Mary Garden; or, Can a Woman Love
and Still Be Free?
By Carrie Wilson
Many women, while wanting to have love in our lives,
have been afraid, felt that in loving a man we would
lose our individuality and freedom. In "Aesthetic
Realism and Love," Eli Siegel described the true
nature of love and why it is, in fact, in behalf of
Love is having your way by being able truly to give
yourself to another. Love is the feeling that by being
affected deeply by another, beginning by seeing that
other, you are going to be more yourself.
I'm grateful to tell here what I learned, and now
teach as an Aesthetic Realism consultant to women, and
about the important opera singer whose autobiography,
Mary Garden’s Story, Mr. Siegel recommended,
because, he said, her life brings up "the matter
of what to leave out and what to include. Mary Garden
said she didn't want to marry. She felt that something
interesting her might take her away from something else."
This is a question had by many women, and Aesthetic
Realism answers it magnificently.
I learned that when we care for anything--an art,
a person, a country--that care can be, and has to be,
a beginning point for caring for everything else in
reality. When it is, our love for music, or for Roberto,
is a means of achieving our deepest desire--to like
the world. And so love is a means of becoming ourselves
A woman, I learned, has to do what art does, she has
to put opposites together. "All beauty," Eli
Siegel stated, "is a making one of opposites, and
the making one of opposites is what we are going after
in ourselves." Beginning opposites in everyone's
life are self and world. And the great enemy to love,
and to our freedom, is our desire to have contempt for
Though I had studied art and literature, was pursuing
an acting career and singing with a folk-rock trio,
I agonized over why I didn't seem to be able to care
for anyone in the way I felt I should. At 23, I wrote
in my journal:
I care for people in the most mild way imaginable.
Against my will and inclination I am becoming old
in spirit. I need a man to make my life worth anything
to me--and no one will do--I am terrifically hard
to please. [But then I wrote:] I need to be alone--truly
alone to do my work and to feel my integrity and value
clearly and strongly.
In 1969, when I began to attend classes with Mr. Siegel,
he spoke to me about the fight between wanting to love
and wanting to be elusive. He asked if I had played
hide and seek with people, including men, and he said:
"This double desire to be a part of a person's
life and assert one's independence forever tears people
apart." Had I not had the great good fortune to
meet and study Aesthetic Realism, this would have been
a description of my whole life. I believe that double
desire was the central cause of pain in the woman I
speak of now.
I. She Was Trying to Put
Together Independence and Dependence
Mary Garden, who lived from 1874 to 1967,
and who introduced modern French opera to America, had
a remarkable ability to give herself to a character.
People felt she was the person she portrayed. The critic
Merle Armitage writes of the audience's wonder:
"...that the woman who sang Thaïs one
night was the same body and mind which assumed such
ethereal qualities as Melisande a few nights
And in her autobiography Miss Garden herself says
of the characters she played:
I had them all in me, in my very flesh and blood.
If only someone could tell me about that. I must confess
it has always been a mystery to me.
In an Aesthetic Realism lesson Mr. Siegel explained
to an actress: "It is what you already are that
enables you to take on somebody else....We are of everything."
To see and welcome this oneness of self and world is,
I have learned, the same as wisdom for oneself.
In his lecture "Mind and Intelligence,"
Mr. Siegel has these sentences I wish Miss Garden could
Music, the arts, are intelligence, because when
the arts are authentic they always are free and they
always are precise, accurate. There is a beautiful
mingling of limitation and the infinite.
As a singer, Mary Garden was able to put precision
and freedom together. In 1902, the composer Claude Debussy
chose her to create the role of Melisande in his opera
Pelleas et Melisande. Of her impersonation,
Arthur Meeker writes:
Truly, I am resigned to having lived in the first
half of the turbulent twentieth century, if only because
I have been able, a dozen times, to see Mary Garden
in Pelleas et Melisande.
She loved the music of Debussy. As she took the role
of Melisande, she felt, I believe, that oneness of limitation
and the infinite she wanted. In a recording she made
in 1902, with Debussy at the piano, which I think is
beautiful, despite the surface noise of the old recording,
her voice comes out clear and yet like a trembling sigh,
seeking and restrained, wondering and controlled. Miss
Garden rightly cherished this ability in herself.
Mary Garden as Mélisande
Yet though she wanted, as she sang many roles, to give
herself with fullness to the music, she also wanted,
as women can, to divest herself of the world and people.
