Elizabeth (Mrs. Kendall B.) DeBevoise

Curator, Emily Dickinson Homestead
Interviewed on March 20, 1981

Audio file

Subject coverage

  • The renovation of the building
  • The history of the house; built by Samuel Fowler Dickenson
  • Comments on having house open to the public: which parts of the house are open, requests to see the house out of visiting hours, strange visiting requests
  • Filming for a Japanese television show
  • The variety of visitors
  • The experience of different tour guides
  • Scheduling tour guides
  • The College's relationship with the house
  • Cooperation with the Historical Society and the Library Board
  • Visit from Julie Harris
  • Professor Sewell of Yale
  • Ralph Franklin (Dickenson Scholar)
  • Relationship with Mrs. Hampson
  • Marriages at the house
  • Benefits and challenges of the position


[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and may contain errors and omissions.]

Mrs. Kendall DeBevoise 
Curator, Emily Dickinson House 
March 20, 1981 
In the Emily Dickinson House 
Horace Hewlett 
For: Amherst College 

HWH: This is Horace Hewlett interviewing Mrs. Kendall DeBevoise at the Emily Dickinson Homestead on Main Street in Amherst on Friday, March 20, 1981. First day of Spring! 

DeBevoise: Hmm-- rather cold. 

HWH: Betty, when did you become Curator of the Emily Dickinson Homestead? 

DeBevoise: Four years ago, February 25th, 1977, I came. 

HWH: It doesn’t seem that long. 

DeBevoise: No. 

HWH: When you moved in had the house been renovated and decorated? 

DeBevoise: Yes. As a matter fact, the College bought the house in 1965 from the Parke family and at that time they made it a faculty residence: they repaired the house because it had been long-lost since anything had been done. Then, the same family had lived here until I came, and so it was again in need of some redecoration. So that was redone. But that was mainly paint and paper-- the structure of the house was all left. It was left to me just as it is now. 

HWH: Lew and Jean Mudge. 

DeBevoise: Right. They had a family of three children and I think they’d been here seven years, you see, so that it was... 

HWH: In fair shape but... 

DeBevoise: As a matter of fact, longer than that, probably closer to 11 years they had lived here. 

HWH: The Parkes had not done much with it in their later years, as I recall. 

DeBevoise: No. Of course, I didn’t know the house then, but it is my understanding that-- well, let’s see. Dr. Parke had died, I believe. Mrs. Parke returned here-- the house had been rented some in between, and she and her sister lived here so it was a while since things had been done to it. I think there were improvements made in the kitchen and that sort of thing. 

HWH: Do you know when the house was built? 

DeBevoise: 1813, the main part of the house, by Emily Dickinson’s grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson.

HWH: Are there places in the house that show that age? 

DeBevoise: The cellar! [Laughs] Of course the attic is wonderful because it has the old beams. On the third floor, the Parkes opened up the attic. They put the staircase in from the second to the third floor. Since they had five children they used the third floor. In fact, Dr. Parke’s office-- he was the minister of the Grace Church-- was one of those rooms which was finished off for him as a study. There’s a fireplace in there. But one room was left as an attic, the way the attic was, and that’s wonderful because it has the old floorboards and the square nails. 

HWH: There are also a few flies up there aren’t there? 

DeBevoise: Flies and bees. In fact, Christmas Day the oil burner-- I think the best word is-- exploded and there was an enormous WHOOF! It lifted us out of our seats! A terrible noise! 

HWH: You had people here. 

DeBevoise: Yes, Susan and George and the Faerbers were here and we had just finished Christmas dinner. We were having our coffee in here (the living room) and, my! We were raised out of our seats. Then the Guests arrived while we were waiting for poor Bob Slocombe to come-- from B&G-- whom I had to disturb on Christmas day. In any case, the other day I was showing somebody up to the cupola-- you go up the narrow stairs and you look at the attic on either side-- and I noticed there were a terrible lot of little bugs, or little somethings, on the insulation there. We also have a lot of bees and I’m allergic to bees so that makes me nervous, too. Mrs. Kosic came to help me the next week and I said, “Would you mind looking into the attic with me? There’s a lot of dirt that’s come down and I don’t quite understand what it’s doing. Dirt and all these little black things.” So she went up and she knows about these things and she found-- have you ever seen a mud bee-hive?-- 

HWH: No. 

DeBevoise: Well she showed it to me and it was a cake of mud-- about like this [demonstrates] -- and there were little holes in it such as you see in honeycombs-- in that dirt and Mrs. Kosic says that undoubtedly it was attached to the beams from the attic roof. This explosion shook it down. 

HWH: For heavens sake. 

DeBevoise: Well anyway that’s what that explosion caused. There are a lot of bees and a lot of flies. But also a beautiful view. 

HWH: How much of the house is open to the public?

DeBevoise: Well let’s see. The tour people come in the front door and are in the front hall and both parlors. There’s where the guides talk and tell them about the history of the house, Emily Dickinson, and something about the town and what it was like when she was living here. Then they go upstairs and see the bedroom, and so, of course, that includes the upstairs hall and the bedroom. Then for those people who are interested, the guides will show the attic and the cupola. Of course just a very few at a time can go up there. But we only take 20 at most in a tour, with two guides. 

