- Mystery Man by Ruth Graham
In 1933, Wallace Stevens received a letter from a young man inviting him to contribute to a brand-new quarterly journal. Stevens was 53, an insurance executive, an unhappily married father in Connecticut. He had barely written any poetry in a decade. Ronald Lane Latimer was a 23-year-old aesthete, a tempest of ambition and enthusiasm, an openly bisexual man with no money to his name. Somehow, they hit it off. “I owe a very great deal to him,” Stevens wrote later. “I don’t mean to say because he published some of my things, but because he started me up to doing them.”
Their intense epistolary relationship lasted just a few years, but in that brief period Latimer published the first editions of Stevens’s books Ideas of Order and Owl’s Clover, and coaxed him into contributing a significant number of new poems to his literary journal. Over the course of just three years in the middle of the Depression, Latimer also published elegantly printed limited editions of original work by William Carlos Williams, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate. His journal, which published just four issues, included work by E.E. Cummings, S. Foster Damon, John Peale Bishop, and other Modernists. Stevens’s now-canonical “The Idea of Order at Key West” was the first poem published in the first issue.
Latimer knew everyone and worked with many, but he remains a remarkably shadowy figure, little known even to fans and scholars of the poets he influenced. Unfortunately for his own legacy, he was a deeply and deliberately mysterious man. He used a wide variety of pseudonyms and moved frequently, forcing his correspondents to send letters care of a downtown gay bar, a grocery store, a bookshop, other addresses all over New York City, and even a house in Albany. He disappeared from the literary scene after just a few years, switching careers, cities, and even religions several times. He seems to have had few, if any, long-term friendships. There are only a few known photos of him, and many of his letters have been lost or destroyed. In his old friend Stevens’s words, Latimer was “an extraordinary person who live[d] in an extraordinary world.” But his extraordinary story has never been told in full.
James Leippert was born in 1909 in Kingston, New York, about 100 miles north of New York City. His German-born father, a local mover and shaker who ran a hotel for a living, died six years later, and James’s mother sold the hotel and moved with the boy and his younger sister to live nearby. A prize-winning essay printed in his high school yearbook records his early interest in beautiful books. That essay, “The Joys of Collecting,” begins with a note of youthful melodrama:
Have you ever collected books? Then surely you have a real treat in store, for no more fascinating hobby exists. When, after taking a geometry, Latin, and French test, you arrive home tired and disgusted to find that the mail has brought you a book for your collection, you no longer feel that life is a vale of tears.
James, known to friends as Jay, went off to Columbia College as part of the class of 1933. There he helped found independent campus literary magazines called The Lion and Crown and The New Broom and Morningside, in which he had the foresight to publish Conrad Aiken, Jacques Barzun, Gertrude Stein, Erskine Caldwell, and others as an undergraduate. Meanwhile, the deepening Depression meant that few mainstream publishers were willing to take on the financial risk of printing contemporary poetry. It was a fine time for a talented upstart to make a name for himself.
The young editor wrote his first letter to Stevens using the name “Martin Jay” in 1933, asking him to contribute to a proposed quarterly to be called Alcestis. “The sort of thing you seem to have in mind is wildly needed, provided you can keep it alive: vigorous,” the poet wrote back. By the end of the next year, Leippert was Latimer, and he and Stevens were writing back and forth several times a month. (Stevens apparently destroyed all the letters he received from Latimer, so we are left to interpret their conversations based on one side only.)
Stevens and Latimer wrote with an intensity that baffled some of Stevens’s peers. Calling Latimer a “fly-by-night opportunist,” Allen Tate later said he couldn’t understand “why Stevens took him seriously and wrote him long letters about his poetics.” Write he did. Stevens wrote to Latimer about poetry, language, business, book design, and politics. He wrote from home and from the office, sharing little stories about his daily life: his habit of wearing slippers “so appropriate to the proper enjoyment of Beethoven and Brahms on the gramophone,” and his impromptu rearrangement of the furniture in his bedroom, which “flabbergasted” his family. He also wrestled with his own work and the shifting ideological winds of the day. Scholar Al Filreis, who has researched Latimer more deeply than anyone else has, writes that Latimer “might have provided the most important literary friendship Stevens ever had.”
