Selected Works

Booklist, Starred review
"An eye-opening collection."
Charles Calhoun
"A marvelous work."
Library Journal
"Rich enough to repay multiple readings.”
"Longfellow lives again."
Times Literary Supplement
Winner of the Literature and Language Award, AAP
Winner of the 2009 Katharine Kyes Leab and Daniel J. Leab Award, American Library Association
A Darwin Bicentennial Exhibit, with many illustrations from the Darwin holdings of the Lilly Library.


Florence Deshon as Marion Allardyce, The Loves of Letty. Deshon Mss., The Lilly Library
April 14, 2017


My new book, Max Eastman: A Life, due to be published by Yale University Press in June 2017, tells the remarkable story of the life of one of America’s most colorful radicals, Max Forrester Eastman (1883-1969). But Eastman’s life was inextricably connected to the lives of the women and men around him. His most important relationship was with the Hollywood actress Florence Deshon (born Florence Danks, in Seattle), widely considered one of the most beautiful screen presences of her time. The letters, telegrams, and photographs Eastman and Deshon exchanged when she was trying to launch her career in Hollywood tell a story of too much work and too little money: Eastman was struggling to finish his book on The Sense of Humor while continuing to edit his magazine The Liberator, while Deshon appeared in theatrical productions and starred in no fewer than 24 movies. It is also a story of political turmoil: Eastman endured two trials brought against him, traveled the country to agitate against the war, and fought tooth and claw for women's and workers' rights. During years dominated by federal raids and arrests, two prominent public figures with the documented political convictions of Deshon and Eastman also lived in considerable personal danger. Agents showed up in Eastman’s country retreat Croton, and it is more than likely that Deshon missed out on acting opportunities because she had once, during a movie premiere, pointedly stayed in her seat when the national anthem was played.

The first major film in which she starred was The Loves of Letty (1919), based on a play by the English actor and playwright Arthur Pinero. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by Frank Lloyd, the movie starred Pauline Frederick, a seasoned stage actress who had made her film debut in 1915. Florence liked her part, and Frank Lloyd was, she told Eastman, “lovely.” She had been cast as Letty’s best friend, Marion Allardyce, a down-to-earth London shop girl. Unfortunately, Frederick barely talked to her, out of jealousy, as Deshon suspected. Although they didn’t look much like each other, Frederick's facial expressions made her look as if she were Florence’s sister, a resemblance Florence did not find encouraging. “I don’t feel a bit happy here” (to Eastman, July 16, 1919; all letters held by the Lilly Library, Indiana University Bloomington).

Most of Florence Deshon's films are lost today. Miraculously, one copy of The Loves of Letty has survived, at the Academy Film Archives in Hollywood, and it is in rather poor shape. Three years ago, thanks to the Archives’ public access coordinator, Cassie Blake, and with the help of Nitrate Curator Melissa Levesque, I was allowed to view it on site. The copy at the Archives, titled Tentations, is the French version, and the inner titles are in French, too. The film has a complicated plot, made even more incomprehensible by the French adaptation. But one thing is clear: Frederick would have had little reason to be jealous of Florence, since the film is almost entirely focused on the lead character. Frederick’s Letty finds herself entangled in multiple relationships: with a married man, separated from his wife, whom she thinks she loves; with her rich, froglike boss, whom she doesn’t love but who wants to propose to her; and with a man she doesn’t yet know she loves. Her desire for Sir Neville Lechmere, whose ominous name already suggests that he’s trouble, induces Letty to invest in her wardrobe rather than her meals, with the result that she faints from sheer hunger. Marion Allardyce, the character played by Florence, rushes over to revive her. As it happens, Marion is both Letty’s friend and roommate, in a rather lively boarding house community. An independent woman, she has no need for a lover and knows how to provide for herself. In fact, in her first extensive appearance in the film she can be seen cooking a rather tasty dinner for herself.

Frederick clearly dominates the screen, though Florence is frequently at her side, engaging in the usual eye-rolling, head-shaking, and hand-holding that one would expect from a silent movie star. But she clearly identifies with her part. Marion's concern for her friend is evident—she worries when Letty agrees to marry her boss, and she is equally concerned when, after a disastrous dinner intended to celebrate the engagement, Letty does take off with her married would-be lover. In despair, Marjorie announces that this will destroy her relationship. Fortunately, she doesn’t really mean that. In fact, Marion precipitates the film’s happy ending. She tells Mr. Perry, the man who is genuinely in love with her friend, that Letty has run away with the sinister Lechmere. This prompts Perry to look for Letty, whom he finds on the street, in a state of collapse. He takes her in, and the last scene is set at the country estate of Mr. Perry’s mother. Turns out that Mr. Perry wasn’t so poor after all.

