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Mary Pyne (1892 – November, 1919) was a poet and reporter for the New York Press and a member of the Provincetown Players. She had a passionate romantic relationship with Djuna Barnes. Pyne was a member of the Provincetown Players, a New York theatre group to which Barnes also belonged during the period 1915-1918. Pyne died of tuberculosis in 1919, attended by Barnes until the end.
Harry Kemp's search for the glorious, red-haired, ideal woman of his imagination came to an official end on 1 February 1915 when he married twenty-one-year-old Mary Pyne. By all accounts, she was a woman worthy of the adulation of a poet's dream. It is impossible to find a reference to Mary Pyne that does not precede her name with the adjective "beautiful." Mary Pyne had gray-blue eyes and Titian red hair that was exquisitely set off against her pale skin. Theodore Dreiser thought that Mary had a Scottish air about her (although she was of Irish extraction), as if she had stepped out of a page of Burns. To Lawrence Langner, Mary's creamy skin and red lips suggested a painting by Henna. Later, when she was ill—and Mary was frequently ill, with a presumed heart condition, during the four short years of her marriage to Harry, which were the last four years of her life—her beauty seemed even more pronounced. Mary's reduced figure and strength only accentuated her blue eyes, red hair, pale skin, and inscrutable smile; and her appearance suggested to Dreiser the fragility and delicacy of a flower and let him with the impression of something spiritual and medieval. Lawrence Langner thought that Mary Pyne combined the charm of Henri Murger's Mimi with the spiritual beauty of a madonna by Della Robbia, while to S. Jay Kaufman, Mary's Titian hair seemed to set a halo about her head. The light played tricks with her hair and many were struck by an almost glowing quality that she seemed to radiate. Once, at an artists' ball in Provincetown, Mary came dressed as a stained glass window, and her luminous, ethereal beauty that night was the talk of the town.
To complement her physical beauty, Mary Pyne possessed an inner beauty that those who knew her also felt obliged to acknowledge in their reminiscences of her. When Mary spoke, elegized the newspaper columnist S. Jay Kaufman, it was as if an angel spoke. She never spoke with hurry or pressure, recalled Agnes Boulton. Mary was all kindness and patience, she was selfless and without vanity, possessed of a deep inner peace and vision. She was also a gifted actress for the Provincelown Players, was sensitive to the arts, and had an intelligence that was intuitive, almost mystical. Always smiling and serene despite chronic ill health, never a trace of resignation or despair even in the face of a grimly premature death, she was loved by everyone in the Village who knew her. And the one who loved her most was her Rodolphe, Harry Kemp.
Mary Pyne's mother died when Mary was still young, and she was raised by her father. John Pyne was a man not unlike Harry's own father—weak, ineffectual, given to drink and the pursuit of women. Dreiser called him "a sort of nonentity with nevertheless a number of destructive vices." Sometimes John Pyne worked as a sales clerk or floorwalker, but often he was out of work, and it fell to his daughter to care for him. Mary aspired to become an actress, but she was compelled to support herself through a variety of jobs—cashier in a laundry, instructor in a dancehall, waitress in a restaurant—all the while living with her father in a dingy flat on Park Avenue where Theodore Drainer, who had taken an interest in her, was struck by the contrast between Mary's dreamy, otherworldly temperament and her dreary, impoverished environment.
Mary Pyne became a part of the Village scene when she met Harry Kemp at a party. Harry instantly recognized the woman of his dreams and fell madly in love on the spot. He tore out of the party only to return a while later with the ink still wet on a poem he had just written for Mary, so smitten was he by this woman, whom he likened to a medieval madonna. When Theodore Diviner, who was also fascinated by Mary's charms, learned of her marriage to Kemp, about whom Dreiser had never been able to make up his mind, finding Harry "different and arresting," if no in Dreiser's conservative eyes, "eccentric and somewhat eerie," he was jealous. One cold windy winter morning, Kemp and Dreiser met on the street, and Harry proceeded to tell him all about his new love and how that love was inspiring him to new heights in poetry. To prove it Harry read Dreiser an ode he had just written that impressed Dreiser even more than the fact that Kemp, in defiance of the weather, wore neither hat nor overcoat. "The lucky dog," thought Dreiser.
