EDWARD WESTON – 1934-1946, CHARIS WILSON & CARMEL
Weston’s life would begin anew in 1927. It marked the beginning of the most productive and important phase of his career as a photographer. “I had been too much traveling – seeing things too broadly and too big – I tried to reveal the forms of fruits and vegetables more closely – I felt like Christopher Columbus. And then I discovered the beauty of the green pepper.” On a personal level, the next few years were a whirlwind of relationships, changing addresses and efforts to succeed financially and artistically. Despite this personal turmoil, Weston began his series of shells, peppers, and other vegetables, work that will rank among his absolute best and amongst the most important to the 20th century.
Weston’s relationship with Flora remained estranged. Desiring to be close to his children again, Weston returned to his home in Glendale again in 1927. He desired to achieve financial independence and move out but was thwarted by his circumstances. For Weston, the situation was unbearable. “Too bad that I dread so to be near F. [Flora] and, I must . . . I shall try to come closer to F., I want to, but the breach seems ever-widening.” He reflected:
I am deeply concerned about the return of my old bitterness: it will distort or destroy all that is creatively within. I thought I could stand her proximity, – that I was strong enough, but I am being gradually undermined again. We should be miles apart, for her sake as well, for I know I have the same effect upon her, I would want never to hear of her again, – not even to see her hand-writing on an envelope: that dreaded handwriting! But the boys!?
Living with Flora and his boys increased his anxiety and the occurrence of confrontations. He recalled:
Sunday morning at 1:30 a.m. she found E. with Brett in apparently a compromising position. But there was no question on her part: she always hangs on circumstantial evidence. She almost forced her way into the studio: her face was one that could have burned witches in the early days of our country. I hunted for a new home all day. When she knew this, she appeared, begging an audience, and asking me to please stay for the children’s sake.
Weston endured this situation for almost another year, until July 1928, when he moved to San Francisco. His friend Johan Hagemeyer’s studio had been empty for several months, and he urged Weston to “stay and make use of it.” With Brett, and for a brief time Cole, he made the move. “Somehow I felt a change from Glendale was in order.”
The move was traumatic, to be sure, but one that Weston knew was inevitable. Several years later, Weston visited Flora when Cole was very sick with diphtheria. He described his week when he returned home in clear terms: Peace again! – the exquisite hour before dawn, here at my old desk – – – seldom have I realized so keenly, appreciated so fully, these still, dark hours. I have escaped – but a day ago – from a madhouse! A week spent near Flora . . . is nothing less.” Weston was glad to have gone, if only to allay Cole’s fears and give him confidence to pull through. He lamented that Cole “has inherited or acquired – probably the latter – Flora’s appalling terror. I could see that he was thoroughly frightened, that the idea of death strangling him . . . She is the world’s worst nurse. Efficient, -yes – so damned efficient that the patient, nor anyone near, is allowed one moment of calm. We all went around like jumping jacks with Flora pulling the wires – issues the orders, commanding, nagging, countermanding, – anything that popped into her poor rattle-brained pate. When anyone relaxed – high treason – she would find another job – to be done at once! – . . . I admit being too easy with the boys . . . Flora’s great cry has been that I would never back up her orders. Of course not, – never!”
Reflecting upon this hectic and traumatic experience, Weston recorded, “All my past been revived by this experience, and I am satisfied that I did the only thing possible, – leave forever.” In the book The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, by Count Hermann Keyserling, whom Weston claimed was “one of my best-loved contemporary writers,” Weston underlined a passage that most likely validated his rationale to leave: “When husband and wife deceive themselves into thinking that they are made for each other when this is not so, they do not develop, they stunt one another; their consciousness idealizes what should not be idealized.” He reflected later, “Flora was gone from my life now. But it was good to be home again – where my boys were, where I had sunk my roots.”
Despite the passage of nearly a decade from the start of his final and permanent separation until their divorce, Flora had clung to their marriage. In a letter to his son Cole, he admitted to having waited fifteen years for “Flora’s sake, because of you boys” but insisted “This is my due.” Flora’s tactics for preventing the divorce included what Weston saw as an attempt to drive a wedge between him and his sons, even a threat that the boys would “stay away” if he divorced and married Charis Wilson. Flora claimed that “The boys said if (Charis) were your wife they would remain away from you. I knew, in time you would find your sons’ company more than that of any woman.” Weston insisted that he would not even recognize this as an issue. To Cole, he wrote, “I have, in my own way, tried to do all I could for you boys. But my personal life is my own. I have never tried to force my friends to like each other, but I never take sides. My love for you boys is a deep one and had no comparison with my love for anyone else.” To his son Neil, he wrote, “My life is my own, yours is yours.” This seemingly conflicting attitude was validated for Weston in a passage on self-love in Count Keyserling’s book Creative Understanding that he boldly highlighted:
The natural self-love of every man ought to become the means of expression of a profounder inner adjustment, as has always typically been the case with the genius, who has always lived himself out without consideration of others, but only in order to be able to give humanity the best he had to give. Thus, self-love should not be abolished; it should become the means of expression of a profounder Significance.
