Stephen Schmalhofer observes at the beginning of his wonderful book Delightful People, that we all know a striking person whose presence draws us in and lights up a party. Schmalhofer hopes with his book to “introduce” his readers to several such characters. Schmalhofer, a partner at an investment firm by day, succeeds and then some. In a series of eleven essays, Schmalhofer, introduces readers to a variety of late 19th and early 20th century American artists, editors, authors, and denizens of high society. Their lives overlap and interpenetrate.
Among the personages who grace these pages are the author Willa Cather, the editor, Viola Roseboro, the artist John La Farge, Henry Adams, Henry James, William James, the artist and architect Egisto Fabbri, Winthrop Astor Chanler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Monsignor Cyril Sigourney Fay. Some are Catholic. Many are Catholic haunted: Cather, Adams, and Roseboro come to mind. After reading Schmalhofer’s enchanting volume, I came away with a desire to meet these characters in our Heavenly Home.
One of the delightful people is Egisto Fabbri, Jr. The son of an Italian immigrant, Fabbri was raised by his uncle of the same name who was a partner of J.P. Morgan’s father. Fabbri was raised Episcopalian “in affluent comfort.” But “his childhood loneliness matured into Franciscan detachment . . . and pulled him back to the art and faith of the old country.” Fabbri was an artist and, later, a self-taught architect. He also “was one of the first to appreciate” Cézanne, whose work he collected. Fabbri was a man who loved and created beauty. And that love led him, step-by-step, to the one who is Beauty himself and the Church he founded to extend his presence through time and space.
Schmalhofer writes, “Fabbri’s spiritual search led him to see God as the fountainhead of all artistic excellence.” Fabbri would later sell thirteen of his treasured Cézannes to rescue his sisters and nieces and nephews and keep them in the family’s Florentine palazzo.
Another of the intriguing personalities is Monsignor Cyril Sigourney Fay. Schmalhofer writes that Fay, while “[m]ostly forgotten by history” was “unforgettable to those who knew him.” Fay’s personality was as large as his rotund physical stature. Schmalhofer writes that Fay “had a buoyant personality and childlike faith beloved of [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, Henry Adams, Cardinal Gibbons, and Pope Benedict XVI.” Fay graduated from the University of Pennsylvania after which he was ordained an Episcopalian priest. His affinity for Cardinal Newman and the Fathers was too strong, and the magnetic pull of the Catholic Church soon won him over. In June 1908, he converted to Catholicism and later sought ordination in the Catholic Church from Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore. It was as chaplain to the “selective Newman School” that Fay met Fitzgerald, whose ego he stoked. Schmalhofer states that “Fay was ambitious for Fitzgerald to become a great Catholic novelist.”
Fay also served as a sort of roving chaplain to the American elite. Once, Daisy Chanler, who married Roughrider Winthrop Astor Chanler, asked Msgr. Fay about the Chanlers’ comfortable circumstances and whether “the ascetic saints would approve.” Msgr. Fay answered: “Well, yes, I know that it is a special call—I personally have never felt it; it seems to me that we praise God better by enjoying and thanking Him for the good things He sends our way.” Not missing a beat, Msgr. Fay then “shook a fleshy finger at her and offered a quick prayer of thanksgiving for her chef’s excellent soup.” This larger-than-life personality appears, thinly veiled, as Msgr. D’Arcy in Fitzgerald’s debut novel This Side of Paradise.
A third we meet is John La Farge. La Farge was a Catholic artist whose work spanned various media, including stained glass. It was La Farge’s friendship with Henry Adams that helped birth Adams’ great Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. La Farge and Adams were traveling companions. La Farge accompanied Adams to Japan shortly after Adams’ wife, beset by depression, committed suicide. Later, the two traveled to France where La Farge “tutored ‘his pupil’ at Chartres.” Schmalhofer describes La Farge as “ecumenical in his art, completing work in churches of many Christian denominations, even earning a feast day on the Episcopalian liturgical calendar.” La Farge was the sort of man who “could guide the conversation to higher things” and had an attuned religious sense that attracted Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
To better understand how these various delightful people fit together and how he discovered them, I recently interviewed Schmalhofer. He is a Partner at Teamworthy Ventures and a graduate of Yale College, where he played defensive tackle on the football team. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and four daughters.