Harry was convinced he had found his great love match, but soon after their marriage Mary became ill and had to undergo an operation. It was said Mary had a weak heart, and the hours immediately before and after the operation were the most harrowing Kemp had ever lived. The newlyweds spent the summer of 1915 with the Boultons at their farm in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, where Harry shared his passion for nude sunbathing with his lovely young wife. The following summer Harry and Mary were caught up in what was fast becoming an annual summer exodus from the Village to Provincetown, Massachusetts. Located at the tip of the Cape Cod peninsula, which extends into the Atlantic like a finger, Proyincelown's sea-washed isolation from the mainstream of America, and its perpetually shifting sand dunes, made as natural a metaphor of the bohemian celebration of community and change as the cloistered irregularity of Greenwich Village streets. The summer of 1916 in Provinceown has become a fabled year in bohemian lore, as mythologized as the lyric year of 1912. All the notable bohemians were there that summer: Mary Heaton Vorse, Susan Glaspell, George Cram Cook, Hutchins Hapgood, Neith Boyce, Frank Shay, John Reed, Louise Bryant, the Kemps, Ida Rauh, Max Eastman, Mabel Dodge, Floyd Dell; and when Eugene O'Neill showed up with his friend Terry Carlin and a trunk full of manuscripts, the Provincelown Players were unofficially born.
Harry and Mary found quarters over the general grocery store of John Frauds. Across the hall. O'Neill and Carlin occupied four small rooms. It was a halcyon summer. Harry and Susan Glaspell read Greek poets together on the beach. Mary Pyne could be seen in her gray cape with her red hair shining through the Provincetown fog. Mary and Harry acted in several of the earliest productions of the Provincetown Players. The Players brought their new group to New York, that winter of 1916-17, and Mary Pyne performed in Michael Gold's "Ivan's Homecoming," in Kemp's own "The Prodigal Son," and in Alice L. Rostetter's "The Widow's Veil" (the following season). Perhaps her finest moment came when she starred in O'Neill's “Before Breakfast." The play consists of only two characters, a washed-up husband and a washed-out wife. The husband, who cuts his throat at the end of the play and who never appears on stage, was played by O'Neill himself in his last acting role. Helen Deutsch and Sleds Hanau write in their The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre that "lovely Mary Pyne drew back her red hair into a sloppy knot and gave a fine performance as the ugly, nagging wife." Hutchins Hapgood called Mary's rendering of Mrs. Rowland's personality, which was the exact opposite of her own, a "pure act of imaginative creation."
Mary was also indirectly responsible for precipitating an argument between O'Neill and his father, James O'Neill, who had been invited to direct the play and whose ideas about acting, which he sought to instill in Mary, did not square with his son's. Eugene O'Neill liked Mary Pyne, but Mary had some reservations about O'Neil. When Agnes Boulton moved down from Connecticut to the Village in 1917, where she first met O'Neill at the Hell Hole, Mary Pyne was one of her first visitors at her new Waverly Place apartment. Mary had heard about their romance and wanted to warn Agnes against going with O'Neill to Provincetown that summer and about Louise Bryant, with whom O'Neill had had an affair the previous summer—an affair that Mary likened to amorous torture. O'Neill, she cautioned, enjoyed being tortured and might wish to return to the pleasurable torture of his relationship with Bryant. The conversation made a strong impression on Agnes Boulton because she felt Mary was wrong, but she did not have the heart to contradict her gentle, well-intentioned friend. BouIton accompanied O'Neill to Provincetown, and they, of course, were later married.
Mary's theatrical ambitions, coupled with the dire poverty the Kemps lived in, motivated her to search for work beyond the off-Broadway domain of the Provincetown Players and landed her, one day, in the office of the famous Broadway director David Belasco. Belasco was so charmed by Mary's beauty and personality that he immediately offered to begin grooming her for Broadway stardom. The only hitch was that Mary would have to agree to be always at Belasco's beck and call: if he were out of WWII, a car would be provided for her transportation to and from his residence. Implicit in the proposal was a beck-and-call relationship that might lead beyond the professional or artistic arrangement. When Harry learned of this offer, without being informed of the latter condition, he was ecstatic, despite the fact that he had always railed against the commercial theater. He was happy for Mary and happy for himself—happy, that is, until he learned that Mary's good fortune could only come at the expense of their marriage. Mary decided not to accept Belasco's seductive offer, and Kemp later channeled his rage at such shameless exploitation of young talent into his satirical comedy The Dramatic Art (A Viennese Fantasy).
