The Lesbian Partnership That Changed Literature

By Emma Garman  October 22, 2020 ARTS & CULTURE

JANE HEAP AND MARGARET C. ANDERSON, 1927

In the early thirties, for a certain clique of Left Bank–dwelling American lesbians, the place to be was not an expat haunt like the Café de Flore or Le Deux Magots. Nor was it Le Monocle, the wildly popular nightclub owned by tuxedoed butch Lulu du Montparnasse and named for the accessory worn to signal one’s orientation. According to the writer Solita Solano, the “only important thing in Paris” was a study group on the philosophies of the Greek-Armenian mystic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, held at Jane Heap’s apartment. Heap, a Kansas-born artist, writer, and gallerist, was Gurdjieff’s official emissary, a rare honor. Under her supervision, the group engaged in intense self-revelation, narrating the stories of their lives without censoring or embellishing. As the author Kathryn Hulme explained in her memoir, Undiscovered Country: A Spiritual Adventure, the goal was to uncover the real I and thus escape being “a helpless slave to circumstances, to whatever chameleon personality took the initiative.”

Among those who gathered in Heap’s small sitting room were Janet Flanner, the New Yorker Paris correspondent and Solano’s lifelong partner; the journalist and author Djuna Barnes; and the actress Louise Davidson. One attendee, Hulme noted, would enter the room “like a Valkyrie” and “knew how to load the questions she fired at Jane, how to bait her to reveal more than perhaps was intended for beginners.” The Valkyrie was Margaret Caroline Anderson, founder of the trailblazing Little Review, with whom Heap had first encountered Gurdjieff in New York in the early twenties. Heap and Anderson, whose friendship outlasted a love affair and a professional partnership, were kindred geniuses with an exclusive affinity. When Barnes, after a fling with Heap, marveled at her “deep personal madness,” Anderson replied: “Deep personal knowledge—a supreme sanity.” Heap called Anderson “my blessed antagonistic complement.” Via their shared endeavors and the cross-pollination of their ideas—artistic, literary, and spiritual—these two remarkable women left an indelible imprint on avant-garde culture between the wars.

They first met one afternoon in February 1916, when Heap dropped by the The Little Review’s office in the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. She was thirty-two, with cropped dark hair, a long straight nose, strong cheekbones, and a strikingly androgynous style. A typical outfit was a men’s frock coat, a high-necked shirt, and a tie. In winter, she added a Russian fur hat, and she always wore bright red lipstick. Anderson, three years her junior, had gone through a tomboy phase but was now exquisitely feminine, with a knack for projecting flawless chic despite never having any money. “Her profile was delicious,” Flanner recalled in a posthumous tribute for The New Yorker, “her hair blond and wavy, her a laughter a soprano ripple, her gait undulating beneath her snug tailleur.” Anderson set great store by looks and charm, and believed her conversation improved when she felt attractive. To an earnest young short-story writer who came to her for advice, she said: “Use a little lip rouge, to begin with. Beauty may bring you experiences to write about.”

Heap’s handsome face, Anderson wrote in her memoir The Fiery Fountains, resembled Oscar Wilde’s “in his only beautiful photograph.” And yet, “when Jane talked you were conscious of only one feature—her soft deep eyes, in which you could watch thought take form … thought that was always clearest when she talked of the indefinable, the vast, or the unknown.” An unusual childhood had cultivated Heap’s questing, expansive mind. Her English father was a warden at the Topeka State Hospital, and he lived with his family in the hospital grounds. Young Jane roamed the place, lonely and thirsty for knowledge. Adults were poor sources of enlightenment, she found, except for the patients, who seemed to possess an authentic truth and authority that others lacked. The asylum, Heap wrote in a 1917 Little Review piece, “was a world outside of the world, where realities had to be imagined…Very early I had given up everyone except the Insane.” She dreamed of one day meeting those ultimate imaginers of reality, artists. “Who had made the pictures,” she wondered, “the books, and the music in the world?”

