This article was originally published in the July 2017 Princeton Echo.
If People magazine had been around back in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s, it might have had a field day covering the literary “power couple” of the day — poet Allen Tate and novelist Caroline Gordon.
Tate was one of the first teachers in what was the very beginning of Princeton University’s creative writing program. While at Princeton he was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the equivalent of today’s United States Poet Laureate, a title now held by another Princeton University teacher, Tracy K. Smith.
Early in her career Gordon won the prestigious Guggenheim and O. Henry awards. She published 10 novels representative of the movement known as the Southern Agrarians.
Their own relationship provided grist for any tabloid. Tate was four years younger than Gordon, and she was five months pregnant when they were married in 1925. Tate was a run-around. Gordon, jealous to the point of rage, was nevertheless hopelessly in love with Tate.
Their marriage ended in divorce in 1945, followed by a remarriage a year later. They were divorced for good in 1959. Tate remarried, got divorced, and then married a former nun. “He wanted to cuckold God himself,” one friend remarked.
When they were together Gordon’s and Tate’s friends and frequent houseguests included a cavalcade of literary stars: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren (“Red” to them), Mary McCarthy, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Conner, and critics Edmund Wilson (“Bunny” to them), Richard Blackmur, and Mark Van Doren. Princeton friends included the pharmaceutical heiress, Grace Lambert, Henry Church, heir to the Arm & Hammer fortune, and the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain.
Lots of time was spent in Princeton, where they lived first in a rented house on Linden Lane. As Ann Waldron wrote in her definitive 1987 biography, “Close Connections — Caroline Gordon and the Southern Renaissance,” guests were part of the Tate-Gordon household from the very beginning and Princeton was no exception. “The summer of 1940 was one of those comic communal experiences that occurred so often in the lives of the Tates.”
After living out of town for a few years (and enduring more storms in their marriage) Tate and Gordon moved in 1949 to a house on Nassau Street, at the corner of Riverside Drive, opposite Snowden, which they later turned over to their daughter, Nancy, and her husband, Percy Wood, a psychiatrist who later became clinical director of the Carrier Clinic.
After a few years the family headed off to academic appointments in Minneapolis and Rome, among other places. Gordon returned alone in 1954 and purchased 54 Hodge Road for $23,000. That house had been rented for years and was in disrepair — they called it the “Hodge horror.” (It most recently sold in 2004 for $1.63 million.)
The final house, at 145 Ewing Street, was — as Gordon described it — the “perfect house.” And today it is available through Callaway Henderson SIR for $849,000. In addition to three bedrooms, two full baths, three fireplaces, a garage, and a nicely landscaped half-acre lot, the house has some literary memories.
As Waldron, a reporter, editor, and author who was based in Princeton for many years until her death in 2010 at the age of 85, reported in her Gordon biography, the Ewing Street house became available in the nick of time in 1956, when Gordon had returned to Princeton from a teaching fellowship in Kansas and was expecting to rent a house at 154 Mercer Street. But the landlord had forgotten the termination date of the current tenant’s lease. Gordon had no place to stay.
“The ‘perfect house’ was small and old; part of it had been built in 1780, part in 1830,” Waldron wrote in her biography. “It was on Ewing just off Harrison Street, two blocks from a shopping center; not the best of neighborhoods, but it had an acre of ground. The young couple who owned it had added all the modern conveniences, but not, said Caroline, a single modern vulgarity. ‘One would not have to spend a penny on it, not even for a coat of paint,’ Caroline wrote [a friend]. ‘We could just move in and have the luxury of arranging our books and papers without any great upheaval such as we have had now every two years since we married. I am not going to cry if we don’t get it but I’ll sing paeans of praise if we do’.
“The house was to be the ground beneath her feet for Caroline — if she and Allen could get it. But it looked for a while as if they could not manage it. It cost $21,000. Even with some of the cash left from the $10,000 that [their daughter and son-in-law] had paid them for their share of [the house they had owned at 54 Hodge Road], they needed $2,000 more for a down payment. Allen had to teach at an international seminar directed by Henry Kissinger at the Harvard Summer School, but he came back to Princeton on weekends to try to get the purchase through.”
While the Tate-Gordon marriage hit another snag during the purchase of the “perfect house,” Gordon moved in by herself.
“She loved the house,” Waldron wrote. “It had three levels, ‘none of them split,’ she wrote to [friends]. . . ‘There was a little terrace in the back, half enclosed with ancient lilacs and syringas,’ Caroline wrote to Flannery O’Connor. At the end of the stretch of back lawn there was a grove of young locusts and two huge willow trees. It was hard to believe they were in Princeton: one could sit on the terrace and watch the rabbits on the lawn.”
When one hears the 1950s prices — $21,000 for a house on the market today for $849,000 — it’s easy to long for the good old days when houses were affordable and regret that you didn’t jump into the market sooner. But, as Waldron’s biography reveals, in the good old days of the 1950s and ‘60s even a big league writer such as Gordon had her financial challenges. She received a $10,000 grant from the National Council of the Arts in 1966. The next year she was given a $3,000 advance from Doubleday for her next novel. She later sold her papers to Princeton University for $19,000. Still, “she lived in terror of poverty after Allen stopped his support payments.”
To help her make ends meet Grace Lambert loaned her $3,000. And Gordon took in a housemate — an editor at the Rutgers University Press — to help cover the expenses of the “perfect” house on Ewing Street.
In 1978, when her daughter and son-in-law decided to retire early to Mexico, Gordon decided to sell the Ewing Street house and move in next door to them in Mexico. She died there in 1981 at the age of 85. The epitaph on her tombstone was provided by her old Princeton neighbor, Jacques Maritain: “It is for Adam to interpret the voices which Eve hears.”