s in September 1945, a week after the official end of Second World War 2 September 1945.
After graduating from the medical school in 1948, her student records show that she worked as house officer and registrar at St George’s Hospital for several years (and even in her student photograph she looks glamorous). Later she was employed as psychoanalyst at the hospital and appears to have practiced psychiatry from her home office. She was also interested in genetics, and published on the use of hypnosis in treating skin diseases. Although psychoanalysis may now have a dubitable reputation, it was a respected field of study at the time.
Kathryn was also a co-director of her husband’s press. At a party organized by Time magazine journalist Rosalind Constable in New York in March 1948, she met Patricia Highsmith (her story “The Heroine” in Harper’s Bazaar had won the O. Henry Award for a first story in 1946). Soon after, Patricia sailed (third class) on the Queen Mary to Southampton to join her hosts at Cohen House. From there she traveled to Rome. In a mood of depression, she asked Kathryn to meet her in Naples. The latter arrived at the beginning of September, after which the two women drove to Positano, the coastal Amalfi hill village that would inspire the writing of The Talented Mr Ripley. Sometime during the twenty days of their travels they became lovers. According to Highsmith: “Kathryn was beautiful, intelligent, melancholy, monied, and married: a combination Pat always found irresistible”. Highsmith asked Cohen to accompany her on a trip to Italy, although the affair does not appear to have continued after that.
It was this connection to Highsmith that made Cohen famous, as she was a partial inspiration for Highsmith’s novel ‘The Price of Salt’ (later republished as ‘Carol’ and made into a film in 2015), a departure from her usual psychological thrillers in that it was a romance – and a lesbian romance at that, which in the 1950s was somewhat scandalous. Dennis Cohen’s publishing house (for which Cohen worked for as a co-director) published several of Highsmith’s books, including ‘Strangers on a Train’, which Alfred Hitchcock made into a film.
When Patricia left Genoa for New York, the two never renewed their relationship. For the novelist, it was the start of a nomadic lifestyle, moving between England, France, Switzerland, and Italy. Her life became a lesbian grand tour of Europe, but none of her many relationships lasted long. An intensely private person, she was sometimes described by those who knew her as mean-spirited, cruel, and misanthropic. She left a trail of pain and distress behind her.
Dr. Kathryn Hamill Cohen, a showgirl in New York in the 1920s, died in her Chelsea home on January 2, 1960. She took her own life by taking an overdose of barbiturates. Her husband, Dennis Cohen, an official of a publishing firm, found her dead in bed. He said she had been ill a long time; after her theatrical career, she qualified in London as a geneticist and psychiatrist. She conducted experiments in the use of hypnotism in the treatment of skin afflictions. A coroner's jury ruled that she committed suicide.
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