Biographical Sketch

"That doomed young aesthete, dark prince of art and literature, Scofield Thayer..."

 Picasso biographer, John Richardson


Scofield Thayer (1889-1982), a wealthy, eccentric arts patron, introduced Modern art and letters to the U.S. in the 1920s through his provocative magazine The Dial. Artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Klimt, and writers such as T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings and Ezra Pound were first introduced to America on its pages. Many of the “Lost Generation” fled to Paris, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and John Singer Sargent, but Thayer went to Vienna. The Austrian capital was brimming with cutting edge modernist art and ideas; from there Thayer amassed one of the leading collections of modern art – now a highlight at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. His unconventional personal life and circle comprise a glamorous Who’s Who of the era’s writers, artists and other luminaries; among them, Louise Bryant (his lover), Sigmund Freud (his analyst) and Albert C. Barnes (his nemesis). 

At the age of 37, at the height of his brilliant career, Thayer was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He retreated into a world of his own and lived for another 56 years surrounded by caretakers. When The Dial closed in 1929— and Wall Street crashed — New York's pioneering and iconic
Museum of Modern Art was founded. Having at first rejected modernism, America was now ready to embrace it—largely as a result of Thayer's influence. And, many of the artists and writers whose work had puzzled and scandalized readers were now established.

Thayer was born in Worcester, Massachusetts to Edward D. Thayer and Florence Scofield Thayer. The Thayers were a prominent family, and Scofield's father was the country’s leading textile manufacturer. Scofield's uncle Ernest Thayer was the author of the well-known poem "Casey at the Bat".

Thayer entered Harvard University in 1909. There he made two lifelong friends – his future business partner, James Sibley Watson, Jr., heir to the Western Union fortune, and E.E. Cummings, whose genius he promoted. He served on the staff of the Harvard Monthly and met many other young poets and writers whose work he would later feature in The Dial. After graduating with honors, he went to Oxford University.

Thayer married the great beauty Elaine Orr in June 1916. He commissioned his friend E. E. Cummings to write his famous poem Epithalamion for the wedding. After a year-long honeymoon in California, they returned to New York and established separate residences. By 1919, Elaine was having an affair with Cummings, and gave birth to Cummings child, Nancy, whom Thayer recognized as his own.

In 1918, Thayer, a poet and writer, started writing for The Dial. In late 1919, Thayer and fellow Harvard alumnus James Sibley Watson, Jr. purchased the financially troubled magazine. Thayer became Editor and Watson served as President. They released their first issue of The Dial in January 1920, featuring work by E. E. Cummings, Gaston Lachaise, and Carl Sandburg.

Thayer started to experience mental distress, and in July 1921 he sailed for Europe and settled in Vienna for two years where he saw Dr. Freud weekly (at $100 a week), consulting with him in German. Thayer continued to direct the operations of The Dial, sending layout and content instructions back to the magazine's offices in New York.

But his mental condition continued to deteriorate and in 1926, he suffered a complete mental breakdown. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he resigned as editor of The Dial in June 1926, though he continued to serve as an advisor, contributing poems on occasion. He would financially support the magazine until its closure in 1929. The remainder of his life was spent with caretakers, moving between homes and hotels in Bermuda, Florida, Worcester, New York and his beloved Martha's Vineyard.

Thayer died in 1982 at 93 years of age and had outlived all the heirs named in his will. The estate settlement resulted in a high voltage case that created shock waves through the museum and literary worlds: after 50 years on permanent loan at the Worcester Art Museum, The Dial Art collection of over 600 paintings, drawings and sculptures was transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Thayer’s will provided for this bequest on the condition that the art be on permanent display, a condition not met. And after close to 40 years on loan to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, The Dial’s priceless collection of letters and manuscripts was threatened by a forced sale which was, fortunately, averted.

He is buried in Rural Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Chronology: Scofield Thayer and The Dial

The Dial cover 1840.jpg

1840 – The Dial magazine is founded. Through 1844, it is the chief publication of the Transcendentalists; Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson serve as Editors. Bronson Alcott suggests the title to evoke sunlight, life and growth associated with a sundial. However, it does not live up to its radical ambitions.

1860 – One-year revival of The Dial.

1870 - The Metropolitan Museum of Art founded.

1880 – The Dial is re-established as a literary review by Francis Fisher Browne in Chicago.

1889 – Scofield Thayer born in Worcester, MA to Florence Scofield (1858-1936) and Edward Davis Thayer (1856-1907), a textile manufacturing entrepreneur.

1894 – James Sibley Watson, Jr. born in Rochester, NY to Emily Sibley and J.S. Watson, Sr. Watson is heir to the Western Union fortune.

