23 Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, later avenue Foch
Saint Germain-en-Laye Old Communal Cemetery Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Departement des Yvelines, Île-de-France, France
Spring Grove Cemetery Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio, USA
Violet Shillito (April 6, 1877 – April 8, 1901) was educated, sensitive, beautiful. She spoke Greek and Italian. She died of typhoid fever in Cannes on April 8, 1901. She had just been twenty-four years old for two days.
Violet Shillito was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of Jane Wilson Gaff (born 1850 in Aurora, Indiana) and Gordon Shillito (born 1846 in Kenton City, Ohio). Fifteen months another daughter, Mary, was born in Cincinnati. The family then moved to New Jersey, where a third child arrived in 1880. He died at the age of eight months, suffering from acute bronchitis. A boy, Gordon Junior, the fourth and final child, was born in 1881 in Cincinnati. In January 1884 the family moved to Paris. Gordon Junior dies from complications from a cold snap. He is only two years old. The parents were at the head of a huge fortune that came from the department stores they owned in Chicago.
The family lived in the Cincinnati area. From an early age Violet and Mary spoke French with a neighbor, Natalie, by game. She had a French governess and read "The Countess of Segur." Later Natalie became famous for being the femme fatale of all literary, social and lesbian Paris, Natalie Clifford Barney, known as "the Amazon". She was the daughter of a wealthy family. Shillito's parents wanted to introduce their two daughters to the world. The influence of Paris at that time was considerable. A wind of freedom blew. It was far from the stifling puritanism of the east coast of the United States and a young girl from a good family must breathe the air of the sea, of the novelty. So they left for France and settled for a time in Paris, while going back and forth for their business on the new continent. Barney's parents did the same. The Shillito family lived in Paris at 23 Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, later avenue Foch. Mary and Violet were educated in Fontainebleau, in a boarding school, and in Paris.
Violet was of rare intelligence and sensitivity, and Mary seemed totally obliterated in the presence of this young prodigy girl whom she greatly admired. Passionate about philosophy, poetry and music, Violet lived in a strange and very special universe that she herself described as the "Great Inner Life". She had befriended Pauline Tarn (later known as Renée Vivien), a young poet of her age who also lived at 23 Avenue du Bois de Boulogne. From 1892 the two teenagers would maintain an ambiguous and intense romantic relationship that Pauline recounted a few years later in her poetry collections: "Around the age of thirteen, I took a very pure passion for a companion whose beautiful melancholy eyebrows I loved... Ignorance kept our two mouths too ingenuous away from each other. Violet and Mary feel nothing but revulsion for men, whom they find ugly and sometimes have fun in the streets to classify as pigs, little pigs and big pigs!"
Violet Shillito not only cultivated hatred of men, she was extremely precocious, having learned ancient Greek alone in order to read Plato, among others. At sixteen, this American woman who spoke French also learnt Italian on her own to read Dante in its original italian words. In Paris the four girls continue to see each other. They even combine to face adversity.
At age sixteen, Mabel Dodge met the second of her early mentors. In June 1896, she visited Violet Shillito, the sister of a school friend, in Paris. She and Violet read Balzac together. In the small salon, with its brocade-covered chairs and Louis XV tables, Violet played Beethoven for Mabel on the grand piano. Sometimes after dinner, she played Chopin by candlelight. The music of Richard Wagner heightened Mabel’s musical experience that summer. She and the Shillitos traveled to Bayreuth to hear the Ring Cycle. The Opera House resounded with “herculean sounds falling all about us in cascades.” Mid-summer Mabel joined the Shillitos at the Chateau de Pierrefonds outside of Paris. There she and Violet vowed their mutual love. By moonlight in a “natural harmony emanating in rapid singing waves,” they shared “an overflow of increased life.” Mabel had never known anyone with such wisdom and love as she found in Violet. “I would love her best of all the world.”
In 1900 the young poet Pauline dare not approach Natalie Barney, whose first collection of poems she has just read, "Some sonnet portraits of a woman's", because of her great shyness. In this collection of poems, her first book published in 1900, Natalie Barney celebrated her friends and lovers. Some of them can be recognized: Liane de Pougy, Sarah Bernhardt. Natalie asked her mother, a talented painter who had been Whistler's pupil, to illustrate the volume, which includes four off-text portraits and, on frontispiece, that of Natalie Barney by Carolus Duran. The saphic tone of the verses could not go unnoticed, and Natalie Barney's father was frightened of it. He bought all available copies to destroy them. Only a few very rare volumes escaped paternal anger.
Pauline then instructed Violet and Mary to declare her love with their childhood friend, Natalie. The meeting took place in a theatre box in Paris, where the two sisters introduced their mutual friends, Pauline and Natalie. The second meeting was in the woods of Boulogne where Pauline, who took the pen name Renée Vivien, recited verses to Natalie: "My soul finally rests ... I will sleep tonight from the most beautiful death."
Natalie Barney's intrusion into Violet and Pauline's intimacy shattered their "sororal communion", an idyll that remained platonic but very profound. Violet was locked in meditation and mysticism, accompanied in this by her sister Mary and her friend from the Sorbonne, Marcelle Senard. Violet converted to Catholicism, certainly under the influence of Marcelle.
On April 5, 1901, while Pauline the poet, flirted with Natalie in Paris, a telegram arrived from Cannes. Violet was dying. Pauline took the first train to join her childhood friend. The next day, April 6, Natalie received another telegram announcing Violet's death at Sunny Bank Hospital in Cannes (a hospital built in 1894 for members of the British colony). She was 23. The funeral ceremony was celebrated in the American church on Avenue de l'Alma in Paris (now Avenue Georges V). She was buried in the old cemetery of Saint Germain in Laye, according to the Anglican rite, that of her family, without respect for her recent conversion.
Pauline blamed herself for Violet's death. She indulged in a real funeral debauchery and multiplied the poems where she never ceased to compare Violet-name and violet-flower. Perhaps because of this death, but likely also in part of Barney's infidelities, Vivien and Barney split a year later, in 1901. Vivien romanticized death. While visiting London in 1908, deeply despondent and ruinously in debt, she tried to kill herself by drinking an excess of laudanum. She stretched out on her divan with a bouquet of violets held over her heart. The suicide failed. Vivien died in Paris on the morning of 18 November 1909 at the age of 32; the cause of death was reported at the time as "lung congestion", but likely resulted from pneumonia complicated by alcoholism, drug abuse, and anorexia nervosa.
On February 24, 1904, Violet's mother, Jane Gaff, died of cardiac arrest in Paris. Mr. Gordon Shillito had his wife's mortal remains transported by boat to the family vault in the huge cemetery of Spring Grove, Ohio, in the United States of America. Violet's remains accompanied her mother and were buried a second time, along with her, on April 27, 1904. At Spring Grove Cemetery, the Shillito family's location is marked by an imposing granite obelisk with the Shillito figure, a large S.
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