I am providence the life.., p.84
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 84
Sonia spent another extended period in June and July in Brooklyn. In mid-July she secured some sort of position with a hat shop or department store in Cleveland, leaving on the 24th and settling at a boarding house at 2030 East 81st Street for $45 a month. In late August she moved to 1912 East 86th Street. By mid-October, however, Sonia had again either lost or given up this position; Lovecraft reported: “The trouble with the new position is that it is only on a commission basis, so that during slack seasons the remuneration is next to nothing.” By mid-November at the latest, and probably somewhat earlier, Sonia had secured a new position, this time with Halle’s, then (and, up to 1982, when it went out of business) the leading department store in Cleveland. This position appears to have lasted well into 1926.
The upshot of all this is that Sonia was at 169 Clinton Street for a total of only 89 days of 1925, on nine different occasions as follows:
February 23–March 19
June 9–July 24
She had wanted to come during the Christmas holidays, but evidently work at Halle’s was too heavy to permit it. In the three and a half months that Lovecraft spent in Brooklyn in 1926, Sonia was there for a period of about three weeks, from roughly January 15 to February 5. In other words, for the fifteen and a half months of Lovecraft’s stay at 169 Clinton Street in 1925–26, Sonia was present for a net total of just over three months at widely scattered intervals; the six weeks in June and July constituted the longest single visit.
If Sonia’s record of employment during this period was chequered, Lovecraft’s was completely hopeless. There is, in either the “Diary” of 1925 or the 160,000 words of correspondence to Lillian for 1925–26, only three references to looking through the Sunday Times want ads for work (in March, July, and September); none of these came to anything. It is evident that, with Sonia effectively out of the way, Lovecraft simply stopped looking very vigorously for work. I am not sure there is anything to criticise in this: many individuals who suffer prolonged unemployment become discouraged, and, in spite of the clumsiness and inexperience with which Lovecraft tried to find work in 1924, he did make the attempt with determination and zeal.
Lovecraft’s job attempts in 1925 were largely a product of various tips he received from his friends. The one that seemed most promising was freelance work on a trade journal in which Arthur Leeds was involved with another man named Yesley. Lovecraft describes the nature of the project to Lillian in late May:
The work in this Yesley establishment is simple, consisting wholly of writing up complimentary articles descriptive of striking business ventures or outstanding mercantile and professional personalities; each article to be about 1¼ to 1½ double-spaced typed pages in length. This writing is all from facts supplied— “leads”, as they call them, culled from press notices or advertising matter. . . . [The] article, when done, is sent to the office; & unless too bad to be accepted is taken out by a trained salesman to the person or company whereof it treats. This salesman, after giving the interested party a chance to revise, urges the latter to order a quantity of the magazines mentioning him—for advertising purposes; & if he succeeds, (as he does in a surprising number of cases, since the sales force is a very expert one) the writer of the article receives 10% of the sum paid by the purchaser—amounts varying from $1.50 to over $30.00 according to the extent of the order.
This does not exactly sound like work for which Lovecraft would be suited, but all it really takes is facility at writing, which he certainly had. Difficult as it may be to imagine Lovecraft writing advertising copy, we have the evidence in front of us in the form of five such pieces found among his effects (evidently unpublished). R. H. Barlow bestowed upon them the generic title of “Commercial Blurbs.” The five items are titled as follows: “Beauty in Crystal” (about the “Steuben Glass” produced by the Corning Glass Works, Corning, New York); “The Charm of Fine Woodwork” (about the furniture made by the Curtis Companies, Clifton, Iowa); “Personality in Clocks” (about grandfather clocks from the Colonial Manufacturing Company, Zealand, Michigan); “A Real Colonial Heritage” (about the “Danersk” furniture made by the Erskine-Danforth Corporation in New York City); and “A True Home of Literature” (about the Alexander Hamilton Bookshop in Paterson, New Jersey). One extract will suffice:
Curtis Woodwork embraces both the usual structural units and the cleverest contrivances of built-in or permanent furniture, such as bookcases, dressers, buffets, and cupboards. Every model is conceived and created with the purest art, ripest scholarship, and mellowest craftsmanship which energetic enterprise can command; and made to conform rigidly to the architecture of each particular type of home. The cost, considering the quality, is amazingly low; and a trademark on the individual pieces prevents any substitution by careless contractors.
And so on. Those who have read these pieces have predictably subjected them to the same withering scorn that they have directed toward Lovecraft’s application letter of 1924; but styles of advertising were very different seventy years ago, especially when dealing with the type of material Lovecraft was treating here. Many of these firms were clearly making an appeal to the pseudo-aristocratic tastes of the middle class, and Lovecraft’s lofty tone would have been in keeping with this approach.
