Glimpses of Blythewood

Photo of Blythewood captioned "OCCUPATIONAL DEPARTMENT" Courtesy Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich (Connecticut)

Mrs. Marty Mann reportedly spent over a year as a patient at Blythewood Sanitarium in Greenwich, Connecticut.  According to Sally Brown and David R. Brown’s biography – although sources differ on this point – Mann was admitted to Blythewood at the end of June in 1938 and discharged in September of 1939.(1)  It was at Blythewood that Mann, under the care of Dr. Harry Tiebout, was introduced, via a pre-publication multilith copy of “The Big Book,” to Alcoholics Anonymous. 

I first got interested in Blythewood for an oblique reason.  By most accounts – including the Browns’ – Mann was a “charity” or non-paying patient at posh Blythewood.  This claim fit nicely with Mann’s story of dissipation and declining resources owing to her excessive drinking over the 1930s.  Yet it’s well to keep in mind that Mann’s retellings of her pre-A.A. life story in due course became a kind of shared property:  partly “owned” by the actual facts of her life story and partly “owned” by the needs of her great campaign to reform American attitudes toward alcoholism.(2)  Thus, it is always prudent to consider exactly which elements of Mann’s story were more or less accurate and which became re-shaped along the way to fit external needs.

"THE FORREST BUILDING"

Mann’s putative charity status at Blythewood offers a case in point.  There is at least one item of evidence suggesting Mann was not entirely destitute in the late 1930s.  According to historian Esther Newton, who chronicled the emergence of New York’s Cherry Grove, Fire Island as a gay and lesbian summer community,(3) Mann and her partner, Priscilla Peck, may have owned a cottage on the island as early as sometime in 1938.(4)(5)  A co-owner of a summer cottage may not have needed nor qualified for free treatment, board, and lodging at Blythewood.  Moreover, partner Priscilla Peck was art editor at Vogue magazine, surely a well paid post.  Yet, how much or how little Mann may have relied upon Peck’s income during this period is unknown.  Also, Newton’s account is based on informant interviews collected years later, and thus the dating of long-past events may be uncertain.  Still, whether Mann was or was not – or merited — Blythewood’s charity remains an open question in my mind.  A 15- or 16-month stay at this otherwise pricy Connecticut sanitarium certainly would have run up quite a tab – for someone.

"VIEW OF GROUNDS'

As the pictures show, Blythewood was indeed an upscale institution. According to one source, some patients even brought their “valets and chefs” along with them to the facility.  It was sited on acres of rolling greens and woods, with a creek running through.  Blythewood was also known as a vanguard of a new, more enlightened  and more permissive approach to mental illness – and alcoholism.  A November 8, 1936 article in The New York Times, which reported the death of Blythewood co-founder, Dr. William Herbert Wiley, characterized Wiley and his institution as follows:

Dr. Wiley was an advocate of the modern methods of occupational therapy, and his institution grew from its original single building to twenty-two buildings on eighty acres of Stanwich property.  He and his wife opened the sanitarium in 1906.

Blythewood has no locked doors.  The patients are encouraged to follow their natural bents, and the sanitarium has become well known for its art school, studios, pottery work, a button factory and many similar projects.

The article added, notably:

The sanitarium has many free patients….

Blythewood’s open-door policy was not without costs however.  The Times reported a number of walk-aways and suicides over the years.  One report was particularly touching.  In November, 1935, Susan Tilton Alexander, the 27-year-old socialite wife of lawyer Archibald Stevens Alexander, ended her own life.  Susan’s and Archibald’s wedding, according to the Times article, “…was one of the events of the New York social season of 1929.”  A Blythewood nurse had taken Mrs. Alexander to a beauty parlor in town to get her hair done.  At some point Mrs. Alexander slipped away from the nurse, walked off, and hid in the bushes next to track belonging to the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.  When a train appeared she “threw herself in front of it.”  The Times printed a note she’d left for her husband:  “I am incurable, and therefore death is better than being a perpetual drag on you.  SUSIE” (6)

"THE BROOK'

Blythewood had all sorts of patients.  One source described it as a dumping ground for the black sheep of wealthy families.  Incidentally, despite its upscale character the facility was not reluctant to accept Jewish patients.  The only New York Times report I found that fell within the period of Mann’s stay – an article appearing on August 2, 1938 — concerned the unhappy story and unfortunate death of a patient named Walter Lewisohn.  Lewisohn resided in one of Blythewood’s several on-campus cottages.  He was a member of a wealthy banking family.  According to the Times report, Lewisohn suffered a mental breakdown following the loss of a considerable part of his fortune on a deal involving a pool of Seneca copper stock.  The breakdown had not, his lawyer (tellingly) added, been occasioned by an affair with dancer Leonora Hughes.(7)  Lewisohn became a patient at Blythewood in 1923, 15 years earlier.  His initial commitment was the subject of heated controversy when Lewisohn initiated a habeas corpus action, suing for his freedom.(8)  Lewisohn later changed his mind and agreed to “a voluntary commitment.”  His wife, singer Mme. Marie Selma, divorced him five years later, in March, 1928 (9); by June of the same year she’d remarried and was honeymooning in Spain.(10)  Times reports mentioned some sort of link between Lewisohn and his wife and the investigation of the unsolved 1920 murder of Joseph B. Elwell, “bridge expert” and playboy.  Lewisohn perished as the result of entering his cottage when it was being fumigated, despite posted warnings.

I don’t know about you, but for me all this – that is, Blythewood Sanitarium as it’s conveyed across the intervening decades by these sepia photos (11) and a couple of  stories about its forgotten patients — has a very 1930s feel.  Wealthy personages holed-up in a fancy Connecticut retreat in the midst of the Great Depression sets an evocative scene.

Notes:

(1) Sally Brown and David R. Brown, A Biography of Mrs. Marty Mann[:] The First Lady of Alcoholics Anonymous,Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden, 2001.  Re Mann’s admission and discharge dates, see pp. 97 & 124 respectively.

(2) See Ranes Report #7 for another example of this “co-ownership” aspect of Mann’s biography.

(3) Esther Newton, Cherry Grove Fire Island[:] Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town,Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

(4) See p. 146 in Esther Newton, ‘The “Fun Gay Ladies”[:] Lesbians in Cherry Grove, 1936-1960,’ pp. 145-164 in Brett Beemyn (ed.), Creating a Place For Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories, 1997.

(5) The Browns’ biography, citing Newton, asserts only that Mann and Peck “were together there” on Fire Island on a weekend “as early as the summer of 1938” (p. 143).

(6)  “Mrs. A. Alexander Leaps Under Train,” New York Times, Nov. 16, 1935.

(7) “Says Losses Broke Lewisohn’s Health, New York Times, Sept. 15, 1923.

(8) The details of this controversy were reported in New York Times articles on Sept. 14th (“Walter Lewisohn Held in Sanitorium”), 15th (“Says Losses Broke Lewisohn’s Health”), and 16th (“Explains Lewisohn Case”), 1923.

(9) “Broker in Sanitarium, Singer Gets Divorce,” New York Times, Mar. 17, 1928.

(10)  “Mrs. Selma Lewisohn Weds Henry B. Farr,” New York Times, Jun. 17, 1928.

(11)  I thank Anne Young of the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich for these photos and other materials.  The photos appear to have been drawn from perhaps a brochure about Blythewood.

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