Fascism, the Musical: Ecology of the Santa Fe Opera, Part 4

The Santa Fe Opera (left) lies on the southern boundary of the Tesuque Pueblo Reservation, whose flea market occupies the center of the image; Santa Fe landmark Tetilla Peak, upper right. Photo by Eric Shultz.

The Bynner circle


Bynner did not get along with Cutting.

—Paul Frank[1]

Through his relationship with Ezra Pound, we have gained some insight into Senator Cutting as a political creature in the usual sense. Yet their relationship from the start was a matter of cultural politics. “The senate is not rich in men who read the classics for pleasure,” Pound memorialized after the senator’s death.[2] But Cutting’s pleasures included more than reading:

Among the arts, Cutting’s greatest passion was classical music. He was an accomplished pianist who sometimes played all night on his Steinway, especially when he was upset. His phonograph collection… contained thousands of records….[3]

If Cutting was known to entertain guests by playing “selections from Bach, Beethoven or Wagner,”[4] this was because for all of its highly cultured citizens, Santa Fe was still quite a wasteland, at least in the area of classical musical performance. Some two decades after Cutting’s death, Santa Feans still felt a mighty thirst for the great European musical traditions, a thirst the Santa Fe Opera would help to slake. Back in Cutting’s day, his musical appetite was a possible point of contact among many points of separation.

A number of cultural issues caused Cutting to be something of an outcast in Santa Fe society:

His assertiveness in politics notwithstanding, he was rather shy; and this reticence, combined with his Hispanic connections and with rumors about his sexual orientation, prevented him from ever being fully accepted in some Santa Fe circles. His closest New Mexico friends were his political cronies, his newspaper employees, and several members of the Bynner circle.[5]

Which brings us to the focus of this segment. From the 1920s to the ‘60s, poet Harold “Hal” Witter Bynner stood at the center of Santa Fe’s cultural elite, and his influence on the life of the city can hardly be exaggerated. “Hal held the town together in a way that the opera is holding it together now,” said Bynner circle member and socialite Mirandi Masocco Levy near the end of the century.[6] An immigrant orphaned in Santa Fe, Masocco was raised in part by Bynner and was exposed to his many distinguished house guests. “People like Stephen Spender, Thornton Wilder, Christopher Isherwood, Oliver La Farge, Paul Horgan, or L. B. Priestley.” This list goes beyond the Bynner circle’s Santa Fe regulars, but about its composition, Masocco put it succinctly. “Most of the time I was the only girl.”[7]

Absorbed in the substance of this segment, a few days ago I decided to drop by 342 Buena Vista. The Bynner house is a villa worthy of an urban aristocrat. In a 1927 letter to his future life partner Robert Hunt, Bynner described his new house as “absurdly imposing (both absurd and imposing) as it looms over the new entrance.”[8] Indeed, from the Buena Vista street entrance, the high-walled lot begins as a field then slopes steeply upward in a series of stone masonry terraces between flights of flagstone steps. “I have spent a borrowed fortune on stonework,” Bynner bragged to Bobby.[9] Perched on the high ground, the massive two-story adobe house achieves a verticality unusual among Santa Fe residential buildings. Now a bed-and-breakfast but about to be sold to be a private residence again, what I was beholding was the fabled site of a Santa Fe party that lasted several decades.

The Bynner house was the scene of almost nightly impromptu carousing by Santa Fe artistic types,[10] but more formal affairs with guests numbering in the hundreds impressed Hal’s writer friend Haniel Long: “You should have seen the assortment that were there. Flapper types, thin, and hats on the back of their heads, and smoking as though life depended on it.” Writer Mary Austin made a further distinction: “I never go to Hal’s drinking parties, but to those irreproachable ones where he entertains Senator Cutting and the Governor.”[11] It was at one such “irreproachable” party that Senator Cutting met Bynner’s “companion” Clifford McCarthy and succeeded in alienating the young man’s affection.[12] Also at Bynner parties, Cutting befriended poet Phelps Putman and his wife Una Fairweather, and historian Frederick Manning, all of whom shared his passion for classical music: “Cutting’s new friendships allowed him to play duets, to express musical opinions and to comment on concerts, things he had not done previously.”[13] In Part 3 of this series, we explored fascistic aspects of Cutting’s politics, as well as his friendships and associations with pro-Fascists and para-fascists such as Ezra Pound and C. H. Douglas. And now we see in the Senator an association of fascistic impulses with a hunger for classical music. It should be clear from the title of this series, “Fascism, the Musical,” that such an association will take on central importance in this partial history of the Santa Fe Opera, but its fuller exploration is made in other installments. In what remains of this segment, let us consider Hal Bynner’s more nuanced fascist connections.

