The Curious Affair of Ralph Adams Cram

By Margaret A. Brucia

Ralph Adams Cram, ca. 1920

Ralph Adams Cram, ca. 1920

Something was brewing between Julia Gardiner Gayley and Ralph Adams Cram in 1920. Perhaps it began in late 1919. Julie and her daughter Mary, normally candid and forthright in their letters to one another, discussed him almost exclusively in cryptic remarks and coded language. He was “R.A.C.,” just plain “R,” or “our Gothic friend.” Fortunately, every now and then they slipped and called him Cram. Otherwise I might not have recognized the clues that enabled me to identify Julie’s mystery man as the renowned Boston architect who popularized neo-Gothic architecture in America, who collaborated on the design of the chapel at West Point and of St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, who planned the campuses of Princeton University and Rice University, who radically redesigned the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, who was once so well known that he was featured on the cover of Time, in 1926, and whose birthday, December 16, is celebrated as a feast day in the American Episcopal liturgical calendar in honor of his contribution to church architecture (this last, an accolade that almost strains credulity).

This is the latest in a series of posts based on the letters of the New York socialite, Julia Gardiner Gayley (1864-1937), to her eldest daughter, Mary Gayley Senni (1884-1971), a countess who lived on the outskirts of Rome. In 2010, the author purchased a trove of the letters in a Roman flea market. This mother-daughter correspondence spanned the years 1902-1936 and provides an intimate and unfiltered view of life in New York during the early twentieth century. You can find the earlier posts on our homepage.

Why has Ralph Adams Cram fallen from memory, and what exactly was the nature of his relationship with Julia Gardiner Gayley? This story answers neither of these questions. But it does lay bare some facts that may tease the mind and invite further investigation.

“R.A.C.” made his first appearance in the correspondence on January 29, 1920, shortly after Mary’s return to Italy, following an extended visit with her mother Julie in New York. In the last sentence of her four-page letter Mary asked, “How is R.A.C. & did you have a nice visit from him?”[1] Unfortunately, Julie’s reply has not survived.

Indirectly, however, we can surmise that Julie did enjoy her visit, whatever that entailed. On February 26, Mary replied to Julie’s missing letter, “You seem to be having a lovely time with our Gothic friend & I am sure he must have a more carefree mind now that the family are away. He is a charming person & we hope he will come here some day.”[2]

Ralph Adams Cram’s portrait on a keystone. Image courtesy of the University of Richmond and Virginia Baptist Historical Society

Ralph Adams Cram, born in 1863, was one year older than Julie. In 1913, he accepted a controversial commission from the trustees of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to take over as cathedral architect after the death in 1907 of George Lewis Heins, his predecessor, and the ousting of Heins’s partner, Christopher Grant La Farge, four years later. Cram’s proposal called for a radical transformation of the partially built cathedral from Romanesque-Byzantine to his beloved Gothic. Whereas others would have been daunted by the architectural challenges such a reworking posed, Cram, as his biographer Douglass Shand-Tucci explained, not only “attached little importance to the clash of styles,” but believed that “medieval churches... were all the more beautiful for their agglomeration of disparate elements.”[3] Cram’s team was at the critical juncture of reconciling the old construction with the new when the onset of war brought building activity to a halt. The pause provided Cram with the welcome opportunity to assess his progress and plan his future strategy. It was not until the spring of 1920 that the cathedral’s board of trustees passed a resolution to proceed with construction of the nave, allowing Cram to return to building “the heroic Gothic cathedral of [his] dreaming.”[4]

The son of a Unitarian minister, Cram underwent a dramatic religious conversion to Anglo-Catholicism on Christmas Eve in 1887 while attending midnight mass in Rome. Catholic liturgy ever afterward stirred him to the core and informed his life. Julie was similarly moved by the power and majesty of religious rites and rituals. An Episcopalian and an active member of Grace Church on Broadway and 10th Street, Julie began serious research on the history of Anglo-Catholic liturgy either shortly before or shortly after she met Cram. Intending to publish a book on the subject, which she referred to as her “magnum opus,” she worked steadily on her project for more than a decade. Sadly, the onset of macular degeneration prevented her from completing the manuscript.

Julie and Cram probably met for the first time at a social event and discovered their shared reverence for Christian liturgy. Perhaps Cram’s professed interest and Julie’s ongoing research initially drew them together. Or maybe Cram subsequently inspired Julie to embark on her scholarly religious pursuit. Either way, liturgy was a cornerstone of their relationship.

