Katharine Brush, Larger than Life
From Loomis Chaffee Magazine, Winter 2018 issue
The portrait’s gaze looks out over students working in the Katharine Brush Library. The sheer size of the painting — nine feet tall — is a bit arresting. And then there is the figure clad in a dramatic black evening dress, not exactly what you’d expect to find on the quiet floor of a school library. But the subject — a novelist, short story writer, and the library’s namesake — was no ordinary writer.
Katharine Brush’s career, well documented in the popular press of her time, is preserved in an extraordinary collection of her writer’s notebooks, typed drafts with hand-written revisions, scrapbooks, and photographs now held in the Loomis Chaffee Archives. Brush’s mostly autobiographical volume published in 1940, This Is On Me, puts to good use her irreverent wit, shows her zeal for madcap adventures in everyday living, and offers extensive details on her own life story.
Look described Brush’s writing as “sophisticated, tricky, witty, full of Yankee reserve, as American as the Charleston.” She produced best-selling novels, including Young Man of Manhattan and Red-headed Woman, both of which were made into Hollywood films in the early 1930s. Her prose was compared to that of F. Scott Fitzgerald. One critic noted, “The short stories and novels of Katharine Brush were probably the most eloquent expressions of the boom era — that period of raccoon coats [and] night clubs.” About This Is On Me, the same critic said, “This is as entertaining a portrait of a woman … as [readers] can find anywhere.”
Leon Gordon painted Brush’s portrait in 1933 to hang in the Manhattan apartment she shared with her husband Bob Winans. Joseph Urban, the creative mastermind behind Ziegfeld Follies sets, designed the interiors of the two-story, 13-room duplex apartment, drawing heavily on the Art Deco style and Brush’s request that he design it in what she called “Late Speakeasy.” The result: a modern aesthetic from the floor plan to the furniture, from the light fixtures to the striking geranium-red, black, and white color scheme of some rooms.
Brush gave Urban total creative license over one room: her writing studio. While his artistry manifested an Art Deco showplace, the room was, as her brother Travis Ingham described, “not the garret in which art traditionally flourishes.” The Chicago Tribune described it as “the real gem [of the apartment] … a cathedral-like, circular, sound-proofed room, two stories high with 18-foot frosted glass windows, a black satin couch and a 15-foot half-moon desk.” Despite the sound-proofing Brush requested, the acoustics of the circular room made it almost impossible for her to write there. A New York Post reporter interviewed the author in the studio, and “as soon as [Brush] spoke … her voice became a sort of thunder and her words leaped off the walls with a muffled roar. ‘It’s sound proof,’ she tried to say, but what she really said was ‘IT’S SOUND-PROOF!’ … . ‘In here … the tapping of a typewriter becomes a crash and the dropping of a pencil sounds like an electrical storm.’”
Gordon visited the apartment as he and Brush planned the portrait, a surprise birthday gift for Winan. Brush recalled in This Is On Me that she “made the mistake of showing [Gordon] the wall where [the portrait] would hang — with the result that the picture is of a size appropriate to the wall. It is in fact, nine feet high, if it’s an inch; and it is modern, to match the room.” Even in this grand apartment, the painting seemed daring.
Brush and Winans purchased the apartment in the summer of 1929 and hired Urban when the building “was [just] all girders and plaster.” A few months later, the stock market crashed and the events of the Great Depression unfolded. As financially privileged as the couple were, they too felt the impact of shifting economic forces when they moved into the apartment in 1932. Katharine Brush knew that even with her early successes, she had to get down to work writing and selling more manuscripts. And this she did, in a cozy niche at the back of the apartment, turning out her best-selling autobiographical collection and countless short stories, working, as her brother said, “harder than anyone, even the President” until her death in 1952. Brush left her final novel unfinished.
Throughout the Great Depression, Katharine Brush mused over what might become of her nine-foot-high portrait and joked that her future grandchildren might someday wonder if she herself was actually that tall. Her son, Thomas S. Brush Jr. ’40, chairman of the Loomis Chaffee Board of Trustees from 1980 to 1988, donated the painting to the school in 1968 along with the naming gift for the new library.
Karen Parsons teaches history and serves as the school's archivist.