THE PAINTER Mary Hoover Aiken was the third wife of the US poet Conrad Aiken. A shy man, he said of her, 'She made me the only man who has two parties every day.'
At 15 Mary Hoover chose to skip high school to study painting at the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, going on to the famous Provincetown school to study with Charles Hawthorne and Edwin Dickinson and then to George Luks in New York. After scholarships to Fontainebleau and the Kunstgeweber Schule in Munich, she was chosen by Luis Quintinilla to paint with him the large frescos in the Ciudad Universitaria, Madrid.
During the chaotic Spanish election of 1933 she found herself in the group of Republicans of Juan Negrin and his friends, political and artistic, including foreign journalists. As violence mounted Quintinilla insisted she retreat to Santa Eulalia in Ibiza, where for a year her work matured in paintings of the islanders and their landscape, at the time when her friend Elliot Paul was studying the town that became the tragic subject of Life and Death of a Spanish Town.
Clouds of civil war drove her to New York, where her career bloomed with 14 group and solo exhibitions in two years, and where the Metropolitan Museum purchased two of her paintings. In the US it was the moment of frescos, and she won commissions including WK Vanderbilt's for the University Womens Club.
Visiting Boston in 1936, she was introduced to Conrad Aiken, 47, whose Selected Poems in 1929 had established him as a major poet and had won the Pulitzer Prize. With their English friend Edward Burra, himself launching a major painting career, they rented a house in Charlestown near Boston. Ed painted in the dining- room, Mary in the bedroom upstairs and Conrad wrote in the cellar. In 1937 the three travelled to Malcolm Lowry, Conrad's old pupil, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, so Conrad could obtain a divorce and marry Mary.
They married in July and sailed to England, to live in Rye, Sussex, where they created a painting gallery in Jeake's House on Mermaid Street. Wartime regulations forced them in 1940 to return to Conrad's ancestral Cape Cod, where they restored an ancient farmhouse, 41 Doors, to which afterwards they always returned - from Washington, where Conrad was for two years poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, from their New York 'slumlet' or, later, from his childhood home in Savannah, Georgia, next to the house in which he heard his parents tragically die when he was 11. When in 1973 Conrad died at 84 in Savannah Mary Aiken continued to divide her time until her last illness between Cape Cod and Savannah.
Mary brought Conrad, a man who despised self-promotion, into happy meetings with writers and artists in Boston, New York and Washington. After her marriage she slowly abandoned her active career as a painter but she continued to experiment with new forms until her last years, when her vision failed. She chose her husband's epitaph from the shipping news to suit them both as they lie in Bonaventure by the Thunderbolt River: 'Cosmic Voyages, destination unknown.'
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