Heap studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and she returned to the city after spending a year in Germany with her first serious girlfriend. During her twenties she taught art, designed theatrical sets, acted in plays, and fell in and out of love. “I believe in living a little more than necessary,” she wrote at age twenty-four, “seeing and believing life to be as one wished it to be, creating beauty where it doesn’t happen to exist.” When she met Anderson, she was nursing a broken heart and craving a grander conduit for her ambitions. At a stroke both problems were solved: she became coeditor of the two-year-old Little Review and moved with Anderson to California. They rented a ranch house in the redwood forests of Marin County and talked, nonstop, about art. “My mind was inflamed by Jane’s ideas,” Anderson reminisced in her memoir My Thirty Years’ War, “because of her uncanny knowledge about the human composition, her unfailing clairvoyance about human motivation. This is what I had been waiting for, searching for, all my life.”

Anderson grew up in Indiana, one of three sisters in a middle-class family. At age twenty-one she dropped out of a women’s college in Ohio, where she studied piano, to move to Chicago. Her bemused parents, who expected her to marry and settle down in their “country clubs and bridge” milieu, wanted to know what on earth she was seeking. Self-expression, she said, which meant “being able to think, say, and do what you believed in.” Her father retorted: “Seems to me you do nothing else.” In Chicago, Anderson became a magazine journalist and a prolific book critic. But she was always restless for her next big adventure. The Little Review was conceived when she attributed a depressed mood to “nothing inspired” happening in her life. The remedy came to her: she would launch the most interesting magazine of all time. “I knew that someone would give the money,” she wrote in My Thirty Years’ War. “This is one kind of natural law I always see in operation. Someone would have to. Of course someone did.” She had just turned twenty-seven.

Anderson’s guiding editorial principle was the superiority of artists over intellectuals. As she bluntly put it: “I didn’t consider intellectuals intelligent. I never liked them or their thoughts about life.” Merit would be her sole criteria for accepting work, with no pandering to commercialism or conservatism, or indeed to any ideology—though she had a fondness for anarchism and was an avowed feminist. Fundamental to art, Anderson insisted, was liberty. In the introduction to the March 1914 inaugural issue, she offered this impassioned address:

If you’ve ever read poetry with a feeling that it was your religion, your very life; if you’ve ever come suddenly upon the whiteness of a Venus in a dim, deep room; if you’ve ever felt music replacing your shabby soul with a new one of shining gold; if, in the early morning, you’ve watched a bird with great white wings fly from the edge of the sea straight up into the rose-colored sun—if these things have happened to you and continue to happen till you’re left quite speechless with the wonder of it all, then you’ll understand our hope to bring them nearer to the common experience of the people who read us.

During its first couple of years, The Little Review featured work by Sherwood Anderson, John Galsworthy, Rupert Brooke, Emma Goldman, W. B. Yeats, H. D., and Amy Lowell. In the March 1915 issue, Anderson herself put forth an argument for gay rights, the first lesbian to do so in print. “With us,” she railed, “love is just as punishable as murder or robbery … because it is not expressed according to conventional morality.” After Heap joined as coeditor, the magazine published Hemingway’s first short stories and the first excerpts from Ulysses; poetry by T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams; art by Picasso and Brancusi, and essays by Ford Madox Ford and André Breton. Heap introduced a new motto: “To express the emotions of life is to live / To express the life of emotions is to make art.” The magazine’s uncompromising ethos was affirmed in September 1916, when an issue was released with thirteen blank pages as a “want ad.” Too few submissions had been judged worthy of publication, and they saw no point in laboring “to perpetuate the dull.”

