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Vita Nuova

ONFINED TO HER BED in Rochester for more than three years, Edna had begun to move about more freely by the spring of 1939. Scott had followed his visit in February with an avalanche of correspondence, pleading their case for a life together in the years ahead. He was thrilled beyond measure when he received her note in mid-April agreeing to soon spend two weeks with him in New York. Gone from his voice on April 19 was the sadness that had pervaded so much of his writing since Ludwig had first entered their lives. Though Edna could not be certain whom she favored—her lover of former years or her newly found admirer—she believed, nonetheless, that she had made a final decision. More than forty years later, the question would remain unresolved.1

Scott was now supplementing his work for the Artists Index project with freelance assignments for the White House and other government agencies in Washington, hoping thereby to build the resources he and Edna would need to reestablish themselves in Los Angeles, as planned. Years before, they had shared apartments in Brooklyn Heights and, ironically, at 6 Jane Street in Greenwich Village, Ludwig and Mary’s old house. Since Edna’s departure, Scott had moved twice, first to 16th Street on Manhattan’s West Side, and then to an elegant single room on upper Central Park West, leased from a now bankrupt man of leisure. For Scott, it was a vast improvement over the larger quarters he had rented in an old walk-up. The full-service, canopied building, filled with writers and artists and people of the theater, had given him added inspiration and material for the short stories he was writing, several of which would be published in some of New York’s leading literary journals. But he worried that Edna would find the lack of space and privacy, craved after years of hospitalization, intolerable.

Edna’s fears were more personal than he could have imagined after their earlier reveries. As she recalled in an unpublished novel many years later, she was “frightened that his physical nearness and touch and sex after so long would upset her.” There was “nervousness and fear in her last letter … but she walked into the room [that first day back in New York] and all fear dissolved.” Hesitancies momentarily fled, as visions of their past together rushed headlong over wavering doubts, and unleashed passions that engulfed them both. “‘Just remember that this is your lover, no surgeon with knife, no nurse with instruments,’ he said to her as he opened her legs. That she would have feared him … seemed fantastic.” Edna would later record how in the midst of this passion “she wept with relief” as the years of necessary deprivation suddenly came to an end.2

And yet, when Scott was consumed by work in New York or Washington, and Ludwig was not away lecturing, she and Ludwig would arrange to meet in Manhattan. For Ludwig, they were encounters of the heart. Though he knew of Edna’s stated commitment to Scott, he refused to accept its finality, and persisted until he felt certain that she would come to him in the end.

You came. You let me come to see you in a bright high room. You went out to luncheon with me and once we dined at the Lafayette. We talked a little tentatively though richly and I, suddenly uncertain of you again and certain of my own unworthiness, made defensive gestures. We were both tormented by scruples, genuine scruples of obligations to hearts that were set upon us—that, perhaps, needed us. But an hour came, as with us two clear-sighted ones it had to come, when the defenses broke down and the play, the mere play, ceased to be played and we confessed to each other, not lightly, not frivolously, not without even a heaviness of soul, how inevitably and forevermore it was with us and would be until one of the two of us was no more.… Though our lips had barely touched, though our hands had been so light and delicate upon each other, we were married in time and eternity and a renunciation of each other’s bodily presence would help no one and heal no one’s hurt. We stood, confronting each other in that odd memorable room as we came upon this last truth and for a moment you leaned your precious, gracious head against me.3

Had he read Edna’s true feelings and intent? “The last days of your stay were jangled,” he wrote in response to her “broken little note concerning the shortness and precariousness of life and the shadow of doom and the wild folly of our having made so little of the few hours allotted us since we did not know when, if ever in all time, we would be given another.” She appeared to him “so unbowed and yet so heartbreakingly lonely” each time they had parted, and now her last message, written on paper that “had known your tears,” seemed confirmation of all that he had hoped.4

These were, indeed, terrible days for Ludwig, made more terrifying by the fear that the dreams he harbored of a new life with Edna would be too easily shattered. Shortly before he returned from his tour in early May, Edna had sent her response to his plea not to be forgotten to his home, where Thelma, as she wrote Edna, was serving as his secretary. “I’m not interfering.… The poor man is lecturing in Nebraska (can you imagine a more depressing place?).” Besides, “as we are a family you were bound to meet me sooner or later.” Thelma assured her that he would answer her letters when he returned. “He values your understanding friendship enormously. So please continue to write those poetic letters won’t you?” Hoping to define Edna’s relationship with Ludwig, Thelma spoke to her of what she characterized as a similar friendship with “an elderly man who always sends me a cheque for tickets every time I give a concert.” Such “moral support… helps most,” Thelma reminded Edna wryly, adding with a heavy measure of sarcasm, “I wish Ludwig had more friends like you.”5 A sketch of Thelma, written by her agent and with probable input from Thelma herself, had just appeared in the latest issue of the Musician. Portrayed as Ludwig’s “muse and inspiration … these many years … [and] the leading character of four of his novels”6 (without apparent concern for the images drawn), she was not about to relinquish her greatest role without a struggle. Just days before Edna’s return to Rochester, Thelma’s growing suspicions took hold, unleashing a torrent rarely experienced in her and Ludwig’s long years together.

At the same time, Ludwig found himself confronting the ever growing pressures of his creditors. Hoping that his attorney and friend, Arthur Hays, might find a way to “morally sanitate” his situation, he explained in wrenching detail the circumstances of his financial obligations to Harpers and to those whose faith in him had allowed them to support his settlement with Mary. He was doing all that he could to meet these many obligations, including the translation of “a long and indistinguishable book for a very low fee,” work that was likely to do little more than “pay for food and rent during the summer.” Records at the Zionist Organization of America and the United Palestine Appeal, he insisted in contrast to Margulies’s claims, would demonstrate “how almost beyond human strength and … for what pittances I worked month in and month out.”

