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Women Crush Wednesday: Louise Bryant

Louise Bryant was always her own person, and always somewhat of a paradox. She was a fearless journalist, activist, suffragist, and talented writer, who was also a study in contradictions — a chronic dissembler who sought the truth, a free love advocate who was prone to fits of jealousy, and a communist who twice married wealthy men. Not originally a New Yorker, she was born on December 5, 1885 in San Francisco. But it’s no surprise that this firebrand found her way to Greenwich Village in the early 20th century, when the time was ripe for revolution, and the Village was crawling with revolutionaries.

Bryant began her independent adulthood in Portland, Oregon, and, always a free spirit, lived on a houseboat where she often entertained friends. One of those friends brought along a wealthy dentist, Paul Trullinger, to one of her parties. Trullinger was known for his good humor and generosity with laughing gas. Enamored by her Bohemian style and beauty, he proposed marriage, promising Louise that she could keep her maiden name, continue her suffrage activism, and have a private studio in which to write and paint.

Portrait of Louise Bryant by John Henry Trullinger

By 1915, Louise was a star in Portland, but was dissatisfied living a bourgeois life married to a dentist. Her life took an about-face when she met John Reed, a war correspondent and committed radical who was visiting his family in Portland. Another study in contradictions, Reed and Bryant were instantly and intensely attracted to one another.

John Reed and Louise Bryant

Jack later wrote a friend, “I have found her at last. She’s two years younger… wild and brave and straight, and graceful and lovely to look at… She is coming to New York to get a job with me, I hope. I think she’s the first person I ever loved without reservation.” In short order, Louise left her dentist husband and moved to Greenwich Village to be with Jack Reed. They lived together on Patchin Place.

Patchin Place residence of Louise Bryant and John Reed

Greenwich Village in the period before World War I was the center of the arts, leftist politics, and sexual liberation, and as close as America got to the Left Bank of Paris. Reed’s circle of friends was composed of radicals like him who looked with disdain upon “Uptowners; the moralists north of 14th Street.” They also did not take kindly to the newly arrived Louise Bryant; her beauty led all to assume she was vapid and unintelligent, one friend sniping, “Jack’s found himself a willing colleen.” But anarchist, Emma Goldman, came up with the harshest of insults; “I do wish sometimes I were as shallow as a Louise Bryant; everything would be so simple.”

The darling of Portland did not have an auspicious beginning in Greenwich Village.

In time Bryant found her voice and some acceptance. She formed friendships with leading feminists of the day, some of whom she met through Reed’s associates at publications such as The Masses; at meetings of a women’s group, Heterodoxy; and through work with the Provincetown Players. The group began to realize she was much more than the vapid and shallow girl Reed’s friends disdained.

Originally a peripheral figure in the scene was Eugene O’Neill, who arrived after a stay at a “tuberculosis sanitarium” and an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Jack was particularly generous to him, urging O’Neill to join the “Social Register of Greenwich Village Bohemia” as they wended their way to Provincetown, Massachusetts in the summer of 1916. Louise was later to write of that time, “Never were so many people in America who wrote or painted or acted ever thrown together in one place.”

The Provincetown Players were a visionary theatre group; the first to recognize O’Neill’s genius. That summer they staged his one-act play Bound East for Cardiff on the same bill as Louise Bryant’s play The Game. During the production, O’Neill fell hopelessly in love with Louise, but, out of loyalty to Jack, he kept his feelings to himself. Louise, however, made the first move, sending him a clandestine note that suggested urgency (“I must see you alone”). They began an affair, one that apparently everyone in the tight-knit community, with the exception of Jack Reed, knew about. It became a classic love triangle and a theme first appearing in O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, which would continue to reappear throughout his work.

In Provincetown, Louise Bryant with Eugene O’Neill and Eugene O’Neill with John Reed

On their return to New York, O’Neill was heartbroken when Jack and Louise headed upstate and married on November 9, 1916. Marriage might be a bourgeois convention, but Jack felt it a necessary one, since he was to have kidney surgery and wanted to protect Louise if he did not survive.

When it seemed the United States might enter World War I, Jack and Louise traveled the country together, speaking out against a war that would have the working man fight and die for capitalists. When their country did enter the war in 1917, the couple turned their attention to the revolution fomenting in Russia.

Louise and Jack arrived in Russia in 1917. There they had the uncanny luck to witness one of the most important events of the 20th century. They were there on October 23, 1917, when Lenin secretly entered Petrograd to lead the Bolshevik overthrow of the provisional government. Reed’s reportage became his book, Ten Days That Shook the World.  Bryant proved more than a match for Reed. She joined him in covering the Russian revolution and wrote an impressive book herself, Six Red Months in Russia. Her news stories, distributed by Hearst during and after her trips to Petrograd and Moscow, appeared in newspapers across the United States and Canada.

Reed died from typhus in 1920, and Bryant continued to write for Hearst about Russia, as well as Turkey, Hungary, Greece, Italy, and other countries in Europe and the Middle East.

In 1923, Bryant married William C. Bullitt, Jr., with whom she had her only child, Anne.  On 28th September, 1929, Bullitt discovered letters that indicated that Bryant was having a sexual relationship with the sculptor Gwen Le Gallienne. When confronted with this information, Bryant attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills and was admitted to the Neurological Institute of New York. Soon afterwards Bullitt obtained a divorce and gained custody over his daughter, following his testimony that his wife was having a lesbian relationship with Gallienne.

Bryant suffered a rare and painful disorder in her later years and did little writing or publishing in her last decade. She died in Paris on January 6, 1936, and is buried in the Cimetiere des Gonards in Versailles.

Louise Bryant is featured in both our 19th Amendment Centennial StoryMap and within our GVHD: Then and Now Photos and Tours. We hope you will enjoy learning more about this extraordinary woman.

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