As that first letter from “Martin Jay” suggests, Latimer was cagey about his identity as his career took off, sometimes insisting on anonymity and at other times going by other aliases, including Mark Jason. Ezra Pound wrote to both Latimer and Leippert, apparently believing they were two different people, but others caught on and teased the young editor about it: William Carlos Williams, who knew him first as Leippert, addressed one letter to “My dear Anonymous Alcestis.” There are few hints about what the point of all this was, but Latimer seemed to be having fun with his cloak-and-dagger act. “Leippert is dead, you must forget you ever knew him,” Latimer wrote to the poet Willard Maas, his closest friend at the time, who assisted him in editing the journal. “Latimer must remain an unknown quantity—who he is, where he is, what he is—is a mystery. I love pseudonymity for its own sake. It gives one rather the feeling of being a new personality.”
Maas was a devoted Communist, and he and Latimer tussled frequently over the intersection of politics and poetry. Latimer introduced the first issue of Alcestis Quarterly with a statement praising the poet who tries to “capture and intensify the beauty of things as he sees them” rather than making “his art merely the instrument of an economic theory.” Maas insisted on rebutting him in the next issue. Eventually, Maas convinced Latimer to let him edit a “revolutionary number,” which turned out to be the quarterly’s last.
Despite their political differences, the two men were intimate in a way that Latimer never was with Stevens, to whom he was deferential; Filreis says Maas and Latimer were likely lovers for a while. Maas saw Latimer as a close confidante, and his letters included laments about his girlfriend’s surprise pregnancy, the tedium of caring for an infant, and his constant money woes. Latimer, in turn, wrote to Maas about his frustrating family upstate, his boyfriends in the city, and what surely sounds like his depression. But that relationship ended, too: By 1938, Maas, who drifted from poetry into experimental filmmaking, would refer to his old friend as a “psychopathic worm.” (Maas and his wife went on to inspire Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and became close to Andy Warhol, who called them “the last of the great Bohemians.”)
As a book publisher, Latimer was admired not just for his acquisitions and editorial acumen, but also for the almost extravagant beauty of his limited editions. His correspondents used words such as “superb,” “unequaled,” and “beyond my expectations” about the books, printed in obscure, elegant typefaces on expensive rag paper. But if Latimer’s readers praised his design and production skills, they also objected to their cost. “How do you expect to reach, at $7.50, the people who actually have a continuous use for poetry?” asked critic and poet R.P. Blackmur. William Carlos Williams in particular prodded Latimer frequently about the possibility of publishing cheaper editions of his work; his 1935 collection An Early Martyr sold just eight copies in its first year. And no wonder: It cost the equivalent of about $130 today.
For everyone but Stevens and Maas, Latimer could be an irritatingly irregular correspondent—hard to track down, let alone pin down. Was he cultivating an air of unreachability, or was he simply busy? Over the course of just these few years, he enrolled in business school and became an initiate into the Order of St. Francis in Albany, which he called “a step in the right direction—the direction of complete renunciation of the world.” He also got engaged to a woman near Albany, despite maintaining a series of boyfriends in New York. (“When I went to the Village I went Villagy[sic] in a big way, got a cheap flat, a pound of mariahuana, a good supply of gin, and—ultimate villagism—a lover,” he wrote to Maas during his engagement, which did not last.) In September 1936, Latimer asked Stevens for a job at his company, a request Stevens deftly and politely deflected. Business school and monastic life, financial caution and extravagant spending, women and men: Latimer pursued them all practically simultaneously.
Privately, Stevens could acknowledge Latimer’s oddness. “I agree that there is something wrong in the woodpile,” Stevens wrote to Williams in 1936. But “[w]hat Latimer is is nothing to me so long as he does not involve me.” Williams was not so sanguine. At the time, he was furious about a sloppy set of galleys—a missing tilde had rendered a line of Spanish “Since he had five ass-holes” instead of “Since he was five years old,” the difference between anos and años—and had started sniffing around about the odd character who had written to him under three different names.
