This is a work of historical fiction with emphasis of the historical. All references to letters and journals are accurate, though I have taken liberties with the dialogue and some events.
A being perfect for one special place
Now that Christmas was over, Rockwell Kent’s anticipation of New Year’s Eve brought him both tears of loneliness and hope. That was the date of his 10th wedding anniversary. Back in mid- October – late into the early morning hours while writing angry, pleading, and loving letters to Kathleen – he had experienced an epiphany, an insight into their relationship and his behavior. He had wept and ranted aloud incoherently, and his son woke up and rushed to his side, petted him and said, “When I feel badly, I jump around and then I forget about it.” Bless him, Rockwell thought and got under control. Of course, that’s what I should do.
In his youthful way the boy knew more than Rockwell realized about his marriage and other women. The artist castigated himself for not recognizing that earlier. Another night he had roused from sleep shouting from a nightmare about a man seducing his wife, she yielding to his attentions. He sprang at the man intending to kill him. That’s when he awoke screaming with Rockie shaking him asking, “What’s the matter, Father?” He wondered, did he talk in his sleep? What more did Rockie know?
That October Rockwell wrote two special anniversary letters to Kathleen and sent them to his friend Carl Zigrosser in New York asking him to deliver them personally on New Year’s Eve along with a bouquet of flowers, some special artwork, and a pair of Alaska Native moccasins he had purchased in Seward. Rockwell’s new awareness was like a Blakean vision without the angels. Kathleen had tried to tell him these new insights in her letters and now he could finally imagine all the incidents like a silent film in slow motion.
His thoughtlessness had accumulated day after day, month after month, year after year in many small ways. His relationships with Jennie and Hildegarde had disillusioned and saddened Kathleen, but she loved him and their children and soon in the marriage understood that accepting his other women was the only way she could have him.
Not anymore – she would no longer tolerate his infidelities. In the past she lacked confidence in her ability to survive without him – but over the years with all his travels, even with all their children to care for – she hadn’t merely endured, but thrived. When Rockwell was home, he was a good father and husband – when he could control his temper and perfectionism, his mundane cruelty – unkindness, self-centered harshness, and banal callousness.
Now, a few days after Christmas with his crude worktable, lit only by a weak lantern, in the dark and lonely early morning hours, in a rustic cabin on an island off the coast of Alaska, with his son sleeping peacefully in their simple bed, with the terrible and glorious North Wind shaking the surrounding walls – Rockwell Kent silently reread Kathleen’s ultimatum in one of her letters. He finally understood. He hadn’t realized – the toll all their moves from place to place had taken on Kathleen. Packing, unpacking, repacking – first with Rockie alone, then little Kathleen came along, and Clara, finally Barbara in Newfoundland. It was the little things, how she had to sell her precious possessions. Her favorite lamps, to help pay for the Newfoundland trip, and those lovely andirons they had in the Berkshires. Scrimping for money, sacrificing her needs and sometimes even the children’s so he could have his art supplies and travel expenses. Learning how he had spent money on gifts for Hildegarde had probably pushed her over the ledge. “How could I do what I have done to you?” Rockwell wrote her. “To-night I am so humble…All my sins toward you have come before me. I have lain awake hours in the past night and understood so much. And my shame! Mother darling, it will take me a life time to make up to you what I have taken from you.”
Christmas day’s happiness had always enchanted him, just as the day after always depressed him. Now on Fox Island, part of him wanted to just live there forever with his wife and family – if Kathleen ever agreed to join him – which seemed unlikely. Another slice of him felt exiled, a prisoner, and sometimes he just wanted to flee. His inner conflict resembled the island itself: its west side adorned with two enchanting coves; its east side sheer rocky cliffs, dangerous and foreboding. Fox Island did offer him solitude, but not what he had expected. He’d never been so isolated in his life, trapped by treacherous seas driven by that glorious and infernal northwest wind, and unable to successfully communicate with Kathleen due to the inept mail situation.
He desperately missed his wife and the girls. Part of him feared he had gone too far with what the world called his infidelities. Another part resented an effete culture obstructing his need to experience everything life had to offer. Kathleen would always be his wife, the mother of his children. But he had loved Jennie, and he still loved Hildegarde even though that was now over.