In 1917, the Kemps moved into a bare, single room apartment on Tenth Street that they furnished with their few belongings—a bed, a chair, a mirror, a table on which were placed a few old, used books and a pile of newspaper copy paper to write poems on. The apartment was bleak and undecorated, its only ornament being, as Dreiser observed, Mary Pyne herself. Dreiser was then residing a block away in a studio at 165 West Tenth Street where he was living in relative poverty after the suppression of The Genius the previous summer. He was a rich man, however, compared to the Kemps. Dreiser had a Ouija Board in his studio, and in 1915 he used to sit around the board a couple of times a week with Kemp and a few other friends. Dreiser was skeptical about the Ouija Board, but Kemp, who delighted in the occult, later took it upon himself to respond to a series of New York Times editorials attacking the Ouija Board with a long letter to the editor in defense of the powers of the board. Dreiser liked Kemp, with reservations, although he professed amazement that Mary Pyne should have fallen in love with him. Dreiser later wrote:
I think she may have been impressed with the long and seemingly instinctive fight he had made to rid himself of all the vestiges of the common-place, or rather conventional, his almost insane struggle to be the free, crazy, different sort of thing that he was. And, again, perhaps she liked the publicity, or better yet the notoriety, that attended him.
Mary Pyne, however, offered a better explanation of her feelings toward Harry, which Dreiser also recorded:
He is eccentric, a little weird at times. I know that some people think that he is a little crazy. And he is a terrible egotist. He just can't help loving publicity and seeing himself as a genius and a strong man. But there is something else there, a love of beauty, and what's more, he is not as strong as he pretends to be. To me he is more like a little boy who is hungry for recognition and sympathy, who is actually crying for a little attention. Sometimes when he is talking loudest and boasting most I see just a little child with very weak little hands hanging onto his mother's skirt and crying, and I feel intensely sorry for him. I can't help it. I know that he needs me, and I need to help him. I feel better and stronger for doing it.
The winter of 1917 was bitterly cold and Mary frequently stopped by Dreiser's studio to warm herself in front of one of his two fireplaces that were always going. There she would sit cross-legged on a rug and serenely dream into the fire. Sometimes she and Dreiser talked about books or Village gossip, but often Dreiser would return to his work while Mary, "with that faint, friendly and yet elusive and almost mocking Mona Lisa smile, which Dreiser could never quite fathom, would gaze into the fire "with the quiet, peaceful, comfort-loving affection of a cat."'
So fascinated was Dreiser by Mary Pyne, that he later wrote a full-length portrait of her and of her relationship with Harry Kemp. In "Esther Norn," which Dreiser included in the second volume of his book A Gallery of Women, Mary is Esther Norn; Kemp is given the name Leif Doane. Dreiser's story, though in a few notable respects inaccurate and downright unfair in its thinly fictionalized facts, and obviously biased because of the author's strong attraction to Mary Pyne, nevertheless provides a provocative and perspicacious sketch of Harry Kemp. Dreiser writes of Kemp:
To me he was a somewhat disorderly blend of the charlatan, the poseur, the congenital eccentric, and the genius, or honest, sincere, seeking thinker, the charlatan and genius sectors being at times not too clearly discernible. All too often he appeared to me to be an on-the-surface eccentric and clown or court-jester. Self-avowedly a poet and tramp, he was forever admitting or rather insisting upon the fact that he was a genius... As I saw it, he was suffering from a rabid form of ego-mania which would not permit him to remain quiet anywhere. He must be heard from, either his costume, his gestures, or his ideas.
What had previously been diagnosed as a heart condition turned out to be tuberculosis, and Mary was brought to the sanatorium at Saranac Lake, New York. Harry was by her side all the time interrupted only by visits to New York to sell poetry to help pay the medical bills and to buy presents for Mary. Mary Pyne died at Saranac in November 1919. She was twenty-five. The day before her death she had appeared "curiously ecstatic, happy and radiant." On the day of her death, Mary wrote Harry's name over and over again and drew sketches of his head. Kemp was in Langner's apartment when he received the news. When Harry returned from the phone, Langner noticed that he was crying. "My little Mary is dead," he gasped, and sank into a chair.
