Arts / Museums

A Heiress Remakes Her Life in Wyoming: Inside the Hidden Retreat of an Unlikely Artist and Frontier Woman

BY // 10.04.16
photography Portrait Mary Jane Edwards. Additional photography Catherine D. Anspon.

Tracking a great underknown talent in the wilds of the American West, a remarkable saga unfolds. Catherine D. Anspon visits Doubleday heiress Neltje at her home and studio outside Sheridan, Wyoming, on the eve of the release of an unflinching autobiography — a cathartic tell-all published by St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of her family empire, Doubleday. Her Houston book launch is today (Tuesday, Oct. 4) at 6 p.m. at Bayou Bend Visitor Center.

The painter and writer, who has emotionally and legally dropped her last name, is a 21st-century feminist-meets-frontier woman. She’s less glamorous or notorious perhaps than Mabel Dodge Luhan, is as tenacious as Georgia O’Keeffe, and more tenderhearted and free-spirited than the reader might suspect from the portrait that emerges within her book, North of Crazy: A Memoir. Neltje, and her revelatory volume, touch down in Houston starting tonight.

As exposés go, this one is a page-turner: a brave riff on a life of privilege and a childhood bracketed by the World Wars; when WASP hegemony reigned supreme but it was nigh impossible for a woman of the upper crust to find happiness or purpose in life without following a constrictive social code. Add to that the extreme dysfunction of her family, a dynamic riddled with the virtues of entrepreneurism, wealth, and style. Estates on Oyster Bay, Long Island, and a plantation in South Carolina mix with self-absorbed, bordering-on-cruel parents, betrayal, alcoholism, childhood sexual abuse (a Navy pilot who was never punished), old-school nannies, and two bad marriages.

Marriage number one was to an emotionally unavailable man that her Machiavellian mother sided with as he rose in her family’s company and fought the author for her own stock; the second marriage, to a charmer who began a new life with her in the wilds of Wyoming while almost bankrupting her … At times heartbreaking and other times redemptive, North of Crazy: A Memoir is as riveting as it is brutally honest.

The details are particularly rich, conjuring up a glamorous world from the perspective of an insider who felt like an outsider. Of her early childhood memories of Barberries, the family’s Long Island estate, Neltje writes, “In the evenings, after our supper, and before my parents have dinner, we might get to have a visit with them. Nana gets us all dressed up. I wear a dress. [Brother] Nelson [Doubleday Jr.] wears short pants, a shirt, and sometimes a tie … Nana walks downstairs with us to the landing, where the cannonball sits by the grandfather clock. ‘The cannonball is special,’ my father told us last year. ‘General Abner Doubleday, your great-great-uncle, shot the first cannonball from Fort Sumter. That was the beginning of the Civil War in America …’ Nelson and I both touched the cannonball, but I could not read the inscription on the brass plate. I was four then.”

The author relays the rituals of the wealthy household, which we read with concern, knowing her dashing father’s struggle with alcoholism and her own recovery from it. The cocktail hour was a beloved but lethal portion of the day.

Outdoor Dining with Bering's

  • Bering's Gift's April 2024
  • Bering's Gift's April 2024
  • Bering's Gift's April 2024
  • Bering's Gift's April 2024
  • Bering's Gift's April 2024
  • Bering's Gift's April 2024
  • Bering's Gift's April 2024
  • Bering's Gift's April 2024

“My father comes out of the library leaving the door open because he has a drink in each hand. ‘Here is your Tom Collins,’ he says, handing the drink to my mother … Later they will have old-fashioneds for the real cocktail hour. This drink time is now called a ‘prelude.’ When they have old-fashioneds, my father occasionally gives me the maraschino cherry as a treat … does that mean he loves me a bit? I wonder. He talks to Nelson more than to me. And he takes Nelson on many more drives in the car.”

The stores of the nannies are vivid, recalled 70 years later in excruciating detail. “This is Nana’s last summer. Next week she will move away to a Roosevelt family to take care of their newborn baby. She tells Nelson that is what she is trained to do. Nelson is seven and I will be six in October. The fear of being alone and uncared for swallows me up … On the appointed day, I watch as she leaves the nursery. The good-byes and the clinging kisses I give her, the lingering tears and pleadings, none of it helps. Beside me, Nelson sobs. Earlier, he tried to steal and hide her glasses so she would not leave, but she found them. As Nana goes down the stairs with her small brown suitcase, the butler Tony ahead with her large case, we two stand at the top railing waiting for her to turn around and say, ‘I love you’ or wave a good-bye. She doesn’t. She just goes away.”

