This is the second in a series. You can find the first part here.
by ALEX CARNEVALE
I am glad women are going mad. It’s about time they did.
– Robert Graves in June of 1929
Laura Riding had taken Nancy Graves’ husband from her and had tried to arrange a three-way marriage. It wasn’t working out: Nancy had taken up with Geoffrey Phibbs, the intern who Laura had been fucking with Graves’ permission. Riding wrote:
There is a woman in this city who loathes me. What is to her irritation is to me myself. She has therefore a very direct sense of me, as I have a very direct sense of her, from being a kind of focus of her nervous system. There is no sentiment, no irony between us, nothing but feeling: it is an utterly serious relationship.
I think of her often. She is a painter – not a very good painter. I understand this too: it is difficult to explain, but quite clear to myself that one of the reasons I am attached to her is that she is not a good painter.
Also her clothes which do not fit her well: this again makes me even more attached to her. If she knew this she would be exasperated against me all the more, and I should like it, not because I want to annoy her but because this would make our relationship still more intense. It would be terrible to me if we ever became friends, like a divorce.
When she found about the destruction of her carefully arranged Trinity, Laura Riding drank Lysol. In front of Robert Graves, his wife, and the intern Geoff Phibbs with whom she had been sleeping with until his rejection of her, Laura hurled herself from a fourth floor window. She broke her her pelvis and suffered a compound fracture of her spine. “She is a great natural fact,” Graves would later say of Laura Riding, “like fire or trees. Either one appreciates her or one doesn’t but it is quite useless trying to argue that she should be other than she is.” The police called her a vampire.
The initial diagnosis was total paralysis. The attending surgeon, a certain Dr. Lake, commented: “It is rarely that one sees the spinal cord exposed to view – especially at right angles to itself.” The police hoped to charge Robert Graves with attempted murder, but he also had to obscure the suicidal purpose of his girlfriend’s jump, lest she be deported as an American citizen. Laid up in the hospital, pumped full of too much morphine to speak, Laura Riding asked for Gertrude Stein.
Gertrude wrote to Graves:
Laura is so poignant and so upright and she gets into your tenderness as well as your interest and I am altogether heartbroken about her, I cannot come now. But tell her and keep telling her that we want her with us. I had an unhappy feeling that Laura would have sooner or later a great disillusionment and it would have to come through a certain vulgarity in another and it will make Laura a very wonderful person, in a strange way, a destruction and recreation of her purification but all this does not help pain and I am very closely fond of you all. Tell her all and everything from me and tell her above all that she will come to us and reasonably soon and all my love.
The poems she wrote in the wake of her attempt to end her life took on a Steinian tinge.
What to say when the spider
Say when the spider what
The spider does what
Does does dies does it not
Not live and then not
Legs legs then none
When Laura was well enough to receive her letters, Stein sent this missive.
I have been thinking of you a lot lately back home, and I hope going on, and not too bad and not too anything but alright. I do hope to hear that everything is coming back, and that it would be good for you to take treatment at Aix or or somewhere near us, a something that would be a pleasure to us all. Do let me hear how everything is going.
When Laura was finally ready to travel, she met Stein, whom she had praised in a long essay, and found her a tremendous disappointment. Gertrude’s sermons on the day’s weather, she felt, bordered on madness. She described the older woman as “nervous with a continually aborted generosity.” Most things she idealized ended up disappointing Laura, and Stein was no different. Riding would write about her again decades later, saying, “She was by her own created image of herself, as a compendium of human versatility compressing the range of diversity within it to so abbreviated a representation that she was the God of herself.”
“Perhaps,” Riding added, “everyone up to the time of her self-deification was to blame, for the great emptiness that accumulated in human self-knowledge which Gertrude Stein tried to fill with herself for everyone’s edification.”
She was equally incensed in the days of her recovery by evidence of the burgeoning relationship of her now-former lover Geoffrey Phibbs and Graves’ wife Nancy. Their coming together had not merely been revenge; they would live together for the next five years. When Nancy and Geoff arrived in the hospital to visit her with a small plastic statue of Nefertiti, Riding had them thrown out of the room.
Out of loyalty to Laura, Graves refused to pay any child support while his wife and Phibbs were together. Even though he had basically left his wife for Riding, Nancy’s betrayal of him loomed larger.
His wife tried to convince him otherwise, writing, “I know what you feel about us and what you know about us and I know just how much you can’t afford to feel about or acknowledge to yourself or anyone the truth about the whole thing. I know you have to, being you – but curse the you that does it.” For his part, Phibbs was a fantastic stepfather for five years before Nancy dumped him.
Hart Crane wrote to Laura to ask what had occurred. She explained, “We had all been sleeping with the Devil.” Riding’s main enemy Louise Bogan spread all kinds of stories about her, resulting in William Carlos Williams’ famous appraisal of Riding as a “prize bitch.” Graves’ family called Laura a she-devil, and Graves’ friend Siegfried Sassoon complained that he was tired of hearing from Robert “through a bonnet.” It was necessary to leave this environment to preserve what remained of the love between them.
Through Graves’ intervention, charges of attempted suicide were dropped, but Laura Riding still had to leave England. Finally free of all his responsiblities and entanglements, Graves took the recovering twenty-nine year old to Majorca. “Majorca,” Stein had told them both, “is paradise, if you can stand it.”
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. The next part of the Laura Riding journey will appear a week from today.
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