After Mary's death, Kemp incurred the rancor of Mary's friends, among them Dreiser, Hapgood, and Djuna Barnes, all three of whom had loved her. Djuna flames was moved to write a poem in the memory of Mary Pyne. Barnes's series of poems about a dead beloved were published in her second collection, A Book (1923). Gillian Hanscombe and Virginia L. Smyers argue that eleven of these poems can be read as the story of Barnes's love for Mary Pyne: "[a]mong the collection's 20 poems, 11 can be sequentially read as the story of Djuna's love for Mary Pyne". Hanscombe and Smyers suggest that The Book of Repulsive Women was written at around the same time that Barnes fell in love with Pyne, that the poems may have been indirectly inspired by her. Pyne certainly lived the kind of brief, tragic life described in The Book of Repulsive Women: she lived in poverty, supporting herself and her father.
Barnes nursed Pyne until her death, writing to her male lover Courtenay Lemon that: "Mary has been given up by 2 nurses, 2 doctors & a score of others at least 10 days back, but she still breaths [sic] – lies on her left side for the first time & is living on oxygen". Pyne died in November 1919, aged 25. Barnes's biographer Phillip Herring writes that Barnes tried to claim the body but was refused because she had no money, an anecdote that quite literally underlines the connections between death, economics and female disenfranchisement. Barnes's grief over Mary Pyne continued to haunt her; Herring cites the painter Maurice Sterne who remembers Barnes "grieving over the death of this 'Titian-haired beauty' ... 'sobbing painfully, her head buried in her arms, saying over and over that she would never get over the loss ...'".
Of the several poems in A Book that can be related to this doomed love affair, a poem entitled "Six Songs of Khalidine" is perhaps the most striking. Published in 1923, but written in 1919, it is dedicated "To the Memory of Mary Pyne" and describes a bedside vigil beside a red-haired beloved:
The flame of your red hair does crawl and creep
Upon your body that denies the gloom
And feeds upon your flesh as 'twould consume
The cold precision of your austere sleep—
And all night long I beat it back, and weep.
Lillian Faderman singles out "Six Songs of Khalidine," with its grim scenario and gothic motifs, as a particularly objectionable example of Barnes's decadent influence: "the beloved's red hair flames and crawls and creeps, as in Verlaine's lesbian poems. Her fallen lids are stained with ebony ... the setting comes directly out of nineteenth-century French novels of decadence". But Barnes's poem perhaps shares more similarities with the work of Charles Baudelaire and Algernon Charles Swinburne, in particular Swinburne's "The Leper" (2004,113-17). "The Leper," published in Swinburne's controversial 1866 collection Poems and Ballads, takes the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by a "poor scribe" who suffers with obsessive love for a deceased woman. This woman scorned the speaker when she was alive but then grew to rely on him as she succumbed to disease. He hides her away with him and, once she has died, stays with her dead body, fixating on her decaying beauty, particularly her hair:
Yet am I glad to have her dead
Here in this wretched wattled house
Where I can kiss her eyes and head.
Six months, and I sit still and hold
In two cold palms her cold two feet.
Her hair, half grey half ruined gold,
Thrills me and bums me in kissing it.
Hair is similarly fetishised Barnes's poem, where the beloved's red hair takes on a life of its own and threatens to consume her weak body like a purging fire.
Barnes's "Six Songs of Khalidine," and many other poems in A Book, focus on the uncanny vitality and eroticism of the dying and dead woman's body. In "Song in Autumn," for instance, the beloved feeds the "green / Long grasses" and in "The Flowering Corpse," "Soft hairs blow" above her head and her "armpits bloom". The uncanny vitality of the dead woman links to a popular myth surrounding the Pre-Raphaelite muse, Elizabeth Siddal. As the story goes, in 1869, Dante Gabriel Rossetti disinterred Siddal's body in order to retrieve the poems he had buried with her—only to find her coffin filled with a profusion of red-gold hair that had kept on growing after death. Deborah Tyler-Bennett has pointed out that Barnes's portrayal of Mary Pyne engages with this by-then familiar public legend, placing Pyne in a pantheon of tubercular beloveds alongside Siddal and Edgar Allan Poe's gothic maidens. Tyler-Bennett argues that Barnes uses the Gothic mode to self-consciously question the ways in which women like Pyne and Siddal were, through their unearthly beauty and early deaths, fated to become static and unchanging products of the male imagination. She writes that Barnes "recognised how Pyne's 'Greenwich Village Beauty' status obliterated every other aspect of her personality". Rather than endorsing the archetype of the tragic, red-haired beauty, Barnes uses it to indicate its limitations to the reader: her dead-woman muses constantly evade their living lovers; they are "hidden" beneath the earth, where their lovers cannot reach them.
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