He flourished on the adoration of women, their confidence in his genius, perhaps even their worship. He consumed their energy and creative spirit like a drunken sailor or a lecherous succubus.
Kathleen’s mostly brief letters overflowed with mundane activities – the cost of coal, Clara needs glasses, weekly baths for the girls – except when the distance separating them emboldened her. During the fall, her letters had devastated him with their criticism and taunts. If you can have other women, I can have other men, she cruelly tormented – with stories of walks on the beach with gentlemen callers who courted her and played adoringly with the kiddies. His children! How dare she! Rockwell had returned those letters to her, knowing that if they remained in the cabin, he would reread them obsessively over and over again. Kathleen wanted to make him happy, she always said. Why couldn’t she see that by unifying her spirit with his ambition, his mind, his happiness – his soul – all would be perfect. His bliss would be theirs.
His close friend George Chappell wrote him a letter that punched him in the gut, pierced his heart, drilled into his soul. Rockwell trusted George not only with his life but also with his family. If something happens to me in Alaska, he asked his friend, take care of Kathleen and the children. George agreed, and often visited Kathleen and read stories to the girls.
In letters, Rockwell complained to George about his wife – her letters were too short and insensitive, she wasted time indulging in the city’s entertainments with friends when she could be writing longer letters to him, she was prideful and faithless.
George was one of his few friends who didn’t fear speaking truth to Rockwell’s idealistic ego. He wrote, “It hurts me terribly to have you speak of Kathleen’s ‘faithlessness’, of how she has ‘shown herself up’ – it seems to me harsh and unfair, when I see her at home giving unremitting care to the children, tied hand and foot with daily drudgery that would make any man into a maniac in a week – and always sweetly patient, always trying in her silent inarticulate way to do what she thinks is her duty. O, Rockwell! Perfection is always the peak beyond, and the way to it is full of bruises, but we can attain a kind of perfection by idealizing what we have, and still not lose sight of the great unattainable. You have much to think of with most precious comfort, much to work for with great patience, much to come back to with supreme joy – if you will only surround them all with greatness of heart, with forgiveness for short-comings, with tenderness and with unfailing love.”
George was right. He’d better appreciate what he had rather than flying off into realms of obtuse romantic ideals. But he was no harder on others than he was on himself. Still, if the Alaska trip failed artistically, he might also lose his wife and children. Then he’d have nothing.
Kathleen had obtained a $2000 grant from a patron, money that would allow Rockwell to spend the summer of 1919 painting in Alaska. Despite his urgent desire for this, he turned the grant down. He needed to get home. Though he would never admit it to any but Kathleen, he was homesick, lonely, jealous, angry and afraid.
Don’t tell anyone I’m leaving Alaska early, he wrote her. I’m too ashamed, and no one will ever award me a grant again if they know. In those anniversary letters, he promised Kathleen that his affairs were over, that when he returned, they would together wander New England to find the perfect place to settle – far off the beaten path. Somewhere in the countryside, away from the city. Perhaps an old farm he could refurbish. At last, he promised, she would have a home of her own. There I will produce my art and stay away from all the city’s temptations, he swore. Please, build a wall of thorns around me, he pleaded, and I’ll help you build it.
New Year’s Eve would arrive in a few days on Fox Island. How would Kathleen respond the anniversary letters, the flowers, and gifts. He was a changed man. It was real, he told her in new letters. I know I’ve said it before, but even Rockie notices I’m a different person. All he could do now was wait for the mail to arrive. Damn those steamships, and the government with their contracts.
They wrote letters and read that lazy week after Christmas. Rockwell did some oil impressions on plywood. He read the India mysticism of Ananda Coomaraswamy. Occasionally he lay on the bed, eyes shut, breathing rhythmically, floating into the ‘one’ – the great “I AM” – until a vague idea imaged itself. He’d rush to his worktable, do a sketch, and try to put something into words for later.
Rockie devoured his National Geographic magazines, even though they were a few years old. Later he carved some sticks with his new pocket knife – “It’s just like Mr. Olson’s,” he kept repeating -- and he wrote several letters with drawings to his mother and sisters on his father’s finest art paper using his own fountain pen.
