THIS IS A SALES PITCH. It’s also a rescue mission—of a book and a person. The book is Lily Briscoe: A Self-Portrait; the person is its author, Mary Meigs (1917–2002). Never heard of her? Join the crowd. Though Meigs was a gifted painter and a remarkable writer with an intriguing personal history, today she’s all but unknown—even among those immersed in lesbian history. I myself stumbled on her accidentally ten years ago in the course of researching A Saving Remnant, my dual biography of two social justice activists, David McReynolds and Barbara Deming.
Through mutual friends, Deming and Meigs first met in 1954 when both were 37. They soon became lovers and remained together for more than a decade. For half that time they lived, polyamorously, with the youthful French-Canadian novelist Marie-Claire Blaise. (Still in her twenties, Blaise had already won the praise of Edmund Wilson, the eminent literary critic; today, at 82, she continues to publish.) In A Saving Remnant, I told Mary Meigs’ story up to the point where she and Blaise broke away from the triangular relationship with Deming and settled together for several years in Brittany and then Québec. Meigs and Deming soon renewed contact and thereafter remained close friends (but not sexual lovers).
In A Saving Remnant I focused on Deming’s life story and included only that portion of Meigs’ history that crossed hers—a few paragraphs on their life together and a few lines on their later, lifelong friendship. A full biography of Mary Meigs remains to be written, and this brief essay is meant to encourage some enterprising young scholar to undertake this project. An abundance of manuscript material exists, much of it untouched, for telling Meigs’ story in the rich detail I believe warranted. Her own papers are housed at Bryn Mawr College’s Special Collections; Deming’s archive is at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library; and Marie-Claire Blaise’s papers are divided between the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Quebec and the Library and Archives Canada. An admirer of Lily Briscoe, I’ve been tempted to take on the assignment myself, but have resisted. About to turn 91, I’m still up for a lot—but not for multi-archival digging in faraway places.
What I can do here, as part of my effort to entice a biographer to take up Mary Meigs as a subject, is to expand on the minimalist portrait of her in A Saving Remnant. I’ve drawn the new material primarily from the four richly autobiographical books she eventually wrote. The first, Lily Briscoe, appeared in 1981, and is the standout, but the prose in all four is elegant and epigrammatic and the content uncommonly self-critical. I’ve never seen a reference to any of the books (nor, for that matter, to Meigs herself), though they contain a good deal of lesbian history. I have seen a few reproductions of her impressively bold and vivid paintings, but haven’t tried to track down their provenance nor locate the walls on which (hopefully) they currently hang. In fleshing out Meigs’ story—and cognizant of the limitations of space—I’ll focus on two subjects: her family background, and her self-admonishing temperament.