CWR: Delightful People shares with its readers a group of American personalities whose lives intersected in the late-19th and first quarter of the 20th centuries. Some names are familiar. Others will be new to readers. How did you come to know these various charming figures?
Schmalhofer: Each of us knows a delightful person whose presence is effervescence at any party. In this little book, I hope to introduce readers to several delightful people. I met them as you meet a new group of friends and acquaintances. One introduces you to another. Through the warm recommendation of one, you are excited to meet one whom you’ve heard a lot about. Others seem to be lurking in the corners of the party and you have to seek them out without interrupting or imposing yourself on them. Start with Henry Adams. Henry Adams knew everyone. He made the world smaller. Through Adams, we meet Theodore Roosevelt and then you’re off on a long path of introductions.
CWR: Was there one person in particular who started you down the path to this book? How did you come to know him or her?
Schmalhofer: Viola Roseboro. She deserves her own book. Booth Tarkington, Jack London, O. Henry, Willa Cather, and more owe much of their success to her work as editor. She sat in the corner and watched artists like John La Farge work. We have precious few Viola memories in a single strange biography and almost none of her letters survive. I first noticed her as a guest in the summer boarding house she shared with others at McClure’s Magazine, including Willa Cather, who was painted on the porch by Childe Hassam. She was the devoted servant of her writers. She was a talented writer who sacrificed her own ambition to advance the art of Cather.
CWR: A striking thing is the overlapping nature of the lives of so many of these characters. Cather and La Farge wrote for Viola Roseboro at McClure’s Magazine. La Farge helped Henry Adams see through 12th-century eyes when they visited Chartres together. Adams was a friend of Msgr. Fay’s. Fay mentored Fitzgerald. The personages in this book seem like various threads bound together into a larger rope. Was that a surprising aspect of the research you did for this book—just how interconnected they all were? Or was this interconnectedness something you discovered that led you to draw portraits of certain people upon whom you otherwise wouldn’t have focused?
Schmalhofer: The book confirms that all roads lead to Rome. Francis Marion Crawford, who outsold Henry James, lived with his two brilliant sisters in Rome. Willa Cather was moved by the power and beauty of Renaissance Rome. Rome is a turning point in the life of Sigrid Undset. Wintie Chanler, at the time a Protestant, winks and smirks through his visit to Rome but sees how his friend Monsignor Fay was valued by the Holy Father.
Converts and near-converts. Travelers and ex-pats. Many of the personalities in the book meet or are formed by an experience in Rome.
CWR: What was your research process for coming to know the history and interactions of these various personalities?
Schmalhofer: Writing is the perfect excuse to buy more books. An obscure local history, a rare privately printed memoir, an out of print novel… these are the precious artifacts of delightful people and they deserve to be rescued from dusty attics. Many of them needed better editing; perhaps that’s one reason they are out of print, but inside are priceless anecdotes, forgotten incidents, and unexpected coincidences. These little works fill in the jagged borders and clipped corners of a bigger picture. My simple task is to bring all the pieces together.
CWR: What didn’t make it into the book that you wish had?
Schmalhofer: The precocious American convert Francis Augustus MacNutt translated the letters of Cortes into English while in residence at the Palazzo Pamphili in Rome. He was an international networker and fixer at large on behalf of the pope as a papal chamberlain. Henry Adams thought he was a papal spy. His amusing, name-dropping memoirs begin with an introduction by GK Chesterton and only get better from there.
CWR: Some of the persons who make appearances or are profiled in your book, like Henry Adams, Willa Cather, and Viola Roseboro, were deeply sympathetic to the Catholic faith. For instance, Cather arguably wrote two of the most profoundly Catholic novels in history, Shadows on the Rock, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Yet, all three remained outside the Church. In your research, did you come to understand what kept them outside the Church? What, if anything, can this tell us about evangelization today?
