William Howard Adams
INT: My name is Anne Steptoe; I’m here with Elizabeth Gettinger and Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent. We’re here at Hazelfield House near Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia, to speak with Howard Adams about his long history with Dumbarton Oaks. Thank you for joining us.
WHA: Thank you very much.
INT: July 17th.
INT: Oh, I’m sorry, yes, today’s July 17th, 2009.
WHA: Everybody’s in [laughter]. Did you get TJ in over there? [laughter]
INT: Oh yes, and Thomas Jefferson is presiding [laughter]. Which is very appropriate.
WHA: Where’s his computer relay?, hanging on his – I assume my computer works wireless. When they were hooking it up, they said, where we gonna put it, and I said, just hang it around his neck, he’ll love it.
INT: That’s great. We’ll start off with: you were never a junior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks?
WHA: No, no.
INT: So how did you first come to be involved?
WHA: Well, I was trying to remember all of that, how I – my first introduction to the whole Dumbarton Oaks scene was through Walter Muir Whitehill, who was a great friend of the Blisses, and who wrote what was considered the official sponsored history of Dumbarton Oaks. Do you know it?
INT: No, to our knowledge, we’ve been told that there’s never been an official –
WHA: Not true. Walter Muir Whitehill, who was - well, I knew him through Boston connections, and he was a great friend of some of the Adams connections, obviously up there, and he was the head of the Boston Athenaeum, and very much involved, he was on the board of the art museum in Boston and the Massachusetts historical society, he was involved in everything, and at a very early stage in my life somehow I became a part of – I would see the Whitehills in Boston, and so I knew about the Blisses really second-hand but fairly intimately in terms of what they were doing. But his book is a very key document.
INT: I would imagine so. I’m not even sure there’s a –
WHA: And Walter died in the late seventies, I think, so this book would have been done, well obviously before Mildred Bliss died in sixty-nine, but anyway he was very much an intimate. Then when I came to the National Gallery, I’d been living in Princeton and I was working for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund briefly before I came to the National Gallery, and it may have been through some Princeton connection that we then – Mrs. Bliss, though she had just died, was very much a social and cultural presence in Georgetown, which meant basically Washington. And Tom Bayard – does his name ring a bell? You’ve come on to him. He taught at Trinity I think, after he left Dumbarton Oaks, and he was a kind of protégé of Mrs. Bliss, and after she’d moved out of the house, down on Q – we were on P just around the corner – and Tom was a friend of friends of ours in Princeton so there were all these, I suppose not professional, but just sort of these connections, and we became good friends of Tom’s, so I suppose that was really the first behind-the-scenes introduction, because the staff was very, very small.
INT: What year was this?
WHA: Seventy. Mrs. Bliss had just died. We’re told in Washington that they were referred to as the "Three Bs" – Mrs. Bliss, Mrs. Bacon – Virginia Bacon, Mrs. Robert Lowe Bacon – and Mrs. Beale, who lived in Decatur House, opposite the White House – still living privately in that house. Mrs. Bacon was living in I think what had been John Marshall’s house on F Street, pretty extraordinary, they were all contemporary buildings with the White House, and then Mrs. Bliss was out in the country. But those were really the powerhouse figures, and this is social history that has nothing to do with Dumbarton Oaks, but it’s part of the texture. But we’re into the transitional period of Dumbarton Oaks throughout the ‘70s. I think through Walter Muir Whitehill I became well acquainted with the Tylers, and it was Bill Tyler who asked me to be a senior fellow. And you know the Tyler connections to the Blisses.
INT: He was the godson, I believe.
WHA: Yes, and he was also the godson of Edith Wharton. And Edith Wharton was a great friend of Mrs. Bliss, and also Beatrix Farrand, and that’s how Beatrix Farrand comes into the story, and I think that it was Royall Tyler, his father, that introduced the Blisses, I mean Mr. Bliss’s mother, to Bliss’s father.
INT: That was Royall Tyler?
WHA: She then became Mrs. Royall Tyler. [NB: It is unclear to whom he is referring.] So Bill – I always loved the fact that he was Edith Wharton’s godson [laughter].
INT: And I think he was heir to all her papers and things.
WHA: He did, which he then negotiated – I think Yale has them now. I think that’s right. I don’t know, the Bliss papers, I suppose they’re at Harvard?
INT: They were moved to Harvard. They originally were at Dumbarton Oaks, but Dumbarton Oaks didn’t really seem to have the space or the resources.
WHA: And that’s not – that kind of archival manuscript maintenance, it’s just like at Monticello; we don’t have any – other than a working library – we don’t keep any manuscript material there. It all goes to the University of Virginia. Anything that has to be taken care of.
INT: We do have the material related to the building of Dumbarton Oaks and the gift –
WHA: You have all of that? But her plans, all of that is out in California.
INT: Oh, I didn’t know that.
WHA: Well, she lived in California near the end of her life. So I know that a lot of the original garden plans, which have – all that’s been documented, published, that’s well-known. Well, anyway, that’s the best of my recollection.
