Sunday, August 17, 2014

Chapter 14 - Mira: Part 1 - Introduction

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

While attending to business in Washington, D.C., Alfred was staying at the Sterling Hotel (giving Sobanski’s New York City apartment number as his permanent U.S. address and 66 Wilcza St., in Warsaw, as his home). As a genuine Polish count and a well-publicized war veteran, he had a certain cachet within the D.C. social scene and got invited to various parties, teas, and other gatherings. With some spare time now, he went—even if for the most part they bored him. Sometime at the very end of November or in early December, he attended one such event:
Some Vasser students [were giving] a party for young “returning heroes” you know and we had, there were several American officers, a Britisher, a Frenchman, and I was the only Pole. So I entered, bored, there’s another god damn tea party. Nothing exciting about that. Tired. And here on a two-seat little sofa was some very queer woman sitting. She just came from a riding party. Oh, dressed in britches, boots, and stock, tailored, with a most hideous one of those derbies you know. And she had some hideous, perfectly hideous Chinese…wide rim…glasses. She looked like hell. But I was looking around…I don’t know what to do. In the meantime, my wife-to-be immediately moved aside, left space for me. She was also bored with the party. So I had nothing better to do than to sit opposite her …And we began to chat…I began to learn that she was a very famous artist. (1) 
Indeed, Mira Edgerly (her first name sometimes got misspelled as Myra) was at the peak of her career as a painter specializing in portraits on ivory. Her work had become sought after by the nobility and well-to-do of Europe and England, and now by nouveau-riche patrons in the United States. Within the last year she had come to Washington, set up a studio at Stoneleigh Court, and was painting portraits of members of Washington high society like Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long and his family, Captain and Mrs. Perry Belmont, and members of the Washington foreign diplomatic corps. An exhibition of her paintings was being held at the Belmont’s Washington, D.C. mansion. She was charging something like $2000 to $5000 per portrait and was making $10,000 to $15,000 a year, which in 1918 amounted to a substantial sum.

Mira had struggled hard to succeed. She was born in Aurora, Illinois, the youngest of three daughters of Sam Edgerly and Rose Haskell, on January 16, 1872 or 1876. (The year remains uncertain. Though previous accounts of her life give the year of birth as 1872, affidavits provided by a family neighbor and one of her sisters give 1876 as the year.) (2) The family moved to Jackson, Michigan and later Detroit where Sam Edgerly worked as an official of the Michigan Central Railroad. The family lived a well-to-do, upper middle class existence. Mira attended a private school. But things dramatically changed when she reached her teens. Her father, well-liked in the community and generous to a fault, made a large loan to a friend who then defaulted on the payment. When Sam died soon afterwards, the family was left destitute.

After his death, the family lived in Kansas City, Missouri for a few years. Then Rose Edgerly and her two younger daughters moved to San Francisco. Rose, a wise and caring woman, gave her daughters some important advice. First, she told them she would not be able to continue to take care of them as they got older so they would have to learn to make do on their own. Second, in regard to the opposite sex, she warned each of them to ask herself one question if she became interested in a man—“Do I want this man to be the father of my child?” All three of the brilliant and beautiful sisters managed to achieve some success in later life. Minnie had been married and was a gifted artist, although she struggled financially. Amy, the oldest, had studied mathematics at the University of Michigan, married a Missouri politician, Rush C. Lake, and lived with him on a farm outside of Kansas City. Lake had died near the start of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Afterwards, Mira had stayed with Amy on the farm before coming to Washington.

