For all you cigar-smoking lesbians out there, we present to you: Amy Lowell.
Quite the striking figure – short but imposing, with her hair in a bun,
her trademark pince-nez and cigar – the woman that Pound accused of
ruining an entire poetry movement (and you know that if Pound accuses
you of something, then you’re on the right track), was an outspoken New
who became one of the US’s important Imagist poets.
Born in Brookline, she came from a prominent family (one of her brothers would go on to become a Harvard president). She hated school because she was treated as an outcast and never attended college because it wasn’t considered ladylike to do so. So instead, she became a cultured socialite, avidly reading everything she could, and eventually turning to poetry as a privileged mode of expression in her late twenties, after seeing Eleonora Duse perform. Fun fact: her lifelong spelling problems apparently stemmed from her having an English governess as a child. Aside from a prolific career as a poet, she also published a significant biography of John Keats.
Amy Lowell was rumored to be a lesbian (though that depends on who you ask. we know she’s one of the tribe) – and this is the recurring problem we have with historical figures, what with labels and identities shifting through time. Biographers have claimed to find evidence of romantic inclinations towards men (including one failed engagement). Mostly though, everything points to her being sapphic. She was romantically linked to actress Ada Dwyer Russell, who is most likely the figure at the center of Lowell’s more erotic works, like the poem “Decade” that celebrates their tenth anniversary:
When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savor,
But I am completely nourished.
The two women were probably in a “Boston marriage” – the 19th century term/euphemism for two women who lived together, were financially independent, and were life partners. Amy and Ada traveled together, notably to England, and were together until Lowell’s death; Amy named Ada the executrix of her will, and as a result Ada burned all Amy’s items after her death.
Lowell has also been romantically to Mercedes de Acosta, though there’s not much evidence of that being true.
Amy Lowell’s career suffered in her later years due to prevailing sexism and lesbophobia, though her legacy is being rediscovered in the past decades, and she’s enjoying newly-found, albeit posthumous, recognition. It seems though that we’ve also got to contend with her contradictions: although she was certainly gender non-conforming for the time, dressing men’s shirts and smoking cigars, she reportedly never quite subscribed to the fight for women’s rights, and rather believed in traditional gender roles.
In 1925, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage, and the following year, was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for What’s O’Clock. Here’s one last poem of hers, which may come in handy for your future pick-up lines:
As I would free the white almond from the green husk
So I would strip your trappings off,
And fingering the smooth and polished kernel
I should see that in my hands glittered a gem beyond counting.