HWH: And you enjoy some privacy? 

DeBevoise: Yes, Of course, the rest of the house, in fact, the beauty of it is, for any family living here, is that actually the house is your home and so, as you know, I use the parlors whenever I have anything large enough to warrant it. Of course we never use the bedroom. But other than that, all the furnishings are mine in all the other rooms. 

HWH: Do people tend to observe the schedule of visiting hours? 

DeBevoise: Well, yes and no. [Laughs] And really, sometimes it is rather annoying. You can imagine an awful lot depends upon the people. I do object when people come up and read the sign that says the house isn’t open, and it’s Sunday morning at 9:30, and yet they ring the bell. I’m very happy, everybody’s happy, to let them wander around the grounds and look at the house from the outside, which a lot of people also do. Then, of course, in the good weather people look at the garden. 

HWH: Are there many requests to visit out of regular hours? 

DeBevoise: Quite a few. 

HWH: I think those would be hard or a nuisance to handle among some people. 

DeBevoise: Well it’s a terrible choice to make; Rita Friedman in the Public Affairs Office is very good. She gets the calls almost always; sometimes they come here, but generally speaking she gets them. And she has a good sense, I think, for screening. On the other hand, she doesn’t like to say “no” to anyone unless she finds that I really can’t do it. Now there is a group that I wrote, oh a couple of weeks ago, and gave the hours as they’re nearby-- a professor and a few students-- but I just couldn’t do it the day he wanted to come. 

HWH: Are some of them pretty insistent? 

DeBevoise: Yes. [Laughs] Some of them are! Then others are-- you know-- very nice.

HWH: Do you recall any unusual visiting requests? 

DeBevoise: Well, I do think last summer it really was quite difficult; it was interesting and then it became difficult. A television company from Tokyo wanted to come and film here. Now that presented in and of itself a College policy which had to be decided. One thing it did for us was make us make firm policies. Now, that’s done under special permission; if it’s a commercial project there can be a charge. And also, the dress can never be filmed-- the white dress-- because that belongs to the Historical Society and it would damage it-- with the bright lights. 

HWH: What dress? 

DeBevoise: The white dress that belonged to Emily Dickinson. But these policies weren’t fully formed until later, after the Tokyo TV came. There was a star, famous in Japan, who was portraying Emily Dickinson for a television program. 

HWH: Was she Japanese? 

DeBevoise: She was Japanese-- everybody was Japanese except for one man who was a graduate student at the Asian Institute at Columbia University; he had been recruited as the intermediary and the interpreter and by the time that man left Amherst he was absolutely, [laughs] he was just a wreck, because he had as hard a time as everybody who dealt with them. They were completely arbitrary, they never finished on schedule; they would go on and on. One night at 8:30 I said, “I’m very sorry, I’m just as sorry as I can be, but we just have to finish this off.” They stayed many more hours than they said they would-- and you know all the lights and all the machines and all that-- and the star had a dresser-- a young girl who dressed her-- and after every shot they would stop and fix her hair and her face so that it was endless. I am not the least bit sure how carefully they handled the dress-- and that bothered me. And then they were going over to special collections, but they didn’t get there even though everybody over there had changed their schedule for them. So it was very, very difficult for everyone. On the other hand, it was fascinating to see the interest in Emily Dickinson’s poetry in Tokyo and Japan; this was a daily television program they were filming for-- rather like the “Today” show. Communication was a little difficult. 

HWH: Was there English... 

DeBevoise: Some of them had none at all; and the star, whose name I’m sorry to say I can’t remember, if I ever had it correctly because I have trouble with Japanese pronunciation-- she had some English and one other person did, but... 

HWH: I’m surprised that Emily Dickinson’s poetry could be translated adequately into Japanese particularly.

DeBevoise: Well, I’m told that the Japanese short verse is enough like Emily Dickinson’s verse form that it appeals; how how well it translates, I don’t know, because you’d have to be able to read Japanese to see. I think Otis Cary could tell us. But Emily Dickinson is very popular in Japan. 

HWH: It’s funny that Amherst should be the center of so much Japanese attention, because, as you mention, there’s Emily Dickinson, there’s W. S. Clark, the founder of Hokkaido University, and of course, Doshisha, so that Japanese seem to troop to Amherst as a kind of shrine. 

DeBevoise: Yes they really do. And of the numbers that come at various times many are attracted because they want to see where Mr. Clark was from, and the University, and then they will come over here. The first summer I was here I think there were forty in one group from Hokkaido in Sapporo. 

HWH: Really. 

DeBevoise: And they had come because of Mr. Clark. Then I did take that Amherst College alumni trip the first fall I was here, 1977, to the Orient and we went to Doshisha; it certainly is true that a small town like Amherst has appeal there!-- well that was part of the funny visitors. One morning-- this has nothing to do with Japan-- it was about nine o’clock one Sunday morning and I was in my bathrobe when the doorbell rang and I went to the front door and there were two men and they said, “We’re just here from China.” [Hearty laughter] I said, “I don’t know quite how you got from China to Amherst at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning!” 

HWH: Do you get many group visits? 

DeBevoise: Yes, yes. 

