“Deeply and Mysteriously Implicated”

Communist sympathies, FBI informants, and Robert Lowell at Yaddo.
In 1949 Robert Lowell, fresh from his Pulitzer win, brought a firestorm of attention (and the FBI) to the quiet writing colony of Yaddo when he accused a fellow resident of Communist sympathies. Carla Blumenkranz takes a look back.
I. A “Foolish and Nasty Performance”
“The Lowell Affair,” as it was called at the time, was an event so confounding, and so shameful for all its participants, it is no surprise that it has been nearly forgotten. In February 1949, Robert Lowell—by then famous for the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lord Weary’s Castle (1947) and an as yet undiagnosed manic depressive—had returned for his third stay at the Yaddo writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Until then, he had described the place as a half-idyll, half-prison—“a sort of St. Elizabeth’s without bars,” he wrote to Ezra Pound (then interned at that psychiatric hospital).

Lowell had the credentials to make the comparison: five years before, he had served seven months of parole at St. Vincent’s in Bridgeport, Connecticut, as a conscientious objector to the Second World War. Yaddo in 1949 was to be a different story. Still an activist of some kind but hardly a victim, Lowell put his immense rhetorical powers and literary renown to work accusing Elizabeth Ames, the Yaddo director, of colluding with longtime colony guest and known Communist Agnes Smedley.

The Lowell Affair’s circumstances—that Lowell’s actions were precipitated by an FBI investigation of Smedley (this was the same year as the Alger Hiss trial), and that Lowell himself was on the verge of his first manic episode—made it both a revelation and a calamity for the New York intellectual community. At the time, it seemed impossible to ignore.

Even before Lowell’s blowup, that winter at Yaddo was a remarkable one for the colony. The principal guests were young writers, mostly untested, who would make great impressions on the literary scene as well as on each other. Lowell, the first of that group to arrive, wrote to Elizabeth Bishop in December that his favorite so far was “the little Catholic novelist” who dismissed his suggestion “that we have bottled egg-nog for Christmas breakfast.” This was Flannery O’Connor, who at 24 was writing her first book, Wise Blood.

Meanwhile, Lowell was awaiting the arrival of Elizabeth Hardwick, whom he had only met but soon would marry; the novelist Edward Maisel also joined them. As for Agnes Smedley, who was about to make front-page news, she had left the colony in disgrace one year before.

Smedley was a journalist—an exception to the rule at the art-minded Yaddo. (Later, Lowell would ask his colleagues, in front of the Yaddo board, “Would any of you object to the presence of a Communist here per se if he were a genuine artist?” The answer of course was no, and then Lowell explained the question: “I have glanced at Miss Smedley’s works sufficiently to judge their literary value, and I would say she is a competent journalist, and I do not think her stay justified on artistic merit.”)

Smedley, who worked for years in Shanghai, had published two sympathetic accounts of the Chinese Revolution in the 1930s and came to Yaddo in 1943 to write a biography of Communist general Zhu De. After five years (a remarkably long stay, as Lowell would note), not much progress on the book, and accusations that she’d sponsored Communist events on Yaddo property, Smedley abruptly left the colony in 1948 at the suggestion of her friend, director Elizabeth Ames. This much, at least, went without public notice.

When Smedley’s name appeared in the New York Times on February 11, 1949, it was as an accused member of a Soviet spy ring that had reported on Japanese forces during the Civil War. On February 20, the Times reported “no proof on Agnes Smedley”; that week, FBI investigators arrived at Yaddo.

First they came to Hardwick. She declared that she had never met Smedley and had only stayed a month at Yaddo, and directed the investigators to Maisel. Both Maisel and Ames were questioned, and on the day of Ames’s interrogation, Lowell, Maisel, Hardwick, and O’Connor met with members of the Yaddo board. The board agreed to hold an emergency meeting two days later, on February 26.

The subject of the FBI inquiry, it seems safe to assume, was Smedley; the defendant in this ad hoc trial, based on hearsay and speculation, was Ames. Lowell, speaking for the group, charged that she was “somehow deeply and mysteriously involved in Mrs. Smedley’s political activities” and “totally unfitted for the position of executive director.” He demanded that Ames be fired immediately.

What inspired this fit of outrage, which seems to have been primarily Lowell’s but was quickly assumed by the other three writers, is easily subject to conjecture. Much has been made of Lowell’s conversion to Catholicism in 1938, his refusal to serve in the military in 1943, and early signs of manic depression during those years. Taken together, these circumstances seem of a piece, and suggest why he was so quick to demonize the Yaddo director.

