The Meem Library’s Painting of Felice Swados (Part 2)

Artist Margaret Lefranc and Santa Fe campus President Emeritus John Agresto

It was during the 1993 retrospective of Margaret Lefranc’s work in the campus’s Peterson Art Gallery, held when the artist was eighty-six years of age, that a fortuitous encounter occurred that led to the gift of this painting to the Meem Library. In 1994 Ms. Lefranc provided the Library with the following account of this incident, along with the story of the painting itself.

In November 1993 Dr. John Agresto, [President] of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, came to the opening of my exhibition “A Lifetime of Imaging” at that institution. Of the 65 paintings shown, there was one in particular to which he was drawn. It is the portrait of a young woman seated at a typewriter which is on an old-fashioned small table. She is outdoors in the middle of an apple orchard situated in the Catskill Mountains.

He inquired as to the identity of the person depicted in the painting. Who was she and what was she writing? I explained that she was a friend and that she was spending time with me at my summer home. She was writing her first novel. Her name was Felice Swados, and she later married the historian Richard Hofstadter.

“How interesting! Hofstadter’s son, Danny, has just been to see me. I have always been a fan of his father, Richard…. So this is Danny’s mother and Richard Hofstadter’s wife. What a coincidence.” Dr. Agresto then expressed a desire to acquire the painting.

When the connection became clear, I later made arrangements for the gift of this painting to St. John’s library.

In 1932 I met Felice Swados at a summer camp for girls. I was head Arts and Crafts counselor and she was hired as my assistant. She was a precocious sixteen year-old, looking and acting beyond her age. She had a wonderful sense of fun. Pretty soon the seven year difference in age vanished and we became lifelong friends.

In 1916 Felice Swados was born in Buffalo, New York. She was the daughter of a physician who ministered mostly to the poor and a mother who was a gifted artist. A brother was added to the family. Harvey Swados became a noted novelist. He died young. Felice graduated from Smith College with a degree in sociology. During her undergraduate years, she worked in a women’s reform school. It was there she garnered the material for her novel House of Fury which she wrote while vacationing with me at my Catskill farmhouse.

She became the first woman editor at Time magazine and was probably their youngest editor. She wrote the medical and later also the science columns.

My family’s summer home in the Catskills had become run down from fourteen years of abandonment and subsequent misuse by vagrants. Once I acquired the quitclaim deed for the price of back taxes, the Hunter, NY property became my project. The house’s eight bedrooms were soon occupied by my friends who had serious work to do and needed a haven for thinking and producing. In lieu of rent we all chipped in with shared repair work to the house and some chores with me as coordinator and supervisor. Time wasters were asked to leave. As a consequence, manuscripts, paintings, and other projects were born and completed. Fun and many lively political discussions took place at our nightly cooperative meals. Later Jim Fadiman would call me the Ur hippie. However, we all grew to be solid citizens.

Felice and Richard Hofstadter were important components of this mix spending every weekend at the farm. It was there they decided to get married. Nothing would do but that I go with them on their honeymoon, a motor trip through the South to examine the health problems of sharecroppers’ and miners’ children. Felice did the research for lead articles in Time magazine; Richard came along as husband, driver, and critic; I was artist chronicler and arbiter of arguments about social welfare and the government’s role in our private lives.

In the relaxed moments, they were a happy and compatible couple. Richard received his law degree. Felice continued her work at Time. But suddenly she developed an unusual physical condition. When the temperature dropped below 55 degrees, her circulation would decrease to the point where she could barely function.

Richard decided to give up law and focus on his great passion, American History. He returned to Columbia University for his graduate degrees, ending up teaching there for the rest of his life. Felice would laughingly say, “Dick is very lazy, but he is thorough when he decides to work. He will write only half a dozen history books, but they will become classics.” Hers was a prophecy which was fulfilled perfectly.

Felice gave birth to a son Danny, named after my brother. Shortly after his birth, she was discovered to have liver cancer. In 1945 she died, to the despair of her father, the physician who could not save his own daughter. She was 29 years of age.

Among the Meem Library’s Special Collection holdings is a first edition copy of House of Fury, the 1941 novel upon which Felice Swados was working in this painting, inscribed by the author to Margaret Lefranc, whose personal copy this was.

The Library’s circulating collection also includes a number of works authored by her husband, the renowned historian Richard Hofstadter. Among these is his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a work that won the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction in 1964, the very same year in which the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College was founded.

