Sunday, March 21, 2021

Jeanne D’Orge, Carmel’s patron saint of the arts


Jeanne D’Orge, neé Lena, or Emma Yates, was born in Cheshire, England in 1887 (or 1877). When her father, a seed merchant, deserted the family, she and her mother moved to the outskirts of Edinburgh. 

Lena moved back to England and published her first poems at 20, and wrote a series of children's books on animal fables under the pen name of Lena Dalkeith—playing on a combination of her birthname, Lena, and the quaint Midlothian village of Dalkeith, near Edinburgh, where she was raised. Thus was the beginning of a woman of many identities.

While on a walking holiday in France in 1906, Lena was swept off her feet by geographer and engineer, widower Alfred Burton (dean of M.I.T.) who was perhaps 22 (another account says 30) years her senior. Lena and her mother joined Burton and his two sons in Newton Grange, Massachusetts where she and Alfred were married. 

A pioneering modernist poet, Lena became involved with The Others, a poetry group that included Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens; she began publishing her work in literary magazines including Others, Scribners, and Poetry. Some of her prose poems were published under the name Lena Dalkeith Burton.

Suffering from poor health, and a profound dislike of east coast weather (and chilly New England mores), Lena fled to sunny San Diego, then up the coast to Carmel-by-the-Sea in 1920 with her 3 children in tow—where she built a Craftsman style house. Her husband retired from M.I.T, and joined her a year later. (But they were divorced in 1925, according to one source). They were active in community theater, with Dr. Burton building sets and acting in Forest Theater productions. Lena wrote and produced a series of Commedia dell’ Arte styled plays, including Crazy Ann, under the penname of Lena Burton.

In 1928 Lena created a scandal when she left her children with her (ex-)husband to live with the Forest Theater lighting technician, and M.I.T. graduate, Carl Cherry, some 20 years her junior. They converted his mother’s old Queen Anne cottage, a wedding gift (they were married in 1930), into an art studio for Lena, and a workshop for Cherry. 

During the lean years, they lived off canned tuna and coffee. She began painting in earnest in 1937, and Carl Cherry struck paydirt when one of his inventions, the one-sided blind rivet, revolutionized airplane and shipbuilding construction during the war years. Lena took up her artist name Jeanne D'Orge, after a river in France, having shed all vestiges of her past lives. For D'Orge painting embodied the intangible moods of form, color, and feelings that cannot be expressed in poetry or music.

The Cherrys carried on as before, living a simple lifestyle, but used their newfound fortune to establish the philanthropic Cherry Foundation to "further the culture of America by sponsoring experimental fine arts, sciences and education." The foundation underwrote arts events, concerts, plays, lectures and seminars often featuring world class lecturers and performers. 

She became fast friends with Robinson Jeffers and Edward Weston, and wrote plays under the pseudonym of Juniper Green, after a neighboring village near Edinburgh. 

After her husband Carl Cherry died of cancer in 1947, D'Orge continued to run the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts, and "often appeared on the streets of Carmel wearing a big pink hat, ankle length Chinese robes and paint-stained tennis shoes." She died in 1964. Her former home, now an art center, houses over 1200 pieces of her art, plus letters, books, manuscripts, photos and memorabilia, as well as an extensive library.  

—Maureen Hurley, Vernal Equinox 2021

I published this in Facebook’s California History page, it garnered 322 likes and was shared 80 times. a runaway success story in the tiny realm of publishing that I’m most familiar with. I originally published a version of this embedded with my 1998 Pat Wall posts, more here. But his stands alone as a post as well.

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