Nana’s replacement makes a scene etched in the reader’s mind. “Mademoiselle Van Toch is our new French governess. We have French lessons every day. She is tougher and meaner that Nana and her voice is sharp. But a least she doesn’t think Nelson is such a prince, doesn’t tell him how wonderful he is, as Nana did daily. One morning, I felt sick. I said I didn’t want to go to school feeling sick. I threw up on the carpet in the nursery, Mademoiselle’s room. She made me eat my vomit off the carpet and sent me to school. That afternoon when I came home she locked me in her closet for punishment. She said I was pretending to be sick to get out of school. I wished there were scissors in her closet. I would cut her clothes in half. Maybe I did. I don’t remember.”

The idyllic and concise romance with the decade older John Sargent — she was 17, a student at Miss Porter’s; he was angling to rise up the Doubleday ladder — played out one Saturday in late December, 1951, at a debutante dance at the Pierre, on the couple’s first date. He was a friend of her older half-sister and a frequent houseguest. Neltje writes, “He and I had spent many evenings over the years coping with my mother when she had too much to drink, listening to her teary stories of being slighted or not having the control she wanted in the company [after Neltje’s father’s death] … Watching parents, mine or those belonging to others — in fact, adults of any age — getting drunk was an ordinary experience for me.” At the ballroom of the Pierre, “We danced around the highly polished floor to Lester Lanin’s music, he was in a tuxedo, me in a low-cut, virtually strapless evening dress, the bodice ornamented with crystal drops and sequins, the swinging bouffant skirt of dusty pink tulle. My other date (I always took two boys to the dance) was there, but I have no memory of even who it was. … It was close to midnight: the band was playing a Strauss waltz. We stepped on the dance floor … then began the liquid motions of the Vienna Waltz. He bent his head down close to my ear, ‘Marry me?’ ”

Opening the book mid-volume, I turn to a page, transfixed, reading of a wedding day carefully choreographed by the mother of the bride: “John and I got married on May 16, 1953. I was eighteen and he would be twenty-eight in late June. My mother chose the date because the azaleas and rhododendron that lined the driveway of our home on Long Island would be in full bloom. She even insisted that the gardeners place dry ice around the base of the azalea bushes to maintain perfect blossoms if necessary, and she ensured that our wedding did not interfere with Nelson’s final exams at Princeton. I was personally paying for this wedding but was not allowed to say how many people or even who should be invited, nor allowed to interfere with any of the arrangements … I sat in the sun on the far end of the terrace, writing thank you notes, took breathers to wander about the lawn, look over the woods to Oyster Bay. I stopped thinking of anything but the physicality of the day of the wedding. My mother was furious when she found me getting a tan. She told me to go in the house immediately, and said it was indecent and lewd for a bride to have a suntan at her wedding.”

There are many other page-turning passages in North of Crazy: life in a Swiss boarding school where rich adolescent girls are parked by absentee, disinterested parents; chatting with a young Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at a tony private reception in Windsor Castle that she and a boarding school pal attended with the husband of Daphne du Maurier; getting into a nasty conversation during her own dinner party with publishing legend Bennett Cerf that derailed her first marriage; a drunken author who was a house guest coming after her with a knife in the kitchen … And that’s the first half of the book. The raw and sensitive emotions that bubble up, paired with Neltje’s gift for descriptive detail that conjure up each place, era, and remembered conversation, amount to time travel.

Neltje's cabin, north of Wyoming's Crazy Woman Creek, gives name to her memoir (Photo by Catherine D. Anspon)
Neltje’s cabin, north of Wyoming’s Crazy Woman Creek, gives name to her memoir. (Photo by Catherine D. Anspon)

After reading North of Crazy, I resolve to meet its author, on her home turf, which appears in the final uplifting chapters. In the book, her favorite childhood memories are of nature — going fishing in a flat-bottom boat amid the rice fields around the Doubleday plantation, Bonny Hall, in Yemassee, South Carolina — so perhaps it’s no surprise she found and forged a new life in a spot less traveled. Neltje’s Wyoming is far away from her posh life as a young married entertaining authors at her Sutton Place apartment, while husband John Sargent presides over the table.

After extensive emails and arrangements with Neltje’s publicist, I board a flight to Billings, Montana. The Airbus is filled with energy executives and European vacationers bound for Yellowstone. We touch down in a summer twilight at an airport heavy with trophy heads, panoramic backlit images of geysers and bears, and life-size sculptures of horses and antelope surrounding the baggage-claim carousel. So the journey begins.