Lowell’s early life presents a portrait of a man who saw his decisions as a continuous struggle of good against evil, and who above all did not like to be bossed. As he would write to Diana Trilling in 1968, explaining his support of Vietnam protesters: “I have never been new Left, Old Left, or liberal . . . but I hope to have the courage to occasionally cry out against those who rule us, and wrongly lecture us.”

Despite his later prominence in the antiwar movement, Lowell seemed to feel that art and artists by definition transcended politics. Just before he arrived at Yaddo, Lowell had voted with the committee that famously awarded Pound’s Pisan Cantos the first Bollingen Prize (this despite Pound’s fascist sympathies). What most outraged Lowell about Ames’s association with Smedley was that it had brought partisanship into a sanctuary for art. The two, of course, were not as distinct as Lowell hoped and assumed, at Yaddo and in his subsequent life. As his friend Robert Fitzgerald would write in May 1949, in an attempt to explain Lowell’s campaign against Ames and his simultaneous manic break: “The change taking place in him was like the process which sometimes occurs in the formation of a work of art when everything begins to coalesce, to flow together in patterns that had not been foreseen: it is a stage of inspiration that is well beyond the deliberative.”

At the time of her trial at Yaddo, Elizabeth Ames was 64—more than three decades older than Lowell. She had been at the colony most of her life, joining in 1923 and soon thereafter being appointed its first director. When asked if she would like to be present at the trial, Ames said she would not—but, at Lowell’s insistence, the board brought her in anyhow.

Despite its nominal authority, the board, for the most part, was an audibly deliberating jury (the transcript of the meeting is in the archives of the New York Public Library). Lowell played everyone else: he set the agenda and asked the questions when his own testimony was not sufficient. Much of the evidence was Maisel and Hardwick’s reports of their conversations with the FBI agents. Lowell asked Maisel, “What was your impression of the FBI’s attitude toward Mrs. Ames?” Maisel responded, “The impression that was conveyed was that she was extremely evasive and vague, purposefully vague . . . a shrewd operator.” Hardwick similarly answered: “I might say I personally feel that at times there is a discrepancy between Mrs. Ames’ surface behavior and her feelings, not toward me, but toward most matters. I only know the surface. . . . I cannot read her heart.”

If Lowell seemed to lose track of the argument, Hardwick gave him cues and Lowell quickly picked them up: “May we repeat our first charge: that Mrs. Ames is deeply and mysteriously implicated.” Maisel and O’Connor spoke only when asked: Maisel at length, O’Connor for no more than a sentence. Ames remained in the room but did not speak until the end of the meeting.

Only once, when the four were dismissed, did Ames try to defend herself. Of the FBI investigators, she said, “They stayed with me for two and a half hours, and when they left, thanked me for my cooperation, shook hands with me, and said if anything else comes up, may we come back, and I said yes. That was on Thursday, and to me it’s a very unsettling thing to go through.” The charges against her, she said, could be attributed to “nothing but fear and hysteria. . . . They are young people, in their 30s; I can understand it, faced with a world such as we have. Miss Hardwick had some experience with Communism in her early years; she is disillusioned and bitter. That is her story.”

What Maisel only suggested, and Ames’s correspondence seems to confirm, is that her own story—which is to say, her relations with Smedley—was, just as Lowell claimed, “deeply and mysteriously involved.” Ames had originally allowed Smedley a long stay at the colony because of the kindness she had shown Ames’s dying sister. By the time Smedley abruptly left Yaddo, in 1948, the relationship between the two appears to have become romantic. Trying to explain her departure, Smedley wrote to Ames, “I am not yet objective enough. I have tried to be a friend and my emotions have been deeply involved for months. . . . I could not work on my book, which is the prime reason for my existence at present.”

Whether what distracted her was her political activities, their effect on Ames’s tenure, or Ames herself is perhaps deliberately confused. Ames, seeming to regret that she herself had suggested that Smedley take leave, heartbreakingly wrote back, “Now it is ten days, and we ought to know whether your return is still some time off. . . . If we had known you were to be away this long, and if you are to be away much longer, the water could be turned off for a while and the fire left to burn out. . . .”

All this remained unknown—or politely unsaid—at the meeting on February 26. What was revealed was that Ames’s personal secretary, Emma Townsend, whom Smedley had commandeered to deliver her manuscript from Yaddo, had been for years an FBI informer. “[W]henever I heard people talking very brilliantly red,” Townsend explained to the board, “I have written down their name and address and dropped it off at a certain place in Saratoga. . . .”

