Joy of Reenactment
The indignities of old age, wrote T.S. Eliot bitterly, include “the rending pain of reenactment of all you have done, and been.” Through a lifetime of giving, including a just-announced music professorship at Bates, arts patron Alice Esty ’25 belies her beloved poet.
Her face etched with nine decades of acuity and kindness, Alice Swanson Esty ’25 reclines in a living room armchair. Eyes closed in reflection, Esty considers the irony that comes with her decision to establish the Alice Swanson Esty Professorship in Music at Bates.
“It’s funny. He is finally going to do something for music,” Esty said, thinking of her late husband, Bill Esty. “He didn’t like music. He was amazed that I kept on having lessons with the same teacher, that I wanted and finally did several charity concerts. Now his money is going to do something for music in a way that I believe is very, very important.”
Did her husband appreciate Esty’s love of music or her beautiful voice? “We can’t say that,” she cautioned.
A great patron of music and the visual arts in New York City, Alice Theresa Hildagarde Swanson Esty herself worked as an actress, singer, sculptor, and painter. After graduating from Bates in 1925, she pursued a career as an performing artist in New York, modeling for the Art Students League and studying with voice coaches.
As a young actress, Esty worked with the newly formed Group Theater, under the direction of Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, and the avant-garde Provincetown Players, ultimately appearing on the Broadway stage in Come of Age with Judith Anderson and L’Aiglon with Ethel Barrymore.
Although her marriage to William C. Esty, a graduate of Amherst College and founder of the William Esty Advertising Agency in New York, transformed her from struggling artist to an arts patron whose vista was filled with every material comfort, Esty’s vital link to the arts survived.
Studying voice with Julliard teacher Florence Kimball Paige (“I loved her very much”), coach of the famed Leontyne Price, Esty gave occasional recitals as benefits. She performed now and again at the Colony Club. “Bill didn’t object to that too much,” she recalls with a wry smile. “He once brought someone from the Esty Company to see if I was any good.”
After her husband’s death at 51 in 1954, Esty procured an agent — someone to book gigs and chauffeur her about — in the hopes of staging regular benefit concerts. But, she said, “I didn’t stick to it enough. I didn’t have the right vocal cords to become a great singer. There was nobody there to say, `It’s a good, interesting thing to do.’ I wasn’t looking for a career, but for something I really wanted to do, and it had to do with music.”
It’s funny. He is finally going to do something for music,” Esty said, thinking of her late husband, Bill Esty. “He didn’t like music. Now his money is going to do something for music in a way that I believe is very, very important.”
In collaboration with her first accompanist, David Stimer, she devised a plan to commission original musical works that she could perform in recital. Between 1955 and 1969 she gave fifteen such concerts in the Little Carnegie Recital Hall, performing new works by such composers as Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Ned Rorem, Germaine Tailleferre, and Virgil Thomson. On one occasion, she performed in Paris, featuring works by Poulenc and Aaron Copland.
“There were two caveats,” she said of the commissions. She had final approval of the libretti and retained ownership of the original manuscripts. Eventually, Esty gave the scores, including Poulenc’s Le Travail du Peintre, to Bates. “Poulenc’s manuscript was a thing of beauty,” she said.
Esty has also offered financial assistance to developing singers, as well as to painters and sculptors, and has been a major supporter of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. In 1994, she donated a valuable collection of music books to Ladd Library and a portrait of herself by the nationally acclaimed artist Alex Katz. She has supported Bates in a variety of other ways, including the establishment of an endowment to support the College orchestra. In 1984, Esty received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the College.
Her ties to Bates through music have always been strong. A devoted participant in class reunions — “I go to every one” — Esty presented a concert at the home of Bill and Paula Matthews in 1984, singing a song cycle that Matthews, professor of music, had written for her. Her grandson, Scott Esty ’92, is an accomplished Michigan-based violinist.
Yet when Bates approached Alice Esty about endowing a $1-million music professorship, the proposal “came to me as a surprise,” Esty said. “The idea was so stunning, so unexpected. Of course I’m thrilled.”
Esty admits that ever since her classmate and cherished friend, Euterpe Boukis Dukakis ’25, established a professorship in classical and medieval studies, “I had actually been jealous,” she said, admitting that there is “a sisterly competition between the two of us.”
Esty ponders the significance her latest gift has for herself and the College. “My pianist said, `Well, that’s rather too bad [the professorship] isn’t at a bigger place where they need more money and people can get a real career.’ That isn’t my purpose. I think of the professorship as being in a place where even if you didn’t make music, you could hear music with a different attention and reaction.”
Supporting music at Bates, said Esty, “is going to make better musicians whether they go on with their big careers or have a smaller career. If students have the opportunity to study music along with their other studies, they would have an actually better life. That’s what was running through my mind all the time.”
