Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, is more than America’s most prestigious artist retreat: it is a testament to one couple’s determination to transubstantiate loss into works of art. Like mine, Yaddo’s story is about what poet Kim Addonizio calls "the presence that absence makes." After the tragic deaths of their children, financier Spencer Trask and his gifted wife Katrina dedicated themselves to the creation of Yaddo for the same reason that my parents created me. There envelops Yaddo (rhymes with “shadow”) a profound Victorian melancholy that serves as an unspoken reminder to even the fastest of trackers in any given pack of ambitious young artists passing through the place of serious art’s immense stakes. To me, Yaddo is not just a hallowed place, but also my home.
I ended my mother's doomed gavotte with cancer at her request during the 1982 Christmas holidays, returned to school at the Curtis Institute, and unspooled my final year there as a pupil of Ned Rorem's. Upon graduation the following spring, without an address, my books in storage, my life a completely chance-ful thing as I prepared to move to Manhattan where, in a succession of sublets and rentals for the next 30 years, I'd live, I first came to Yaddo in summer 1984. I landed there at the very, very end of Yaddo's first great era, a time not long after the days that one could not even apply; Elizabeth Ames invited people directly. So it happened that Ned telephoned the President of Yaddo, Curtis Harnack (that wonderfully humane man), and his brilliant, wise wife, Hortense Calisher to arrange for my first visit.
“Yaddo,” wrote Ned, “is necessary for you now. Don’t try so hard to be Rastignac. Perhaps a little less need to get ahead, to be a “professional”; a little more introspection and, indeed, egotism, will do you good. But who knows? One man’s meat, etc.….” Ned instructed me to ask David Diamond (with whom I would begin studying at Juilliard the following September) what books I should read before entering his studio. Along with decreeing that I spend the summer studying “Beethoven Quartets op. 59, No. 1, Opus 131, Haydn’s Opus 33, No. 1, Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner, and Berg,” David had commanded me to read Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe. I arrived at Yaddo with the need not to be Rastignac, but Orpheus; I desired nothing more than to sing my departed mother’s spirit out of the Underworld, bring her back to life.
After a train ride up the Hudson, I disembarked at the Saratoga Springs train station. I had with me the clothes on my back, Mann and Rolland in my backpack, four shirts, three pair of underwear, two pair of jeans, four pair of socks, mechanical pencils and erasers, thirty dollars, and lots and lots of King Brand manuscript paper.
Now retired, James Mahon, a courtly, red-bearded Charon with a mild voice and probing, intense eyes who gravely addressed me as “sir” long before I had any claim to it, placed my backpack gently in the beat up old company station wagon. We drove slowly through town, past Town Hall and the Post Office, and the Adirondack Trust bank. We passed the Parting Glass, where mingled during August the jockeys from the Saratoga Race Track and their tall, glossy girlfriends, the Yaddo artists, the City Ballet dancers, the Philadelphia Orchestra players, the townies, and the bettors.
James turned on to broad, tree-lined Union Avenue—one of the Hudson Valley’s grandest boulevards. Flanked by over a dozen Queen Anne-style mansions built during the late 1800s, it begins at Congress Park and culminates a mile and a half later at the Northway. In 1978, the entire area was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Union Avenue Historical District. As the car rolled by the racetrack, with its bevy of Victorian structures, I felt as though we were going back in time. We passed the National Museum of Racing. I thought aloud: “Seabiscuit.” “Ah, yes sir,” James drawled, glancing at me curiously in the rearview mirror, “that was a brave little pony now, wasn’t it?”
“Whitney,” I said, “Jerome, Vanderbilt….” “Ah, yes sir,” James drawled, “those would be some other names associated with the race track, that’s for certain.” On our right, at the far end of Union Avenue, adjacent to the track, began a dense, shadowy forest. “This would be Yaddo, sir,” James said, turning on to the grounds.