Waiting curbside is a diminutive woman who strides forward with great energy and determination. I sense this is Mary Jane Edwards — or MJ, as she goes by — the capable artist, administrator, and best friend to the woman who invited (or rather, summoned) me here, to tell her story for the first time to a bigger world. We barrel down the moonlit interstate toward Wyoming, passing two roadside signs that anchor us in a unique place in time: Little Bighorn National Battlefield and Welcome to Crow Country. Two hours later, we exit at Sheridan, Wyoming, and within 20 minutes are headed down a gravel road to a sprawling homestead, which even in the dark one can see is quite extensive.

Neltje — who simply goes by her first name, and had it legally changed thus so — meets us despite the midnight hour. She is named after her paternal grandmother, a pioneering naturalist whose garden books published during the first decades of the 20th century were popular Doubleday titles. The granddaughter and daughter of the Doubleday publishing dynasty whips up scrambled eggs for our trio as the clock nears 1 am. At 80, she is both warm and imposing: a tall, broad-shouldered woman in a flowing caftan, curling gray hair that extends past her shoulders, with a colorful Swatch watch and a big turquoise ring. Part force of nature and part Earth Mother, she rules a kingdom of art and nature with kindness, strength, and compassion.

Neltje’s spread sits along the idyllic Piney Creek. Originally a modest cabin structure of few rooms, the house has been extensively expanded during her half-century in Wyoming. Rooms are decorated with comfortable furniture, craft, and artwork — a towering aboriginal painting hangs above the fireplace — as well as tribal objects of potent powers. Personally gathered from locals along the Sepik River region of New Guinea by Neltje and MJ, in the region where headhunters killed Michael Rockefeller in 1961, the artifacts lend vitality to the interiors, which are not so much designed as organized by Neltje. Her own ab-ex canvases — ambitious in scale, informed by great swirls of paint and evoking a sense of nature and landscape in pigments ranging from tropical to earth-hued — are also in evidence, as well as works by an early mentor, New York-based painter Jon Schueler, who makes a cameo in her book.

In the following days, we pay a visit to the studio complex attached to the Piney Creek house, and picnic at her writer’s cabin, Little Crazy, on the banks of the Little North Fork of Crazy Woman Creek. She is one of the best-read people I’ve ever met; stacks upon stacks of the latest fiction and nonfiction releases reside in every corner of the main residence, as well as in Little Crazy. Her four indoor dogs, all rescues, have learned to navigate the volumes.

Ambling throughout the house, we reach its terminus: a well-planned wing that’s home to a series of studios. The first is a well-lit and perfectly organized spot with expansive storage racks brimming with paintings (many quite large), a loading area marked by a jaunty red door, and rolling tables for collage work. The setup would be the envy of every artist I know, as well as many a commercial gallery. It gives way to a vast room with the ample proportions of a nonprofit space or small contemporary museum, with an expanse of walls, and leather poufs from which to gaze at the canvases on display — a four-part series of her “Moroccan Suite.” Inspired by one of her favorite travel destinations, each canvas measures 10 by 30 feet, and one from the series graces the catalog cover to her 2013 museum show at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. The word heroic is no understatement — whorls of pigment fly across canvases seemingly as endless as the horizons of Wyoming. An adjoining room has space for flat files; skylights wash light into the room, which leads to a courtyard, one of the many outdoor garden rooms; nature is never far away.

The gardens, situated between the home and a field of hay bales, are filled with poppies and peonies. Her legendary blossoms are kept flourishing by a crew of gardeners and landscape designers.

The book, out this month, is released during a high-profile year for women, especially in American politics — illuminating one woman’s journey from an insecure, oppressed member of the “weaker” sex, to the capable, forceful presence I encounter in Wyoming. Her story and the environment she has carved out has the aura and spirituality of Donald Judd’s Marfa or James Turrell’s Rodin Crater. As a contemporary heroine, Neltje offers the role model for a 21st-century activist and environmentalist with the commitment of Rachel Carson; as an artist she possesses the steely tenacity and dose of eccentricity of Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, or Joan Jonas. If North of Crazy gets cast as a film, Diane Keaton should play Neltje.

Epilogue: During our Wyoming sojourn, we learn details of Neltje’s estate plans — to donate her lands and Piney Creek home to the University of Wyoming for a future art and nature center. Announced during 2010, the gift is to date the largest ever made to the university. The cabins, though, will be bequeathed to her family, to foster future Doubleday generations’ connection with the wilderness that shaped and revitalized Neltje’s life.


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