Moreover, “partly on account of my involvement with our people and its cause,” his ability to secure lecture engagements beyond these interests had all but ceased. “These are the iron facts,” which only the sale of his antiques could ameliorate. Having cost him eight thousand dollars some years before, he hoped their sale would clear all debts. Rather than “humiliate me and grind me down,” he asked Hays to help find “a very rich Zionist or a group who would present it to an institution in either Eretz Ysrael, or here.” There was simply no other way out. “Despite brilliant reviews and finally an amazing letter from Thomas Mann,” For Ever Wilt Thou Love was a commercial failure, as he anticipated his “new Jewish-Zionist philosophical book,” The Answer, would be as well. “It won’t sell. Jews don’t buy books,” he reminded Hays. Still, “it will be added to my other Jewish works as continuing the only important contribution to Jewish thought and art in the English language.” For this, he was deserving of the help he had received, and the patience it required. And if this were not reason enough to expect the understanding of friends, Ludwig quickly added that while “driven by all this,” he was having to contend with Thelma, who “suffers from a serious neurosis—in the quite technical sense—so that at times she is not quite responsible.” Under the circumstances, he had been forced “to be both mother and father to my beautiful and gifted child.” Even if there had been more that he could have done to lighten his friends’ faithful burden, his domestic situation would have made it impossible. Surely they understood under what difficulties he continued to work for the cause in which they all believed.7

Hays, sympathetic to Ludwig’s problems and to those of his creditors, forwarded a copy of Ludwig’s letter to Wise. Ludwig had already met with Wise a week earlier. If now a bit less credulous, and despite growing impatience, Wise advised Rosenblatt on June 10 that an additional month’s grace for Ludwig would not be unreasonable.8 Securing Rosenblatt’s agreement, Wise, pragmatic as well as compassionate, then asked Hays on June 15 to begin the process of assigning the antique collection to them in lieu of payment that was not at all likely to arrive. “Psychically it would be the best thing in the world to do,” though for whom he did not say.9

“The unbeautiful predominates and the struggle for bread (and circuses, if you see what I mean) is very wearing,” Ludwig told Spiro on the day following his tumultuous fifty-seventh birthday observance. “He [Jim] has a difficult disposition. But he has a good mind and a good heart,” Ludwig added, concerned over the impact of Thelma’s instability upon their son.10 What should have been a time of celebration became an occasion for her to unleash the “destructive, and self-destructive fury” he was now witnessing with greater frequency. With Ludwig “afraid for [his] health and reason,” Theodore, the Lewisohns’ driver and handyman and Ludwig’s sometime confidant, suggested that he “feign a fainting-spell.” The family doctor would be called upon to diagnose a heart condition, and “insist that there be no more harrowing and no more threats and no more ‘scenes.’” Though later claiming not to have been at all ill or “particularly nervous,” having for “years … done my best to build dykes against the willed—furiously willed, madly desired—catastrophe,” he may, indeed, have experienced a mild episode of the coronary trouble that would one day take his life.11

Shortly before Edna’s departure from New York several days later, Ludwig nearly canceled a local speaking engagement. “I thought of calling it off in the faint hope of seeing you. But it had been contracted long ago and frankly I couldn’t lose the $150.00. What a world!” Instead, he promised that they would soon again be together to share their love and “infinite tenderness.” This alone could “sustain … and console” him.

I can’t describe to you what I have been going through. I don’t know what will happen. There must be some change, otherwise I shall have to make a break. Thelma has turned her self-hatred for what she conceives of as her failure as an artist and grande courtesane once more against the feigned obstacles (like Hitler with the Jews!)—namely myself and Jimmie…. On the one hand I know that Thelma is a sick woman, since the mind can be as sick as the body and on the other I am incapable of shirking responsibilities…. But it may come to a point where I shall have to take my dear child and flee.12

Edna returned to Rochester at the beginning of June to find yet another long letter from Ludwig. His need to escape and the possibility of their future together had produced in Edna “the healing, sustaining, beautiful voice, the incomparable voice of your spirit and your kindness…. The way you understand and the spirit of your understanding,” he assured her, “outweigh multitudes; it gives me a new forward impulse; it renews; it re-creates.”13

“Then, though so full of years and sorrows and though so scarred and riven by bitter and by tragic disappointments and disillusions, my whole being, the recovered wholeness of me arose,” Ludwig was to record in his journal the following April. Nothing but “journalistic stuff” had found its way onto his page for some time now, but suddenly the “walls of ice that had frozen about my soul … began to melt and the fountain to open.” Never the accomplished poet, he had already begun “to stammer” a few creditable lines and would, in time, share others with Edna as his sense of permanence in this relationship grew and the “first halting and still pain-contorted verses” of a more optimistic nature began to pour from his pen, “the signal of my rebirth through you.”14 But in these first unsure days, fearful that too constant a focus upon these darkest thoughts might send her away, he wrote a “Sonnet of Loneliness” and put it aside, hoping that one day soon he could show it to her—or have no need to.

       Alone—alone remote from all the hum—

       The emanations of your spirit lost—

       No longer does your laughing echo come

       To me—and all ambitious vows are tossed

       About by blasts of cold and lonely winds

       For vow to do by self for self alone,

       Without the warmth of human nearness binds

       Not fast; even the airy fluted tone

       Of Mozart’s song becomes a voiceless trill

       Of blackened lines and dots: no image there—

       For how can sense perceive—or the brain fill

       Itself of image with no one to share

       A straining crag traced in evening shroud

       Or careless pattern of a low slung cloud.15

If he had reason to fear Scott, there was reason enough as well for some optimism. During Scott’s many absences, Ludwig had shared his cultured world with Edna as a means of courting her. Decades later, she would recall her whirlwind infatuation for the life Ludwig had led and for the worlds he had only just begun to open for her.

We had a great time going around…. How many windows he had opened for me, for after all I was a pretty provincial person. And his brief mentions of his dear Tommy Mann, and all these famous names that I had vaguely heard of and all these countries … how he hopped from one country to another…. It was AWESOME!… And of course he made the usual fuss over me that he made over anyone who attracted him. He blew them up beyond human balloons, you know.… I could hardly believe all this. But I loved hearing it.