“My pianist said, `Well, that’s rather too bad [the professorship] isn’t at a bigger place where they need more money and people can get a real career.’ That isn’t my purpose. I think of the professorship as being in a place where even if you didn’t make music, you could hear music with a different attention and reaction.”
Bathed in the warm light of her long living room, Esty continues her contemplation. She sits facing a grand piano at one end of the long living room, surrounded by paintings and sculptures. Some are her own, while some are the work of other artists, both friends and masters.
“When you’re trying to sleep, and your whole life passes before you or around you, a T.S. Eliot poem comes to mind.” Without missing a beat, Esty cites a line from “Little Gidding,” the last poem in Eliot’s The Four Quartets: “The rending pain of reenactment of all you have done and been.”
“A part of your life is always death,” Esty said. “If in your death people are actually having better lives because you had the opportunity to help them, to make it possible for them, that’s a great big feeling. Once you get into that feeling, there isn’t as much `rending pain.’”
Simply, she added, “These sound like awfully profound things. Well, they are profound things to me.”
And what might this particular nonagenarian have in common with 1997 Bates graduates poised for a life in the arts? “At age twenty-two, they are already preparing for what ninety-two is going to be for them.” Indeed, when Eliot’s “great rending pain of reenactment” comes along late in life, existence can be more rewarding “if you have some communication with music, some communication with literature, with the basic things in life — not because you made a career of it, but because you have it to be remembered.”
After an extended conversation, Esty stands to stretch. Long and lithe, she limbers up a bit. With the ordeal of a hip replacement behind her and possible knee surgery on the horizon, Esty has embraced – with characteristic grace and logic – the practice of Tai Chi. “I’m not so eager to dothe forms but to get ready to do the forms, all the alignments, the exercises, the feeling, the spiritual things that go along with the body motions. I’m having a wonderful time with it. The pleasure you get out of the mind is enhanced so much if the body is along with it.”
“There are an awful lot of people my age who just plain die,” Esty confided matter-of-factly. She’s quite proud of her Bates classmates, citing both their longevity and accomplishments realized in the face of social constraints. “It was almost necessary to be either a teacher or an early bride or a minister. We’ve done pretty well.”
Certainly Esty has had a long and meaningful journey. The day before leaving the Swedish-American farming community of Thomaston, Connecticut, for Lewiston, Maine, she called a high-school mentor. “I’m $25 short. I can’t get there,” she told the teacher. He supplied the necessary funds, a simple yet unforgettable act of kindness and philanthropy destined, perhaps, to launch a thousand ships.
“Where in the genes did I get this feeling,” she wondered, “that I had to get out of Thomaston? I knew it in the fifth grade. I took it for granted.”
As an adolescent, Esty chafed at some parental restrictions. Her dearest friend, Miriam, was Irish, and her father was manager of a movie house. Overnight visits at this schoolmate’s home often included covert forays to enjoy the latest moving picture. “My parents didn’t allow me to go to the movies, play cards, dance or sing popular music. Mama sang in the choir.” Esty did also. Upon her arrival at Bates, she began to sing with an Auburn choir each Sunday. “I went to college thinking, of course, I’ll be a writer, I found out immediately I wasn’t a writer.”
Memories from many years ago leave deep imprints. She mentions with great feeling the death of her 43-year-old daughter, Julia: “She is still in myself.” And she still recalls, as if it were yesterday, her experience as a Swedish American. “I felt very Swedish,” said Esty, who spoke Swedish before English. Called “squarehead” — a disparaging name for Swedes — as a child, she said she “always felt very inferior at school. It continued right into my first year at Bates, a girl who couldn’t imagine friends. A low estimation of self really lingers.”
Esty’s life continues in its rich vein. On an August night in 1995, she asked student pianists to perform in her Upper East Side apartment. “I had thirty-two people listening to songs I had commissioned, particularly Poulenc. That was a lovely concert. People wept. When I sat here and listened to Poulenc’s cycle, I couldn’t believe that I really and truly sang this at its premiere in Paris and here in New York.”
Her current accompanist, Warren Wilson, attends concerts regularly with her, and the two are planning an Esty recital sometime soon, perhaps on November 8, her ninety-third birthday. “It will be mostly songs I have sung for a long time.”
She enjoys reciting poetry with friends. One such companion, Bates Trustee and parent E. Ward Smith, shares a love of T.S. Eliot with Esty. “She is a great human being,” he said. “After a conversation with Alice Esty, I always have a better outlook on life. After all, when you are visiting with someone who is so energetic and incisive and positive in her outlook, how can you help but not feel buoyed by such an indomitable spirit?”
Alice Swanson Esty recognizes the importance of her life, but she’s modest nonetheless. “What I did was very unusual,” she grants. “I don’t think I’ve done very much, but what I’ve done is good.”