Maverick Centennial: The Reconciliation

Hervey White outside the Maverick Concert Hall with log buttresses. (postcard photography by Louis E. Jones, copyright 1919. Courtesy of Stuart Kline.)

“Strangers used to marvel — and still do — that such music as the Maverick concerts was to be found in a rude hall in the woods far from any center of population. To those who asked him how this miracle happened, Hervey White has always answered that it was due to the influence of Byrdcliffe. The story that Mr. Whitehead’s attempt to provide trios in an almost inaccessible Oregon forest, makes less surprising the good…music on the Maverick.” — an editorial by the Martin Schütze and the editors of Woodstock Historical Society publication of July 1933, No. 10, pp. 5-6.


A magnificently rehabilitated Maverick Concert Hall remains the vitally beating heart of a colony which, over the last 75 years, disintegrated around it. The hall is also the greatest surviving work of art created by Maverick Founder, Hervey White, a man who wasn’t known to volunteer his creative debts. Concerning his “Cathedral in The Pines,” however, White was always quick to credit his one-time mentor and long-time rival, Ralph Whitehead*, founder of the Byrdcliffe Colony, as his chief inspiration. In a sense this would be like James Madison acknowledging England’s Magna Carta as blueprint to Madison’s Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; except that White’s conspicuous generosity highlights the influence of Whitehead, a man whose contribution to Woodstock had, by that time, been overshadowed by his own. The extraordinary relationship between these two men, roughly outlined below, will constitute core chapters of The Maverick’s Maverick.

Hervey, who for the first 20 or so years of his life was known as “Will White,” grew up on the plains of Iowa and Kansas in the 1870’s. His father, namesake, and Civil War veteran, William A. White, introduced his boy to the fiddle before he was ten. By the time family had moved into a half-underground structure built of Kansas sod, the precocious lad was making as much as a dollar and a half playing at local square dances. As a 16-year-old prodigy teaching school, White eventually earned an astronomic $30 a month, allowing him to, at 17, attend Kansas University, one of the first co-educational colleges in the country. Among many novelties in his freshman year, Hervey found Haydn and Liszt “most disconcerting to [one] who had heard only dance tunes and hymns.”

Hervey White at Bearcamp, by Arnold Blanch. (Courtesy of the Historical Society of Woodstock)

Hervey White at Bearcamp, by Arnold Blanch. (Courtesy of the Historical Society of Woodstock)

Since White was interested mainly in literature, philosophy, and Italian Renaissance painting, this brief description of Teutonic genius constituted all he’d write of his “higher” appreciation for music through the next decade. Within this time he’d spend a year on a scientific expedition in Northern Mexico, transfer to and graduate (without distinction) from Harvard, and  tramp the belly of Italy before finding himself, in 1895, the new favorite of Jane Addams in Chicago’s Hull House. There he began work on a novel. It was while sponsoring theatrical events on behalf of Addams (an eventual Nobel Prize winner), White first met Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, the shy English millionaire whose second wife, Jane Byrd McCall, was the daughter of a one-time mayor of Philadelphia. The Whiteheads were slowly augmenting their Tuscan Villa north of Santa Barbara with a “Sloyd school” cum art colony they called “Arcady,” fore-runner to Byrdcliffe in Woodstock.

Mr. Whitehead and Hervey soon discovered their lives to be more satisfying in each other’s company. To the expat Brit twelve years White’s senior, Hervey was a rough genius in-need-of-a-last-polish, a political proponent of all they mutually admired, and a fearless social explorer. White eventually proved to be the perfect go-between, introducing this most reserved Englishman to America’s charming if occasionally alarming culture.

For Hervey — whose first novel, Differences, achieved excellent reviews if little money — Whitehead became that eccentric uncle who quietly placed him on retainer while squiring him (and several friends) about in a style never known before. Icing the cake, Whitehead insisted the charming artist’s studio “down the hill” at Arcady was White’s to write in. Herewith, Hervey’s life quickly became a children’s story come true, which — less fortunately — was exactly the sort of writing he embarked upon under Whitehead’s tutelage.