Throughout the movie, Florence looks stylish and graceful, if slightly somber and pale, her heart-shaped face emphasized by the hat she wears for the failed engagement party. Tall and slim, she towers over the shorter Frederick. Her dark eyes burn themselves into the viewer’s mind; ultimately they make her character more mysterious and inscrutable than Frederick’s rather transparent Letty.

The Loves of Letty came to occupy a special place in Florence’s portfolio: “There is never a moment I look strange like I sometimes did in Vitagraph pictures,” she said, remembering the studio she worked for before the met Eastman. “I always look like myself” (to Eastman, September 4, 1919).

Unfortunately, looking like herself and, more importantly, being like herself, turned out to be an insurmountable challenge for this gifted, unconventional woman. Hollywood was not ready for her. Charlie Chaplin, who also professed to love her, gave her a small role in his film A Day’s Pleasure (1919), where Florence appeared in the famous Los Angeles traffic jam, behind the wheel of her own Ford. Caught between two cars, she cried out to the traffic policeman (who will soon end up in a manhole): “Are you going to let them kill me?” She got no sympathy from the copper. “Keep out of the way, can’t you, was all he said” (to Eastman, December 26, 1919). Chaplin later cut her scene.

Ultimately, it seems that no one could help Florence, and she did keep out of the way. On February 4, 1922, disenchanted with Hollywood and desperate over the end of her relationship with Eastman, she died New York, likely by her own hand—a traumatic event that overshadowed the rest of Eastman’s life. She was twenty-seven years old.

November 6, 1016

Allison Quantz Interview on WFIU

The story of the naked photograph of Hemingway in Max Eastman's papers made attracted the attention of Allison Quantz, an innovative radio producer, who interviewed me in my office and turned my mumblings into an exciting show, with music, passages from Eastman's work read by actors, and funny asides contributed by Allison herself. Thanks to the context provided by Allison, the story becomes much more than an altercation between two competitive males. Instead, the legendary fistfight between Hemingway and Eastman invites us to think about different versions of masculinity. Eastman was the more forward-thinking of the two men, less caught up in the need to flaunt his heterosexual credentials than Hemingway. But as the fight, as well as his need to revisit it throughout his life, demonstrated, even Max, a lifelong advocate for women's rights, couldn't move beyond the gender norms of his (and our) time. Admitting to doubts about one's virility, he wrote in an unpublished autobiographical fragment, was "stronger than a religious taboo." Listen here to the entire show. My new biography, Max Eastman: A Life, will be out from Yale University Press in June 2017. Pre-order your copy here.

Waldo Pierce, photographer, Ernest Hemingway, on the Marquesas Keys, 1928. The Lilly Library, Eastman mss. II.
February 20, 2016

Max Eastman and Hemingway

(from the blog of the Lilly Library)

The poet, editor, and activist Max Eastman (1883-1969) was one of the handsomest men of his time. His film star looks melted the hearts of women right and left and, judging from the letters they sent him, they were not content with worshipping him from distance. A fervent believer in what might be called the “big tent” approach to modern love, Eastman readily invited his female fans into his life, if mostly for brief periods of time and with the understanding that he had not promised them anything at all. In 1925, when Eastman, having returned from Bolshevik Russia, was frequenting the coffee shops of Paris, Hemingway was a member of his circle of friends. Max deeply admired Hemingway’s In Our Time and even toyed with the idea of having his wife Eliena—the sister of Stalin’s favorite prosecutor Nikolai Krylenko—translate it into Russian. But his respect for the writer didn’t extend to the person. In Great Companions (1959), Max records a terse exchange that he had with Hemingway, who guiltily shared with him the pleasure he got from staring at the girls in the Parisian dance halls. Coming home from his nights in Montmartre, Hemingway was, he told Max, “disgusted” with himself. He asked Max if he felt so, too. Max, an early convert to Freudian psychoanalysis, had little patience for such talk: “No, I don’t, Ernest. I enjoy lustful feelings, and what’s more I don’t think you’re talking real.”

