Wylie, Elinor (1885–1928)

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Wylie, Elinor (1885–1928)

American poet and novelist who became a social celebrity as well as a leading literary figure of the post-World War I years . Born Elinor Hoyt on September 7, 1885, in Somerville, New Jersey; died on December 16, 1928; first born of Henry Hoyt and Anne (McMichael) Hoyt; married Philip Hichborn (a Washington lawyer), in 1906 (committed suicide 1916); married Horace Wiley, in 1916 (divorced 1923); married William Rose Benét (the poet).

Although her mother privately printed some of her early poetry, she came to public attention with the appearance of her collection of poems Nets to Catch the Wind (1921); with impressive social connections, her widely admired beauty, and a well-publicized extramarital affair during her first marriage, became a social celebrity as well as a leading literary figure of the post-World War I years; published three more volumes of poetry, as well as four novels, before her early death at the age of 43 (1928); her poetry is known for the contrast between its meticulous structure and its sensuality, while her novels correspondingly display a classic formality combined with a sense of fantasy. Benét later edited and published her Collected Poetry (1932) and Collected Prose (1933).

Most everybody remembered the first time they set eyes on Elinor Wylie. Thomas Wolfe was so impressed after meeting her in New York's Greenwich Village in the mid-1920s that the memory was still fresh when he set about creating the heroine for his 1939 novel The Web and the Rock. "Anyone who ever saw her would retain the memory of her lovely, slender girlishness, her proud carriage, the level straightness of her glance," he wrote of his Rosalind Bailey, "and a quality of combined childishness and maturity, of passion and ice." He could just as well have been describing Wylie's literary personality, too, for her poetry and fiction were much admired for a combination of formality and fantasy that had made her the shimmering centerpiece of Greenwich Village's rich artistic milieu. To millions of other, less broad-minded Americans, however, it was her scandalous love life that had made her a household name during the early 20th century.

Her life had begun comfortably and conventionally enough in Somerville, New Jersey, as the first child, born on September 7, 1885, of Henry and Anne McMichael Hoyt . Both parents were from socially prominent Philadelphia families, although Henry Hoyt was obliged to support his young family by working in a bank in nearby New York City. Four more Hoyt children followed—two brothers, Henry Jr., and Morton; and two sisters, Constance and Anne Hoyt . The children were tutored at home during their early years before being sent off to private schools. Wylie's fondest memories of her childhood were of the family's Irish maid who would entertain her with folk tales and Irish folk songs, providing strong images that would later surface in Wylie's poetry; and her earliest memory of a poem was Coleridge's Christabel, the strange imagery of which she later said "scared me into seven fits." Nevertheless, she wrote her first poem (about the moon) at the age of eight, and her first short story (about four mischievous mice) when she was nine. Even at this early stage, Wylie's flights of fancy were making her famous among her friends. She "could lie like a trooper," one of them said. "Nothing was too strange in connection with Elinor."

When her father took a job as an assistant attorney general in the McKinley administration in 1897, the family moved to Washington and Elinor moved to a new private school, where a favorite English teacher instilled in her a deep love for the classics and for the Metaphysical poets—Donne, Blake and especially Shelley, for whom Wylie would form a lifelong infatuation. By 1903, as she turned 18 and faced the social rituals of her "coming out" as a young debutante in Washington society, Elinor met a young lawyer named Philip Hichborn, three years her senior. Her mother mistrustfully called Hichborn "a Rudolph Valentino" and strove for the next three years to discourage the romance, but on December 1, 1906, Wylie and Hichborn were married. "I never had such a lovely time in my life, and Philip's absolutely perfect," Elinor burbled in a letter to her mother written during her honeymoon in New York City. She did not mention Hichborn's moodiness and fits of jealousy, but by the time a son was born to the couple in September 1907, Wylie's marital raptures had cooled and Hichborn had been diagnosed as suffering from "dementia praecox," the era's catchall phrase for a host of mental illnesses not yet fully understood. (Today, Hichborn would probably have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.)

I cannot help making fables and bitter fairy tales out of life.

—Elinor Wylie

Shortly after the birth of her son, Elinor met another Washington lawyer, Horace Wylie, at one of the numerous functions that occupied the calendar of Washington society's season. Horace was also married, but he, too, recalled vividly his first sight of Elinor. "I thought at once she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen," he wrote years later. "I really almost gasped." By 1909, the two had embarked on the dangerous business of a full-blown affair, and Elinor was capturing her love for Horace in such lines as:

I think the holy angels might
Look down on me from Heaven's height,
And envy my pure heart,
My pure and happy heart.

