“Yvette Eastman, 101, Photographer, Longtime Aquinnah Summer Resident”
by Phyllis Meras
Vineyard Gazette (Martha’s Vineyard, MA)
Friday, January 24, 2014
Yvette Eastman, author, photographer, longtime Aquinnah seasonal resident and wife of the late author, magazine editor and social and political critic Max Eastman, died on Jan. 13 in New York city after a brief illness. She was 101.
From the time of her 1958 marriage to Mr. Eastman until two years ago, Mrs. Eastman would spend nearly half of each year at her East Pasture home overlooking Squibnocket Pond, with Menemsha Pond, Vineyard Sound, the Elizabeth Islands and the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. She said she was certain she had the best view on the Island. To assure that the site she so loved would never be spoiled, she had over the years given much of the acreage she owned to the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation. When not on the Island, Mrs. Eastman lived in New York city in an apartment just off Fifth avenue.
She was born Oct. 12, 1912 in Budapest, Hungary, a daughter of Artur Szkely and Marthe Meylan. At the time of her birth her father, an economist, was secretary of the Budapest chamber of commerce and industry and director of its inter-commerce bureau. He was also the author of several works on economics. During World War II, he became secretary of the treasury of Hungary. Her mother was from French Switzerland. In her 1995 memoir, Dearest Wilding, Yvette Eastman recounts her own storybook life.
She tells of her birth mother’s abandonment by her father during Yvette’s infancy; then of her father and stepmother’s divorce while Yvette was still a toddler. With her half sister, the late Suzanne Sekey, Yvette’s stepmother, Margaret Szkely, brought her to the United States. Her stepmother was briefly married to an American and the family lived in Brooklyn. But the marriage was extremely short-lived and mother and daughters moved to Manhattan where Margaret Szekely Monahan supported them by becoming a designer of fashionable ladies’ underwear, as well as writing about important American figures in the arts for publications in Budapest.
As a newspaper and magazine correspondent, Yvette’s stepmother interviewed such notables as the novelist Theodore Dreiser, author of the novels Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, among others. Yvette’s memoir recounts her seduction at the age of 17 by the then 50-plus year-old writer, their long-lasting love affair and his nurturing of her intellectual enthusiasms. Never really having known a father (though she and her half-sister did go to Budapest as teenagers to meet Artur Szekely), Dreiser was a father figure as well as lover. Her book’s title comes from his nickname for her, Wilding, and is filled with love letters she received from him. It was also through her stepmother that she met Max Eastman decades before they married. Through him Yvette would come to the Vineyard.
Although her principal interests were always in literature and art, after high school she attended business school, not knowing what might lie ahead. During Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, she worked as a social investigator in the Emergency Relief Bureau. Later she worked with the Department of Welfare in New York city. After her marriage she gave up the workplace. But writing had always been a major interest and she dreamed of doing serious writing of her own. During her association with Dreiser, she had translated a French dramatization of An American Tragedy into English for him. Still, it took decades — even after Max Eastman’s death in 1969 — before she settled down to do the personal writing she had always longed to do.
A devoted beachgoer, she had retained a lifetime right to ocean swimming at the Zack’s Cliffs property that had belonged to Max Eastman but had been sold to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. There she met Marta Sguibin, who would become one of her closest friends.
Marta was the governess for Caroline and John Kennedy and later a cook for Mrs. Onassis. Through her, Yvette met Mrs. Onassis. Hearing Yvette’s life story and learning that she had kept Dreiser’s letters, Mrs. Onassis, by then a book editor, urged Yvette to put the letters into a book and to recount her full life story.
At the McDowell Writers’ Colony, she did just that. Her depiction of New York intellectual life in the 1930s and 1940s was heralded by one book reviewer as “compelling, thought-provoking history.” The New York Times reviewer called it a memoir “as clear-eyed as anything penned by the celebrated American realist (Dreiser) she loved.”
