Published: April 6, 2004
Wendell D. Garrett – the “D,” rarely used, stands for Douglas – measures the world letter by letter, word by word, idea by idea, book upon book.
There are a mere 14 letters in the graceful, calligraphic signature that famously appends each of the 381 learned editorials that he has written for The Magazine Antiquessince July 1972. Often, the editorials begin with a well-shaped quote, hospitably offered by a man who has hungrily collected words and ideas as others hoard silver or gold, fine paintings or rare objects. The quotes – “gathered from many mouths,” as Garrett says – are trophies from seven decades of inspired travel through the realm of the intellect.
Other aphorisms appear in A Quire of Quotes, published in three volumes by Garrett and his friend Darrell Hyder at Hyder’s Sun Hill Press. Garrett himself has owned three antique letterpresses (the largest, a Washington press of about 1880, is now at Winterthur). Enamored with the look of language, the connoisseur of stone carving has taken to chiseling the gems on slate or sandstone.
On a recent visit to the East 44th Street apartment complex where Garrett has lived since 1976, Allison Ledes, who succeeded her mentor as Antiques’ editor when he joined Sotheby’s American decorative arts department in 1990 (he has continued as Antiques’ editor-at-large), did a quick inventory.
“There must be 10,000 books here,” said Ledes, with an alarmed glance at the dwelling’s latest impediment, a set of shelves that all but blocks access to the kitchen.
In the end, a book is but an artful meeting of minds. Wisdom shared and built upon is what Garrett cares about most, as was plain when we joined him on a snowy St Patrick’s Day at Sotheby’s glass-tower offices at York Avenue and 72nd Street.
“The young can easily be persuaded that the field is full, that all the answers are in, that everything has been published. I’m concerned that they feel welcome,” began the historian, whose preoccupation with the past is a measure of his concern for the future.
Garrett recently returned from Colonial Williamsburg, where he spoke, as he has on a dozen occasions, at the annual Antiques Forum, an event jointly organized by The Magazine Antiques and the Virginia institution in 1949.
“The founding of the Forum marked the turning point when the small, tight circle of collecting giants opened up to a much wider panorama of more egalitarian and new collectors,” says Garrett, noting the parallel growth in graduate degree programs that contributed dramatically to the field’s professionalization between the 1950s and the 1970s.
A celebrated speaker, Garrett has traversed the globe over the last 30 years, traveling from lecture to panel to forum. He was instrumental in developing and promoting programs such as the Natchez Antiques Forum in Mississippi, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary.
“For a number of years, in the most remote places, I would either follow or precede Graham Hood or Clement Conger,” Garrett says with characteristic wit and charm. He has been known to bring audiences to their feet and tears to their eyes with his impassioned, vividly patriotic prose, prose that often explains the American psyche in terms of the vast and varied national landscape.
“Don’t be intimidated! All we lack are questions. Historical research progresses when we ask the right questions,” Garrett urged students at Colonial Williamsburg. He was moved by similar advice as a young man growing up in the West.
At the University of California in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, Garrett was dissuaded from a career in medicine by Page Smith, the first of four men to point the way. An inspired professor of American history, the Dartmouth- and Harvard-educated Smith urged Garrett to enroll in the newly formed master’s degree program in Early American Culture at Winterthur.
As Garrett puts it, “I didn’t know what historians did. It was meeting a teacher that turned me on.” The native Californian arrived in Wilmington, Del., in 1955 to join the fourth class of fellows in a curatorial training program started by Charles F. Montgomery, Garrett’s second mentor.
“Montgomery was a passionate man, the most charismatic individual I’ve ever known. His students would have followed him over a cliff if he had asked,” the editor says of the former pewter dealer who ultimately left Winterthur to teach at Yale.
Montgomery’s greatest gift was instilling in others a visceral love of objects, a tactile rapport that no amount of book learning could supply. The professor also had a knack for introductions. When Walter Muir Whitehill, librarian and director of the Boston Atheneum, visited Henry Francis du Pont as his house guest at Winterthur, Montgomery insisted that Garrett guide Whitehill through du Pont’s unsurpassed holdings.
“You’re coming to Boston,” Whitehill ordered Garrett before the tour ended. While earning a second master’s degree in American history at Harvard between 1957 and 1960, Garrett’s first wife, Jane, worked as Whitehill’s assistant at the atheneum. Wendell and Jane Garrett, a longtime editor at Knopff, produced the bibliography that accompanied Whitehill’s The Arts in Early American History. Published in 1965, it is still a treasured resource. Garrett subsequently married Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett, a scholar who is vice president of collections and interpretation at Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, N.H. Their three children include Nathaniel, enrolled at Stanford Law School; Maria, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago; and Abigail, a preveterinary student in Vermont.