The weather remained warm enough outside for the stoves to burn low and the cabin door to remain open.
Olson wandered often, in and out, and told more of his stories. Rockwell wrote them down. They all gazed often out to sea watching for the steamship. Olson promised Rockie he would not try to sneak off the island again. He agreed to spend New Year’s Eve with them and leave for Seward the next morning to wait for the steamship, send off their large accumulation of letters and pick up the new mail.
Rockwell devoured more of Homer’s “Odyssey” as December ended. It allowed his mind to escape the modern world – so repulsive and gaudy -- and venture back into the heroic days of the Greeks. What a book to illustrate, he thought. What a time period in which to live. Homer was a relaxing change from William Blake, and less provocative than Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” – two other books he read along with Coomaraswamy. They all reinforced his own beliefs: Create the most beautiful and cherished vision of yourself, and then will it into existence. Encompass yourself within the perfect conditions for your soul. “A man is not a sum of discordant tendencies,” he wrote in his journal, “but rather a being perfect for one special place.” That was Olson’s creed and now it became his as well. For now, Fox Island was that special place.
While Rockie played in the forest and along the shore, always taking some time to help Olson with his chores, Rockwell toiled religiously on his illustrated journal. The longer it got, the more he considered publishing it – especially if his Alaska art failed to sell. Perhaps he could earn a living writing about his adventures. There were a few events Rockwell didn’t relate to Kathleen in the journal or in his letters. He didn’t want to frighten her. Perhaps he’d add them later. Once they returned safe and sound, those stories wouldn’t matter. The first was about that mid-September afternoon they were almost drowned in a storm on their way back to the island from Seward. In retrospect – since they had survived -- it was a thrilling escapade. The second incident happened a few days before Christmas when Olson showed up at their door during lunch.
“Mr. Kint, I’m gonna need your help down by the lake? Can you come?” The old man was out of breath and seemed stressed. He held an axe and had two coils of rope around his shoulder. Rockwell took a last bite of his sandwich. As he headed out the door with Olson he told Rockie to stay at the cabin. “Do your math exercises or some reading. I’ll be back soon.”
The wind had died down and the rain now fell in straight hard drops as Olson and Rockwell traveled the trail behind their cabin along the fox farm, passing the fox corrals and goat sheds. That trail soon joined another to the lake. “You know I’ve got my Humpies in sacks lowered down into the lake,” Olson explained as they trotted along. He mixed those pink salmon with grains and other odds and ends for fox food. “With this rain and mild weather the ice is melting fast. I’ve gotta pull them bags up but the ice….” He stopped and looked at Rockwell. “The ice, I don’t like the ice.” Rockwell had never seen the Swede so anxious.
At the lake Olson tied both coils of rope around his shoulder and waist, gave the other ends to Rockwell on shore. “I should do this, Lars. You weigh more than I do.” No response. “Let me do this, Lars,” Rockwell said. Olson tied the final knot and turned to the artist. “This I gotta do myself. You stand by,” as he guardedly shuffled out onto the ice. As Olson lumbered from hole to hole, Rockwell could hear the ice cracking. At one point a whole section of broke and collapsed not far from him. Wide-eyed and pale, he stood still for what seemed a long time gazing at the new open water while a gust of wind stripped the astrakhan off his head and sent it flying into the water.
“Come on back, Lars,” Rockwell urged. “It’s not worth it.” No answer. “Can you hear me, Lars?” No answer. “Don’t move. I’m coming out,” Rockwell shouted. Olson shook his head, waved, “Stay where you are,” and shuffled toward more ice holes. It took almost two hours, but the Swede gathered all the bags, attached them one at a time to his spare rope for Rockwell to haul them to shore. After each bag, Rockwell tied some wood to the rope and threw it back to Olson. All the fish sacks were too heavy for one trip back to the Olson’s cabin, so they left some with the uncoiled ropes by the shore. “I’ll come back for them later,” Olson told Rockwell.
