| The Art of Tasha Tudor |
By Harry Davis
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Tasha Tudor was born to parents whose families had occupied positions of wealth and influence for generations in Boston society. Her mother, Rosamond Tudor, was the granddaughter of Frederic Tudor, internationally known as the Ice King. He had amassed a sizable fortune by developing a way to ship New England ice to faraway places, including India and Persia. The family's friends down through the generations were accomplished and influential and included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein, and Buckminster Fuller. Frederic Tudor is referred to in Thoreau's Walden and was the inspiration for Amy's suitor in Loiusa May Alcott's Little Women.
The Tudors had been well connected for centuries. Tasha's great-great-grandfather Colonel William Tudor had been a friend and aide to George Washington and, along with Washington and Lafayette, had helped form the Society of the Cincinnati, the nation's oldest fraternal organization. He studied law under John Adams and served as the first judge advocate general of the United States.
An accomplished portrait painter, the highly individual and protofeminist Rosamond Tudor was evenly matched with Tasha's father, William Starling Burgess. Descended from a prominent and wealthy New England family, the Burgesses had lost their money, as had the Tudors, but the luster remained. A naval architect, Burgess designed three victorious America's Cup defenders. He was an important part of the early days of aviation and, with Buckminster Fuller, created the Dymaxion automobile. Although he had pursued yacht design as a profession, he also seemed to have seriously considered the life of a poet. His one published volume of poetry, The Eternal Laughter and Other Poems, while not popular with the public, received critical acclaim among fellow poets of his day.
The affair between Rosamond Tudor and Starling Burgess resulted in a scandal that rocked the foundations of proper Boston society. Burgess was still recovering from the recent suicide of his first wife, who had been found clutching a note to him that read, "You loved me once." Rosamond Tudor's husband, Alex Higginson, was not only wealthy and socially prominent, he was Starling's boyhood friend. In the two years preceding the affair, Starling had designed two sloops for Alex, one of which, the Outlook, was the 1902 winner of the Quincy Yacht Club Challenge Cup. Starling and Alex's long personal and professional relationship made the divorce particularly nasty. To further complicate matters, Rosamond and Alex had a young son, Henry. The affair put their families, friends, and colleagues in a delicate position. At the height of the divorce proceedings, Starling left Boston to spend four months in England.
Starling and Rosamond were determined to be together and were quite willing to shock society and endure gossip and disapproval in order to do so. The process was emotionally draining as well as difficult to accomplish. Divorce was complicated and unpleasant at the turn of the century, but they persevered and were eventually able to marry. It is a further measure of the Tudor family's circle of acquaintances that Calvin Coolidge represented Rosamond in the divorce proceedings. When their marriage finally took place, in 1904, the Boston Globe called it "the most striking wedding of the year."
Together, they produced two sons, Edward and Frederic, but they were to lose Edward in a drowning accident, for which they both felt responsible. Left unsupervised on the deck of Starling's boat, which lay at anchor, Edward fell overboard, unnoticed by Rosamond and Starling, who were in their quarters below. The tragedy would eventually tear them apart, but the more immediate result was their decision to have another child, born on August 28, 1915, who was christened Starling Burgess but would grow up to become Tasha Tudor. "If Edward hadn't drowned," Tasha has observed, "I'd have never been born Maman's doctors had warned her never to have another child." Tasha grew up keenly aware that her birth had been an attempt to replace her lost brother rather than the result of her parents' desire to have another child, and certainly not a daughter. The groundwork was unfortunately laid for lifelong feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem.
Her father was quite fond of Natasha, the heroine of Tolstoy's War and Peace, and he and Frederic held a second christening for his new daughter, renaming her. Natasha would soon be shortened to Tasha.
Tasha's parents divorced when she was nine, and she was sent to live with family friends, "Aunt Gwen" and "Uncle Michael," in Connecticut. Gwen Mikkelson was the granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and she and her husband, Michael, shared an enormously creative, quite bohemian household. "I was brought up in complete sin," Tasha would say years later, with obvious relish.
Tasha would see her father only occasionally after the divorce. He would marry three more times and father two more children, Diana and Ann, by his third wife, Elsie Foss. His fourth marriage, to Nannie Dale Biddle, in 1933, and his last, to Majorie Young, in 1945, were both childless.
