New Hampshire

Flashback Photo: Witter Bynner, Bird Actor

Witter Bynner

Witter Bynner. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Witter Bynner was an acclaimed author, poet and scholar who was pressed into service as a bird actor in 1913 by his friend Percy MacKaye, a fellow member of the art colony in Cornish, N.H.

The occasion was the dedication of the Meriden, N.H., bird sanctuary – one of the first in the nation. Naturalist Ernest Baynes established the sanctuary and enlisted MacKaye to write a play for the dedication. The play, Sanctuary: A Bird Masque, included a role for Baynes and for the daughters of then-president Woodrow Wilson.

Witter Bynner would become identified with the artist community of Santa Fe, N.M., but during his early years he was very much a New Englander. He was born on Aug. 10, 1881 in New York, but his family moved to Brookline, Mass., when he was very young. He graduated from Harvard summa cum laude in 1902. He edited McClure's Magazine in New York City for four years, then turned to writing. Until 1915, he lived in Cornish.

A gushing biographer called him ‘a man of commanding stature, splendid good looks, and infectious energy.’ After his death on Jun 1, 1968, his bequest established the Witter Bynner Fellowship. The U.S. poet laureate picks the winner.

Sanctuary: A Bird Masque was performed on Sept. 12, 1913, with Miss Eleanor Wilson in the lead and Miss Margaret Wilson singing the opening song, The Hermit Thrush. The play’s theme was the senseless slaughter of birds for frivolous purposes.

President Woodrow Wilson, vacationing in Cornish, watched the play with his wife and the British ambassador to the United States. At the time, the Underwood Tariff Bill was in Congress, and bird-lovers everywhere wanted to ensure the bill included a ban on importation of bird feathers for decorative purposes. The play helped keep the heat on. Wilson returned from his vacation early because the tariff bill had passed, with the language about birds intact.

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