Monday, January 23, 2012

Swinburne Hale

Swinburne Hale (b. Ithaca, New York, 5 April 1884; d. Westport, Connecticut, 3 July 1937)

Swinburne Hale was the oldest of four children of William Gardner Hale (1849-1928), Harvard-educated professor of Latin at Cornell University (from 1880-1892) and afterwards (until retirement in 1920) at the newly founded University of Chicago, where he also served as head of the Latin department, and Harriet Swinburne Hale (1853-1928), a graduate of Vassar College. Swinburne’s siblings included Virginia Swinburne Hale (1887-1981), Margaret Hale (1891-1962) and Gardner Hale (1894-1931). Virginia and Gardner became artists, and Gardner’s wife Dorothy (1905-1938) became famous posthumously as the subject of Frida Kahlo’s painting “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale” (1939).

Swinburne was educated at Philips Exeter Academy, and Harvard University, where he received his A.B. in 1905 and afterwards studied law. In the early years of law practice in New York, he lived in Greenwich Village, where he made many friends among writers, while he also became prominent in various liberal groups. In 1921, his partner Walter Nellis at the New York firm Hale, Nellis & Shorr, described Swinburne as “not a Socialist but interested in Socialism”.

In 1910 he married Beatrice Forbes-Robertson, an actress and niece of Sir Johnstone Forbes-Robertson. They had three daughters. During World War I he served in France in the Military Intelligence Division.  He was divorced from his first wife in 1920, and in the following year he married Mrs. Marie Tudor Garland Green. By 1924 he was enmeshed in an affair with another woman, Greta Hercz (1899-1989), but his second wife was unwilling at that time to give him a divorce.

Swinburne Hale published his only book in the summer of 1923: The Demon’s Notebook—Verse and Perverse (New York: Nicholas L. Brown, 1923).  The book sports a marvelous frontispiece by Rose O’Neill (1874-1944), who is remembered today for work of an entirely different kind: as the creator of kewpie dolls, a singular example of American kitsch.  Hale’s book is divided into two parts, one labeled “Verse” (containing twenty-four poems), the other “Perverse” (containing thirteen poems).  His publisher, Nicholas L. Brown, had begun as a bookseller in Philadelphia before moving to New York in late 1918.  Between 1916 and 1932, Brown published thirty-some books of poetry and belles-lettres, often classical in nature, some of which bordered on what was considered erotic for the time, but which seemed always just on the safe side to avoid any prosecution for obscenity.

The Demon’s Notebook was reviewed favorably by Henry Longan Stuart in The New York Times. Stuart wrote:  “At his best and most serious, Mr. Hale is astonishingly good” (July 8, 1923).  What Stuart doesn’t say is that for much of the volume, Hale is not very serious at all.  The result is an unsatisfying book, which will be remembered by posterity more for the frontispiece than for any of the poems inside.  To give a few examples, the first poem in the book, “The Demon”, begins:  “Let the Demon work in you! / Do not cast him out! / He knows better than you do / What he is about!”.  In the final poem in the “Verse” section, “Dedication” (To Rose O’Neill), Hale writes:
But you, the Master-Mistress of my mind,
     Whose Demon sits high-throned above my stars—
But you, whose passionate pinions know no kind,
     Whose scars are burnt with scars—
You will divine my song in your far place,
    And call it with your wings, and hold it high;
And underneath the dark of that embrace
     Young songs shall cry.
In the “Perverse” section, Hale writes in the poem “The God in the House”:
God is moving round my house
     Setting things to rights.
I hear his step upon the stair,
But like a savant in my lair
Crouch and nurse my fine despair. . . . 
He wants to make of this my house
     A sanitary sight.
He thinks it has a curious smell—
But I should do so very well
If I could keep my funny hell.
Hale spent the summer of 1924 in Taos, New Mexico, where his sister Margaret lived with the writer Joseph O’Kane Foster (1898-1985), whom she would marry in 1927. There he hobnobbed with D.H. Lawrence, and flirted with Freida Lawrence, while continuing his affair Greta Hercz, all the time complaining that he felt he was going insane.  In 1972, Joseph Foster published an account of this time in an appallingly poor monograph, D.H. Lawrence in Taos. In this book Foster pretends to give accounts of the inner thoughts of the people involved, but instead he makes them all appear as vacuous and simple-minded.

Swinburne Hale soon left Taos and went back east, and his worries about his own mental state came true.  In 1925 he was committed to an asylum, the Westport Sanitorium, in Westport, Connecticut, and there he remained until his death in 1937 at the age of 53. Whether he ever divorced his second wife or not is unknown, but Greta Hercz claimed to be Mrs. Swinburne Hale and went by the name of Greta Hale until her own death many years later. 


  1. Nice blog, and terrific post about Swinburne Hale. I am researching him and his first wife Beatrice. Am going through her letters to him, 1913-1919, which are in a collection at the NY Public Library. There are also letters in the Ralph M. Pearson collection in New Mexico. By the way, other sources say he and Marie Tudor Garland divorcedin 1924. She also moved out to NM, north of Santa Fe.

  2. A friend of mine (in the UK) had some papers of Greta Hale, and asked me to look into her, which resulted in the entry on Swinburne Hale. I'll point him to your comment, and to your website, so he can contact you directly if he has anything relevant. Thanks for writing!

  3. Hi, I'm Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale's great granddaughter. Beatrice wrote a book called Family Legends which I have made available on Amazon if that helps.
    Best wishes, Nicky Fitzmaurice