On July 9, 1920, seven months after her first mention of Cram, Mary, assuming a continuing relationship between her mother and Cram, wrote to Julie, “There has been a lovely High Church conference in London — high as high — & I wonder if Cram longed to go. Do send him these three horrible prize-winners in a chapel on the Marne contest; one is like a synagogue, one is pure München — there, of all places — & the Gothic one, though the best, is poor stuff.”[5] Clearly Mary was aware that religion and architecture were topics Cram and her mother regularly discussed. The absence of the clipping to which Mary referred among Julie’s papers may indicate that she did send it along to Cram, either to his office in Boston or to his home, Whitehall, in Sudbury, Massachusetts.

St. Thomas, Fifth Ave.

St. Thomas, Fifth Ave.

St. John the Divine under construction

St. John the Divine under construction

St. John the Divine

St. John the Divine

***

Ralph Adams Cram married Elizabeth (“Bess”) Carrington Read in 1900, when he was thirty-six and she was twenty-seven. Bess was well educated (she had been a school teacher), possessed a keen intellect and displayed “a high sense of personal and family honor.”[6] Her father, deeply affected by the Civil War, had fought for the Confederacy. He committed suicide in 1893. Bess herself was prone to severe nervous breakdowns and general instability, making social and familial interactions with her challenging. After a wedding trip to Italy fraught with emotional crises precipitated by the addition of a traveling companion on their honeymoon — a male friend of Cram — the newlyweds returned to Boston and settled into their home in Sudbury. Bess and Cram raised three children, Mary, Ralph and Elizabeth.

Bess was the subject of little sympathy and much criticism in Julie’s and Mary’s letters. On October 28, 1920, for example, Mary described her as “the most antipathetic person I ever saw.”[7] And on December 10, 1920, she suggested, “You ought to give R.A.C. 'Europe & the Faith,' by [Hilaire] Belloc — only Elizabeth would probably throw it at your head. Poor man, to think of being tied to her for life!”[8] Two years later, after she was no longer in contact with Cram, Julie, for her part, wrote, “Mary Wheelwright departs for Boston soon for Mary Cram’s [the Crams’ eldest daughter’s] wedding, which is on September 8, I believe. I can imagine all the fuss and attitudinizing which must be going on at Sudbury. It will be a blessed release for the girl.”[9]

Julie’s and Mary’s animus toward Bess never let up. Why? Just what wasJulie’s relationship with Cram all about? And what did Bess have to do with it?

The year 1920, when Cram had the most significant impact on her life, was momentous for Julie. Her youngest daughter Folly announced her engagement on February 20th, just five days before the death of Julie’s former husband James Gayley, from whom Julie had been divorced since 1910. Folly was married at home, at Washington Square, on June 17th. Almost immediately after the wedding, Gano Dunn pressed his suit for Julie’s hand in marriage. All three of Julie’s daughters strenuously objected.[10] Nevertheless, Julie married Gano quickly and quietly on August 26th.

How did Cram figure into these events? By January, when Mary had returned to Italy from New York, he and Julie had not only met, but were in fairly regular contact, if not face-to-face in New York, at least by letter between New York and Boston. Although Bess and his children were initially with Cram in New York, they soon left, making it easier for Cram and Julie to continue seeing each other socially. Cram may even have attended Folly’s wedding in June. Mary, quoting the comment of a friend in the aftermath of her sister’s marriage, wrote to Julie on July 9th, “Mrs. Tams said ‘Dunn & all the lesser beaux were there’ — does that include R.A.C.?”[11] By June, clearly, Mary and others in Julie’s circle viewed Cram as one of Julie’s “lesser beaux” (with Gano Dunn rising to the fore as her principal suitor). Later in the same letter Mary refers to Cram as “that charmer.”

In early August, Julie was in Maine, at her middle daughter Agnes’s summer house at Northeast Harbor. On August 11th Mary wrote, “You must be having a very nice time, for your cable says the Tams are there & Daisy [Chanler] wrote she was going to you & you have Nannie [Julie’s personal secretary] close by for the M.O. [magnum opus] & what novels call a ‘heart interest’ [Gano Dunn] very much in the foreground. Where has R.A.C. vanished to in all this?”[12]

Where indeed? Two weeks later Julie and Gano were married in New York. Some might say that Cram’s homosexuality was an impediment to any further relationship with Julie. Others would object to this suggestion.