Their last day together had been, by her account forty years later, “such a hot twenty-four hour relationship for once” that she had “felt bereft” when they separated. Ludwig, too, had “looked so forlorn … when he went out of the door. So, of course, I wrote him a little note and I told him I just couldn’t bear to cut things off.”16 In responding to his birthday wishes of June 4, she explained what he meant to her, how “dammed depressed somehow about this 31[st] year” she was, “with no background of accomplishment.”

If it weren’t for you, I’d probably think I’d had a full and varied life. I should—and do as a matter of fact, feel that now that I have found you, I can curl up and die. But I’m so healthy that I’ve got to go on living, but in living I want to do something for you, and whether I shall ever be able to is the thought that defeats me…. I’m not quite sure that it was ever real that we drank scotch and soda together, and shared lunches, and dined and talked for hours at the Lafayette Hotel one spring evening. And giggled at the wonder of, “Did I tell you that I loved you?” This must be some mirage created by the mind.17

The following day, though, The Answer appeared. “Between me and you,” he had written Spiro a week earlier, it was “still scrappy,” though no more so than “Buber’s Kampf um Israel.”18 Gathering together what he thought worth preserving of his Jewish writings since returning to the States, Ludwig had loosely tied them together, aware that whatever hope he had for some posthumous recognition or remembrance lay in its pages. Speaking “Of the Author of This Book,” Ludwig publicly raised for the first time what he had discussed often enough in private over the past several years.

I have risked and probably lost the illusory satisfaction that there is in posthumous fame. Gentile historians of literature will not, even in democratic cultures, admit that a Jew writing as a Jew and of Jews is or can have been, within that culture, of equal value with their own writers or those who seemed to strive to be at one with them. I have lost the world, present and future. Have I gained the Jewish people? Have I gained their support and their memory? Time will show. If my choice had to be made over again I would make the same choice. And that would be no virtue in me. For, being what I am, believing as I do, I could make no other choice.19

How much more important in his life, then, had Edna’s attachment become for him. “I have been rich today, Edna, in your beautiful letters, which I have read but which I’ll re-read and console myself with,” he wrote on the evening of June 6, as he prepared for the road once again. “You are the only human being who has ever made me feel: I want to lay my heart and soul into your hands.” All he could do at this moment was send this “message of my gratitude and love.” He hoped that Edna’s parents would allow him to visit her in Rochester after completion of this last trip of the season and the translation which he promised to have in his publisher’s hands by July 15.20 Two days later, from Allentown, Pennsylvania, he wrote to tell her of the “pang of desolatedness” that overtook him each time he traveled through New York’s Grand Central Station, “because you are not there.”21

In Ludwig’s absence, Theodore cared for Jim, as Thelma continued to keep her distance from the process of raising her child. Edward Moritz and his wife were then visiting as Moritz worked on new songs for Thelma’s upcoming recitals. “Grandma Moritz” had discovered Jim’s ravenous appetite and was busily accommodating it, while the young boy dreamed of his future as “a flying Yiddish rabbi.” He sent word through Theodore that he missed and loved his father very much, and hoped that “Dear Papa … [wouldn’t] forget to send me my toy.” Theodore looked forward to Edna’s recovery allowing her to visit them in September. Fully aware of the maelstrom that awaited Ludwig upon his return, he advised “the fullest enjoyment of a trip in more pleasant surroundings than which, I am sure, there are none.”22

“Through with all official matters for the season,” Ludwig returned home on June 13. With a quarter of the translation already completed, he promised Edna “to step terrifically on the gas—as I’ve done before—and come to you,” the anticipation itself raising memories of happier times long ago. “When I was a little boy in Germany, all night long before my birthday I could hardly sleep. I knew that when I woke up in the morning there would be gifts and the birthday cake on the breakfast table (such was the custom) and it was all as magic as a fairy-tale and as unreal as a dream and yet all the more real for all that. Do you know the feeling, the strange sweetness rising and quickening in the heart?” he asked in disbelief. “That I should have it still—that feeling.”23

Incorrigibly romantic, he would write Edna almost daily throughout the weeks before joining her in Rochester. “You shall have all of me, as much, as little, as you want…. For I need you—need you. That shall be my cry. You hear, do you not, from what depths it comes? For no one has ever been so great and gracious to me.”24 Her love, he insisted, was centered in “mystery and beauty and devotion,”25 elements of a vision of her as the muse by whom he had long felt abandoned during the long years of struggle with Thelma. His own life was a demonstration of “Freud’s notion of the destructive effects of such conflict upon the artist.… The generative instinct is the source of all beauty,” he assured Edna; cut off from the “eternal eros,” he could not survive. “I must love to live and create … and I love you”26 whose “spirit and … words vibrate in me.”

Laughter itself had fled, “and I have unlaughed laughter in me,” whose freeing Edna would acknowledge many years later as among her most poignant memories of their time together. Though such love—joyful and inspirational—had “hopelessly eluded my grasp and I knew it and I sorrowed over it,” he had continued to believe it “worth striving for,” however fleeting it might prove in its persistent impermanence. In this early moment of reverie, he acknowledged that perhaps all real love was transitory. He hoped not, but the illusions of the past had grown faint with age. “Perhaps for me … perhaps for you … love needs to keep its wings outstretched, needs obstacles, intervals, renewals, for if its wings could remain folded we too might know that deep sleep or even death of the possibility of love which is the fate (and the quite acceptable fate) of the majority, and then how would we live? Perhaps we can have permanence; oh, I believe we can but not by folded wings but my meeting again and again in the same aether with wings outstretched.”27

