A most elite retreat

It’s an impressive list: Saul Bellow, Elizabeth Bishop, Truman Capote, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Philip Roth and William Carlos Williams all worked at Yaddo, the legendary artists’ retreat in Saratoga, N.Y., founded in 1900 -- the first artists came in 1926 -- by financier and philanthropist Spencer Trask and his wife, poet and playwright Katrina Trask. This was the heyday of artistic patronage; MacDowell, Byrdcliffe, Breadloaf and the Provincetown Arts Workshop all flourished in the first half of the 20th century. The Trasks envisioned an alternative to industrialization, a place where “high culture” would be nourished and preserved and writers, composers and artists could, for a few months at least, create free of financial worries.

In “Yaddo: Making American Culture” (Columbia University Press: 168 pp., $29.95 paper), editor Micki McGee gathers photos, letters and other ephemera from the Yaddo archives to create a portrait of collaboration and community -- although the place was hardly scandal-free. The arrogance of Yaddo’s gatekeepers is reflected in the story of Mario Puzo’s application: He was considered too lowbrow for Yaddo and, after much deliberation, was granted a residency of only 10 days in the late 1960s to work on “The Godfather.”

Most of the memories, however, are rhapsodic. “Symptoms of the Yaddo effect,” writes novelist and critic Marcelle Clements, “often include outsized hunger, energy, passion of every kind, regret, and randiness.”

-- Susan Salter Reynolds