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Elegant European Called `Reactionary' Hartford Home
She wasn't a "Hartford writer" in the sense that she was from here, but then Mark Twain wasn't either. She didn't write in English.
Marguerite Yourcenar, the elegant, intriguing Franco-Belgian novelist of past eras and people, arrived in town in 1939. World War II was breaking out in Europe, but Yourcenar had chosen life in America with Grace Frick, a Wellesley graduate she had met in Paris in 1934 and fallen in love with "head over heels." Shortly after Yourcenar arrived in the United States, Frick got a job as academic dean of Hartford Junior College, now Hartford College for Women. They rented a house at 549 Prospect Ave.
Yourcenar's French biographer, Josyane Savigneau, calls Hartford "a rather uninteresting city about a hundred miles from New York." Yourcenar herself called it "reactionary, chauvinist and Protestant, with a hint of worldliness." In Savigneau's book, there are photos of Frick and Yourcenar leaning out of a window of the Prospect Avenue house, "photographs of love, the sort of childish demonstrations of happiness one can't resist when in the thrall of a passion."
During her decade in Hartford, Yourcenar fell in with one major representative of the avant-garde in town: A. Everett "Chick" Austin Jr., who had turned the Wadsworth Atheneum from a stodgy small-city museum into a cultural movement. Austin was commissioning a theatrical-dance work based on the four elements - earth, air, fire, water - and for "Water," Yourcenar wrote a piece based on Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Little Mermaid."
"Chick danced in every one," says Eugene R. Gaddis, the Atheneum's archivist and Austin's biographer.
Yourcenar blamed herself for suggesting in 1945 that Austin stage the Elizabethan play "'Tis Pity She's a Whore," "a story of an incestuous young couple, a brother and sister, who brave all sorts of slander to their love." Reactionary Hartford was not amused, and gave Austin the boot.
She wrote the work for which she is best known in America, "Memoirs of Hadrian," while she lived in Hartford in the 1940s. The novel is in the form of a series of letters from the Roman emperor, on the eve of his death, to his successor. She wrote numerous other novels and short stories, plays and essays, and translated Virginia Woolf, Henry James and African American spirituals into French.
Gaddis interviewed Yourcenar at her book-filled home in Maine in 1982, three years after Frick's death and two years after Yourcenar had become the first woman elected to the French Academy.
"Chick Austin was air and fire," she recalled. She made Gaddis an omelet with vegetables from her kitchen garden and then asked him, in a thick French accent, "Eugene, will you go to the refrigerator and get us a couple of Budweisers?" She died in 1989.