More relaxed by June 22, the tour now safely behind him, and the translation well under way, with Thelma “gone to town” and Jim “blessed … and tucked in … and a few late birds … twittering in the trees outside of my study window,” he could write of the “special grace [by which] I am here idle and tranquil and able to talk to you.” “Unparalleled scenes” between himself and Thelma had ended only by his threatening to leave with Jim. “First from time to time, later pretty steadily, she acted as she did and changed the image of her utterly in my mind and heart and changed me from what I was and wanted to be to her.” There was no time left for “building up the house of our life again and again only to have her tear it down again.” There was no more “hoping against hope.” After fourteen faithful years, she no longer held any “moral rights over me,” but he would stay with Thelma and “be kind to her and cooperate in keeping the social facade intact.” But that was “all and more than all.” Calling Edna to his side, he wanted only to “utterly lose the ever frequent sense of harsh solitariness” through her.28

He was determined to have love and creativity again in his life. But the material side of his world would have to be made more manageable, though certain comforts had become necessities while he lived in Europe and could not now be renounced. “I need to make a little more ($2000 more a year will do) because I need a certain largess of existence in order to function smoothly,” he wrote Edna on June 30. “Spoiled, I dare say, but it’s too late to change,”29 and too degrading. “What garbage all this is!” he protested to her on July 3. “We should sit on Parnassus and chew the grass thereof and drink the true, the blushful Hypocrene, with beaded bubbles winking at the brim and purple-stained mouth—and I should write beautiful things, more beautiful than ever and read them to you, golden page by golden page and you should let me kiss you between pages.”30

Throughout these weeks, however, Edna had remained deeply ambivalent, writing to both Ludwig and Scott, in her heart committing herself to neither. “Best of all recent things I like the part of your Monday letter … about how married we are,” Scott wrote on June 28, now busily organizing their resettlement in either Europe or California, “depend[ing] upon how well you are, how much money we have, and what we want most.”

The cloud over their relationship could easily be cleared away, he assured her. “What was wrong [during their visit in May] was very simple. It was a very crucial time, this being together after so many years of loneliness, of suffering, of changes … and the emotional web of our love was quiveringly sensitive to destruction and I felt it was a mistake to have someone else in so soon, someone who was in love with you.” Edna had shown Ludwig’s letters to Scott, and he, attempting to repress his anger for the sake of their relationship, had not objected openly, wanting her to have “the experience of being the friend of a famous man, of the expansiveness and the objective opportunities attaching thereto.” Instead, he had drunk far too much while she was out with Ludwig. Now, he asked only that she overlook whatever unhappy moments she had witnessed—“a minor incident, magnified by the now newness of being together after so long. It represents in fact only a few hours of confusion among the hundreds of hours of ascending joy and sky bright happiness that we had together.”31

Scott’s earlier letters had been filled with talk of his love for her and of their lovemaking, past, present, and imaginary. On June 13 he had raised the question of marriage, to which she had given every indication of agreement.32 Yet Scott’s uncertainty about their relationship had grown nonetheless. He wondered if “it will ever be possible for us to be together after you have been with Ludwig Lewisohn.… Certain earth deep chemical aversions will have entered that love so that it will be forever a hopelessly destructive meeting.… We must select according to … the voice of our true soul,” he insisted on July 9. “You must select the greater of opposing truths … quickly, cleanly, cruelly, tenderly, and without a shadow of regret.”33 Edna could only respond the next day with talk of her unhappiness and loneliness and inability to be decisive, and Scott, wishing to be supportive but firm, insisted again that she “must take it simply and wholly one way or the other.”34

That same morning of the tenth, Ludwig received a note from Edna, breaking the long silence that had caused a “gnawing in my vitals.” Asking if Scott had visited during the Fourth of July weekend, Ludwig reminded Edna that she was for him “the end of a quest, the fruition of hope” which he would not again allow to die. “In the most transcendental sense,” she had become an integrated part of his “future work … [and] creativity.” The ultimate decision was hers alone, and though he pledged not to force himself upon her, he asked if he could visit on the twenty-third.35

That evening he composed the first of twenty poems “which have been my road back to life, hope, light,”36 he would assess a half year later. Transferring it to a second note for Edna later that night, he characterized it as a “poor tired midnight sonnet, but the first verse to a woman in 17 years or so—from deep within!” A venomous attack upon his past, “with females … whose brains were in their wombs or not at all,” it became a plea that Edna not abandon him to his former life. “And that was fume which should have been a blaze. / You in whom glow, grace, gallantry are blended, / Stay with me, stay, on this last sunlit peak / Till all the broken in me shall be mended.”37 For “love and the word / Can redeem the foul and tragic /… Unto freedom and magic,” he wrote in his notebook on the fifteenth. “Lovers alone are priests /… Tending immortal feasts / At the one God’s altar.”38

“Nearly midnight,” two days later, he was again caught by “lyric fervor” unknown “in many, many years. It is not I, my dearest, it is you!” “Snug householders / know not our frenzy nor our discipline,” Ludwig promised Edna in “The Ascent.” “Stringent passion … at one with thought” would be their shelter. “Under the homeless reaches of this heaven / The symbols of the permanent are wrought.” Like “the stricken prophets,” they would have “no neighbors but the stars.” Fear not “our path,” he rushed to assure her. “We are beyond the tumult / Of idiot law and carrion jungle wars.”39 But the tumult continued into the night and early morning as “half-wild verses hummed in my head or, rather, in my sub-conscious.” Compelled, Ludwig sent the lines to Edna, “for they are yours as this whole strange thing that is happening to me is yours, is you within me.” “Cling to me” he urged, that “We shall be warmer together / In that outer wild / where our mothers gave us birth /… I offer you pain and travail, / Neither ease of heart / Nor a roof over your head, / Only exorbitant dreams to unravel / That shall be part / Of a world eternal when I am dead.”