INT: Did you know Mrs. Paul Mellon as well?
WHA: Well, I did know her, and in fact when I was on the board there was discussion even then about the possibility of her giving her collection to Dumbarton Oaks, but it was clear that this was not going to happen in the 1970s, because her interests were clearly very special, and she did not want to have it being institutionalized under either Dumbarton Oaks or Harvard, and we still don’t know where her collection is going to go – and maybe you do – or have not heard.
INT: I know that she’s built a library.
WHA: She has, there, that’s been a number of years ago. But it’s not – it’s fine for that but I can’t imagine that being maintained in perpetuity. I suspect – I’ve heard rumors that there is another institution where maybe it would go, but I don’t know any more than that. But she was never – was she actually ever on the board? I can’t remember.
INT: I believe she was.
WHA: Her name was on it, but she – I think that she was never really active. It was with the idea I think that this would happen, but it was quite clear that this was not – that she was going in her own direction and so on.
INT: Yeah, we tried to speak with her –
WHA: No, I don’t think it would make any sense now. She’s 98. Her stepson is a good friend of mine – pardon me, her son by an earlier marriage – lives in Washington and is a good friend of mine, and I don’t – people around Upperville never see her much. That would be not a productive avenue.
INT: Was Jack Thatcher still around the Washington scene in these years?
WHA: Oh, Jack was around, and he had just retired, I can’t remember when.
WHA: He was very much a gentleman about town and knew everybody.
INT: It seems like there was a great deal of integration between the Dumbarton Oaks collection at that time, or at least the administration, and the Washington social scene.
WHA: Dumbarton Oaks was very much a Georgetown social scene. There were very few people who had any real intellectual interest in what Dumbarton Oaks was doing. It was something of a mystery. I mean, first of all, garden history – people didn’t know what – that was such a new discipline or sub-discipline. Byzantine studies, that was totally off the books, and the pre-Columbian was also, really. That beautiful collection, that jewel collection – too bad you didn’t get to speak to the architect.
INT: Philip Johnson. He passed away, I think.
WHA: Oh, yes.
INT: Did you know him?
WHA: I did, just briefly, when we lived in New York, but through other connections that had nothing to do with Dumbarton Oaks.
INT: He did leave memoirs or something like that.
WHA: About Dumbarton Oaks? Oh, well then that’s good.
INT: It’s helpful.
WHA: And someone else that I knew who is still I think living is Louis Auchincloss, who’s a novelist and lawyer who lives in New York, who’s in his early 90s now.
INT: What was his connection to Dumbarton Oaks?
WHA: Well, he was a good friend of them. He would have been a much younger friend, but he would have known the Harvard-Dumbarton Oaks scene, and I remember him talking to me about how Harvard had somehow – whether his law firm or somebody that he was involved with – when the Blisses were persuaded to give Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard, and he was rather critical of that. And he felt that Harvard had pushed them into it and used the threat of the war, the possible "invasion" like the war of 1812 – they ought to have – that somehow Cambridge Massachusetts was going to be safer, to own the property would add more stability. This is what I recollect Louis telling me, whether there’s any truth to it I have no idea. But that was inside gossip.
INT: Very helpful to have.
WHA: Mr. Kreeger was also on the board when I was on the board. Another name that you – he’s long since gone, the businessman in Washington. Does his name –?
INT: I don’t think we’ve heard anyone bring him up before.
WHA: Well, he was – they were great art collectors, and he was on the board of the corp., and he was involved in all kinds of positions around culturally, and I guess I knew him through being at the National Gallery and because of his collection. But Bill Tyler got him on the board because he was a Harvard graduate and could stand up to the pressure from Harvard, which – there was a sense of pressure, at least in that period; the rumor was that Harvard would be happy to close the whole thing down and take the all proceeds back to Cambridge.
INT: What was the gossip related to that? Because it seems so explicit in the Bliss will that that is not what they wanted.
WHA: They were very explicit about it, and Louis Auchincloss discussed that with me about that issue, but nevertheless –
INT: Harvard will be Harvard.
WHA: Everyone read Harvard’s ambitions.
INT: Yes, I think they took material from the collection up to – was it the Fogg during this time?
INT: And that was a very big thing.
WHA: Was that during the war, when they took it?
INT: They might have taken it during the war, and then I think again maybe in the early seventies?
WHA: They could have, I don’t remember. And that was not a good idea, it made everyone very nervous. And then also the friction was over the way the money was redistributed. Harvard had its formula dealing with the Bliss bequest, the proceeds didn’t come back to Dumbarton Oaks, they got a fixed percentage.
INT: Really? Where was the other money –?
WHA: It was overhead for Cambridge, as we understood it.
INT: Were these for the Dumbarton Oaks professorships?
WHA: Well, all the operating funds, Dumbarton’s endowment went to Harvard, you see, they would distribute it, they earned 8% and Dumbarton Oaks got maybe 4% – I don’t know that, I’m just saying, that was at least – and Kreeger, who was very much of a finance man on the board, was quite outspoken and critical if ever anyone from Harvard ever came down.
