Saturday, March 6, 2010

Elizabeth Smart One of My 100 Women that Inspires

She wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept a book which I've read every year since I was 16. I adore Elizabeth for she was a brilliant writer and a fiercely passionate woman.

Elizabeth Smart was born in Ottawa to a fairly affluent family on December 27, 1913. Smart was sent to private schools and, upon graduation, went to study in England. There she had a relationship with Lord John Pentland, attended the King’s coronation and partied at Buckingham Palace. It was also in England that she picked up a small book of poetry by George Barker, a protégé of T.S. Eliot's, and supposedly decided then and there, sight unseen, that she would marry him and have his children.

"A pen is a furious weapon. But it needs a rage of will. Everything physical dies but you can send a mad look to the end of time." -- Elizabeth Smart (Rogues & Rascals)

In 1938 at a party she met Jean Varda, a flamboyant and arrogant painter of Greek origins who lived in a run-down, 22-room mansion in Cassis, France. Smart was invited to accompany Varda and a group of friends to Cassis. Others who had stayed there were Picasso, Braque and Miro. Henry Miller was a big fan of Varda who also attracted the attention of the ladies. It was here with Varda that Smart is said to have had her first sexual experience.

Eventually stifled by Varda, she went to Mexico to escape and visit friends Wolfgang and Alice Paalen. He was a surrealist painter she had met in Paris. While in Mexico, Smart had an affaire with Alice Paalen, who Anais Nin described to Henry Miller as looking “like a Mexican-Indian woman”. Varda showed up in Mexico and he and Smart ended up living together in Big Sur, California in an artists’ colony, even though she was becoming less and less enthralled with his charm. In California Smart wrote a novel based on her lesbian experiences with Paalen entitled Dig A Grave and Let Us Bury Our Mother. It would appear posthumously, edited by Alice VanWart, as In The Meantime in 1984.

By then Smart had been in touch with poet George Barker, buying an original manuscript and exchanging letters. Smart had sent some poems to Lawrence Durrell in 1938 and he had suggested Smart and Barker should meet--because Barker was short of money. At this point, with Barker teaching in Japan and Japan was about to enter the war, Barker approached her for funds to flee the country. The money was raised. Smart met him in Monterey and was taken aback to discover he had his wife with him. It is this scene which opens By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

Smart found a wooden hut in the wilds of Big Sur, California where they lived as friends until the inevitable happened. In the novel she wrote, "Under the waterfall he surprised me bathing and gave me what I could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain." Despite the presence of Mrs. Barker, the pair were soon having a sexual affair which resulted in Smart’s pregnancy. Eventually they came to Canada, were rebuffed by her Ottawa family and ended up in Vancouver in a run-down hotel room with very little money, a state Barker found himself in for most of his life. Just how she came to choose Pender Harbour to have her child and write her famous novel is a bit of a mystery.

In Pender Harbour Elizabeth made a few friends, the most remarkable being Vienna-born Maximiliane Von Upani Southwell, some 20 years her senior. As Smart’s pregnancy and manuscript came near completion, Maxie took her in, despite her own poverty, and assisted her. Elizabeth, in return, dedicated By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept to Maxie.

Elizabeth used her own Ottawa ties to get Barker a job at the British Army Office in Washington. After their child a girl Georgina was born in August, Smart left Canada on December 7, 1941--the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbour--leaving Georgina with Maxie in order to meet up with Barker. He failed to meet her at Grand Central Station.

I love By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept and read it obsessively. I wish I could have known her.

A lovely weekend to all,
My love, my care,


  1. A very interesting woman indeed.

  2. Thsi post has been an educating one for me. When I hear the name Elizabeth Smart, I think of the kidnapped girl. I didn't know about this one.

    It's a rare and exquisite thing to have a book and/or an author one can feel such a soul connection with.

    As far as the affair with another woman, and then going back to men, don't they always? Oops, are my resentments showing?

  3. Wow - really interesting stuff! Some people lead such intriguing lives. :)

  4. A fascinating web of incredible personages. Didn't know about the early Varda...

  5. You inspired me to scan the web for more tidbits on this intriguing woman.

    I would find it interesting to read George Barker's novel, The Dead Seagull, concerning his affair with Smart. Two sides of the story similar to Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

  6. What an intriguing woman! Thank you so much for sharing her with us. I will definitely be keeping my eye open for a copy of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept

  7. Wow, what a woman. I'll have to read her now.

  8. Oh dear, I must profess my ignorance; I didn't know of Elizabeth Smart. Like C R Ward, I MUST find a copy of By Grand Central Station...

    Bisou, Cro.

  9. Simone

    I'll be investigating the enigmatic Elizabeth Smart further. Here's to women who know their own minds!

  10. ´´A pen is a furious weapon...´´
    And her person is also a big passion and a big fire!
    Thank you SO much,dear Simone for this story about this a very special woman!-)*I never knoew(? my english,excuse me!-(...) about her,but I enjoed to reeding these post!

    Have a pieceful sunday,

    Love and hugs,


  11. That is so sad and beautiful. A well-written bio Simone, thank you so much for writing this!

  12. Interesting. Thnaks for opening my mind today.

  13. I am always fascinated by the choices of women that have inspired you, some of them very new to me.
    We are the benefactors of your research and your desire to introduce and share them with us.
    Thank you for bringing interesting women to our attention. They are women who have loved life and have had intensely passionate relationships in many ways.
    It would be delighful to sit for an afternoon of tea and conversation with you. Perhaps one day. Take care.