...when I finished any performance of mine...and
went home and had my glass of milk...I never remembered
that I had sung anything or...had been impersonating
anyone. Never, never, never. I was always Mary Garden,
In this statement we see one of the ways she wanted,
as Mr. Siegel said to me, to "assert her independence
forever." And this woman, whose name, between 1910-1925
was "unquestionably a household word," said
she felt she never let anyone know her.
Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, her family moved to America
when she was eight. In her autobiography, she says this:
Early in life I taught myself a very simple lesson--don't
lean on anyone but yourself. I have always been independent
in my work and in my life. I could never belong to
anyone. What it must be like to be chained to anyone!
This is the same woman who proudly asserted, "I
need the music, I depend on it." How I wish she
could have learned that she could be proud to need a
person for the same reason she needed music. One can
see that she was deeply troubled over why she never
felt she really loved any of the men she had to do with.
I never lost my heart,...never knew what it was to
have that mad passion....I can't explain it.
Shortly before she left for Paris to study singing,
Mary told a young man who wanted to marry her:
I know it's got to be one or the other, music or
marriage; it can't be both. I've made up my mind.
I've decided I want music.
Mary Garden as Aphrodite
She was afraid that love would hinder her care for
music and singing. In Edward Wagenknecht's book Seven
Daughters of the Theatre, he quotes her as saying:
"I've seen so many fine careers snarled and caged
and laid low by desires; they are insidious things,
and dangerous ....Watch them, seize them, bind them,
strap them down with iron clamps."
Mary Garden, like other women, had two fears, one
sensible and one very unwise, and she wasn't able to
see the difference between them. She was afraid of the
selfishness that so often goes with what is called love,
the desire to possess and have power over another person
that can be in both men and women. But she was also
afraid to care too much for another person because she
thought it would interfere with her care for herself
and make her less free.
II. A Young Woman Learns
About Love and Becomes More Free
Carolyn Porter, an attractive and lively young teacher
of history, moved to New York from Ohio to study Aesthetic
Realism. Though she had had to do with a number of men,
she felt every time she was in a relation with a man
she concentrated on him to the exclusion of other things
and became less interested in the world. She greatly
prized her independence--she had her apartment, she
had her career, and when she came home she could do
as she pleased. Meanwhile, Miss Porter was longing to
care truly for a man. In one consultation we asked:
"Is there any man you're interested in now?"
Carolyn Porter: I'm very interested in Abraham Lincoln.
Really, I don't just feel there's a man that I feel
interested in, in just that way.
Consultants: When you say, "Just that way,"
do you think it's already making too much of a separation
[between your interest in a man you may know and interest
in a person in history]?
CP: Yes, it is.
Some weeks later, in a consultation, she mentioned
that she and Ben Sawyer, a man who is studying Aesthetic
Realism and is also a teacher, had been having conversations
which she liked very much--they were interesting, exciting.
But she indicated she wasn't sure she wanted things
to go any further. We asked Ms. Porter questions Mary
Garden needed to hear: "Are you afraid of someone
affecting you more deeply? Are you afraid to be engaged
entirely with another person?" "Yes,"
she said, "but I am affected by his kindness. I'm
very grateful that he's a friend." As she said
this, there was, we pointed out, "a touch of very
polite agony" in her voice. I've learned that while
we want love very much there's something in every person
that's against it.
As their conversations continued, Carolyn Porter increasingly
respected Mr. Sawyer, and even though she could be,
as she admitted, intimidating, he wasn't thrown, but
gave her good natured criticism and continued to want
to know her. We encouraged her to want to do what Aesthetic
Realism shows is essential in caring for a person truly:
to be interested in how he sees the world--his work,
his family, his home town of Muncie, Indiana. She told
us she cared very much for the way he talked about people,
including children, getting the economic justice they
deserve and the need for Aesthetic Realism to be known
She wrote assignments, such as: "What I Can Learn
from a Man," "Notations about My Superiority,"
"Examples of Dependence and Independence in the
World and in Myself," and she wrote about a man
she cared for in relation to each of the 15 questions
of Eli Siegel's "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?"
Ms. Porter told us:
I have never been so deeply moved by a man as I
am by Ben Sawyer....I feel a more complete, wider,
practical, kinder person through knowing him and I'm
glad to need his criticism, his perceptions, his humor
to know myself and the world better. Through him my
thought about friends, students, and people as such
is getting deeper. I love Ben Sawyer very much.
