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The Gaze of Benjamin Garber

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The following is a guest post from Hannah Reynolds, a Junior Fellow who spent this past summer processing the Benjamin Garber Papers. Dance Archivist Libby Smigel introduces her:  

Summer 2019 marked the third time the Music Division has benefited by having a Junior Fellow to help make more materials available that document Martha Graham’s legacy. Hannah Reynolds, with her recent studies in art history, was a perfect fit for the Benjamin Garber Papers. Garber is known less for his dance career than for his work in interior design and art collecting; however, his contributions toward Graham and her company over two decades deserve more attention. We hope that you’ll enjoy Hannah’s introduction of Ben Garber in her blog post below.  The finding aid can be found using this link.

Ben Garber, far left, chats with Martha Graham at the Lisbon restaurant A Severa during the Graham company’s 1967 European tour. Box 5, folder 39, Benjamin Garber Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Although Benjamin Garber was not a principal dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company, he played a critical role in company finances and developed close personal ties to this modern dance icon. Understanding his background and his thirty-year friendship with Graham gives a unique and deeper perspective on Graham as a human being.  The Benjamin Garber Papers held by the Music Division uncover a man whose vibrant visual talent permitted him to see Graham in a way few others experienced.

Benjamin Franklin Garber was born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in 1927, son of Sallie Blackmore and Claude Garber. As a child, he studied dance, violin, and art. In high school Garber was invited to the home of his art teacher, Frances Bear. While waiting for her to appear, he saw a photograph of Martha Graham in Barbara Morgan’s book Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs lying open on his teacher’s table. The impact of seeing Graham for the first time never left him. Stationed at a U.S. Army base in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he spent one of his leaves flying to New York to see Martha Graham perform in Night Journey, Punch and the Judy, and El Penitente. When his military service ended, he enrolled in Martha Graham company classes. During this time, he danced with various choreographers such as Iris Mabry and performed in the original cast of Merce Cunningham’s Les Noces, conducted by Leonard Bernstein for the opening at the Brandeis University Amphitheater.

Soon after, Garber ended his career as a dancer to concentrate on his other visual talents. At the request of Syrie Maugham (Mrs. Somerset Maugham), Garber entered the field of interior design with William Cameron Kennedy, who became his lifelong partner personally and professionally. After Maugham’s death, they formed William C. Kennedy Associates and carried out extensive work for Lila Acheson Wallace and the Reader’s Digest organization.

In the early 1960s, Garber rekindled his relationship with Martha Graham and offered his assistance in matters regarding her personal health and company finances. Through Garber, Martha Graham met Lila Acheson Wallace during this time. Wallace became an important source of financial support for Graham, providing a substantial contribution toward purchase of the Graham studio at 316 East 63rd Street in New York City. During this time, Garber became more involved in Graham’s well-being. He accompanied her on performance tours through the United States, Mexico, and Europe, and ensured her comfort. For example, Lila Wallace arranged a separate car for Garber and Graham on one of her tours, so Graham would not have to ride on the tour bus.

Their friendship deepened when Graham stayed with Garber and Kennedy at the home they called Cross River in Westchester County, New York, during her 11-month convalescence. Photographs in the Benjamin Garber Papers document Graham’s time at Cross River. Together with notes Garber received from Graham, the snapshots show a level of intimacy and familiarity in their relationship.

Later in his life Garber describes where Graham stayed at Cross River in interviews conducted by his childhood friend, Martha Merz, and he shares memories of that time:

Merz: “The blue room is not the bed room …”

Garber: “No… that was the big, grand salon in the back of the house. There were huge French windows and the light came in—and it was a soft room. … She had marvelous light to read, the big chaise was very comfortable. I had bought her an enormous big stuffed down cover, covered in blue chiffon. and she just lived in that. There are some pictures of her in the chaise … and she felt very warm and comfy.”

Martha Graham, center, with visitors in the Blue Room, Cross River, during her convalescence circa 1972. Box 5, folder 46, Benjamin Garber Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

After her stay at Cross River, Graham returned to New York City to work with her company. When Garber and Kennedy moved to St. Martin in 1974, the relationship with Graham faltered. Ron Protas, having become Graham’s personal assistant, directed the activities of the Graham company. Graham’s telephone number changed, and Garber believed that notes and letters he sent to her had been intercepted, causing discord between them. By 1979, their relationship had ended in animosity, and—although Garber often spoke of Graham and continued to hold deep personal feelings for her—he never saw her again.

Notes and letters in the Benjamin Garber Papers from Martha Graham illuminate how their relationship was deteriorating. Early letters from Graham to Garber were filled with daily anecdotes and messages of love. By the end of the 1970s Graham’s letters to Garber were filled with misunderstandings and apologies.

Though Graham’s importance dominates this collection, the significance of Garber’s artistic life and his success as an interior designer as seen through his papers show what allowed him to help Graham in the way he did. The multifaceted nature of his artistic personality can be seen from a very early age when he was studying fine arts, through to later in his life when he funded the completion of a catalogue raisonné of American modernist Patrick Henry Bruce. Garber’s exploration of diverse arts quite possibly offers an explanation for Graham’s personal interest in Garber.

 In the Benjamin Garber Papers, the main narrative throughout the collection is the compassion and endearment Graham and Garber’s friendship held. The collection provides a glimpse into the inherent components of their relationship and its unfortunate demise. Even more so, the papers share Garber’s loving if painful gaze upon a side of Graham as a human being that few have seen.

Hannah K. Reynolds completed her bachelor’s degree in art history at Ohio University this past May. While a student at Ohio University, she assisted the University Archivist in processing collections and preparing exhibits.

Comments (3)

  1. So glad to see this summary bio of Ben Garber. He and William Kennedy decorated Readers’ Digest offices around the world, and for Mrs. Wallace furnished the first iteration of Boscobel (Garrison, New York), securing its reputation as one of America’s most beautiful historic houses. He and Kennedy are two of several LGBTQ figures involved in Boscobel’s founding, and the subjects of ongoing research.

  2. A wonderful surprise and momento to Benjamin Garber and William Kennedy, Gracious, generous hosts at their magnificent home in Waccabuc, New York. Thank you

  3. A wonderful surprise and memento to Benjamin Garber and William Kennedy,talented designers. gracious, generous hosts at their unforgettable ,magnificent home in Waccabuc, New York.

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