Elsewhere, Mrs. Whitehead was happy with the addition of Hervey to their circle, since he seemed to distract her husband from such unacceptable behaviors as, for instance, seducing a neighbor’s daughter. Classical trios, quartets, and solo piano concerts were heard often at the villa. Hervey succumbed to their thrall.

The pairs’ most outrageous musical adventure proved to be an exorbitantly expensive disaster. Under the towering redwoods of Oregon, Whitehead bought considerable acreage and caused to be built a tiny colony comprised of  five cabins, a kitchen, studio and stage. Here, renowned classical musicians (equipped even with a grand piano) were sent overland to practice prior to Whitehead and Hervey’s arrival. A pre-existing trio was to be augmented with piano, however the pianist, a woman both beautiful and divorced, proved an embarrassment to whom the outraged cellist refused to introduce to his wife. The “fallen woman” soon inaugurated an affair with the violinist, fully justifying the cellist’s ire, and rehearsals quickly ground to a halt.

Ralph Whitehead

Ralph Whitehead

In the meantime, Whitehead and White arrived with saddle horses for the enjoyment of all, though their much anticipated “concerts in the forest” (foreshadowing White’s “Cathedral in the Pines”) were aborted amid much hilarity.

Becoming more serious about finding the ideal location for an artist’s community, Whitehead hit upon a brilliant strategy when introducing Hervey White to a second assistant, Bolton Brown — a self proclaimed genius, with fair justification. The two men took an instant dislike to one another while correctly intuiting Whitehead had placed each man (and his talents) in obvious competition with the other. It would be Brown and his extraordinary mountaineering skills which would famously result in “the discovery” of the fantastical Hudson River look-out visible from a southern Catskill Mountain, below which nestled a slope ideal for the colony, only a mile or two up from the sleepy little village of Woodstock, New York.

In May of 1902, Hervey and Mr. Whitehead were investigating the Carolinas only to receive the fateful telegram from a village apothecary (where “Clouds” resides today) announcing Brown’s triumph. Shortly thereafter, the three men foregathered on Mead’s Mountain and Whitehead (having concluded Woodstock was free of Jews) agreed, “Well, all right, let’s have it here.” Remarkably enough — and largely due to the industries of Bolton Brown — the small arts college of Byrdcliffe (if more modestly described by Whitehead) opened the following year. Many classical musicians were invited to Byrdcliffe, including Dolmetsch in 1908, builder and player of baroque instruments including clavichord and viola di gamba, cellist Paul Kefer, and the conductor of Boston’s Metropolitan Opera (with soloist guests.) Extraordinary concerts were triumphantly held at last, and though the Whiteheads high-handedness cost them the further participation of Bolton Brown, Hervey White waited in the wings to take his place.

Hervey’s writing had largely been put on hold during this period, with the result that his habitual eloquence was forced to flower solely in a social realm. He was remembered as “best loved of all the colonists,” by Mrs. Bolton Brown (herself, the best regarded of Byrdcliffe’s women), so it’s likely that Hervey’s popularity began to annoy his “betters” as their own standing slowly deteriorated. Privately, White had long admitted to hopes  he and a few friends might “buy out” the Whiteheads, once the novelty of the colony-making had worn off.

It’s likely, then, that frictions building between Byrdcliffe’s founders and its new manager were mutual. The actual rupture between Hervey and the Whiteheads remains a complicated and mysterious matter — insufficiently explained by White — though the result was obvious enough. Hervey partnered up with Fritz Van Der Loo (who Whitehead earlier “sponsored”), hastily married Vivian Bevans (the Byrdcliffe beauty Mr. Whitehead, too, had courted) and with borrowed, earned, and gifted funds purchases a sprawling, low-lying farm across the valley from Byrdcliffe,  soon finding Hervey “the sole resident” owner. Thus, the truly anarchistic community Hervey White long before resolved to call, “The Maverick,” took its early, most tentative steps.

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