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Margaret Dawson

Oral History Interview with Margaret Dawson, undertaken by Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent at the Dumbarton Oaks Guest House (Fellows Building) on July 22, 2009. Margaret Dawson helped to organize and catalogue Mildred Bliss’s correspondence and holographic documents and manuscripts in the summer of 1956.

JNLS: Good afternoon. My name is Jean-Nicole Saint-Laurent. Today is July 22nd, 2009. I have the privilege of interviewing Mrs. Margaret Dawson today about her experience with the Blisses way back in the 50s, I believe.

MD: 50s.

JNSL: Yes. So let’s begin this by saying how did you first come to Dumbarton Oaks and what were your first impressions of the place?

MD: Well, I first came to Dumbarton Oaks when my friend, Virginia Deville, asked me if I would be interested in helping catalogue sort of a preliminary catalogue of the Blisses’ manuscripts, letters, and books that had never been catalogued before. So I came here, into Georgetown, and since I was somewhat of a Washingtonian it was a familiar spot. But coming into the entire – into the building and the grounds, you’re struck by the otherworldly quality of it. And even then in the 50s, how many things were changing. The swimming pool was gorgeous; the house of course showed signs of wear and tear. Harvard used the library and had used the library upstairs, the Byzantine library, so there were scholars around. But, there was very little interaction actually between the Blisses’ operation in the small Founders’ Room on a daily basis and what Harvard was trying to establish.

JNSL: What year was that?

MD: I think it was 1956, the spring of 1956.

JNSL: And did you meet Mrs. Bliss right away? Were you introduced to her?

MD: Yes – well, yes. When we were working on our project, she would come in occasionally, not frequently. She wasn’t a hands-on person as far as that was concerned. The gardens were her real passion. And she would come in and she would look at something. Or if we had a question, we would try to gather together the questions we had about personal correspondence or books, and she would answer those questions. So, she was available, very much so.

JNSL: And did you meet any of the Fellows while you were here or were they in their own little world?

MD: They were in their own world. We were such a separate and sporadic operation because we weren’t there on a daily basis that the Fellows really weren’t at all involved with us.

JNSL: And looking at your notes here, you say that you, as you just mentioned, worked at Dumbarton Oaks cataloguing the Blisses’ personal papers and these were housed in the Founders’ Room.

MD: This is the room that I recall, but I also recall that the room had lots of bookshelves. So, James earlier said the library was upstairs, and it may have been that that was upstairs. It’s been almost fifty years, so I’m not sure I could walk through the door again [laughter]. But I remember a warm room, so there must have been some paneling. And maybe the Founders’ Room was used more for formal occasions. I refer to that in my notes.

JNSL: Right. And at that time the Blisses had already moved out of the house?

MD: They moved into this little red brick house. It was much smaller – very sweet. And I think it was right for them.

JNSL: Right. So the collection that you were working with consisted of letters, photographs, and books. Do you remember any impressions about the material itself or things that struck you?

MD: I was thinking about that the other day and really comparing them, comparing that time to Duncan Phillips, who had such a hands-on relationship with all of his arts and with people who collected it. And he carried on an enormous correspondence, which was in an exhibition recently. It’s marvelous. I don’t recall anybody specifically. I was thinking about Stravinsky and I was thinking that I must have seen his composition. It’s hard. It’s been so long. And it’s just sort of a little vignette in a way. I think that we were aware that these had some historical significance – all of the personal correspondence, all of the books – because the Blisses were philanthropists and many of these people, they had given gifts to them to help them support their art.

JNSL: Did you meet Mr. Bliss as well?

MD: Oh, yes. And they were a very loving couple.

JNSL: That’s very interesting. So, you actually have some insights into their personal lives. So you could recall – there are very few people who have that good insight into that.

