Scofield Thayer

James Dempsey on Scofield Thayer:

Scofield Thayer was a publisher, writer, and art collector of prescient taste whose career was brief but intense. His magazine, The Dial, published writers and artists, many for the first time, who would go on to become giants of the twentieth century. His brief but intense career radically reshaped the culture of the age, only to be cruelly cut short by mental disease.

Thayer was born in Worcester in 1889 to Edward and Florence Thayer. Edward was a businessman who specialized in textiles and textile manufacturing machinery. He was highly successful and was assigned several patents for his improvements to industrial looms. He died unexpectedly following an operation for appendicitis, and Scofield, then a 17-year-old student at Milton Academy, came into a fortune.

Thayer had no interest in his father’s business. He studied literature at Harvard College, where he edited The Harvard Monthly, a literary magazine, and after graduating in 1913 moved to England to study philosophy at Magdalene College, Oxford. There his friendship with T.S. Eliot, a classmate from both Milton and Harvard and a fellow Oxonian, deepened.  He was introduced to the literary scene and began to read widely in contemporary writing.

He returned to the United States in 1915, married Elaine Orr of Troy, New York, and began working at The Dial, then in Chicago. In 1918 the magazine moved to New York City, where it continued to experience financial difficulties and the publisher, Martyn Johnson, was forced to sell. Thayer bought the journal, partnering with his friend J. Sibley Watson.

The magazine under the new owners debuted in January 1920 and soon became one of the most prestigious outlets for fiction, poetry, essays, and art.  Much of the magazine was given over   to the new “modernist” writers and artists, including T.S, Eliot, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Moore, and Ezra Pound. The magazine also brought before its American audience the new and exciting work of contemporary artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Egon Schiele, and many others.  Th magazine also featured critical essays by Bertrand Russell, George Santayana, Gilbert Seldes, and Edmund Wilson. “The table of contents was a roster of greatness,” said the New York Times.:

In 1921 Thayer went to Paris, were he and Elaine amicably divorced (by this time she had taken up with Thayer’s friend, E.E. Cummings), and then went on to Vienna, where he underwent two years of analysis with Sigmund Freud. He had long struggled with psychological difficulties and hoped that Freud’s methods would give him relief. He continued to edit the magazine via mail and telegrams and began feverishly buying art, some for reproduction in the magazine, some for his own collection.

He returned to New York in 1923, and over the next few years his mental health continued to deteriorate as his symptoms of paranoia and schizophrenia became more and more obvious to himself and others. He carried on working, but in 1925 suffered a catastrophic breakdown that removed him from public life. He was institutionalized and spent the rest of his life under care. He was eventually declared insane.

When he died in 1982 at the age of 92, he was all but forgotten. He had outlived his friends and his immediate family, and his financial assets were divided among distant relatives. His art collection, which had been on loan at the Worcester Art Museum for half a century, was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and to Harvard’s Fogg Museum.

It is amazing that Thayer during the relatively few years of his publishing career should have achieved so much, amassing an art collection that is today worth more than $399 million and  introducing in the pages of The Dial the artists and writers who would come to define the culture of the twentieth century.

Image: Portrait of Scofield Thayer by E.E. Cummings
Video: Trailer for Stroke of genius, an upcoming movie on the life of Scofield Thayer

The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer By James Dempsey Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780813062358
Published: University Press of Florida - October 25th, 2016

Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection By James Dempsey, Sabine Rewald Cover Image
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ISBN: 9781588396525
Availability: Out of Print
Published: Metropolitan Museum of Art - July 17th, 2018

The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound By Daniel Swift Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780374284046
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - November 7th, 2017

Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury By Carolyn Burke Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780307957290
Published: Knopf - March 5th, 2019