Elinor Wylie (1885 – 1928) was a poet and novelist popular in the 1920s and 1930s, gaining an almost cult following among fans who admired her passionate writing, ethereal descriptions, and feminist undertones. Born to a well-to-do family, Wylie never pursued higher education as it was assumed she was destined for the life of a debutante and society wife. Yet she demonstrated a natural talent as a writer and resisted society’s strictures, abandoning her husband and young child to run off to England with Horace Wylie, a much older man, causing a scandal in polite society as well as Washington where her father was solicitor general of the U.S. She first began to write seriously in England, anonymously self-publishing her first collection of poems, Incidental Numbers, in 1912.
She moved back to the states and began pursuing a serious writing career, listening to literary friends who encouraged her to submit her verse to Poetry magazine, which in 1920 published four of her poems, including what became her most widely anthologized poem, “Velvet Shoes.” Nets to Catch the Wind, was her first traditionally published poetry collection, appeared in 1921. In 1923, the year she left Wylie and married MacDowell Fellow William Rose Benét, she published Black Armor, which was a successful volume of verse. The New York Times enthused: "There is not a misplaced word or cadence in it. There is not an extra syllable." Her literary output over a writing career that lasted just eight years is impressive. She produced four volumes of poems, four novels, and enough magazine articles to make up an additional volume. Many of her writings offered insight into the difficulties of marriage and the impossible expectations that come with womanhood. By writing about such contemporary themes in a traditional style, she has been credited with contributing to modernism.
Though Wylie died of a stroke at 43 at the height of her career in 1928, her legacy at MacDowell continued. A room in the Eaves residence building is named for her, and during his acceptance speech of the Edward MacDowell Medal in 1991, composer and Fellow David Diamond told a story of a beautiful apparition who sat at his studio’s piano when he walked in shortly after dawn one day in 1935. He said she asked him if she could stay, and when he asked who she was, she turned to look at the music he was composing, then turned back to him and vanished. In describing her to Marian MacDowell and Thornton Wilder later that day, Diamond said Wilder identified the ghost as that of Elinor Wylie, who during her 1924 residency often wandered into other artists’ studios during the summer of 1924 with the same request.