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.
Margaret C. Anderson
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?”
Man Ray, Jane Heap, c.1926
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.