Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Young Woman From Omaha, Nebraska: Mary-Madeleine Lanphier, 1911-1981

The black and white photos from her childhood show nothing out of the ordinary: the girl-baby born in 1911 on a bearskin rug, the feisty Boston Terrier sprawled beside her.
On Easter, holding up a basket, huge plaid bow atop her head with its thick straight bangs, high-button shoes on her dainty feet.
Swimming in a lake, head aloft, grinning, with her girlfriends looking on from the dock.
How did this young woman dare to make the journey from Omaha to New York City, to Horatio Street in Greenwich Village?
Was it the magnetic attraction of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry, read by the young woman on the high school radio program beamed from Omaha out into the cornfields? After she arrived, how many detours were there on the way to becoming the writer she knew she could be? After five children, too many men to count, an editorship of McCall's (it was rumored she invented their slogan, "The Magazine of Togetherness"- she, the eternal single mother!) her luck turned a bit.

An amazing team, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, took her in as a creative partner. She receiving writing credits on two films: "Lovers and Lollipops" (1956) and "Weddings and Babies" (1960). The latter shared the Critic's Award with Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" at the Venice Film Festival. Both are in the archives at the Museum of Modern Art, and are now listed in various Internet movie sites devoted to classic movies...Unavailable to the public for years, they can now be viewed in DVD format. French filmmakers like Godard gave credit to Morris Engel for sparking the independent film movement with the pioneering shoulder-slung camera that the ex-GI Morris devised, enabling him to shoot on location in New York City. The results were poignant, luminous films that found meaningful drama in the lives of "ordinary" Americans. Ruth Orkin's brilliant photographs of New York streetlife live on in museum collections and notecard reproductions.

But nobody (except her widely-scattered children and grandchildren) has ever heard of Mary-Madeleine Lanphier, the young woman from Omaha: writer, mother, artist's model.
Ravishing subject of a 1940's painting titled "The White Fichu" by George Bellow's best friend, Eugene Speicher, who was once the most celebrated portrait-painter in mid-20th century America. (His portrait of fellow student Georgia O'Keefe hangs in the entryway of the Art Student's League in New York City.)

A young woman from the heartland, Mary-Madeleine was educated by nuns in a Catholic convent in Omaha from the age of 10, after her beloved mother's death; she never finished college, never shot a wolf, never judged another human being. She loved the color chartreuse, made her own hats, gave bright pink boiled starfish as Christmas presents, loved sex and foreign films, Colette and gypsy music and Medalia D'Oro coffee. She sometimes hinted at Native American ancestry (with French Canadian heritage in her family, Lakota Sioux genes are a distinct possibility). She was self-destructive, spontaneous, foolish and fierce, always. She charmed her friends and bewildered her children. When she died in 1981 after a year-long, intense battle with the most virulent form of lung cancer, her family decided against placing an obituary in The New York Times. They later came to regret this omission.

May I now present my mother?

1 comment:

east side bride said...

An example to follow, non?