INT: Were there visits from Harvard?
WHA: Well, not very often. The dean of arts and science – he was a very powerful dean, I can’t think of his name.
WHA: No, that’s the president. Bok came I think once during my time, and when you think how many institutions Harvard has, the very idea that he might have even come once – but the dean who was very powerful, and I think he was dean of arts and sciences but I can’t remember the names. But the problem at Dumbarton Oaks – Byzantines studies at Harvard, you obviously have a connection at Harvard, but the other two areas did not and do not, and that was always felt to be a weakness in the way the thing’s structured, and that gave the Byzantinists – they were, you know, not equal among equals. But that’s again part of the politics of the thing. But everyone understood all this.
INT: If we could go back for a second to your relationship to Mr. Whitehall.
INT: Whitehill, excuse me. You mentioned he had talked to you a little bit about the Blisses, did he have any particular stories that you recall? We’re very interested in –
WHA: Not that I can recall now. I might be able to if I reread his book, but I’m sure anything he told me in the kind of after-dinner, over-scotch conversation would have been in his book and so on. He loved the style of the Blisses in terms of the way they went about supporting music and the whole civilized, really European atmosphere that really prevailed, certainly in the seventies. There was nothing else in Washington that came near that, because of the scale of it, small, intimate. And the Sunday night concerts – you had to be invited, as if Mrs. Bliss was still presiding. So it was very much a – the rituals were all figured out, and certainly carried on, with Jack Thatcher in the wings criticizing if they weren’t.
INT: He was also a godson, I think, of the Blisses. Or at the very least a friend.
WHA: Yeah, he probably was. I don’t remember that. But there was very much this curatorial reverence and caretaking of the image of the Blisses and Dumbarton Oaks as the Blisses related to it. So you had ten years – Giles Constable, maybe his father, who taught at Harvard, in art history I believe, probably knew the Blisses, and there may have been something, a little nepotism there, I don’t know. He surely must have talked about that.
INT: Yes. We didn’t actually get to –
WHA: Do that one.
INT: Well, I wonder if you might talk a little bit more about the European feel. Was it – I assume you must have gotten to know some of the scholars there at the time.
WHA: Oh yes, I did. And there were always European scholars, and we did see them, made a point that they would meet at the National Gallery and there was an atmosphere. Whether that goes on now or not, I don’t know.
INT: We haven’t gotten the sense that there’s as much interaction as you’re talking about.
WHA: Interaction, no. At that period there was, on a very informal level.
INT: Who were the major players there as far as academics, as you recall
WHA: Oh, I can’t remember now the names again. Betty MacDougal, of course, she was somewhat controversial as a director. She was not an easy person to get along with, and people had the impression that she really didn’t want anybody coming in doing research other than the fellows. And that’s fair enough to understand, that it was a limited facility and so on. There was a feeling she was not particularly friendly to scholars who were not – who had a legitimate reason – who were not [fellows]. That’s just a rumor and an impression I had. I think Betty suffered from the fact that while she was an art history major, garden history itself was parvenu, and didn’t have full credentials at Harvard, or certainly at the Fogg. You can understand that.
INT: Well, at that time Dumbarton Oaks was really the only center –
WHA: It was really the only center. There was – the scholarship going on – there was a good deal going on in England in garden history; it has its genesis I think really after the war. And lots of the fellows and people who came up and were influential read at some of the symposia at Dumbarton Oaks. They were all international figures but I think the English garden history crowd – they quite often were members of the symposia; you can read the lists and so on. The Byzantinists, not so much. Not in terms of such a specialized field of study, as you know. With garden history, people – even though they didn’t understand what the discipline was about and how it worked in terms of the collection at Dumbarton Oaks – nevertheless people said, well, you know, I have a garden.
INT: Did you have much interaction with the collection at Dumbarton Oaks?
WHA: Well, I’ve used it, yes. The study that I did on the French garden, I used [it] quite extensively, of course. At that point I had curated an exhibition on Jefferson at the National Gallery called “The Eye of Thomas Jefferson;” my catalog you may know.
WHA: In working on Jefferson I did become very much involved in eighteenth-century garden history, because of his travels and interests, when he was in France. And it was actually through that rather narrow avenue that – and I realized at that point that there wasn’t a useful small volume – not a picture book, but a serious book on the history of the French garden. Which has now been translated into French and two or three other – which is interesting, you know. The French consider that an area that they – would not recognize an American scholar. Actually the French edition of that, they did really quite a beautiful job of it.
INT: Do you remember, during that time when you were interacting with it, what the state of the collection was? As you probably know, there still is no museum space for the garden collection.
WHA: No. And there wasn’t any – the museum part of the garden, it was a literary collection. It was works on paper. We never ever thought of it as objects or related to anything other than just seeing it all make perfect sense. Which is the way the Blisses began the collection – what they bought and so on.