HWH: School children... 

DeBevoise: Not so many of those. 

HWH: ...scholars 

DeBevoise: I actually think the school children are a little young for this kind of tour. This is historical, but it’s also literary I would say. A good many college students come, but they’re more apt to be on their own. Of course, our biggest time is in the summer; one was a group from-- California or Texas-- and they were on a Literary Tour of New England. They’d been to Concord and they were going around to the homes of authors-- it was an organized bus tour. But they had organized the tour-- in other words, this was individually organized by that group.

HWH: How do you go about conducting tours at the house? 

DeBevoise: We have a marvelous group of guides. They are all volunteers and they do it because they’re interested in Emily Dickinson and her poetry. They come to us, generally; it’s word of mouth-- someone is doing it and they tell a friend. We have about 23 now, men and women, and the tours vary because each one does his own tour. We don’t have a “pat” talk, but mostly the general pattern is that they talk about the house, its history, which brings in the town of Amherst in many ways because, of course, Mr. Dickinson was one of the founders of Amherst College. Then the kind of atmosphere of the town and what the thinking was, and the history of the family, and, of course, Emily Dickinson, her life and her poetry. The emphasis varies according to the guide. 

HWH: Visitors obviously know something about Emily or they wouldn’t be here, but do you get some who are particularly knowledgeable about her and her work? 

DeBevoise: Oh yes. Quite a few scholars come. We have a number of professors who guide, mainly from the University. Vicki Jacoby, for instance, her husband is in the Amherst College Alumni Office, you know; she taught English Literature before coming here. She’s speaking to our guides next week. We have a meeting once a month of the guides; we either go over how we like to run the program, suggestions of people, or we go over some of the poems that people are interested in, or we have someone speak to the group. Now one of our guides is getting her Ph.D. at the University; she’s doing her thesis on Emily Dickinson and the Brontes so she talked to us a couple of months ago. Ralph Franklin, who’s in town doing work for his new variorum-- he’s the one who’s... 

HWH: From Seattle? 

DeBevoise: Yes, from Tacoma, Washington. And his new publication of facsimiles of the Emily Dickinson fascicles was due out last fall; be out any minute by Harvard Press. He’s in Amherst this year-- he’s on Sabbatical-- getting work done on this variorum. He came and spoke to our guides; that was marvelous. David Porter, of course, is an Emily Dickinson scholar; he’s spoken and he’s one of our guides. So that’s the kind of thing we do once a month. It’s very interesting and the guides are interested and they’re good-- really very good. And we have a varied age group, too, which makes it good. 

HWH: Did you say that this graduate student was doing a book on Emily Dickinson and the Brontes? 

DeBevoise: That’s her thesis. That’s the subject for her thesis. 

HWH: Why would another variorum be needed?

DeBevoise: I’m not certain. I think it’s as much as anything because of the tremendous question about the poems and the editing, how they were edited, the sequence and the dates of the poems in the fascicles. In his talk, he took one poem and showed us the various versions of it. As he explained to us, Emily Dickinson would write a poem, very often she’d shoot it off in a note to Sue, and she probably didn’t keep a copy or she may not have, then she would send it to one of her cousins, the Norcross cousins, say, and then she would probably make a fair copy. She might make a rough copy and then make a fair copy and transcribe that, so there are several versions of the same poem. Basically, her poems are dated according to her handwriting-- that’s the way the scholars have done it. He’s got a whole interesting approach to this and I think it will be of enormous scholarly value. 

HWH: I was curious because a variorum was done by Johnson, I believe it was, at great expense only about a dozen years ago. 

DeBevoise: Is it that recent? 

HWH: I think so. 

DeBëvoise: There is not one in this house. Whenever I need it I borrow Mahat Guest’s. 

HWH: I gave it to her. [Laughter] 

DeBevoise: That’s wonderful. I wish you had a Jay Leyda’s “The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson” sitting around. You don’t have one of those do you? 

HWH: No, I don’t. 

DeBevoise: I can’t find it. It’s out of print. 

HWH: You said that the guides are mixed-- men and women-- about how many men would you think there are among the 23? 

DeBevoise: Of course, it varies with who’s on Sabbatical and who comes and goes. Let me see, I can think of four offhand, five, I guess. 

HWH: Interesting. Are the guides pretty reliable, do they show up on time? 

DeBevoise: Marvelous! I think the reason I’m trying to keep-- and it’s not just I, of course, but the body of the guides-- we’ve tried to keep a perhaps even larger group than we might need, because I think that everyone is so busy today. Most people are working, and to do a volunteer thing like this you have to be not demanded to come too often. I also think it gives a little verve when people guide with somebody different each time. Now they’re not necessarily, in fact they probably are not touring at the same time-- we generally split the group and one takes one group and the other takes the other. But they do talk about it some when they’re together. I do the scheduling. I do three months at a time and I try not to re-schedule the same person with the same person. Now, in the wintertime we’re only open one afternoon a week, so people only guide once or twice in three months. Probably. The summer is twice that. Also we have special tours, and then I ask for volunteers. The Yale University Women are coming the 4th of April in the morning and there will be forty of them, so I’ve got volunteers. I mean people do help and enjoy doing it. 

