John Allan Wyeth among the literati of Rapallo

rapallo, 1926

An obituary of John Allan Wyeth’s niece, Jane McLean who—with her parents (Florence Sims Wyeth & Alan McLean, the sister and brother-in-law of JA Wyeth), shared a household with Wyeth during the late 1920s and early ‘30s in Rapallo, Italy—has just recently come to light. The obituary contains one extraordinary sentence:

Educated in Italy from the age of seven, Miss McLean benefitted from a tutorial education in the liberal arts, focusing on languages, literature, history and architecture. Among her teachers were Max Beerbohm, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and Gerhart Hauptmann, as well as her uncle John Wyeth.

This accords with a story about Wyeth which was passed on by Wyeth’s family to Dana Gioia, who noted in his introductory essay for the re-printing of Wyeth’s poems in 2008, that Wyeth had been friends with Ezra Pound during his years in Rapallo.  It also accords with a sentence in one of Wyeth’s letters from the early 1970s to a friend, where he mentioned in passing that his neice Jane owned a book inscribed to her by Max Beerbohm, and that she had been friends with Beerbohm’s niece for many years, the actress Viola Tree.

It seems probable that Jane’s uncle John, given his excellent education in languages, history and the arts, would have designed the curriculum and engaged the tutors.

That Wyeth could have arranged such a roster of literary lions—which included two Nobel Laureates—to tutor a single young girl, might challenge anyone’s credulity. On the other hand, Wyeth would have known very well who each of these men were, and probably how best to approach them. Perhaps he obtained a letter of introduction from his old school-mate Edmund Wilson. More likely he simply struck up a conversation with one of them on the terrazza of the café at the Albergo Rapallo, where Ezra and Dorothy Pound took many of their meals, and which soon became a gathering place for the local literati. Once befriended by any one of them, Wyeth would have had access to the others, for they all knew one another.

Yeats and Pound had of course known one another for decades, as had Yeats and Beerbohm. Pound and Hauptmann met in Rapallo and became good friends; then sometime in 1929 the Pounds held a dinner in the Albergo Rapallo for the purpose of introducing Hauptmann and Yeats to one another. Hauptmann and Beerbohm met in Rapallo in 1927, and Beerbohm would eventually marry Hauptmann’s personal secretary, Elizabeth Jungmann, after the death of his first wife.  Beerbohm and Pound knew one another, though Beerbohm had his reservations about Pound, and tended to keep his distance, which Pound respected by never calling on Beerbohm alone. But they still socialized on occasion, such as when Pound took his houseguest, T.S. Eliot, to Beerbohm’s for tea.

Max Beerbohm had retired to Rapallo in 1910; Pound came in 1924; Yeats in 1928. Hauptmann began spending his winters in Rapallo in 1925. The McLeans arrived in 1921, and Wyeth had joined them by 1926, or possibly earlier.

The Beerbohms had a villa, “Villino Chiaro,” on the Via Aurelia high above the town, with a view toward the sea. The Pounds lived on the seafront in the Albergo Rapallo, and the Yeats lived an easy walk from there, in the Palazzo Cardile, at 34 Corso Colombo. The Hauptmanns wintered in a villa at 23 Via Avenaggi, beginning in 1925, but later lived in other villas, ending finally at the Hotel Excelsior. The McLeans and Wyeth lived in the Villa Boselli (location uncertain).

The customary arrangement in such matters was for the tutor to conduct his lessons under the watchful eye of the student’s parents, or at least under their roof, but it is difficult to see what in such a stodgy arrangement would appeal to Ezra Pound, the elder Beerbohm, or the two aging Nobel Laureates.

A very different sort of teaching arrangement is described by James Laughlin, who visited Pound in Rapallo in 1934 to attend what was known locally as the “Ezuversity,” which was simply Ezra Pound expounding on various subjects to an informal gathering of friends and “students.” As described by Laughlin, the “class” might begin over lunch in Albergo Rapallo café, move up five flights to the Pounds’ apartment overlooking the bay, and then move out into the town to various locations ranging from the local tennis club, to the salita leading up to Sant’ Ambrogio, to one of several area beaches, or even aboard a small boat gliding over the Gulf of Tigullio.

Jane would have been 20 in 1934, and it is not difficult to imagine her as one of Pound’s informal, but attentive “students,” accompanied, perhaps, by her equally attentive “Uncle John.”

Jane McLean remained in Italy until 1940.  During WWII, she served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the precursor of the CIA), in the Psychological Warfare Political Intelligence section. After the war she worked in the public relations office of Shell Oil International as a liaison to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. She served as a trustee of the Leopold Schepp Foundation for many years. She was a painter, a gardener, and published a book of poems, and she remained very close to her Uncle John for the rest of his life.

John Allan Wyeth’s book of wartime poems, This Man’s Army, a War in Fifty-odd Sonnets, was published in New York in 1928. It was almost certainly composed during his years in Rapallo. (See Dana Gioia’s essay, “The Unknown Soldier: An Introduction to the Poetry of John Allan Wyeth,” for his speculations on how Wyeth’s sonnets may have been influenced by Pound’s modernist poetics).

Until further research uncovers more specific information, or additional letters surface from either Wyeth or his neice, Jane, one can only speculate about the actual circumstances of Jane’s Rapallo education, or Wyeth’s  conversations with Pound, Yeats, Beerbohm, Hauptmann, or any of the other highly literate denizens of Rapallo in the late 1920s and early ‘30s.

BJ Omanson

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

S O U R C E S

~~~Bacigalupo, Massimo. “Tigullio Itineraries: Ezra Pound and Friends.” Quaderni di Palazzo Serra 15 (2008): 373-447.

~~~ Behrman, S.N.  Portrait of Max: An Intimate Memoir of Sir Max Beerbohm. (NY: Random House, 1960).

~~~ Carpenter, Humphrey.  A Serious Character: the Life of Ezra Pound. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988).

~~~Foster, R.F.  W. B. Yeats: A Life. Volume II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

~~~ Gioia, Dana. “The Unknown Soldier: An Introduction to the Poetry of John Allan Wyeth,.” the introductory essay to John Allan Wyeth’s This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets.  “The Joseph M. Bruccoli Great War Series,” Matthew Bruccoli, Series Editor.  (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

~~~ Hall, John.  Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life. (Yale University Press, 2002).

~~~ Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Recollections and Interpretations. (Peter Owen, Ltd., 1989).

~~~ Willhelm, J.J. Ezra Pound: The Tragic Years, 1925-1972. (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

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