But, sadly, the venture did not pan out, and through no fault of Lovecraft’s. By late July he was already reporting that the project is in difficulties, and it must have definitively collapsed shortly thereafter, for we hear nothing more of it. Lovecraft stated that both he and Long (who, along with Loveman, had attempted the work on a freelance or commission basis) would be paid for their articles, but it is doubtful whether they were.
In February Morton secured his position with the Paterson Museum; it would last the rest of his life. By mid-July Lovecraft was talking about the possibility that Morton might hire him as an assistant, and this rather dim prospect continued to be bruited about sporadically all the way up to Lovecraft’s departure from New York in April 1926. The problem rested not with Lovecraft’s lack of expert knowledge of natural history—Morton himself had had to do a considerable amount of last-minute boning up to pass an examination for the position—but rather with the fact that the trustees were not then in a position to expand the museum’s functions or staff. The museum was at the time housed in a stable near the public library, and the trustees were impatiently waiting for the death of the aged occupant of a house adjoining the stable so that they could tear down both structures and erect an entirely new museum building on the spot; before all this could happen, no thought of increasing staff would be possible, and the matter failed to be resolved during Lovecraft’s entire stay. After visiting Paterson in late August Lovecraft felt much less regret about the delay.
There was, of course, money trickling in from Weird Tales. Lovecraft had five stories published in the magazine in 1925 (as well as his revision of C. M. Eddy’s “Deaf, Dumb, and Blind” [April 1925], for which he presumably received nothing). We know the amounts received for three of these: $35 for “The Festival” (January), $25 for “The Unnamable” (July), and $50 for “The Temple” (September); we do not know the amounts for the other two (“The Statement of Randolph Carter” [February] and “The Music of Erich Zann” [May]), but they each probably averaged in the $30 range. All these stories, of course, had been written years before and most had presumably been submitted in late 1924 or early 1925. In any case, these five sales make a rough total of $170 for the year—barely equivalent to four months’ rent.
Where was the other money—for food, laundry, modest travel, clothing, household items, and of course the other eight months’ rent—coming from? Clearly Sonia was largely supporting him, and his aunts were contributing as best they could. Sonia, however, spoke very bitterly on this subject i
When we lived at 259 Parkside, his aunts sent him five dollars ($5) a week. They expected me to support him. When he moved to Clinton St., they sent him $15 a week. His rent was $40 a month. Food, carfare, and laundry and writing materials cost more than $5 a week. It was this “more” that I supplied. And when I came into town to do the firm’s buying, every two weeks, I paid all his expenses during those trips and for his entertainment also. And when I’d leave, I always left a generous sum with him . . .
There is a similar passage in her memoir, written not only (as Sonia explicitly declares) to correct W. Paul Cook’s account (he had written: “His income was almost nil, he was reduced to about twenty cents a day for food—and he usually spent that for stamps”), but, implicitly, to rebuke his aunts posthumously for their lack of monetary support. And yet, Sonia has herself exaggerated a little. Lovecraft did ask for (and presumably received) $75 from Annie Gamwell for expenses during the month of December 1924, including moving; and the phrasing of this letter suggests that this was by no means the first time such a request was made. A casual reference in a late February letter to Annie to “the ever-punctual cheques” suggests that Annie, if not actually supplying the money, at least was the money manager for Lovecraft and perhaps for Lillian also. During Sonia’s stay in Saratoga Springs in the spring, Lovecraft confessed to Lillian that “She cannot, of course, contribute her originally agreed quota to the rent,” although he added that she was sending small amounts—varying from $2 to $5—whenever she could. Lovecraft frequently acknowledged receipt of (mostly unspecified) sums from Lillian, and Annie was paying for his daily subscription to the Providence Evening Bulletin. In other words, there is every reason to believe that the aunts were contributing as best they could, although no doubt Sonia was still bearing the lion’s share of Lovecraft’s expenses.
How much could this amount have been? Rent was $40 per month; but in October Lovecraft’s landlady, Mrs Burns, decided that tenants should now pay $10 per week, a net increase of about $3 per month. If we assume that this new rate went into effect by November 1, then Lovecraft’s total rent for the year was $490. Around this time he stated that he was spending $5 per week for food (and perhaps other expenses), making about $260 for the year. If we figure in at least $20 per month for additional expenses ($240 for the year), we find a total of $990 for the entire year, of which I cannot imagine that Lovecraft himself contributed much more than $250 ($170 from Weird Tales plus $74.16 from the mortgage payments of Mariano de Magistris), leaving about $750 to be supplied by Sonia and the aunts. I do not think the aunts could have contributed a full $15 a week, for Lovecraft would not have had to economise as he did; Sonia, not being around very much, could have had no first-hand knowledge of the matter. The aunts themselves, of course, were merely living off their own inheritance from Whipple Phillips, so I think Sonia is a little unfair in criticising them for their apparent lack of generosity.