The Little Review couldn’t pay its contributors and had a circulation of only a few thousand. Still, its reputation for artistic radicalism attracted high-profile collaborators. Amy Lowell, who in Anderson’s opinion “had more feminine whims and humors than ten women,” lobbied to be poetry editor. In a fit of pique after being snubbed by Ezra Pound, Lowell planned to show him “who’s who in this business” and offered to subsidize The Little Review with $150 a month. Anderson was not remotely tempted, despite living in virtual penury in order to pay for printing costs: “No clairvoyance was needed to know that Amy Lowell would dictate, uniquely and majestically, any adventure in which she had a part.” Instead, Anderson engaged Pound—who was at a safer distance in London—as European editor. He set out his terms in a letter: “I want an ‘official organ’ (vile phrase). I mean I want a place where I and T. S. Eliot can appear once a month (or once an ‘issue’) and where Joyce can appear when he likes, and where Wyndham Lewis can appear if he comes back from the war.”

Intent on making The Little Review an “international organ,” Anderson moved herself, a reluctant Heap, and the magazine to New York in early 1917. They found an apartment on West Sixteenth Street, above an undertaker and an exterminator. This unpropitious location was counterbalanced by the skillful decorative stamp the couple put on all their homes. While living in their California house, they had painted the furniture and fireplace to such pleasing effect that their landlord, the local sheriff, wanted to refund more than the deposit. In New York they covered the walls, painstakingly, with Chinese gold paper and hung a blue-covered divan from the ceiling with large black chains. Here they received would-be contributors, who were sometimes beseeching, sometimes antagonistic. “We were considered heartless, flippant, ruthless, devastating,” Anderson recalled. But, soon enough, “we would stand revealed as two simple sincere people with serious ideas.”

A story by Wyndham Lewis caused The Little Review’s first disastrous conflict with the censors. In “Cantleman’s Spring-Mate,” published in the May 1917 issue, a disaffected English soldier seduces a girl before going to fight in France. She writes to tell him she’s pregnant, but he ignores her letters with the same blank ruthlessness that allows him to kill Germans without flinching. The U.S. Post Office, deeming the story both obscene and anti-war, burned the four-thousand-copy print run. If other editors might have been cowed into cautiousness, Heap and Anderson were anything but fainthearted. When Pound sent the first chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, he warned it could cause trouble. They didn’t care: they knew it was a masterpiece. “We’ll print it,” Anderson declared, “if it’s the last effort of our lives.” The twenty-three-part serialization began in March 1918; over the next two years, four issues were confiscated and burned by the Post Office. As Anderson wrote in My Thirty Years’ War:

It was like a burning at the stake as far as I was concerned. The care we had taken to preserve Joyce’s text intact; the worry over the bills that accumulated when we had no advance funds; the technique I used on printer, bookbinder, paper houses—tears, prayers, hysterics or rages—to make them push ahead without a guarantee of money; the addressing, wrapping, stamping, mailing; the excitement of anticipating the world’s response to the literary masterpiece of our generation … and then a notice from the Post Office: BURNED.

In October 1920, Heap and Anderson were arrested and charged with distributing obscenity over “Nausicaa,” from the April 1920 issue. In this episode Leopold Bloom, his hand in his pocket, watches a young woman reclining on a beach. Thrilling to his gaze, she lets her skirt fall above her garter belt and he brings himself to orgasm. John Sumner, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, believed the text would corrupt young women, and he filed a formal complaint. At court for an initial hearing, Anderson and Heap appeared with their supporters, stylishly bohemian Greenwich Village women. The British poet-artist and Little Review contributor Mina Loy observed: “We looked too wholesome in Court representing filthy literature.” The magistrate ruled that the literature was indeed filthy, and the case was sent for trial. In the next issue of The Little Review, a defiant Heap pointed out:

Girls lean back everywhere, showing lace and silk stockings; wear low cut sleeveless gowns, breathless bathing suits; men think thoughts and have emotions about these things everywhere—seldom as delicately and imaginatively as Mr. Bloom—and no one is corrupted. Can merely reading about the thoughts he thinks corrupt a man when his thoughts do not? All power to the artist, but this is not his function.