MD: She was quite regal in a sense. She was tall, and as I said, frequently, every time I recall seeing her, she wore these pearls. And I noticed that in your display in the hallway the pearls were were there. And she wore an award given to her by the French government which I think was a Legion of Honor or a cross, I’m not sure. I’d have to but she always had this thing for her appearance. She was very proud of that. As to their relationship, I think each one had passion for running this collection, so that made their lives very interesting. He had his pre-Columbian art, and she had her gardening. And her gardening was her passion.

JNSL: And how did she relate to the two of you coming in?

MD: Oh, very friendly, very pleased. I think they kept in the house – the mansion – the Founders’ Room and the library for their own purposes. That was all that was theirs. The rest of it was Harvard’s. So I had a sense, as I said earlier, there was a distinct difference between the Blisses’ involvement at that point and Harvard’s. It was just a divide. And that was all right. I mean, but it was definitely there. So, I think Harvard would have preferred probably to have the whole place for themselves without anybody here. But that wasn’t really going to work, and that was fine.

JNSL: Did you ever meet any of their friends coming through? Many people have talked about how the Blisses were at the center of a very interesting time in Washington social life.

MD: Well, that’s true. I think they were. I have a stepson-in-law whose family knew them. And so, because everybody – I mean, they were also in the Foreign Service. And the Foreign Service has great circles within circles within circles. It’s amazing. And so I think because his family also worked for the service and met important people in the great houses and knew people from the Beauvoir School. But the Blisses knew all of them; everybody was connected. How closely? I don’t know. But they were older by then and kind of really into another phase of their lives. And as I say there were subtle changes, things were changing, their society.

JNSL: Right. This would have been in the 50s?

MD: In the 50s, pre-Woodstock by several years but the Blisses wouldn’t have known that. It would be interesting to get their views on that. And because they had no children, and this is what I wrote in my message, they were happy to leave their property to Harvard. And because they didn’t have children, they felt there was no one really they could leave it to that would have the same impact as a large university.

JNSL: Did they have any pets?

MD: And I don’t recall too much about their dogs. I know they really liked dogs.

JNSL: You speak about the unstructured nature of the entire set-up. Can you talk about some of the things you and your friends used to do every day, because that’s very interesting?

MD: Well, we had keys to Dumbarton Oaks. And our hours were really flexible, and we could fit things in.  And then of course, we found the swimming pool. Now, the swimming pool was an issue because John Thacher – who was then Director of the Byzantine Collection – was not pleased to have that swimming pool, not really at all. It was the bane of his existence, and he would happily have had it paved over. And there were several attempts to get rid of it, but it never worked. So we were all thrilled. Because the Fellows used to swim in it, and probably we did meet some of the Fellows who were at the pool; I don’t really recall. And so often we worked in the afternoon or maybe sometimes in the early evening and then we would swim. Or maybe on a day off we would just come and swim. It was pretty dreamy. It was very nice.  Now there were other swimmers as well, but they were not legal swimmers. People would scale the walls and come over and jump in the pool. So you could understand that Thacher wasn’t too happy about the idea of invaders. But we weren’t invaders; we were regulars.

JNSL: Right.

MD: And when I left Dumbarton Oaks I never got back in because I was very busy afterward. And I left my swimsuit hanging by the pool, and I think that sort of said something to me; I don’t know what it was – about the unstructured quality of life [laughs].

JNSL: And you said there were a couple of guards when you walked in the door.

MD: There were a couple of very old, old guards that would be on one at a time. And they just were not, you know – they were guards: they were night guards and day guards and that was it. No one really saw this place, except the swimming pool, as having a lot of allure.

JNSL: And when you were cataloguing for this project did you actually have a chance to read through some of these letters?

MD: Oh yeah. They were completely un-catalogued. I mean they were just in boxes, some of the letters in boxes and books on shelves. So this was just the beginning. I noticed it when I went to check the Harvard Dumbarton Oaks site and saw boxes listed in their collection, but I couldn’t open that site because obviously it was just the records. The boxes listed these personal papers from Washington, and I had a feeling that maybe all those three by five cards we were putting together might be up in Harvard some place.

