Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Those Fabulous Draper Girls

These days with everyone and his grandmother holding up the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep and Martha Stewart as the great arbiters of literature, acting and design, respectively, it pays to hark back to another time when three unusual ladies, all named Draper, related by marriage, also excelled in these fields. Muriel, Ruth and Dorothy Draper defined their era, and yet are hardly household names today. Lately I've found myself delving into books by and about them, including a fun one one called In The Pink, a lavish biography of Dorothy Draper by Carleton Varney, below.

Dorothy has always had the upper hand when it comes to coffee table books. Her work demands extravagant attention. But the legacy of Muriel and Ruth can also be found in used bookstores and on eBay. Muriel wrote her memoirs, Music at Midnight, in 1929, an ode to her life as a "saloniste." The latter didn't write any books that I know of, but there is a lively book of letters and a marvelous biography, The World of Ruth Draper, by Dorothy Warren.


Let's start with Muriel Draper, above, as shot by Carl Van Vechten. Born in 1886, this tiny sparrow, graced with little in the way of looks or natural ability, simply used her wits and charm to seduce the greatest minds of her generation. It's hard to imagine any other person who could count among her close friends Henry James, John Reed, Max Ewing, Osbert Sitwell and Gertrude Stein, or Lincoln Kirstein, Artur Rubinstein, e.e. cummings and Paul Robeson among her lovers. (Photo below from Beinecke Library collection. Link here: Yale.)

She was to the manner and the manor born, growing up at Birchbrow estate in Haverhill, MA. Her father, Thomas Sanders, had his ups and downs in the livestock and leather businesses (he was also one of the earliest backers of Alexander Graham Bell) and money flowed in and flowed out. But they lived well. Her mother was a Saltonstall. Both parents had long lineages among the old guard of New England dynasties.

Determined to see the world, Muriel married Paul Draper, a Harvard-educated lieder singer, who also had money, and who happened to be the brother of monologuist Ruth Draper. This was before the Great War, at the height of the era of luxury ocean liners, of Americans descending upon London, Paris and Rome with piles of greenbacks and letters of introduction. Muriel took Europe by storm, befriending Bernard Berenson, violinist Albert Spalding, heiress Mabel Dodge and the aforementioned revolutionary John Reed who later wrote Ten Days That Shook the World about the Russian Revolution. One could argue that Muriel Draper started her own revolution, of style, taste and Culture with a capital C.

By 1911, Muriel was in London where she started a salon at Edith Grove to which John Singer Sargent, Norman Douglas and Henry James were frequent guests. It was a long way from her father's cow pastures and saddlery shops. Music was her passion. She sat at Pablo Casals' knee while he played his cello. Artur Rubinstein tinkled the ivories while Chaliapin crooned. Soirees often lasted until dawn when champagne and raspberries were served. It was a life of careless luxury and leisure; one that she worked very hard at.

As World War One began to rage, Muriel returned to America with her two sons Paul and Sanders, soon divorcing her husband, who was an incurable alcoholic. He'd run off with legendary actress Jeanne Eagels. He died at 38 in 1925. She struck out on her own, taking a cue from Elsie de Wolfe and another Draper, unrelated, Dorothy, who had started her own interior design business around the same time. The Beinecke Library at Yale has archived much of Muriel Draper's work in this area, but a photograph by Walker Evans, below, and comments by friends about her personal surroundings also give the impression of whimsical simplicity, a banishing of Victorian clutter with an emphasis on the telling objet d'art or gifts from famous admirers. Edmund Wilson described her decor as "stale white calla lilies in a big white vase, cameo china ashtrays with cupids on them, and a white skull of a cow hanging on the wall."

In the ultimate "shabby chic" flat, over the old Coach House in Manhattan, she continued to entertain on Thursday evenings, becoming the preeminent hostess of her day. She had, as one writer noted, "an uncanny ability to link the right people." She even tried to get Irving Berlin to write her a jazz opera dealing with "skyscrapers and bad whiskey." Sadly, it never came to pass. Later she lived in high style in a townhouse at 312 East 53rd Street next door to Edmund Wilson. The house had its own garden in back.

Draper also voiced her opinions on fashion and the arts, writing for Vogue and Town & Country, and penned commentary for The New Yorker under the nom de plume "Repard Leirum," her name spelled backwards. She was a key figure championing the Harlem Renaissance, even attending a drag ball at the notorious Savoy Ballroom. Some dubbed her "the white negress" for her devotion to the cause. Sketched by Romaine Brooks, she was pals with opera's Mary Garden, Hart Crane, T. S. Eliot, and Florine Stettheimer. By 1929 she wrote her memoirs Music at Midnight, captivating critics and readers with her zany adventures in high and low Bohemia. Thanks to its success, she took off on a lecture tour across the States, wowing the hoi polloi with tales of international cafe society.

Her later years were less merry. During the Depression, she became devoted to the cause of Communism, traveling to Russia in 1934. Like many under the influence, she misread Stalin's largess as a liberal ticket to progress. She did not see clearly the cruelty beneath his grand schemes. Nevertheless, she stood by the cause even when it was no longer fashionable. In 1937 she began her own radio show on NBC, "It's a Woman's World." In 1949 she became the president of the Congress of American Women which did not put her in good stead with Senator McCarthy. Perhaps it was the fact that she attended pro-communist rallies wearing the latest creations by Clare McCardell.

