A new biography of the American heiress Dorothy Elmhirst who founded Dartington Hall in 1925, which rapidly became a magnet for artists, architects, writers, philosophers and musicians from around the world, creating an exceptional centre of creative activity.
Dorothy Whitney was born as a princess, bells rang, flags flew and the American navy’s new fast tugboat was named Dorothy. She was orphaned at seventeen, started giving her money away at eighteen, and educated herself for her political ambitions. Realising that despite her social work her status as an unmarried woman was merely ornamental, she journeyed around the world to test her love, and his, before her marriage to Willard Straight in 1911. Their marriage transformed them and made everything seem possible; they were a golden couple, embraced by Theodore Roosevelt and his Progressive Democrats, and blessed by three beautiful children before Willard’s conscience led him to volunteer to fight in France where he died in the ‘flu epidemic of 1918.
For six years Dorothy’s life spiralled into a mania of activity supporting high-profile liberal causes and fulfilling Willard’s wishes for his legacy, which included financing ‘The Straight’, the student union building at Cornell University. Her courage made her widely admired, a figure of hope, she and her friends walked down Fifth Avenue ‘with serious tread’ and arguably even in the 1920s she could have achieved political office on her own account. However, she worked herself into a breakdown, which laid her low for six months in the winter of 1923-24; her recovery was assisted by friendship with Leonard Elmhirst, an Englishman who shared her liberal beliefs, and together they moved to England in 1925 to start a progressive school at Dartington in Devon.
I say they moved to England, but Dorothy crossed the Atlantic one hundred times in her life, half by sea, half by air. Her English life at Dartington, her marriage, her two Elmhirst children, her extended family, her passion for education in the context of the arts, her support of artists – of the calibre of Benjamin Britten and Henry Moore – and of ‘arts for all’, her love of Shakespeare and of her beautiful garden, these are all part of her ‘second’ life. Her slim appointments diary was always beside her or in her handbag and these are the basis of her vivid and inspiring story.
The newly-weds landed on 29th May to be met by Leonard’s sister Irene Rachael, and another brother, Richard who took them to Exeter and the Royal Clarence Hotel. The following day they drove to Totnes and then to Dartington where they spent the morning – ‘too heavenly’ was Dorothy’s verdict. As Leonard had written ‘a fairy land’ or at least other worldly, for what they were looking at was an ivy-covered ruin with roofless Great Hall and agricultural squalor predominant in all the surroundings. After lunch at the Seymour Hotel in Totnes they returned for a second inspection, ‘interior difficult’ noted Dorothy, presumably referring to the abandoned rabbit-warren that might one day be her home. There was nowhere for them to live in the foreseeable future. Her old life crumbling behind her, her prospect only ruins. Next morning they went to ‘a lovely service’ in Exeter Cathedral, and afterwards she broke down and ‘wept idiotically’.
...This might be the moment to introduce Susie Hammond’s considered reflections on her friend’s second marriage as, ‘self-denying, filled with generosity and consideration for others, serious [and] creative’. This was never going to be a marriage as before, that Dorothy could not be given again as she no longer existed. She did not love Leonard but she liked him and his values, and her loyalty to their ‘great project’ would be unshakeable. She would find the money, he would make it work, that was their agreement. She paid for the Dartington estate and everything they did for the first four years, though thanks to her, or Harry Whitney’s, clever lawyers and accountants comparatively little of her wealth fell into the hands of the British government as Herbert Croly had feared. She remained an American citizen for more than twenty years though she did call herself ‘Mrs Dorothy Elmhirst’. She was also generous to herself, and to Leonard, in that they would continue to live in the high style to which she was accustomed. Herbert Croly was right about the difficulties of living in two countries and here her ‘consideration’ verged on the courageous; as she gazed out into the Atlantic from the deck of the Majestic carrying her to England she made a silent pact with the great ocean that she was destined to cross, not for pleasure or at will but for love and duty, at beck and call, for the rest of her life. The great liners became part of her life, her trans-Atlantic crossings became her ‘decompression chambers’, with always her own cabin and often a sitting-room, where she could read and think and calm her fears.
Dorothy was 20 in 1907, she was 'out' and New York's No. 1 Marriageable Heiress, but unusual for her natural authority, the perfect Madme Chairman, she could hold a large meeting to order.
She marched with the Women's Trade Union League, supported the emigrant settlements of New York's East Side, and was the elected Chairman of the National Junior Leagues, a focus for activist young women with…
My heroine keeps bursting through the news; She loved her native America and Pope Francis's quiet utterance of 'the land of the free and the home of the brave' which moved his audience to tears and cheers has echoes from her patriot's life. She lived her first 38 years there, and in 1924 when she decided to leave the country was sliding to the right and isolationism. If Franklin Roosevelt's political…
We are still playing with titles for Dorothy's story - when I say 'Nobody knew' it means she purposefully kept herself out of the limelight, no empty socialising, refused to use her money to exert influence, refused to join committees of the great and the good.
So, hers is a secret history BUT if you believe that the purpose of history is to make us wise in coping with the present, then she is…
These people are helping to fund Angel Dorothy.