JNSL: There was a whole collection, called the Blissiana collection, that got moved up there when the library itself needed more space, so that may very well be the case.

MD: I wonder if anything has been done with that collection at all.

JNSL: Well, people use it for their research at Harvard, but it still would be interesting if it were at Dumbarton Oaks.

MD: So, it’s never really – the catalogue’s never been finished?

JNSL: No, no. You speak here about a time when you went through the gardens with the head gardener.

MD: That was quite an experience.

JNSL: You were there when the pebble garden was being built.

MD: That was very special. One morning we were working, and Mrs. Bliss came over and she said, she said, “Would you like to walk through the gardens.” We sort of hesitated because I think we had things I wanted to do, and I just thought walking through the gardens could take a long time. And it did, but it was well worth it. It was a memorable walk, really. And we walked, and she and Kearney would talk, and we started out at that end of the house by the Founders’ Room and walked around the building, walked down to the pebble garden, and it was under construction. This had been the tennis court, and I could see that she was sad in a way to lose it as a tennis court. But they had lost their years for playing tennis, and their friends were no longer playing tennis, and she was ready to move on and turn it into something else. And I’m not sure but I believe that Beatrix Farrand had presented a garden plan to create a pebble garden. So they were starting to work on it, and it was partly finished. And she described it to Kearney. And Kearney, as I recall, wasn’t swept away as I recall by this garden, because he was involved in living green things.

JNSL: What was he like?

MD: He was you know, just like a gardener. He was sort of a ruffian with a very nice, very pleasant, Irish accent. He was not afraid to speak up. He wasn’t intimidated by her at all. They were good friends. You could see that they had spent many, many hours together plotting and planning these gardens and admiring their work as well. So, whenever we would stop, for instance, by the wisteria area, they would sort of talk about something or maybe they would mention something they would like to do. Some of it all has drifted because there wasn’t anything that I was quite into, but when we got to the rose garden that was a different scene. That’s where we talked about each rose bush and she would look at each one. They loved roses. And I think it was really touching that that’s their resting spot.

JNSL: Yes, yes. And did you ever meet Beatrix Farrand?

MD: No. I’m not sure that she was alive then. I’m not sure when she died. She had a place, if I’m correct, she had a place in Bar Harbor, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she didn’t have a place in Bar Harbor. She was married to Max Farrand who was in California at the Huntington Library. So my husband knew Max Farrand somehow. But I wasn’t married to him then. But anyway I think that Beatrix Farrand had a place in Bar Harbor, and when she died – maybe somebody else knows – when she died she had all the gardens ripped up because she said there was no one who could carry on here. It was just temporal. That should be checked. And of course there was Edith Wharton who played into all of this. So there was a lot of Edith Wharton correspondence and books and stuff.

JNSL: Thacher [sic] was Edith Wharton’s godson.

MD: That could be right.

JNSL: I think that was one of the connections.

MD: And there was somebody named Tyler. There was a Royall, and he –

JNSL: Yes.

MD: I’ve been dredging my mind. Did I meet a Tyler? I just can’t remember. Maybe my husband did.

JNSL: And I think that Mrs. Bliss had a personal assistant as well. Does that ring a bell at all?

MD: No. I remember sometimes thinking that –

JNSL: Maybe that was later.

MD: – some of the people they were surrounded by, it made me sort of sad. Well, I was a little saddened that perhaps the stellar quality that they had been used to was not there. I think perhaps sometimes aging people have some advantages taken of them – especially people who are extremely important and prominent. The advantage is more or less for the person’s advantage and is not necessarily and advantage for them. Those are just some observations.

JNSL: Did you ever attend any of Mrs. Bliss’ teas?

MD: No, because I think she never had them except for the Fellows – teas weren’t served to the staff.

JNSL: They were just for the Fellows.

MD: Yeah and we were busy. We may have been invited to some of them, I’m not sure that I recall that. We were there sometimes of Saturdays and at other times that didn’t overlap. We were pretty busy.

