In “The Art of Adventure” published in Vogue in 1953, Eleanor Clark wrote: “It seems safest to start by sticking one’s neck out and sounding as foolish as possible, which on this subject means confessing to an unalterable weakness for the word adventure.” Clark—an enterprising Vassar graduate, radical supporter of labor and leftist politics and renowned author—was constantly seeking out adventure whether travelling through Europe, staying with Trotskyites in Mexico or meticulously examining remote cultures.
Born on July 16, 1913, in Los Angeles, California, Clark began moving from place to place with her family an early age. The second daughter of mining engineer Frederick Huntington Clark and Eleanor Phelps Clark, she first moved to Roxbury, Connecticut where she spent most of her youth. Later, Clark attended school not only in Roxbury but also in France and Italy, and at Rosemary Hall in Greenwich, Connecticut, before enrolling at Vassar, where her paternal grandmother, Myra Smith Clark (class of 1873) had studied. Clark was proud of this lineage, and on July 4, 1975, she published in The New York Times one of her grandmother’s letters headed “Philadelphia, July 4, 1876,” which detailed the festivities of the centennial Fourth of July and was, the writer claimed, written beside a window that overlooked Susan B. Anthony and her fellow suffragists arguing for a woman’s right to vote. Myra Smith Clark wrote to her husband, John Bates Clark:
“At twelve the bell on the tower of Independence Hall was struck and was cheered by the crowd. Soon carriages began to scatter the crowd in which were seated the representatives of all nations and many of our public men. The horses fairly trampled on the crowd and we saw one man drawn into the carriage of some officers—hurt as it seemed. After the carriages came light processions—bands and wagons illustrative of various occupations. The whole affair was thoroughly American and I become tired of it shortly and went to sleep on the bed. The fireworks were very brilliant…. I suppose the most graceful thing I saw done last night was an act of the British Commission. As they approached Independence Hall in their carriage they all rose and gave three hearty cheers. I thought it a very pretty act on the part of our former enemies of 1776.”
In a 1978 interview for The New York Times, Clark discussed her grandfathers, who were both quite influential in literary and academic circles during the late nineteenth century. Myra Smith Clark’s husband, John Bates, was an economics professor at Columbia University and taught Thorstein Veblen, the author of the highly influential work: The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Her maternal grandfather, Charles Henry Phelps, was a lawyer and poet who was a friend of such authors as William Dean Howells, Herman Melville and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Clark recalled: “We have Longfellow’s quill pin from my grandfather. I was very irked because my mother gave that pen to my husband instead of me—she didn’t really take women writers seriously.”
At Vassar, Clark worked on the editorial board of The Miscellany News and briefly served as the president of the Italian club, Circolo Leonardo, in 1933 before resigning the position in favor of the club secretary, Martha Collins. Her resignation may have been due to her involvement with Con Spirito, an mutinous magazine she is credited with founding, in February 1933, along with Elizabeth Bishop (’34), Mary McCarthy (’33), Frani Blough (‘33), Margaret Miller (’34) and Clark’s older sister Eunice (’33). The magazine was intended to be a fresh alternative to the Vassar Review, which this group considered outdated and stuffy. The Miscellany News presented the goals of the new magazine: “Simple and inexpensive in format, it will attempt to express the interest of our own generation, at the same time upholding the highest possible standards of technique.” According to Margaret Miller, editorial meetings were held in speakeasies, “[f]orbidden territory. So that lent [it] an air of suspense.” The magazine kept no official records and appeared anonymously. Though Clark is commonly included as a member of this elusive publication, in her biography of Mary McCarthy, Seeing Mary Plain (2000), Frances Kiernan quotes Clark as saying she “had nothing to do with it,” having left Vassar in 1933 to study at Barnard for a year. The anonymity and the lack of records for Con Spirito leave her involvement with the magazine inconclusive.
Earlier, during the summer of 1932, Clark had formed a short-lived publication, The Housatonic, at home in Roxbury, along with three other members of the Miscellany News board: her sister Eunice, Muriel Rukeyser (ex-’34), and Denise Dryden (’32). The Miscellany News reported: “the editorial plan is to work, through a critical survey of New England economics, politics, social conditions, and culture, past and present, to a positive view for the future.” It was a socially conscious magazine that reflected Clark’s strong political views and liberal sentiments—sentiments that she was never afraid to profess during her time at Vassar. In commemoration of Armistice Day in 1931, Clark had spoken of disarmament, the League of Nations and her generation’s obligation to get involved:
“Obviously there are few of us here with any near prospects of swaying the League of Nations with our eloquence or originality. However, this does not mean that we must mew passively in our chosen rut while nations shake hands or fly at each other’s throats; and if we don’t feel a vocation for soap-box oratory, at least we may show our interest by following as closely as possible the attitudes towards peace of the student bodies of other countries.”
