The White Blackbird

(W.W. Norton & Company, 2009; now available in ebook format from Amazon and the iBookstore)

At the heart of Margarett Sargent’s life lies a mystery, lost in silence. Why does a woman who has devoted herself to making art, stop? A marvelously gifted painter, Sargent spent much of her life smashing convention. She was born into stultifying privilege in the age of Edith Wharton, but sought another life. As the American art world shuddered under the impact of Modernism, Margarett was hurling bright colors onto canvas, forging her own unique style. For a time, she seemed capable of everything: raising the ideal children, perfecting her art, hosting the most daring parties, conducting the most outrageous affairs, drinking more than anyone else.Whispered rumors and tales of her audacious wit trailed her from Brahmin Boston to New York to Paris. But drink was becoming her best companion; it smoothed the awkward clashes between society wife and creative artist, and no one saw that the exuberant appetites of this charismatic woman concealed a creeping paralysis of will. When, after twenty years of successful exhibitions, it seemed she was finally to be accepted on her own terms as a painter, she chose to lay down her brushes.



Reviews/Press etc.

For information about Margarett Sargent, please view The Life and Art of Margarett Sargent, the companion website to The White Blackbird.


From The New York Times Book Review, April 14, 1996

“Improper Bostonian” by Susan Ware

Margarett Sargent’s paintings were far less shocking than her love life.

How easy it would have been to reduce the life of Margarett Sargent to a simple “woman’s” plot, in which an artist gives up her painting at the height of her career because she can find no way to live both as a woman and as an artist. But the poet and playwright Honor Moore avoids that trap, offering instead a haunting and far more complex story, part biography, part memoir, of the woman who happened to be her grandmother. Margarett Sargent, sane or crazy, clearheaded or drunk, leaps off the pages. So does her art - the small quantity reproduced will make readers ache to see more.

The title comes not from one of Margarett Sargent’s paintings but from her mentor, George Luks, who called her - and a painting he produced of her from memory in 1919 - “The White Blackbird.” That image captured her striking combination of black hair and very pale skin, as well as the contradictions in her mercurial temperament that help to explain her unconventional and ultimately tragic life.

Margarett Sargent was born in 1892 into the privileged world of old Boston money (she was a distant relative of John Singer Sargent) and a life of rigid convention from which few (especially women) broke free. Art provided her ticket out of this claustral milieu. After breaking an engagement, she began her training in Italy as a sculptor (“If only we hadn’t sent her to Europe ,” her family would say whenever she did something un-Bostonian, which was fairly often), and later turned to watercolors and oils. She had her first one-woman show in New York in 1926, quickly followed by others in Chicago and Boston . But just as she was establishing her reputation, she stopped exhibiting, and soon stopped painting altogether.

Her personal life was more shocking than her paintings, which reflected an expressionism not much in vogue at the time. She waited until 1920, and the age of 29, to marry another proper Bostonian, Shaw McKean, with whom she had four, children in the next three years. The marriage had its problems (ironically, not conflicts over her career - her husband accepted her artistic aspirations), and Margarett “took to affairs,” an old friend noted, “as easily as to brushing her teeth.” These affairs included both men and women, and many took place on Boston’s North Shore at Prides, the McKean home, a 17th-century saltbox transformed into a Yankee palazzo so grand it required a staff of 13.

Working like a detective, Ms. Moore fills in the silences to produce a remarkably full chronology of Margarett Sargent’s art and bisexual love life. Especially vivid are the recollections of family members and friends, like the 82-year-old John Walker, former director of the National Gallery in Washington, who recalled her visiting his guest bedroom at Prides in a negligee not long after his graduation from Harvard. “She seduced me,” recalled Walker, then still a virgin. “No, that’s not right. I wanted to be seduced.” Many others, male and female, told similar tales.