JNSL: Right, right. And you have a lovely memoir here in your notes that Mr. Kearney gave you a lesson in rose gardening.

MD: Well, there was talking – because listening to him describe this sort of rose bush, how they decided when that rose bush would work and when it hadn’t worked. And this one was coming along nicely. The garden was a constant concern, and gardening a constant progress, as gardeners should know. So, I mean, I had a fairly basic lesson in rose gardens.

JNSL: And you go on here to talk about an invitation you received from Mr. Bliss.

MD: That was very special, I can tell you. And he called and asked me if I would like to join a small group – and there were only about five or six of us – for tea in the Founders’ Room to celebrate Mrs. Bliss’s birthday. And this would have been in September because it was a rainy day, I remember for some reason. And we gathered and served and talked and had conversations about things. Then he gave her her birthday gift, and it was a first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. And I was an English major and I studied modern American lit, and that was a moment I never forgot. I did not think I’d ever see a first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in my life. But it was a wonderful moment, and it was very touching. I thought it really exemplified things that were important to them. She had everything she needed. She didn’t need jewels, she didn’t need things, but this was very sweet.

JNSL: Do you recall what the party was like; was it in the evening?

MD: No. It was in the afternoon. It was just a small – just a regular little tea in the Founders’ Room. And I don’t recall who else was there. There must have been – it wasn’t a very big celebration. Maybe there was something later in the day or something like that. But it was so dear, and she had on her little award. And she was pleased and very touched, but I can’t recall any specific details other than I think everybody was pretty blown away by this gift. And it would be fun to know where to that book is now in the collection of books, I think that would be worthwhile.

JNSL: Oh yes, indeed.

MD: There must have been many first editions here in the collection that we were cataloguing. Plus, there may have been some music manuscripts as well, and they may have gone to the Library of Congress.

JNSL: How would you characterize the tone at Dumbarton Oaks at that time, was it sort of relaxed, was it sort of formal or –?

MD: I think it was formal in the sense that I think it was still finding its way. I mean, it had come out of the years where it was a center of important gatherings. Now it was becoming a study, a research institution, and that takes awhile. You have to build up your faculty and your staff. If you’re a research institution, you have scholars on site and you have your collection well organized, and the growing pains were there for several years. And I don’t know how much Harvard was able to do there and be hands-on, because this was here in Washington—it wasn’t moved to Harvard.

JNSL: How did you see Dumbarton Oaks maybe at that time or later since you stayed in Washington through the years? How was it situated in your life in Georgetown as far as you recall?

MD: I think the gardens like Montrose the gardens were always open. In fact, when I was married and living in Georgetown, and then having my own children, we would always come to Dumbarton Oaks. It would be open in the afternoon. And I’ve taken my grandchildren through on various visits, and they just love it when I tell them stories. In its heyday, there were great many servants who worked here. They had a staff of maybe forty-two, or maybe forty-three. And one of my granddaughters said to me, “What if they left it all to you?” And I laughed and I said, “Well, if Mrs. Bliss had walked me through the garden and said, ‘that’s right we want to leave this to you,’ I would have say ‘thank you so much but there must be something else you have to leave me to insure the gardens, you have to leave me the forty-two or forty-three people to keep it going.’” [Laughs.] So that’s one of the – but it’s wonderful begin able to walk through it with them and still have that continuity. So I think that answers the question. Georgetown has a special spot – seeing some of the trees and see all that wisteria vines. Years later when I was at Time–Life Books and I was in the middle of producing a book on vines, I said we have to take a photo shoot over to Dumbarton Oaks and photograph the wisteria – the ficus vine in the garden room. And they did. It’s in one of the books. So, it has – Dumbarton Oaks was always an special place, and I don’t think people ever used it for parties much; it wasn’t that kind of a place.

JNSL: That’s a nice way of thinking about it, a sense of proximity to a certain era.