Contemplating his end, Ludwig hoped that Edna would share with him this quest for the immortal amid “the storms of … cosmic weather.” Not since his youth had he felt so able to confront that “outer wild” beyond the “mild orchard” in which he and his static world had been nurtured.40 “This is a miraculous thing that is happening to me under your influence,” he told Edna on July 22, the day before he was to leave New Rochelle to be with her. “I do not overvalue these verses. But that love and a woman should for only the second time in my life have this effect,” this he could only dream of after so many years of profound disappointment.41

Elise Asher, having known Ludwig since her childhood years in Chicago, advised Edna not to marry him. He was an incurable romantic, and should be treated as such, with little reason to take seriously his extraordinary attention.42 But even Elise would soon fall under the spell of their days together in Rochester, declaring in a “Sonnet (inspired by Ludwig and Edna)” how “rare the mate … in the other’s star” with “no other choice / Of way…/… only reuniting breath / From which two stars shall shine till death.”43 Yet she would continue to worry over this fragile “reuniting” of lost souls, “a gossamer thread around two hearts … interlacing alien souls.”44

“Never any happiness before you and there could never be any after,” Scott wrote in response to Edna’s “beautiful sad love letter,” just days before Ludwig’s arrival. “Losing each other would beyond the shadow of doubt entail … nothing for us but the everlasting night of loneliness.”45 Edna, however, did not share his acute prescience, and remained uncertain about her feelings for either man when Ludwig arrived on July 23. At Manley’s invitation, he had come to the family estate for a ten-day rest. “A small, kind-appearing man, a trifle rotund, lounged in a comfortable East Avenue home here last evening and dispassionately compared the growing anti-Semitic feeling in America with the bubonic plague in Europe in the 16th Century,” began the newspaper account of his stay. Photographed reclining, with a copy of The Answer in his hand, he had been asked by the reporter to comment on the growing anti-Jewish sentiment in the country. Homegrown and imported by well-paid German agents in America, it was merely “the classical anti-Semitic technique … defamation of something [the New Deal] to which you are opposed through imputation of the cause.” Scapegoated for Germany’s problems, the Jews were being similarly targeted, “especially down in Washington,” where the New Deal had become the “Jew Deal.” Asked about the millions who listened to the radio priest, Father Coughlin, level similar charges against the Jews, Ludwig “merely waved his cigarette and flicked off an ash. ‘The masses will always run after the crackpots.’”

But Ludwig was almost too happy for such talk and waved it all aside, jokingly referring to his upcoming radio appearance that Friday evening as a judge of domestic disputes on “The Court of Arbitration.” “May heaven help me,” he exclaimed, his hands upraised,46 for during his stay at the Manley home, Edna had agreed to marry him. “I was completely knocked off my feet,” Edna wrote a friend four months later. “While I had planned on arranging, by hook or crook, to be near him the rest of my life, I had never dreamed of marriage because I knew he was completely fed up with the state. And so was I.… But I regained my ‘poise’ and accepted like a lady.”47 Edna confessed in her diary the following March that she had feared not being able to properly show her love (“hadn’t been a woman in a normal way for years”) or care for someone as needy as Jim, her illness having proven so debilitating physically and emotionally. Though acutely aware of the very real possibility of a relapse, she consoled herself by pledging “to give him … everything he’s never had and which I can’t let him die without.”48

Edna later noted in her diary just how gravely conflicted she had felt during those summer weeks and into early fall, wanting not to hurt Scott, whom she still loved, despite her decision to marry Ludwig. “How could I be so faithless to a person whose hand had been held out to me in a dark period of my life, and had never been withdrawn?”49 Scott was devastated by Edna’s news. “Like death, one admits it but does not believe in it.” Many, he told her, had sought to marry him, and he would now pick “the redheaded girl” above the “rich familied coed 19 from Smith,” the dancer, the actress, “and so on,” though he knew his decision to be as ill-conceived as Edna’s. Both were destined to bring only misery into their partners’ lives. “I am sorry for Ludwig Lewisohn. As I am sorry for the woman who will throughout the remaining years have my body and hear the emptiness of my voice.… You will be had by no-one, anymore than I.” Their marriage to each other would have brought such beauty into this darkening time, he railed, condemning their failure, hers “of simple vanities,” his of a “too-too delicate regard for the psychic amenities.… Why have we cheated the world so bitterly? You have made a terrible mistake…. And I have helped you into it…. I have learned now that there are depths of agony which even a writer is ashamed of.”50

Yet, three days later he would tell her how appalled he was at the prospect of her being “surrounded by Rabbis and looking reverent at their goddammed whining superstitions,” and promised to hit her “with a box of matzas.” How could she find any truth in all of this, “rabbinical or otherwise,” or truly “feel that in its half rituals and selfrighteous formulas it represents the upreaching of the human spirit”? “Oh God,” he declared to her out of unrequitable frustration, “What will you do when the music talks to you of our closeness, in bed, on the bridge, everywhere, length against length, glance into glance, word into word, body into body?” What would she do “throughout the long nights with age coming closer and death behind it”?51

“This is a terrible mistake and can spread nothing but anguish,” he confidently, and accurately, predicted on August 24, refusing her request to see him one last time. “You cannot see into any eyes but mine, and none will see into you. It is inevitable that you will come to hate Lewisohn and he to hate you … because of the truth that your heart is right here in my chest, beating and aching.” The agitation of her letter passing, he wrote again that day. “The seas have subsided, and the fogs have blown away, and I am almost at peace,” though “not a gay peace,” suffering still the inability to understand how Edna could dismiss so readily “the meeting of two persons who answer each other down to their deepest core and are together in their lightest fun and in their hottest lust.” How could she abandon this “meeting of congruous souls,” he wondered, having again, apparently, expressed her love for him. “Since you love me, I cannot see how you can give any happiness to Lewisohn. Perhaps you have been sparing me the truth and you have really fallen in love with this other man, but I doubt that very much and would continue to doubt it even if you said it was true.”52

Edna was never truly free of her feelings for Scott, even in the last years of her life, more than three decades after his sudden death by coronary at the age of thirty-nine, cutting short a promising career as a writer. Only three months before accepting Ludwig’s proposal, she had written in her diary that the years of illness and isolation “in a death cell in the land of the dead” had given her “an opportunity to learn the ‘verities,’ to learn what helplessness and hopelessness and despair is, an opportunity to study some and read a great deal, to desire music.” But most of all, they had been “three years of increasing loneliness and longing for Scott.”53