In addition to diaries and family letters, the author uses the artist’s sculpture, paintings and sketchbooks as texts. Paintings like a self-portrait in which Sargent showed herself as having no face, and casting no reflection in the mirror, are used to suggest an increasing vulnerability, almost as if her own self were slipping away. Occasionally Ms. Moore strains too hard to treat paintings and sketches as literal reflections of the artist’s state of mind. Just as there are multiple ways of reading Margarett Sargent’s life, so too are there multiple ways of understanding her art.

Although she continued to sketch throughout her life, Sargent stopped painting by 1936. In 1991, Ms. Moore and an art historian were arranging slides of her work in chronological order: “images flash, one by one, onto the wall. We observe her increasing mastery, a swift, intense development. In our excitement, we have almost forgotten, until the wall burns white after the final slide, the bare fact that Margarett stopped painting.” The question raised by this riveting image haunts the book: Why? Only once was Honor Moore able to ask her grandmother directly, and that was after she had been enfeebled by a stroke. “it got too intense,” she replied.

“The years from 30 to 50 are the dangerous years for women with charm,” Margarett Sargent once told a reporter. “if she gets up to 50 without losing it - she can be a wallop at 80.” Unfortunately the artist’s world began to collapse as she approached midlife. Suffering what would now be called manic-depressive illness as well as severe alcoholism, she was in and out of sanitariums after 1944, and she underwent electroshock therapy. Sometimes she was well enough to travel, entertain and sketch, until the darkness closed in again. She died in 1978, before her granddaughter could ask most of the questions that animate this book.

When she was growing up, Honor Moore was often told that she looked like her grandmother, but she remembered a child’s deeper identification: “I do not want to be crazy, and yet I want something this grandmother has.” At many points the story becomes a dialogue between grandmother and granddaughter on the refrain “if I write, will I go mad?” In the end, neither Honor Moore nor Margarett Sargent can definitively say if there is any way, in the author’s words, “to have the ecstasy of creativity without suffering its darkness.” We are left with the image of the white blackbird and its inherent contradictions.

Susan Ware is the author of “Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism.”


From Booklist, July 9, 2001

Colors (“the sky is teal, the ocean, the color of a razor”) form a vital lexicon of feeling in Moore’s incandescent poems, a visual language inherited, perhaps, from her grandmother, the painter Margarett Sargent, the subject of Moore’s evocative biography, The White Blackbird (1996). Paintings often inspire her, whether she’s writing about entering the world of a specific painting, as she does in “She Remembers,” written from the point of view of a woman posing nude for Degas, or the act of painting itself, as in “Bucarest, 1989,” a bravura poem about the unavailability of oil paints, especially the color white. Moore writes with an erotic intensity and lyric virtuosity about sexual desire for both women and men and the seductiveness of dreams and memories remembered so often they become virtual works of art kept in the most private of collections. Moore ’s poems are perfectly formed yet impassioned, flames confined to red-hot grates, incantations recited to transform confession and grief into liberation and warmth.

–Donna Seaman




Copyright by the author, all rights reserved.

Chapter VII

“I like arms and their movements, and striped blouses…”
Margarett Sargent, 1931

Prime the tall canvas, lay her in quick with charcoal. The mirrored walls of the bathroom reflect her, sitting on the moderne gray satin vanity stool, legs apart, black pumps, a short pink circus gown, low-cut, string strap falling from her shoulder. She wears a top hat. A shiver of magenta vibrates a yellow aureole of wall, dark teal scribbles a cloud of gray-blue floor. She is young and slender, beautiful, you would say, but for the—what?—disconsolate fury given off by dark eyes, scraped at by the stick end of a brush, asymmetrical. The left eye is encircled with a shadow of teal and finished with a glint of white; the right is its dimmed double. The shadow of the hat brim colors her forehead lavender. Her cheeks are flushed the fluorescent melon orange that also glimmers on her lower lip. The upper lip is red, bigger, messed at.

The North Shore Breeze and Reminder, which chronicled “society” north of Boston, had not caught up with soignée girls wearing top hats, foreheads turned lavender with intensity.