Schmalhofer: They admired strengths of the Church that seem to embarrass some of our bishops. Adams admired the Faith that could quarry cathedrals out of the earth. Cather’s editor Viola Roseboro wanted her writers to be bold, and she admired the Church’s swaggering claim of papal supremacy. As an anti-suffragette, she might view the proceedings of the current German Synodal Assembly with disdain.
Cather was endlessly interested in the missionaries who brought Christ to Quebec and the American southwest, what Pope Francis might call the peripheries. Far from judging those missionaries, it is we who should be judged harshly by their heroic standard. What have we done in all our comfort that compares to the light they shined in the darkness of the New World?
CWR: Of those you profiled, who is your favorite? Why?
Schmalhofer: One could, and perhaps should, spend an entire lifetime reading and re-reading Willa Cather. Start with O Pioneers, then Song of the Lark, and My Antonia. In Vibert’s anti-clerical painting of a missionary delivering a report to distracted cardinal princes, she saw the opening scene of the best American religious novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. To the excellence of Willa Cather is owed the duty of gratitude that Aquinas calls piety.
I confess a soft spot for Francis Marion Crawford, Egisto Fabbri, and Wintie Chanler as men of action, taste, and wit.
CWR: Some of these essays first appeared in various journals? Did someone encourage you to publish one of them? Did someone see that they fit together and could make a book?
Schmalhofer: The blame should first be assigned to Matthew Hennessey, opinion editor at The Wall Street Journal and author of The Visible Hand, who first encouraged me to write many years ago over lunch when he was at City Journal. The late great Gerald Russello accepted a few rough reviews at The University Bookman. As a fellow moonlighter, he was always an inspiration. I have learned more from reading R.R. Reno at First Things and Roger Kimball at The New Criterion than I did during four years at Yale. It is a source of lasting satisfaction to have an essay meet their high standard.
CWR: When did you know you had a book? How did the book project come about?
Schmalhofer: After a handful of chapters were published as essays, I bundled them up and brought the proposed project to John Clarke at Cluny Media. As I imagined John receiving and reviewing my partial manuscript, I thought of Henry Adams on Napoleon:
“Like Milton’s Satan on his throne of state, although surrounded by a group of figures little less striking than himself, sat unapproachable on his bad eminence; or, when he moved, the dusky air felt an unusual weight. His conduct was often mysterious, and sometimes so arbitrary as to seem insane; but later years have thrown on it a lurid illumination.”
I called on Gerald Russello to be my advocate before John’s judgment seat and was surprised when John accepted the book.
CWR: How do you find the time to write with such a busy family and work life?
Schmalhofer: I do not golf.
CWR: Can you tell us about your writing process?
Schmalhofer: Willa Cather wrote in the morning at a desk in a quiet cottage in Maine. She felt that she wrote best in a cozy corner under the eaves. She then took long walks in the afternoon. I wrote Delightful People on my phone during my daily train commute from Connecticut to Manhattan. I doubt a change in environment would do much to narrow the talent gap between us.
CWR: Are there any last things you’d like to share with our readers?
Schmalhofer: In my work, I am fortunate to interview many college students for our internship program. It is obvious to me that students who participate in the Program of Liberal Studies or Center for Citizenship & Constitutional Government under the leadership of Professor Munoz at Notre Dame can experience an intellectual life that is almost dead at most Ivy League schools including my alma mater Yale.
When I interview students, I try to help them understand that their intellectual life can expand, not shrink, after college. My investing work is a constant delight and intellectually absorbing. When I choose to write, I have all the advantages of an amateur without assignment.
St. John’s College in Annapolis is one of those places where you can still get an education. St. John’s alumnus Robert Hagstrom wrote Investing: The Last Liberal Art. If any CWR readers are college students, I encourage you to read that and then get in touch with me. We recruit broadly from the liberal arts to engineering.
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