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A Life in Arts and Letters

Peter Morais
Guest Curator

When Priscilla Morgan decided, somewhat out of the blue one day in 1950, to begin a new career representing young playwrights, few foresaw that the vivacious 31-year-old would become one of New York’s most formidable builders of human networks and spotters of artistic talent. For nearly 60 years, at a pace almost as fast now as when she opened her own theatrical agency, Morgan has nurtured a vast acquaintance of writers, artists, composers, designers, directors, producers and patrons of the arts. “I had an instinct about him,” Morgan would say of the then unknown composer Philip Glass, whom she produced at the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1967–a comment she could as well apply to scores of other household names in music, theater, literature, architecture and especially the visual arts.

Two qualities distinguish Morgan’s activity from what one usually thinks of as representing talent, which in our society is normally a commercial transaction with little nuance. Priscilla’s day, which often begins with international calls not long after sunrise, is more like a loom. Upon the warp of some big, raw idea that one of her artist or producer friends has come up with–a grand spectacle, a festival, a film, an art school, even a whole new cultural center–Priscilla begins weaving this talent with that temperament, this program with that patron, introducing like minds over lunches and dinners. Eventually, after years of this kind of personal alchemy, Miss Morgan can discreetly attend the vernissage from behind a complex scrim that is partly of her own making. The artist Christo, wrapper of buildings and maker of environmental installations of huge scale, has called her “the great connector.”

The second quality that distinguishes Priscilla from other spotters of talent–besides her wiring as an instinctive, intellectual switchboard –is the strictly personal basis on which the process is conducted. A sense of the whole person behind the idea, or behind the singular artistic gift, is as germane to Morgan’s interest as the gift itself. When she levels her gaze to read you through your eyes, her interest goes beyond merely wanting to like you well enough to induct you into the workings of a project. She is imagining that she trusts you. She is imagining dinner with you, opening her home to you, encircling you in a web of artistic friendships whose threads span six decades and as many continents. It makes no difference whether you are an intern or an impresario. Morgan has never considered her personal affinities and passions separate from her work; the distinction would never occur to her. Today, in an era when the marriage between one’s job and one’s passions often seems loveless, Morgan’s life and work offer an imaginative example. This special quality brings us to the remarkable intimacy of the papers of Priscilla Morgan, a selection of which forms this exhibition at Vassar College Library in fall of 2007.

Born in Poughkeepsie in 1919, Morgan grew up on Grand Avenue, near the Vassar campus. Her comfort with new ideas may stem from her closeness to her father, Henry Southmayd Morgan, an inventor who was an early protégé of Thomas Edison. A pioneer in the plastics industry, Henry Morgan designed and manufactured the first mass-produced steering wheels for cars at a large plant in Poughkeepsie. Priscilla’s mother, Marian Barradale Morgan, filled the house with a gentle wit and social charm that were quiet precursors of Priscilla’s own. Marian Morgan was also a businesswoman, who found personal independence within a successful marriage while adding to the family coffers, through involvement in Nantucket real estate during and after the Depression. Coincidentally, both the Morgan and Barradale families settled in New York in 1641, as charted in a 19th-century genealogical document displayed in the exhibition.

As the Depression strengthened its grip on American industry, a reversal of fortune sent the Morgan family to New York City as apartment dwellers in 1932. But in the fall of 1937, Priscilla returned to Poughkeepsie as a freshman at Vassar. She had a close childhood friend in the entering class, and her comfort with Vassar was enhanced by its informal sister-school relationship to Yale, which her two brothers attended. Student life–of which parties with boys from other schools formed no small part for Miss Morgan–can be seen in several photos in the exhibition.

