Last week, I posted an article here on the Almanack about Kenneth Durant, best known today for his authoritative history of the Adirondack guide-boat.
But for people with more than a casual interest in things Adirondack, one of the most fascinating things about Durant is his biography. A member of Harvard’s class of 1910, which also included John Reed and T.S. Eliot, he attended the Versailles peace conference as an aide to Woodrow Wilson’s envoy, Colonel House. And before retiring to Jamaica, Vermont, and devoting himself to researching the evolution of the guide-boat, he was the US bureau chief for TASS, the Soviet news agency.
I don’t know whether that was common knowledge before Durant’s death in 1972. I once asked my mother whether it would be a violation of trust to write about that aspect of his career. She advised against publishing anything locally about Kenneth’s time with TASS, on the grounds that it was not something he would have wished discussed in public.
In 2003, however, Amy Godine wrote a meticulously researched article for Adirondack Life titled “The Red Woods,” about leftists with Adirondack associations, Kenneth Durant included.
Godine also wrote about my father, Rob Hall, a Daily Worker editor who left the Communist party in 1956 and moved to the Adirondacks. In last week’s post, I was somewhat disingenuous when implying that my family’s friendship with Kenneth and his wife Helen was based on a shared interest in the history of wood boats.
To be sure, my father was interested in Kenneth’s work on guide-boats, and published excerpts from the work in progress in his weekly newspapers and later in the Conservationist magazine.
Kenneth also solicited my father’s help in publicizing Tom Bissell’s fiberglass guide-boats, which Bissell manufactured in Long Lake in the early 1960s.
But my parents’ relationship with the Durants began well before they moved to the Adirondacks, and it was much more complex than most of their Adirondack friendships.
Genevieve Taggard, a poet and biographer of Emily Dickinson, was a teacher of my mother’s at Sarah Lawrence College in the late 1940s; Taggard was also Kenneth’s second wife.
After my mother graduated from Sarah Lawrence, she went to work for TASS, presumably upon the advice or at least with the consent of Kenneth, who had retired from TASS in 1944.
Kenneth, in fact, became something of a paternal figure in my mother’s life, a substitute, perhaps, for her own father, who publicly disavowed her in the early 1950s.
A Cleveland manufacturer, my grandfather was serving as an assistant to Averell Harriman, Harry Truman’s Secretary of Commerce, when a midwestern Congressman revealed that the daughter of an administration official was working for TASS. My grandfather resigned and returned to Cleveland.
When my parents were married in 1950, they drove to the Durants’ home in southern Vermont for their honeymoon, listening to the Weavers’ ‘Good Night Irene’ on the car radio all the way from Washington. (Reds at the top of the pop charts! Perhaps they were on the right side of history after all.)
Thereafter, my parents spent most, if not all their holidays at the Durants’ house in Vermont, called Gilfeather after the farmer who once owned it, or in a nearby farmhouse called Potter Place, which the Durants also owned.
When, for instance, my father was covering the trial of Emmett Till’s killers in Mississippi for the Communist newspapers, my mother stayed behind at Potter Place.
By then, Genevieve Taggard had died and Kenneth had married Helen Van Dongen, celebrated in her own right as the editor of Joris Ivens’ 1936 Spanish Civil War film, The Spanish Earth.
Written and narrated by Ernest Hemingway, the film remains highly valued as a documentary about war as well as for its innovative technique.
A few years ago, in a book about American writers and the Spanish Civil War (The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos and the Murder of Jose Robles), writer Stephen Koch claimed that Joris Ivens and Helen were not independent film makers with leftist sympathies, as they represented themselves, but, rather, Soviet agents. According to Koch, their assignment was to persuade Hemingway, Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish and others to work, however inadvertently or unknowingly, for the Soviet cause.
I once asked Craig Gilborn, the former director of the Adirondack Museum who had come to know Helen well in her final years (she died in Vermont at the age of 97 in 2006), what he thought of Koch’s claims; fanciful at best, scurrilous at worst, he replied.
Why do I write about these things? In part, because I’ve always been struck by the words of a character in Russell Banks’ Adirondack novel, The Sweet Hereafter: “To love a place, you have to know it.”
Our appreciation of the Adirondacks only deepens the better we come to know the characters who have populated the region, and Kenneth Durant was a true Adirondack character.
As I noted in last week’s post, Kenneth had a legitimate claim upon the Adirondacks.
His father, Frederick C. Durant, was the developer of the Prospect House on Blue Mountain Lake, the first luxury hotel in the Adirondacks. To accommodate his own family, Durant built a camp on Forked Lake, a tributary of Racquette Lake, in the style made popular by his father’s cousin, William West Durant, which they called “Camp Cedars.”
Browsing through a Vermont antique shop a few years ago, I saw hanging near the rafters a large photo, badly framed, which the dealer had labeled, “Fisherman in rowboat on Vermont Lake.”
It was, in fact, none of those things. It was a photo of Kenneth, taken by Helen, rowing his guide-boat in Blue Mountain Lake. The photo was taken to commemorate Kenneth’s last row in the boat before donating it to the Adirondack Museum. I recognized it from the book on the guide-boat, and, needless to say, I bought it.
We’ve also had hanging in the house a large embroidered tapestry of a richly imagined Dutch village, which Helen made for us.
These things remind me how profoundly people from the past shaped us, our assumptions, our choices, our aspirations. For me, connections with those long gone are ties that bind me to the Adirondacks today.
Photos: Kenneth Durant in Vermont; Helen Van Dongen with documentary film maker Robert Flaherty, whose Louisiana Story and The Land she edited.
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