Years ago, a poet who was staying at Yaddo, the bucolic artists’ and writers’ colony in the Adirondack mountains, would sit at breakfast and recite Emily Dickinson while his fellow bohemians tucked into their eggs. These days, however, names–of big novelists, big agents, big movie producers–are more likely to be dropped around the Yaddo breakfast table. For while Yaddo, along with its rival, the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, provides a service in allowing writers, artists and musicians to produce great works far from the urban grind, the colonies also provide a moist breeding ground for the talented and less talented to advance their careers. Not to mention that a few weeks free of charge in a gorgeous mountain setting, with clean sheets, obsequious servants and lunch delivered to your door, sure beats camping out in some tick-ridden Hamptons share.
But where should the ambitious young writer of today spend his or her summer? It’s true that Yaddo, founded by New York City robber baron Spencer Trask and his poet wife Katrina Trask at the turn of the century, carries the most prestige. And more so than other colonies, Yaddo truly pampers its guests. “You’re treated well, you get all the time you need,” said one poet of the colony experience. “You start feeling good, so you’re extra funny or extra flirtatious. You’re totally in your right mind, your best self is there, doing your art, which is supposed to be who you are.”
Summer isn’t high season for the colonies just because of the weather. Most literary fiction writers these days are on the university calendar, teaching freshman comp or advanced workshops at Master of Fine Arts programs. And a summer’s stay at Yaddo or MacDowell polishes the résumé.
A mere 10 years ago, colony applicants were known to solicit recommendations from friends, colleagues, even next-door neighbors. Today, they turn to professors, agents and editors. “Part of the weird fallout of M.F.A. programs is that starting writers have professional connections out of proportion with their talents,” said novelist Sarah Schulman. “These people shouldn’t even know who these agents are.”
Indeed, even at the relatively low-key Blue Mountain Center, which caters to creative types with a social conscience, publishing is the dominant conversation topic among writers–”Bitching about editors and commiserating about what a viper pit the world of trade publishing is,” as one writer put it.
Acceptance to a colony brings validation–”the opposite of milking validation from The New York Review of Books ,” said one novelist. And once you’re in, you’re in–to the consternation of some. “It seems like a push to protect up-and-coming white male writers,” said Ms. Schulman. “Do we really need a new John Cheever?”
Maybe, maybe not. But in any case, the colonies are seen, especially by young writers, as places where they can disturb the gold dust of their literary forebears. “Every room here is storied,” said a Yaddo novelist. “Whether I was writing or jerking off in the room where Philip Roth wrote The Breast , I was following in the steps of genius.”
Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Sex and death permeate Yaddo, located on a 400-acre estate, but both take a back seat to ambition. Writers come to Yaddo, said one poet, “to meet and sleep with the well-known in their field.” A cricketlike hum of performance anxiety buzzes beneath the surface, whether one is gathering in the “Drinks Room,” attending a dance party in the woods, or hanging around the pool (an amenity installed at John Cheever’s urging). But first you’ve got to abide by “quiet time,” which is 9 A.M. to 4 P.M. That’s when you’re supposed to be working.
“Everything’s a little mildewy,” said a Yaddo poet. Indeed, the colony is crawling with spirits. The poet Stanley Kunitz once fled, hours after arriving, after he saw ghosts of two Trask children, and Katrina Trask’s apparition is said to haunt one of the outbuildings, West House.
The A-list prefer to stay in the Trasks’ 55-room Victorian mansion, as opposed to one of the outbuildings like Pine Guard, East House or Pine Tree. Rooms in the mansion have names (Linoleum Room, Mountain View). But some find Yaddo claustrophobic. “The policy is corrupt,” said one novelist. “The board members use it as a vacation home. Other places are better and happier.” But where else would you see novelist Rick Moody ( The Ice Storm ) mysteriously wearing a black veil on a fine spring day?
Who’s been: John Cheever, Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Philip Roth, Nora Sayre, David Sedaris, Mona Simpson, James Salter.
Yearly applicants: 1,000.
Yearly spaces: About 200; during the summer a maximum of 36 writers, artists and musicians at any one time.
History: Spencer and Katrina buy property in 1881, original residence is razed by fire, current mansion is built in 1893, small daughter suggests name “Yaddo.” All four children lost to awful fates at early age. A corporation is formed in 1900, stating intention for artists’ colony. Spencer Trask dies in 1909, Katrina in 1922–at which point George Foster Peabody assumes the watch and hires finger-shaking Elizabeth Ames to run the place. First group of creative writers arrive in 1926.
Where’s the money from?: Public and private funding; donations from artists; chairman Don Rice and president Michael Sundell recently got $3 million out of the estate of mystery novelist Patricia Highsmith.
Architecture: Funereal; dark wood, heavy furniture carved with faces.
Some books that were written there (or which were supposedly written there): Most of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint ; part of Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City ; most of Rick Moody’s Purple America .
