While visiting the Alice Austen House Museum in 2018 to lecture on street photographer Vivian Maier, Northwestern professor Pamela Bannos was captivated by Austen’s unique story. The 19th-century photographer spent more than 50 years with her companion, Gertrude Tate, living most of it at “Clear Comfort,” the Austen family’s Staten Island cottage.
Austen was kicked out of Clear Comfort in 1945 at the age of 79, and she spent a year in the poor New York home before being discovered and then celebrated by Life Magazine, just months before her death. In 2017, the National Park Service designated the Alice Austen House as a National LGBTQ History Site.
When Bannos learned that a collection of letters belonging to Austen had been returned to the house 40 years after Austen’s expulsion and that the letters had not yet been transcribed, she began the work of commissioning and transcribing during the spring 2020 lockdown.
“When the voices emerged, I considered hearing them — and the idea for the podcast was born,” Bannos said. She chose 14 current or former North West students as actors in the podcast for the range of their voices and the way she envisioned the characters.
Ahead of National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11), Northwestern Now spoke to Bannos about the Sept. 29 launch of its 10-part “My Dear Alice” podcast series.
“My Dear Alice” is a collaboration with the Alice Austen House Museum and is supported by a 2022 Northwestern Provost Grant for Research in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Arts.
Q: What made photographers Vivian Maier and Alice Austen interesting subjects for your research?
In both cases, I felt they were understudied or misrepresented. They left no diaries or other personal effects that could reveal their intentions. The other bond they shared was that they were both hoarders – including their massive photographic output – thus leaving an important legacy behind.
I used my photography skills and research to reveal Vivian Maier’s whereabouts and strategies by studying tens of thousands of her photographs; and I used similar strategies to tell the story of Alice Austen through the letters sent to her, while studying hundreds of images. Austen’s meticulous scrapbooks and thousands of photographs left traces that the voices in the letters elaborate further.
Q: Given their common interest and geographic proximity, could mid-twentieth-century photographers Maier and Austen have known each other?
Austen certainly wouldn’t have known about Maier – but it’s possible Maier knew about Austen who was an early street photographer. In 1896 Austen published a portfolio entitled “Street Types of New York”. There was also an “Alice Austen Day” in the summer of 1951 and Life Magazine covered it with its period photos and footage from the event. (Austen was in a wheelchair).
The summer Austen died in 1952, Maier began photographing with the Rolleiflex signature that established her as a street photographer in New York. She also appears on a Staten Island beach in her photos that summer.
I’ve always liked to imagine a connection.
Q: What is “The Darned Club”?
There was a photo Austen made of herself and three other women in 1891 called “The Darned Club” that has been embraced by the LGBTQ community since the 1970s. It was made around the time when she produced meticulously staged images.
Many years after the photo was taken, it would have been so named by men excluded from women’s pursuits. The name also seems to have been a pun. These same women also had a cooking club, which met regularly, and were also photographed by Austen. There are a few letters that refer to darning socks, that is, mending holes in the fabric.
Q: Is there anything Austen’s photos or letters can tell us about the secret lives of gay Victorian women? Were Austen and Tate “out” of their Clear Comfort circle?
Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate – the great podcast love story – would never have admitted to being lesbians as far as I know. Several years later, Tate’s sister told the author of the 1976 biography that they had a separate gay circle that did not converge with their Staten Island social groups. I couldn’t find anything about it.
There are a few secondary character stories in the podcast of women who openly lived together.
There are “the two Maries” (episode four) who were born in the 1840s and are buried in the same tomb in Lucerne, Switzerland.
There’s Mary Sanford, whom Austen photographed and is discussed in episode three. Sanford and her partner, a founding member of the ACLU, lived together in Greenwich Village and were part of the burgeoning socialist movement.
And there is Daisy Elliott, who takes up chapter eight, bicycles through the Alps, writing many letters to Alice, inviting her to “read between the lines”.
Q: What role did students from the North West play in the making of “My Dear Alice”?
The correspondents are mostly young women, with a few notable exceptions, and the collection of letters covers the years 1883 to 1898. I have chosen 20 actors; 14 of them are current or former North West students that I chose because of the range of their voices and the way I envisioned the characters. Current student Ella Stevens (’25), reads compellingly for five separate pen pals. It was great fun working with the students.