Spencer Trask, founder of the well-known Wall Street firm, and his wife Katrina had the mansion built in 1892 by architect William Halsey Wood, who did little but execute the designs provided by his clients. 55 rooms, a medieval dining hall and tower, barns, outbuildings, four man-made ponds bearing the children’s names, a rock garden, and a large formal rose garden, all laid out to Spencer’s specifications.
James slowed the car as we passed between the lakes. We veered left, and then right, then climbed the drive, and to our left the mansion blossomed into view atop the hill. I gasped. Embarrassed, I looked toward the rearview mirror and saw that James’ eyes were warm. “Yes sir,” he smiled, “that’s the Main House. We’ll be driving past West House, Pine Garde, and East House so that I can drop you at the Office.” We shook hands and he handed me my backpack after I got out.
Tears spontaneously flowed as beloved, infinitely capable program director Rosemary Misurelli (who I had never met) bundled me up in her Rabelaisian Earth Mother arms at the front door of the office. “I feel as though I have come home,” I burbled. Weeping, she covered my face with kisses, and then took me in to meet Curt, who asked me why I was crying. “I have no idea,” I said. “Are you okay?” he asked. “I think so,” I said. “I don’t understand why I’m crying.” “Oh, I do,” he said, with a kind, open mid-western smile.
Upon arrival, a Special Assistant to the President escorts every artist to his or her studio and bedroom. That summer, Doug Martin and Nancy Brett served. I was given a tour of the grounds, and then shown into the mansion’s grand hall. Hanging there were two life-sized full portraits. Before being told her identity, I was as irresistibly drawn to Eastman Johnson’s painting as I had been to the Norman Rockwell portrait of Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist. We hadn’t met, but my heart instinctively moved out to her. I felt safe here. “Yes, that’s her,” Nancy said, gently pulling me away and leading me up the sweeping stairs. “Katrina Trask?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, pointing up at the two-story tall Tiffany window atop the stairs. “That’s her, too.”
We turned left at the foot of the window, passed a large brass spittoon, and reached the sliding door leading to Oratory (a place of prayer), the room next to what had been Spencer’s den that would serve as my bedroom.
Everyone who has lived and worked at Yaddo over the past century has heard stories about the ghosts. There’s the Puritanical one that keeps watch in the bedroom on the second floor of the mansion opposite the stairs that opens the windows when something naughty is happening in the room. There’s the Testy one that slams the closet door in Katrina’s bedroom when the current occupant spends a little too much time on the fainting couch.
In May 2007, I sat before the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio, writing with trepidation the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch of my opera about flight and rebirth. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, “You’ll be okay, friend. Everything will be fine. The door is open. Fly through it.” As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest. It was the plainest sort of blessing, and a perfect example of the sort of thing that happens at Yaddo.
Yaddo is about the work, first. My work book lists the following pieces composed all, or in part, there between 1984 and the present: four major operas: Amelia, Bandanna, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Shining Brow; two cantatas: A Walt Whitman Requiem and Light Fantastic; my Symphony No. 3; and nearly a hundred art songs and chamber works, large and small.
Much of Yaddo’s magic derives from the effect that it has on one’s fellow artists. For example, I had learned about the extravagance, the power, and the beauty of raw talent at Curtis, that talent is like a natural resource—amoral and unearned. It can be cultivated and strengthened by its possessor, and it can be misused, of course. But I had never (and have never, since) met anyone quite as joyously talented as David Del Tredici, who I befriended during my first residency. He was—and remains—a nova.
I first met Joel Conarroe that summer. Joel, the author of books and articles about American literature and anthologies of poetry, president of the Guggenheim Foundation from 1985-2002 (and a trustee until his retirement in 2016); former chair of the English Department, Ombudsman, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, and former president of the PEN American center, was deeply gentle, erudite, decent, and agreeable company over dinner during the weeks that our visits overlapped.
In 1994, Joel and David Del Tredici reached out to Donald S. Rice, then Chairman of Yaddo’s Board of Directors, and together nominated me for membership in the Corporation. Subsequently elected by the Directors and Members that year, I was further elected by our brothers and sisters fifteen years later to continue beyond the restriction of a term limit as a “Lifetime Member”–an honor bestowed on only one other Member: Susan Brynteson, Yaddo’s beloved Librarian, and (now retired) Vice provost and head of the University of Delaware Library. In his letter commending me to Don, Joel described me as “represent[ing] the best of what Yaddo is all about.” I treasure Joel’s approbation and this honor above any other I’ve received in my life.
