Bear with me here, because we’re about to go on a wild ride through the field of Women’s Studies. Not exactly the usual fodder for this blog. Actually, it’s not that the ride is wild so much as it is complicated by a thicket of various historical figures of local importance and beyond, who are related to each other not by blood but by inclination. And houses figure prominently in this narrative, which is the usual fodder for this blog, so in the end I’m not that far afield.
Here on Cape Ann, there is a historic house called the Sargent House Museum, built in 1782 for Judith Sargent Murray, a member of a very prominent family of the era, whose life encompassed not only the American Revolution but an attempt at a domestic revolution of sorts. Mrs. Murray was the first woman writer of status and position (even if she signed her essays under an assumed name for the sake of credibility and anonymity) to call attention to the matter of equality of the sexes in her essay, published in Massachusetts Magazine in 1790 and fittingly titled…The Equality of the Sexes.
The importance of Judith Sargent Murray to academics — and the rest of us — seems to be gaining recognition at a rapid pace, and the Sargent House Museum board and staff are working hard to perpetuate this recognition, honoring her legacy through the ongoing preservation of her beautifully intact house. Which brings us to the present day, in which, not long ago, an auction was held to raise funds for the museum.
Heather Atwood, food writer and grand dame (in waiting, since she’s not old enough to qualify just yet) of her own historic house, Howlets, offered to throw a dinner party as one of the items on auction. So the fundraiser took place, and the winning bidder was Mary Ann McCormick, local entrepreneur, founder of Lark Fine Foods — an award-winning company making baked goods that go beyond anything your grandmother made in deliciousness and beauty. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth.
Heather, sweeping up in preparation
David, laying the fire for a chilly evening in November
So here is where we are so far:
Writer Judith Sargent Murray of the Sargent House to writer Heather Atwood of Howlets and businesswoman Mary Ann McCormick, purveyor of Lark Fine Foods.
But wait! There’s more! In between the two hundred years that separate the Mrs. Murray and the Ms. Atwood, two other women figure into the story.
Howlets, the historic home that Heather lives in with her family, was built by in 1911 by Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle de Veaux Clements, two well-regarded artists who created everything from oil paintings to etchings to sculpture. These women defined independent living, from studying with the world’s great artists to selling their work (never an easy task unless you’re dead or Jeff Koons) to building a summer house and studio of massive granite pieces that could withstand an apocalypse. Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle Clements lived the sort of lives that Judith Sargent Murray imagined might be possible for women, each succeeding generation building on the work of the ones who came before to create opportunities for us today, granite block by granite block.
Judith Sargent Murray, Ellen Day Hale & Gabrielle Clements, Heather Atwood & Mary Ann McCormick…the Sargent House to Howlets…two centuries of strong women and historic houses. See how this works? If not, here’s a chart that might help.
This might all seem a little overblown, to make a connection between a woman writing an essay over two hundred years ago and a dinner party I went to last weekend. But it doesn’t take much of an imagination to see a (fairly) straight line stretching backwards between now and then.
Speaking of now, and of this dinner party, which is what I’m really writing about…my role in all of this is that Heather asked me to come up with something for the table. A tablescape, in House Beautiful magazine terms — a made-up name I despise but one I am gradually giving into using, as its ubiquity seems inevitable. Like the word awesome. Not a made-up word but used to the point of meaninglessness, as so few things are truly awesome, other than God and certain cheeses. But yet, since the ’90s, I have said and typed awesome around four million times. But about the tablescape.
The Federalist period was invoked with lots of gold accents at the table. For place cards I printed an image of a beautiful portrait of Judith Sargent Murray on vellum so the light from the votive candles came through, illuminating Mrs. Murray herself.
And for the centerpiece: four vintage frames were attached to form a square with the main flower arrangement placed in the center. As part of the arrangement, an image of the Sargent House was printed, again on vellum, and placed inside a few of the frames.
The flowers were decaying hydrangeas in the most amazing reddish hue and lots of branches, gathered together in an untidy bundle. The colors of the leaves, the ones that are still clinging to the branches, have been so intense this year. I don’t recall a more spectacular fall. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and make these sorts of observations.
The little handmade book
As a keepsake for Mary Ann, I created a little book that featured portraits of Judith Sargent Murray, Gabrielle Clements and Ellen Day Hale, along with a tiny copy of one of J.S.M’s letters. Just one of her many, many letters. She copied and saved 2,500 of her own letters, putting them into “letter books” with an eye toward posterity.
The restored window in the studio, set nearly three stories high
At the party, later that evening…
Judith Sargent Murray, alight for the occasion
Mary Ann, the generous winning bidder of the dinner party.
One of the vintage frames
Heather’s homemade bread, her husband David’s selection of wine
One more note: about the food Heather made for the party… It was unbelievable, from the trays of tiny cold radishes with oyster-something-dip at the beginning of the evening to the quince tart (served as a nod to the old quince tree in yard of the Sargent House) which brought the meal to a close, it was all amazing. Awesome, actually.
If you have the chance to go to a dinner served by a food writer, go to that dinner party. Especially if that food writer happens to be a woman. Because we all know that the ladies can do wonders in a kitchen. And far, far beyond.