With all of the Tasha Tudor books that have been coming into the house recently, I have been doing a lot of thinking and wondering about this extraordinary person. I’m afraid that this little blog essay, though respectful, isn’t going to be laudatory, so if you’re a passionately devoted fan you may as well look away…
I have always had the idea that she wasn’t exactly a “nice person”. At her death she had divorced two husbands and, much more tellingly, “estranged” three children. No one can explain exactly what “estranged” means, but it sounds like Bethany may be a bit of a nutcase, Tom wrote letters to her and didn’t hear that they were estranged until her will was read, and Efner saw her and talked to her just weeks before her death. Seth, the one who inherited everything, sounds like a bit of a momma’s boy and every bit the entrepreneur his mother was.
Because she was an entrepreneur. When asked about her painting and the joy that her talent must have given her, she brushed it aside, saying that she painted to pay the bills and wasn’t an artiste. She agreed to have Life Magazine articles and books published about her life for, I am sure and you should be sure, at least 75% financial reasons. Of course an artist who survives on commissions and accepted works wants all of the exposure and notoriety possible.
Tasha Tudor’s world was so extraordinary because it was so nearly complete. It was as close to complete as it could be, in the late twentieth century. And it was so entirely because Tasha, we must assume, was a strong-willed cuss of a woman who didn’t tolerate deviation from the world’s rules. When the “Stillwater movement” gathered–by which I mean the group of artisans who would regularly volunteer their time to help Tasha do her projects–costumes had to be designed for them to wear while they visited her. When her children were growing up she refused to let them wear modern clothes and for the girls to cut their long hair. She was severely critical of her grandchildren when they didn’t adhere to her vision and, of course, of the outside world–whether to add spice to her narratives for the reporters or because the outside world really bothered her, is not for us to know.
An article written after her death, when her children were beginning to squabble over her inheritance, quotes Tom as saying that their childhood was completely unstructured. Tasha would become absorbed in whatever projects she was getting absorbed in and the children were left to run wild; Tom claims that he learned to cook for himself at a very young age. This, too, isn’t surprising to anyone who has read The Private World of Tasha Tudor. At the beginning of this book, which is composed of narrative written by Tasha herself, she explains that when she was nine years old her parents were divorced and she was sent to live with relatives who had absolutely no structure in their house at all–they all stayed up late every night singing, drawing, performing plays, and dreaming dreams. She says that it was the best thing that ever happened to her; that it changed her life. All Tasha was doing was raising her children the same way. Or, one can see that she was a self-absorbed artist, with the kind of selfish immaturity that makes it possible for great artists to become great. Her children, since the interviews I have read were taken when they were all over 60 years old, may very well have loved their unstructured childhood and come to resent it only in their adult years when, like all of us, they imagine and make up what could have been. In any case, their unstructured world was starkly in contrast with 19th century ideals, in which all meals would have been regular, as well as school hours, outdoors time, and bedtime. It’s also in contrast with the claims, in some of the books, that Tasha served tea regularly every afternoon, was found in her rocker by the stove every morning, sat by the fire doing handwork every evening. On the other hand, she did successfully keep goats, which means she milked them regularly. Or maybe her grandsons milked them regularly. We’ll never know.
The books about her are meant to be pat and admiring. Those of us who do some of these “dying arts” ourselves can, in our bad hours, get a little irked by them. Oooooh, Tasha Tudor knits socks on five needles. And? Ooooh, Tasha Tudor is hand-stitching a patchwork quilt, it took her ten years to get to the sewing-together phase! Well let me tell you, she must be working on it about one day a year. Oooooh, Tasha Tudor dips candles! Why on earth isn’t she using a candle mold? Ooooh, Tasha Tudor cards and spins and weaves wool. Come on. We all read blogs written by people who do all of that. Like I said, these are thoughts we have in our bad hours. We’d be better off ignoring the treacly text and just admiring the beautiful pictures (but what’s that, a toe sticking through a hole in a sock? A torn apron? Unfinished hems? Tasha! Really!)
In the end there is no point in criticizing her except to vent spite about our own lives, though. As she said herself, “sometimes I think that people see me through rose-colored lenses… they don’t understand that I am a human being”. Indeed, Tasha, you were human. You were a flawed and sometimes objectionable human. One feels the wheels of a mighty PR machine turning, when one reads books about you. One can see, or imagine, exactly where your flaws lay. And though one may not worship you in your oh-so-human humanity, we still rather like you. You made possible all of those wonderful books–all of those wonderful pictures–the very images of our own childhoods and the dreams of our adulthood. You created a work of art on the largest scale possible: you turned your whole life into a work of art. To do it you had to be selfish and stubborn, but if you hadn’t been, the artistry might very well have gone out of it. As it is, in our best hours and in our needy ones, you’ve given us something we can come to, and dream about, and love, and find comfort in.
Cheers and bottoms up to old Tasha Tudor, everybody. She must have been a grand old dame.