1896 – Worcester Art Museum founded; doors open in 1898.

1910 – The Worcester Art Museum is the first U.S. museum to purchase the work of Claude Monet; in 1919 it is the first to acquire an Odilon Redon and in 1921, the first to acquire a Paul Gauguin.

1913 – The Armory Show opens in New York, introducing Modern Art to the American public.

Francis Fisher Browne dies; The Dial fails.

Thayer graduates from Harvard with honors; a distinguished student and frequent contributor to The Harvard Monthly, he enters Oxford.

1915 - Thayer reads Willard Huntington Wright’s Modern Painting, a primer on Modernism.

1916 – Watson graduates from Harvard; he too, serves on the Editorial Board of The Harvard Monthly. Browne’s family sells The Dial to Martyn Johnson, who expands the focus to include political commentary.

Thayer marries Elaine Orr; poet and Harvard classmate E.E. Cummings writes Epithalamion for their wedding. They amicably divorce in 1921 but remain close; one child, Nancy Thayer.

Watson marries Thayer’s friend Hildegarde Lasell, who is one of the first to notice paranoid and schizophrenic behavior in Thayer.

1918 – The Dial moves to New York but encounters financial problems. Thayer, heir to a New England wool fortune, becomes a Director, Associate Editor and investor. Thayer is angered over Johnson's editorial policies and resigns, though he honors his financial commitment.

1919 – Conflicts over ideology and finance prompt Johnson to sell The Dial. With Thayer as Editor and Watson as President, The Dial is relaunched as a monthly journal; their first issue is released in January 1920. It becomes the leading magazine of arts and letters and an influential outlet for Modernism, publishing notable fiction, poetry, essays and artwork. 

1920 – In the first year alone, The Dial features writers and artists such as: Sherwood Anderson, Constantin Brâncuși, VanWyck Brooks, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, E.E. Cummings, Kahlil Gibran, Gaston Lachaise, Henri Matisse, Marianne Moore, Edvard Munch, Georgia O'Keeffe, Ezra Pound, Odilon Redon, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sandburg, Joseph Stella and William Butler Yeats.

1921 - Thayer moves to Vienna and becomes a patient of Sigmund Freud. He continues to edit The Dial and actively collects modern art which he features in the magazine. Thayer publishes Living Art, a lavishly illustrated book of contemporary art.

Thayer and Watson announce a new Dial Award to a contributor for "service to letters" with a $2,000 prize to provide the winner with "leisure through which at least one artist may serve God (or go to the Devil) according to his own lights." Eight awards granted; Sherwood Anderson receives the first. Other honorees: 1922: T.S. Eliot; 1923: Van Wyck Brooks; 1924: Marianne Moore; 1925: E. E. Cummings; 1926: William Carlos Williams; 1927: Ezra Pound and 1928: Kenneth Burke.

1922 - Albert C. Barnes, a physician who made a fortune co-developing an anti-gonorrhea drug, founds his eponymous museum of modern art, The Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA. He stipulates that the art in the collection be kept "in exactly the places they are". Barnes contributes an essay on Renoir for the February 1920 issue of The Dial, but he and Thayer have a very contentious relationship. After a particularly heated exchange, Thayer purchases a pistol for protection.

1923 – Thayer returns to the U.S. He promotes Living Art via an exhibition at the Montross Gallery in New York and makes plans with the Worcester Art Museum to stage an exhibit of his collection.

E.E. Cummings

E.E. Cummings

1924 - Elaine Thayer marries E.E. Cummings; Cummings adopts Nancy Thayer (his natural child). A few months later, they divorce and Elaine marries Francis MacDermot. The MacDermots move to Ireland; Nancy does not learn her real father is Cummings until 1948.

In March, Raymond Henniker-Heaton, Director of the Worcester Art Museum, holds the first exhibit of the modernist Dial Art Collection, including works by Bonnard, Demuth, Matisse, Munch and Picasso. To Thayer’s irritation, a Braque and a Picasso are pulled fearing an adverse reaction from a "conservative public". The exhibit is well received. After a brief showing of several works at Smith College, the art returns to Worcester.

Painter John Christen Johansen, in Worcester to paint Clark University President Wallace A. Atwood, refers to The Dial as "an intellectual sewer" in a July 20 interview with the Worcester Sunday Telegram. Thayer is irate, but bides his time.

1925 – Thayer’s mental decline accelerates. He responds to Johansen’s slur with a virulent attack on Johansen in the May issue of The Dial. It is Thayer’s final editorial.