In February 1921, at the Court of Special Sessions, three literary experts were called to testify in front of three judges that “Nausicaa” was art, not pornography. When the British novelist John Cowper Powys declared it a work of beauty that posed no threat to young girls, Heap restrained herself from saying that a young girl’s mind frightened her more than anyone’s. In one farcical moment, the prosecutor asked that the court hear some offending passages. A snoozing white-haired judge perked up, contemplated Anderson in her pearls and silk blouse, and forbade that obscenities be read out in her presence. Told she was the publisher, his honor said with paternal solicitude: “I am sure she didn’t know the significance of what she was publishing.”

Heap and Anderson were, nevertheless, found guilty under the Comstock Laws and each fined $50. Anderson regretted paying it; had she gone to jail, she reasoned, the publicity might have been greater. As it was, neither the New York Times nor any New York newspaper came to the women’s defense. It would be another thirteen years before Ulysses was legally published in the U.S. When critics began lauding it (while often misunderstanding it, Anderson thought), they typically neglected to cite The Little Review as the first publisher.

The Ulysses debacle strained Heap and Anderson’s already fraying relationship. For five years, they had been inseparable: moving from place to place, putting all their financial and emotional resources into The Little Review, and tolerating each other’s foibles. Anderson idolized Heap, but she was not an easy person to live with. Prone to dark depressions, she regularly threatened suicide. “The light is too brutal for me here,” she would say. “I am going back to the grave from which I came.” She kept a revolver in a trunk; Anderson lived in fear while feigning nonchalance. “I don’t know what poor human being first discovered the fact,” she later mused, “that the surest way to hold people’s interest is to subject them to torment.” She inflicted her own torments by dallying with other women. Heap was her one true love, she assured her. There was no need to be jealous. But to brooding, romantic Heap, casual infidelity was incomprehensible. “If I loved anyone as she says she loves me,” she lamented in a letter to a friend, “it would make me go into a long illness to be as free as she is now of me.”

Yet it was Anderson whose mental equilibrium, her preternatural ability to show no weakness, collapsed. She’d had enough of “publishing drudgery” and wanted to close The Little Review. “I argued that it had begun logically with the inarticulateness of a divine afflatus and should end logically with the epoch’s supreme articulation—Ulysses.” But Heap was determined to keep it going. She was also determined that their relationship continue unchanged, despite simmering acrimony and ebbing passion. Then, into this tense household, came Anderson’s young nephews, Fritz and Tom Peters. Her sister Lois had been hospitalized with a nervous breakdown, and the boys had nowhere else to go. Anderson, who didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, felt trapped in all directions and suffered her own nervous breakdown.

Anderson found happiness again in a new relationship, with the French soprano and actress Georgette Leblanc. They met through a mutual friend, the pianist Allen Tanner, and for both women it was love at first sight. Leblanc, who was eighteen years Anderson’s senior and reaching the end of a celebrated performing career, said: “There is something perfect in her soul.” Eager to begin a new chapter, Anderson at last renounced her Little Review responsibilities. Heap was, of course, hurt by this double defection. But she remained committed to the magazine, over which she assumed editorial control. She also set up the Little Review Gallery on East Eleventh Street, specializing in European Dadaists and surrealists such as André Masson, Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, and Hannah Höch. And while Anderson and Leblanc enjoyed a romantic idyll in a rustic New Jersey mansion, Heap adopted Fritz and Tom. Perhaps she wanted, even if subconsciously, a permanent tie to Anderson.

Their fates would remain entwined for another reason: a mutual and unending fascination with the doctrines of Gurdjieff. In this diminutive middle-aged esoterist with a shaved head and a black handlebar mustache, they saw, in Anderson’s words, “a messenger between two worlds … a seer, a prophet, a messiah?” In early 1924, the mystic visited New York on a promotional tour. That summer Anderson, Leblanc, Heap and the boys, and other friends all moved to France to study at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fountainebleau, outside of Paris. A former Carmelite monastery set in forty-five acres of land, it housed around sixty men and women, who listened to talks, participated in sacred dances, and worked in the gardens and kitchens. The Modernist writer Katherine Mansfield spent her final days there, very happily. Just weeks before her death from tuberculosis in 1923, she wrote to her husband, the writer John Middleton Murry: “There is certainly no other spot on this whole planet where one can be taught as one is taught here.”