INT: So at this point it was mainly the library. Because I know at least over the years they’ve managed to collect some of the prints and paintings that the Blisses originally had, of gardens.
WHA: Of gardens?
INT: Of botanical gardens.
WHA: Is that in the garden studies section?
INT: That’s my understanding. But it sounds like this was not at the time.
WHA: Well, there were things around in the hallways, hanging on the walls, but not in any sense as a part of the study collection.
INT: And in the early sixties things were in the garden library?
WHA: Yes. I didn’t know it until sixty-nine, seventy. I’d been there but I never used the collection at that time. I guess Betty MacDougal was there at that time. There was also Alan Fern’s wife, do you know her? Alan Fern was head of the prints and photographs at the Library of Congress, and then he became director of not the Portrait Gallery, but what we now call the National Collection, the American Collection. His wife was Betty MacDougal’s assistant; she’s in Washington. She’s somebody. She was very much in the working – I knew her very well, but I can’t think of her first name now. Mrs. Alan Fern. I suppose he’s living in Washington; I haven’t seen him in years. But it was very, very intimate and small; there would never be another person or scholar or anybody. The fellows would be in their little cubicles and I got to know some of them.
INT: Who was there, do you recall?
WHA: I’m hard pressed for names. They’d always be in, working on very interesting subjects, I remember.
INT: In your conversations with one another, did they tend to be about garden history, or the literary aspects, or theoretical? What was the tone at that time in the seventies in terms of the field itself, as you recall?
WHA: Mostly they came out of literature as well as art history, or they came out of history; it is a subdivision of history. And garden history wasn’t taught anyplace – what was his name, the head of the garden there; he’s English?
INT: John Dixon Hunt.
WHA: John Dixon Hunt. He’s very prolific in writing; have you talked to him?
INT: Spoke with him on Monday.
WHA: I remember him very well when he was there; I think later he catalogued Mrs. Mellon’s collection, or did two volumes on that collection, which is available to you. But I think that was after he was at – he’s at Pennsylvania I think now. He was a very conspicuous art historian, but he came out of literature. Interesting sort of background. My background is law.
INT: How did you get –?
WHA: Well, I don’t know.
INT: We talked a little earlier about your time at the National Gallery. I wonder if you remember from that experience what the relationship was like between the National Gallery, specifically, and Dumbarton Oaks; you talked a little bit generally about the close interactions between the institutions.
WHA: Well, of course, John Walker – I was there briefly when he was just retiring. I came in with the idea that Carter would become the director and I was to pick up what Carter was doing, which I did, but that overlaps a bit. But certainly the Walkers were the connection with the Blisses, an intimate part of that circle. Those were the two major international cultural institutions in Washington – I mean in the humanities, or art, not the sciences, but I can’t think of any – they were preeminent. No university had international stature in Washington during those years, true? And being both non-political institutions. Those were the two places European visitors would gravitate to, one or both, whatever. And certainly the Blisses were looked upon as major figures and made famous by the Dumbarton Oaks conference, the commissioning of Stravinsky. That was a big time. And far more sophisticated than Washingtonians on a day-to-day basis ever thought of themselves being. Washington then is no different than Washington now, I’m sure, just more people.
INT: It seems like there was a very practical relationship between the two institutions as well, because even when you did the Jefferson exhibit, Dumbarton Oaks I think lent books for that.
WHA: Yes, they loaned things. We had a close working – anything either would need, we were equals.
INT: So you got the sense that during that period Dumbarton Oaks was very generous in lending out the collection.
WHA: Oh, yes, absolutely.
INT: Because we’ve heard different things over different periods.
WHA: Well, it depends on what department they were. There was a special – we used to speak of our special relationship with Great Britain. There was a special relationship with Dumbarton Oaks. Both institutions were sort of latecomers; the National Gallery didn’t open until 1940. The same time as the Blisses, isn’t that true?
INT: Yes, the gift was in forty.
WHA: Were they living in Washington? He’d been in diplomatic service.
INT: They were living at Dumbarton Oaks briefly, but it was for really only about five years, I think, before the gift, and I think the museum and collection and center didn’t really open until forty-six.
WHA: Forty-six? Well, they were putting up all those Renaissance ceilings. Is the ceiling still there?
INT: And it’s been beautifully recently cleaned and renovated and reopened.
WHA: I’ve often wondered how much of that ceiling is original. I never saw a Renaissance ceiling in Italy that big. It’s huge.
INT: But it is lovely.
WHA: It is lovely.
INT: One thing we’ve also touched on, but I think haven’t talked about directly, is of course you got to know Giles Constable very well. He’s known now I think as a bit of a controversial director.
WHA: Is he? I don’t know what the controversy would be or what it was.
INT: There wasn’t a sense of that immediately when you were there?
WHA: Well, Giles – I didn’t know him that well. I don’t think Giles was an easy person to know as a personality. He’s a scholar. I think the Institute was a perfect place for him. I don’t know that he was particularly comfortable with administration. That was an area I don’t know anything about. That’s just my outside/inside reading.