In June, Thayer still harboring resentment, drafts a will leaving 500+ artworks to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and a collection of 22 Aubrey Beardsley drawings to Harvard’s Fogg Museum. Both gifts carry the stipulation that they are for "permanent exhibition". The remainder of his property (about $7 million at the time) is left in equal shares to Alyse Gregory and Marianne Moore (both Dial Editors), Robert von Erdberg (friend from the Berlin Ministry of Cultural Affairs) and Robert Thomas Nichols (friend and playwright).

1926 – Thayer suffers a severe mental breakdown and is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; he is under close medical supervision until his death.

Marianne Moore, moves from Managing Editor to Editor of The Dial on Thayer’s resignation in June. Thayer is listed as an Advisor; The Dial continues to publish his poems. Thayer will continue to financially support the magazine until it closes.

1929 – Watson becomes involved in avant-garde cinema. Without Thayer at the helm, the magazine loses its edge, and its raison d'être, introducing Modernist art and letters, has met with success; Modernism is now mainstream. The Dial ceases publication with its final issue in July.

The Museum of Modern Art is founded.

1931 – Thayer’s mother (and now legal guardian) starts placing works from his collection at the Worcester Art Museum.

Francis Henry Taylor serves as Director of the Worcester Art Museum and obtains Thayer’s collection on long-term loan. Taylor then becomes the Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1940-1955). A Monuments Man, in 1942, he proposes that the U.S. create a corps of specialists in liaison with the Army and Navy to protect cultural treasures in Europe. Taylor, Chairman of the Committee on Axis-Appropriated Property, helps save and repatriate millions of artworks.

1936 – After caring for her son and helping to manage his affairs for many years, Florence Thayer dies.

1937 – Thayer is declared legally insane, and a new guardian is appointed. Thayer’s personal effects are stored at Worcester Storage Company. He spends the rest of his life travelling with a staff and caregivers between his homes in Worcester, Martha’s Vineyard and Florida, with occasional visits to sanatoria.

1950 – The Dial collection of literary papers goes on loan to Yale. Thayer’s heirs attempt a sale through Sotheby’s in 1987; the sale and dismantling is averted. Yale retains the collection.

1951 – Albert C. Barnes dies; decades of legal challenges regarding claims of mismanagement of The Barnes Foundation follow.

1959 – Exhibition of The Dial Collection opens at the Worcester Art Museum; readings by writers such as E.E. Cummings are featured. The exhibition will remain in place for decades. The Collection comprises 589 paintings, drawings, etchings, sculptures and other works. Among the most valuable are Matisse’s La Dance aux Capucines and Picasso’s Portrait of a Boy and Mother and Child.

1982 – Watson dies on March 31. In the final years of The Dial, Watson produces with Harvard classmate Melville Folsom Webber, several classic films, inter alia, The Fall of the House of Usher (1928).

Decades after he became mentally incapacitated, Thayer dies on July 9 at his home in Edgartown. He is 93 years old and has outlived everyone named in his will. Four cousins, once removed, inherit his estate.

On Thayer’s death, the will is probated. A hearing is held to determine the court’s interpretation of Thayer’s phrase "permanent exhibition" in his will. The Metropolitan Museum of Art successfully argues that if the art was permanently displayed it would deteriorate. Judge Francis W. Conlin agrees, stating that Thayer's guidelines would be satisfied if the works are "accessible to the public on request". This contradicts Thayer’s will and his philosophy regarding art and accessibility.

Under Worcester Art Museum Director Tom Freudenheim, The Dial Collection is moved to The Metropolitan Museum of Art after being on display at the Worcester Art Museum for close to 50 years. Philippe de Montebello, Director, receives Thayer’s legacy.

1986 – New Worcester Art Museum Director James Welu starts rebuilding the museum's modern holdings.

1987 – Thayer’s boxes from Worcester Cold Storage are examined: a rich collection of letters and art (such as works by Egon Schiele and an erotic Picasso) are found.

1992 – The Barnes Foundation, beset with financial problems, successfully petitions the Courts to break the trust stipulations to allow the art to go on tour to generate funds.

2004 – After a 2-year legal battle, Judge Stanley Ott rules that the Barnes can move to Philadelphia.

2009 – The Art of the Steal is released, a documentary film detailing the struggle to control the Barnes dubbed "the greatest art theft since the Second World War".

2012 – The new Barnes opens in Philadelphia.

2014 – The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer by James Dempsey is published.

2016 – The Metropolitan Museum of Art plans the exhibition Obsession: Nudes by Schiele, Picasso and Klimt from the Scofield Thayer Collection which will run from July-October 2018.