“The District Offers More of Beauty, Romance and History Than Any Other Spot in the Country,” read a headline at the start of a late 1 920s season. An article might authenticate Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus” as the true story of a shipwreck at Norman’s Woe right up the road, or, reproducing a period engraving, recall the Salem witch trials. Photographs enshrined gardens of great estates, and captions described as “charming” oceanfront houses that rivaled the sea palaces at Newport in dimension. Each issue tracked the residents who moved from Boston to the Shore in summer; traveled in winter to Boca Grande, Palm Beach, or Aiken, South Carolina; booked staterooms on steamers for Europe.

Margarett, identified as “Mrs. Q. A. Shaw McKean (Margarett Williams Sargent),” was reported “busy with her art work all summer,” in a column that followed the art colonies of Rockport and Eastern Point and activities of noted local painters like Cecilia Beaux and Charles Hopkinson. Margaret Fitzhugh Browne, breezing through as the portraitist who lured the retired golfer Bobby Jones to her studio, was the region’s fierce opponent of “Modern Art.” Its advocate was Mrs. Morris Pancoast, who exhibited “selected groups of paintings by the modern men” in “an unusual gallery in East Gloucester.”

The Breeze never mentioned the stock market crash. Margie, then almost eight, overheard her father tell “some terrible story” of a man he knew throwing himself from a window after learning he’d lost all his money. Harry and Caresse Crosby’s visits to Apple Trees, his parents’ estate in Manchester, were always reported, but the Breeze was mute on his suicide in New York (surely the talk of Boston), six weeks after the crash. Crosby’s death had nothing to do with money, but it marked the end of the 1920s “innocents abroad” and coincided with the turn in financial circumstance that brought the Gerald Murphys, the Archibald MacLeishes, and many other Americans home.

The crash affected Margarett and Shaw less than it did some of their friends. Bebo and Josephine Bradlee let servants go, sold a great house, moved to a smaller one, and Mrs. Bradlee opened a dress shop. The alimony Betty Parsons lived on abruptly ceased, and she was forced to leave Paris. Marjorie Davenport lost her uncle’s legacy and left New York to live the year round in Vermont. For the very, very rich like Shaw’s mother and Harry Crosby’s parents, nothing much changed. Margarett and Shaw did not go to Europe in 1930 or 1931, but they went to Cuba in 1932 and returned to Europe in 1933. Margarett kept her studio on St. Botolph Street, but she and Shaw closed their Boston town house on Commonwealth Avenue in 1931, put it on the market, where it moldered unsold for years, and wintered at Prides. What Margie remembered was Shaw sitting at the edge of Margarett’s bed, whispering, “We’re all right.”

Asymmetrical eyes slant like the eyes of a jungle cat. Muscled arms bulge from a short-sleeved shirt. His green sweater vest is patterned yellow and red and black. No one knows who he is. Outsize hands loose on a knee. Where did she find him, this no-account sitting in the corner? Walls a saturated sky blue, broken by gray the color of storm clouds. She crops the top from his cap, the feet from his legs. The cuffs of his gray trousers billow. His chair is deeper yellow, more orange than butter, and it’s coming apart—disrupted, perhaps, by his unsettled, piercing, contemptuous gaze. Its ladder back tilts—bands of gold sprung from proportion—so he seems pushed toward us, as if what caused the bright chair to fall apart were emptying him from its arms.

Painting the growl that came from the young man’s eyes, Margarett pulled from herself what she could put nowhere else, turned that furor into something that could exist independently, seared what she felt and saw into the eye of the viewer. The girl with the lavender forehead and the boy in the yellow chair represent her at the height of her powers. From these paintings she has sheared the clutter of life as Mrs. Quincy Adams Shaw McKean. Margarett Sargent burns fiercely, with a burning that both divides her from those around her and enables her to live her double life. Her painting protects her, as magic does a sorceress, but it also endangers her. As her work homed in on the truth of her circumstances, Margarett became more vulnerable.