As they trudged back to Olson’s cabin with two bags each, Rockie woke up at the Kent cabin. Instead of doing his math or reading he had dozed off as soon as his father left. How long had they been gone? It was still raining and dark. Still groggy, he stumbled outside and looked north down the beach. They should have been back by now. Then he remembered his father telling him to stay off the lake because ice wasn’t safe. Suddenly panic envelope him and he rushed behind the cabin and sprinted along the trail past the fox corrals and goat sheds to the lake. Several salmon bags and the coiled ropes lay by the shore and floating on a section of open water he saw Olson’s hat.
Back at the Swede’s cabin Rockwell helped the old man chop up some salmon and mix it with grain for the fox. The old man didn’t seem well as they worked. He hardly spoke. “You should be getting back to your boy. I gotta go get more salmon and the ropes.” “I’ll go with you, Lars.” Rockwell didn’t like how Olson seemed somewhat unsteady on his feet. “I’ll be fine. Go to your boy.” Rockwell just opened the cabin door and said, “Let’s go. I’m coming.”
“Father, Mr. Olson,” Rockie shouted at the lakeshore as he wrapped a rope around his waist and carelessly attached the other end to a tree. “Where are you. I’m coming with a rope.” As he marched out onto the ice, he heard a large crack and stopped. Now he stepped tenderly amid more cracks until he reached the open water’s edge. He stared at Olson’s cap. When he turned toward the shore and shouted “Where are you?” – he noticed the rope end had detached from the tree and had followed him out onto the ice.
As Olson and Rockwell approached the lake they saw Rockie on the ice by the open water. Rockwell raced to the shore. “Don’t move,” he shouted. “I’ll get the end of the rope.” Olson grabbed him. “Here. Tie the other rope around you,” but the artist was already on the ice. “No time,” he said. Olson froze in place as Rockwell warily inched forward. Crack! “Don’t move, son,” Rockwell ordered. Olson couldn’t watch and turned his back to them. Rockwell slowly inched his way toward the rope end with his eyes on his son. “Make sure you’re tied tight, then move along slowly,” Olson heard him say, still facing away. It took ten minutes amid several more cracking sounds, but the they both made it back to shore safely. “I’ll see tomorrow, Lars,” Rockwell said, as he and Rockie hiked the back trail to the cabin. A quick supper and a brief bed time story. When Rockwell finally got in bed sometime after midnight, Rockie was still awake. They had no words for each other, but just as they had done after their near death at sea in mid-September – Rockie and his father hugged each other tightly without saying a word about that day’s near tragic event.
It poured the morning of New Year’s Eve, Rockie wondered why everybody celebrated this holiday. “Why does everybody stay awake to see it come?” His father tried to explain about the solstice, increasing daylight and fireworks. “We’ll get no fireworks here,” Rockie said. “Nothing comes out of the sky here but rain.” His father added, “Well, maybe the new year will at least bring us the steamship and our mail.”
Olson brought them a pan of goat milk at noon and Rockwell and the Swede made a special junket that looked like a jelly of pure cream. Rockie played along the beach. Stay away from the lake, his father told him, and their eyes met briefly as Olson bowed his head. The rain lessened as misty cloud bands strung themselves along the western Kenai Mountains. The weather felt like spring or autumn.
While they worked at the stove, Olson finally revealed to Rockwell the reasons for his recent behavior.
“This a special Christmas for me,” he said. “Brought me back to the old country in good and bad ways.” He’d been born to farmers, but his parents died when he was twelve. A smallpox epidemic. They had always celebrated Christmas. After their death, he apprenticed to a blacksmith for a few years, and then married Angelika – “And she was an angel,” he said, “the prettiest girl in the village.” They were both 18-years-old. The next year they had a son. He paused his story for a long moment, then said he’d best just get to the point. On Christmas day when the boy was two years old – while Olson worked at the blacksmith shop – she took the boy skating with some friends on the nearby lake. A large section of the ice cracked and disintegrated. They all drowned, including his wife and son. Three months later he took his meagre savings and journeyed to America. There was nothing left for him in the old country. Rockwell was speechless. He offered some of the fresh junket to Olson, but the old man just said “no, thank you” and headed for the door. “Don’t forget tonight, Lars. We’ll toast together to the new year.” Olson just responded, “Yah, another year.”