Fully aware of this ambivalence, even after their marriage, Edna felt compelled one day to explain to Ludwig the wavering she was convinced he had sensed the previous summer. Born of the guilt she felt for having abandoned Scott, her true lover and friend, she tried to share these feelings with Ludwig, hoping thereby to find some absolution for herself. “My core was rotten with bleeding and the deep seed of joy was muddy. Only when you were with me was I distracted from hating myself.”54

Edna never quite forgave herself, as Scott had predicted, not only for what she had done to him, but for what she had done to herself, as well. For years she continued to search for understanding, settling ultimately upon motives she believed less than noble. “Excited, as was everyone, by the presence of that powerful, brilliant man … in whom I saw an opportunity for a wider life,” how could she have refused? Her father, whose approval she continued to seek until his death, had supported this decision, having repeatedly demonstrated his disapproval of Scott. Taking every measure possible to ensure that Ludwig’s stay would be the most pleasant possible, Manley had redecorated Edna’s room for his guest and transformed her “bawdy” uncle into Ludwig’s personal valet and chauffeur, uniform and all. And to Edna, Ludwig appeared to be the “teacher, friend and type of father for whom I had recently [‘always’ appears first in her accounting, but is scratched out] longed.” Flattered but somewhat embarrassed by so much attention, Ludwig told his host that he was “a very simple man,” wanting only to rest. Edna could see that “he was defeated at that time as a man, as well as a writer.” He appeared “discouraged … very blood shot and exhausted.” And as Edna later recounted, “I was curious about my own self, and I thought that perhaps it would be good for him if I showed him that he was also a man, but frankly I was thinking of his ego, but I was also thinking of my own problem. And so we went to bed together.” A crash rang throughout the darkened house, and when Edna’s startled parents ran into her room, there lay Ludwig and his lover on the floor amidst the broken bed parts.

“I was just doing a little experimenting,” Edna would recall with a wry laugh and a twinkling eye. “Experimenting for myself, but I was trying to help him too.” And while she was “getting a big lift out of the whole thing,” he suddenly told her that he was free to marry since Thelma and he were never legally tied to each other! Would she then marry him? “I had no intention of marrying him … [but] couldn’t take back anything I’d said” about his being as attractive a man as he was a great writer. “That would have thrown him back into the ditch again. And I didn’t have the guts to explain to him my point of view, for fear of hurting him. And I didn’t know where I was anyway, after three years of illness and isolation and self-doubt.” Perhaps this latter explanation is closest to the mark. “It was a gorgeous time for all of us, and so it should have remained.” Yet Ludwig, “so much older, should have sized up the situation, and doubtless would have, had I allowed him to do so.” But she could not take the risk. “Flattered by the proposal,” and though riddled by doubts, she was determined to break out of her confining world with his help, willingly given.55

It is doubtful that Ludwig sensed how deeply the conflict tore at Edna’s thoughts and feelings. All through the night, as his train had made its way back to her “at the end of eight heavy weeks of separation,” he had dreamed how nothing now separated her “soul from mine.” “All my grim determination never to marry again” dissolved in their first moments together. “I had the good sense to know—good sense coming to me so late, so almost too late—that all my previous experiences had nothing to do with this—this, the unique, ultimate, incomparable,” he would write a year later. From that moment of her acceptance, they had acted “like people who had wasted a great deal of their time … and who now, now, had better not waste more or sacrifice to false gods or think of the world and its cruelties.” He despised her parents’ questioning his intentions (as had Mrs. Spear). Avoiding them when possible, they spent their remaining time deep in a “laughter [that] cleansed and healed me [of] all the perilous stuff” of the years that had come to naught. He felt reborn, fresher even than “in the dawn and bloom of youth … gay and secure in the world and full of joy and hope,” even if the world would look unfavorably upon their “supposed involvements.”56

Edna’s father moved quickly to dissolve the marriage between his daughter and the man he had pressured her into marrying some years before Scott.57 Ludwig similarly wasted little time in preparing the stage for the next act in his life. Thelma had made it obvious that she wanted a life beyond their home and had, since moving to New Rochelle, increased her professional activities, including appearances on stage and radio under the direction of Edward Moritz, who, in the coming weeks, would set to music for her several poems written by Ludwig for Edna.58 Arriving home on August 1, he called Thelma into his study the next morning and in German (“It’s subtler and more pointed for such things”) discussed their separation. She had, in fact, hoped to deepen her relationship with Moritz, now grown beyond a professional one, but was prevented from doing so by what she believed was a “mother fixation.” “I had hoped they would go comfortably to bed together,” Ludwig wrote Edna later that day. “It seemed a great pity that a woman should so thoroughly destroy her marriage and yet get none of the profits.” And so, while Thelma had freely admitted to Ludwig that their lives together had become “a lie since by her own confession, flung at me a hundred times, she was only waiting for some other plan and form of life and forcing me to live in an atmosphere of hostility and homelessness,” she was nonetheless taken aback by his precipitous proposal of separation. Even Ludwig had to admit that while he could tell Edna that “the end is in sight. In sight,” Thelma’s fear of being forever without another man had made her initial reluctance to assent understandable.59

After a day’s grace between their initial discussion and the next, Thelma agreed to break up their home of fifteen years by the first of October. (When packing, Thelma would include among her possessions a number of Ludwig’s personal items, as had Mary, including his grandmother’s silver napkin ring.)60 Elated, he set to verse his feelings of liberation and rebirth, though days of anguish yet remained before he and Edna would be together. “This is my Autumn, there is no denying,” he told her, and though “No herb will ultimately counteract / The execrable processes of dying,” she should not grieve, “For you have turned my Autumn into Spring. / A miracle of wide victorious wing / [that] Lifts me beyond old sorrows not yet gone / And crowds with leafage boughs that once were bare.”61