HWH: With all these people going through the house-- I don’t mean the guides-- the visitors, is there any theft or vandalism? 

DeBevoise: No. Or I haven’t had any since I’ve been here. Before I came, a silver teaspoon that belonged to the Dickinsons was taken. And that’s what prompted having two guides, even when there are very few visitors, because we really don’t like to leave anybody alone. It’s a sad thing, but you don’t like to. And I’ve talked to house museum people who run a more daily proposition type museum, and that’s one of their biggest concerns and expenses. For security, of course, we only have what the guides can provide. 

HWH: Is security a problem? 

DeBevoise: I don’t think so-- except occasionally. It’s a responsibility for the guides; you have to remember not to leave a group alone on one floor while you run down and answer the doorbell. That’s why two people are important. It could be. 

HWH: Yes. I wouldn’t go into what security provisions there are around this anyway, but it just seems to me that all of society is more and more open to vandalism, entrance, and so on, than there’s ever been. How is your relationship with Amherst College? 

DeBevoise: Oh, marvelous. Marvelous. I believe all our guides now feel the same way; I believe they get it across in their tours and I hope they do. As I say, I don’t ask anyone to say any particular thing, but I feel it’s fairly important. When I came I felt that simply because it was a newish program (it’s not criticism I am making at all), there was a feeling that there wasn’t that much of the house open and not much of the Dickinson furnishings. Now I feel very strongly the other way. I think Amherst College did such a wonderful service to preserve this house and to have it maintained, which the College does. The College takes care of all the maintenance outside, and the Buildings and Grounds did the furnace-- I call them for that kind of thing. They plow the snow and cut the grass because I couldn’t do that. If I had to, I couldn’t live here and I’m not sure many families could. I feel the house itself is as it was, the construction is very much the same, and the parlors and the bedrooms are fine, the guides are so good, and it’s an interesting program. They know what they’re talking about and it is after all where Emily Dickinson lived. And since she didn’t go anywhere, it’s the most important thing. So I think it’s a very forceful, positive program, and I think the College handles it beautifully. Also, the Public Affairs Office does a wonderful job, because they make the appointments. You see that is good, for someone can always call and reach someone at the office. On the other hand there’s security there. 

HWH: This is in large part Rita Friedman that you mentioned earlier. 

DeBevoise: She’s marvelous. I went up one day and was talking to the people that man the Chamber of Commerce Booth on the Common in the summer. They said that when people come there, they call her and she explains the schedule. She’s so nice about how she does it that everyone leaves with a good feeling whether they can come to the house or not. 

HWH: That’s great. Does the College make any requests for use of the house at times? 

DeBevoise: Yes, some. But that’s what it always is, which I think is pretty nice, which is a request, plus it’s always enough time ahead to plan. It’s reasonable. And it’s not that much. Of course, I would love for the-- maybe I shouldn’t say this-- but I’d love for the English Department to use it some, which they really don’t. 

HWH: The English Department has shown no interest then? 

DeBevoise: It really hasn’t. 

HWH: Not even individuals? 

DeBevoise: No, not really. 

HWH: I’m surprised. 

DeBevoise: Now, Bob Gross, young Bob Gross in American studies, he has. He’s had classes here. That’s been wonderful. 

HWH: I’m sure you are aware that there are two Bob Groses. There are also two Ann Groses. 

DeBevoise: And you can’t just say Bob’s wife or Ann’s husband or whatever because that doesn’t help. 

HWH: Are there any other organizations that show an interest in the house?

DeBevoise: Yes. The Historical Society. When I first arrived, Sheila Rainford was president, I guess, and she asked, since there was a vacancy on the Board, if I would be on it. She thought there should be a communication between the two organizations, and I have been. I’m not going to stand for re-election this year because I’ve been on it four years. We do keep up with each other and I think will continue to. It was there that I learned that the Historical Society wanted to get rid of-- by that, I mean placed somewhere else-- one of their pianos. Remember? 

HWH: I do, yes. 

DeBevoise: And so I was the one who spoke up and said, oh I’d love it. So that’s the piano that’s so similar to the Dickinsons’, the right period, 1840. It’s in the parlor. And it’s an asset to have it. They own Emily Dickinson’s white dress which is on permanent loan here. So that’s good cooperation. Now the Library Board, which you’re president of, if you recall we had that joint, just really social time, to see the house; we should do that again with the new Director, the new Librarian. Remember we had... 

HWH: Have you met her? 

DeBevoise: I haven’t. 

HWH: Bonnie Isman. 

DeBevoise: No I haven’t and of course she hadn’t come when we had the staff over and we did a tour and just met each other. And the Chamber of Commerce we work with. We organized tours for one of the Chamber’s “Amherst Days.” 

HWH: Do they ever ask to use the house in any way? 

DeBevoise: The Chamber? 

HWH: Well, any of these people. I know the Historical Society sponsored or you sponsored a reception here. 

DeBevoise: The Historical Society did. 

HWH: At the time of the Essays on Amherst

DeBevoise: That was done here and it was very nice. And I think that’s a good idea. I hope we have more of that, but you can’t do it the same every time. The Womens Club has met here. The Women of Amherst College had two open houses, holiday gatherings in December here, last year and the year before. 

