An Adirondack story

The Adirondacks being what it is, many well-known people visited it, others summered here, but almost none were buried here. John Butler Yeats is an exception.

JBY, as he was known, had five children, a wife, and a garrulous need to talk. He also wished to be a painter. One of his sons was William Butler, perhaps the most famous poet of the English language in the twentieth century. Another was his namesake, John Butler, or as he preferred, Jack, a painter, often described as the best Irish painter ever. Susan, his wife, whom he married in 1863, had a stroke in the late ’80s from which she never recovered. She died in 1900, remembered not only as sickly but as “a silent, flitting figurefrom the Fairy shores of Sligo.” She rarely ventured far from Sligo. JBY, though, could not sit still. He tried law first but gave it up in 1866 to study art in London. In the 37 years of his marriage to Susan, he spent 26 of them in London.

His ambitions as an artist suffered from his nature, as well. He had great difficulty finishing paintings. A self-portrait he worked on for the last nine years of his life was unfinished at his death in 1922. His sketches, however, were quick, alert to their subjects, and widely admired. As he loved conversation, so he loved people. He did not sketch buildings or trees. Luckily, he wrote a great many letters, where the sense of his conversation and the breadth of his understanding and passion are now kept.

In 1908 JBY accompanied his daughter, Lily, on a short trip to New York. Lily went home, but JBY did not. He fell in love with America, or that America symbolized by the raw vigor of New York City. It was he who made the famous observation, “the fiddles are tuning all over America,” sensing correctly that American art and literature were about to explode. He quickly befriended the painter John Sloan and his wife Dolly. Van Wyck Brooks, the cultural historian, also became a close friend. Sloan and Brooks both thought of him as a father. John Quinn, the Irish-American lawyer, whose greatest fame came as a collector of art, had already helped W.B. Yeats secure an American lecture tour in 1903 and would soon be the largest contributor to the famous Armory Show of 1913. As a friend of the Yeats’ family, he befriended JBY and tried many times to persuade him to return to his family in Ireland.

He failed, and when JBY took sick, Quinn asked his friend, Jeanne Robert Foster, to look after JBY. Jeanne Foster (nee Oliver), the daughter of an Adirondack lumberjack and teacher, married a wealthy man 25 years her senior when she was 17. Beautiful, she was drawn to the social life of New York City, became a famous model, later an editor of a literary magazine (The Review of Reviews), and when she met John Quinn, moved in the best contemporary circles of literature and art. She was Ford Madox Ford’s assistant on the famous transatlantic review, knew Pound, Joyce, Picasso, Brancusi and others, and when JBY took sick, nursed him to his death and, blest by the Yeats’ family, had JBY buried in her family plot in Chestertown.

This may be why the father of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats came to be buried in the Adirondacks, but it barely hints at the richness of the time and of the lives of all the players in it.

Works consulted: Douglas N. Archibald, “John Butler Yeats” (1974); B.L. Reid, “The Man From New York: John Quinn and His Friends” (1968); Jeanne Robert Foster, “Adirondack Portraits: A Piece of Time, ed.” Noel Riedinger-Johnson (1986).