Townsend had been asked by the board to speak—after Lowell, Hardwick, O’Connor, and Maisel—to the issue of Ames’s relations with Smedley and her Communist activities. The group had inadvertently aligned itself with an FBI informant and with the escalating intrusions of the federal government into what had once been private matters (namely, Ames’s apparently romantic relationship with Smedley).

Lowell had portrayed himself and the other Yaddo guests as the casualties of Smedley’s and—by extension—Ames’s political agenda. This was true to an extent, within the confines of the colony. Outside it, where the protection and exemption of artists from politics was hardly government policy, this line of argument appeared unsustainable and even malevolent. The Yaddo board meeting broke with only one resolution: to meet again the following month and vote on a decision.

Within a few weeks, a petition had been sent to the board with the signatures of 55 writers—many of whom Lowell had claimed on record would support him—demanding that the board reject the group’s charges and condemning their “foolish and nasty performance.” Dozens of private letters to Ames pledged unconditional support. During these weeks, Malcolm Cowley wrote to Lowell’s great friend Allen Tate, “Yaddo had become the favorite topic to discuss while holding a martini.”

II. “An Attack of Pathological Enthusiasm”
In literary and intellectual circles, Lowell’s persecution of Ames had become both a source of fascination and, in retrospect, a precursor to the McCarthy trials, which would start the following year. For Lowell himself, this was only the beginning of the struggle with manic depression that would determine the rest of his life and work.

In his letter in defense of Lowell, addressed to 16 writers and friends of the poet, Robert Fitzgerald wrote that, for Lowell, “the corruption of Yaddo had become symbolic of ‘the great evil of the world,’” and subsequently, or perhaps in conjunction with this, Lowell turned to the church. At 3:30 a.m. on March 3, six days after the meeting, Fitzgerald, a devout Catholic, obediently took notes as Lowell recalled a vision. Fitzgerald’s journal reads: “Elizabeth [Ames] was miraculously purged of the pollution caused by her evasions. I prayed over her, and had to call on all the heavenly host, St. Michael and others, and prayed over her. . . . She was purged and became like that music of Haydn’s. . . . Today is the day of Flannery O’Connor, whose patron saint is St. Therese of Liseux.”

Lowell had pronounced O’Connor herself a saint and was demanding that Tate, among others, accompany him on a national tour to declaim his revelation. Just before the second Yaddo meeting, an undated, inked-over letter addressed to the board announced that “a representative of our group” (Lowell et al.) had met with the leaders behind the 55-signature petition. Lowell, Hardwick, and Maisel’s names were typed in rather than signed; O’Connor’s was crossed out.

On March 26, 1949, the Yaddo board unanimously voted to reject the charges brought against Ames and to keep the director at her post. For Ames, this was the end of the story; she would remain at Yaddo until her death in 1977. The logistical end of the controversy, for Lowell by now, was almost beside the point. His behavior that week, Tate wrote from New York in a warning to Hardwick, was “pathetic” and “very nearly psychotic.” Before Tate and several others, he “made a scene” at a restaurant that resulted in his being led out in handcuffs. The next day he left for Bloomington, Indiana, the first stop on his missionary tour. Wandering that city alone, he stole a roll of tickets from a theater box office, fought the officer who tried to restrain him, and wound up in a straitjacket at the Bloomington police station. He would spend the next three months in a padded cell, enduring electric shock treatments.

Lowell’s break, O’Connor wrote years later to a friend, “was a grief for me as if he had died. When he came out of it, he was no longer a Catholic.” As soon as Lowell was released, he and Hardwick were married. Two months later, he was hospitalized again, this time for depression.

In his memoirs, Alfred Kazin—who notably helped lead the petition against Lowell’s charges—recalls meeting the poet at Yaddo just before the controversy started. “I was never to understand what Lowell’s politics were,” Kazin writes. “[H]e talked in tongues; he was of the great company, with Milton and Hardy and Eliot; he was wonderful and frightening. . . . [H]e was in a state of grandeur not negotiable with lesser beings.”

