In 1932, the photographer Dorothea Lange and her husband, the famed Western illustrator Maynard Dixon, spent the summer on a two thousand acre ranch along the shores of Fallen Leaf Lake near Lake Tahoe. It was an idyllic period, not only because the couple got to spend time with their children, who had been living in boarding schools, but because photographer Imogene Cunningham, her husband Roi Partridge, and their children were also there.
For months, the two families lived in a timbered hunting lodge that had been loaned to them by the daughter of E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who had made his fortune in the Nevada silver mines. They clambered on granite boulders, swam in the cold clear water, cooked and ate fish they had caught, and cleansed themselves in a sweat lodge that Dixon built. It was a magical interlude during the Great Depression, and a reflection of a particularly Western bohemian lifestyle.
On Monday, dozens of descendants of Lange, Dixon, Cunningham, Partridge, and Lange’s second husband, the UC Berkeley economics professor Paul Taylor, will gather in Berkeley to celebrate the publication of a major new biography of Lange. The book, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, is the culmination of eight years of work by Linda Gordon, the Florence Kelley Professor of History at NYU and one of the country’s preeminent historians.
But the celebration will be bittersweet. The party will be held at the home of the late Henry Mayer, who was working on a book about Lange when he died of a heart attack in July 2000. After Mayer’s untimely death at 59, his widow looked for someone to continue the project, and Gordon stepped in.
“Linda has fulfilled her own vision, but at the same time has written a definitive work on Dorothea Lange that would make Henry very happy,” said Robert Weil, an executive editor at WW Norton who worked with both writers on the biography.
Gordon will be reading from the book on Tuesday Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. at Book Passage in the Ferry Building and on Wednesday Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.
Dorothea Lange was born in New Jersey but settled in the Bay Area in 1918, living first in San Francisco and then in Berkeley. A documentary photographer who excelled at capturing the plight of the poor and downtrodden, she is best known for “Migrant Mother,” her 1936 haunting portrait of a down and out farm worker. Lange had been traveling around for the Resettlement Administration documenting the life of sharecroppers during the Depression when she spotted Florence Owens Thompson resting under the shelter of a canvas tent in Nipomo, California. Lange took six portraits, and the one of Thompson cradling her infant with another child nestling against her shoulder became an iconic image of the period.
Gordon, 69, has written extensively about women and women’s rights, including books on family violence, birth control, and the history of women’s work lives. Her 1999 book, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, a narrative about a group of white vigilantes who in 1904 objected to Mexican American parents raising white foster children, won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in history.
Gordon was wary at first of writing a biography since she is more interested in how social movements, rather than individuals, impact history. But the more she learned about Lange and her commitment to documenting the underside of American life, the more intrigued she became.
“I am not a biographer,” said Gordon. “But as I got to know Lange, I realized she was a good subject for me. She was a complex person. She was not a perfect and I am not good at writing about celebrated heroes. She intersected so many important periods in the 20th century. “
Gordon also realized that as a female photographer, Lange’s insights into the Depression and World War II told a different story than is usually told in history books. For example, many people conjure up images of long lines of men waiting to get into soup kitchens or other images of urban life when they think of the Depression. Lange, explored how the Depression affected rural inhabitants, a group that the New Deal did little to help, she said.
Lange was hired by the Army in July 1942 to document the roundup and internment of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the west coast. Anti-Japanese hysteria was so strong after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that few spoke out against the massive jailing, but Lange was opposed from the start, said Gordon. The Army told her to take pictures, but prohibited her from shooting photos of barbed wire fences, guard watchtowers, armed soldiers, or anyone resisting the round-up. Still, Lange managed to convey the indignity of the internments and the brutality of the camps in the 800 photos she took. Army officials, suspecting her sympathies lay with the Japanese-Americans, eventually fired her and impounded all the photographs.