HWH: Does the Alumni Office or organization show an interest in the house?

DeBevoise: Yes, every reunion the house is open. In fact, just now, I am planning the guides for that; that will be the Friday and Saturday afternoons of Reunion Weekend. That has been very popular. I was wondering though, Bud, and you would be experienced on this. This will be the fifth June, you see, I’ve been here, so that would have been ‘77, ‘78, ‘79, ‘80, ‘81. Now that will be covering every Reunion Class. So I think it will be interesting to see if we have a drop-off of people signing up. Well, of course you always have the very young classes, but that’s really all the new ones. 

HWH: You add from the bottom. 

DeBevoise: Right. 

HWH: There’ll probably be some people at this reunion, this year, that weren’t at the last one; but my guess is that you’ll see a little drop-off. 

Who are some of the noted people who have visited the house? 

DeBevoise: Well, let me see. Isn’t that terrible how they go out of your mind when it’s such fun to have them. Well, when I first came, the first visitor we had was Julie Harris. Wonderful! and she was doing a one-night-stand of the Belle of Amherst at the University, so she spent the day with her crew and slept, because she was traveling, in a mobile home. One-night-stands! I don’t know how an actress does this-- all over the country-- they slept in the van after the performance en route, and then she’d arrive in the day not having had much sleep, sleep in the morning. She had asked not to have any interviews because she’d played The Belle for a week at Kirby and had seen a great many people then. And being one-night-stands, it was a hard tour. However, Hank Dunbar called me and said, “I just wonder if it would be possible for Julie Harris to come and christen the shell,” because it was the first womens’ crew, they had a new shell, and they were naming it “The Belle.” So I said we’ll have to wait until she comes and ask her. I did and she said, “Oh I guess I have to do that!” So we went down-- I couldn’t find the Boat House-- I could see the river but I couldn’t find the road to get in-- it was cold, it was in April, it was blowing a gale. And so we were a little late. We went over rutted roads and finally got there. Julie Harris had picked up the cup, the mug, off the washstand china set from Emily Dickinson’s room before we left, and she said, “I think this will be a good thing to christen the shell with.” And so she poured some water from that onto the shell. The girls gave her a T-shirt that had “The Belle” on it; she took off her fur coat and put that right on. It was very exciting. It has been very interesting to know her; she’s been back several times with her husband, most lately when she was given the medal at the opening campaign dinner this fall, and I hope she will be back again. 

Let me see, then. William Shirer has been here. Many of these people I hear from regularly now. 

HWH: Really? 

DeBevoise: Yes. He’s over in Stockbridge, Lenox, and I had a card from him at Christmas time about what he’s doing and asking when I might be coming over to Stockbridge. Kim Hunter was here this summer. I didn’t know that she played in a play called Come Slowly Eden. It was an ANTA production, it was on Emily Dickinson in about 1962. It has several characters but is similar to “The Belle.” Lavinia appears in it. In other words, instead of being a one-woman show, it was for a cast of about five. 

HWH: Is Julie Harris the only one who has spent the night here? Of the noted people? 

DeBevoise: Julie Harris, and who else have I had? I guess so. I had Nancy Ekholm Burchert and Jane Langton whose book came out on Emily Dickinson this fall. They stayed here overnight the night of the Symposium. Nancy’s the artist and Jane’s the author. Then I had the Macks here for the night-- Mary Mack and Cornelia. Let’s see, Cornelia’s-- grandfather? or great-grandfather?-- it was her grandfather who was Samuel Mack, who was the son of General David Mack; it was General David Mack who bought the Dickinson house and lived here from 1840 to 1855. It was on his death that Edward Dickinson, Emily’s father, repurchased the house. And so these were descendents of those Macks. 

HWH: I’m sure Professor Sewell of Yale has been here. 

DeBevoise: He’s been here; he’s been here several times. One time he came, Bob, I guess that was Bob Gross’s class, I was trying to remember if it was that or David Porter-- no, it was Bob Gross who had a class here and asked Richard Sewell to come and speak and he did, which was very interesting. 

And I should say Ralph Franklin, who is considered a foremost Dickinson scholar, talked here. And then during the Symposium last October-- we had a lot of people, Dickinson scholars, to the reception at this house. There were scholars from all over the world-- Hedayet el Malowany from Cairo, Egypt was here; she is a professor of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I met her the first summer I lived here; she was doing research here. I saw her when I went to Egypt in 1979 with the Amherst tour and met her husband, Dr. Mohamed Attia. Dr. Attia is President Anwar el Sadat’s personal physician, and is in his Cabinet.

Grace Kelly, Princess Grace of Monaco, mother of an Amherst College student, Albert Grimaldi, came to see the house. She has done readings of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. 

HWH: How much of the furnishings or pictures were actually Emily’s or the Dickinsons’ possessions? 

