MARY CALDER ROWER
by Jessica Holmes
In the form of a rebus, the announcement translates something like this: “Louisa had a Caesarean. They cut her open and got the baby, and then they stitched her back up. Is she okay? Yes, she’s okay. I am happy.” So wrote Alexander Calder to his sister Peggy in California shortly after the birth of his second daughter, Mary Calder, on May 25, 1939. No doubt the future Mary would have approved this proclamation—both the blunt candor and wry humor of the note seem to mirror the central components of the character that this little baby would someday develop.
Her childhood was a unique combination of worldly travels and simple Yankee thrift. The place that the Calder family called home was rural Roxbury, Connecticut, and it was there where Mary was raised, in a farmhouse built in 1760. Though the house presented for Calder a constant project—he was forever making ingenious alterations and elaborations—it remained fundamentally rudimentary. The family existed simply. In the summer, much of their food came from the garden. In the winter, layers of clothing were required for warmth. Surrounded by farmland, Mary developed a deep and abiding appreciation for the natural world. Raising and nurturing plants and animals was an everyday activity.
This rustic existence was counterbalanced with a worldliness rarely found in New England country girls. Mary’s father had himself a peripatetic childhood, and he and Louisa took for simple fact that their own children would be raised much the same way. The Calders were often on the move, and from early family photographs, it seems that Mary was always up for an adventure. On a two-week road trip to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, there is Mary, age 7, perched on a picnic table and feeding peanuts to a small monkey. In another photo taken two years later, she has climbed to the top of a wooden fence and directs her gaze mischievously at the camera, as her mother and older sister sit more demurely off to the side.
Her first trip to Europe, in 1950 at the age of 11, was substantial. While based for four months in Paris, the family made an extensive excursion through Scandinavia. A leg of this journey found the Calders on a train from Antwerp, Belgium, and Calder had a recollection of Mary that left such an impression on him he recounted it in his autobiography 16 years later. On the train, the four Calders were seated in a compartment with a refined-looking lady and gentleman. After a bit of small talk between the family and the couple, the woman smiled down at Mary and asked her, “What do you think I do?” to which Mary responded, “Cleaning lady.” The elegant woman turned out to be a television and radio celebrity. Possibly Mary’s guess was simply a case of childish naiveté, but equally as plausible is that Mary recognized a condescending question, and decided to take the star down a peg or two.
Her mordant sense of humor emerged early. An arbiter of wit no less than Saul Steinberg recognized a kindred spirit in Mary. A good friend of Calder and Louisa, Steinberg adored the family and had a special fondness for her. Mary had a knack for making the often-gloomy Steinberg laugh, and though her humor could be caustic, Mary was, at heart, an eternal optimist. Her sunny outlook cheered Steinberg, and his affection for her is evident in his many drawings of Calder and his family. Steinberg immortalized her often, like in his drawing of Calder at the wheel of his famed LaSalle touring car, replete with Calder-made modifications and contraptions, while Mary beams from the backseat, eager for an adventure.
Mary’s escapades continued into her adolescence. In 1953, at age 14, Mary and her family left the United States and embarked on a year-long sojourn in France, where they installed themselves in Aix-en-Provence. They set sail from New York, arriving in France in July that year. In the tiny hamlet of Les Granettes, the family settled into a house even more primitive than the house in Roxbury—this one had no electricity or running water. They lived there through the summer before moving into another house with both amenities.
Her experiences undoubtedly made Mary a fascinating member of the Putney School’s incoming freshman class of 1954. Located in rural Vermont, Putney was (and remains) a progressive boarding school—in fact it was the first co-educational boarding school in the country. Its liberal values and comprehensive and alternative curriculum made the school a popular choice in education for artists and their children. At Putney, Mary thrived. Her spirited letters home talk of the books she read, the speakers who came to visit, skiing adventures, and weekends at New England beaches. She took a special interest in Russian culture and literature, which were afforded equal attention amongst the many other subjects also being taught. At the height of the Cold War, these subjects were taboo nearly everywhere else in the country.
Not long after her graduation from high school Mary met the man who would change her life forever, though their first meeting seemed comically inauspicious. While visiting a girlfriend who lived in Boston, the two young women stopped in for coffee at the Hayes-Bickford’s in Harvard Square. As they sat and chatted, two men about their age entered. Her friend Vicky Chess, who lived in the vicinity, knew them both. Mary knew one of them from Putney, but not the other—a young man who sported a shaggy mane of hair and an unkempt beard. Mary turned to Vicky and under her breath inquired, “Who’s that creep?” The “creep” turned out to be Howard Rower. Mary’s distaste was short-lived—by the time she left in 1960 to spend the summer with her family in France, Mary and Howard were desperately in love. For the next several months their affair carried on touchingly through letters back and forth. Mary implored Howard to come meet her.