Best accommodations: Katrina Trask’s massive bedroom (North Studio) in the mansion, with three walls of windows looking out at the Green Mountains; or Spencer Trasks’ former study (Den), with walnut wainscoting, pocket doors, quick-getaway side door leading to carriage entrance.
Worst accommodations: Any room in East House, decked out in ripped, dingy wall-to-wall carpeting.
Feature that makes you feel like you are “roughing it”: Sharing a bathroom.
Chow: Elaborate buffet-style dinners, different world cuisine every night but “hard on vegetarians”; fresh flowers on every table; real strawberry shortcake; lunch (sandwich, julienned carrots in waxed-paper bag) in a construction worker’s lunch box.
Cocktail hour: After “quiet time” (4 P.M.) on the flagstone terrace behind the mansion (“Even people you wouldn’t talk to at home, you’d squander half an hour with here,” confided one successful novelist); B.Y.O.B.; Yaddo discount at local wine shop!
Entertainment: Movie theater at the mall (just one mile away!); memoirist Tobias Schneebaum leading group-sing of indigenous South American rowing songs; solo night swimming in the pool (illegal!).
Physical exercise available (and that is likely to result in out-of-shape short-story writer breaking ankle): Ping-pong, tennis, YMCA, running away from readings (“We decided they were vulgar ,” said one prose writer).
Best trysting: Cylindrical composer’s studio that used to be the ice house; excellent acoustics.
Well, what about the help?: Contact between staff and writers strongly discouraged; guests describe the “Ichabod Crane-like personnel” as “explicitly deferential.”
Is there a TV?: In the former stables, “but no one watches it.”
Type of writer favored: Fiction.
Level of competitive anxiety (1 to 5, 5 being highest ): 5, especially at dinnertime when people are choosing at which table to eat.
Board members include: A.M. Homes, Oscar Hijuelos, Allan Gurganus, poet Michael Harper, playwright Romulus Linney.
Sex vibe: Humana-humana-humana ; “Doesn’t differ much from corporate conventions.”
Days of rain last summer: 28.
Best outing: Drinks at the Adelphi Hotel, a day at Saratoga Racetrack.
Caveat: There is said to be horse pee and fertilizer runoff in Yaddo’s many alluring ponds.
MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, N.H.
Yaddo’s blissed-out alter ego. Sweetness and light set in 450 acres of New Hampshire woods. “I met people who did art forms I never heard of,” said one writer, “and that was more important than who met who, and whose agent is what.” Still, some writers like to double-dip, splitting their summer between Yaddo and MacDowell. At MacDowell, casual dress, casual scheduling (no designated “quiet time”), casual food. Casual mention on application brochure of Pulitzer Prize winners (Studs Terkel, Galway Kinnell, Doris Kearns Goodwin) who were residents. Each writer gets living quarters plus his or her own private studio (32 in all) set away from others. “You have to look to find someone,” said one novelist. Haute rustic living, like “an elegant camp.” Rules say that no one is allowed to visit a studio without invitation, but people regularly drop by to extend invitations for a swim or a trip to town. Some studios are clapboard; one is a stone church brought from Switzerland and rebuilt.
No ghosts–just sentimental charm. Each cabin has a soft-wood “tombstone,” which residents are supposed to sign when they leave.
Who’s been: Edwin Arlington Robinson, Alice Walker, Aaron Copland, Jules Feiffer, Donald Antrim.
Yearly applicants: About 1,200.
Yearly spaces: About 212; during the summer a maximum of 32 writers, artists and musicians at any one time.
History : Composer Edward MacDowell (a founder of the American Academy in Rome) and wife Marian MacDowell buy a farm in 1896 to hang out in summers. In 1906, J.P. Morgan and pals create a fund to help support Edward MacDowell after he is struck by a nervous disorder. After MacDowell dies in 1908, Marian sets up colony using fund, and she also travels U.S. giving concerts to help raise money to build some studios.
Where’s the money from?: Private contributors, National Endowment for the Arts, other public funding.
Architecture: Thoreau goes to camp.
Some books that got written there: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town ; part of Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers .
Accommodations: “Like a little summer room at Block Island.”
Feature that makes you feel like you are “roughing it”: Black flies, occasioning fashion trend of draping mosquito netting from your hat.
Chow: Bland, served family-style, food set out on tables.
Cocktail hour: B.Y.O.B., twilight, back porch of Colony Hall or in walled garden filled with lilac trees.
Physical exercise available: Pool; climbing Mount Monadnock.
Best trysting: Any of the 32 studios, each very private and equipped with sleeping cot (drag mattress to floor), fireplace and tea kettle; “MacDowell is perfect for affairs,” said one writer.
Type of writer favored: Fiction.
Level of competitive anxiety: 4.