I was taught a briskly affectionate character lesson of immense value one evening at West House during the early 80s by novelist Lynn Freed. She’d been in residence long enough to observe our small society in action, but it was our first real conversation. “What do you make of so-and-so?” she asked. “And him? And her?” We compared notes. Presently, she asked, “Darling boy, why are you such a Rabbit with people in public, and so Dead-Spot-On-Brutal in your assessment of them in private? Surely there’s a balance, no?”
When at 16 I told my English teacher Diane Doerfler that I intended to move to the east coast, she presented me with the volume of John Cheever's short stories I possess to this day: “Read these,” she said, throwing me a rope. “He and Updike seem to get it right.” Only a few years later Susan Cheever and I became friends at Yaddo. I imagine Doerf would be pleased to know that I told Susan about her gift. Years later, playwright / actor Ayad Akhtar was made a member of the Corporation. He charmed me, when we met for the first time during the annual fall meeting, by regaling me during dinner with fulsome reminiscences of Doerf, whom he credited as “an essential guiding force in his early development.”
It was at Yaddo—reading the Trask family’s exquisite 1901 Little, Brown and Company Works of Honoré de Balzac shelved in West House—that, over the course of fifteen years, I savored every word of Balzac’s monumental La Comedie Humaine, in English, and then in French. He remains to me as precious as Georges Simenon is to Ned. Rastignac—he, whose name is an insult in France, has served all my life both as a warning and as a negative example, as surely as Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe has constituted a blessing and an imprecation. In other words, on the one hand, “la vie humaine se compose de deux parties: on tue le temps, le temps vous tue,” and, on the other, “there are some dead who are more alive than the living.”
Katrina Trask’s was one of what Rick Moody calls the “momentous and astonishing and beautiful deaths” that have taken place at Yaddo. During my first visit—summer 1984—I had spent several weeks composing a requiem, what poet and memoirist Richard McCann might call a “ghost letter” to Katrina. Richard wrote, in one of his poems, “Quiet! Don’t you know that the dead go on hearing for hours?” I believe that they continue hearing forever if they are of a mind to. I believe that Katrina Trask continues to hear what goes on at Yaddo to this day.
Here’s how I met Mrs. Trask. Near the end of my first visit, novelist Doug Unger was sitting on the second-floor landing, around eleven-thirty in the evening, reading The New Yorker. Across from him sat a third person, whose name escapes me. That reassuring, late-night quietude (the plashing of water in the little fountain next to the front door, the soughing and whispering of the pines, underpinned by the steady thrum of automobile wheels on the Northway) unique to this house surrounded us. I didn’t know at the time that Doug was up there. I was reading in the Great Hall, next to the fireplace with the phoenix on it.
At that instant, I less “saw” her than “felt” Katrina Trask’s presence. In the same way that one might glimpse a child streaking out of a suburban front yard and into the street, and with the same terrible wave of heart-in-the-mouth dread, perceived peripherally, intuited while focusing elsewhere, a woman descending the main staircase in what John Cheever mischievously described as “poor Katrina’s shower curtain” came before my mind’s eye. It was unquestionably Katrina’s ghost. Her right hand was slightly raised, as it is in the portrait, and in it was a telegram, a poem, or a letter. Allan Gurganus suavely describes what I saw as “some essence quorum of our souls’ intensities.” At the instant that I noticed the apparition, I heard a cry from the second floor. I leapt to the foot of the stairs to see what the matter was. Looking up, I saw ashen-faced Doug.
“What did you see?” I asked. “A woman in a white dress, so help me God,” he said.