Gordon’s book documents how Lange used her photography as a social tool, but it also focuses on the artistic, bohemian communities Lange created first in San Francisco and then in Berkeley. When Lange met and married Maynard Dixon in 1920, she entered into a world of artists who were exploring new modern techniques and who gathered socially at Coppa’s, an Italian restaurant in the Monkey Block building on Montgomery Street. (The Transamerica Pyramid now sits there.) Lange also took portraits of influential San Franciscans and linked up struggling artists with wealthy patrons, said Gordon. After her marriage to Paul Taylor in 1935, Lange created another circle in Berkeley, one made up of artists like Imogene Cunningham and her painter husband Roi Partridge, but also of progressive academics.
Henry Mayer had recently completed All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, when he decided to write a biography of Lange. The Garrison book, which won the 1999 J. Anthony Lukas Book prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, cemented Mayer’s reputation as a formidable independent scholar. He had taught history at The Urban School of San Francisco before turning his attention to biography, and he was intrigued by Lange’s passion for social justice, according to his editor, Weil.
“I listened to whatever Henry Mayer told me,” said Weil, who spent “thousands of hours” working with Mayer on the Garrison book. “His sensitivities were so acute. He understood human drama and was fascinated by Lange, of her ability to address the inequities of the world. He was so strongly compelled to do this book.”
Mayer had spent about two years collecting information on Lange (I was one of his research assistants) and had written an introduction and first chapter when he and his wife, Betsy Mayer, went on a bicycling trip to Glacier National Monument. Mayer and Betsy had trained for the trip by taking 35-mile rides across the Golden Gate Bridge and around other parts of the Bay Area. But during the trip, Mayer had a heart attack. He left behind Betsy and two children, Eleanor and Tom.
Mayer had received a significant advance for the Lange book, and after the funeral Betsy Mayer called up Weil and offered to return the money. “I figured it was done,” she said. “I called up the editor and asked what were the courtesies? Should I return the advance?” Weil told her no, and encouraged her to find another writer to continue the project.
“That was one of the most painful things about losing him,” said Betsy. “It was a catastrophe to lose him right at the point where the momentum (for the book) was building.”
Betsy wanted to find a writer who could do justice to both the seriousness of the material and the strength of the story. She didn’t want the book to be too academic in tone, but one that appealed to a broad audience. Through a friend, Betsy learned of Linda Gordon. At first, Gordon said she wasn’t interested.
“She’s a serious historian, a well-known writer and she had never done a biography and had serious doubts because it is a different form,” said Betsy.
But when Gordon was visiting family in Portland, she decided to stop by the Mayer house in Berkeley and examine the files. Gordon and Betsy developed an immediate respect for one another. Betsy read Gordon’s book on the Arizona orphan abduction and saw she was a graceful writer. Gordon began to ponder the possibility of using Mayer’s material. After a time, they both agreed that Gordon was the right person to continue the Lange biography.
In an unusual move, Gordon took over Mayer’s contract from Norton and began to work with Weil. From the start, it was clear that the new book would be Gordon’s rather than Mayer’s, and everyone agreed that was the way the project should be approached.
“It would have been inappropriate of me to shoehorn Henry’s vision onto Linda,” said Weil.
While Mayer had collected a large amount of research material and had written the beginning of the book, Gordon the project all over again. She traveled frequently to Berkeley to look at oral histories and other archival materials at the Bancroft Library and interviewed the descendants of Lange, Dixon, Taylor, and Cunningham. Many of them will be at the celebration at the Mayers’ home on Monday.
Betsy got a copy of the book two weeks ago and thinks Gordon has written a compelling story, one that shows Lange’s strong sense of social justice as well as her passionate, human side. “It is lovely, and it is lovely for me,” she said.
And in a nice footnote, Weil has continued his relationship with the Mayer family as well. Mayer’s son, Tom, came to work for Weil as an editorial assistant a few years ago and has since risen to an editor position.
“The Mayer name lives on in Tom Meyer,” said Weil. “Tom has all of Henry’s social passions and convictions.”