Witter Bynner was a progressive American liberal with impeccable credentials. He campaigned for women’s suffrage, was an “ardent supporter”[14] of La Follette’s 1924 Progressive-ticket presidential run, and even took an active role in the international campaign in defense of Leon Trotsky.[15] At the outbreak of WWII, Bynner was decisively anti-Axis, encouraging his younger partner Robert Hunt (a New Mexico Military Academy graduate) to join the war effort on the Oakland docks,[16] while he (a noted expert on Chinese culture) supported the Chinese resistance as state chairman for the United China Relief Fund.[17] In a life so full of liberal, democratic, progressive and anti-Axis convictions and actions, where could there possibly be room for fascism? To begin with, the answer lies in Bynner’s intense and conflicted relationship with D. H. Lawrence.

As the story goes, when Mabel Dodge and Tony Luhan met D. H. and Frieda Lawrence at the train in 1922, car trouble delayed their return so they decided to spend the night in Santa Fe and go on to Taos in the morning. Finding no room at the inn, Mabel improvised: “Witter Bynner knows you’re coming. He’s always up. I know he’d love to have you.”[18] And so the Lawrences spent their first night in New Mexico at the Bynner house, albeit before its palatial remodeling. Less than a year later, having had their fill both of Taos and of Mabel Dodge, the Lawrences decided to pull up stakes and look for a quiet place in Mexico. Lawrence convinced Bynner and his then-partner Willard “Spud” Johnson, to accompany them. The ensuing ordeal makes up much of Bynner’s estimable memoir, Journey with Genius: recollections and reflections concerning the D. H. Lawrences. In it, he recounts in vivid detail Lorenzo’s fascistic proclivities: his abusiveness toward Frieda, his racist suspicions and outbursts toward the Mexicans around him, his messianic fantasies of becoming the charismatic leader of a new order, and of being imbued with “natural aristocracy.”[19]

Perhaps his clearest understanding of Lawrence – one that also speaks presciently to the fascist phenomenon then gathering on the horizon of history – comes in an April 1923 letter Bynner wrote to Johnson when the latter was briefly in a Mexico City hospital:

…This man whom a generation is thinking intellectual is as set about with superstitions as a parlor of palmistry. In fact his whole scheme of things is only a new superstition, a new humbuggery as impressive as phrenology. I am ashamed of an age that takes him seriously. Personally my distaste for his half-baked violence is changing into pity for his sick egotism.

Bynner’s denunciation culminates in an remarkable insight that I will take up for fuller consideration in a future installment:

[Lawrence’s] code, without his knowing it, is exactly that of the American businessman. He wants what he wants when he wants it. He does not know where he is going, but he’s on his way. He hits at any competitor. He is gathering up the earth but has no use for it. [20]

Feeling the sting of Lawrence’s presence, Bynner both saw what we now recognize a “fascist” traits, and saw those same traits as inherent in the modern businessman. But after nearly 30 years, his Journey came to epitomize a process pointed to in Part 1: the cleansing function of much post-WWII criticism that exonerates prominent fascists with a designation of genius.[21]

Bynner was not a fascist in the guise of anti-fascism, as we saw exemplified by Toscanini in Part 2. He was very much a non-fascist, and his approach toward Lawrence was not to debate him or abandon him: “I never combat him with words but only by continuing to be what I am and to believe more than ever in almost everything that he condems.”[22] Santa Fe prides itself on its tolerance, something Bynner no doubt enjoyed. But for a culture of tolerance to be genuine, some unsavory qualities end up being tolerated. We end this segment with a consideration of the Bynner circle’s inner circle and the person of Robert Hunt. Bobby was introduced to Bynner by writer Paul Horgan, a key figure in the Santa Fe Opera story about whom much will be said in the installment-after-next. Another force who shaped the Opera was Mirandi Masocco, who recalls:

Bob’s second love was music, and he had a vast collection of records, especially opera. He would stay up much later than Hal and play music. Always classical; he hated anything modern.[23]

In other words, Robert Hunt was a formidable opera queen.[24]In close orbit around Bob, Horgan and Masocco would go on to play central roles in the Santa Fe Opera’s formation. And Masocco’s recollections, as well as Bynner’s letters, coincide with Bynner’s biographer on one point: Robert Hunt was an anti-Semite. And because Bynner tolerated some remarks Hunt made when into his cups at a dinner party, Hal’s dear friends Rafael and Marjorie Alfau, and his lifelong friend Haniel Long, broke off their relations with Bob and Hal.[25]

In the Bynner home, where D. H. Lawrence was revered and 10-inch Victors crackled operas through the wee hours, anti-Semitism was a fact of life, however bitter its aftertaste. And the Bynner circle – where fascism and anti-Semitism cohabited promiscuously with other sophisticated tastes and vices – provided Senator Cutting with friendship and refuge from his workaday world where fascism and anti-Semitism commingled in his celebrity associates such as Ezra Pound and C. H. Douglas. Even if Bynner and Cutting personally didn’t get along, as the epigraph asserts, anyone rich, cultured and homosexual would inevitably intersect the Bynner circle. And decades after Cutting’s death, two members of the circle’s inner circle, Mirandi Masocco and Paul Horgan, would debauch a maiden opera company by arranging a sordid liaison with an autumnal Igor Stravinsky, in whom fascism and anti-Semitism bloomed in eternal springtime. But before telling that story, the Opera needs to be founded.