Cram’s wide-ranging achievements in architecture are well documented, but the most comprehensive account of his personal life and social interactions is Douglass Shand-Tucci’s exhaustive and erudite two-volume biography, which places Cram squarely amid a distinctive circle of creative “Bohemians:” painters, musicians, philosophers, social critics, poets and, of course, architects, many of whom were part of the homosexual subculture of Boston’s North End.[13] Regarding Cram, Shand-Tucci leaves no room for doubt: “Cram’s sexual orientation... was homosexual.”[14] He acknowledges that, although we cannot know his reasons for marrying, Cram “was certainly quick to seize the opportunity when it presented itself of wedding [Elizabeth] Read, downplaying at least the Bohemian counterculture of which he had become for more than a decade so conspicuous an ornament.”[15] (Shand-Tucci also mentions Cram’s pre-marital and seemingly romantic interest in two other women, which in no way alters his assessment of Cram’s orientation.)[16]

As convinced as Shand-Tucci is that Cram was gay, another recent biographer, Ethan Anthony, rejects that point of view. Anthony states unequivocally, “Shand-Tucci advanced the theory that Cram and many of his associates were closeted gays and that much of their artistic endeavor was devoted to covert expression of their sexual preference. I have found no evidence to support his theories.”[17]

Whether or not Cram was gay, he was a married man. And Bess, reviled though she was by Mary and Julie, was still his wife. One wonders how well the Gayley women knew Bess and to what degree Cram himself colored their opinion of her. Did he contemplate divorce? What did Bess know about his friendship with Julie? It appears that Bess knew plenty about Julie and her relationship to her husband.

On October 28, two months after Julie’s wedding, Mary wrote to her mother, “What a tale of R.A.C. and how I would love to see your answer! Poor man, I cannot help being sorry for him; he behaved sorrily, but truly she who is as nervous as he is must be goaded almost to insanity by that icy egotism. I shall always love him; he wasn’t at all for you, but he has so many nice things about him & I think you are scarcely just to some sides of him — Mrs. Parkman laughed because I called Elizabeth brittle, but I was really being polite, for she always seemed to me like adamant — the most antipathetic person I ever met.”[18]

The portion quoted above ends at the bottom of the first side of page three of Mary’s four-page letter, but the top half of the page is missing — carefully (and uncharacteristically) cut away by Mary. The missing portion presumably contained, on its second side, the continuation of Mary’s story about Bess and Cram. After the gap, the letter continues with a discussion of Mary’s finances, her family and post-war conditions in Italy. There is no further mention of Cram. But if Mary’s letter to Julie is tantalizing, Julie’s reply to Mary on December 4 is even more so. It contains a word-for-word copy of a letter sent to Julie by Cram. Julie reproduced it for Mary, adding her own underlining for emphasis.

Cram’s letter copied by Julie for Mary

Cram’s letter copied by Julie for Mary

My dear Mrs Dunn
If by chance you have kept any of the letters I wrote you last winter will you not return them to me? They were not true when they were written, & they are for me only a cause for shame and contrition.
Whatever I have lost in self-respect, I have at least gained a new sense of what my wife means to me and has always meant.
She asks me to return the twenty dollar gold piece which she accepted under a misapprehension.
Very sincerely
(signature)[19]

Julie also included a copy of her reply to Cram’s letter.

N. E. Harbor Answer
‘Dear R.C. I have your Sudbury letter. I have no letters here.
It is something of a mystery to me why you should be doing penance for letters every one of which you will remember, were perforce read to me by my girls or by Gerry [Julie’s son-in-law] — who with me feel sad.
But if I find any of your letters among my papers in New York I shall destroy them.
So, cease to regret what were probably some of the sincerest moments of your life.’
J.D.

Julie explained the situation to Mary.

This [Cram's letter, copied by Julie for Mary] was registered from Sudbury & bore his name and address on the back in her [Bess’s] handwriting. The $20. I had given her when she sailed to buy something in Paris — I took no notice of its return.
Before this letter came, there were two or three printed ones written in abject terror begging not to send the letters — & telling me a letter would arrive which he trusted me to understand.
The first of them arrived in large printed charade labeled — personal — and was handed me by G[ano] the week after we got to N.E. [Northeast Harbor, Maine] I opened it then and there & after a moment’s thought I followed my first impulse — & I think rightly — which was that I did not want to have that kind of a secret between G[ano] & me when it would surely mean further evasion & deception on my part at the hands of two unpredictable people — Why should I let my peace be ruined by such tactics? I felt the same about Gerry & Agnes [Julie’s son-in-law and her middle daughter, at whose house in Maine she and Gano were staying]. A sudden cessation of a friendship was the fact — why must I be the one to cover it up & dissemble to everyone?
Of course G[ano] was impeccable in his conduct — neither curious nor critical only sympathetic — even for R.C. whom he knew all about anyway. Our relation is not one of fear or tyranny. G[ano] knows we all care for R C while yet we despise his act. I think Agnes & Floss [also called Folly, Julie’s youngest daughter] regret him — I wish I could have kept the unpleasant thing to myself.