After Vassar, raring to begin her working life in New York City, Priscilla immersed herself in the round-the-clock rigors of live radio production, working on nationally broadcast hits including The Kate Smith Hour and The Aldrich Family. She credits these radio days with giving her the discipline to deliver on high-stakes deadlines, along with an appreciation for divas, ensemble casts and road shows. This radio training, when she was fresh out of school, was Morgan’s boot camp for later work in television, theater, festival production, and the care and feeding of artists. Her three-year stint as a naval officer in World War II gave added impetus to her growth as a budding impresario: before joining the Navy’s information office in Washington, Lieutenant Morgan was tapped by her commanding officer in the Bronx to produce Frank Sinatra on stage for 3,000 WAVES. As seen in the 1943 Life magazine photo of this event in the exhibition, the Morgan touch included making the troops wear their white hats and gloves–curbing their impulse to scream and applaud immodestly, a phenomenon that greeted Sinatra in the ‘40s much as it did the Beatles in the ‘60s.

By 1951, having married and divorced a Navy flyer who, besides being a hero of the war in the Pacific, was a struggling composer and a singer in musical theater, Priscilla was inspired by the postwar resurgence of excellence in American playwriting to try her hand as a literary agent. She signed on with Liebling & Wood, then the hottest agency in theater because of its representation of young dramatists including Tennessee Williams and William Inge. The job was a natural fit: within two years the Priscilla Morgan Agency was formed with a raft of theatrical talent that followed Priscilla to her own office. But it was no normal office, rather a garden apartment that became a cauldron of collaboration among the producers, directors, writers and actors who were Priscilla’s clientele. Script sessions spilled over into dinner parties and back again, and in the mornings, a little bleary but no less inspired, they would all soldier on.

Out of these impassioned gatherings came some of television’s most memorable live dramas, including productions of The Miracle Worker, For Whom the Bell Tolls and Days of Wine and Roses. The producer Fred Coe was a client central to the Priscilla Morgan Agency’s success, for he led teams of talent that included other Morgan clients–the directors Arthur Penn and John Frankenheimer among them–in productions for NBC’s pioneering Philco Playhouse. Broadway hits also emerged from this fertile group, including the playwright Tad Mosel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Way Home and William Gibson’s Two for the Seesaw–the latter represented in the exhibition by a theater poster, whose illustration was drawn by Priscilla’s lover in the 1950s, the portraitist and fashion artist René Bouché. This poster, giving top billing to multiple Morgan clients and illustrated by an intimate friend, documents the indissolubility of work and love, accomplishment and friendship, which characterizes Morgan’s projects.

The playful, affectionate René Bouché, whose correspondence with Priscilla provides some of the exhibition’s most charming ephemera, was at the center of a circle of New York artists then at the height of their experimentation and productivity. Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Richard Lindner, Alexander Calder, Saul Steinberg, and Jack Tworkov and his sister, Janice Biala, were among the artists who brought Priscilla inside the life of the studio. Their tutelage, not only in the principles of art they strove to express and to expand, but also in the psychological process of creating art–art as experienced by its maker–deepened Priscilla’s discernment of painting, sculpture and architecture. More important, it enhanced her ability to relate to the inner language and inner travails of people charting new territory in non-verbal media and non-objective styles. Beyond being liked for her charm, she found herself sought after as a confidante, friend, advisor, muse–a spark for artistic tinder. Inscribed gifts of art from these and other major figures of the New York School form an important part of Morgan’s collection; several small examples, including portraits of Priscilla, are included in the show.

Meanwhile, considerable glamour attached itself to Miss Morgan and her theatrical band as Hollywood wanted in on this new wave of talent, which was increasing television’s appeal to more sophisticated audiences. In collaboration with Hubbell Robinson, the Senior Vice President of CBS Television, Morgan arranged for the New York producer Martin Manulis to move to the West Coast to produce Playhouse 90, the first live-drama series longer than one hour. Soon Priscilla was dividing her time between television and Broadway deals conducted in New York and film and television deals conducted in Hollywood. Out west, visibility was prized: negotiations often took place over long, martini-lubricated lunches at center tables in the Rodeo Room or Chasen’s.