She was in fact in contact with similarly political and peace-minded students in Italy with whom she discussed the benefits of fascist Italy’s temporary discontinuation of arms production in 1931. Her correspondences, briefly outlined in her Armistice Day speech, emphasized the importance of international cooperation. Clark also spoke at an Armistice Day assembly alongside president MacCracken in 1933. She denounced war as a result of “unconscious prejudice” and as a “standardizing influence” threatening to undermine “individual freedom.”
Her political preoccupations not only included criticisms of war and calls for international cooperation but also outspoken defenses of worker’s rights. In the fall of 1933, Clark was chosen to be Executive Secretary of the Vassar branch of the American Students’ Union of the Farmer Labor Political Federation. This organization promoted cooperation between different sectors of the Farmer Labor Party, reconciling divisions between radical labor factions throughout the country, strengthening understanding of the Farmer Labor Party’s platform and advancing the party’s agenda. Clark’s dedication to promoting labor interests grew increasingly radical after she left Vassar. In 1935, The Miscellany News reported on an interview on the WJZ radio station, sponsored by NBC and the League for Political Education, in which Clark condemned America’s neglect of worker’s rights:
“The independent action of the working class is the only solution to youth’s problem…. No employer is going to pay Union wages when he knows he can pay the same one-third that the government pays…. There is no security under the present system, which is leading directly to war; if we must fight, let us fight for a system which gives to those who produce the benefit of production, not for one which makes a hideous joke of the word democracy.”
She went on to join the ranks of Manhattan’s political left, befriending Trotskyites like journalist Herbert Solow and writing for such leftist publications as The Nation, The Partisan Review and The New Republic. Clark also worked as a translator for Leon Trotsky during a brief time in Mexico in 1937, marrying one of Trotsky’s secretaries, Jan Frankel. In the third volume of her autobiography, Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936-1938 (1992), Mary McCarthy suggested that Clark’s marriage to Frankel was a sham or “white” marriage, meant only to get Trotsky’s secretary U.S. citizenship. She thought Clark’s marriage “pretentious” and further wrote: “I didn’t like Eleanor Clark and we barely acknowledged each other.”
In a 1977 interview for The New York Times Book Review, Clark discussed the strong social consciousness and Trotskyite leanings to which she devoted most of her energies throughout the 1930s:
“Well, as with many people who came to maturity during the depression, the 30s for me was a time of great searching and soul-searching. It took the form of a certain immersion in what can be called the Trotskyite periphery…. We were exposed in our youth to massive suffering from the malfunctioning of the economic system, and although some people speak as if all WASPs were rich, I can assure you I wasn’t. Not in direst poverty either. But it was a trembly time, not only with the Depression but with the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow Trials. May I just add that, whatever the errors may turn out to have been, there was a great personal integrity to be found in the anti-Stalinist left, Trotskyite and others, which has been strangely misrepresented in some quarters lately.”
Though she remained involved in politics during and after WWII—becoming decidedly less radical—she also began to devote more of her time to writing. Since her graduation, she had sporadically worked in publishing, translating and ghostwriting, first releasing her translation of Ramón J. Sender’s Dark Wedding (Epitalamio Del Prieto Trinidad) (1943) followed by her debut novel The Bitter Box (1946). The novel was well received, and Clark got a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation as well as an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters for her work. During the early part of her new career, she also published reviews of novels, poetry and plays in The New Yorker, the Yale Review, the Partisan Review and the Kenyon Review, among other publications. In the summer of 1949, she reviewed Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman for the Partisan Review, declaring the play—later to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—the production of “the second-rate mind” and “very dull business.”
With the release in 1952 of Rome and a Villa, the highly acclaimed account of her extended travels in Italy during the late 1940s, Clark cemented her status as an author.
Eleanor Clark, ca. 1950
On December 7 of that same year, Clark married the poet, novelist and critic Robert Penn Warren at her parent’s home, Southover Farm, in Roxbury. Clark first met Warren—a three time Pulitzer Prize winner—at a party in 1944 at which time she was working for the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C. and Warren was married to his first wife, Emma Warren, whom he later divorced on June 27, 1951. At the time of her death, in 1996, The New York Times offered a colorful report of their first encounter:
“Although she recounted later that she had pursued Warren, once confiding that it had taken all her guile to get a simple good-night kiss, at the first meeting he seems to have been more taken with her than she with him. She left the party with one of his friends, the poet Denis Devlin, and, as Mr. Warren later railed in recounting the meeting to his children, ‘a bunch of other drunken Irishmen.’”