INT: He must have seemed a very different director than Bill Tyler.
WHA: Oh, yes, Bill was a preeminently new administration, the skills of diplomacy. Everything was protocolé, as Mrs. Tyler used to say. And again the foreign service was involved in all the diplomatic – and that played into the diplomatic scene, which should be mentioned, certainly in the seventies, when the diplomatic corps in Washington I think was much more conspicuous and ambassadors played much bigger roles than they do now, with electronics and all the things that have changed their lives and everybody else’s. But then the diplomatic corps was very protocolé as who was senior, and they didn’t change a lot, and the British ambassador was always – even though he wasn’t number one in the pecking order – he was always very much number one on the social scene, and he was usually somebody new, because Washington was always a prime plum slot. But to give you the sense of that, the diplomatic corps really gave the scene around Washington an international feeling. Certainly we were aware of this at the National Gallery because the embassies – we were always being asked for this or that, not loans and so on but just to play some sort of a political role in who was coming to visit, heads of state or the Queen of England or whatever and so on. We had a very close regular relationship with the diplomatic corps. But just take, for instance, the senior diplomat, when we lived in Washington, was the Italian ambassador, and his name was Ambassador Ortona, and he’d been there longer than any other, he’d been through the war; his memory of Washington in terms of diplomacy was extraordinary. But those figures very much were part of the Dumbarton Oaks scene and they were people who knew what Dumbarton Oaks was and what its function was and so on. And that was very important. You usually found the European diplomatic corps in Washington was always of a very high caliber, so you can see how they fitted into the Blisses’ idea of this European salon, which is really what it was. And the salon was Mrs. Bliss and Mrs. Bacon and Mrs. Beale, and they did run them; those houses were big enough, and certainly Mrs. Bacon was the only one still operating when we – and somehow we made her list so went there quite often so we got some sense of what must have been the same thing at the Blisses’ – when they were actually living in the house – in terms of the way the dinner parties were given and the circle that brought them together. None of that exists anymore in Washington – nothing like that, as far as I know.
INT: We’ve read how one of the things that Mr. Bliss had promised Mrs. Bliss if she would come to Washington was that he would create this sense of a country estate in the city, and of course then the gardens are a tremendous part of that. And I wondered, as a specialist, just for our records, how do you see the gardens themselves at Dumbarton Oaks as they sit in terms of their importance as an American garden or the uniqueness or not and just to touch upon that.
WHA: They are very important, and Beatrix Farrand was very, very important in that whole period, one of the real stars, and the close relationship she had with her patron Mildred Bliss was very important. And she was encouraged to do things that were really extraordinary in terms of the way the whole layout was done and how they worked it out. It was a country estate and in fact the house obviously was a country estate when Georgetown was first founded. I don’t know how large it was in the early – again Walter Muir Whitehill I think gives a good history. I was ex-official trustee of the National Trust when I was at the National Gallery, but then I was also on the board of Monticello, of which Walter had been on for long before I went on, and was very much involved in. He was one of the founders of the National Trust, so historic preservation was a part of this whole cultivated cultural scene that was led by people like that, and they all knew each other there, or seemed to. Does this give you any sense of the texture? And I really want to emphasize that the ‘70s were a transition in Washington culturally, politically, and certainly from Dumbarton Oaks’ standpoint.
INT: So people were leaving Washington, or it was just a different generation?
WHA: Just a different [generation]. The atmosphere changes, the power center seemed to shift. Washington always changes. That’s another whole big subject, we won’t go there.
INT: Oh, well, I wonder – probably should have gotten to this a little bit earlier: just for our institutional history, you were a member I think both of the senior fellows committee for garden studies and for the advisory board, and I wonder if you might talk a little about the differences and maybe even the relationship between the two.
WHA: In my earlier comments I overlapped, I really wasn’t making much of a chain. The garden program really was not too active as I remember. It was pretty much Betty’s. She was running it that way; the conferences were her contribution. Speaking of the conferences, I mentioned – she was a very important senior fellow, a scholar – the archaeology/classicist Wilhelmina Jashemski, and she was the leading scholar on the gardens at Pompeii, of all things. She certainly is an international figure, recognized in her field. In fact Mary Beard, who’s at Cambridge – who has a blog by the way.
INT: Yes, she does. I haven’t met her, but she’s come to our Cambridge a couple times.
WHA: Well, I’ve been in touch with her because I’m working on a book, which I managed to get a couple suggestions on, some ideas. She’s been very generous and very funny. Her blog is called “A Don’s Life;” she’s a don, and she’s a brilliant classicist and just gave the lectures at California – what are they called, the famous lectures, out there at Berkeley?
WHA: And those lectures are now online. You can hear her; it’s really quite wonderful, there are three of them, they’re marvelous, you can put them on your iPod. But Mary Beard, within the last few – I glance at her blog, and a lot of the time it’s things I have no interest in, and she writes on a lot of things, not about the classics or anything else, but another thing. She’ll really turn up some very interesting – in fact, I cite her in a footnote from her blog, which I thought she will enjoy. Her motto is "bloggo ergo sum". Anyway –
INT: She was never at –?