The William Morris Agency bought Morgan’s theatrical agency in 1955, and most of her stage, film and television clients followed her there. The buyout gave her a new level of financial mobility; now the long work-and-play sessions transferred themselves to a handsome 18th-century farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on the weekends. European travel became a frequent pleasure, and the time Priscilla spent in Rome and Paris under the wing of older friends who lived there–many of them longtime expatriates from the U.S., Germany, Russia and elsewhere in Europe–brought about a profound shift in her priorities, her savoir vivre. These influential friends, whose letters and memorabilia appear in the exhibition, included the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli; the opera designer Eugene Berman; and the composer Alexei Haieff, who is represented by a published piano score dedicated to Priscilla.

It was during this period, in Rome in 1958, that Morgan met the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who had recently founded the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, an idyllic town in the Umbrian hills 90 miles north of Rome. Entranced by the setting and inspired by Menotti’s vision of a truly international summer festival of the performing and visual arts, Morgan began dividing her time between the Morris Agency and Spoleto–soon giving up her lucrative career (and her farm as well) to devote herself full time with Menotti to the planning, recruitment of artists, and cultivation of donors to the increasingly ambitious summer events. In her typical fashion, Priscilla cemented deep friendships with the artists she brought to Spoleto–including the poet Ezra Pound and the design scientist Buckminster Fuller, both of whom extravagantly inscribed books to her that appear in the show.

Menotti and Morgan worked for years in the 1960s and early ‘70s to establish an American arm of Spoleto in Harlem, to be called the Harlem Theater and Workshop. Motivated by the then slender opportunities for African-American participation in the international arts scene and the tremendous need for bi-racial community development in New York City, Menotti and Morgan raised the money to renovate a theater and created a board of Harlem arts educators, community leaders, and major patrons from “downtown.” The economic and political hurdles proved insuperable. Soon, however, still in pursuit of Menotti’s dream of a parallel American festival, Morgan secured a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to tour the U.S. in search of a site, eventually choosing Charleston, South Carolina, as the permanent home of Spoleto Festival U.S.A.

No discussion of Priscilla’s life and work could be complete without mention of a long, ongoing chapter–her intimate relationship with the sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) and her devotion to his legacy through the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in New York. Morgan believes that all her years with artists as friends and lovers–from living in a cold-water flat with her aspiring composer husband through being a confidante to dozens of complicated people who were inventing art forms that we now accept as historical canon–amounted to training for her relationship with Noguchi. The child of two intellectual mavericks, a Japanese poet father and an American, Bryn Mawr-educated mother who was a writer as well, Noguchi was raised initially in Japan, then at progressive boarding schools in the U.S. Feeling at home in neither country, accepted as neither Japanese nor American, Noguchi honed his experience of separateness into a style of sculpture that is at once abstract and comprehensible, shareable. His many public gardens and playgrounds around the world, along with his sculpture and decorative art, reflect a transforming, frequently exhausting effort to coax the earth’s most elemental materials into adjusting their forms to our understanding. Noguchi’s recurrent sense of isolation thus gave itself to the public as a strangely joyous field of communion. Priscilla’s partnership with Isamu as friend, lover and advisor on the enormous practical work of arranging public commissions is movingly documented in a selection of his letters to her spanning more than two decades.

Finally, we note the document that closes this exhibition. A few years ago, at the age of 10, Emma de Kooning Villeneuve, a granddaughter of Willem de Kooning, wrote an essay for school entitled “An Old Friend.” Complete with marginalia illustrating the way Priscilla showed her to arrange the forks and knives at dinner, Emma’s sketch of her friend observes:

“I admire Priscilla because she has the job she always wanted because she worked hard for it. She cares about you and would try anything to make you feel better. It is important to her to have everything organized and planned so nothing goes wrong. She cares about my education and what I like to do, which is dancing, writing, acting, filming and singing. This is why I admire her.”