a menagerie of three

Bryher (1894 – 1983) was the pen name of the novelist, poet and magazine editor Annie Winifred Ellerman.

Bryher found here

Her father was John Ellerman, who at the time of his death in 1933, was the richest Englishman who had ever lived. He lived with her mother Hannah Glover, but did not marry her until 1908. During the 1920s, Bryher was an unconventional figure in Paris. Her circle of friends included Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and Berenice Abbott. 

James Joyce by Berenice Abbott found here

In 1918 she met and became involved in a lesbian relationship with poet Hilda Doolittle (better known by her initials, H.D.). The relationship was an open one, with both taking other partners. In 1921 she entered into a marriage of convenience with the American author Robert McAlmon, whom she divorced in 1927. Both Bryher and H.D. slept with McAlmon during this time.

Hilda Doolittle found here

That same year she married Kenneth Macpherson, a writer who shared her interest in film and who was also H.D.’s lover. H.D., Bryher, and Macpherson lived together and traveled through Europe in what the poet and critic Barbara Guest termed as a ‘menagerie of three’. In Switzerland, overlooking Lake Geneva, the couple built a Bauhaus-style style structure which they named Kenwin. They formally adopted H.D.’s young daughter, Perdita. In 1928, H.D. became pregnant with Macpherson’s child, but chose to abort the pregnancy. Bryher divorced MacPherson in 1947, she and Doolittle no longer lived together after 1946, but continued their relationship until Doolittle’s death in 1961.

Kenneth Macpherson found here

Although Bryher’s and Macpherson’s marriage lasted for twenty years, both Macpherson and Bryher had many extra-marital affairs. Bryher was lesbian but Macpherson was distinctly bi-sexual. After spending a few months in New York in 1935, Macpherson eventually based himself there to focus on writing and photography. It was during this time that he met Peggy Guggenheim, the wealthy American art collector, who instantly fell in love with him.

Peggy found here

By 1947, Macpherson was spending much of his time in Switzerland and Italy. He bought a home on Capri, “Villa Tuoro”, which he shared with his lover, the photographer, Algernon Islay de Courcy Lyons. In 1965, he retired to Tuscany to work on a book about Austrian doctor, Elisabeth Moor. Moor was Capri’s doctor from 1926 until the early 1970s and was one of the island’s more colourful characters.

Capri found here

For a daughter of the Austrian emperor’s hairdresser, born in 1885 in Vienna, the prophecy of a career in medicine would have been a most unrealistic scenario, requiring not only talent and a strong determination, but also a rebellious spirit. 

son of the last Austrian Emperor found here

She was one of only two women admitted to the medical school, the other being her Jewish girlfriend, whose cousin was one of her first lovers. Her memories from medical school recall more lovers than courses. At the age of 24 she was deeply in love with an 18-year-old Swiss painter, Gigi Moor, whom she subsequently married shortly before obtaining her medical degree. 

She gave birth to a son, but she and her husband maintained an open marriage, with Gigi having an affair with a German cellist and our heroine falling madly in love with a Russian tenor. Elisabeth always boasted that a woman cannot know what real love is if she has not made love with a Russian. After the war she had another child with Gigi in Switzerland, and they subsequently moved to Italy. Her emotional needs seemed satiated by the two children and many lovers, and her marriage subsequently dissolved.

My favourite Russian found here

After the divorce she left Switzerland and arrived at Capri, her favorite place from previous visits. She was poor as a beggar, with two barefoot children, one dress and nothing else, not even underwear. But a license to practice medicine assured her independence.

Why should one care about the memories of an egotistic “impossible woman” whose life was so disorderly? Graham Greene’s preface offered no explanation except his admiration for this small square creature with eyes as blue as the windows of the cathedral of Chartres, big teeth and wild electric hair as alive as a bundle of fighting snakes. She was a woman who was tough and demanding, who frequently bullied her patients. But when she departed, she left a vast emptiness among the inhabitants of the island of Capri. 

snake hair bag found here

Published in: on March 12, 2012 at 8:59 am  Comments (51)  
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51 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What an impressive tour d’horizont, Nurse Myra!
    Lots to discover.

