Monday, December 03, 2012

Louise Bryant: Life Goes On


     After Jack Reed's death in 1920, Louise remained in Russia. 
Traveling to the farthest corners of the new Soviet Union, and elsewhere in the Middle East, her bylined news stories were featured in the Hearst newspapers.
On a visit to New York in 1921, Louise tried to interest movie makers in Jack Reed’s book on the Russian revolution. One executive she approached was Paramount’s William Christian Bullitt, a wealthy Philadelphian who had worked closely with President Wilson during World War I.
No movie deal resulted, but Bullitt was smitten by her. When Louise accepted new assignments to cover events in ItalyFranceGreece and Turkey, Bullitt trailed after her like a puppy. He was still married to his first wife, who would not consent to a divorce.
Louise’s skills as a reporter were superb. One of her scoops would be her exclusive January 1923 interview with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

A Third Marriage
A two-year relationship followed. They were married in Paris in December of 1923. Bullitt was 32. She was then 38; he believed her to be 29, another of her little deceptions. A daughter, Anne, was born in February of 1924.
They lived and traveled wherever their fancy--and Bullitt's money--took them. Bullitt suffered from impotence and consulted Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, in Vienna.
In 1925, Bullitt and Louise attended a housewarming in Croton given by artist George Biddle and his wealthy Texas wife, Jane Belo. They were celebrating the purchase of Longue Vue Farm, the Gloria Swanson estate on Mt. Airy Road.
Also present was Francie Elwyn, who with her husband, Dr. Adolph Elwyn, professor of neuroanatomy at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia's medical school, had bought the Boardman Robinson house.
"It was a wild party," she later recalled. "How pretty Louise was, with dark hair and blue eyes." When Bullitt danced with another woman, a jealous Louise went after her with a pair of shears, saying, "Lay off my husband!"
About this time, Louise became aware of health problems She began having a severe and persistent pain in one thigh. As time went on, other parts of her body were affected, growing lumpy and painful.
Doctors in London diagnosed her ailment as adiposis dolorosa, a progressive disease in which fatty tumors form under the skin. First identified in 1892 by Francis X. Dercum, a doctor in Philadelphia, a cure still has not been found for Dercum's disease.
She began drinking heavily, probably to ease the pain. Bullitt's response was to begin a divorce action in 1929 in Philadelphia. He was a formidable adversary.
Louise’s biographers all agree that William Christian Bullitt treated her shabbily in the period leading up to their divorce. He charged her with excessive drinking and the embarrassing public scenes that resulted. He also charged that she had a lesbian relationship with artist Gwendolyn Le Gallienne, a daughter of the English essayist and poet Richard Le Gallienne.
Kitty Cannell, Louise's friend, claimed that Louise was introduced to the lesbian community in Paris at her husband's request. "Bill Bullitt did this with deliberate intent. He wanted to destroy Louise," she insisted.
As was usual in Pennsylvania in uncontested divorces, Bullitt's testimony was given before a Master--in this case Francis Biddle, an old family friend and brother of Croton’s George Biddle. Bullitt neglected to say in his testimony that his wife had an incurable disease.