As Hemingway turned his adolescent approach to sex into literary method, Max’s respect for the writer took a hit too. Reviewing Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, a book about bullfighting in Spain, Max freely expressed his frustrations with Hemingway’s masculine swagger. His heart went out to the bull in Hemingway’s narrative, “this beautiful creature … gorgeously equipped with the power for wild life, trapped in a ring where his power is nothing.” Max had no sympathy for the toreros who would hunt the animal till he would sink down, “leadlike into his tracks, lacking the mere strength of muscle to lift his vast head, panting, gasping, gurgling, his mouth too little and the tiny black tongue hanging out too far to give him breath, and faint falsetto cries of anguish, altogether lost baby-like now and not bull-like, coming out of him.” Max accused Hemingway of deriving pleasure from such callous acts of murder, an attitude he compared to the “wearing of false hair on the chest.”

Hemingway’s supporters were outraged. “I don’t know when I have written anything that I have heard more about from various sources than that article,” said Max. Nevertheless, he included the review in a book he published in 1034, Art and the Life of Action. Two years later, as Max was hanging out in the office of his editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins, look who happened to drop in: Ernest Hemingway, en route back to the Spanish Civil War! Hemingway relished the opportunity to exact revenge on Max. To Perkins’s consternation, he ripped open his shirt and invited the men to inspect his chest hair. He then proceeded to tear open Max’s shirt, too, revealing a chest that was, Perkins recalled, as “bare as a bald man’s head.” Rifling though a copy of Art and the Life of Action, which just happened to be lying on Perkins’s desk, Hemingway yelled out a particularly objectionable sentence and then, for emphasis, socked Max on the nose with the book. Max lunged at Hemingway, and both men fell on the ground. By the time Perkins had reached them, Max was on top of Hemingway, although that might have been an accident. Max declared himself the winner. Given his age he had, he told the press, used a wrestling move to take Hemingway down. Hemingway assured the Times that no such thing had taken place, and that Max instead had taken his slap “like a woman.” But there is one detail that does make Max’s account somewhat credible: he did know how to wrestle. Decades ago, while he was John Dewey’s student at Columbia University, he had coached a wrestling team in a Lower Eastside boys club.

Max never forgot what had happened. As Hemingway went from one well-publicized risky adventure to the next, Max continued to insist on his own version of masculinity that involved not loud displays of virility but a deliberate celebration of the human body and its infinite capacity for pleasure. As it turned out, he was not the only one with a grudge against Hemingway. Decades after the battle in Perkins’s office, a mutual friend of both men, the painter Waldo Pierce, presented Max with a surprise gift. In the 1920s, Pierce had been Hemingway’s fishing buddy in Florida, and it was on one of those occasions that Pierce had persuaded Hemingway to pose for his camera wearing nothing but a kind of turtle-shell or sponge on his head and the butt-rest of a fishing rod around his privates. I recently discovered the original photograph in Max’s extensive papers housed at the Lilly Library. Hemingway had sometimes needled Pierce for his devotion to his family (in a letter to Dos Passos, he once called him a “domesticated … cow”). Well, here was Pierce’s chance to retaliate. Before he sent the compromising photograph to Max, he inscribed it on the back: “The great Pescador hiding his light under a but-rest [sic].” Max, with evident satisfaction, noted the near-absence of chest-fur. And he published the photograph in the second volume of his autobiography, Love and Revolution (1964), accompanied by the sarcastic caption, “Hemingway in the twenties.” By then, Hemingway had been dead for three years.

Whether Max or his publisher balked, we don’t know. But in the published version of the photograph, Hem is wearing a pair of dainty swimming trunks. No matter, Max had finally won the battle.

Christoph Irmscher’s biography of Max Eastman, Max Eastman’s Century, which contains an in-depth discussion of the material discussed above, will be published by Yale University Press.

February 20, 2016

Biography of Max Eastman Completed

I am delighted to report that work on my new biography of Max Eastman--tentative title Max Eastman's Century is now complete. It will be published by Yale University Press in 2017. I was very pleased to be able to visit Yvette Eastman shortly before her death at age 101. My hope is that I have been able to do justice to her husband's multifaceted career and personality.

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