Arts and Leisure

Six Fun Facts About Amy Lowell, Cigar-Smoking Brahmin Poet

Amy Lowell was a poet, an heiress, a Brahmin, a diva, a lesbian and savior of the Boston Athenaeum.  Though born into two wealthy Boston families, her size and her eccentricity invited controversy and ridicule.

Unmarried and unmoored for the first few decades of her life, she published her first poem at the age of 36 in the Atlantic  Monthly. From there she went on to influence the course of poetry by publishing 650 of her own poems, lecturing, critiquing and editing anthologies of work by such writers as H.D., Ezra Pound, John Gould Fletcher, D.H. Lawrence and Richard Aldington.

Amy Lowell. Photo courtesy New York Public Library

She also used her money and her connections to boost the careers of young poets like Carl Sandburg. She gave them feedback, recommended their work, introduced them to editors and wrote articles about them.  T.S. Eliot called her “the demon saleswoman” of modern poetry.

“God made me a businesswoman, and I made myself a poet,” she once said.

Here are six fun facts about the forceful woman who freed herself from the restrictions of an aristocratic upbringing.

1. Amy Lowell was an heiress to two textile fortunes.

Lowell coat of arms

She was born Feb. 9, 1874 into the Lawrence and Lowell families. Her paternal grandfather, John Amory Lowell, and her maternal grandfather, Abbott Lawrence, amassed fortunes by developing textile mills in cities named after them –Lawrence and Lowell, Mass.

Amy’s father, Augustus Lowell, served as a U.S. congressman and ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Her brothers both achieved distinction. Percival, an astronomer 20 years Amy’s senior, founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. Abbott Lawrence served as president of Harvard for 24 years. Her sister, Elizabeth, worked to promote prenatal care.

Relatives included ministers, judges, industrialists, philanthropists, Civil War heroes and writers, including, of course, her nephew Robert Lowell and her cousin James Russell Lowell.

2. She did what she pleased (after a while).

Amy was wealthy, independent and obese, the result of a glandular problem that developed in her teens. Her weight ruined her debut and she didn’t find a husband. Her parents wouldn’t let her attend college, believing it unseemly for a Lowell girl.  She compensated by reading voraciously.

Amy Lowell, child of privilege

By 1901, Amy was an unmarried, gay, eccentric woman. She slept all day and went to the opera, theatre or dinner parties in the evening. Afterward she would work until dawn reading and writing. She entertained frequently at her Brookline estate, her satin gown and jewels accentuating her cigar, her pince-nez and her hair gathered in a bun. Her butler gave dinner guests bath towels to protect them from her “children” – seven sheepdogs.

When she traveled by rail, she would ask for a hammer if her sleeping car was too stuffy. Then she’d smash the glass and tell the conductor to send her the bill. Hotels were instructed to put 16 pillows on her bed, shroud the mirrors in black and stop all clocks in her room because she liked quiet.

3. She saved the Boston Athenaeum.

Amy found solace in the quiet old Boston Athenaeum, which her great-great-grandfather helped found in 1807. The board of trustees wanted to sell the old building and move to newly fashionable Arlington Street in Back Bay.

Amy despised noisy Arlington Street and the dreary new building design proposed for it.

william-smith-shaw-athenaeum

The Boston Athenaeum today

Amy Lowell and her friend Elizabeth Ward Perkins began a campaign to preserve the old building.  One bold tactic was to run for two of the 15 seats on the Boston Athenaeum’s board of trustees. Both women lost the election, but her brother Lawrence won the seat.

Lawrence Lowell by John Singer Sargent

They also won a motion passed to postpone action on the move. An angry William Sloan Kennedy then wrote to the Boston Evening Transcript complaining “two ladies had discourteously defeated two years’ unremunerated labor of the self-sacrificing trustees who had worked on plans for removal.”

She had two voting shares in the Athenaeum and bought another one. She also drafted a circular denouncing the proposed sale and persuaded three proprietors to sign it.  It cited Augustus St. Gaudens’ praise of the façade and pleaded, “Let us preserve this old-time library, its atmosphere, traditions, associations, its quiet and peaceful outlook.”

william-smith-shaw-aathenaeum-1855

The Boston Athenaeum in 1855

The members took a postcard vote. When the ballots came in, 349 stockholders voted to stay, 284 to move. Amy Lowell had carried the day.

4. Amy Lowell marketed poetry like a product.

Amy Lowell started to write poetry rather late in life, publishing her first poem when in her 30s. She threw herself into the new Imagist style and fiercely supported the modernist poet Ezra Pound. Pound didn’t always appreciate her help.

Her goal, she wrote, was to “produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.” Eventually she developed a style called “polyphonic prose,” which combined free forms and formal verse.

But first she marketed poetry. “Publicity first. Poetry will follow,” she once said. And she indefatigably promoted the new poetry on the lecture circuit, ordering audiences to clap or hiss, but at least to “do something.”

She earned such celebrity that letters addressed to “Amy Lowell, Poet, Boston,” reached her.

Amy Lowell on the cover of Time magazine, 1925

5. She had a secret Boston marriage.

In 1912, she fell in love with an actress, Ada Dwyer Russell, who played theaters on Broadway, in London and in Boston. Russell had a daughter, Lorna, from her short-lived marriage two decades earlier. She moved in with Amy Lowell in 1914, though they kept their relationship on the downlow.

Ada Dwyer Russell

Her biographers don’t know much about the relationship. Amy called Ada “Peter” and “the lady of the moon.” She treated her daughter as her own and wrote love poems to her, like Taxi:

When I go away from you
The world beats dead
Like a slackened drum.
I call out for you against the jutted stars
And shout into the ridges of the wind.

6. John Keats probably killed her.

 

Amy Lowell had a passionate interest in the English Romantic poet John Keats, and collected his letters through much of her life.

In her late 40s, she threw herself into writing a 1300-page, two-volume biography of the poet. The effort exhausted her and caused severe eyestrain. On May 12, 1925, shortly after the book was published, she looked into the mirror and saw the right side of her face sag. A half hour later she was dead from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Winfield Townley Scott, a poet and book reviewer, wrote that the work of writing the biography almost certainly killed her.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry posthumously the next year.

With thanks to the essay Poet, Boston, by Laurie Hillyer, from Mad and Magnificent Yankees for this article. Image of the Boston Athenaeum CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=722802. Lowell coat of arms By Glasshouse – New England Historic Genealogical Society. A Roll of Arms. 9 vols. Boston, 1928-1980, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=99810038. This story last updated in 2022.

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