The crazy thing about the internet is how easily it takes you places you never knew you wanted to go.
I imagine it’s like teleporting. You start out going one place and then
you’ve hop-click-jumped to a place you’ve never even heard about before
— Yaddo —
where you quickly find yourself absorbed in a story that, were it fiction, you’d say was far-fetched.
13 things I never knew I wanted to know about Yaddo
- Yaddo is an artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York.
- It was dreamed into being by a wealthy writer/philanthropist, Katrina (Kate) Nichols Trask (1853–1922). Tragedy followed Kate Trask like a shadow.
- Depending on who you ask, the word yaddo either is a child’s mispronunciation of “shadow” or it means the opposite of shadow.* Either way, it was Kate Trask’s daughter Christina who conjured it.
- Yaddo is by no means your average artist retreat. For a century it’s been a hotbed of creativity like no other. Collectively, Yaddo alums have won 78 Pulitzer Prizes, 31 MacArthur Fellowships, 69 National Book Awards, and a Nobel Prize. These artists include James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote, Langston Hughes, Carson McCullers, David Foster Wallace and Flannery O’Connor. Yaddo’s artists tend to develop deep bonds with the place (and with each other—think Tinder for artists). Patricia Highsmith spent two months there in 1948, and when she died in 1995 she left her $3 million estate to the Corporation of Yaddo.
- Yaddo was the home and project of Trask and her first and second husbands, Spencer Trask (killed by a train in 1909) and George Foster Peabody. Both men met Katrina Nichols of Brooklyn in 1873. Both were attracted to her. Kate married Trask, in 1874. They all remained friends and the men became business partners.
- The Trasks’ first child, a boy named Alanson, died in 1880 at age 5.
- Hoping to put some distance between themselves and this devastating loss, the Trasks rented an “ornate Italianate late Victorian Queen Anne villa” in Saratoga Springs. Its owner had fallen into bankruptcy and the villa sat abandoned for ten years before the Trasks arrived. They intended to stay five months but ended up buying the place—apparently not on its merits but for its potential. Kate Trask described the “hideous old house” with its “desolate hall” in The Chronicles of Yaddo: “It mattered not at all that there were no comforts, not even running water; that the broken locks, open doors and every possible inconvenience tried our patience – if we allowed ourselves to think about them; all that was but as the dust of a high mountain road…” Ten years after the Trasks bought the house they named Yaddo, it burnt to the ground. A contemporary visitor wonders, “Accident, or stroke of luck?”
- But the Trasks were unlucky. In 1888, Kate contracted diphtheria. When her doctor allowed her two children to visit, both were infected and died, Christina age 11 and Spencer age 4.
- Kate recovered and soon gave birth to a daughter, Katrina, who died almost immediately. Having lost all four of her children now, and under “intense mental strain,” she wrote her first book** in three days.
- The Trasks bequeathed almost their entire fortune to rebuild Yaddo and create a working community of writers, composers and visual artists. Spencer Trask, who was friends with Thomas Edison, wrote, “Since God in His infinite wisdom has seen fit to take all our children to a larger place, we cannot believe it right that we should limit the possession of Yaddo to any one individual or family.”
- The rebuilt Yaddo, completed in 1893, mixed Normanesque, medieval, and Tudor styles, with a touch of Adirondack Rustic. Above the fireplace in the mansion’s great hall, a mosaic depicting a phoenix rising from its ashes is inscribed Flammis Invicta Per Ignem Yaddo Resurgo Ad Pacem (Unconquered by flame, Yaddo is reborn for peace).
- Yet peace did not always reign at Yaddo: In 1949, “less than a year before Senator Joseph McCarthy embarked on his nationwide anticommunist campaign, poet Robert Lowell rocked the eastern establishment’s art world by attempting to purge the administration at an upstate New York artists’ community. As Yaddo’s future hung in the balance, loyalties collided, Left battled Right, and aesthetics shouted down politics” (abstract of “The Lowell Affair,” Ben Alexander, The New England Quarterly 80 no. 4, 2007).
- Yaddo not only survived the Lowell affair, it thrived. Having supported more than 5500 artists since it opened its doors in 1926, Yaddo recently underwent a $10 million restoration. All artists are encouraged to apply for a residency.*** Applications are judged entirely on the quality of the work, with no publication or performance requirements and no fee to attend.
* I hope it’s the latter. To me, “the opposite of shadow” is an apt name for the legacy of a woman who, as Anne Korkeakivi wrote, turned “the worst sort of loss into beauty.” (She must have been a Four.)
** Most sources refer to this book of three long poems as her first publication (and she published it anonymously), but Wikipedia shows two earlier ones.
*** Due to COVID-19, Yaddo is temporarily closed and will remain so “until the global all clear.”