Get local news delivered straight to your phone
In March, 1994, author David Michaelis went to New York City for his first interview with David Wyeth, grandson of the late painter Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeththe patriarch of the Wyeth painting dynasty. Sleet was falling, slush was piling up, and a soaked Michaelis had a headful of horrible questions.
Michaelis, a magazine journalist, had been working on a biography of N.C. Wyeth and wanted to get to the truth behind the gothic tales that had swirled throughout the Wyeths’ Brandywine Valley, Pa., community of Chadds Ford since N.C.’s death in a train wreck 48 years earlier.
Michaelis wanted to ask David whether his mother had carried on an affair, incestuous in all but bloodlines, with N.C., her father-in-law. If she had, then one of N.C.’s ostensible grandchildren could instead have been his childthe same youngster who was riding with N.C. on the October day in 1945 when a train, brakes squealing against the rails, plowed into his station wagon.
Or, to collect everything into one ghastly postulation, Michaelis was trying to figure out if the shame of infidelity and incest, combined with unfathomable depression, had pushed N.C. Wyeth not merely to snuff out his own life but that of his 4-year-old namesake alongside him.
“David is only a few years older than me, so I was very apprehensive going in,” Michaelis recalls. “If he’d come into my house wanting to talk about my mother having an affair, I would certainly have felt uncomfortable. And if he had asked whether my mother had had an affair with my grandfather, I would have felt even more so.”
But the clues Michaelis had dug up about N.C. Wyeth’s past were vital to his understanding of the man. He had no choice but to broach them.
“It’s surprising that Aaron Spelling hadn’t already bought the rights to the Wyeth story,” said Ted Widmer, a Michaelis friend and onetime Harvard historian, at the Washington book party earlier this month for Michaelis’ N.C. Wyeth: A Biography, which is out this month from Knopf.
“The story,” Widmer said, “had everything.”
Michaelis’ connection to N.C. Wyeth is spookily twisted. Like some supernumerary pirate lurking in the background of one of Wyeth’s adventure-story illustrations, the late painter always seemed to hang around in Michaelis’ brain, waiting to be noticed.
Michaelis, 41, was born in Boston and lived, for his first few years, in Cambridge, Mass., the birthplace of N.C. Wyeth’s mother. Michaelis later figured out that he and his parents had unknowingly lived in a house built on the site of the first Wyeth family farm in America.
After John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he appointed Michaelis’ father Michael as a science adviser. The family moved to Washington, where David enrolled as a student at Beauvoir and, later, St. Albans. In 1978, as a Princeton undergraduate, Michaelis co-wrote, with his roommate, John A. Phillips, his first book, Mushroom, which details how Phillips, in his Princeton junior paper, designed a workable nuclear-fission device.
In 1981, Michaelis returned to Washington to be with his mother, who was dying of cancer. “It so happened that the time of her death coincided with the reissue of the Scribner’s Illustrated Classics series that Wyeth had illustrated,” Michaelis recalls. “The first book to be reissued was Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. A friend, knowing I was deeply in grief and not sleeping well, gave it to me, saying it was a great book to plunge into. I took refuge in it. The pictures made a huge impression on me.”
Michaelis proceeded to read the rest of the series, including Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. “I had known about these books as a kid, but I’d never read them,” he says. “They came to me as an adult, when I was very much in a vulnerable moment, and I felt I had some connection to them.”
It wasn’t until a decade later that Michaelis pursued this lead as the subject for a book. During the ’80s, he worked as a journalist in New York and wrote two books, The Best of Friends, about great friendships among American men, and a novel, Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl. He moved out to Sag Harbor, until his early-’90s romance with Newsweek Washington bureau reporter Clara Binghamwhom he ultimately marriedbrought him back to D.C.
Around that time, Michaelis happened to watch a newly released documentary about the Wyeth clan, featuring all five of N.C.’s children talking about their father. Michaelis found himself most fascinated by Nat, a retired DuPont engineer known as “the Wyeth who didn’t paint.”
“Nat stole the show,” Michaelis recalls. “He was telling in this very plain, Nat Wyeth-esque language about this tragedy that had happened….It was my first inkling that there was a darker side to N.C.”
Support City Paper!
It also happened that Michaelis had recently attended a funeral in the Brandywine Valley for a friend. It was a gorgeous day, and Michaelis was struck by the valley’s fat beech trees and the sunlight streaming across the church yard. “I thought to myself, ‘It’s just like those paintings.’ I knew I had to go back there.”
He wound up selling a travel article on the valley to a magazine, but after a dinner with his old friend Phillips at the Capitol Hill restaurant
2 Quail, Michaelis finally decided to pursue an N.C. Wyeth biography. After finishing the meal, Michaelis went over to the cash register and reached for a toothpick. There, staring him in the face, was an old print in a Victorian framea self-portrait of N.C. Wyeth from 1913. “I looked at it and said, ‘Wow, it’s like he’s speaking to me from the grave.’”