    I think Miss Doolittle shows a pretty mean streak calling her daughter “Perdita” (!).

    • And as fate likes to have it: A new book about the topic in general reviewed here.

      • I don’t think that book sounds like an easy read…..

  2. The statue beckons. I would be drawn by it.

  3. Another great account of decadence, Nursie!

    • Interesting lives weren’t they?

  4. Fascinating! I had a go at mapping the various entanglements of Bryher and HD (http://strangeflowers.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/borderline-madness/) but they’re clearly even more complicated than I thought. I have Elisabeth Moor’s autobiography – she was quite a woman.

    • She sounds intriguing to me too

  5. three is one of my favorite numbers! but damn, that’s a lot of babies…

    • I know. Even two nearly killed me

  6. My ego would never tolerate an open relationship with all those other partners. I’d be a big old mess. How about you?

    • I’m a one man woman. but I’m learning to share.

  7. A bit of a challenge to follow “who was doin’ who.” I feel (almost) nun-like in comparison. *sigh*
    Perhaps we should consider some form of a ménage à trois with Leonard? ;)

    • ah Leonard, how many ways do I love you…?

  8. I was doing well until I got lost somewhere between Algernon and Elisabeth…still I remain drop-jawed throughout

    • I think many people are fascinated by relationships like these

  9. I join the rest in drop-jawed amazement at the entanglements these people got into. Hard to believe that they had any time to accomplish anything else… Makes me feel quite lazy by comparison.

    • When i read about all the gardening you do, laziness is the last adjective that comes to mind

  10. I think I could make do with a Bauhaus inspired home overlooking Lake Geneva. If I absolutely HAD to, I guess. ;)

    • Yes, that would be very tough. But someone has to live there.

      • And it might as well be me!

  11. This piece has so many exotic sounding names and places…until you get to Ken.

    • At least there’s no Barbie

  12. Hilda was quite a beauty.

    • She has an aristocratic/bohemian air

  13. very colourful lives can t say dull loved reading this xjen

    • Jen, what’s happened to your blog? the link appears to be broken.

      • you can get to me from my pic on andros page its hopeless wp lots of problems lately

      • His blog appears to be password protected

  14. “…a woman cannot know what real love is if she has not made love with a Russian.”

    The closest I’ve ever come to this was the time I hooked up with a guy wearing a ushanka after drinking a bottle of Russian vodka…

    Definitely not real love.

    • Did you at least give him a fighting chance?

  15. I can’t keep track of who’s sleeping with who. That’s the story of my life.

  16. and i had to go to beauty school.

    • Do your memories include more lovers than courses?

  17. Huh, I’m surprised they weren’t stoned to death or something. Those kinds of relationships are looked down upon so much even during present times let alone back then.

    • It wasn’t all that long ago really…..

  18. Her memories from medical school recall more lovers than courses – quite a busy girl, heeheee.

    • And yet she still managed to graduate…

  19. HD is really pretty. But what a story.

    • I was really engrossed in all the different relationships

  20. All the best doctors are overbearing.

    • Oh no, I can’t agree with that. My current medical crush is definitely not overbearing.

  21. My! Everyone was open back then. Rich and adventurous too!

    • sharing the love around

  22. Capri is beautiful…unfortunately you have to get there by way of Naples which is not.

    • I loved Rome and Venice. Unfortunately that’s the extent of my travels in Italy

  23. Such exciting lives, and rather interesting how she could openly be a lesbian even back then. I somehow feel that people are a bit more intolerant these days, though…

  24. McAlmon, of course, was gay. After receiving a nice settlement from Bryher’s family, he was known to many as “Robert McAlimony”!

  25. Bryher … sigh. Lesbians always find a way to insert “her” into their names. (Don’t even get me started on “womyn.”) I think I’ll start calling myself Jessherca.


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