III. Contempt vs. the
Ability to Care
The man who seems to have meant most to Mary Garden
was J. Ogden Armour, who had inherited a multimillion
dollar meatpacking business. He is described by Arthur
Meeker as: "guileless and kindly...I should think
he was a classic example of a rich man's son who didn't
know what to do with himself." Miss Garden tells
of their meeting:
I don't like calling it love at first sight, because
I'm certain I never loved anyone in my life, and I am
impatient with that sort of nonsense. But I found my
heart pounding and I was tingling all over....He had
never heard an opera in his life; he knew nothing about
books; he had never traveled....There was something
untouched about him that fascinated me, much more than
his love for me, for I must confess that his love got
to bore me terribly. He knew that he never in the world
would capture me."
In an Aesthetic Realism class, Eli Siegel asked a
young woman: "Do you know what the Mary Garden
complex is?" "No," she said. And Mr.
Siegel said, "Mary Garden wanted men to like her
singing but not her lips. She was quite furious with
men, because they seemed to be interested in something
else than her singing." And I believe that, like
many women, because Miss Garden was angry and had contempt
for men, not granting them the same depth she gave herself,
she could bring out a man's desire to conquer her, and
then be furious with him for the very thing she had
elicited. Meeker describes a visit she made to Ogden
Mary, perfumed and soignee (was) perched on the
edge of his desk, displaying what in 1910 must have
been a daring expanse of silk-stockinged leg, puffing
at a cigarette, and blowing the smoke deliberately
in her host's face....Out of this inauspicious encounter
a durable, if stormy, friendship developed....
She invited him to the opera; he came and saw her
as the courtesan Thais. Remembering what happened later,
Miss Garden writes:
How wretched he became, because I suppose, he could
never have me the way he wanted me, to possess and
dominate me in every way!
Mary Garden as Thaïs
But she invited him to visit at her hotel and her villa
in France. In an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel
explained to me something Mary Garden needed ever so
much to hear:
Eli Siegel: Ask, a year from now, do I want to respect
his person I'm making a date with? Do I want this person's
life to be better?...The other thing is to make fools
of people without them knowing it. Do you?
ES: I say you have to have good will.
This criticism changed my life. Eli Siegel saw the
mind and self of woman with an entire respect that is
new in this world, and I love him for it. I had despised
myself for the way I had used and given pain to men.
I learned the reason I felt so bad was because my purpose
was bad, not because, as Mary Garden wrote, "the
right man passed me by." She needed to know she
had to have the same purpose in knowing a man as she
had in knowing a character in opera--to complete herself
through being fair to the world.
In her commentary to an issue of The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Chairman Ellen
All the human-caused grief in history and individual
lives, has occurred because people every day equate
freedom with contempt. This is what persons have deeply
and hourly taken their freedom to be: "I don't
have to think about you or ask myself what is fair
to you....I have no obligation to be accurate about
a thing or person--for then I would be tied down,
Miss Garden didn't want to think about what it would
mean to be fair to Ogden Armor, and she describes how,
when she found out he was, unknown to any of his friends,
alcoholic, she never said anything to him about it.
A woman can want a man to be weak so she can solidify
her scorn and justify her coldness. Finally she refused
to see him, and several years later she learned his
drinking had killed him. At the end of her autobiography,
she writes: "Whether loving me helped any of the
men whose stories I have told I'm not at all sure."
This is what, through the study of Aesthetic Realism,
women, including myself, never have to feel. I learned,
as Mr. Siegel explained in a class, that “love
is intense good will. We feel that in bringing out the
best in another person, we flourish ourselves."
I'm grateful that through my marriage to composer
Edward Green, I have become more myself, freer, more
intelligent. His criticism, logical and cheerful, has
made me a better person. And we are so fortunate to
be learning together in classes taught by Ellen Reiss.
During World War II, Mary Garden was affected deeply
when she joined her sister in nursing wounded soldiers
at their family home in Scotland. Then, at the age of
74 she received an invitation to do a lecture tour in
America, and it seems she was able to give herself to
people in a new way. She wrote:
I had never let anyone know me, really. They had
known Melisande and Salome and Louise and Thais about
as well as anyone could ever know them, but in all
those thirty years of singing and acting they had
never seen and heard Mary Garden....Now it is I who
get them into my heart, and it is I who give my heart
to them....It is as if I had... suddenly thrown off
my disguise and said: "Ladies and gentlemen,
I give you myself."
Mary Garden wanted to hear what Aesthetic Realism is
enabling women to learn now, how to care honestly for
the world and people as a means of liking ourselves;
how to love in a way that is the same as freedom.
presented in a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism
Foundation, New York City.