He needn’t have worried. Latimer folded up the Alcestis shop in 1938, after briefly toying with moving the whole operation to Mexico. Stevens wrote him a warmly sympathetic letter upon hearing the news. “Giving up The Alcestis Press must be to you what giving up any idea of writing poetry would be to me,” he began. Recalling his own youthful ambitions to “live in a village in France, in a hut in Morocco, or in a piano box at Key West,” the poet advised his young publisher to settle into some sort of traditional occupation and save his money.
If you got down to business, whatever it might be, and attended to it exclusively for, say, the next twenty-five years, you would have a thoroughly good time and would be able to come back to this all the better for your life away from it. One does not change a great deal; you would not be the same person, but you would be pretty much the same person.
Stevens was right: most people don’t change, or at least they don’t change much. But the strange course of Latimer’s life over his last decades makes it tempting to see him as an exception.
Latimer traveled to Japan to study Buddhism in the late 1930s, arriving back in the United States about a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1942, he was serving as a priest in a large Buddhist temple in Los Angeles when he testified in front of the Tolan Committee, a congressional group holding hearings on the question of Japanese American internment. He told the committee he was “of American ancestry on both sides for about 150 years; before that, English,” which wasn’t true; his father was born in Germany. But Latimer’s authentic Americanness—he was also chaplain of a Japanese American Boy Scout troop—was key to having his testimony taken seriously. In an atmosphere of anti-Japanese paranoia, Latimer calmly parsed the differences between Buddhism and Shintoism, and made a forthright case that most Japanese Americans were “less critical of conditions in America in many ways than I am, or any other American is.” In all the glimpses of Latimer’s life to be found in archives, essays, letters, and newspaper articles, this testimony stands out as a moment of righteous moral clarity.
Latimer testified that day that he was willing to go with “my people” should they be forced from their homes. Perhaps he tried, but he was soon on to other things. He enlisted in the Army later in 1942 and received a medical discharge, then took a series of office jobs before enrolling at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley. He went on to serve as a rector in Florida and New Jersey.
By the late 1950s, Latimer was living with an “adopted son”—almost certainly a boyfriend—in Santa Fe. According to a flattering 1959 profile in a Santa Fe newspaper, the pair had been in town for a local opera festival when they happened upon their dream house on Palace Avenue, bought it on the spot, and flew back to New Jersey to quit their jobs. His “son,” who went by Charles Lane Latimer, taught English and French at the public high school in Los Alamos, and Reverend Latimer occupied himself with gardening, charity work, and writing an art column for the local paper. A photo accompanying the profile shows him wearing his clerical collar at home, legs crossed comfortably, holding the leash of his Weimaraner, Bei-bei. Remarkably, he told the reporter that he planned to finish the Alcestis Press series by publishing the letters Stevens had written him.
But something went wrong for Latimer in Santa Fe. Charles was let go from his teaching job, and he and Ronald sued the principal for $200,000 for making defamatory comments that were “false and were made maliciously for the purpose of injuring.” The school’s teachers and students rallied around the principal, signing petitions in his defense. At one point the case was the lead story in the Sunday paper, and it dragged on until at least 1962 without resolution. But by then Latimer was living in Florida, where Filreis believes he took his own life. His obituary in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune says he “succumbed while conducting a service alone” at a local Episcopal church in March 1964. He was 55. At Latimer’s own request, the time and place of his burial were not revealed.
Latimer had thrust himself into the center of Modernism in the 1930s and then removed himself almost as quickly. For a brief moment he belonged to the in-crowd, yet he died, it seems, alone. But is it wishful thinking to detect a bit of his youthful flair for self-dramatization in his final request for a pointedly private burial? Somehow it’s a fitting last act for a man who wrote of himself in the third person that “Latimer must remain an unknown quantity,” and who had crafted a persona both slippery and showy. “I am rather appalled at your letting yourself in for such a bit of extravagance,” Stevens had once written to him, thanking him for an expensive gift. “But after all, if you were not extravagant, you would not be yourself.”