Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Final Act: Rev. Bridge in New York

Spring 1923 the Grinnell Herald published several "Drama League Notes" that Bridge authored from afar, reporting on New York performances of Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard," among other works. Evidently this exposure gained him entree to the Russian acting community, as Bridge reported having been "thrown much amongst the Russians of late; a very interesting and stimulating experience, for they are tremendously alive." Present in the theatre when Isadora Duncan performed before a Russian audience, Bridge described the occasion as "one of the greatest thrills I ever had...I was entirely swept off my feet, as was the whole audience." And Bridge found in the experience an important lesson:  "After living in the Middle-west I am struck by the complete freedom of expression I see amongst these people. They are so riotously happy, so uninhibited...."
St. John's Episcopal Church, Boonton, New Jersey

Whether this finding helped him in his clerical position is not clear, but by October 1925 a northern New Jersey newspaper reported that Rev. Bridge was serving temporarily at St. John's Episcopal Church in Boonton.  Subsequent mentions indicated that Bridge had made a favorable impression, and on February 6, 1926 The Jerseyman announced that Bridge had "accepted the call to become permanent rector of this church...and will move to Boonton."

According to his 1928 declaration for U.S. citizenship, Rev. Bridge took his third wife in September 1926, marrying in Morristown, New Jersey.  But no evidence of this marriage could be found in New Jersey state archives nor in the archives of Morris County or in Morristown local records.  That there was a third wife—Myrtle or "Peg" who was born in Augusta, GA February 15, 1891—is not in doubt: Joan Chandos Bridge told her daughter about the numerous mean and demented behaviors she showed her step-children. In one story recounted in the Joan Baez memoir, Joan Chandos had to interrupt her father's Sunday morning liturgy because Peg was chasing Pauline with a knife.  This third partnership soon soured, although, so far as I could find out, the couple never divorced; they lived apart, and evidently had little to do with one another.

As in Grinnell, in New Jersey Rev. Bridge maintained several parallel positions: next to his clerical cure Bridge held appointment at Hunter College as Professor of English and Dramatics.  Exactly what courses he taught at Hunter remain unclear, but a story in the 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle detailed complaints lodged against Bridge by the parents of one of his female students. Bridge derided the complaints as a "false interpretation" imposed upon "a perfectly legitimate friendship."  The girl was unhappy at home, he reported, so she sought his advice; "he counseled her, tried to advise her, took her to dinner, the theater and finally obtained for her a position with a liberal school."  The college was evidently unhappy with this explanation, and, although the trustees did not condemn him, they accepted his resignation.

Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Bridge was preoccupied with community theater, just as he had been in Grinnell. From at least fall 1928 he was active in the Mountain Lakes Dramatic Guild, that autumn directing Owen Davis's "Ice Bound."  Other plays followed, interspersed with Bridge's dramatic readings, which had also been part of his Grinnell years.  In late 1928, for example, he gave readings from Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" and William Vaughn Moody's "The Great Divide." Bridge added to his readings "the newly perfected color-organ which provides a running accompaniment of color tones to interpret the passages under discussion."

At exactly that time Rev. Bridge was involved in a much-reported libel suit lodged against him by Mrs. Helen Brumley Baldwin, who chaired the defense committee of the local chapter of the D.A.R.  Apparently the controversy arose from a newspaper column in which Bridge expressed sympathy for peace movements, and later wrote to accuse Mrs. Baldwin of "lying imputations and her customary stunt of labeling anything or anybody she doesn't agree with as communist." Rev. Bridge went on to associate Mrs. Baldwin's views with the K.K.K and other disreputable groups.

The suit received a great deal of publicity, and was widely reported, so that, when in October, 1928 the judge refused to endorse the charge, Bridge gained a great deal of attention as a partisan of leftist interests.  Bridge put it more eloquently in the Trenton Evening Times of October 11, 1928: "The general policy of super-patriots in attempting to discredit all persons of liberal views by tying them up with Communist activities has received a death blow by the exposure this case has brought about."
Children's Percussion Band, The Modern School, ca. 1925.  Pauline Bridge is 3rd from right.