DeBevoise: Let’s see. The portraits in the hall were Dickinsons. Those are Emily Dickinson’s maternal grandparents and first cousins-- there are two portraits there. There’s china in the parlor on that tier table; that came not from the immediate Dickinson family, but from a related Dickinson family who were related to the Whites from White Homestead. The lowboy and the clock, banjo clock in the hall, are Dickinson. The clock has a painting of the Boston State House; it was given to Mr. Dickinson when he was in the legislature. And then there are brass beeswax candlesticks that were the Dickinsons’. Upstairs everything in the bedroom with the exception of the chaise was Dickinson, arid the Franklin stove was in Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. The bed, we’re pretty sure, was hers-- and that was wonderful-- that was a gift of Mrs. Mason Tyler just summer before last-- that and the little black chair, and then she also gave us a paisley shawl that was probably Emily Dickinson’s. Those things were given by Mrs. Tyler who is 85 or 86 years old. Her mother and father-in-law were given those things by Martha Dickinson Bianchi when she sold this house to the Parkes; they were told they came from Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. So we think they are. 

HWH: That’s quite a bit more than used to be. 

DeBevoise: Yes. 

HWH: Have you made efforts to acquire some of these pieces? 

DeBevoise: Not really-- yes and no-- in that the ones in the hall, the lowboy and the clock are on loan from Harvard and that was done before I came. And I assume that was an effort. In other words, I’m sure that someone from Amherst College talked to someone at Harvard. As to the things from Mrs. Tyler; she is retired, lives in Wellesley, came over to Amherst to see a grandchild who was at the University, and called to say she would love to see the house. So John Callahan called me; we had lunch and Mrs. Tyler came over here and we had a lovely visit. She’s a wonderful woman-- and such a coincidence, because Bill Ward, who was President of Amherst College at that time, had been a graduate student of hers at the University of Minnesota-- so it was really Bill Ward’s talking with her and writing her, that had her decide to give the things now. She was going to leave them to Amherst. She had trouble parting with them and I don’t blame her, but I think she’s felt nice about it.

HWH: I went down and talked with her, you may remember. 

DeBevoise: That’s right. 

HWH: In just such a situation as we’re in. She took me through her house and showed me the bed, particularly, and she said at the time it would come to the College but she seemed to be inclined to pass it on to a child who would then give it to the College when she was through. 

DeBevoise: Oh, I didn’t realize that. So it would have been longer yet! I feel badly that somehow or other I haven’t been able to figure out something to show her how much we appreciate her gift because she isn’t as young as she was, and she’s had-- I hear from her-- and she’s had two cataract operations. I did send her a picture of the bed, taken after the bed was in the room; and then I did send her the program of the Symposium this fall. I try to think of things that would be of interest to her. She’s such a wonder! Didn’t you think she was nice

HWH: Very, yes. Very nice. And she lives a very active life for someone that age, living alone as she does. Have you had any contacts with Harvard? Or the Houghton Library? 

DeBevoise: No. I really haven’t. And I find that I’m rather sorry about that. I went over there. Scottie Faerber, who guides here, had been to the Houghton Library once to see the Emily Dickinson Room there and couldn’t get in. It wasn’t open. We called, had the date set and were told to come anytime from nine to five no appointment needed, but when we got there were told we couldn’t see it. I really felt that was unfortunate. And we had come in good faith. With persuasion they did find someone to show us the room, but I think their staff is shorter now-- libraries are having smaller staffs-- due to budgetary limitations. But the room is wonderful, have you ever been there? 

HWH: I never have, no. I’ve been in the Library but not that room. 

DeBevoise: Unfortunately, if there’d been someone who had more time, (we didn’t want to impose on our guide, as she was away from her real work) there are things in this closet in the room which I’d love to have been able to see. I did ask about Emily Dickinson’s herbarium and she did get that book out and it’s still fragrant. 

HWH: Really? 

DeBevoise: It really is. And the flowers, you know, every little petal is distinct.

HWH: I’ll be darned. 

[END OF SIDE ONE - Interview with Mrs. DeBevoise. BEGINNING SIDE TWO] 

This is a continuation of the conversation with Mrs. DeBevoise at the Emily Dickinson House. 

HWH: How is your relationship with Mrs. Hampson? 

DeBevoise: We’re good friends. She’s a marvelous woman. I talk with her once or twice a week, probably, at some length and I certainly see her once or twice a month. We generally have lunch together once in a while. She’s very interesting and she’s a very good neighbor. She’s very kind, plus she’s got a wonderful sense of humor, so our talk is generally hardly uplifting but it’s always interesting. She loves to talk about her younger days when she traveled a lot and spent a lot of time in Paris and New York, and she’s very interested in art, so she can tell you all about a lot of things like that. She certainly knows a lot about nutrition-- she’s very careful about her diet and what she eats. She’s the kind that when John O’Neill takes her to Louis’ Market, she reads every label, you know. She won’t buy anything with additives. She went to Medical School. 

HWH: I didn’t realize that. Did she graduate? 

DeBevoise: No, she went two years to the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia; I don’t think she was too well so she stopped. She did research with a doctor who was studying the optic nerve and she spent quite a good time on that. She’s a thorough person-- she researches anything she’s interested in. I have learned not to question most of the things she says, because she’s really almost always very accurate. She’s concerned, now, for instance, about acid rain. She’s learned a lot about it, she’s read about it. 

HWH: Does she ever come into the house here? 