The couple had two children together, Rosanna and Gabriel, and moved to Fairfield, Connecticut, where Warren and Clark continued to pursue their writing careers.
In 1961, Clark, Warren and their two children spent five months on the south coast of Brittany in France, where she had spent a summer as a young child. During her stay, she became interested in French oyster farms, returning again in 1962 to conduct research for her study of the history, lore and cultivation of the local Belon oysters, The Oysters of Locmariaquer (1964), which won the National Book Award in 1965. Her husband had won the award seven years earlier for his poetry collection Promises (1957), and Warren and Clark were thus the first married couple to have both won National Book Awards.
Eleanor Clark returned to Vassar in later life, twice with her husband. In October 1965, when Warren spoke on “Poetry: The End of an Era,” she met with students in the senior composition class, and in October 1982 the husband and wife team engaged in joint appearance. “Clark expressed a few misgivings about returning to Vassar” reported The Miscellany News, “quoting T. S Eliot ‘There’s only so much reality someone can stand.’ She said she continued to stand by her attitude of living and appreciating Vassar from afar.” “Thunderous applause” greeted her reading of “a short story entitled ‘The Beauty,’ and a piece written in Vermont about a neat-as-a-pin family, ‘The Tidys’.” Warren followed his wife’s performance with a reading of ten of his poems.
As she got older, Clark began to suffer from macular degeneration, but this did not prevent her from writing. In 1977, she published her last major work, Eyes, Etc.—an experimental, picaresque memoir dealing in part with her failing sight. She wrote the book in a year, using black Magic Markers on oversized drawing boards so that she could read her work. It opens with a quotation from John Milton, the great blind poet, and describes comical snippets of her life with which she interweaves Homeric figures, including Priam and Achilles. Her preface offers a compelling reaction to the disease:
“If the writer of what follows could at the time have named the affliction, written the nasty words, there’d be no such pages. Not glaucoma anyway, nothing she’d ever heard of before though not too uncommon, they say. One eye first, three years earlier; that’s all right, rotten for tennis but not bad otherwise. Then the second. Massive retinal hemorrhages beyond laser treatment, leaving permanent scar tissue and known by the bleary name of macular degeneration. Loss of sight far from total. Job must have looked pretty lucky too to some of the neighbors.”
Clark continued writing sporadically despite her affliction, and Warren began reading to her each night so she could keep up with the latest in literature until his death in 1989. Seven years later, Clark died in a Boston retirement home on February 16, 1996, at the age of 82, having lived a life of eclectic literary interests, vigorous political views and willingness to take risks, a life mirrored in the conclusion of her Vogue article on adventure: “it would be a poor life that did not contain the impulse to [adventure] in some measure, and a sad state of things if it were no longer valued.”
Frances Kiernan. Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000.
Alan M. Wald. The New York Intellectuals: the Rise and Fall of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s. The University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Eleanor Clark. “1876: Philadelphia, Crowds and Cheering.” The New York Times, 4 Jul. 1975.
Eleanor Clark. “The Art of Adventure.” Vogue, 1 Sept. 1953.
R.W.B Lewis. “Talk With Eleanor Clark.” The New York Times Book Review, 16 Oct. 1977.
Paul Wilner. “Interview: A Yankee in Her Own Court.” The New York Times, 5 Mar. 1978.
Robert McG. Thomas Jr. “Eleanor Clark Is Dead at 82; A Ruminative Travel Essayist: Using Breton oysters and Roman ruins as a springboard.” The New York Times, 19 Feb. 1996.
“E. Clark, ’34, Presents Views on Disarmament.” The Miscellany News, 11 Nov. 1931.
“Four Members of News Board to Start Magazine.” The Miscellany News, 25 May 1932.
“Con Spirito, Anonymous Publication to Appear.” The Miscellany News, 8 Feb. 1933.
“Nucleus of Farmer Labor Party Formed Here.” The Miscellany News, 21 Oct. 1933.
“Assembly Called in Memory of Armistice Day.” The Miscellany News, 18 Nov. 1933.
“Eleanor Clark, and K. McInerny Speak over WJZ.” The Miscellany News, 27 Nov. 1935.
“Penn Warren to Visit College.” The Miscellany News, 24 Sept. 1982.
"Warren, Clark Warmly Received,” The Miscellany News, 8 Oct. 1982.
Biographical File. Eleanor Clark. “2 Book Award Winners in One Family: a ‘First.’” Bridgeport Sunday Post, 14 Mar. 1965. (VCSC).
Biographical File. Eleanor Clark. “There Is No American Drama” by John Gassner. Theatre Arts, Sept. 1952. (VCSC).