WHA: Oh no, but she did mention – I think Wilhelmina died or something came up – and she mentioned something in her blog because she knew everyone – and I was so delighted she did. I sent her an email, we’ve just been in touch basically by email.
INT: So she really was a figure from an international –
WHA: You mean Wilhemina? Yes, in fact, I helped her get this published; she had real trouble getting it published, you can imagine, and I’m sure it’s wildly expensive now. But she had a technique; she was particularly interested in biological archaeology, and there was somebody at the Smithsonian that worked with her in terms of identifying plant material, spores, and seeds and all that, and this was really a pioneer work that goes beyond – not a part of Dumbarton Oaks, but nevertheless to me her connection with Dumbarton Oaks was extremely important.
INT: What was your fondest memory or the most exciting project that you were a part of in terms of your time?
WHA: Oh, I don’t know about that. I think the music programs were great, which had nothing to do with anything else other than just the pleasure of it. The quality of the music program was so high.
INT: Was this the Friends of Music program?
WHA: It wasn’t called Friends of Music then, it was Mrs. Bliss’s musicale.
INT: We were told that there was a dress code for these, that if a fellow were to come underdressed –
WHA: Oh yes, absolutely. Oh, there’s no dress code now. But there surely must be at the concert? No. Well, it was on my invitation in those days and everybody knew everybody else, and Virginia Bacon would be sitting on the front row and she would be asleep in the first five minutes after whatever they were playing, snoring.
INT: That still happens!
INT: But a lot of the Blisses’ personal staff stayed on.
WHA: Were still around. I don’t know that the butler was, but he might have been. Wait a minute: somebody used to bring us sherry at the end of board meetings.
INT: We spoke with Tony and Silvia.
WHA: And the gardener, the head gardener was there.
INT: Don Smith.
WHA: Is he still extant?
WHA: So you’ve talked to him.
INT: Well, he’s up in Maine, and they’re going to go up and speak with him.
WHA: I think that’s extremely important. I would put him high, put him above Giles – no, not for the record!
INT: We spoke with his son, who of course grew up on the grounds in the gardener’s cottage, and that was very helpful.
WHA: Yes, and that would be another point of view, another level, of course.
INT: And he was interviewed, I think in ninety-three, it must have been, about the time he retired, just because of course he was such a figure that someone wanted to get his thoughts together, but we would like to talk to him. We haven’t heard though that he was Bliss staff.
WHA: Who, Don? He was not? I thought he was on the staff, but I don’t know that. You know, again, could be just loosely referred to.
INT: We’ve heard of an Antonio who was there, who was I guess Mr. Thacher’s butler. I don’t know that he ever worked for the Blisses, though.
WHA: No. And I think that’s probably the one I would have seen.
INT: Oh, yes, I’m sorry, Alfredo. And Mrs. Aston, who was there in the library. She was rumored to be Bliss staff originally.
WHA: No. She was only very unhappy. But unhappiness was not unusual at Dumbarton Oaks.
INT: We’ve heard she was a very stiff British enforcer of the dress code.
WHA: Oh yes, she was. But she would somehow unburden herself to me, for reasons I had no idea. Yes, of course. But I knew her; she was probably a neighbor, and I don’t really know – she was in a funny way sort of misplaced there; she wasn’t a scholar, and I wasn’t sure what her role really was.
INT: Our understanding is that she was in charge of the Princeton Index in the library.
WHA: The Index? Yes, it was something like that probably. And there was always particularly friction –
INT: In the library?
WHA: In the library.
INT: We’ve heard it was sort of a tumultuous time there, and that the staff dwindled down in the library to the point that –
WHA: Oh yes, there was just maybe one person, and there was curatorial work to be done in the rare book collection and prints.
INT: There was a rare book collection at that time? Because we’ve heard conflicting things really about the formality of that.
WHA: Well, is it not there, the rare book room?
INT: Oh yes, now of course, but we’ve heard in those days – we talked to Henry and Eunice Maguire, Byzantine fellows at the time, and they would talk about pulling – this was a little bit later, when Irene Vaslef came to the library, when she was head librarian – but they talked a lot about the course of the library with the main house; they’ve talked about pulling these seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books off the shelf and taking them I think either to Irene or to Seka Allen, who was also in the library, and that was the beginning of the rare books collection as we understood it, at least for Byzantine.
WHA: Oh, that’s in the Byzantine.
INT: It must have been different for garden.
WHA: Oh yes, totally different. We never went there.
INT: How was the interaction between the programs?
WHA: Oh, absolutely none. Absolutely none. We never even knew where they were. You were talking about the sculpture being put in the garden or something – the thing that really stirred Georgetown up when I was involved there was the plan to build library facilities under the lawn, did you know about this?
WHA: Well this was a whole big –
INT: The North Vista? Yes.
