Perdita Macpherson Schaffner (1919-2001)
This obituary was written by Mrs. Schaffner's son, Val Schaffner,
on December 28, 2001.
Perdita Macpherson Schaffner died on Dec. 26 at her home in
Springs. She was 82.
Mrs. Schaffner was the author of many published essays as well as
unpublished fiction. She was an active philanthropist and served on the
boards of cultural institutions such as the Bay Street Theater in Sag
Harbor, Poets and Writers Inc., and the Yale University Library Associates.
She cultivated a wide range of friends here, in New York City, and in
Europe. In academic circles she was known as the daughter of the Imagist
poet Hilda Doolittle, who wrote under the pen name H.D.
She was born in London on March 31, 1919, and was raised in a
highly unusual household there and in Burier, Switzerland, near the town
of Montreux. The identity of her father was a subject she long refused
to discuss, although she was amused when biographers and
dissertation-writers deduced that he must have been the poet Ezra Pound,
who at one time was H.D.'s fiance, or the novelist D.H. Lawrence, who
was a close friend.
Although Mrs. Schaffner was originally named Frances Perdita
Aldington, H.D. being married at the time to the British novelist
Richard Aldington, he was not her father either. It was not until 1983,
in an essay included with a reissue of her mother's novel Bid Me to
Live, that she publicly identified him as the character who in that
roman a clef is called Vane, and who in real life was Cecil Gray, a
Scottish music critic and minor composer. Like Vane and the novel's
protagonist, the musician and poet carried on an affair in the final
months of World War One, and he quickly disappeared from her life and
that of his daughter, who would meet him on only one occasion, in 1947,
by chance, in the entourage of the writer Norman Douglas on Capri.
At the height of the flu epidemic that followed the war, H.D. was
alone and ill in an unheated room in a seedy London rooming house, on
the verge of labor, when she was rescued by her young friend Winifred
Ellerman, who wrote novels under the name Bryher and was heiress to a
shipping fortune. In what became a lifelong relationship, Bryher took
mother and daughter under her wing. Perdita (the name comes from
Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale) grew up in a menage that included H.D,
Bryher, and the latter's husbands, starting with Robert McAlmon, a
novelist who later chronicled those somewhat manic years in a memoir
titled Being Geniuses Together.
Bryher's second husband was yet another novelist, a debonair
Scotsman named Kenneth Macpherson who, like her, was in love with H.D.
The couple formally adopted her child, who took the name Perdita
Macpherson, and all four set up house in a towering Bauhaus structure
overlooking Lake Geneva that doubled as a studio for avant-garde films
and was also home to an assortment of dogs, cats, and monkeys. They
divided their time between Switzerland, London, and Paris, where they
were at the center of a group of literary and artistic figures, some of
whom, including Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell, Mrs. Schaffner would
later recall in a series of vivid, witty essays.
Surrounded by writers, the girl seldom had a chance to meet other
children, for she was educated at home according to Bryher's eccentric
educational theories. She did, however, become fluent in French,
German, and Italian, skills that served in good stead when, as a young
woman at the onset of World War Two, she took a job in with the Office
of Strategic Services, which was the precursor of the Central
She worked at a country manor called Bletchley Park where teams of
translators pored over scraps of intercepted Nazi messages decoded by
the top-secret "Enigma Machine" Later she was assigned to OSS
headquarters in London. She lived through the Blitz and served as an
air-raid warden with the novelist Graham Greene. At the OSS she became
friends with many American officers, among them James Angleton, the
poetry-loving spy who later earned notoriety as the CIA's chief
mole-hunter. They encouraged her to visit the US, her mother's native
country, and after the war she came and stayed.
In New York she took a job as secretary for John Valentine
Schaffner, a literary agent who was starting out in business and could
not afford to pay her. They fell in love and were married in 1950,
setting up both home and office in a century-old house on East 53rd
Street that is one of Manhattan's few wooden structures. They had four
children, Valentine, Nicholas, Elizabeth Bryher, and Timothy, all of
whom grew up to be writers. Summers and weekends were spent at a rented
house in Southampton, on land that is now part of the Conscience Point
National Wildlife Refuge, and later at property the family bought in
1967, an 18th-century farmhouse near the end of Fireplace Road, Springs,
that was originally the Parsons homestead.
Following Mr. Schaffner's death in 1983 she moved to Springs
full-time and developed a wide range of friends and activities here.
She began publishing essays in The Star, in literary magazines such as
Grand Street and American Scholar, and in editions of her mother's
books, for which they served as prefaces or afterwords. One of them is
included in the recently-published Best of the Pushcart Essays. She was
a regular at meetings of a fiction-writing workshop and a Shakespeare
study group. She became active on behalf of the Bay Street Theater and
other local causes.
She was a keen devotee of the theater--here, in New York, and in
London on annual trips there--as well as of travel. Although Europe and
the Caribbean were her most frequent destinations, she also visited
Kenya, the Falkland Islands, Alaska, Turkey, and Korea. In Springs she
built up a substantial library, particularly of contemporary novels,
literary biographies, and histories of World War Two espionage.
In 1996 she suffered a massive heart failure and spent two weeks in
a coma at Southampton Hospital, where the doctors, having almost
unanimously pronounced her case hopeless, dubbed her "our miracle girl"
when she proved them wrong. Back home she gave up smoking, substituted
red wine for Scotch whiskey, and cut down on travel but otherwise kept
up her schedule of activities.
Her heart remained frail, however, and following a seizure last
month her condition began gradually to decline. She died at home, as
was her wish, among her family and her six cats. She is survived by
three of her children: Val, an author and former editor and columnist
for The Star, who lives in Bridgehampton and Manhattan; Elizabeth, also
a former Star columnist, who has a home and horse farm in the Northwest
area of East Hampton; and Timothy, a poet and publisher who lives in
Tucson, Arizona. Nicholas Schaffner, a composer and biographer of rock
groups, died in 1991--a victim, as was his father, of AIDS. Also
surviving are four grandchildren: Timothy's sons Wyatt and John and
Val's daughters Kaya and Lia. A fifth grandchild, a boy who will be
named Pada Macpherson Schaffner, is expected to be born within the next
few days to Val and his wife Min-Myn.
A memorial service will be held on Mrs. Schaffner's birthday, March
31, at a place to be announced. In lieu of flowers, contributions to
the Bay Street Theater are suggested.
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