September 2021

The MacDowell Colony

Autobiographical Notes

The MacDowell Colony was founded in 1907 by Marian Nevins MacDowell (1857-1956), the wife of Edward MacDowell, and eminent composer and music impresario. Edward MacDowell died in 1908. His wife had been the driving force in getting the Colony established after Edward fell gravely ill, as it had been his wish to make a community where artists could flourish in tranquil surroundings and in the stimulating company of other artists. The colony was located on their rural estate at Peterborough, New Hampshire. Under Marian’s leadership until her death in 1956, the colony thrived, providing support over the decades to over 6000 artists of all kinds.

Katharine and Reco Capey on their wedding day, 1935

Edward and Marian MacDowell sometime in the 1890’s

Katharine and Reco Capey on their wedding day, 1935

Marian MacDowell Life Magazine August 1948

Katharine and Reco became regular residents at the colony, from around 1941 or 1942. Katharine describes their introduction to the colony and to Marian MacDowell  in an undated letter home:

“We are grateful to the Cecil Smiths for giving us that first chance to go to the MacDowell Colony. We should not have had the opportunity otherwise as you have to have two letters of introduction saying what book or books you've had published if you're a writer, what paintings or music if you're an artist or musician. After our first visit - which was strange but lovely - everything was easy - for Mrs MacDowell took a personal liking & interest in us both & this year (although she's almost totally blind now from an unsuccessful cataract operation & she's 86)* she wrote us a wonderful letter (by feel I guess) telling us that she considered us no longer as colonists but as friends.  But apart from this honour, which we treasure gratefully, we have also made many good friends amongst the colonists themselves - some of whom go year after year as we have done.  (Its not merely a very cheap vacation but an inspiring and beneficial time in every way - you work harder than you could think it were possible to, have plenty of forced exercise your studio - dormitory studio-refectory etc. etc. - mounting up to miles a day - & have the stimulation of other creative minds, some of who even entertain us with their works (poetry or music) in the late evening.  Some of them have become such good friends of ours that we shall miss them terribly when we come home again - & most of them are too poor to manage to visit us in England as we would hope.”

In another undated letter to her brother Richard, Katharine goes into some detail about the kinds of people they were meeting at the colony, and the atmosphere:

"There is a boy here ( the Macdowell Colony) who has something of the touch of you - Altho' he is a composer, & evidently a wonderful pianist - tho' I have not heard him myself - is also a very spirited painter - his paintings are not good, but they are vigorous, & he has great appreciation of others' works - which we find astonishing for a musician.  I'm sure you'd find this Colony of Artists a fascinating place.  I don't know which I think the madder - the musicians or the poets - the artists are the only sane ones.  The two younger poets, Oscar Williams* ( a Welshman one generation here) & Maggie McGovern** (English 15 years here) are both quite touched.  Oscar has brilliant & most philosophical ideas for his poems but little sense of rhythm which makes his poems a bit laboured.  He also collects anthologies & of the poems he uses - about 75% are British (all very modern - '42).  He evidently started writing poetry at 19, and was considered excellent but he suddenly gave it up completely, & took to advertising.  Became manager of a firm going down the hill completely but them on their feet again & on the map. (astonishing, isn't it?) Now he has given that up & has turned again to his first love.
Maggie, however, is a different kettle of fish entirely.  Everyone says she is the only poet here with the real 'gift'.  But to look at her and hear her - you'd think she came out of a Lancastershire (sic) spinning mill - she does earn her living as a nurse in a hospital, - & writes in the evening - & she is a very definite character - but to many her 'gift' ( a very beautiful one) with her very earthly ways is astonishing.  Her stories are almost unrepeatable she looks very dissolute and haggy - she has picked up a soldier in the village to the amazement and horror of these very precious colonists (how we don't know - she says she's 32 but looks at least 42) & and the one time she joined our Dutch party at the only place you can get a drink in the village - she drank 8 ales!  When she had finished one she couldn't wait one second for the next - if the waitress wasn't there - she yelled for her - if she didn't come at once - she went out to get her! To hear tender rhymes about swans at twilight coming out of her overpainted lips still surprises me, although I shouldn't be surprised at anything at my age.  The atmosphere here is very precious - which makes the more vigorous members rebellious (ourselves included) & I suppose that is the way she protests."


*Oscar Williams (1900-1964) was the pen name of Oscar Kaplan, a Ukrainian born poet and anthologist who emigrated to New York at the age of seven.  He was in fact Jewish, but eschewed his Jewish background throughout his life.

**The Lost Year, a poetry anthology by Margaret McGovern was published in the USA in 1929.  Presumably this is the poet Katharine is referring to.

Katharine and Reco Capey on their wedding day, 1935

A play reading at the MacDowell colony sometime in the 1940’s

Katharine refers throughout her letters to various trips to the colony, and her ability to get more work done there than she is able to do at home. Her last visit to the colony is in the Summer of 1946, just before her return to England. By that time she and Reco have parted company:

June 24th 1946
“There is a possibility that Reco might go to England on July 9th - but I shall not be visiting with him - First I've been invited to the MacDowell Colony again for July - where I want to work”

August 10th 1946
“I've had a wonderful month at the Colony, working 12 hours a day - so hard in fact I practically killed myself. Anyway, every evening I walked back to the dormitory so exhausted I had to force myself to bathe & dress for dinner.  Then to dinner so tired I often couldn't eat. After that I went back to bed to fall usually into a sleep - which never seemed really to rest me.  I'm afraid I'm very envious of normal people.  How on earth they have the energy to go swimming - to the summer theatre - to square dances, which most of the Colonists did, I can't think.  I can never make up my mind whether I work harder than they do - or am just very much less healthy.”

Reco should be back in England now. I expect one of these days he'll be coming to see you.

I've just finished a musical picture - a rush job (I had to finish it before the 15th).  I was very pleased with it - It had a backgrown (sic) of sheet music, (the man's own symphonic composition) & over it a lyre - (the symbol of music) this was held by a hand & another hand plucking the strings. Then knit in & out of the lyre was a banderole in red and blue - & a spray of the laurel type - suggesting the eternity of a wreath. Not merely would I have loved you to see it - but I'd like to see it again myself!”

Katharine and Reco Capey on their wedding day, 1935

Sketch of the Lyre

This was Katharine’s last visit to the MacDowell Colony before her return to England.