MD: And it’s also one of the special spots. When I have friends who visit me in Washington, I always try to take them places that they would not know about. The Phillips is always one of the special places. And Hillwood, which is out – Marjory Merriweather Post’s home. But Dumbarton Oaks is something that is just a wonderful place to take people.

JNSL: And did you have interaction with Mr. Thacher or just –?

MD: None whatsoever. Of course, we were happy not to have any because all that we could see was the possibility of a cement mixer pulling up in front of the pool [laughs]. We did not want to see that! So, every time I come here, I see if the pool still had water in it. I didn’t see it today. I’m a swimmer; I swim laps every single day. So it’s important. Do you all swim in the pool?

JNSL: Oh me? Yes. Yes, it’s fun, and it’s used by the Fellows. And so how long all together were you here?

MD: Well, I would guess it was about from spring to perhaps September or October. For about six months I think, really, a small time. Because then I took a job at USIA, and that was very different from this. So, I’m guessing, I wished I’d – I’m going through my mind over and over trying to nail down the time. But you know we all have our summer jobs and such and its difficult keeping track of them.

JNSL: Right. I’ve been told in those days that there was a distinctly European feel to Dumbarton Oaks.

MD: Yes. Oh, yes. We walked down the steps into the garden and into the pool, and we’d feel we were as if we were in Italy, in Tuscany.

JNSL: And also the Fellows have always had a very strong European presence too.

MD: Oh, yes, yes, definitely. And that carries back to the earlier days where they’d have the various meetings here at Dumbarton Oaks and the discussions to establish the United Nations.

JNSL: That’s right.

MD: Do they do the oral histories for Fellows?

JNSL: Oh, yes, absolutely. We’ve been trying to track down as many people as we can. This is really interesting.

MD: I don’t know many – I also mentioned Louis Auchincloss in here because he was such an admirer of Edith Wharton, and somehow – it just popped into my mind the other day – I thought were there letters from Louis Auchincloss to the Blisses? Possibly. And he is still alive. He is one of the people who testified at the Brooke Astor trial – about her estate. So he is alive. And if you ever wanted to – I would strike while the iron’s hot, so to speak.

JNSL: Right. Certainly.

MD: He might be still articulate; he might have some memories about the Blisses somehow.

JNSL: What is your – you’ve shared some lovely, lovely memories. What would you say – what did you appreciate the most in your entire six months?

MD: Well, I think what I realized is that it was extraordinary to be in the presence of two people who had accomplished so much, and that this was at the end of the aristocracy. And to see their interests still very strong and that they were collecting and that they were able to do this. And I have a sense of history, I think; I certainly had that with Duncan Phillips when I was involved in some social aspects with the Phillips. And you don’t meet people like this in a personal setting without suddenly having a whole localized scope of history and life going around it. And then you realize it was a very special time. And some of them are more articulate than others. Now with Dr. Phillips, I mentioned – I think he was very special, and Marjorie – they were both artists – I mean, she was an artist. But he would bring things home from his gallery, and when he wanted to bring a couple of Cézanne paintings, you know, they’d be there and so you’d go to have dinner and sit beside him and look – an incredible Cézanne – which he’d brought home for a day or two days or three weeks or whatever he wanted. And eating was very difficult; you have to elegantly bring your fork to your mouth without being overwhelmed by the paintings [laughs]. In some cases it’s extreme, you can have an extreme sense of what’s going on, and for others it’s more subtle, and I think for the Blisses it was more subtle. They were very charming, cultured people.

JNSL: Well, do you have any other points? This has been just wonderful. I am so grateful for all of these wonderful memories and what you thought of the Blisses themselves because that’s something which a lot of the Fellows only had limited access to. Because they were in there, studying.

MD: Right, they were busy and the Blisses, they had their own little world. But it is strange that obviously there was some strong impact. I was in my early twenties; I was so – I must not have been but 21 or so. So for me to be remembering for all these years – those particular moments – says something about the Blisses and their impact.

JNSL: Thank you very much.

MD: Thank you for all your questions.

JNSL: Thank you.