Board members include: Former Brown University president Vartan Gregorian, playwright Wendy Wasserstein, actress Jane Alexander.
Sex vibe: Jeff Eugenides ( The Virgin Suicides ) and sculptor Karen Yamauchi eventually got married.
Days of rain last summer: 29.
Best outing: Skinny-dipping at Willard Pond.
Caveat :”Like staying at your grandmother’s.”
Blue Mountain Center, Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y.
Anyone seen my Birkenstocks? Politically active writers–the kind who wrote for the “old” New Yorker –and artists find a home at Blue Mountain, which is tucked into 3,000 private Adirondack acres studded with pines, hemlocks and balsams. Nine of the 14 people at each four-week session are writers. (In the fall, Blue Mountain hosts conferences for organizations like Greenpeace and the Nature Conservancy.) The small group means everyone gets drawn into whatever drama–personal or political–is unfolding. Guests have come from Cuba, India and Israel–but New York lefties rule, with 30 percent of the applications coming from Greenwich Village, Brooklyn and the Upper West Side.
Who’s been: James Lardner, Sue Halpern, Bill McKibben, Sally Belfrage.
Yearly applicants: 300.
Yearly spaces: 60.
History: Harold Hochschild and his brother owned mining company American Metals Company, and Harold always wanted an artists colony. Yaddo, nearby, was a kind of model. His only child, Adam Hochschild (who founded the magazine Mother Jones ), inherited Harold’s lodge and share of the property, and opened it as a colony in 1982.
Where’s the money from?: Harold’s endowment.
Architecture: Lodge living.
Some books that got written there: William Finnegan’s Dateline Soweto , James Lardner’s Crusader , Bernard Lefkowitz’s Our Guys .
Best accommodations: Any room with a private bathroom.
Feature that makes you feel like you are “roughing it”: Black flies.
Chow: Vegetarian cook famous for homemade bread and cookies; curried chicken, stir-fried veggies, poppy seed cake.
Average weight gained: Five pounds.
Cocktail hour: On the Adirondack chairs on the lodge’s stone veranda, looking out over Eagle Lake.
Physical exercise: Canoeing, tennis, hiking, gardening.
Best trysting: With only 14 guests, better bring your back issues of Yellow Silk .
Level of competitive anxiety: 3.
Who’s on the board?: Nobody; Quaker antiwar activist Harriet Barlow calls the shots.
Days of rain last summer: 27.
Best outing: Hiking on Blue Mountain.
Caveat: “C’mon guys, chip into the wine fund!”
Ucross Foundation, Ucross, Wyo.
Twenty-two thousand acres of “nothing upon nothing” in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountain Range, and if Annie Proulx hadn’t written part of her literary best seller The Shipping News there, no one would have ever heard of it. “Who goes out to rural Wyoming to be social? Everyone’s there to really work–some even work after dinner,” recalled one former resident. Unlike the other summer colonies, Ucross closes for June and July. The rest of the year, a new group arrives every week, and most of them don’t rate on the fame meter. One writer found the dominant conversation at dinner to be about … art.
Deer and antelope graze outside your window. And, yes, ladies, instead of holding hands with neurasthenic, trust-funded first novelists at Yaddo, you’ll meet real live cowboys and ranchers!
Who’s been: Annie Proulx, who also sits on the board and lives in Wyoming.
Yearly applicants: About 400.
Yearly spaces: About 65; eight people at any one time.
History: The main buildings of Ucross’ Big Red complex (built in 1882) originally served as headquarters for the Pratt and Ferris Cattle Company. The Ucross Foundation Residency Program opened in 1983, but there’s still a cattle-ranching operation. At one time, 57,000 head of cattle roamed the property.
Where’s the money from?: Wyoming Arts Council, N.E.A., private donors.
Architecture: Renovated hayloft.
Book that got written there: Part of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News , Jim Grimsley’s My Drowning , Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant .
Accommodations: You’ll sleep in either a former schoolhouse or a former railroad depot, and you’ll be sharing a bathroom.
Feature that makes you feel like you are “roughing it”: Nearest bagel 30 miles away in Sheridan, Wyo.
Chow: “Ridiculously good”; lots of steak; can accommodate special dietary requests.
Cocktail hour: Drinks and smokes on the porch; otherwise, Red Arrow bar is 10 miles away.
Entertainment: Videos in the barn (well stocked with Federico Fellini, Eric Rohmer, Krzystof Kieslowski), star shows in the night sky, croaking frogs.
Physical exercise: Stream strolling, branding cattle (including castration, which come to think of it, might fit in well at Yaddo).
Type of writer favored: Fiction.
Level of competitive anxiety: 1.
Who’s the boss?: Executive director Sharon Dynak, who used to be a publicist at Scribner.
Sex vibe: You do the math: seven other guests and you, and the town of Ucross has a population of 25.
Caveat : June snowstorms.