Wednesday, May 22, 2024

New book restores the paired lives of two gay California artists

The Splendid Disarray of Beauty documents the lives of partners in love, life, and innovation who transformed the American Arts and Crafts movement.

Married in substance one hundred years before California law caught up to their speed, artists Frank Ingerson (1879–1968) and George Dennison (1873–1966) are two of the most fascinating and admirable people you may have never heard of—until now.

The Boys, as they were affectionately known in their community, are the earliest known transparently common law gay couple in America. They were together for fifty-five years. The Splendid Disarray of Beauty: The Boys, the Tiles, the Joy of Cathedral Oaks—A Study in the Arts and Crafts Community, written by Richard D. Mohr and published by RIT Press, shares their story and that of their honeymoon project, the Cathedral Oaks School of Art.

Q40: What is the book about?

Richard D. Mohr: The book recounts the love story of two northern California artists – Frank Ingerson (1879–1968) and George Dennison (1873–1966) who were known among their friends and in their community as “The Boys.”  Coupled in life and love from 1910 to 1966, they were married in substance one hundred years before California law caught up to their speed. They are two of the most fascinating and admirable people you have never heard of.

Why would anyone want to buy a book about two old guys living together in the Santa Cruz Mountains?

Richard D. Mohr: Their amazing love story aside, Frank and George are the uncles everyone wishes they had. Academy Award Winners Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine both called the men, in the press, their uncles. Children loved them, especially those with overbearing parents, like Yehudi Menuhin, or abusive fathers like Fontaine and de Havilland. But even children with great parents enthused: “We just loved to go up to their house. That was our idea of a great Sunday afternoon. The Boys were fun. They just raved about everything they did!  They were so enthusiastic.” Their enthusiasm was contagious. They were always enabling others to develop in their own ways without imposing any of their own ways on others. Were it that all communities operated this way.

You have ponderous academic credentials. Will I be able to read this book?

Richard D. Mohr: Well, indeed, Professor of Philosophy and of the Classics is a buzz kill. But, I have had broad journalistic experience and write with flair. I have published in The AdvocateNation, Reason magazine, Boston GlobeChicago Tribune, the Gay & Lesbian Review, and many art periodicals. Through the 1990s, I self-syndicated an opinion column in the gay press. Filling a mid-spectrum political niche, my role was that of classical liberal gadfly. Both the gay left and gay right scowled at me. 

Back to the Boys. What was the glue of their relationship?

Richard D. Mohr: Sociologists have found that long-term gay male relationships tend to have a third element or ‘partner’ beyond the men themselves, a joint project of some kind. And such was the case with the Boys. In their early years, the third element was a summers-only art school that they founded as a honeymoon project. It was located amid the honeyed chaparral of the foothills above what is now known as Silicon Valley. The school was a key part of the American Arts & Crafts Movement. In their final years, the third element was charity work great and small ― community theatre productions, USO work, sponsoring scholarships for art students, judging doll collecting competitions. 

Between early and late what did they do? 

Richard D. Mohr: Between their art school years and their ‘silver livery’, they were the interwar equivalents of international jet setters: designing the interiors of grand mansions and hotels in Santa Barbara and Hollywood – they put the coconuts in the Coconut Grove ― dining with the Peerage in London, painting in the Vatican Museum, helping repair frescos elsewhere in Italy. Dithering.

What was their day-to-day life like?

Richard D. Mohr: Frank hooked rugs while George hemmed them. Frank cooked, George washed the dishes. Frank told jokes, George set them up. Frank talked lots and lots, George kept his own council. The men took turns driving their spiffy Ford Model C. A couple of sweeties, the Boys were the shock of the ordinary. Oh, and if you want to know what they did in bed, well, like most successful long-term couples, they playfully bickered. 

Why are you the right person to have written this book?

Richard D. Mohr: The book is an intersection point for two of my main research and writing interests. I have written on art, specifically the American Arts and Crafts Movement, within that, especially on ceramics ― and art tiles are the main works that survive from the Boys’ summer school. I have also written extensively on gay marriage. The account I give of marriage in A More Perfect Union (1994) anticipates the line taken on gay marriage twenty years later by the Supreme Court, namely that gay marriage is to be primarily understood as an issue of liberty and privacy, not as most gay commentators would have it, as an issue of equality. Define marriage correctly and gay marriage follows automatically, I say.

What were the difficulties you encountered in researching the Boys?

Richard D. Mohr: There were three: First, their house and studio burnt to the ground five years into their relationship, so almost nothing survives of their work prior to 1915. Second, no letters between them survive. Maybe there weren’t any to begin with: they bonded quickly and after 1910, they were continuously in each other’s presence until George’s death in 1966 at age 93. Third: 95% of what we know of them comes from newspapers. In their later decades, they were in the local press almost weekly. The trick is to sort out the facts from the boosterism.

What excites you most about the book?

Richard D. Mohr: The project is a redemptive one, twice over. Most importantly, it resurrects from oblivion two heroes of gay culture; but it also resurrects for the art world their important school. The school prompted the creation of three other northern California summer art schools and through its distinguished alumni, it lead to the founding of the California Society of Etchers and the ArtCenter College of Design in LA (now in Pasadena). Their later lives were so glamorous, glittering across two continents, that by the time they died their school was wholly forgotten. It is not mentioned in any of their obituaries. 

That was an eggheady response to the question, what excites YOU most about the book?

Richard D. Mohr: Well, let me be vain. It is my first coffee-table book. Two of my earlier books, Gay Ideas (1992) and Pottery, Politics, Art (2003), are illustrated, but the new book, when in production, generated so much excitement that I was able to raise enough funds from friends and the Arts and Crafts community that Splendid could live up to its name and appear with lavish production values ― large trim size, finely wrought design, top of the line printer, full color. I told you, vain.

About the author

Richard D. Mohr is an academically trained author with extensive journalistic experience and literary flair. He publishes books in three widely diverse fields: ancient Greek metaphysics, especially Plato’s; American ceramics, especially from the Arts & Crafts period; and gay studies along with queer theory, focusing on ethical, social, political, and legal issues.

The Splendid Disarray of Beauty: The Boys, the Tiles, the Joy of Cathedral Oaks ― A Study of Arts and Crafts Community (RIT Press) is available here.

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