The absence of remunerative work, of course, simply left Lovecraft that much more time to hang around with his friends. The year 1925 is the real pinnacle of the Kalem Club. Lovecraft and Kirk continued to be close; although Kirk was nominally employed as the owner of a bookstore, he could essentially set his own hours, and so made very congenial company for Lovecraft the night owl. An incident in January is typical. After putting Sonia on the train to Cincinnati on the afternoon of the 16th, Lovecraft went to Loveman’s room (he had a key) and fixed it up with some presents Long had bought as a belated birthday gift; he returned home to receive the gang for their customary meeting, and then all hands went over to Loveman’s to unveil the surprise. Later that night Lovecraft went to Kirk’s apartment at 106th Street, where the two slept in their clothes before venturing out the next morning to fix up Kirk’s room in a similar manner. Only a few days later, on the 20th, Kirk decided to move into Lovecraft’s own boarding house at 169 Clinton Street, in the apartment directly above his. That evening Lovecraft and Kirk went back to Kirk’s old room, dismantled it, and retired around 5 A.M. The next morning they finished packing, and the next day Kirk moved in. For a while Loveman considered moving into the building, but ultimately decided against it.
There is scarcely a day in the entire year when Lovecraft did not meet with one or the other of his friends—either as they came over to his place or as they met at various cafeterias in Manhattan or Brooklyn or at the formal Wednesday meetings, which still alternated between McNeil and Leeds gatherings because of the ongoing unresolved dispute between these two individuals. So much for Lovecraft the “eccentric recluse”! Indeed, so busy was he with these social obligations—as well as apparently voluminous correspondence relating to the UAPA—that he wrote almost nothing during the first seven months of the year save a handful of poems, and many of these were written to order for meetings of the Blue Pencil Club.
Kirk wrote to his fiancée on February 6 about the actual naming of the club: “Because all of the last names of the permanent members of our club begin with K, L or M, we plan to call it the KALEM KLYBB. Half a dozen friends are to be here tonight. Mostly they’re bores. All but me and HPL . . .” Kleiner, in an essay written a decade later, had a somewhat different account of the name: “‘Kalem’ was based upon the letters K, L, and M, which happened to be the initial letters in the names of the original group—McNeil, Long, and the writer—and of those who joined during the first six months of the club.” Whatever the case, I wonder whether the exact form of the name had anything to do with an old film company of 1905 called Kalem, formed on exactly the same principle by George Kleine, Samuel Long, and Frank Marion. It is possible that one or more of the members subconsciously recollected this name in forming the name of their club. One wonders also when exactly this name was created. There was a large meeting on February 3 at the Milan restaurant (Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street), including Sonia, C. M. Eddy (who was in town for a few days), and Lillian (who, after leaving New York on January 10, had evidently spent some weeks with friends in Westchester County before returning to the city for a week beginning January 28), as well as Kirk, Kleiner, and Loveman; but this does not appear to have been a gang meeting, since Lovecraft much later announced that the gang had a “stag rule” so that women were not allowed. The strange thing is that Lovecraft never refers to the group as the Kalems in the correspondence of this period, citing it merely as “the gang” or “The Boys.”
Lovecraft at first did make the attempt to spend time with Sonia on her infrequent visits into town: he noted that he skipped a meeting of the Boys on February 4 because she was not feeling well. But as time went on—and especially during Sonia’s long stay in June and July—he became a little less conscientious. Even during her stay in February–March Lovecraft would stay out so late that he would come home well after Sonia was asleep and wake up late in the morning (or even early in the afternoon) to find that she had already gone out. Letters to the aunts for this period are scarce, so it is sometimes difficult to tell from the “Diary” what exactly is the state of affairs; but on March 1 there is the indication that after a gang meeting at Kirk’s room some of the members went to the Scotch Bakery (only a block or two away), after which Kirk and Lovecraft came back to Kirk’s room and talked till dawn. On the 10th Lovecraft and Kirk (without Sonia) visited Elizabeth, returning via Perth Amboy and Tottenville, Staten Island. The next day, after the regular Kalem meeting at Long’s, Lovecraft and Kirk talked in the latter’s room till 5.30 A.M.
The one thing Lovecraft could do during Sonia’s absence is control his eating habits. He told Moe that after passing 193 pounds he refused to mount a pair of scales again; but in January his reducing plan began in earnest. The upshot is that in a few months Lovecraft went from close to 200 pounds to 146; from a 16 collar to 14½. All his suits had to be retailored, and each week he bought smaller and smaller collars. As Lovecraft put it:
How the pounds flew! I helped the course along by exercise and outdoor wal
What was the reaction by his friends, family, and wife?
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