NY Public Library Acquires Yaddo's Archives
Yaddo Records, Never Before Made Public,
Join the Collections of The New York Public Library
New York (July 19, 1999) - Paul LeClerc, President of The New York Public Library, announced today that the archives of Yaddo, the distinguished artists’
community in Saratoga Springs, New York, have been acquired by The New York Public Library. “Rich in intellectual and historical content, and never before
made public, the Yaddo Records tell the story of Yaddo’s critical roles as seedbed and nursemaid of twentieth-century arts and letters,” said Dr. LeClerc. Notably,
the transfer takes place as the artists’ retreat celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding.
“It is fitting that we commemorate the beginning of Yaddo’s second century by assuring the preservation of the records that document and embody its history, so that
they will be available to scholars and the public,” said Michael Sundell, President of Yaddo. “As a scholar myself, I know that The New York Public Library is
absolutely the most suitable repository for these treasures.”
The collection will be organized, preserved, and catalogued by specialists from the staffs of the Library’s Manuscripts and Conservation divisions over the next two
years, after which it will be available to researchers in the landmark Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The acquisition was
made possible by a grant from the Morris and Alma Schapiro Fund.
Spencer and Katrina Trask founded Yaddo in 1900, with a vision of nurturing the talents of writers, painters, composers, and other creative artists. When its first
guests arrived in 1926, Yaddo was hailed by The New York Times as a “new and unique experiment, which has no exact parallel in the world of fine arts.” When
Yaddo opened its doors for its second season, a reporter for the Herald Tribune wrote, “It is a peculiar gratification to see in America such carefully conducted
contributions as this to the nourishing of the spirit and its works in what we are told ad nauseam is a materialistic age. One sonnet would justify the whole experiment
render it immortal.”
Since that time Yaddo has attained almost mythic status, quietly enduring a century of trials and triumphs, while hosting thousands of artists, including such luminaries
as Hannah Arendt, Milton Avery, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Elizabeth Bishop, Truman Capote, Aaron Copland, Philip Guston, Patricia Highsmith,
Langston Hughes, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Meyer Schapiro, Virgil Thomson, and William Carlos Williams.
Many artists, including Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, and John Cheever, maintained a rich and deeply personal correspondence with Elizabeth Ames,
who was Yaddo’s Executive Director from 1926 to 1969, and that correspondence forms a significant part of the collection. The collection also includes the
illuminating personal archives of the Trask family; administrative files; and documents pertaining to the Lowell Affair, one of the most notorious moments in Yaddo’s
history. Commenting on the significance of the Trasks’ gift, Donald S. Rice, chair of the Yaddo Board of Directors, said, “Their act of philanthropy assured that art
in all the forms encouraged and practiced at Yaddo would be a materially important and permanent part of American life and culture.”
“The collection is a truly important addition to the holdings of the Library’s rich and diverse Manuscripts and Archives Division,” said William Walker, Senior Vice
President of The New York Public Library and Andrew W. Mellon Director of The Research Libraries. “Along with such collections as The New Yorker Records,
the Farrar, Straus & Giroux Records, and the holdings of other Special Collection divisions in the four Research Libraries,
it contributes significantly to our holdings of unique materials documenting twentieth-century literature and culture.” The personal papers of many of Yaddo’s
illustrious visitors, including Truman Capote, May Sarton, Robert Stone, Doris Grumbach, and Harold Clurman, are owned by the Library and are complemented
by the Yaddo Records.
The Legacy of the Trasks
The idea of providing a retreat for artists was conceived by author Katrina Trask and her husband, Spencer, a New York City financier. At Yaddo, their Saratoga
home, they entertained leading figures from throughout the world in the arts, social causes, business, and politics. Faced with the prospect of having no direct heirs
(all four children died of illnesses), the Trasks decided to establish a legacy for future artists, who would create poems, plays, stories, musical compositions,
paintings, or sculptures at Yaddo. Plans for the future of Yaddo were set forth legally in 1900, but seemed doomed when Spencer Trask was killed in a railroad
accident in 1909, before his finances had recovered from the economic depression of 1907. But by 1922, when Katrina Trask died, enough capital had been
accumulated to open Yaddo; the first season of visiting artists in residence was the summer of 1926.
The history of Spencer and Katrina Trask and their close friend George Foster Peabody (eventually
Katrina’s second husband) and their circles of family and friendship, centered at Yaddo, is valuable as a record of their social class, the natural and constructed
worlds of Saratoga and the Adirondacks, and the influences that Trask (a Republican financier) and Peabody (a Democratic philanthropist) wielded in American
policy. This portion of the collection contains extensive personal and family correspondence, household and business records, memorabilia, and manuscripts.
Among the wealth of fascinating letters by author Katherine Anne Porter to Yaddo’s first Executive Director, Elizabeth Ames, was this description of the couple who
founded Yaddo: “The Trasks were both quite complicated people, working within a perfectly conventional moral and religious and social code. . . both apparently
had more than a streak of real mysticism, and both were as wildly romantic as any two Babes in the Woods you could ever expect to find. Well, Yaddo came out of
this blend, and anything less would have resulted in less, I feel certain. That is what it took.”
Of particular note in the Yaddo Records are thousands of photographs. Spencer Trask was a skilled photographer, and the collection contains hundreds of glass
plate and film negatives, and thousands of prints of the family, estate, and surrounding environment. The collection includes at least four rare “Autochromes,” a very
early color photographic process on glass.
