"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.