On New Year’s Eve, Rockie and Olson sat on the bed listening to the artist play his flute. They lit the Christmas tree candles for the last time. Their meal was nothing special – bread, cheese, and a bean and rice stew with some halibut Olson had given them. And the delicious junket. Rockwell occasionally put his flute down and sang some German leiders. The boy wanted to stay up until midnight, but by 11:30 he had fallen asleep on the bed. His father tucked him in. The rain stopped, the temperature dropped, and a near full moon drifted in and out of low, fluffy clouds. Rockwell and Olson blew out the tree’s candles and walked down to the water’s edge. For a long while they stood there in silence watching a harbor seal swim along the beach occasionally poking its head out of the water, glaring at them curiously, then sinking in slow motion beneath the water.
“I don’t know what to say, Lars. I’m terribly home sick tonight. You must be, too.”
“No. Home’s for me wherever I bunk down anymore. But I do have memories. Not all bad.”
Rockwell told Olson about his marriage problems without going into too much detail. Olson listened, but nodded his head with expressions that indicated – like Rockie – he knew more about the situation than Rockwell had realized. Once into the new year, or so they both thought without clocks or watches – Olson left for home. Back in his cabin with Rockie fast asleep, Rockwell wrote in his journal that he made a secret resolution on the beach with the stars and black sky as his witness. That was all.
Then he got out his best paper and wrote to Kathleen that after Olson left he went back to the cabin, poured some cider into a cup and returned to the beach. Staring at the stars overhead he raised his cup and said: “One prayer I have this new year. It is Kathleen’s happiness. To you silent stars I appeal to hold me true to my resolve to make Kathleen happy – not this year alone but all the years of my life. Amen.” He drank and imagined Kathleen at home with his letters and the flowers and the drawings and hoped she had felt the intense sincerity of his words.
The next day at 11:30 in the evening, the three residents of Fox Island noticed a steamer pass the island on its way to Seward.
We are not always able to make our heart-felt resolutions come true. The success of Rockwell Kent’s Alaska art and book finally launched his career. He and Kathleen did find that remote home in rural Vermont, but his success brought Rockwell back into the city quite often with all its temptations. Although he tried, the artist could not turn his Vermont home into another Fox Island, even though Lars Olson joined him there in 1920 at Rockwell’s invitation. The old man intended to spend his final days there – but the two friends had a falling out and the Swede left. He died in the winter of 1922 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming while Rockwell was on a new adventure to Tierra del Fuego. At Vermont in 1920, Kathleen gave birth to another son, Gordon.
The artist rose to fame rapidly through the 1920’s and soon became one of the most well-known, best paid, and popular illustrators and painters of representational art in America. His Fox Island epiphany and resolutions faded away.
He and Kathleen were divorced in 1926 and Rockwell married Frances Lee. With Frances he built Asgaard in far Upstate New York, his new home and a working dairy farm. As years passed, Rockwell became more political and provocative with his socialist and left-wing activism. He and Frances divorced in 1940 and he married Shirley (Sally) Johnstone. In 1941 he published the Christmas chapters from “Wilderness,” in a small book called “Northern Christmas.”
Rockwell’s confrontation with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s combined with the popularity of abstract art resulted to end his ability to earn a living. During the last years of his life, Alaska and Fox Island was often on his mind. In March of 1971 at Asgaard, as he was signing copies of a special limited edition of “Wilderness,” he collapsed in his chair. Several days later died at the hospital. He is buried at Asgaard with Sally.
His son, Rockwell Kent III (Rockie), graduated from Harvard and from MIT with a PhD in Physics. He married and had three sons and six daughters. He died in 1986. He often said that his time on Fox Island – especially that Christmas of 1918 – was among the happiest days of his life.
This will be Doug Capra’s last history column for a time so he can work on some other writing projects.
Doug Capra lives in Seward with his wife, Cindy. He’s the author of “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords,” and the foreword to the reprint of a special edition of Wilderness: “A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska” published by Wesleyan University Press in 1996. Capra is writing a book about the American artist Rockwell Kent who spent the winter of 1918-1919 on Fox Island in Resurrection Bay. The draft of that book in progress can be found online at https://rockwellkentjournal.blogspot.com/.