by Leo Racicot
"A beloved dwelling is Egg, nest, house, country, Universe."
For nine years, I was lucky enough to live on what’s known as Writers’ Block: Francis Avenue and Irving, a stone’s throw away from Harvard College, Cambridge.In exchange for my room, I worked caring and cooking for the disabled son of a Roosevelt-era couple and their live-in staff, a rotating door of handsome jocks and scholars matriculating at area universities (Harvard, M.I.T., B.U., B.C.). My job was challenging, and to keep from going mad, on my days off I’d make forays into this illustrious enclave.
My first stop was 104 Irving Street, where e e cummings once plied his trade. There was about the spot a green, leafy magic, playful, ghostly, strange. I could feel the creative spirit bubbling out from every corner and crack. This was before the city encased the house in a too-tall wood picket stockade. Even this didn’t keep me away. The blue, oval sign remained:
Literary nerd that I am, just being able to stand there gazing at the plaque brought vertiginous delight.
I liked next to hit the William James estate at 95 Irving, as dignified, stately and eccentric as the man himself – it’s said James fell in love so completely with his own design for the place, he moved himself and his family in long before the work was completed. So much for Pragmatism!
Oral and written accounts by neighbors have it that “a lamp was going 24 hours in the old thinker’s second-floor study.”
Being in the shadow of Harvard, always there were the celebrity encounters, the unexpected run-ins. The area, known by some as Professors’ Row, was home to many scholars of the time. The famous historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote so glowingly of his friends John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, and his wife, artist/author Marian Cannon Schlesinger, became acquaintances, as did the Lords, Albert and Mary Louise, still a Classics legend at Bates College where she’s held sway for decades. Through the years I met, ran into, chatted up, or just spotted Wynton Marsalis, Peter Gomes, George Plimpton (tall as a sequoia), and Jamaica Kincaid, a regular visitor, who could always be counted on for a courtly, “How do?” She smelled like a garden. When she was teaching at Harvard, she was often a guest at Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr.’s house, a screaming Miami-yellow Art Deco wedding cake totally out-of-place on tony Francis Avenue. He, sad to say, was one of the worst-behaved people I have ever met; Gates raised self-importance to new heights and was openly hostile to our autistic charge, Hilken. I admit I dined on the most delicious plate of Schadenfreude the time a cop caught Gates climbing into his own home, mistook him for a burglar, and hauled him in to the station.
Our neighborhood also claimed as residents Justin Kaplan, author of the definitive Walt Whitman biography, and his wife, the writer, Anne Bernays. Justin’s crusty, crotchety exterior belied a splendid, gentlemanly interior. Anne could be serious but loved to share tales of how smart her friend, Marilyn Monroe, had been: “She read Chekhov. She had a totally different voice in private, you know. Not at all the purring baby kitten voice you hear on screen. That girl knew what she was doing.”
One time, I saw John Cage and Merce Cunningham stop mid-Harvard Yard to do an impromptu little ballet. I gasped. I also got chummy with the heralded statesman of the Kennedy years, John Kenneth Galbraith and his darling, fashionista wife, Kitty. John Kenneth was even taller than George Plimpton, a spellbinding raconteur and fine art collector. Kitty enthralled annual Block Party audiences with her stories of Camelot and D.C. Her decline became evident when, at what was to be her final appearance, she related “the time Jackie, atop a ceremonial elephant, came riding right here up Francis Avenue”, likely confusing a trip she and John Kenneth had made with Jackie and Lee Radziwill to Pakistan and India in 1962. John Kenneth and Kitty were both beyond liberal. When Kitty found out I was a practicing Buddhist, she said, “But what good is all that navel watching going to do The People?”
Across the street from e e cummings, at 104 Irving, was Julia Child’s place.
I’d met Julia courtesy of our mutual friend, M.F.K. Fisher. Then, sometime after I moved to the Writers’ Block, we reacquainted. I spent many happy hours in that now-iconic kitchen. Julia, interestingly, didn’t care much for shop talk. She was a whiz though on other topics: politics, space travel, world religions. The one culinary subject I recall her waxing poetic about was McDonald’s French Fries. Through Julia I got to meet James Beard, Cynthia McFadden, Olympia Dukakis. The most fun I ever had with Julia was at the Wilbur Theater 1989 production of “Bon Appetit!,” Lee Holby’s operatic monologue starring Jean Stapleton as a singing Julia. Jean’s husband, John Putch, was a wreck fearing Julia would be offended by Jean’s portrayal but Julia ate it up.
Not everyone on the block was famous, of course; a plumber and his wife, the Lawtons, lived next door. He was genial. She liked to drink and when she got bored would spend her afternoons throwing heavy appliances out the window. Masa Higo liked to joke that our employer, Ilda Shea, was “sooo full of herself and yet – nothing to back it up!” This wasn’t true; Ms Shea studied philosophy at Radcliffe and was a favored pupil of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. She went on to become the first female to lead the class at Yale Law School. “The men hated me,” she liked to say. Ilda was also instrumental in the formation of the F.C.C. and counted among her friends and colleagues Alger Hiss, Abe Fortas, and Edward Bernays. More than once, Fortas asked her to marry him. “I mean, a Jew marrying a Jew? Too obvious,” she said. Ms Shea wasn’t as ostentatious as her neighbors and had a marked disdain for those who flaunted wealth though one time, a grease fire started in the companions’ pantry. Ms Shea refused to leave without her mink coat. The sight of her (mind you, she was in her 90s), carefully inching her way down the driveway in her fur and ever-present white platform pumps is one I hope never to unsee.
My lifelong friend, professor, mentor, Brother Bob Bousquet, a Xaverian, loved the Writers’ Block as much as I did. Every Thursday, Bob, now wracked with Parkinson’s Disease, would come in from far Danvers to join me on my strolls. He was so companionable: scholar, linguist, musician. Brilliant. Bob was the absolute soul of decorum, discretion, almost saintly in his bearing. So you would never in a million years think he had a habit of busting into places he knew he wasn’t allowed. I was his partner-in-crime the time this truly holy man cooked up a scheme to get me into Widener Library’s banned-to-outsiders stacks. From his walker, he instructed, “I’ll create a diversion. I’ll pretend to fall. When the guard responds, you run as fast as you can into the stacks.” Before I could protest, Bob threw himself on the floor, the guard dashed over and Bob yelled, “Run, Leo, Run!” I leave it to you to guess the outcome of that fiasco. Another time, Bob was drawn to the lush plants in the foyer of a home near The Divinity School. Bob went right up to the door calm as you please, opened it and walked in. Soon, we were confronted by a very nervous woman who said, firmly, “Can I help you? Do you realize this is a private home?” Bob looked innocently into this woman’s eyes, a stranger in whose house he had no business being and asked, “Is Paul home?”
I saw a blue heron on the grounds of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. As I approached, it kept gulping hungrily at the cloud of mosquitos around its great head. Honeysuckle and wisteria walked with you as you went down the block. One season, the flora was so redolent, so everywhere, it near-rivalled what I imagine the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were like; you couldn't see the sky. No later summer ever was like that summer. Creative sustenance and comfort amazed me in that place, at that time.
Leo Racicot is an award-winning essay-memoirist and poet. His poems Vermont and Richard, 1998 are in the Exquisite Pandemic Archive.