On August 4, Ludwig rewrote several verses he had sent Edna two weeks earlier. Gone was the foreboding promise of “pain and travail,” of a life together without “ease of heart.” With “the mood of wild misgiving … over for all time,” he offered her “a miraculous garden / where those few abide / who have been cleansed to the core, / whose deep hearts have forgotten how to harden / And whose wide / eyes have melted together forevermore.” “Not satisfied with this version either,” these words now stood as both poetry and pledge. In September, Edward Moritz would set them to music for Thelma’s growing repertoire, while Edna would soon retype them for what she and Ludwig anticipated would become his first volume of published poetry, a vision ultimately left unfulfilled for reasons both personal and literary.62

“I am the man who has eaten of the flesh-pots of Egypt with bitterness and contentiousness and been a slave to things and desirousness,” Ludwig admitted to Edna the following day. But now, finally, he had a chance for a new life, a simpler life where at “a kitchen table with you I’ll be at home with myself and my soul and my God … at the center of the universe and back from all my wanderings.”63 He had turned from “the semblance of [a] marriage without its reality” that had driven him to “drinking harder and harder and having a mistress,” and from the “twoness” of a life “unintegrated … [and] homeless,” and toward the “echad,” the unity he had sought all through his years. “I shall live simply,” he promised Spiro in writing of this new life, without maintaining a household he “could not in honesty afford.” “I shall have peace and concentration,” without the pretentiousness and the lies that had made him “sick to the soul.… I must get back to myself and the emeth [truth] of my life.”64

He wanted as much for Jim, who was already showing the ill-effects of “the Westchester environment where all luxuries are taken for blankly granted and no moral demands are made.” Ludwig admitted his difficulty in correcting Jim’s behavior (“he has so much charm”), made more acute by the obvious strain of his parents’ unhappy years together. “If you don’t buy me a water-gun we won’t be friends,” Jim had threatened Ludwig. “I’ll water-gun him!” Ludwig had answered in frustration.65

To Ludwig, Thelma now seemed relatively content, “despite certain terrors and a certain apprehensiveness at being morally on her own.” She was anxious to begin her life anew, speaking often of their need to search for separate Manhattan apartments, assuring him that the break would be accomplished without “vulgar wrangling over possessions,” going so far as to offer him her mother’s bookcase as a keepsake of the relationship he had once had with Mrs. Spear.66

When two days later Thelma began the first steps toward independence, she returned home in “a fit of rebellion.… It suddenly came over her what it means to live alone,” Ludwig explained to Edna. He tried to reassure Thelma that “she was young, handsome, talented and with $3500 a year for which she didn’t have to work,” in “a rather enviable situation.” To Ludwig, it seemed just another of her innumerable outbursts. At least there were no witnesses before whom she could embarrass him. Even her protestations over the loss of her son appeared “half playing, half histrionically feeling the part of the mother.” He granted her some measure of sincerity, but in his estimation, “it goes just about one inch deep.” At the first instance of inconvenience or interference with her career “she’d go through three roofs and the stench of the fumes would be intolerable.”67

Whatever positive visions of this liberated future Thelma may have had, by the spring of 1940 her anger would create a new telling of events, quite self-servingly recalled. According to her account, at Ludwig’s suggestion they had moved to an “imposing” Manhattan apartment, though she had hoped for “a modest little place whose four walls contained all there was of love and happiness.” Suddenly he suggested they separate for a “Sabbatical year” in which she could pursue her career. She protested that her career didn’t matter, but he persisted until she gave in, moving to a penthouse with a terrace overlooking Riverside Drive ten blocks from Ludwig. Though smaller than Ludwig’s, it “was enough for me.” At first content to have “time [that] was my own,” she missed Jim, but had satisfied these longings with frequent visits. Only when weeks later she arrived hoping to see him and discovered that he had gone with his father to see Edna did she suddenly realize that Ludwig was in fact leaving her for a woman whom she had thought was merely her husband’s friend and artistic inspiration.68

By the time this story appeared in Living Romances, the situation had irreversibly deteriorated. But in its earliest days, this new arrangement held promise for all. Long put aside, Ludwig’s next novel, set in the era of the French Revolution, was again having life breathed into it. Emblematic of his liberation from the “sordid cares … [and] trivial agitations” that had “crippled [me] on my road to perfection,” its protagonist would find freedom not in the political posturings of the state but in the spiritual promises embodied in Jewish tradition. In this desperate hour, three weeks before the Nazis’ invasion of Poland, Ludwig hoped to draw on the broadest canvas and speak to all of humanity.

Working at the notes of the novel. I find that my material is magnificent, authentic. I gathered these documents over a series of years. I find too that the analogies of history and therefore the identities of human psychology and action are terrific, ironic (this is the note I’ll stress) and depressing. I don’t see that man has changed one whit for the better or, in fact, changed at all since this period immediately preceding the French revolution. All we have added are gadgets, some convenient, some only dangerous. In such a world what is there for the individual ultimately but the pursuit (counseled by both the prophets and Goethe) of individual perfection, of rising to one’s highest.

For Ludwig, this demanded his “attachment to a great cause.”69 For all that he needed his muse, she was not the goal, but the means. From the very beginning, he needed to go beyond her inspiration and into the larger world arena where fulfillment could truly be found. His spirit rested and renewed, he could not long remain outside of it. “Life’s inmost music no more in flight,” he wrote ten days later in “Autumn Presage,” he was once again readied to “Enter at last the portal of his being,”70 with Edna, his muse, ever at his side. “For we shall be together as / The long sweet seasons go,” we “Who have possessed their Promised Land / And won Jerusalem.”71 “I’m alive creatively,” he exclaimed in astonishment to Spiro, “a strange involuntary rebirth” that had produced poetry (“good stuff, I Swear!”) and “an immense historical, Jewish, meta-Jewish novel in mind and researches … [though] written no word” as yet.72