The most important change in Edward’s life had come in the spring of 1934, when he met the vivacious and beautiful Charis Wislon in Carmel. After meeting Charis, Weston’s Daybooks stop. In December, 1934, he noted that “I have not opened this book for almost 8 months, – and with good reason; I have been to busy, busy living . . . a new love came into my life, a most beautiful one, one which will, I believe, stand the test of time.” And it did. To speak with Charis Wilson today is to return back to the days when she, Edward Weston, Point Lobos, and their little house on Wildcat Hill in the Carmel Highlands were inseparable images.
Charis became inseparable to Weston. They wed a year after his divorce from Flora in 1937. A wife, lover, cook, writer, homemaker, companion, and sounding board, Charis was also his chauffeur and even, at times, his eyes. On the road, he would settle back while she drove (Weston never drove or had a drivers license, instead depending on his sons, Charis, or others to provide for him) and say, “I’m not asleep – just resting my eyes.” Charis knew that he was comfortable because “he knew that my eyes were at his service and that the moment anything with a Weston look appeared I would stop the car and wake him up.” Charis was also his wordsmith. She took over the writing chores, although she admits, “I never wrote the way Edward wrote.” She became the scribe for the two of them, recording their adventures while on their Guggenheim travels, during their epic journey across America during his Leaves of Grass commission, and again at home about their life on Wildcat Hill. Charis wrote because “he had too much else to do” and because she was very good at it. Her father was the noted author and playwright Henry Leon Wilson. Her sprawling childhood home was located up the hill from the small piece of land they would later make their home above the banks of Wildcat Creek, which flowed from the rugged hillside into the waiting Pacific nearby. It was a match made in heaven.
We should not underestimate the importance of Charis Wilson in Edward Weston’s life. Much has been made of Weston as the bohemian lover – Modotti, Mather, and the myriad of other women. When the young, vivacious, and smart Charis arrived on the scene, Weston realized a new personal height, the consummation of a truly significant and meaningful relationship, a soul mate. What more could any man ask for, especially one who looked for little in material gain?
In the decade following their marriage in 1937, Edward would enjoy the happiest and most settled years of his life. He achieved new levels of success and realized freedom from his portrait studio shackles. He once remarked, “Leisure to think and create is the most important thing in life!”
Weston was surrounded by his sons and the true love of his life – simplicity at its best; nirvana, by the estimation of some. We should all be so lucky. Add to these elements a very satisfying life in Carmel – his good friend Ansel Adams moved nearby in Carmel, and his clique of friends, such as the writer Robinson Jeffers, provided a warm and substantial safety net on which Edward could rely for intellectual stimulation, occasional revelry, and most of all, just plain friendship. This is not to say all was perfect. Most difficult were the conflicts between his sons and between Charis and the boys, as each vied for Edward’s attention, and he only had so much to spread around. Money too, as always, had been a problem, but this found relief. In 1937, he was awarded the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships, which included a $2,000 cash stipend. Although he would never enjoy the comforts of riches, wealth was a goal he never pursued. Money was merely a means to a simple end for him. His new fortunes had freed him to concentrate on his life’s work.
Weston found satisfaction in his new life in Carmel. Quite simply, Weston finally settled down and reveled in his life with Charis. Eventually, they would enjoy the quiet comforts of Point Lobos and their simple existence on Wildcat Hill. For Weston, he had finally reached that place of peace and tranquility for which we all yearn. We strive to reach this oasis in life. Because Weston wanted little in terms of material possession, he could find contentment with life on much simpler terms.
Despite his being at odds with Flora, there remained a degree of mutual respect and interest. Flora continued to support Edward throughout his most dire years, and he never failed to inquire about her through their sons. In a letter to Neil in the spring of 1942, he wrote, “This is mother’s day if I remember correctly. I hope Flora is surrounded by stalwart sons. Give her my love.” Reminiscing about his sister’s attempts to dissuade his marriage to Flora decades earlier, he recollected, “Despite the unfortunate, inevitable separation, I see the four boys, and I am glad I married when I married. Each one of us must learn our own lesson.”
Weston’s longtime friend and colleague Willard Van Dyke later reminisced about Flora, “She never really understood what he was about, and yet you certainly had to respect her, because she continued to teach school and provide a home for the boys when they wanted to be with her, and she felt that Edward’s work was not going to be remunerative, and there wasn’t much stability, so she did the best she could to provide a stable household.
In 1952, Flora moved to Carmel, where Neil and his brothers built her a new home. In Edward’s final years she and their sons came to visit him often. According to Cole’s reminiscence, they would “burst in merrily” and dance around the room with Edward in their arms. To the end, Flora remained the ever faithful and vigilant mother and supporter of Edward Weston. For Weston, his memories of their once contentious relationship faded. Near the end of his life, he recalled, “How dearly I remember my first wife – Flora Chandler – our warm outdoor days of courtship – our honeymoon – a pack trip into the High Sierra.”