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Phelps Putnam (July 9, 1894 - July 3, 1948) sometimes known as H. Phelps Putnam or Phelps Putnam, was an American poet who published two books, Trinc and The Five Seasons. Russell Wheeler Davenport and Max Foster were immortalized in Phelps Putnam’s poetry (and in a painting by Russell Cheney) as “Les Enfants Pendus,” which the poet translated as “the hung-up children.” The three of them are depicted in the poem as hanging by their necks from a tree, although they are not dead. Putnam wasn’t alone in his sexual conflicts. Among his close friends, at least two, Mitch Davenport and Farwell Knapp, offer striking parallels to his own life: both were trapped in unhappy marriages and only truly content when in the company of men they loved. In Davenport’s case, his letters and journals reveal homosexual experiences in college, as well as a lifelong sexual struggle that often left him depressed and bitter. In addition, a third member of their group, Charlie Walker (who’d also marry and have children), was arrested in 1916 on an apparent morals charge, which usually meant public homosexual activity. People like Putnam and Davenport, who could never conceive of themselves as homosexual, despite their love for other men. Homosexuals were fairies, pansies, or “little boys”—a label Cheney once angrily derided as “filthy” when a friend used it to describe his largely gay circle of friends. The number of suicides in Putnam’s circle is striking: Farwell Knapp put a gun to his head; Parker Lloyd-Smith, boon companion of Mitch Davenport, leaped from the twenty-third floor of a building. Even F.O. Matthiessen, the most grounded of the whole group, plunged from the twelfth floor of a Boston hotel in 1950, depressed over Cheney’s death and weary of being hounded for both his homosexuality and his political views. Mitch Davenport professed to be in love with Laura Barney Harding, Katharine Hepburn's longterm companion, and probably would have divorced his wife if Laura had given the nod. But Mitch’s anguish over the suicide of his friend Parker Lloyd-Smith, with whom he admitted he’d been “more than intimate,” seems to have given Laura pause.
Phelps Putnam was born in Massachusetts in 1894, the son of Henry Howell Putnam (1868–1958) and Cordelia Howard (1870–1957), and attended Phillips Exeter Academy. He enrolled at Yale University where he was a member of the secret society Skull and Bones:155 and was among the "Renaissance" generation of talented Yale-educated writers. When he went off to Yale, Putnam first found his place in the world. Part of the Yale Renaissance generation, a period of time that produced graduates like Archibald MacLeish, Cole Porter, Monty Woolley, Philip Barry, Stephen Vincent Benét, Henry R. Luce, and Thornton Wilder, Putnam forged relationships within the intensely male college environment that would remain the most important of his life. Among his Skull and Bones comrades, there was Farwell Knapp, Charlie Walker, and Lawrence Tighe, later Yale’s treasurer, but most of all there was Fred Manning, whom Putnam called his “bleak friend, my rare unswerving company.” Put was best man at Manning’s wedding and often seemed a third wheel in his friend’s marriage. At the dean’s house at Bryn Mawr, a room was always available for Putnam. Manning’s daughters knew him as “Uncle Put,” the moody, dreamy man with whom their father routinely disappeared as soon as school holidays began.
Following graduation Putnam traveled to Europe and worked a series of odd jobs including a brief period as an assistant editor for the Atlantic Monthly Press and writing advertising copy for an insurance company. Putnam's first book of poems, Trinc, Rabelaisian for drink, was published in 1927. Putnam's love life appears to have superseded his poetic reputation. Twice married (to Ruth Peters and Una Fayerweather) Putnam had numerous affairs, including trysts with Katharine Hepburn and painter Russell Cheney. In her autobiography Me Hepburn writes of Putnam: "I took one look at him and I was stricken with whatever it is that strickens one at once and for no reason when one looks at a member of the opposite sex. He absolutely fascinated me. I flew up onto a pink cloud [ . . . ].”
Disrobing in front of the critic Edmund Wilson, the poet H. Phelps Putnam displayed, with a certain “conscious pride,” long red gashes the length of his back. Wise to the ways of the world, Wilson presumed the gashes to be evidence of a sexually masochistic whipping. Later he surmised they might also have come from a woman with long nails and an overheated passion. But, whatever the source of the marks, what’s most significant was the “conscious pride” with which the poet displayed them. He wore them like badges of honor. “It is from the blood and not from the brain that Putnam attempts to rise,” the writer Russell Davenport once observed of his friend. “One who does not feel his veins swell—with lust or wine or whatever—has no [chance] to understand.” From across the dining table at Dean Manning’s house, Kath Hepburn locked eyes with this man, this lusty, moody, married, alcoholic poet thirteen years her senior. Right from the start there was something between them. He called her the Kid. She called him Phelpie. “I took one look at him,” Hepburn would remember, “and I was stricken with whatever it is that strickens one at once and for no reason when one looks at a member of the opposite sex. I was fascinated.” Sometime probably during her sophomore year, Kath sat down for lunch at Clynnoc, Dean Manning’s cozy Victorian residence with large windows overlooking the tennis courts. Across from her sat Putnam, a guest of Manning’s husband. Put, as friends called him, was of medium height and slender. Deep-set dark eyes complemented a luxuriant mat of black hair on his chest and arms. His voice, long and drawn out with a Boston accent, was invariably hoarse, jagged from years of asthmatic wheezing. Though he was just a little past thirty, his hair had gone prematurely gray. He possessed a brooding, Brontëan beauty. In Kath’s besotted opinion, Put’s prominent brow made for “a very handsome head.” Equally struck was Put. “[A] rising flame / Of honor and dishonor and / A gong resounding overland,” he wrote in a poem he’d later acknowledge was inspired by Kath. Just what she was doing lunching with the dean is unknown; Kath certainly wasn’t a pet of the administration. But Palache was, and it’s a good bet that she was the conduit through which Kath came to Putnam’s attention. Hailing from Jamaica Plain, a suburb of Boston across the river from Palache’s hometown of Cambridge, Put was acquainted with Palache’s sisters. Dragging Kath along with her to a gathering at the dean’s, Palache likely made the first introduction. There was another connection on campus as well: Putnam had a sister, Frances, in Kath’s class, though it does not appear that they knew each other well. When that lunch occurred, however, is a bit murky. Hepburn said she met Putnam during the spring of her senior year. Despite that imprecise statement, Barbara Leaming offered enormous specificity in her biography of Hepburn. She placed the first meeting between the two during the May Day celebrations on campus and described Putnam as an aggressive suitor, inveigling a luncheon invitation at the dean’s house after seeing Kath perform on stage. Yet there is absolutely no evidence for this. Dean Manning certainly did not make it a habit to facilitate meetings between students and her husband’s friend, whose reputation as a philanderer was well known. The fact that Put had a sister in Kath’s class would have made Manning even more wary of the potential for gossip. Actually, from Putnam’s own letters, we can deduce that he met Kath considerably earlier than her senior year. He would tell Russell Davenport that his poem “Marjory” was based on her, the name chosen because it contained the same number of syllables as “Katharine.” That poem was written in 1926 and published the following year as part of Putnam’s first collection, Trinc—all well before his supposed first meeting with Kath in spring 1928.