“Circumstances” had kept him from the writing, he told Canfield on August 22, but quieter moments now made it possible. He was in need of “any reasonably paid employment in the field of letters—literary or drama reviewing, reading, translating—anything!” Not only would he profit, but the world would gain from his insights. “Did you read this morning’s Times?” he asked Canfield rhetorically. “Do you remember Trumpet of Jubilee—the novel in which the Nazi-Soviet alliance was predicted? I am—am I not—a regular Jeremiah…. Again and again in literature and life I’ve said the decisive word. Few or more listened. When the event came,” he added mockingly, “it was forgotten.”73

After an extended silence, Ludwig wrote to Stephen Wise as well, apprising him of the separation from Thelma, effective October 1. Apartments had been secured (paid for in part by “guaranteeing her an income in addition to her own from Burlington,” the property there having been turned into an apartment house), and Thelma had consented to Ludwig’s “complete legal control” over Jim. “Without passing judgment,” he reminded Wise how Thelma had “refused to legalize our union in the interests of her career.” Such arrangements now seemed “best for everyone. I shall have peace of mind; Thelma will be able to do what she has long desired to do; above all, Jim will be better off.” Playing the roles of both parents would not be easy, “but that has been the situation anyway.” And if his income held steady, Thelma’s permanent absence would allow him to get a grasp on his finances and begin to meet his overdue obligations to friends and supporters. Perhaps the presence in Manhattan of his antique Judaica would make the collection’s sale possible.74

“Your letter is very painful—but inevitable,” Wise responded to this most welcome news. “I wondered how things could go on as long as you have endured them. Everything has seemed so impossible.” He was happy to see that Ludwig had not allowed the relationship to “go on and on forever … for Jim’s sake.” Wishing to have no further communication with Thelma, Wise asked Ludwig not to relate any of this to her. “We have tolerated her because of you. We shall try not to see her hereafter.” Wise advised his friend to be prepared for “a period of adjustment,” but assured him that all would work out for the best. “A great and crushing load has been lifted off your soul, and you will have to begin life anew, with the same courage with which you have done it before.” Unaware of Edna, Wise sought to bolster his friend’s courage by reminding him of “the added incentive of the boy’s precious life in your hands. Oh, how fortunate you are, that the boy is yours instead of remaining in the hands of that poor, hysterical, unstable being!”75 Later that week, Wise told a friend of his earlier suspicions that For Ever Wilt Thou Love, with its negative portrayal of the main female character, had been autobiographical. There had been something almost enjoyable about observing the entire affair, he admitted. “Terrible old gossip that I am, I cannot deny myself the pleasure.”76

Two weeks later Wise would learn that, in Ludwig’s absence, Thelma had opened his letter. Her response, Wise admitted to Ludwig, was “an example of divine forbearance such as she evidently did not extend to you and your mortal frailties.”77 In Thelma’s assessment, their marriage had ended “because a Goyish woman has taken L.L. from me and broken up our home.” She had been “betrayed,” and had not grown “unstable.” While remaining “faithful” to him for sixteen years (“my relationships have been platonic”), he had “wronged” her with affairs she had forgiven, including one in Chicago “culminating in a very expensive abortion.” “For fourteen years we never had a scene,” though she did admit to being “hysterical … once in a while” because of Ludwig’s neglect. Was she any less entitled to her feelings? Had he not “written his best books conspicuously at my side”? Still, she hoped that they might “come together again!” though it appeared unlikely. Declaring her eternal love for him (promising to “call his name on my dying bed”), she recognized with deep appreciation all that Ludwig had been to her, and acknowledged sorrowfully that she had not been capable of being to him all that he had wished. “So I am thankful for the years of growth at his side and sorry that in some ways I have failed to live up to his ideal.”78

Thelma could not have known that another note regarding these matters had arrived at the Wise home only the day before hers. Mrs. Spear had extracted a death-bed promise from an old family friend who had remained faithful to her commitment. Familiar enough with these matters, she passed judgment on both parties, condemning each for their extramarital activities. But Ludwig’s seemed particularly puzzling to her. “I can’t believe he would at this age and in this present national chaos so far forget his Genetic purity and mix up with a Gentile,” a curious comment given Thelma’s own lack of formal conversion. Yet she seemed sympathetic to Ludwig as well, acknowledging that “his creative work has been hurt by his desire to compete with our oversexed youngster [Thelma]. Her influence has been bad.”79

After so many years of denying this to himself, Ludwig had reached the same conclusion. When he looked at Edna, he saw in her an opportunity to correct this misdirection. Few were aware of just how deeply Edna had moved him, of how profoundly different he believed this new relationship was from his previous entanglements. “I can see now by contrast and in retrospect,” he wrote Edna on August 24, a week before his next planned visit to Rochester, “that at best and at earliest Thelma was an exquisite plaything and a compensation for things missed and a flower in my button-hole. Out of that material,” he admitted, “I tried to build the woman and the helpmate I needed. And failed. But you are that woman,” he assured Edna, guilty once again of romantic delusion. “I feel prayerful … and say my afternoon liturgy (Mincha) quietly to myself, that you and I may win the way to each other.”

“Twoness doesn’t suit me,” he tried to explain. It violated the very “essence of our religion too: the sinfulness of twoness, dividedness, unintegratedness. “Unity … thrice in our daily prayers,” that was what he hoped to achieve, and what she promised, “the extraordinary coincidence of the metaphysical and psychological.”80 “You have one thing else which I have never found before,” he wrote two days before his arrival at her home, the very “thing that makes the world go around … cheses v’emeth, loving-kindness and veracity.”

But in the end he couldn’t quite believe his good fortune, and perhaps to reassure himself before a final and fearful plunge, asked Edna one last time if she was as certain as he of their decision to wed. “Are you quite sure that you want to be the wife of a rather demanding husband and the mother of a rather difficult child with—in all probability—only quite modest worldly rewards and not much to be sure of except your man’s entire love and trust and faith and worship?”81

He would seek the assurance he needed from her during his three-day visit to Rochester. But what influence world events would play upon the answers each would give to the other, what role the insecurities of the moment would play upon their perceptions, must be left to speculation, exercised against the backdrop of his arrival on September 1, 1939.

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