The Yaddo Records also include fourteen “brown wax” cylinder recordings from the 1890s. Trask was a financial backer of Thomas Edison and is believed to have
owned an early recording phonograph. The cylinders are believed to contain recordings of people speaking and playing musical instruments at the Trask estate. They
will be preserved and re-recorded at the Library’s Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, as part of the Yaddo Records.
A Haven from Persecution and a Hotbed of Turmoil
The Yaddo Records reflect great events as well as darker moments in our nation’s history over the past century. During the 1930s and 40s, Yaddo was a haven for
refugees from Nazi persecution, and many of the letters to Elizabeth Ames contain poignant reflections on the loss and uncertainty of the World War II era. A large
file in the collection contains documents pertaining to the “Lowell Affair,” in which Yaddo was plunged into the hysteria of the Communist witch hunts. In February
1949, a small group of Yaddo guests, led by Robert Lowell, claimed that Yaddo had been the scene of a dangerous Communist conspiracy in which Executive
Director Elizabeth Ames had played a leading role.
A meeting of local Directors was convened in the Yaddo offices, located in the former garage. Four guests, with Lowell as prosecutor, presented their charges, after
first demanding that Elizabeth Ames be immediately fired. However, during the long hours of questioning at the meeting no substantial evidence was produced to
support the charge.
The file includes the transcript (over 60 pages in length) of the Special Meeting of the Directors of the Corporation of Yaddo, held in the garage at Yaddo on
February 26, 1949; a form letter sent to past Yaddo guests, signed by Harvey Breit, John Cheever, Eleanor Clark, Alfred Kazin, and Kappo Phelan, outlining the
charges and calling the procedure “a perfect example of the use of innuendo and personal disparagement in lieu of evidence”; and numerous letters of support for
Elizabeth Ames by former Yaddo guests, which shed light on the extraordinary depth of feeling of these artists toward Mrs. Ames and Yaddo.
Elizabeth Ames was vindicated by the Board of Directors of Yaddo and remained as Executive Director until 1969. Langston Hughes, himself a victim of
red-baiting, sent her a copy of the transcript of the 1953 Senate hearing at which he was questioned by Senators McCarthy and McClellan about poems he had
written over twenty years earlier. In a statement presented to the Senate, Hughes wrote: “In my own youth, faced with the problems of both poverty and color, and
penniless at the beginning of the depression, I was strongly attracted by some of the promises of Communism, but always with the reservations among others, of a
creative writer wishing to preserve my own freedom of action and expression, and as an American Negro desiring full integration into our body politic. These two
reservations . . . were among other reasons why I never contemplated joining the Communist Party although various aspects of Communist interests were for some
in the emotional context of my works. . . . ”
A Century of Remarkable Activity
The Yaddo Records are a significant resource in the study of cultural history of the past century, particularly given the remarkable depth of talent of the artists who
have been guests there. Among the items in the collection, for example, is an invitation to the First Festival of Contemporary Music, which took place in April and
May 1932, and featured, among the “interpreters,” composer-pianists George Antheil, Aaron Copland, and Oscar Levant.
Recommendation letters for artists seeking an invitation to Yaddo give a fresh perspective on public perception of the early work of artists, many in a formative stage
of their creative lives. Truman Capote was twenty-one and working on his first novel when he sought an invitation to Yaddo in 1946. In a recommendation letter on
Capote’s behalf, George Davis, Fiction Editor of Mademoiselle, wrote: “Among young American fiction writers, he is among those few whose work is steadfastly
serious and truly creative in approach and accomplishment. . . . I find that Mr. Capote’s stories are unforgettable, and even stronger in re-reading. He is, quite
simply, a writer.”
In a 1954 recommendation letter for James Baldwin, Lionel Trilling, himself a former guest of Yaddo, wrote: “To say that Mr. Baldwin is one of the best of the
young Negro writers would not do him justice, for the category in which that judgment is made is too narrow -- he is, in my opinion, one of the best and most
promising men of his generation. He has recently returned from several years in Paris and is trying to complete his second novel, which he finds difficult to do amid
the confusions of New York. A period of isolation and quiet would be of the greatest help to him.”
Anticipating Yaddo’s Second Century
As it enters its second century, Yaddo continues to fulfill the vision of Katrina and Spencer Trask. The New York Public Library will continue to receive the Yaddo
Records at least through the year 2026, the centenary of the year Yaddo, in its present institutional form, received its first guests. The writer Linda S. Collins, a
Board Member of both Yaddo and of the Morris and Alma Schapiro Fund, said, “As a member of both the Yaddo family and the Schapiro family, I am glad and
grateful that we have been able to help transfer this treasure from Yaddo’s attics to The New York Public Library, where these letters, manuscripts, photographs,
and documents will be available to historians and scholars of American letters.”
The New York Public Library
The New York Public Library, a private corporation, serves a more varied set of constituencies than any other library in the world. The collections of the Humanities
and Social Sciences Library, whose nucleus was the holdings of the Astor and Lenox libraries -- which joined with the Tilden Trust to form The New York Public
Library in 1895 -- today represent one of the world’s preeminent public resources for the study of human thought, action, and experience.
The Yaddo Records join the collections of the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division, which holds approximately 29,000 linear feet of archival material in
over 3,000 collections. The greatest strength of the division are the papers of individuals, families, and organizations, dating from the eighteenth through the twentieth
centuries. Notable collections pertaining to literature include the papers of Washington Irving, H. L. Mencken, and Truman Capote, as well as numerous letters and
manuscripts by such writers as William Cullen Bryant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound in other collections. Publishers’
archives include the records of the Century Company, Crowell-Collier, (American) Macmillan, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., and The New