WHA: Yes, and it was going to go – it meant removing one of the trees that had been there even going back before the Blisses, and it was going to be buried under that – what direction are we? North?
WHA: North. The North Vista. And people began to realize how much havoc was going to be wrought, digging this all up and supposedly putting it back. Hugh Jacobson, an architect and an old friend of mine in Princeton, was the architect for it. And I’m sure his plans – you want to talk to Hugh, because he ran into a real buzz saw over this, and he was a good friend of mine but I had grave reservations about the whole thing myself. I didn’t feel it was going to go anywhere, so I wasn’t carrying posters and picketing the place, but the feeling ran very, very high and it really had to do with the integrity of the grounds, just as simple as that. There would have been some irreparable changes if it had gone through.
INT: Were there any other major – you must have heard about the major projects going on at Dumbarton Oaks on the advisory board. Do you recall any other major projects or controversies or just discussions?
WHA: Oh, I can’t think of anything. That one, of course, the extension, it had moved beyond the rumor stage, and the rumors were already pretty horrific around Georgetown, gossip and so on, as to what they were going to do. There were no published plans at the early stage, and I don’t know if there ever were. And I think Giles – I think this comes under his – and it had to do with building facilities really for the Byzantinists, because the garden library wasn’t growing all that fast. I don’t even know now what the size of it is.
INT: I don’t know now. I know that – we looked a little bit into the library in the early ‘70s in our research and it was something like two thousand volumes added in a year for the Byzantine collection and maybe three hundred for the garden.
WHA: Three hundred, yeah. Well, it also has to do with the level of scholarship and so on.
INT: As long as we’re talking about the neighborhood, just very briefly, it’s interesting because we’ve talked about, of course, the great ties between Washington social scene and Dumbarton Oaks at the time. But also the controversy really, and hopefully you can speak to this since you were living on P Street, between the immediate neighborhood and Dumbarton Oaks. We’ve heard things before, particularly about Elizabeth Taylor when she was living in the house on S street.
WHA: On S street?
INT: Senator Warner’s house.
WHA: Oh, John Warner’s house. But that didn’t last very long, though. What was more dramatic was when Johnson appointed the neighbor to the Supreme Court – who am I talking about?, the lawyer in Washington. They lived right on R, just on the next block across the street from Dumbarton Oaks. Oh, famous lawyer, and he had to resign from the Supreme Court but there was some –
INT: Oh, he resigned – this isn’t Bork, is it?
WHA: Oh no no, who never made it to the court. No, this is a famous lawyer. And the press was all up there because – and I remember going up to Dumbarton Oaks for something and the press was all around his house and a streaker came down our street because the press was all there. This was the 1970s.
INT: Oh yes, we’ve heard very many –
WHA: And Elizabeth Taylor, they were really basically I think out in Middleburg.
INT: Oh, really. I know she didn’t like Dumbarton Oaks, you know, the gardeners being about and noisy in the morning.
WHA: Oh, that part I know nothing about; never heard anything about it. I can imagine.
INT: But were the neighbors sort of cantankerous with the center being so close?
WHA: I’ve never really heard anything. You know, being in Georgetown you usually heard those things. No, I think – Dumbarton Oaks kept up – obviously, because of the background of the place, they were very sensitive to its good neighbors’ relationships. Giles can speak to that much better because he would get the letters and the telephone calls or whatever. It’s too bad you didn’t get to speak to Tom Bayard. He was very young, younger than I, and he was very, very like Bill Tyler; he was very, very protective of the Dumbarton Oaks mystique, or the Bliss mystique if you want to call it that, and I remember the first time I was up to see him, because we had mutual friends at Princeton, he said, do you want to see my office. I said, yes, where is it? He said, it’s in Mildred Bliss’s bedroom. Is that still used as an office?
INT: It is. It’s no longer – I’m not entirely sure if Financial is up there –
WHA: Is Financial in the office now? In the bedroom? They haven’t changed anything. This was very much looking like her bedroom.
INT: Really? Did you get the sense that it really was a house?
WHA: Oh yes, that part was. I was very interested in that part of it and how the Blisses expanded it, and all that’s well-known, but I remember Tom taking me around, showing me all the expansion, the drawing room; they really did the whole – talk about a makeover. Big-time. When you see the original pictures of Dumbarton Oaks, that whole facade I think is new, on the south. I’m sure that’s true. You can, if you know the original plans, figure out what they did, but all the grandeur really was brought in by the Bliss hallway and the staircase and all that.
INT: It’s still very lovely.
WHA: It’s beautiful, isn’t it. What do those rooms get used for, the drawing room, anything much?
INT: There’s the director of studies’ office.
WHA: But the director’s office is in that section, but I always thought that was a former utility room or something.
INT: I’m honestly not certain what some of those places used to do. I know when they renovated and they redid the museum and everything some of that must have changed. Because of course the building of the whole library changed everything.
WHA: It’s amazing how dark it is. We’re going to have to light a candle. Do you need a light?