DeBevoise: She hasn’t come lately. It’s more likely that I will go get her and we’ll go out somewhere to lunch. Occasionally I stop over there afterwards and she does here, but the stairs are hard, so after all it is enough to walk up and down her own stairs. 

HWH: I’ve not been in her house but I think I heard you indicate that it’s fairly primitive in its fixtures. 

DeBevoise: Well, plumbing type. 

HWH: And electricity?

DeBevoise: Oh no. fine electricity. No, no-- it’s just that there’s not many up-to-date bathrooms-- that’s the big thing. But she’s put in, a modern stove and refrigerator and she put in a new oil burner last year. She had to. No, it’s simply that it’s uninsulated and that kind of thing. There are French doors there as in this house, so of course, there’s draft. One of the beauties of the house is that it hasn’t been changed; it’s remained the same, which may sound primitive, but it isn’t at all! It’s a lovely house, and it’s just that the wallpapers are the wallpapers that were put in when Austin Dickinson built the house, and therefore, it is a rarity-- a house like that. 

HWH: Almost a museum. 

DeBevoise: Yes. Right. It really is. The paintings on the walls are the ones Austin Dickinson bought; they’re just where he hung them. I think all the windows on the first floor have, what I suspect were here, inside shutters. You see I imagine they were in these windows, too. You see this room was added in 1855. The rest of this house doesn’t have these deep recesses for inside shutters-- you know, the part that was built in 1813. Of course everybody used their outside shutters for closing out the heat, the sun, and the cold. 

HWH: Do you recall what the questions are that visitors ask most? 

DeBevoise: That’s hard, because it varies with how much people know about Emily Dickinson, I guess. Because those who are really interested in Emily Dickinson are actually, I would think, more interested to see exactly where she did things; what her bedroom was; where she wrote her poetry; where she lived; how she looked out; because they know that’s where she wrote all her poetry. I’d say the majority of people, though, are interested in the fact that she was a recluse. That’s probably the most prevalent. I think her reclusiveness is one reason why the house is so important-- so many authors or artists aren’t necessarily as connected to the place where they lived as she was. 

HWH: Are you ever asked if you’ve sensed her presence? 

DeBevoise: Yes, quite often. Quite often. And I think I’m very truthful when I say that I am most apt to be asked, “Am I aware of Emily Dickinson’s ghost?” I’m not of that frame of mind, I guess. In a way I think it’s kind of an indignity to her, but her presence, yes. I do feel that; as though this is an historic house, and there’s a wonderful feeling about it. It’s very warm. Whereas a ghost-- I’d feel eerie! 

HWH: Flitting around in the yard. 

DeBevoise: But I do think everything grows in this yard. She loved the garden, you know, and was a great botanist. I do think she did something to the soil. Only half-facetiously I remark on that: “It’s growing because it’s in Emily’s soil.” 

HWH: I was just about to ask you. I notice signs that the grounds are closed at 5 PM. Either I’ve not been observant or they’ve been put up fairly recently. 

DeBevoise: They have. 

HWH: Do you get many people just coming to see the grounds, though they can’t come in the house? 

DeBevoise: Yes, quite a few and that’s fine and I think very nice. I always appreciate people who don’t come right up and put their nose against the windowpane, as sometimes people do, particularly [in this room] here. They come up on this terrace and sit down when I have my furniture out there in the summer. And these doors will be standing open-- one morning I was sitting at my desk and I hadn’t seen anyone out there, and suddenly I looked and there were six Japanese people just, you know, right, I mean right there. 

HWH: With cameras? 

DeBevoise: Yes, always, always. But it also became a difficulty last summer in the evenings. I do think with tourists being around and about, I have a feeling of less ease about who people are, their motives. It just seems sensible to not have people wandering around at seven, eight, nine o’clock at night, which they did during the summer. And I happened to be driving past Wistariahurst over in Holyoke one day and I noticed they had signs that the grounds close at five and it just seemed to me like a good idea so, the College did that. 

HWH: I think it’s a fine idea. You mentioned earlier that the College maintains the grounds. Do they also put in flowers and tend the garden? 

DeBevoise: Well yes and no. Last year I had a young man who was a student at the University who came three or four hours a week, whom the College paid. But the College cuts the grass-- that’s the massive part. The College has done some things for me that, of course, we had naturally wanted to agree on. I wouldn’t do anything which wasn’t agreed upon, but there were hedges-- a number of hedges-- a hedge all around the garden, the formal garden down there, and one across the back here. They were seedy, grown out, were filled with weeds, and it was an impossible job to clip them; I thought they detracted from the place. I suggested that we take them up and it’s been done. That’s when I got thinking of Emily Dickinson and her powers, because at one point John Bader from B&G told me, “This grass isn’t going to come up this year.” They threw some grass seed on it. [Laughs] And sure enough, it was really soon, we had grass. I think it looks nicer without the hedges. The garden is more viewable; you can see it from the house. You couldn’t before. And it’s labor-saving, so that’s been a big help. Every year I poke away at getting things cleaned out in the boundaries, along the fences, and here; I happen to like to garden. But it’s terribly hot and humid in the dead part of summer, in August. There’s not, oh not any shade at all down in that garden, and I must say I got Bruce Rice, the student helper, to work down there then and I didn’t, literally. [Chuckles] 

HWH: I got here a little early this morning and I just walked around and I’ve never seen it look as tidy and pretty as it is now. 