The clandestine lovers seemed to entice gossip by lunching together in public and to court disaster as each of them encouraged the friendship that had grown between the Hichborns and the Wylies, allowing them to see each other more often than they otherwise would have. Finally, in 1910, Elinor and Horace decided to run away together. Even the death of Elinor's father in November of that year failed to discourage their plans, especially when it came out that Henry Hoyt had maintained a mistress in a nearby house for years. The revelation only seemed to strengthen Wylie's resolve to disappear with her own lover. "When you found out that your father had been in love with someone not your mother," wrote novelist Rebecca West , a friend of Wylie's in those tumultuous days, "why of course you left your own husband. It was something she could no more help than her blood pressure."

Finally, in December 1910, Anne Hoyt woke up one morning to find a letter from her daughter. "Don't let this kill you," Elinor had written. "I have run away." The following years provided gossip for the newspapers and a good deal of work for the army of investigators that Wylie's mother and husband hired. Even President Taft tried to help when Anne Hoyt called on her husband's years of loyal service in Washington for a favor. As the story unfolded, it became evident that Elinor and Horace had simply driven out of Washington to a remote train station, boarded a train for Canada, and then taken ship from Montreal for Europe. For the next six years, the two lovers traveled all over Europe as virtual exiles, identifying themselves on hotel registers and documents as "Mr. and Mrs. Waring" and moving on as soon as there was the least sign they had been recognized. Horace's attempts to see his children by offering his wife $10,000 a year for the right to annual visits only made things worse, while Elinor was portrayed in the press as the mother who abandoned her little son for a life of sin. Hichborn filed for divorce and custody of little Philip in 1912, but the high drama turned to tragedy when he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in his sister's library, leaving a note behind that read, "I am not to blame for this." He was just 29 years old. Now labeled not only as an adulterer but as a murderer for causing Hichborn's death, Wylie began to suffer from severe headaches, high blood pressure, and temporary blindness. Still, she refused to accept responsibility for her husband's suicide, writing more than ten years after the event, "If Philip had killed himself over me, he could not have waited over two years to do it." The statement only confirmed the image of a cold-hearted, dangerous femme fatale. Further strains ensued when Elinor's pregnancy by Horace ended in a stillbirth, and again when the onset of World War I forced the couple to return to the United States from England, unable to produce the legal identity papers required of all foreigners by the British government.

The affair of the notorious Mrs. Hichborn seemed to resolve itself when Horace's wife finally granted the divorce he had been seeking in

1916, allowing him to marry Elinor on August 7 of that year. Life was still difficult, to be sure, with Horace ruined financially by the years of living abroad and forced to ask for a loan from Elinor's mother, while Elinor suffered two more unsuccessful pregnancies between 1917 and 1919. It was during these years that Wylie produced what would become some of her most famous poetry, matured by the sufferings and upheavals of the previous ten years. Not a few of them were apologetically addressed to Horace, as in these lines written in 1919:

I would for you that I were decked
In honor and the world's respect.
Before God's mercy we must all
Stand naked, and so stand or fall.

"It was Horace who made a poet and scholar of me," Elinor said six years later.

But it was fellow poet and editor William Rose Benét who publicly took up Elinor's cause. Benét, from a literary-minded family that included his poet-brother Stephen Vincent Benét and his novelist-sister Laura Benét , had, like Horace, first seen Elinor on the Washington social circuit. Relations between the two families were cordial, and it was to Benét that Elinor's mother sent the poems her daughter had passed on to her during the tumults of the late 1910s; and it was Benét who in turn showed Wylie's work to Louis Untermeyer of The Saturday Review, for whom Benét worked as an associate editor. The poems, Untermeyer said, were "a little too brilliant," but he joined Benét in seeing Wylie's first collection of poetry into print; Nets to Catch the Wind appeared in 1921. Benét further attached himself to Wylie by informally representing her to major publishing houses (jokingly calling himself "The Bennay Literary Agency"), encouraging her to try her hand at short stories and essays, and even rooming with Elinor's brother Henry, who had survived World War I to become an artist of some repute. Benét's interest in Wylie quickly became more than a literary one, evidenced by the lines he wrote describing her as having

… the bronze mane of a little lion.
She was tall, with wrists and ankles
Reminding him of the fragile China deer.