Michaelis began piecing together N.C.’s life from papers and letters in archives at the Smithsonian Institution, Harvard University, and Princeton. At that early stage, the issue gripping Michaelis was the death of Rudolph Zirngiebel, the infant who would have been N.C. Wyeth’s uncle. The official record, Michaelis found, listed the child as a casualty of “dropsy”a term, Michaelis knew, used often by 19th-century authorities to divert attention from the true cause of death. Still more suspiciously, the death appeared in the town register out of orderfour months after it occurred. Michaelis believed the child’s death held the key with which he could open the Wyeth psyche.
“If you’re going to understand N.C. Wyeth in a complex way,” he says, “you have to understand the influence of his mother on his life.” As Michaelis would later learn, Henriette Zirngiebel, N.C.’s mother, 8 at the time, was widely suspected within the family of having lost control of 8-month-old Rudolph’s carriage, thus allowing the child to drown in the Charles River. That event clearly traumatized her. In her letters, Henriette never mentioned the child when referring to her various siblings. She also reported having “baby nightmares” and late in life told others that she feared she might be physically harmful to her grandson.
To Michaelis, Henriette’s horror complicated her relationship with N.C. (who apparently learned of the incident from other family members). It also suggested to Michaelis a family pattern of depression that would set the stage for Henriette’s son’s own tragedy decades later.
Part of N.C.’s well-documented depression, Michaelis says, revolved around his paintinga feeling that his book illustrations weren’t good enough to be “art.” But his gloom grew most devastating late in his life, when he conducted an affair with his daughter-in-law Caroline. Michaelis’ book contains the first published account of that affair, although he admits he’s uncertain whether it was ever consummated. Michaelis also doubts that the child who perished in the train wreck was N.C.’s love child. Even so, the author is quite sure that something improper took place: On at least one occasion, N.C. was indisputably spied with Caroline’s lipstick smeared on his face.
Michaelis also remains unsure over whether N.C.’s death was a suicide or an accident. Despite multiple suicide attempts within the Wyeth family, it seems unbelievable to Michaelis that N.C. would endanger his own grandchild while killing himself. Yet he also knows now that N.C. was someone who didn’t want his children to marry, who concealed the existence of his future wife from his parents for a full year, who initially concealed from his wife the news of her father’s death (and for many years its cause, a suicide). N.C. even refused to tell his children that their beloved dog had died until it became patently obvious.
Given N.C.’s neurotic behavior, Michaelis judiciously left open the darkest possibility.
Michaelis’ first visit with the Wyeth family came after a year of unanswered letters and overtures made through intermediaries. Eventually, though, a family friend helped Michaelis gain an audience with N.C.’s son, the painter Andrew Wyeth, and his wife, Betsy Wyeth.
When Michaelis first met with Betsy at Chadds Ford, “the whole time I thought it was just going to be, ‘My father-in-law was a very complicated man. Goodbye and have a nice trip back to Washington.’ What surprised me was when Betsy saidimpatiently, more than anything’You know, if you want something, you’ll have to ask for it.’ Then she said, ‘You know, I have some letters. Would you like to see them?’ I said yes. ‘Well, let’s go over to the mill,’ she said. And the day suddenly turned on a pivot.”
For four days a week over the course of six months, Michaelis slept in a hotel near Chadds Ford and visited the Wyeth farm to pore over letters and scrapbooks. “[W]hile I was always excited to get there, I was always excited to leave, too. It was not just intimate, it was also totally suffocating. I’d get too much information, more than I ever wanted to know.”
By the time Michaelis went to visit David Wyeth on that dismal morning in Manhattan, he knew enough to suggest impropriety between N.C. and Caroline. When Michaelis asked, David went off the recordthe first time any Wyeth had done so with Michaelisand called around to his relatives to see if they all felt comfortable talking about it. Somewhat amazingly, they did.
“I think that after 50 years, you want the full story about the generation behind you to come out,” he says. “It frees you; it feels good to have the truth.”
So far, most critics have given Michaelis’ book favorable reviews, though the Atlanta Journal and Constitution complained about his tendency to ramble. To the author, however, certain critics matter more than others. Andrew Wyeth, after reading the bound galleys, told Michaelis that nothing had ever brought his father back to life as much as this book. And at Michaelis’ recent book-release party in New York, Bingham recalls, one guest told the assembled crowd that her husband’s volume was “a very tough book, but a very good book.” The speaker was none other than N.C.’s grandson Jamie Wyeth.CP