In 1959, at Whitehill’s encouragement, Garrett joined the staff of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The trove – which dates from 1639 to 1889 and includes correspondence, diaries, literary manuscripts, speeches and legal and business papers – would stretch five miles in microfilm if laid end to end. In 1961, Garrett discovered the earliest diary of John Adams at the Vermont Historical Society and edited it for publication by Harvard University Press. His proudest achievement is the four-volume Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, which he and two others edited.
“They were not easy people because they were so honest. Henry Adams was the gloomiest writer in the world. He didn’t like what the future looked like and look what came in the next half century – two world wars and a depression! But they loved this country,” says Garrett, who has a familial regard for John, the nation’s second president; his wife Abigail; and their progeny.
Garrett’s vivid memories of his years at the Adams Papers include a lunch in Washington at which President John F. Kennedy vigorously edited a speech. The presentation was written by either Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, or Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy’s gifted speechwriters, to mark the Diary’s publication.
“Kennedy was tightening and refining all the while,” Garrett says with admiration. The publicity surrounding the Diary’s publication, which included a review by Kennedy, brought Alice Winchester to Boston. Garrett would succeed Winchester as editor of The Magazine Antiqueswhen she retired in 1972.
Another acquaintance from Cambridge days, and the fourth of Garrett’s mentors, was Bernard Bailyn. The scholar of early American history, who has taught at Harvard since 1953, inspired his protégé to write about the past with a sublime mix of reason and passion. “Charlie Montgomery wrote painfully. Walter Muir Whitehill never revised what he wrote. It came out of his typewriter and went straight to the printer. Page Smith wrote too much. He just churned it out. Of the four, Bailyn was a brilliant writer and a great stylist,” says the editor, who, despite a busy career, has always found time to read.
“I don’t collect antiques, but I do collect books. Bailyn didn’t collect books, I think on the supposition that if you collect books you don’t read them. Schlesinger Jr, who was at Harvard with me, had a system that I tried to follow. He put books on a table until they were read and then put them on a shelf,” says the bibliophile.
There are no longer four indispensable books, as Charles Montgomery insisted, says Garrett, noting the wealth of new scholarship. (Montgomery’s picks were Early American Wrought Iron by Albert H. Sonn, 1928; Pewter in Americaby Ledlie Laughlin, 1940; American Glassby Helen and George McKearin, 1941; and American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periodsby Joseph Downs, 1952.) The author’s own favorites have long included Carl Bridenbaugh’s The Colonial Craftsmanand Montgomery’s American Federal Furniture, along with works by Schlesinger, Howard Mumford Jones, John Higham, J.H. Plumb, Samuel Morison Eliot and Henry Steele Commager.
“These are men who not only did remarkable work but were great literary stylists,” explains Garrett, whose articles, columns and editorials, along with the dozen or so books that he has written, co-written or edited, bear the distinctive imprint of a man who was doubly trained as an academic historian and a connoisseur.
“I’ve tried using what I’ve learned back and forth. I don’t know that I’ve done it that successfully, but I think it’s an attempt that’s worthy,” he says with unwarranted modesty. In 1994, Garrett received one of the field’s highest honors, the Henry Francis du Pont Award for distinguished contribution to the American arts. In addition to serving as chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation at Monticello for many years, he has been on the board of the Royal Oak Foundation, the New-York Historical Society and the Decorative Arts Trust, among others.
Companionable and gregarious in an agreeably understated way, Garrett cherishes his 35-year membership in the Walpole Society, an august, discreet organization of antiques enthusiasts who combine playful fellowship with visits to important private collections. Garrett, the group’s secretary, is writing a history of the society, whose members have included John Carter Brown and John Nicholas Brown, Joseph Downs, Charles Montgomery, Henry Flynt and H.F. du Pont himself.
The author’s clear affection for his colleagues and lifelong generosity of spirit will be acknowledged on April 17, when the Antiques Dealers Association of America will honor him in Philadelphia at a dinner celebrating the editor’s contributions to the antiques field. Garrett is the third individual to receive the award, previously presented to Albert Sack and Elinor Gordon. The evening’s program will include a keynote address by Allison Ledes, plus presentations by Penny M. Hunt, executive director of the Decorative Arts Trust; Sotheby’s vice chairman William W. Stahl, Jr; and curator Carrie Rebora Barratt, who will read a letter from Morrison H. Heckscher, chairman of the American Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Like Thomas Jefferson, who declared, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,” Garrett, ever the reader, has a youthful enthusiasm for new ideas. Among the dozens of books stacked three and four deep around the perimeter of his desk is The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence.
“Scholarship is changing and it is very exciting,” says Garrett, among the first to read the just-released volume by T.H. Breen, a professor of American history at Northwestern University.
“Breen argues that material culture – the need for British teapots and the like – caused the war. Joseph Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Founding Brothers, calls it the most original interpretation of the American Revolution in the last 50 years.”
Leaning back in his chair, Garrett pauses. With a studied glance, he opines, “I’m not altogether persuaded by it, but it’s progress to see Breen writing about objects and Oxford University Press publishing it.”
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