Nets to Catch the Wind quickly attracted the attention of New York's literati, although few knew of the grief that Wylie had poured into some of the poems after her brother Henry, who had returned from the war despondent and troubled, killed himself in 1920, the second suicide among those close to Elinor. Her "Heroics" and "Lonesome Rose," which was the centerpiece of Nets, were written in response to the tragedy. The collection was awarded the Poetry Society's prize for best first volume of poetry, cited for its innovative use of imagery and its precise meter. "Its accuracy never misses," Edmund Wilson told his readers in Vanity Fair, "its colors are always right. Mrs. Wylie's tone is always certain and pure." Elinor's work, said Edna St. Vincent Millay , was "austere and immaculate," comparable to the best of Emily Dickinson , John Donne, even William Blake. Louis Untermeyer's pithy observation that Wylie "burned, but gave no warmth," neatly combined his assessment both of her personality and her poetry.

By 1921, when Elinor had left Horace and Washington to settle near Washington Square in Greenwich Village, Benét was writing to her: "You want the truth. Have it. I fell in love with you. As for you having anything to do with it, except being yourself, that is nonsense." Benét helped Wylie arrange her second collection of poems, Black Armour, before proposing marriage. In September 1922, Elinor initiated divorce proceedings against Horace, who chose not to contest the suit. "You're better off without me, Elinor," he wrote to her. "You are a fantastic creature and I understand you." The divorce was granted in January 1923, and in October of that same year, Wylie and Benét were married.

Wylie's first novel, Jennifer Lorn, appeared a month after her third marriage. It was a Gothic melodrama set in 18th-century Britain and in India, but close friends recognized much of Elinor and Horace in the book's two lovers, and it became the talk of New York society. Two years later, with the publication of a second work of fiction, The Venetian Glass Nephew, Wylie was the toast of literary society. Her lace-embroidered wardrobe and cascading hair were widely copied, and no gathering of literary lights was complete unless she made an appearance. The Venetian Glass Nephew, another historical drama, set this time in 18th-century Venice, was as meticulously researched as the previous book but is today considered Wylie's best production, with the intricate balance between the virtuous and the profane, between light and darkness, that marks her poetry. In 1926, yet another novel appeared, this one inventively based on the premise that Wylie's poetic idol, Shelley, had not drowned in Italy in 1822 but had, in fact, been rescued by the crew of an American clipper ship and brought to the United States. Orphan Angel caused an uproar among other Shelley admirers, who accused Elinor of vulgar commercialism at the expense of their hero. But Wylie perversely produced a sequel in 1928, Mr. Hodge and Mr. Hazard, which brought Shelley back to England after his American sojourn. This time, she inserted thinly veiled fictional versions of some of her critics into the story. "I say it is meringue," she wrote to a perceptive friend, "but you will see it is really meringue flavoured with strychnine rather than vanilla bean." She had, in fact, already warned her readers that her patience was growing thin in a poem called Portrait published anonymously in The New Yorker the previous year:

Sometimes she gives her heart, sometimes instead
Her tongue's sharp side.

By the time Mr. Hodge and Mr. Hazard appeared in bookstores, Wylie was already planning her next book, despite increasingly troublesome health. Persistent headaches, high blood pressure and fainting spells were all exacerbated by a third suicide when her sister Constance killed herself, although Constance had been living in Germany since before World War I and the two sisters had seen little of each other. Another collection of poetry, Trivial Breath, appeared early in 1928 as Wylie embarked for Europe to research her planned novel about witchcraft, to be set in Italy, France and England. In November of that year, during a stay in London, she fell and injured her spine, while a temporary facial paralysis diagnosed as Bell's palsy forced her to return to New York in early December. On December 16, while working in her study on the proofs for her last published poetry collection, she suddenly called out to Benét for a glass of water. He reported that she tried to walk toward him as he entered the room, then collapsed from a stroke and died. Her last words, he said, had been: "Is that all there is?" She was 43 years old.

Angels and Earthly Creatures appeared posthumously, in February 1929. Benét never spoke publicly about the fact that Elinor had been on the verge of leaving him to return to Horace, to whom she had written a letter suggesting they resume their relationship. In the years following her death, Benét diligently prepared her Collected Poetry and Collected Prose, which appeared in 1932 and 1933, respectively, and wrote a study of her work which appeared in 1934. The harsh realities of World War II and the second half of the century eventually overpowered the delicately textured style that Wylie had perfected in a public career that spanned less than ten years, while what fame remained to her was due more to the wake of the personal tragedies and ruinous love affairs she left behind. "How like a comet through the darkening sky you raced!" wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay ten years after Elinor Wylie's death. "The soaring mind outstripped the tethered heart."


Olson, Stanley. Elinor Wylie: A Life Apart. NY: Dial, 1979.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York