After the facts, Kazin says Lowell claimed he had forgotten all about Yaddo, and Kazin says he believed him. When “the Lowell Affair” is remembered at all today, it is only in passing: a few pages in Lowell’s biographies or an anecdote in someone else’s recollections. The closest the poet himself ever came to describing those confusing months is in a draft, unpublished, of his Life Studies:
Seven years ago I had an attack of pathological enthusiasm. The night before I was locked up I ran about the streets of Bloomington Indiana crying out against devils and homosexuals. I believed I could stop cars and paralyze their forces by merely standing in the middle of the highway with my arms outspread. . . . Bloomington stood for Joyce’s hero and Christian regeneration. Indiana stood for the evil, unexorcised, aboriginal Indians. I suspected I was a reincarnation of the Holy Ghost, and had become homicidally hallucinated. To know the glory, violence, and banality of such an experience is corrupting.
Originally Published: December 18th, 2006

Carla Blumenkranz has written for Bookforum, n+1, and The Village Voice.

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  1. December 21, 2006
     Kate McShane

    I've witnessed too many situations in which the sickest person in a group is able to lead that group against an innocent person, so it was gratifying to read this sane, intelligent, and deeply moving account. Also a relief, that there were other sane and decent people around in 1949 who would speak for Elizabeth Ames. As we know, it doesn't always turn out that way.

    I hope Carla Blumenkrantz is working on a book.

  2. January 8, 2007
     Maura Rubencamp

    Carla wrote an illuminating tale of Lowell I was unaware of. Rabid conviction of religious themes is a hallmark of Manic-Depression .Ames took the blame for him getting sick( as he blamed her for his agitation) which is also what the patient usually occurs.
    Thank you for this article.

  3. March 14, 2008
     cody jacobson

    i have mentall elinnes too man

  4. May 19, 2008

    Carla tells a fascinating tale. But she should better illuminate the irony implicit in her essay.

    For instanc:

    Why were the normal (if extreme in practice) anti-totalitarian politics of Lowell the product (in Carla B's view) of religious stupification, mental illness, and personality quirks?

    Why were the extremist (though supposedly quiescent) pro totalitarian politics of Agnes Smedley the product (according to Carla B) of normal artiistic engagement and historical reportage?

    Was Lowell and/or the Bureau technically correct re Ames? Did Lowell's madness lead him to any true insights. That's the unexplained terrain. Wasn't Kazin sympathetic to totalitarian politics? If so, wouldn't that imply some political gamesmanship being conducted against Lowell?

  5. May 28, 2008
     mike fink, (risd professor)

    I studied poetry at yale in the early 1950s: the "new criticism" dealt with these questions of politics/propaganda vs. the see-saw balance of art. carla's article is timely and telling, but it reminds me of the deeply disturbing fact that the poets of the era were always on the wrong side. the theory was elegant but the insights were quite mad, at least from a moral, at least from a jewish, at least from a post-auschwitz, point of view. the photo of carla is absolutely lovely, she looks like virginia woolf at her most sublime!

  6. October 20, 2010
     Don Reed

    I’m one of Those Other Guys at Saratoga, the artistic know-nothings (interesting to The New Yorker magazine only as subscribers) whose primary interest is in the horse racing (less so as time has gone by; the stupidity of the racing management & the owners has grown oppressive & there’s only one way to cure that). But after re-reading Joe Bryan’s “Merry Gentlemen (And One Lady)” (1985; highly recommended & inexpensive copies are available on the Amazon used book site; the “one lady” is an original & knowledgeable profile of Dorothy Parker), somehow, I went from researching a screenwriter named Gene Markey to his wife Lucille (horrid woman, really; you can read about her in a spectacularly well-written book called “Wild Ride”) to Saratoga on Wikipedia, where I found this link. This surfing is amazing. I’m never coming out of the water. Leave the towel by my surfboard, will you? I’ve walked around the Y grounds often (very early a.m. is the best; bring mosquito repellant!); obviously, I am not & never will be a candidate for admission (a good & bad thing), but I pay the admission fee gladly (one day, one delightful but along-in-her-years tour guide stopped in the middle of her tour “speech,” hesitated, and then unconsciously started all over again from the beginning. We tipped her twice as much for all that extra effort). At any rate, thanks for the opportunity to read this. And I second the (admittedly impertinent) comments of the man who studied at Yale in the early 50s about the author’s photo - although I would definitely omit the reference to Virginia Woolf (the comparison is insulting to CB, & in any case, considering how the life of VW turned out, let’s not jinx the living!) Now, on to the collected media criticisms of (written by) Robert Benchley. Yes, someone volunteered to lose money publishing this wonderful book. God Bless America. Thanks again. DR