At sixteen, Mira had started out by selling encyclopedias. She did that for about a week but didn’t like getting pinched by her boss and quit. Possibly inspired by Minnie, she decided to try her hand at painting. She had read about miniature portraits done on ivory, got herself some old ivory poker chips and a discarded watercolor kit, and began to paint and learn. She soon realized she could carve out a niche for herself in the art market by doing something unique. Instead of painting the standard miniature portraits, she would paint portraits on larger pieces of ivory. She began to develop new techniques for doing this. In the San Francisco art world, her reputation grew. (She met art photographer Arnold Genthe there, who noted her talent and also used her as a model.)
Mira Edgerly, 
Portrait by Arnold Genthe (3)
Charlotte Schuchardt Read, who knew Mira for many years, detailed Mira’s artistic development in a short biography, from which I will quote here at length(4):
[Mira’s] first contact with great paintings of the world was through Arnold Genthe, the portrait photographer. Genthe fermented her ambition to achieve high standards of portraiture. Of this mutually inspiring friendship Genthe wrote in 1936 in his book As I Remember, ‘Among my friends was a young miniature painter, Mira Edgerly, who besides being a gifted artist had great beauty and intelligence. Sure that I had started something new in photography, she not only posed for me but gave me many valuable suggestions on arrangement and composition.’
During these years she was invited through a client to be a guest in Guatemala, with her mother and sister, at the home of a retired president of Guatemala, halfway up a mountainside above the ocean. This was a most exciting event for her. 
Although she was making rapid progress in San Francisco, she was determined to eventually get to Paris. About 1900 she came to New York, where she had a studio on 35th Street. There began a lifelong friendship with Burges Johnson, who was starting out in New York in his profession as a writer. Looking back at those days, he wrote in 1944 in As Much as I Dare:
Mira Edgerly was an artist entirely self-taught, who was experimenting with miniatures in her own original fashion… She made her way on the strength of real talent plus skillful self-management plus an engaging personality...I do not remember how she broke into the magic circle in New York City, if I ever knew; but I do know that within an astonishingly short time a list of her subjects was a roll of the inner circle of the so-called Four Hundred. She was always wise in the management of herself; never granting interviews or encouraging the sort of newspaper publicity she would have found easy to secure. 
When Mrs. Patrick Campbell, whom she had met at a social gathering in New York, urged her to come to London and be her guest, she made her decision to go. Now she began to establish herself as a portrait painter in London, and with her resourcefulness, pluck and tenacity, she was soon winning commissions among the pre-World War I ‘privileged classes’ [devastatingly portrayed in Kind Hearts and Coronets, the 1949 British movie satirizing Edwardian high society–BIK]. She painted in their homes in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and in Germany and France.

She learned to know her clientele intimately, and many times she was deeply disturbed about the socio-economic system of that era. Often she was able to get sums of money from those to whom it meant little, for the purpose of giving it to a friend in need. In 1913 she crossed the Atlantic to New York in the steerage of the Mauretania ‘to study the poor’, and in September 1914 she brought seven penniless but gifted creative workers, who otherwise would have been in the breadline, with her from London to the United States, and helped them find work here.

For some years between 1905 and 1914 she also had a studio in Paris. There she enjoyed a friendship with Gertrude Stein, [And Alice B. Toklas–BIK (5) ]...
In 1914, as the war was breaking out in Europe, she returned to this country. Here she had to create contacts anew. But she had learned to accept it as a challenge to arrive in a strange city almost penniless, get a first commission within a few days, and go on from there. During the war years she painted in New York, Aiken, South Carolina (where her potential clientiele kept their horses for hunting), Newport, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, etc.
And now here she was at a tea party sitting next to Alfred Korzybski, whom she had just met. They were both trying to be polite and made some conversation.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
1. Korzybski 1947, p. 199. 

2. Edgerly Family Records. AKDA 20.673. In later life, both Alfred and Mira treated the earlier date of birth as the actual one. 

3. “Mrs. Frederick Burt” (Mira Edgerly), portrait photograph 1914 by Arnold Genthe. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Arnold Genthe Collection: Negatives and Transparencies, [reproduction number, LC-G432-0545], 

4. C. S. Read 1955, pp. 53-54.

5. For Gertrude Stein's reference to "Myra [sic] Edgerly" in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, see Stein, pp. 118-119.

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