by ALEX CARNEVALE
She had just published her masterpiece, Passing, but Nella Larsen was alone every weekend in the summer of 1929. Her husband Elmer Imes was a brilliant physicist. After ten years of marriage, he vacated the premises to meet women, sometimes in faraway places like Canada. “He needs it,” she wrote sadly in a letter to her friend Carl Van Vechten. Nella was left to amuse herself in Harlem, where the heat was usually pretty sticky. She decided to learn how to swim.
Her husband was denied a lucrative position at the University of Michigan at the last moment, and decided to relocate to Fisk University in Nashville. She had no intention of going with Elmer. All her friends were in New York. She did long to be in a new situation, but Nashville was impossible: Nella had been expelled from Fisk as a teenager for violating the dress code, and some of those administrators were still there. She channeled her planning into her work. She would pen a novel “partly in the United States and partly in Europe,” she wrote in her application for a Guggenheim Fellowship.
As George Hutchinson notes in his phenomenal biography of the writer, Nella went on to explain that “the theme will be the difference in intellectual and physical freedom for the Negro – and the effect on him – between Europe, especially the Latin countries Spain and France. I have never been in these countries and therefore feel I am not prepared without visiting them to judge attitudes and reactions of my hero in a foreign and favorable or more unfavorable environment.”
Before her departure for the continent, she found out the name of her husband’s Nashville-based lover. It was Ethel Gilbert, a white administrator at the school. She said nothing to Elmer Imes — what could he tell her about their marriage that she did not already know? Privately, she was a mess. She spoke only to Van Vechten about the situation, and her husband consulted Carl as well. Elmer wrote to the author of the controversial Nigger Heaven that he should “cheer Nella up occasionally. She seemed a little blue about my leaving.”
Nella traveled to Nashville in May, dreading having to look the woman her husband was sleeping with in the face. Elmer knew that she was off to Europe, but she when she confronted him with evidence of the affair in New York, he begged her not to end the marriage. They agreed to separate and revisit things upon her return.
The S.S. Patria departed for Lisbon, after a brief stopover in Boston, on September 19. Nella stayed in the Avenida Palace Hotel there. The best room in the place was ten dollars a day. Lisbon struck Nella as a clean, happy city. Two white Virginians who had relocated to Nice showed her around the theater district. Much of Lisbon featured citizens darker than Larsen herself. She could not get Elmer’s affair out of her mind. It was all the more present, knowing he was with Ethel and in love while she was all alone.
She took the train to Madrid and sailed from Barcelona to Majorca, an overnight jaunt that had her arrive at dawn. She found the island a charming refuge, meant as it was to be a safe haven for expatriates and tourists. She took up residence in the Hotel Reina Victoria, a lavish outpost where she contracted a mild case of pneumonia.
She was yet to begin her book on Europe, instead focusing her attention on a story about a cheating man living in New Jersey. She wrote to her husband and Van Vechten regularly. To the latter she suggested that she was “trying to make up my mind to take a house. I can get a very good and a servant for fifty-five dollars a month. Food for the two of us will come to about thirty dollars a month. The only thing is that I have to take the house for six months and how do I know what I’ll want to do next May?”
She ended up taking the villa until May 1. She struggled to meet people, even expats. “Perhaps being a bit lonely is doing me good,” she wrote Carl optimistically. Elmer sent Nella a check for her expenses beyond what the Guggenheim Fellowship covered; at Fisk he pulled down a salary of $5,000 a year. She spent what he sent her quite freely, troubling Elmer, who told Carl that “I am rather holding my breath and pocketbook for Nella’s needs. She has seemed to need a great deal so far.”
“The work goes fairly well,” she reported to the fellowship committee. “A little slower than is usual with me. But – I like it. Of course that means nothing because I really can’t tell if it’s good or not. But the way I hope and pray that it is is like a physical pain almost. I do so want to be famous.”
Nella amused herself with an another self-exile, a Scotsman named Norman Cameron who had fled the civil service in Nigeria. He introduced her to Robert Graves and Laura Riding, more permanent residents of Majorca confined to their own seclusion. Norman introduced her to the local society, but she did not stay in Majorca long.
Because she did not look her age – she was 40 – Nella fit in well enough with younger people. Learning polo and going out at night left her precious time to work on her New Jersey novel, which she had titled Crowning Mercy. Her relationship with Mssr. Cameron had been unceremoniously ended by a younger German girl was living with the Graves. She went on to Paris in May, where a plan to visit Carl’s friend Gertrude Stein was foiled by problems of timing.
In Paris she met Arthur and Rose Wheeler, who had retired to Paris after Arthur had made substantial sums in the New York finance world. She heard less and less from Elmer, for whom his wife’s absence was a case of out of sight, out of mind. He was also upset about her spending and lavish Paris digs near Montparnesse (Man Ray lived underneath her). Elmer sailed to Europe with Ethel Gilbert, and they toured Austria and Italy together. Nella’s novel, now called Mirage, was rejected by Knopf.
By the time Nella Larsen finally returned to the United States, both parties had lost any faith in the possibility of salvaging the relationship. Nella briefly moved to Nashville to enhance her standing in the divorce case. A judge would award her alimony of $150 a month, which was around half of Imes’ weekly salary.
She wrote to her friend Dorothy Peterson,
About the divorce. I’ve about come to the conclusion to get it here. It can be done discreetly in ten days for a hundred dollars or so. Can you imagine that? There are about eight grounds for divorce in Tennessee:
2. Desertion for two years.
3. Failure of wife to remove to the state if husband is living and working in Tennessee (Note these last two. It explains a lot, especially why I am here still after coming for a mere visit).
4. Habitual drunkenness contracted after marriage.
6. Commission of a crime.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.