Gurdjieff hailed from the South Caucasus, part of the Russian Empire, where he was born to a Greek father and an Armenian mother. Around the turn of the twentieth century, he left home to travel the world, visiting monasteries, temples, and other holy places. The various spiritual disciplines he encountered were adapted into his cosmology, what he called The Fourth Way, The Work, or The System. Most people, he believed, exist in a state of “waking sleep,” their dormant souls trapped by their personalities and their lives buffeted by external forces. He taught that to uncover one’s authentic self, or “essence,” and gain free will, it is necessary to consciously, and with effort, observe the self and learn which of the three mechanical centers—physical, emotional, or mental—dominates. In no small part thanks to Heap and Anderson’s endorsement, these ideas spread through the interwar bohemia of New York and Paris. Kathryn Hulme remarked that while no one seemed to know Gurdjieff, “his reputation loomed in Left Bank conversations in a persistent hush-hush way.”

Gurdjieff found a true disciple in Heap, and over the subsequent years, she attained a high enough expertise in The System to teach it. Absorbed with this new purpose, she published the final issue of The Little Review in May 1929. Heap’s parting words in that issue were forceful: “Self-expression is not enough; experiment is not enough; the recording of special moments or cases is not enough. All of the arts have broken faith or lost connection with their origin and function.” The transcendence she had hungered for as a lonely little girl, wandering around the insane asylum, was no longer art’s sole dominion.

In 1935, Gurdjieff sent Heap to London to teach. She moved with her girlfriend, Elspeth Champcommunal, a fashion designer. Without a leader, the longstanding Paris study group was bereft. They decided to seek out Gurdjieff himself, and the group re-formed under his supervision. Its members grew to include Anderson, Leblanc, Solano (who also became Gurdjieff’s secretary), Hulme, her friend Alice Rohrer (a milliner from San Francisco), Louise Davidson, and Elizabeth Gordon—an unmarried Englishwoman and the only heterosexual, introduced into the group by Gurdjieff. He likened their “inner world journey” to a high mountain climb where they must be roped together for safety: hence they called themselves The Rope. They met daily, sometimes twice; anyone who sought to join them was curtly rebuffed. They shared meals, performing rituals around food and alcohol, all in the service of learning “how to act, rather than be acted upon.” The meetings went on for only about two years, but the women had formed what Hulme called an “exalted” lifelong bond: “Our work with Gurdjieff had created an inner-world intimacy, a kind of caring for the soul of another such as I had never experienced before in any human relationship.”

Heap and Anderson kept up a correspondence in the late thirties and during the war, when Anderson and Leblanc retreated to Le Cannet, north of Cannes in the unoccupied zone. In October 1941, Leblanc died of cancer, aged seventy-two. Sending her condolence, Heap wrote: “Georgette will never perish. Die all we must, but we can hope that none of us who has ‘eaten’ of Gurdjieff’s food will ever perish.” Heap settled permanently in London, living with Champcommunal in St John’s Wood and conducting Gurdjieff study groups until her death in 1964, at age eighty. Anderson died in 1973, aged eighty-six, and was buried next to Leblanc in Cannes.

In 1962 Anderson published The Unknowable Gurdjieff, a memoir of The Rope and Gurdjieff’s teachings. The book was dedicated to Heap. A fitting epitaph to these lives of peerless nonconformism is Anderson’s affronted reaction, in the late sixties, to questions about The Little Review’s selection process: “Mon Dieu, did I have any standards? I had nothing but…”

Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly RoundtableLongreadsNewsweekThe Daily BeastSalonThe AwlWords without Borders, and other publications. She was the first writer of the Daily’s Feminize Your Canon column.

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