Fortunately, Put’s voluminous correspondence allows us to chart his whereabouts with some degree of precision. In 1926, he was at Bryn Mawr in March and then again in December, retreating from an unhappy Boston marriage to a refuge offered by Fred Manning. In March, Kath would have been eighteen, a sophomore, still withdrawn and gawky, not yet the blossom of her junior year. It’s possible this was the point at which they met, suggested by one of Put’s poems, originally called “Girl’s Curse” and published in Trinc as “Death Song of Childhood”: “She came to me a stormy day, / It was beneath the wild March skies; / Sometimes she stumbled on her way / Because the tears were in her eyes.” Certainly, Kath was unhappy her sophomore year, though given her aversion to wallowing it was unlikely she shed many tears. But as a poet’s metaphor for discontent, “the tears in her eyes” might well identify her. In fact, March 1926 was quite the stormy month in eastern Pennsylvania, the skies often wild with rain and wind. (March of 1927, by contrast, was an early harbinger of spring, with mostly clear skies and warm air.) In Put’s poem, the unnamed girl bemoans a loss of innocence, brought on by “sinful” kisses. This also doesn’t sound like Kath; if Put kissed her, she may have blushed, but she surely wouldn’t have spent any time worrying about it. Still, the poem wasn’t written from her perspective. By December, Kath had started to come out of her shell; it was around this time that she jumped naked in the cloister fountain. She and Putnam may have met again at this point, and she may have been more receptive to his friendship.
Following Trinc Putnam set to work on an epic, to be titled The Earthly Comedy.
On a rainy night in February 1928, Farwell Knapp, assistant tax commissioner for the state of Connecticut, was awakened by a loud pounding on the door of his house in West Hartford. Hurrying downstairs, he found his old friend from Yale, Phelps Putnam. The poet was drunk and spitting mad. He’d had an argument with his friend, the painter Russell Cheney, whose niece was Knapp’s wife, and he had come from Cheney’s farm across the river in South Manchester, hoping to take shelter with Knapp. It had been a bad winter for Put, and the spring would only get worse. While Kath dreamed of a glorious career, Putnam was in a downward spiral. Soon after the New Year, he’d endured one of his periodic blowouts with his wife. As he was apt to do, Put took refuge among the male camaraderie he venerated in his poetry. To Kittery, Maine, he’d headed first, where Cheney had a cottage, the “Ditty Box.” Afterward he’d tagged along back to the farm in South Manchester with Cheney and his companion, the Yale professor F. O. Matthiessen, whom everyone called “Matty.” The problem was that when Put and Cheney got together, they tended to drink heavily and were soon at each other’s throats. Their altercations usually ended with one or both passed out on the floor, leaving Matty to clean up the mess. From Knapp’s, Putnam, still obviously drunk, fired off a letter to Cheney: “When I come to you with a sick, empty, and confused soul. . . you go away. What the hell?” Clearly, Cheney had proven unable or unwilling to ameliorate the pain Putnam perpetually carried around with him. Suffering from heart palpitations, as well as asthma in the spring and fall, Put was never in good health. But it was his alcoholism that exacerbated everything else, including anguish over an increasingly complicated love life. Early in 1928, Putnam seems finally to have grasped this: “I have always considered it [drinking] to be a physical rather than a spiritual question,” he wrote to Cheney. “I can drink too much for a feller with my diseases—that’s a truth. But up to now, drinking has always seemed to contribute to my spirit rather than destroy it.”
In 1930 Putnam was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the following year he published The Five Seasons (1931). This volume marks the beginning of Putnam's work towards producing The Earthly Comedy, however, Putnam died in 1948 before completing his epic, perhaps thwarted by his ill health (asthma and alcoholism) and the paralyzing ambition of his plans. As F.O. Matthiessen acknowledges in his essay “To the Memory of Phelps Putnam” “he sketched a poem too vast ever to be able to shoulder the weight of writing it”. Putnam wrote little in his later years, which largely consists of poetry published in various magazines and lyrics for a musical collaboration with Harl McDonald entitled Songs of Conquest: Cycle for Chorus of Mixed Voices (1937).
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