Howard did make it to Europe that summer, touring the continent on a motorcycle. Louisa allowed her daughter to go to him, and so the two arranged a rendezvous in Switzerland. Howard met Mary as she disembarked from the train sometime in July 1960. As the story famously goes, Mary objected to the motorbike, and at first refused to get on. “Get on the back,” Howard told her, “or get back on the train.” Mary climbed aboard. The excursion in Switzerland sealed their fate. By the fall of 1960, Mary had returned to the U.S. and had moved into her parents’ pied-à-terre at 20 Jones Street in New York. She and Howard (for the moment still living in Boston) took turns visiting each other on the weekends until Howard finally made the move to New York himself. They were married in 1961 and set up their first home together in Mary’s apartment.
Within two years, their sons Holton and Sandy were born, and Mary and Howard purchased a townhouse on 84 MacDougal Street, which quickly became a hub of the neighborhood. Mary’s ever-widening social circle led her mother to tease her gently in a letter written only a month after the family had moved in: “You will become ‘The Hostess’ of Greenwich Village if you keep on—.” Louisa’s tip-off was prescient; it seems as if a night didn’t go by where Mary did not have a friend, relative, or acquaintance either over for dinner, sleeping on the sofa, or camping out for even longer in the guest quarters. One of her many gifts, and possibly her greatest, was making whoever passed through feel like family. Of course, this included the pricklier side of familial relations—just because one was a guest did not mean one was exempt from Mary’s opinions and arguments, and a strong will was required to sit at her dinner table.
In the midst of this full life, family always remained her primary concern. She was a devoted mother to her two boys, and she also remained extremely close to her parents, as well as her sister Sandra and her family, though they all lived mainly in the French countryside. Summers and Christmases frequently found the Rowers traveling to Saché for extended visits. When they weren’t in France, she sent letters to her parents a couple times a week, keeping them up-to-date on the busy happenings in her life. So it is unsurprising that in the wake of her father’s death in 1976, Mary became a fierce protector of his legacy and she dedicated herself to preserving his life and work. In 1987, she was key to the establishment of the Calder Foundation, the nonprofit organization headed by her son Sandy that is dedicated to recording, archiving, and preserving Calder’s life and work. Mary was a founding trustee, and remained on the board until her death. Over the years she contributed countless items and artifacts, as well as stories, memories, and recollections. The staff came to rely on her for all manner of arcane knowledge. When an unfamiliar face in a yellowing photograph went unidentified, the standard suggestion was, “Send it to Mary.” When presented with a sculpture that had a curious title, or a Calder-made household object with an unknown purpose, the protocol around the office became, “Call Mary. She’ll know.” Her fount of knowledge was shared freely, and without it the archive the Calder Foundation has compiled over the past 24 years would be the poorer.
Through all of her whirlwind adventures, Mary remained passionately committed to certain pastimes that could be called “hobbies” in name only. She was renowned for her cooking by all who ever had the pleasure to sit at her table—countless tales are told of her fish stew, leg of lamb, duck, crème caramel, mousse au chocolat, and simple roasted chicken. She delighted in putting before her guests healthy, nourishing food. Likewise, her garden was one of her prides and joys. The carefully attended plants in her lush back garden brought Mary respite from the stresses of everyday life. She was the maestro of the MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens and championed its upkeep and preservation. On the Gardens’s annual “Digging Day” (the day the families surrounding it come out to plant each spring), she was famous for making ham and coleslaw, which became part of the tradition. She took an active interest in politics, not only vocally adamant about politicians she supported, but committed to their causes. She stuffed envelopes, wrote letters, and petitioned. She adored her four grandchildren, and made a point to be there for every occasion of each of their lives from graduations to recitals.
Mary had the resources to live an easier, more sheltered existence. But she chose to care instead, to take an insatiable interest in the world and people around her. Her touchiness, her occasional dismissiveness, her impatience—these things can be forgiven in light of all that she delivered to the world, without asking, again and again until the day she died. Writing an open letter to fellow members of the Threshold Foundation in 1986 (one of her many philanthrophes), Mary succinctly summed up her philosophy: “To me life is a matter of balance and each person has to find his or her own balance that feels right. It’s like making a good soup. Sometimes you need to add a little salt or parsley or whatever but not to the exclusion of the other ingredients.” And in fact, it’s precisely how Mary Calder Rower lived her life. She mixed it up and made a good soup.
More Articles by the AuthorJessica Holmes