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.