The Meem Library’s Painting of Felice Swados (Part 1)

Portrait of Felice Swados, 1940. Oil on canvas by Margaret Lefranc

All those who are familiar with the Meem Library likely recognize the above painting, which has hung above the Library’s west staircase landing since 1994. But the story behind this painting’s artist, its subject, and its arrival and placement in the Library is less known. That story begins with an exhibition that took place in the Santa Fe campus’s Peterson Art Gallery in November of 1993, chronicled in an article by Mary Jo Moore that appeared in The St. John’s Reporter in December of that same year:

A retrospective of sixty representative oil paintings, etchings, monotypes and drawings by New Mexico artist Margaret Lefranc opened November 7 at the St. John’s College Gallery. The show centered around key periods of a 70-year career which has included exposure to German Expressionism in Berlin, cubism, surrealism and abstractionism in Paris, and which culminated in a return to the United States and a definition of her own style. Born in New York, Margaret knew she would be an artist at age 5. She attended the Art Student’s League in New York at age 12. In her adolescent years she lived in Berlin, and later in Paris with her family. She was offered a scholarship to Bryn Mawr and had the choice of going there or to Europe with her parents. Since she wanted to be an artist anyway, she decided to join her parents in Paris.

Her first major piece, a charcoal drawing done at the age of fourteen in Berlin, was included in the show, as were a number of large oils done at ages 16 and 17. In a recent interview at her studio, Margaret pointed to a large oil: “This is the last self- portrait I did of myself. I wanted to show what happens when you get old, and it’s not exactly what you’d call pleasant. It’s a document,” she said of her painting.

The particular flavor of her experience is evident in the following statement about her career. “I have lived a long time and in many places. Between the ages of barely 14 to almost 17, I resided in Berlin. There I saw the works of Marc, Kollwitz, Lehmbruck, Heckel, the Bruecke, Klee, Kandinsky to name a few. The great old masters in museums I adored, but it was the modernists who stimulated me profoundly.

“From 17 to 25 years of age, I lived in Paris observing the growth of art away from naturalism and impressionism. Every conceivable experimentation in the creative arts was taking place, from cubism, expressionism, surrealism to abstraction, and then some. I studied with the brilliantly gifted Russian refugees from Bolshevism, and, of course, with the original yet supremely logical French, in particular, Andre L’Hote. So much went on with studying, arguing, and drinking of cafe au lait in bistros! But I lived for the excitement of drawing and painting, as all of us artists did.

“Then the ominous shadow of Nazism forced me to leave the successful beginning of my career as an artist in Paris. I returned to the country of my birth. On her return to the United States from Paris in 1932 she opened the Guild Art Gallery to give young American artists an opportunity to exhibit their works. She occupied a space at 57th Street right off of Fifth Avenue, opposite of Betty Parsons, which whom she later became friends. Mrs. Rockefeller owned the building and accepted paintings when there was no money for rent. “The gallery was a successful experience,” she said. “I got to be quite expert at arranging shows, and was very much liked by the press. Arshille Gorky had his first one-man show in New York, at my gallery. We sold one of his drawings to the collector Kathryn S. Dreier. She was quite a lady and she paid me $75 for that drawing of which I got $25 and Gorky got $50.”

“I closed the gallery down, and in 1939 I went to see the country of my birth. I got into a dilapidated old car and I traveled throughout the whole of the United States-going from New York down South, down into the Keys, into Louisiana and Texas; and from Texas I went to New Mexico. The scope of my reaction to the enormously vibrant land commanded me to use all of my knowledge at hand. I let emotion flow through pen and brush without the sieve of intellectual analysis and considered self-criticism.

“When I got to Santa Fe, I knew instantly that I was going to live here. I knew it. I felt comfortable. I finally said to myself that I would move here as soon as I had $1000 dollars of my own money, and that’s precisely what I did,” Margaret said.

Margaret moved to New Mexico in 1945 with a friend who got a Rockefeller grant to work in San Ildefonso Pueblo near Santa Fe. That was the late author Alice Marriott. “Alice said to me, why don’t we team up and you do the illustrations for my book?'” Her drawings were featured in five books by Alice Marriott, two of which won the Library of Congress’s One Hundred Best Books of the Year award. Throughout her life she has supported herself as a portrait artist, as a textile designer and as an illustrator. “I didn’t get much money for the illustration, but I sold my sketches,” she said. “I had three exhibitions at the Fine Arts Museum [in Santa Fe] which then had an open door policy. “I taught a lot.”

(Continued in Part 2….)