From behind him in the darkness the third person—who couldn’t possibly have seen the staircase—said, softly, “It was Katrina.” We coughed, laughed, looked at our feet. I have seen an angel, I thought. I used to describe the feeling I took away from the moment as being exactly like the way I used to feel when I heard the crunch of gravel in the driveway that meant Mother was home. Now, as a father, I recognize that the feeling was more like the way I feel when my children are sleeping in the next room, yet I am in every way but physically with them.
How, I wondered as a boy, would it feel to experience happiness without dread, and, if I did, how long would it last before the inevitable happened and I ended up, at two in the morning, my ass is in the air, scrubbing again and again the same square foot of asphalt tile until I had forgotten what the question was? Now I wonder, when I’m telling my sons a bedtime story about the animals at Yaddo (who have names, and speak, and have adventures, and inhabit a world that is entirely real to my boys, as real as Yaddo is to me, and as precious), I wonder how it is possible that there is no dread in our home; how is it possible that this happy story won’t end for my sons the way that it ended for my brothers?
After much discussion, and many Yaddo bedtime stories, and Elaina Richardson’s permission, I agreed to take my son with me to attend the 24 July 2015 ceremony at Yaddo at which the mansion and grounds would be proclaimed a National Historic Landmark.
The water in the “Sleepy Naiads” fountain was cold and clear. “Brr,” said my son, now aged 6, pulling his small, perfect feet out. It was his first visit to Yaddo. To look our best, we had dressed in matching starched white shirts and shorts. But a child’s a child, and we’d decided that, before touring the mansion together, we ought to dip our feet in the fountain. I passed him his stockings. We sat in the grass. I handed him his shoes. “You make the ears,” he explained. “Then you jump through the hole, right?” I asked. “Uh huh. And then you pull the ears tight,” he said, pulling on his shoelaces with a look of satisfaction.
I looked up. At the top of the hill, framed by cloudless blue sky, sat the Yaddo mansion. My son's attention shifted from his shoelaces to follow my gaze. “Papa?” “Yes, honey.” “How did the children die?” he asked. I looked back down at the grass, deciding how much to say. “There were four of them. They all died before they were teenagers,” I said. His eyes widened. “Do you really want to hear this?” He nodded gravely. “One lived only 12 days.”
My son shook his head in wonder: “Like the ‘Other Daron,’ Papa?” “Yeah,” I answered. “No wonder you love this place so much,” he said. “More than you know, baby,” I said. “So, tell me,” he said, placing his hand on my beard the way that I sometimes stroke his cheek. “The oldest child had Uncle Kevin’s middle name, Alansson,” I began. My boy looked up at the house as I spoke. “He died of some childhood disease. The middle children were Christina and Spencer Jr. At some point when they were children, they caught Diphtheria kissing their Mama goodbye.” He turned suddenly, and asked, “Did their Mama die, too?” “No,” I answered, “their mama Katrina was okay.” He threw his arms around me, and began to cry. “It’s okay, baby,” I said, stroking his hair. He looked up at me, and asked, “What happened to the last one?” I pulled him close. He buried his head in my chest. “The last child was named Katrina,” I told him, stroking his hair. “She lived only nine days.”
Presently, we gathered up our things and walked to the car. "Can we come back, Papa?" "Not only can we return, we must," I told him firmly, digging my chin into the top of his head as I held him, tears falling into his hair's golden ringlets. "Why, Papa?" I looked at him—his tender, small frame just beginning to flesh out with the wiry strength of the man into whom he'd grow, and I thought to myself that Life is fragile, that Art is fragile, too; I thought that the Loud drown out the Rest most of the time, but that Art, so simultaneously ephemeral and eternal, like Love, can do more than prompt a tyrant's tears; it can give strength and hope to those fighting for a better world for our kids, a safer place to bring them up, a more tolerant mindset, more open hearts. I had to look away from him. and up the hill towards the mansion as I formulated a simpler answer, an answer that, hopefully, even a child might understand. "Because Yaddo," I whispered, "is a place where sorrow is transformed into joy."
This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post in an earlier form on 5 June 2012. You can read it there by clicking here. Below is a little fundraising video shot in the Yaddo Mansion's Music Room several years ago.