In these years Rev. Bridge seems to have become increasingly close to various radical causes. According to the historian Paul Avrich, already in 1923 Bridge and his family became part of the anarchist community at Stelton, New Jersey that created the Modern School.  I could not confirm that the Bridges resided in one of the modest cabins that community residents built and occupied, but it's clear that the Bridge children were part of the school. Pauline Bridge Henderson, older sister of Joan Chandos Bridge, in 1958 contributed a memoir of her time at the Modern School, and the record describes her as a daughter of a staff member.  Photographs from those years show the children costumed for performance, perhaps a reflection of Bridge's teaching and his on-going commitment to drama as a vehicle to personal development.

At about this time Bridge became acquainted with Jacob Moreno (1889-1974), a Romanian-born psychiatrist who was influential in developing a therapy he called psychodrama. The idea was to have individuals "act out their emotions by reacting to others." Spontaneity and feedback played vital roles in this therapy, and highlighted Moreno's conviction that "a community that embraced principles of spontaneity and creativity was possible and a goal worth working toward." In 1929 Bridge and Moreno collaborated to publish Impromptu vs. Standardization (later republished in Psychodrama Monographs, no. 4, 1944), a brief explanation of the intersection of personal health and drama. His belief in the importance of drama to personal development continued to find him interested audiences. In August 1929, for example, the Brewster [New York] Standard reported that Bridge gave a talk to a local group on "Drama Rediscovered," in which he reported on his collaboration with Dr. Moreno. The central question he raised, the paper announced, was "What can we do in the machine age to preserve the integrity of the human personality?" The answer, Bridge fervently believed, lay within the exercise of and public presentation of drama.

By the time of the 1930 census, Bridge and his wife were living at 195 Claremont Avenue, New York City. That autumn the New Republic reported on the founding of the All-World Gandhi Fellowship, an organization that proved central to Rev. Bridge's last years.  The founding announcement did not mention Bridge, but by 1933 at the latest Bridge was acting as Executive Director of the organization.  Scarsdale newspapers began to publish stories of Bridge meeting with various visiting figures—many of whom were from India—"all of whom are giving their time and talent toward the realization of world fellowship through cultural and religious unity."

In May 1933 the New York Times reported that the All-World Gandhi Fellowship had acquired "a large colonial farmhouse in Mount Kisco...for use as a fellowship center." Subsequent articles called Bridge "the Big Mogul" of the organization, the person from whom one obtained details about stays available at the Center. Other reports recounted occasions when Bridge hosted visiting luminaries who participated in the work of the Center; Bridge was also often featured as speaker to Westchester County groups gathered to hear about and donate to the Center.

Meantime, the Center maintained an active schedule: it hosted a tea for Ruth St. Denis, the American dancer; offered classes in "rhythmics and dancing, violin, art with outdoor sketching, science through countryside study, [and] drama with professional direction." No doubt Bridge himself provided that "professional direction," as a summer, 1934 article in the Scarsdale Inquirer announced the Center's first dramatic production at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Mount Kisco.  Bridge directed two plays—Zona Gale's "Neighbors" and Hildegarde Flanner's "Mansions."  In September a second gathering in Mount Kisco enjoyed a "dance-drama recital," with "dances illustrating the work of the, the and the Duncan school."

Clearly the Center served Bridge well, permitting him not only to exercise his social and political interests, but also to serve and develop his commitment to drama.  Consequently, when the Center burned down in April, 1935—as reported by the New York Times—Bridge felt the loss keenly. He continued to remain active, although he no longer had the same vehicle through which to advance his ideas. In late 1936, for instance, he gave a talk at New York Junior High School No. 136 on "Developing Personality and Speech through Dramatics," and that same year he published Actor in the Making: A Handbook on Improvization [sic] and other Techniques of Development.

By this time Rev. Bridge was apparently living alone and was seriously ill. He entered New York's St. Luke's hospital November 28, 1936, and never left until his death, March 4, 1937. His daughter Pauline claimed the body, presumably because Bridge remained estranged from his wife, Peg. The day after his death the New York Times published an obituary, among other things crediting Bridge with having established the Mount Kisco fellowship center "as an educational project for the promotion of peace."

So ended the life of this remarkable man: born in London, he died in New York, bookending his life in two of the world's great cities.  In between he resided in Edinburgh, then in the rural outback of Canada's British Columbia before moving to the United States, where he served churches in Moscow, Idaho as well as Boonton, New Jersey.  In the midst of all this, he somehow set down briefly in Grinnell, Iowa, where he managed to combine occasional service to the Episcopal church with an intense devotion to theater, nurturing both collegiate and community theater in Grinnell.

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