Starling Burgess was widely respected as a yacht designer as well as an aviation pioneer but his timing was always off, as was his judgment in business matters. His tempestuous affairs, marriages, and divorces unfortunately connected to his social and professional circles created additional problems, including bankruptcy and several contemplated suicides, and were definite factors in his never achieving financial success or the acclaim he so desired and, given his brilliance in both yachting and aviation, probably deserved. Physically he suffered from a severe, long undiagnosed gastric ulcer, which contributed to decades of near addiction to morphine.
A friend of Starling's last wife, Majorie, wrote to her prior to their marriage and, according to Tasha, described him accurately: "With all his brilliance, he is a child, and that is part of his charm. He will not face hard facts, but will hide from them and will love the person who shields him from them." It is ironic and sad that a number of Tasha Tudor's friends and professional colleagues agree that the description is equally appropriate to his daughter as well. Perhaps it is a price that must be paid for genius.
Although Tasha sometimes visited her mother's studio in Greenwich Village or wintered with her in Bermuda, Rosamond wasn't any more involved in her rearing than was her father. Tasha was essentially allowed to do as she pleased. When socializing with her mother's friends in New York, she would invariably be introduced as "Rosamond Tudor's daughter, Tasha." Everyone assumed, therefore, that her name was Tasha Tudor. Tasha liked the sound of it and stopped using Burgess as a last name. Her name wasn't legally changed until decades later, when she needed a passport and wanted it in the name she had become accustomed to using.
Visits to her grandmother's home on Beacon Hill maintained a Boston connection, and she spent several years at boarding school, but the greatest influence on her creative development came from the Mikkelsons. Members of the family wrote and directed plays, casting themselves and a host of friends in a variety of roles. All of the children were encouraged to write, act, and immerse themselves in whatever creative endeavors interested them. For a time, Tasha considered becoming a dancer, and was considered quite promising.
Perhaps as a positive way to deal with parental abandonment, Tasha idealized both her mother and father. She described her father as "a bird of paradise in a family of English sparrows" and delighted in his accomplishments.
One of Tasha's favorite stories about him doubtless fed her love of fantasy and her somewhat unorthodox beliefs about an afterlife. Tasha believes that heaven consists of whatever one wishes it to be. In her case, she fully expects to return to life in the 1830s, where she is convinced she once lived.
"Papa had a recurring dream all his life of a beautiful, walled medieval city. He would approach it in his dream but he could never enter. The doors and gates were always locked. He would look at all the towers and balustrades and know that it was beautiful within. He longed to enter but never could."
"One morning as he was reading the newspaper, he looked up and said to Majorie, his last wife, 'Majorie, I had my dream again last night and I finally found the key to the city.' With that, he fell over dead. He must have entered that city at that exact moment. What a wonderful way to step forth into something new!"
Tasha credits her mother with inspiring her to become an artist. "My brother Frederic and I used to take our baths together. It was a large tub, and Maman would come up and wash her brushes when we were having our baths. She would always save a nice juicy one for us and she would paint a face on our bare tummies. When we expanded or deflated them, the expression on the face changed. It was highly entertaining. Then and there, I decided that I would become an artist. As I usually get what I want, I did become an artist. I highly recommend it as a career."
Tasha did decide as a child to become an illustrator, and the influence her mother had on her development as an artist is significant. On visits to Rosamond's studio, Tasha would read to sitters as they posed for portraits. She observed firsthand and up close her mother's academic techniques and style. Rosamond Tudor had both the talent and the connections to become a society portraitist of the first order. What she lacked was the ambition to do so. She was, however, an excellent teacher, even if only by example.
Tasha watched and applied all she observed. She wrote and illustrated several unpublished books during those early teenage years. Although naive when compared with her later work, they helped her develop the skills she would use to such advantage in her future career.
During those same years, Tasha laid the groundwork for the lifestyle she would eventually hone to perfection. She began a nursery school in Bermuda, where she spent several winters with her mother as the guest of two aunts. Already her desire was to have a farm and become self-sufficient. She saved the money she earned from her school with the intention of buying a cow. When her uncle Rico Tudor gave her that first cow, she put the money aside as her stake in the future she imagined so vividly.
An inheritance from her aunt Edith Burgess in her late teens gave Tasha furniture, family heirlooms, and, most important to her, the implements of a well-stocked kitchen. The modest amount of money included in the bequest was of no use to Tasha, as Rosamond promptly borrowed the entire amount and never repaid the loan. "I knew she wouldn't, of course," Tasha admitted wistfully half a century later, "but, quite frankly, I cared more about the kitchen things. Maman wasn't interested in them, so I felt secure and fortunate. I still use them all."
Excerpted from The Art of Tasha Tudor , by Harry Davis . Copyright (c) by Harry Davis . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top