Alone Again
The divorce was granted in 1930. Bullitt was given custody of their daughter, and made it difficult for Louise to see her.
Although she had not been invited, Louise turned up during the winter of 1930-31 at a party at the stone house George Biddle had built below Longue Vue Farm. It was "not exactly a housewarming--about a dozen couples were invited to see it," Biddle explained.
Louise created a scene, the host later recalled. "Emotionally she had gone to pieces because of this disease she had. She became irresponsible, would get very angry. It was this disease that destroyed her. It was very sad that night.”
Recollections of the events of that evening differ. Biddle thought Bryant had "put on a lot of weight." Floyd Dell's wife, B. Marie, mistakenly believed she had been cured of what she described as "her elephantiasis.”
"I can see her now as she looked that night," B. Marie later recalled, "dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt with fancy studs and a man-tailored dress coat of black velvet. A handsome outfit. She looked very nice, but her behavior was wild, as if she were all doped up."
"She ran out and down Mt. Airy Road," Biddle remembered. "Everyone was worried about her. It was very upsetting. She came back about four in the morning. It was the last time I saw her. A tragic woman."
When Bullitt was appointed the first ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1933, she hoped to get a glimpse of her daughter on her way to Moscow, according to diplomat George F. Kennan, who spotted Louise waiting forlornly on a train platform in Paris.
The final year of Louise's life was spent in Paris. Wracked with pain and in the grip of alcohol and prescription drugs, she died while climbing the stairs of a seedy Left Bank hotel on January 6, 1936, at the age of 48. She is buried in the Cimetiere des Gonards just outside of Paris in Versailles.
Time remembered her as "a pretty, sharp-witted woman." The New York Herald Tribune described her as an “unusually competent journalist."The New Masses called her "a rebel woman of great charm and courage."  After her death, doctrinaire American Marxists tried to diminish her image.
Before he died in 1973, Croton's George Biddle summed up Louise in an interview with her biographer, Virginia Gardner. "She was no cold intellect--she was intuitive, she had a sense of her audience, and she could hold them.
"And, very typical of a person with that Irish charm, she was loyal, she was violent in her emotions, she was partisan. At her best, she was captivating, an able journalist, fierce in her loyalties--a straight shooter."  
Until the end Louise never lost her zest for life, even though penniless and alone. Her courage in the face of adversity was legendary. By defying convention and demanding an equal place in a male-dominated world, Louise Bryant proved that she was a genuine 20th-century heroine.  
In his 1939 autobiography, artist Art Young, a close friend from The Masses, quoted Louise's last communication, a postcard dated a month before she died: "I suppose in the end life gets all of us. It nearly has got me now--getting myself and my friends out of jail--living under curious conditions--but never minding much.” She closed with, “Know always I send my love to you across the stars. If you get there before I do--or later--tell Jack Reed I love him."

Louise Bryant's death made it easy for her divorced husband to move up the diplomatic ladder. Bullitt resigned as ambassador to Russia in 1936 to become ambassador to France. Back in Washington after the 1940 French defeat, he desperately wanted to be named Secretary of State. Standing in the way was Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who had helped to formulate President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Latin American Good Neighbor Policy.
Welles and Roosevelt had both attended Groton and Harvard, and their families were old friends. The easy relationship Welles had with FDR made Bullitt insanely jealous, especially since Welles seemed to be next in line for the State Department post.
Bullitt had heard rumors that Welles, a heavy drinker, was bisexual. When drunk, he did or said things he later could not remember. Bullitt spread the rumor that in 1940 Welles had propositioned the porter of a Pullman sleeping car in which he was traveling. Bullitt attempted to tell FDR, who refused to listen to his scurrilous gossip.
In his 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical work, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department, the highly principled Dean Acheson took note of Bullitt's rumor-mongering campaign against Welles. Describing William Christian Bullitt as Welles's "malign enemy," Acheson remarked dryly that Bullitt's was "a singularly ironic middle name."
Welles resigned in 1943 when it became clear that the rumors had reached the ears of opposition senators and newspapers unfriendly to Roosevelt. Convinced that Bullitt had been the one who spread the homophobic stories, FDR summoned him to the White House.
According to Croton's George Biddle, who heard the story from his brother Francis, then the attorney general, the patrician Roosevelt angrily let Bullitt know in no uncertain terms how he felt about his vendetta against Welles.
"Bill, you'll get to heaven and Welles will be coming up behind you," FDR told him. "You'll take St. Peter aside and say, 'You don't want that fellow here--look at these ugly rumors.'
"And St. Peter will beckon to Welles and say, 'Come on in, we don't care anything about that gossip,' and to you he'll say, 'Now you're to spend ten thousand years in purgatory and then go direct to hell.'"
FDR said, "Bill, you've tried to destroy a fellow human being." Gesturing with his thumb, he added, "Now, get out of here and never come back to the White House."
Tired old Secretary of State and anti-Welles co-conspirator Cordell Hull attempted to get FDR to appoint Bullit to a government post but was turned down emphatically each time.
"Just desserts," Louise would have called it.

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