INT: Oh, we’re fine. I just want to make sure I haven’t left anything out. You’ve done quite a good job of answering our questions without our asking them. I wonder if – we’ve asked a little about the beginning of garden studies, but has Dumbarton Oaks played an important role in the development and progression of it?
WHA: I think that’s a very important question. Through its international program, through its fellows it certainly played a – in terms of giving scholars – a base. I never thought the collection was adequate as a real scholarly – when people would say to me, somebody would say, I’m going to apply to Dumbarton Oaks for a junior fellowship, I would say, have you looked at the collection first? Do you know whether it serves your purpose, or what other collections there are in greater Washington, if you look at the larger scene? But in terms of garden history, there was not a lot of energy behind building a larger collection. Excuse me just a moment. It’s such an important question. I never thought that they pushed to really establish a base at Harvard. Betty went up there and taught and she was very unhappy, and I think she left after a year, was that right?
INT: I’m not really sure of the exact timing, but I’ve heard that.
WHA: After she had retired, or left Dumbarton Oaks. It should have been something they were taking a major leadership role, either at Harvard or someplace else, and as far as I know they played no role in the development, say, that John Dixon Hunt has done at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s just larger because of his energy, but he’s singular in the sense that there’s not any others I can think of. Unlike the scene in England, where garden history has a much larger network and resources. Also garden history is built into the whole culture of Great Britain; it’s part of their personality, and they see that. Gardening not only at every level, even at the academic; when you think of the great physical artifacts of gardens, the great Royal Gardens are in England, some of them, and it goes back three hundred years. So you can understand why – and we don’t have anything like that, and there really isn’t, in my opinion, an indigenous American garden style. Not that this had anything to do with Dumbarton Oaks but I’m just saying that we’re no different from Byzantine studies. True?
WHA: But I never felt that Dumbarton Oaks took the leadership that it might have, professional leadership in terms of helping to build up any comparable academic programs. That may not be a factor.
INT: Do they exist now, or is this still a field that’s developing?
WHA: I don’t know; I’m out of touch with a lot of what’s going on now. But just in looking over journals and things – I’ve given my own garden history library away, I don’t have it here now; it was in another building here. It was a working library solely. I gave it to the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City, because my family comes from there. I felt again there were no real resources for anyone interested in the subject in that part of the world. And there aren’t. But I’m just saying Dumbarton Oaks never really saw its role, and there may be a lot of reasons, a lot of political reasons, academic reasons in terms of Harvard. But it seems to me they could have done more. The garden conferences, are they still going on?
WHA: I used to get the programs regularly, but I didn’t attend them. I thought the subject matter had gotten somewhat off the track; just looking at it over-all, there wasn’t enough interest for me, but that’s just a personal point of view. The real quality of it, I don’t know.
INT: Well, I think you’ve answered most of our questions. I wonder, unless there’s anything that we’ve left out that you can think of –
WHA: No, I think your last question is one I haven’t said enough, but I’ve just put in my two cents.
INT: I wonder if in closing if you might talk a little bit about what you see, especially from your position as a person in Georgetown in the earlier days of Dumbarton Oaks, what the Bliss and the Farrand legacies are for Dumbarton Oaks.
WHA: Well, the institution itself is obviously their great legacy and I don’t know what one could say beyond that. I didn’t know either the Blisses or Beatrix Farrand – at least her work is a physical document that is studied periodically, and worried over in terms of its conservation and so on, and that’s alive in that sense, and there’s a great deal of academic interest and so on quite apart from the public interest. I don’t know if the Blisses are fading. I doubt if anybody other than – I think it’s so important institutionally to do what you’re doing, for a lot of reasons, though I don’t know who or how it will be made available.
INT: It will be placed in the Archives.
WHA: In the Archives? But I’ve been on a number of boards and I’ve always felt that when board-members come on, they usually have so little historical perception of an institution, just because of the nature – by the time they go off the board it’s too late, and with rotating boards and so on. So I think that having this institutional history is very important; how it’s disseminated or how it can be boiled down and useful, I have no idea. It seems to me there ought to be something that could go into a kind of handbook for directors and staff and any board functionaries – seems to me that would be important. Doesn’t have to be published but it certainly would be something that would be – because otherwise the Blisses are fading. I doubt the staff has any idea now. Is that true?
INT: For the most part. Dumbarton Oaks did found an Archives I guess in the eighties or around that time. So there has been some formal attempt to collect what they call “Blissiana.”
INT: Yes. I’ve just noticed, and we work a lot with the Archives, that directors of study will come down for each of the programs quite a bit and take folders. The most major players, I think. There’s an attempt to look back, but whether everyone else at Dumbarton Oaks does, I don’t know.
WHA: No, of course not. Beatrix Farrand is a major figure unto herself, obviously, and her collection should have been there. But nothing can be done about that. Maybe copies of all of her papers should be part of – it seems to me that would be just the normal, natural thing.
INT: Thank you so much, you’ve been very helpful.