Obituary: Olga Rudge
Monday 25 March 1996
She was born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1895 but educated in England and in Paris. Her family was of Irish Catholic descent and she remained a practising Catholic throughout her life. After the First World War she gave a number of concerts in London, one of which Pound reviewed in A.R. Orage's the New Age. They met again in 1920 in Paris, when Pound invited the young avant-garde American composer George Antheil to supply "several sonatas for violin" for her.
Antheil, after hearing her play Mozart, called her a "consummate violinist" and particularly praised her unique rendering of the low notes. Rudge, and her piano accompanist Renata Borgatti, were frequent visitors at the salon of Natalie Barney. She played the violin part in Pound's opera Villon in 1921. The collaboration of the poet and the musician lasted till the Second World War put a stop to their public activities. According to Pound's biographer Humphrey Carpenter, the birth in 1925 of her daughter by Pound was her own determined initiative and contrary to Pound's wishes.
In February 1927 Rudge had an audience with Mussolini, who was himself a competent violinist, and they discussed the differing nature of music for violin and piano. In 1931, at her initiative, she and Pound organised the Concerti Tigulliani at Rapallo at which recently discovered works of Vivaldi were presented, along with the Italian "firsts" of Bartk's magical quartets, and later in the Thirties they organised other concerts in Venice.
If Rudge was the fully fledged professional performer and musicologist, Pound must still be reckoned a very knowledgeable and gifted amateur composer and critic. They were a wonderful team. Rudge's studies of some 309 unpublished concertos of Vivaldi in Turin, and of others in Dresden, were undoubtedly of great importance at the time. It was also thanks to her that in 1939 the Accademia Musicale Chigiana (founded by Count Chigi) in Siena presented the first Settimana musicale devoted to Vivaldi, who was then still virtually unknown. Rudge continued to act as Count Chigi's personal secretary until well on in the Fifties.
From 1945 onwards, up to the late 1950s, Olga Rudge devoted all her energies to persuading influential people round the world to defend Pound against the charge of treason laid against him by the United States government (because of his broadcasts supporting Fascist Italy in the Second World War), and carried on a vast correspondence. Certainly her activity represented an obsession, but her letters in their clear and legible hand were eminently reasonable and tactful.
I first heard of her existence under sinister auspices: in Le Giubbe Rosse, a cafe favoured by the Florentine literati, in the summer of 1947, I was introduced to Eugenio Montale, the poet, and I asked him what he thought of Ezra Pound. In his dry acidulous manner, Montale replied "Sporco" and then launched into a long story about the American poet's "red-haired mistress" well-calculated to shock a young Englishman before the days of permissiveness made us insensible to anything but holocaust, apocalypse or a word spoken against dubious minorities or incompetence in general. Montale's portrait of the lady was positively lurid.
Early in 1948, Pound directed me, through a missive to T.S. Eliot, to visit Olga Rudge in Rapallo. I stayed with her for two weeks at her house in the hill-top village of San Ambrogio just outside Rapallo, in an apartment on the second floor of a peasant's house among the olive groves overlooking the very blue sea. "A million-dollar view", as Rudge herself said. Staying nearby was Douglas Paige, who was then editing The Letters of Ezra Pound, which were to be published in 1950. Paige knew a lot about Pound's life from his editorial work, but Olga Rudge could talk from direct acquaintance with Ford Hueffer, Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Margaret Anderson, the found-er of the Little Review, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, Hemingway, Brancusi, Cocteau and almost all the "big names" of so-called Modernism.
Looking back after nearly 50 years I think that what impressed me most was the impact of a 50-year-old woman plainly in love with a man who was detained by the US government under an indictment for treason and in very real danger of finishing on the electric chair.
Pound had been detained since 1945 in St Elizabeth's Criminal Lunatic Asylum, the Broadmoor of the United States, in Washington DC, and was the object of virtually daily attacks by the journalists of the McCarthy era - even the friend of his adolescent days, Carlos Williams, had turned against him - and was supported only by his legal wife, the good Dorothy Pound, who was living in Washington to be near him.
But this, of course, was cold comfort to Olga Rudge. I found myself caught between a woman who wanted her lover completely to herself and a legal wife, equally devoted, who wanted just the same thing. I had the impression that Mrs Pound - like her mother Olivia Shakespear - was the intellectual and literary peer of her husband, but that Rudge knew just how to handle Pound's relationships with editors, publishers, and well-wishers and was the essential help meet. She worried as much about his dirty socks and underpants as she did about his soul.
In 1949 I visited Olga Rudge again at San Ambrogio, and also in Siena where she was working for Count Chigi. It was there that she published a selection of Pound's wartime broadcasts from Rome, If This Be Treason . . . , as well as an edition of three previously unpublished concertos by Vivaldi.
When all charges against Pound were dropped in 1958 and he eventually returned with Mrs Pound to his daughter's castle in the mountains of the Italian Tyrol, his domestic situation must have seemed almost madder than in the madhouse. The daughter was his by Olga Rudge and of course she was a frequent visitor.
In 1960 Pound fell seriously ill; it may well be because of the stresses and strains of the household. It was Rudge who nursed him back to life and in effect kept him going for the remaining 12 years of his life.
This was something more than a full-time job. For instance, in 1964 she persuaded him to go to Switzerland to meet Oskar Kokoschka, who painted a now famous portrait of him, and in January 1966 she accompanied him at the funeral of T.S. Eliot, and the memorial service in Westminster Abbey. I recall her planning a visit to Japan in 1967. This was one of the very few initiatives of hers which was not in fact realised.
It was largely by her personal encouragement and initiatives that Pound continued to write and to take an active interest in the world around him. She continually invited guests who would stimulate the old man's memories and interests, not only well-known people like Cyril Connolly, Hugh MacDiarmid, Hugh Kenner, Allen Ginsburg, but also ordinary neighbours and students who could talk to him about books and the world.
The last eight years of his life they spent in Venice, where they went regularly to the opera, to concerts and public lectures, and Rudge encouraged Pound to record many of his Cantos on tape. They also travelled a good deal in Italy, visiting once again the monuments and museums Pound knew so well.
The idea that Olga Rudge was a slave-driver or that Pound simply gave in to stop her talking, which has been suggested, is both erroneous and malicious. I well recall Pound asking me how he could pay his debt of gratitude to her. He felt that he was a burden to her, but in fact she kept him busy and fit out of sheer selfless love and I never once heard her complain. Nor did she ever regret giving up her musical career to share her life with him.
In 1969 their daughter Mary, by marriage Princess de Rachewiltz, published a brilliant, and in fact very critical, study of her mother, entitled Discretions, a title that chimes with Pound's own 1923 autobiography, Indiscretions.
After Pound's death Rudge continued to devote herself to defending his reputation which was so often attacked by journalists and critics. This became something of an obsession with her. I recall a day in 1981 when I met her at a conference on the island of San Giorgio. Without greeting me she rolled up her newspaper and started beating me over the head with it, saying: "You never bother to defend Ezra from all these calumnies, like you used to." She was also indefatigable in her efforts to have the pigeons in Venice wiped out because of the damage they did to the monuments Pound had loved so much.
She continued to live in Venice and planned to make her house a sort of museum and venue for poets in future times. Her last few years she spent with her daughter at her castle in the mountains of the Italian Tyrol, Brunnenburg bei Merano. She rests beside Pound now in the island cemetery of San Michele at Venice. Pound wrote of Olga Rudge: "Her name was Cour-age." I would add "Loyalty".
Olga Rudge, violinist: born Youngstown, Ohio 13 April 1895; (one daughter by Ezra Pound); died Merano, Italy 15 March 1996.
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