Most of the time it seems we tend to take what life has given us and do our best to work within the parameters of “what is.” A few rare spirits disregard that altogether — envision precisely what it is they desire — and create an environment and reality of their own.
So it was with children’s artist Tasha Tudor. Born in Boston on Aug. 28, 1915, she was nine years younger than her only brother. Her father, Starling Burgess, was a yacht designer who also built airplanes and one of the first seaplanes of his time. He taught his daughter fantasy, poetry and the joys of reading aloud. Throughout his life he would phone Tasha and say, “What book are you rereading right now?” A volume of his own verse was published, with an introduction written by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, Julian.
Her mother’s Tudor line was rich with proper Bostonian ancestors and connections, yet the mother, Rosamond, was an artist and enjoyed the Bohemian life. She was superb at portraiture and spent the bulk of the year working in Greenwich Village, while Tasha stayed with “Uncle Henry” Hawthorne (grandson of Nathaniel Hawthorne) and “Aunt Gwen,” where art flourished and great plays were produced, with dance performances followed by late night suppers and hours and hours of reading.
“I didn’t start school until the age of 7,” Tasha said of herself, “and I never got past the eighth grade. I didn’t pass a single test and spent most of my time decorating my copybooks. I hated every minute of school, except the few years with Uncle Henry.” ("Drawn From New England," Bethany Tudor, pp. 17, 18)
No matter. Education for her came from an abundant variety of hands-on sources.
Her family knew Oscar Wilde’s family and Louisa May Alcott. Her father knew Mark Twain. Her mother remembered Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she “came out” as a debutante with Lady Nancy Langhorne Astor. Tasha sat on Oliver Wendell Holmes’ knee as a child and played with his watch. She saw Anna Pavlova dance. She remembers Alexander Graham Bell floating around in his huge pool working on a floating desk. Her mother attended dinner parties at his house and told how his wife, so deaf, could read lips superbly but, when turned away, could not tell when someone was addressing her. So Bell had some ingenious set-up to signal to her beneath the table, signal what had been said, so she would be able to turn and answer.
Tasha was acquainted with Helen Keller. “She had beautiful blue eyes,” Tasha told me, “and could feel certain colors, especially red.” (Notes from phone conversation with Tasha, Nov. 19, 1988)
What did Tasha do with all this? She drew up the many-colored strings and wove them into a pattern that pleased and delighted her.
She loved animals and flowers and plenty of space. Beauty was an essential to her being. She gathered it to her, appreciating everything — from the pet mouse that would climb up her arm and sit on her shoulder while she fed the goats to wild rainstorms, new baby chickens and the overwhelming wonder of a sky scattered with stars of a thousand sizes and colors.
“Just think what a marvel it would be if we saw the stars but once a year,” she said to me. “How we would appreciate them!”
Tasha’s was a nature spirit. In letters to me she wrote:
"It has snowed all day and is just ravishingly beautiful to behold. The house has a fine fringe of icicles all along the eaves some reach from the roof of the back porch right to the ground, and I do believe if one could climb like Puss, up to the peak of the barn, one could slide down over the pigeon cot right to the ground. What fun!" (letter of Feb. 4, 1990)
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