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Scent and Sensitivity: Writing Women from their Archives – Victoria Phillips

So, is this a key distinction as we go through the archives of women: we sense their smell, their perfume, or not, as we open folders? And what will it tell us as biographers and historians if we can, or cannot? As our people linger inside us, they tell something as we open the folders one by one to see what we sense: the unexpected.

Writing about modern dancer Martha Graham, I dreamt about her, I listened to her, battled with her, hated her, and I even found empathy. But I did not find her smell in the archives. I knew the potent scent of her dance studios because I had danced there too, the wood floors mixed with old sweat from our falling backs hitting the floor in an exercise, and a hint of New York in the 1970s, the dust of things sweet and rotting. But I did not know her paper smell. Known as “The Picasso of Modern Dance,” choreographer and dancer Martha Graham was one of the “Big Four” founders of U.S. modern dance. Despite the old-fashioned notion of the “Big Four” and modern dance as a genre, the Graham technique was known and used as a foundational training approach during the twentieth century. She used her vocabulary based on the pelvic contraction and release to stage celebrated works that addressed human emotions from grief (Lamentation, 1930) to love (Diversion of Angels, 1947). She told iconic stories from Greek mythology, the Old Testament, and Shakespeare from the female perspective in fractured narratives. Added to the repertory, she choreographed works of Americana including Appalachian Spring (1944), originally titled Ballet for Martha by the Pulitzer Prize winning composer Aaron Copland.

While sitting with Martha Graham’s scrapbooks at the Library of Congress, her dramatics emerged with ferocity. She had famously declared, “Center stage is wherever I am,” and her embattled legacy continued well past her death. In her papers, I only knew the smell of old newspaper, musty-musk. As my dissertation turned into a book and “Martha Graham” became “Martha” again for me, she introduced me to Eleanor Lansing Dulles: Berlin in 1957. Eleanor Dulles wrote  Martha a thanking her curtly for a dance performance at the newly-built Congress Hall, and Martha had pasted it into the scrapbook. I thought, “Who is that, with that familiar surname?”

Dulles is an iconic Cold War name tagged to American power and empire-building by historians. From Dulles International airport in Washington, D.C., named for the Secretary of State, John Foster, to the historian’s geographic power construct of “Dulles Corridor,” which includes the home of the Central Intelligence Agency, conceived and built by Allen Dulles, the name has become a meme (Friedman, Covert Capital). So, who was Eleanor? Despite finding a plethora of very formal memos between John Foster and Eleanor at the U.S. National Archives, one “Dear Pookie” note had slipped into the onion skinned copies stuck into a manila folder detailing plans for postwar Berlin. Eleanor was their sister, head of the “Berlin Desk,”and a government official while her brothers served President Dwight D. Eisenhower. She had arrived at the State Department in 1952, before either brother had been appointed to their posts. Eleanor would become the subject of my next book, or two.

Eleanor Lansing Dulles, 1968.

In one Eleanor Lansing Dulles collection also in Washington DC but at The George Washington University (there are many), a box of datebooks came out first in the morning. I had decided to forgo my tendency to structure my box requests by my own interests. I would look at everything in the order presented. I called up every box and started with Box one, Folder one. That unplanned morning, I opened the standard reinforced grey box, steel corners, took out the manila folder, and opened it to find a book, her 1932 datebook. I lay the red leather, gold embossed diary on the wood table, and sat. As I opened to the first page, the stitched binding crackled. Then I knew not many people had been there since she had. If anyone. The next page, another crackle, and another turned page to find her notes. Like Martha, I was starting to know Eleanor’s hand, even her mood and age from the shape of the letters and the force of pencil or pen on paper.

And then a smell of perfume hit me. It was a bit sweet, light. Ivory soap but jazzed up with an over-floral. Jasmine? Yet too clean to name. Not just soap, Ivory, but something put on, applied, if only because it was just slightly sweet, distinctive, almost sharp. Like a gesture that is natural but also useful in conversation to make a point. And I felt the quiet. The room’s silence seemed loud as the smell echoed. Was I now a crazy person, leaning down over a datebook, inhaling?

Martha’s now-retired Library of Congress archivist wrote in response to my desperate email with levity. We were both retired dancers and knew the smells. ‘Let’s not try to remember the New Dance Group “lost and found” suitcase when it arrived at the Library on top of the crates of papers on a skid. And the corresponding letters to the Board about its contents.’ She continued, ‘The Erick Hawkins [Martha’s husband] boxes of unwashed leotards and tights were also a thrill.’ Then she soothed me, ‘Archives can smell,  — especially if they haven’t been touched in years. In the days of perfume, yes, you probably got a whiff.’

So that was the scent of Eleanor. This was the smell that defined her, silently. And then I realized that if I had thought about it, I would have thought that she would have worn something else, a bit deeper, more singular. Not a scent that rhymed with a clean soap. If I had even thought about it. Which I had not. Would Eleanor have used something with a lower register? But then I realized the scent she had chosen was just right. It was a simple woman’s smell, and then a bit more. Nothing remarkable that would single her out from the secretaries, the other women, but it would if you thought about it. It would leave her mark, almost gently but not, even after she had left the room. I am learning how she lingers.

Victoria Phillips is the author of Martha Graham’s Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy (OUP, 2020), which explores political life of modern dancer Martha Graham to promote the United States in over thirty nations for every presidential administration from Dwight D. Eisenhower through George H.W. Bush. At present, she is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center. At Wolfson College and the Oxford University Centre for Life Writing she will be working on her next book under contract with Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield, a biography of Eleanor Lansing Dulles. As a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics, she received the 2020-21 university award for Innovation in Teaching. She co-directs the Cold War Archival Research Institute (CWAR), the History, Culture and Diplomacy project at LSE, and History OnLine. She is chair of the Digital Resources and Archival Sharing for the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, co-founder of the Global Biography Working Group, serves on the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History board, the European Institute at Columbia University, and is on the 2023 Biographer’s International conference committee.

Her articles have appeared in as the New York Times, American Communist History, Dance Chronicle, Ballet News, Dance Research Journal, Religions, and Grant’s Interest Rate Observer. As a public historian, she has curated public exhibitions in the United States and Europe, and has lectured at renowned international universities, colleges, high schools, and global institutes, and appeared on radio and television. Her primary research is held at the Library of Congress as the Victoria Phillips Collection.

Getty has granted permission to reproduce images of Martha Graham and Eleanor Lansing Dulles.