The Stevenson Cottage — good times

Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau died in Saranac Lake on Nov. 15, 1915, two weeks after the unveiling of the Stevenson Memorial plaque at Baker’s.

“I am glad to have seen it done,” said the fading physician from his sickroom, according to Stephen Chalmers.

Had Trudeau hung on a couple more months his name would have appeared next to his wife’s in the membership role at the back of the society’s first yearbook, the 1916 Annual Report. From the President’s remarks therein:

“During 1916 the interest in the Society grew rapidly, stimulated by the publicity given the Saranac Lake Memorial project by newspapers and magazines throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Admirers of R.L.S., many of whom had been intimately associated with him in his life-time, and the surviving members of his family, cordially approved the idea of perpetuating the personal memory of Stevenson in America by this memorial at Saranac Lake, where he spent that remarkably productive winter of 1887-1888. Among those friends and relatives who at once came to the support of the young Society were Lloyd Osbourne, Mr. Stevenson’s stepson; Mrs. Salisbury Field, his stepdaughter, who, as Mrs. Isobel Strong, was amanuensis to R.L.S. at Vailima; Mrs. Elizabeth J. Balfour, of Olean, N.Y., the widow of Stevenson’s first cousin and playmate of his Scottish boyhood; Lord Guthrie, of Edinburgh, Scotland, the intimate friend of the author in the days of the Speculative Society; Mr. Will. H. Low, the American artist, who was closely associated with R.L.S. in the happy days of Fontainebleau, and Mr. Charles Scribner, Stevenson’s friend and American publisher.

“These friends and relatives not only heartily approved and supported the organization and its aims, but contributed most generously to the Memorial Museum at the old Baker Cottage (now known as The Stevenson Cottage) at Saranac Lake. The rooms which R.L.S. occupied as his study and bedroom were leased by the Society in October 1916, whereupon the Society felt free to accept the many relics which were at once given or loaned. The catalogue will show the remarkable growth of the Society’s collection of relics since that time.”

The golden age of the Stevenson Society was from 1916 to 1931. Their annual meetings were major events in the cultural context of the time, with impressive guest speakers. Whatever it was, that something about RLS, that “spirit intense and rare” that had such an effect on the people who knew him, died with him. Some of the last living people who had known Stevenson ‘in the (emaciated) flesh’ came a long way to get here so they could stand on Baker’s veranda and tell an audience on the lawn what he was like. Like Sam McClure, Stevenson’s second American publisher:

“He was unlike any author I ever met, singularly lovable as an author, and as a man. … And then one morning, I remember returning from a trip and seeing a picture of Stevenson on the outside of the New York World. I got a copy quickly, wondering why it was there, and saw the announcement of his death. I remember how different the world seemed to me after that. I went to my desk, put my head down and wept. The next time I was at the Pacific Coast it seemed as if a curtain had come down and shut out a large part of the world. The last time I saw Stevenson was in this cottage before he started out with his family on that trip to the South Seas.”

Will Hickock Low, the artist who painted the murals in the rotunda of the New York state Capitol Building in Albany, had shipped beer, wine, and cigarette tobacco to his friend Louis, when the latter was residing at Baker’s during his Adirondack exile. They had started their friendship in France in 1875. In 1918, Low joined the Stevenson Society and designed its bookplate. He too spoke to people on the lawn and along the porch and on the grassy knoll outside of Stevenson’s former study in his ‘Hunter’s Home,’ not once, but twice–1923 and 1931. It was Low who said “Few men have left more of themselves to the world than RLS has written into his works,” that his friend’s complex and charismatic personality was manifest in his talk which “shorn of much of its exuberance, compressed to solidity, and in the process becoming tangible, lives on for us in the printed page.”

The Stevenson Society thrived through the Roaring Twenties. In 1920 they incorporated and lengthened their name to the Stevenson Society of America, Inc. Membership increased including what would be a total of five British representatives. The collection of memorabilia was enhanced by adding more genuine articles of Stevenson lore to it and the society’s yearbooks were mailed to five continents and islands in between. All the while, photos and paintings of the Cottage were showing up in magazines, newspapers, books, and post cards — even spoons and various imaginative souvenirs.

The attendance exceeded four hundred members and guests at the 1928 annual meeting and the main event that year were caught on camera — the ceremonial burning of the mortgage. Will Low had thoroughly enjoyed announcing that J.P. Morgan had sent a check to the society of one thousand dollars to liquidate the note held by the Adirondack Bank, thereby cancelling all debt in connection with the Memorial Cottage. Low went on to praise Morgan as “among our men of great wealth whose interests extend beyond the material … If there were more men of this sort whom we could interest in the Stevenson Society, its future, considering our modest needs, would be quite clear.”

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen but the Great Depression did go down. Things went from bad to worse and by October 1937, shortly before his own death, Dr. Lawrason Brown, President and charter member said, “I might say that the Stevenson Society of America has fallen upon hard times.”