On December 28, Mary replied to her mother: “Your letter to Sudbury was masterly, and the one it answered most abject, not to say crude. How E. can get any satisfaction out of such a petty act is more than anyone can see. But I am sorry for him & I shall always love him! Think of being tied for life to her!”[20]

We can conclude, then, that Cram wrote damaging letters about Bess to Julie. Perhaps he revealed that he wanted to leave his wife, or that he planned to institutionalize her for mental illness. Bess, having learned of the existence of her husband’s letters to Julie, desperately wanted them returned. Cram, terrified that Julie would return them — and that Bess would see what he wrote — begged Julie, under separate cover, not to send them. Nevertheless, at his wife’s insistence, he sent a letter requesting them. Julie did not return them, disclosed the entire story of her relationship with Cram to Gano and her family and, probably, destroyed Cram’s letters.

But Julie’s fascination with Ralph Adams Cram did not end there. A year later, in December 1921, writing onboard the Rotterdam during her voyage home to New York after visiting Mary, Julie confided to her daughter, “Last night I thought insistently of R.A.C. & his wife.” Interestingly, in the same letter, Julie wrote an almost stream-of-consciousness disquisition on her thoughts about love and marriage with overtones of religion: “To find one’s life in another, to desire to lose one’s personality in another—this is: Love. It may or may not be found in marriage. It may exist even without the sex relation but that is not its best estate.... [T]he Church must reprobate a passion which leads away from duty (if it does) and if it devastates lives as it sometimes does.”[21]

Was she still thinking about Cram and Bess when she wrote those words?

Cram enjoyed success and notoriety for many more years, but Bess’s mental condition steadily worsened. Eventually Cram, seeing no other alternative, had her institutionalized. He tried, unsuccessfully, to visit her on several occasions.[22]

Cram died at the age of seventy-eight in 1942. Bess died one year later. Husband and wife are buried side-by-side a short distance from their home in Sudbury. The shady and peaceful graveyard adjoins an exquisite little Gothic chapel, designed, of course, by Cram and dedicated to St. Elizabeth. The inscription on Bess’s headstone, FAC EAM DOMINE DE MORTE TRANSPIRARE AD VITAM (Let her, Lord, breathe beyond death to life), is equally appropriate for Ralph Adams Cram.

Ralph Adams Cram & Elizabeth Read Cram, headstones near St. Elizabeth Chapel, Sudbury, Massachusetts

Ralph Adams Cram & Elizabeth Read Cram, headstones near St. Elizabeth Chapel, Sudbury, Massachusetts

Margaret A. Brucia has taught Latin in New York and Rome for many years and is a Fulbright scholar, the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.

[1] Mary Gayley Senni to Julia Gardiner Gayley, January 29, 1920, author’s collection.

[2] Mary Gayley Senni to Julia Gardiner Gayley, February 26, 1920, author’s collection.

[3] Douglass Shand-Tucci, Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect’s Four Quests (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 187.

[4] For the passing of the resolution, see W. D. F. Hughes, Prudently with Power: William Thomas Manning, Tenth Bishop of New York (West Park, NY: Holy Cross Publications, n.d.), 133; for the quotation about “the heroic Gothic cathedral,” see Shand-Tucci, 187.

[5] Mary Gayley Senni to Julia Gardiner Gayley, July 9, 1920, author’s collection.

[6] For Bess’s character and background, see Shand-Tucci (above) 7-11.

[7] Mary Gayley Senni to Julia Gardiner Gayley, October 28, 1920, author’s collection.

[8] Mary Gayley Senni to Julia Gardiner Gayley, December 10, 1920, author’s collection.

[9] Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, August 23, 1922, author’s collection.

[10] For details about Gano Dunn and Julie’s marriage to him, see “Einstein Comes to Dinner” CROSSREFERENCE TO EARLIER BLOGPOST

[11] Mary Gayley Senni to Julia Gardiner Gayley, July 9, 1920, author’s collection.

[12] Mary Gayley Senni to Julia Gardiner Gayley, August 11, 1920, author’s collection.

[13] Shand Tucci, Boston Bohemia (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995) and Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect’s Four Quests (above).

[14] Shand-Tucci, Four Quests, 7.

[15] Id., 6-7.

[16] Shand-Tucci, Boston Bohemia, 261 (for Cram and Anne Dyer), 345-48 (for Cram and Ethel Reed).

[17] Ethan Anthony, The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and his Office (New York and London: W. W. Norton), 7.

[18] Mary Gayley Senni to Julia Gardiner Gayley, October 28, 1920, author’s collection.

[19] This excerpt and the next two that follow it are all from the same letter, Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, December 4, 1920, author’s collection.

[20] Mary Gayley Senni to Julia Gardiner Gayley, December 28, 1920, author’s collection.

[21] Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, December 1921, author’s collection.

[22] Shand-Tucci, Four Quests, 514-15.