Her memoir got under way at the writers’ colony; she later completed it, working in a cubicle at the Cosmopolitan Club in New York and on the Vineyard. Her discipline was to write every morning except Sunday. On that one day of the week, weather permitting, she indulged even into her 90s in the French game called boule on a specially-constructed court at East Pasture. Regulars who came to play included the late Don Page and the late Gilbert Harrison, neighbors Eva and Stephen Weinstein, house guests of her Canadian Aquinnah friends, Avrum and Dora Morrow, Max Eastman’s great nephew Charles Young, who became her caretaker after Max’s death, and many others. When Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg’s children were old enough to play, Yvette organized special children’s boule games for them and the Morrow grandchildren. They were always followed by ice cream and cake parties. (Ice cream was a favorite treat of Yvette’s.)
After her memoir, she began work on a book about Max, but never finished it. She also wrote occasional poetry and prose pieces for the Gazette. In afternoons, she would make her way down to the Squibnocket beach below her house for a swim and to watch the sailboats tacking by. Or she would head for Squibnocket Associates Beach or the Zack’s Cliffs beach with friends and a picnic basket. She liked being asked out to dinner or enjoyed having friends come to visit, from on and off-Island. Frequently it was relatives, such as her sister Sue and Cornelius Clark, whose father had been married to her stepmother, or her nieces Pascal Soriano and Florence Bachoven. Her sister’s friend and business partner the late Harold Leeds and the late Robert Giroux of the publishing firm, Farrar, Straus & Giroux were also regularly invited for weeklong stays. Guests brought their pets if they had them, for Yvette was a great lover of animals. Invariably there was a cat or two — Twiggy, Sebastian, Daisy or Sguby — sharing the East Pasture house or the New York apartment with her.
Although she never enjoyed cooking — remembering with horror trying to prepare chicken for Max soon after their marriage and adding allspice when a piquant seasoning was required — she enthusiastically gave annual giant summer cocktail parties. Wendy Weldon of Chilmark often did the catering.
As her stepmother had, Yvette delighted in the company of writers and artists and actors. Her close Island friends included the late Vineyard Gazette editor and publisher Henry Beetle Hough, the late New York Times movie critic Bolsey Crowther and his wife Florence, the late publisher Hiram Haydn and his wife, Mary, and the late Shakespearian actress and director Margaret Webster, another East Pasture neighbor. Her guests would not only enjoy the view and the company, but Yvette’s stunning black and white photographs of Max, of Vineyard sea and dunes and moors, her own drawings and the paintings by friends that decorated her small, simple home that never took precedence over its natural surroundings.
She enjoyed traveling, but did it infrequently, although she was diligent about going to Geneva, Switzerland, to see her birth mother in her later years. (They had finally met when Yvette was 19.) She also would go regularly to see her stepmother who remained in New York. With Max, she spent time in the Caribbean; for her 90th birthday, she went to Montreal and she also went to Italy and revisited central Europe.
Mostly she would go from New York to the Vineyard each June and remain until after Thanksgiving, or occasionally Christmas, so she could celebrate the holidays with her good friends Peggy and the late Nick Freydberg, or her East Pasture neighbors, the Weinsteins.
Stephen Weinstein recalled: “At one of the last Thanksgivings that she had with us, maybe six years ago, she suggested that we all say what we were thankful for. When it came to be her turn, she said in her irrepressible way, in her lovely lyrical voice, with a sparkle in her brown eyes, ‘I’m thankful for still being here.’ ”
At her 100th and 101st birthday parties, celebrated in New York, she enjoyed the company, the ice cream and cake and insisted on finishing two glasses of champagne. She read the New York Times each day and the New Yorker each week until just before her death.
“Yvette was cutting edge,” Stephen Weinstein said. “Her death marks the end of an era,”
She is survived by two nieces, Pascale Soriano of New York city and Florence Bachofen of Zollikon, Switzerland; a great nephew, Massimo Soriano of New York city and a great niece, Paloma Soriano of New York city; Nancy Clark, wife of her late step half-brother, Cornelius Clar, of Siler City, N.C.; Charles Young of Aquinnah and his sister, Rebecca Young of New York city, great nephew and great niece of Max Eastman; Richard Eastman of Shasta, Calif., great nephew of Max Eastman; Anne and Cordelia Fuller of New York city, great nieces of Max Eastman, and by her beloved cat, Sguby.
She was predeceased by her half sister Suzanne Sekey; her half-brother Thomas Szekely and her step half-brother Cornelius Clark.
A memorial service will be held this summer in Aquinnah.