Culture Vulture and Wealthy Renegades in the Berkshires

A most rewarding rainy day activity this rainy summer is a visit to one of the artists’ homes in the Berkshires, many of which are now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

By Helen Epstein

exterior-house Exterior of the Frelinghuysen-Morris House & Studio, circa 1940.

Edith Wharton’s The Mount, Daniel Chester French’s Chesterwood, and the Norman Rockwell Museum and Studio have long been popular tourist destinations. The Frelinghuysen-Morris House & Studio, immediately adjacent to Tanglewood, is more modest and intriguing: it is, along with Gropius House in Lincoln, one of the first Bauhaus-influenced, modernist structures in New England and it was for 35 years the summer home of two wealthy renegades.

Suzy Frehlinghuysen and George L.K. Morris evoke Dashiell Hammet’s Prohibition-era good-looking, wealthy and glamorous socialites Nick and Nora Charles. The Morrises lived in a 12-room apartment on Sutton Place in Manhattan and a townhouse in Paris; had one dog but no children, partied and played tennis but — unlike Nick and Nora — were artists. Respectable though not ground-breaking painters, they were passionate followers, advocates and collectors of a style that historians describe it as “the early phase of the second period of American abstract art.” People dubbed them and their friends “the Park Avenue Cubists.”

George (1905-1977) was the second of three sons born into the Morris family that had once owned huge tracts of the Bronx. They summered at Brookhurst, a large Berkshire estate where George collected arrowheads and became interested in the Native Americans whose former burial grounds were now part of his parents’ property. Indian symbols would later figure in his work in abstract form.

He graduated from Groton, then Yale, and was expected to follow his older brother Newbold (memorialized as the New York City Parks Commissioner who chased folk singers out of Washington Square Park in the early 1960s) into the family tradition of public service. Instead, he went to Paris with his cousin Albert Gallatin who owned a gallery on Washington Square and knew most of the leading painters. He met Brancusi, Braque and Picasso, studied painting briefly with Leger, then returned to New York a Cubist, determined to devote his life to art.

At the time — the Depression years — the American art scene was dominated by figurative or illustrative painting, particularly the regional American Scene works by artists like Grant Wood in Iowa, Thomas Hart Benton in Missouri and Norman Rockwell, whose paintings of the citizens of Stockbridge were being reproduced by the millions in the “Saturday Evening Post.” The other major American movement of the time was Social Realism of the kind underwritten by the WPA and produced by artists Ben Shahn and the Soyer brothers who documented urban life. Cubism and abstraction were, in the 1930s, thought to be European and un-American.

Although Morris’ parents made clear their dislike of the abstract style of painting he had adopted abroad, they allowed him to build a white stucco and glass studio on their large Berkshire property — modeled after a studio George had admired in Paris. It was completed in 1931 — an extraordinary sight among the traditional gilded “cottages” of Berkshire County that, like the “cottages” of Newport, Rhode Island functioned as the summer homes of some of New York’s most socially prominent families.

george-and-suzy_small George Morris and Suzy Freylinghuysen

In 1932, Morris met Suzy Freylinghuysen (1911-1988), whose family also had a long tradition of public service but who, like George was more interested the arts. Suzy’s formal education had ended on graduating from Miss Fine’s School in Princeton, New Jersey but an ongoing education in music and drawing lessons was standard for an upper class young woman of her time. Suzy was interested in opera and would later perform Tosca and Ariadne at the City Center Opera. In 1932, though, her knowledge of operatic repertoire and George’s fondness for opera provided a mutual interest. They spent much of their courtship traveling to cultural sites throughout Europe and married three years later.

It’s unclear from the works on show in the house whether Suzy and George were in agreement over their purchases or whose taste is reflected in the small collection of Picasso, Miro, Braque, Leger and Gris they acquired on their travels through Europe. Certainly George was, at first, the more accomplished artist and he took the lead in cultural politics. When American painters were excluded from the first major MOMA show of abstract art in 1936, it was George who walked the picket line and helped found the organization American Abstract Artists. He also was the partner who became an art critic for “Partisan Review” and was instrumental for many years in keeping the publication financially afloat.

In 1941, the couple decided to expand George’s studio into a 4000-foot square, two-storey summer home. More white stucco, augmented with glass brick, its horizontal lines topped by flat roofs, the structure contrasts dramatically with the surrounding 46 acres of gardens and dark green woods. Touring its modernist, somewhat clammy interior, I felt less like I was paying respects to a cultural shrine — like say, visiting Edith Wharton’s The Mount down the road — than getting a glimpse of an alternative narrative: no starving or suffering in a dark garret here; the Frelinghuysen Morris house is a celebration of art as pleasure and fun, as well as the glue in what appears to have been a long extraordinarily happy marriage.

top-of-foyer_small A look down from the top of the foyer at the Frelinghuysen Morris House.

Suzy’s nephew Kinney Frelinghuysen is responsible for organizing its endowment and preserving the house. The marble is local — quarried in Lee, Massachusetts, he will point out when he gives one of the hourly tours. The furniture is a mix of designers and store-bought. The hundreds of books –some expensively bound first editions; others, ordinary paperbacks — are the originals. In the small study loft in Morris’s studio, there are copies of “Partisan Review.”

There is a small bar off the living room, tucked under the circular staircase and one of several photographs of the couple features Suzy shaking up a martini. The couple had separate bedrooms: George’s is larger and grander than Suzy’s, the walls decorated with his work featuring the Native American themes that remained meaningful to him. Suzy’s bedroom features a sentimental mural reminiscent of a 19th century opera set.

That this couple possessed an irreverent sense of humor is perhaps best exemplified by entering their dog in the Social Register and being temporarily expelled after discovery. In place of the portrait of a venerable family ancestor over the dining room fireplace, Suzy painted a vivid and enigmatic abstract. Walking through rooms where every wall features an artistic statement by husband or wife, I found myself speculating about Suzy, whose more impressionistic, warmer and softer paintings I liked better than George’s more precise, brighter, hard-edged ones.

Although Suzy received good reviews when she performed Tosca and Ariadne at the City Center opera in the late 1940s, she gave it up, ostensibly because of bronchitis but more probably because it interfered with her marital life. The allocation of workspace in the Frelinghuysen Morris house points to a similar subsuming of her career to George’s: he painted in his 1000-square foot studio; she, in a tiny room off the foyer; then in small brick house down the hill, used to store ice.

George was killed in a devastating car accident in 1977; Suzy survived and lived as a recluse in the house until her death in 1988.

For more information go here. Tours begin on the hour and I recommend that, before taking it, you view the excellent, hour-long video “Park Avenue Cubists” featuring art critics Hilton Kramer and Barbara Rose that runs on the half hour.


  1. SusieD on August 6, 2009 at 7:03 am

    Helen Epstein’s take on Railroad Bill by TJ Edwards at the Chester Theatre Center is amazingly and dangerously naive. The play is hateful, ugly, full of dsgusting ethnic stereotypes which our nation has struggled to overcome. The writer was not being funny; he was being a racist and an anti-semite and the people at CTC who produced this awful play should be ashamed of themselves.

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