[1]  La Farge, John Pen. Turn Left at the Sleeping Dog: scripting the Santa Fe legend, 1920-1955. Albuquerque: UNM Press 2001, p. 235.

[2]  Pound, Ezra. Ezra Pound and Senator Bronson Cutting: a political correspondence, 1930-1935. P. Walkiewicz and Hugh Witemeyer, eds. Albuquerque: UNM Press 1995, p. 225.

[3]  Walkiewicz and Witemeyer in Pound, p. 14.

[4] Lowitt, Richard. Bronson Cutting: Progressive Politician. Albuquerque: UNM Press1992, p. 188.

[5]  Walkiewicz and Witemeyer in Pound, p. 14.

[6]  Masocco Levy, Miranda. “Belle of the Ball,” in John Pen La Farge, p. 330.

[7]  Ibid., p. 328.

[8] Bynner, Witter.  Selected Letters. James Kraft, editor. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux 1981, p. 120.

[9] Ibid.

[10] La Farge. Throughout the book, many of La Farge’s informants attest to Bynner house conviviality.

[11] Lowitt, p.187.

[12] About Cutting stealing Bynner’s boyfriend, there are several published accounts, of which Lowitt’s (pp. 187-94) is detailed and judicious, while Paul Frank’s (in La Farge, pp. 225-43) is lurid and judgmental.

[13] Lowitt, p. 187.

[14] Bynner, Selected Letters, p. 111; see footnote by editor Kraft.

[15] Ibid., pp. 152-53. In a journal entry dated January 29, 1937, Bynner wrote: “With Frida Rivera I visit Diego’s Coyotlan [sic] house and met Trotsky again, whom I used to see often at Romany Marie’s when he was a journalist in New York.” Upon returning to Santa Fe, he was interviewed by the New Mexican on his meeting with Trotsky.

[16] Ibid., pp. 176-77.

[17] Kraft, James. Who is Witter Bynner? Albuquerque: UNM Press 1995, p. 96.

[18] Luhan, Mabel Dodge. Lorenzo in Toas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1932, p. 39.

[19] Bynner, Witter. Journey with Genius: recollections and reflections concerning the D. H. Lawrences. New York: John Day 1951. In this regard, see especially Chapter 36, “Would-Be Aristocrat,” pp. 218-30.

[20] Bynner, Selected Letters, pp. 100-01.

[21] Watkins, Raymond J. The Modern Savage: Figures of the Fascist ‘Primitive’ in Interwar Europe. U. of Iowa (PhD Dissertation) 2006. Watkins observes in critical opinion regarding Lawrence: “Political questions once seen as inseparable from a writer’s artistic vision and style become irrelevant within a reconfigured post-war landscape, famously characterized in the United States by the pervasive influence of New Critical approaches that discover Lawrence’s unacknowledged genius” (p. 90). He finds a clear example of this change within the work of literary critic William York Tindall, whose “opinion of Lawrence dramatically changed course within eight years, bookmarked by the shrill tone of D. H. Lawrence and Susan His Cow (1939) – criticizing Lawrence’s primitivism and reactionary politics – and Tindall’s ­Forces in Modern British Literature: 1885-1946 (1947), in which Lawrence is now lauded as a prophet and genius” (note 2, p. 90). The same change describes Bynner’s “journey” from denouncing Lawrence’s fascistic tendencies to praising his literary genius.

[22] Bynner, Selected Letters, p. 101.

[23]  Masocco Levy in  La Farge, p. 330.

[24]  Among a growing body of literature on the opera queen, of particular distinction are Lawrence Mass’s scrappily political Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite, partly based on previously published essays including one originally titled “Confessions of an Opera Queen” and highly informative about the infusion of fascist culture in the world of opera; and Wayne Koestenbaum’s largely apolitical but penomenologically insightful The Queen’s Throat: opera, homosexuality and the mystery of desire.

[25] Kraft, p. 100. “It was at the dinner in 1948… that Hunt’s abusive language in reference to Jews, and Bynner’s attempted defense of him, lost them the friendship of several people, one of them the poet Haniel Long.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s