Muriel Draper died in 1952, nearly forgotten. Obituaries referred to her as the mother of Paul Draper, (shown leaping above), since he was then a well-known dancer. The golden age of the salon was long gone. And yet Muriel Draper's name lives on in books being penned about timeless figures such as James, Kirstein, Van Vechten and mystics such as Georges I. Gurdjieff. Even as a footnote, she radiates chic.


In a similar vein, Ruth Draper, above, born 1884, used her enormous charm and talent to embody exotic characters she created for her stylish monologues. As Muriel Draper's sister-in-law, she must have attended her fair share of literary and artistic salons where she could study the soaring language, speech patterns and tics of the high Bohemian set. Born into money (her father William H. Draper was a noted doctor), Ruth was the granddaughter of Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun. She decided to become an actress on the advice of Ignaz Paderewski, a family friend who visited her home in 1913.

At one of these house parties, she entertained her young friends by impersonating a Jewish tailor. The effect was electric. From there she tackled diverse characters, including one based on a family dressmaker. She often used the people around her for inspiration. She did, in fact, perform in one play: A Lady's Name starring Marie Tempest and Beryl Mercer. That was in 1916. Two years later she was in London entertaining the troops for seven months after the Armistice.

But never one to follow in anyone's footsteps, Ruth blazed a bold new trail as a monologuist, delivering her mesmerizing scenes on an almost bare stage with minimal props and sets. She claimed to have been inspired by Beatrice Herford, who did comic satires of women. But Ruth took this type of humor to a whole new level. The world she created lay entirely in her voice, her mannerisms, her inflection. She first made her mark at the Aeolian Hall in London in 1920, variably introduced as a "reciter," "diseuse," "impersonator," and even "elocutionist." But she didn't like being pigeon-holed that way. "I am not any of those," she said in one interview. "I am an actor."

To hear her render The Italian Lesson, which is almost a mandatory rite of passage for most gay men of an artistic bent, is to hear a genius at full tilt. Each tone, each pause, each syllable as carefully delivered by Draper is a piece of a brilliant puzzle, leading to a fully realized portrait of a very complex and hilarious personality -- a rich socialite who treats translating Virgil like just another appointment in her society date book. But she invented many types: A Maine coastal villager. A Scottish immigrant. A Slavic grifter, spouting gibberish. A German governess. A social-climbing hostess. (Could she have been poking fun at her sister-in law?) Her lesser known incarnation The Actress is a study in psychological deceit. How people, not just those in the theater, use language and rhetoric as a kind of ever-evolving disguise. It is a hauntingly brilliant performance.

Ruth Draper performed for over 40 years, touring schools, colleges and clubs. She traversed the United States for four years straight in the 20s and then South Africa in 1935. In 1938 she dazzled audiences in Ceylon, India, Burma, Java and Australia. She went to South America in 1940. Perhaps for this reason she never married. She was forever on the road.

In 1954, after giving one of her farewell performances, she was given an honorary degree by Cambridge University. She died two years later of a heart attack at 72 at her East Side apartment, during a run at the Playhouse Theatre on Broadway. No one has ever approximated her uncanny ability to create stage sketches with such thrilling precision and insight into the human soul.


Married to Ruth's brother, Dorothy Draper, above, certainly had their uncanny sense of style. Born Dorothy Tuckerman in Tuxedo Park, New York in 1889, she was the daughter of Paul and Susan Minturn Tuckerman. Dorothy attended Brearley School in Manhattan, then married George Draper in 1912.

By the early 20s, Dorothy was anxious to break out on her own. She opened a design firm in 1923, having begun to refurbish apartments for the firm of Douglas Elliman, an upscale real estate agency. Her company developed wallpaper, fabric designs and designer sheets. Her look was modern, sleek, clean and vibrant. No fuss, no muss. But, like the woman herself, bustling with energy. Most of all, her aesthetic exuded a cool glamour that society women clamored for. Soon she was asked to do the interiors for the posh Hampshire House on Central Park South; the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, above, and numerous Newport estates.

Her goal was always to upset the apple carts. She demanded to know why American women were some of the best-dressed in the world, but their homes were some of the worst-dressed -- dreary and dull. She dove into her profession with a revolutionary zeal, forcing women across the spectrum to "think pink," to reexamine their tired attitudes, to break out of the mold.

Author of three books, including the effervescent Decorating is Fun! Dorothy Draper is credited with pioneering the notion of "total coordination" in room design. But it was her radical use of color that distinguished her from other society decorators. Dorothy had an artist's eye, using vivid black and white tiles, red carpets with black accents, stylish moldings and fixtures in a theatrical way that had never been done before. And has rarely been achieved since. Dorothy Draper died in Cleveland, Ohio in 1969 at the peak of the mod craze. It's a testament to her timelessness that even then she was considered very much in vogue.

So there you have it. Three unique women. Three extraordinary lives. Three very different viewpoints. But one shared goal: seek revenge -- live well.