DeBevoise: Doesn’t it look nice? Around the garage was an absolute jungle, just terrible. 

HWH: I remember that. 

DeBevoise: There were so many bugs, which I think had something to do with that jungle. The College had a bulldozer working over there, so they came and bulldozed the whole thing. 

HWH: Oh, is that what happened? 

DeBevoise: That’s why it looks so well. 

HWH: It looks great. 

DeBevoise: And then seeded it-- and you can see that that grew! There was nothing in the borders in the front of the house when I came at all-- no planting. So I just moved things as I cleaned out, and I think they’re very nice, but I did it with the intention of less care. I have quite a few violets, and the things Emily Dickinson liked, the flowers she mentions. 

HWH: Allen Guttmann was married in Emily’s bedroom, I believe. Have others made similar requests to be married in the Dickinson Homestead? 

DeBevoise: We’ve had requests. Rita had one last summer, at least. She said, “I didn’t even wait to call you, I just said, ‘I’m sorry we can’t do this” It was just a young couple who were walking by and thought it was a pretty yard and had no, no interest in Emily Dickinson, they were just looking for a place to get married. So when Rita told me about it I said, “I think it might be well if they looked at a public park.” In any case, the only couple who’ve been married here since I’ve been here were Bonnie Alexander and Bill Shullenberger, and they are guides. 

HWH: Oh, that was nice.

DeBevoise: They asked me way ahead and I said I thought that would be lovely, and so it turned out it was a beautiful day in May and a Saturday. I think it was about early afternoon they had the ceremony in the parlor and very small, and then they had the reception elsewhere. It was lovely. And they still guide, each of them. 

HWH: They still guide? I’ll be darned. 

DeBevoise: I think it will be three years ago this May. 

HWH: What do you think are the drawbacks of living in the Homestead? 

DeBevoise: I think mainly, privacy. But that part of it I look upon-- I don’t know how to say this correctly-- I look upon this as something of a job. In other words, I do think it is a job, and I think the College has a need as long as the house is operated this way to someone who will live here, see that it is working right, tend to it, look out for it, be security, and organize the guide program and be a liaison to the College. On the other hand, the person who does it, does those things, really has to expect that it’s not all peaches and cream and that’s one of the side parts. I’m better about it some days than others. It’s just like anything else; it’s your disposition that day. Also, it’s so much as how people are with you. You know there are some people who might be an imposition, but they are so nice about it, that you’re glad. With others who are so sort of pushy that I sort of resent them right off. They’re generally women. To my dismay, I have discovered there are more women like that than men. The men are often hanging in the background while the woman comes up-- pushy. Then, I feel that the benefits are enormous. The benefits of the position. 

HWH: I was going to ask you that. 

DeBevoise: ...which is a better word than job, I suppose. I simply meant job in that it is, it is really a position that has benefits and responsibilities. I feel very responsible for the house. I haven’t been away more than four or five days at a time, if that, in the summer since I’ve been here because it’s so busy then, and I do feel responsible for it. Now this summer, Mrs. Kosic is here, and she’s wonderful, and Security will help me. She works for me, I mean this is my arrangement, not the College. And she’s just a wonderful person and she’ll come in and make sure the house is attended to and open it for the guides and all that. I’m going away for two weeks because I just find the humidity so difficult and I... 

HWH: It’s so oppressive.

DeBevoise: ...and I want to go out and see my son [Kendall] in Oregon and that’s the best time of year for that, so I am going to do it this year. But there is that, at least I feel, it is a position with responsibility. The benefits are, of course, I have met people; and been in on programs that I never would have been just on my own; and of course, I’ve become terribly interested in Emily Dickinson and in the town of Amherst and its history. And that’s been wonderful, wonderful for me. Plus it’s a lovely, comfortable house to live in-- which is nice. I think it would be very hard for a family. I don’t see how the Mudges did it-- I mean how the children grew up. 

HWH: I do, too. 

DeBevoise: Hard. 

HWH: Betty I’ve run through the questions I jotted down. Have I forgotten something which should be in? 

DeBevoise: I don’t think so. I think you’ve covered just about everything, because as far as the history of the house and family and town, that’s all in other things and would be repetitive. 

HWH: I’ve rather purposely avoided those, because what’s here is not elsewhere, in material that’s printed. 

Well, if anything occurs to you that we’ve left out, please call. 

DeBevoise: Right, I shall. And I’ve found this very enjoyable. I hope I have covered everything, but as I say, I’ll think about it and if something comes up... 

HWH: Fine. 

Final Draft completed 5/9/81]

Rights and Citation Information

The interviewer and interviewee place no restrictions -- other than standard literary credit -- on the use of this transcript.

Suggested citation format:
Oral history interview with Elizabeth DeBevoise, 1981 March 20, in Amherst College Oral History Project Records, (Box 1, Folder 8), Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library <https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/amherst-college-oral-history-project/elizabeth-debevoise>

For information about the Amherst College Oral History Project Records please see the collection's finding aid.

For further information, please contact Archives & Special Collections at archives@amherst.edu. 

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