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Phillip Marden

The Life of Phillip Sanford Marden

Presented at the Whistler House Museum of Art on December 9, 2000

by: Mehmed Ali  


Portrait of Philip Marden located at the Whistler House Museum of Art, Lowell, Massachusetts - Courtesy of Whistler House

    Philip Sanford Marden was born in Lowell on January 12, 1874, the eldest son of George A. and Mary Fiske Marden. His father was a well-known Republican supporter, member of the House of Representatives, a Civil War veteran and a patented inventor of rat traps. Phil attended public schools, graduated from Lowell High in 1890 and received his degree from Dartmouth College four years later. By 1898, he had matriculated from Harvard with a law degree and worked for a few years representing a local manufacturing syndicate.

     Law never turned Phil’s fancy however, and as “ink was in (his) blood” he instead gravitated towards the field of news coverage and writing. From his youth, Phil had been connected to the newspapers of Lowell, where his father was editor of the old Courier newspaper. One of Phil’s first jobs as a youngster was “painting bulletin boards for the Courier at a dollar a week.” After finishing his studies, he worked as police-court reporter for the paper following the proceedings of the “stern” Judge Sam Hadley.

     By 1901, his familial connections led him to take over the position of managing editor for the merged Lowell Courier-Citizen. After his father’s death in 1906, Phil became the paper’s editor-in-chief as well as the president of the Courier-Citizen Company itself. Besides the newspaper, the printing side of the company was highly prosperous and became one of the largest establishments of its kind north of Boston.

     Philip Marden married Florence Shirley in 1902 and after she passed away he was remarried to Clare Reed Brockunier. He never carried himself into the field of athletics, admitting his golf game produced “Civil War scores – out in 61, back in 65.” Instead, Phil was more of a thinker and used his intellectual skills for Lowell and the region by becoming involved in many business and civic organizations. He served as a trustee of the Central Savings Bank, the Lowell Cemetery and his alma mater, Dartmouth College and was also a director of the Old Ladies’ Home, the Community Chest, Rogers Hall School and a member of the Lowell Literary Club.

     One of his tireless causes was the Lowell Art Association where he was served as President for many years and was a leader in establishing the Whistler House as we know it today. In June of 1907, Marden called together a group of Lowellians at his house and proposed they purchase the building where the famous artist James McNeill Whistler was born. Intending to preserve the landmark and house the Art Association within its Acre walls, the group including Marden, Joe Nesmith and Arthur Safford, pooled their money and bought the boardinghouse from Mrs. Bridget Lynch. But the residents inside the house were unaware of the sale and Marden recalled his attempt to inspect the structure,

     “I shall not soon forget the first visit I made to the house. I entered, in company with Mr. Safford, the engineer of the Locks and Canals, whose corporation was primarily responsible for the original existence of the building. Our right of entry was disputed by a gigantic Greek brandishing an axe. It appeared he lived there with other sons of Marathon and Thermopylae, and was disposed to emulate the valiant deeds of his forefathers if we persisted in our ridiculous desire to oust the tenants and convert the premises into a temple of art. It was necessary to enlist the services of Officer Murphy before we could establish our claim as the new owners” of the building.

     Marden oversaw the growth of the Whistler House for many years, serving as the host for the annual Harvest Dinner every October and the Open House on New Years Day with music by Julius Woessner and the Lowell Philharmonic Orchestra. Marden was an unflagging booster and fundraiser for the Association. He also helped coordinate the construction of the Whistler House’s “fire-proof” addition in 1959, now known as the Parker Gallery.

     Philip had a taste for art and donated many works to the Whistler House over his time as President of the Association. His own collection included some less than auspicious pieces however and his story of an old family painting was a favorite of his,

     “The Feast of Bacchus is a huge oil painting of unknown authorship, which in my boyhood hung in our front hall, but which has reposed in later years in the stable, swathed in several old bed-quilts. It is thus qualifying for ultimate discovery as a priceless lost masterpiece by Rembrandt, or Sassoferrato, or somebody. You know how such things are forever turning up in pawnshops, and barbers’ establishments; and how some expert analyzes them, gives them a vogue, and ultimately lands them in some millionaire’s art gallery? Well, I have hopes that the Feast of Bacchus is one day going to make us rich; but at present it is still out in the barn.

     I remember how it came to us. My Uncle George, whom heaven rest, had dropped into Leonard’s auction rooms one day in the very early ‘80’s and saw this big painting on the block. Bidding was slow, and kind-hearted Uncle George, with the laudable idea of helping along the auctioneer, offered $15 for this titanic canvas, which depicted a Roman emperor tossing down grapes, about the size of cannon-balls which used to adorn Monument Square, to a mob of naked men and women who were dancing with abandoned grace in the palace yard.

     Uncle George’s bid of $15 was unfortunately not seconded and to his horror, for he had no place to hang such a picture, the Feast of Bacchus was knocked down to him. It was forwarded to us and I grew up in daily contemplation of its joyous nudities, vaguely conscious that the high priest attending the emperor looked extraordinarily like my paternal grandmother. No one has ever hinted that the painting was of value. It has been carried on the books at just what Uncle George paid for it - $15. And its chief use was to amuse us, as children, because we found that by scuffing our feet on the carpet and then touching the gilded frame with a cautious knuckle, we could elicit electric sparks which Ben Franklin would have envied.”

     Phil was a sort of cosmopolitan soul who, besides loving art, traveled around the world and later lived in Italy for much of the year. He wrote travelogues about his distant journeys including, Greece and the Aegean Islands (1907), Travels in Spain (1909), Egyptian Days (1912), Sailing South (1921) and A Wayfarer in Portugal (1927).

     While his books were interesting his real literary love was the Saturday Chat, a feature begun by Lewis MacBrayne in the Courier-Citizen and carried on by Marden for nearly half a century. The Chat was a catchall column for Marden’s musings. Every week readers of the Courier-Citizen and, after that newspaper was sold in 1941, the Lowell Sun, could rely on Philip’s somewhat sage and whimsical meanderings. No subject was spared from the author’s careful critique whether it was railroads, opera, baby naming, French cuisine, Roman numerals or New England weather.

     As far as classical music was concerned, Marden believed, “It has often occurred to me that one of the best cures for insomnia is to attend a symphony concert…There are various expedients which one may adopt to ward off the stealthy advances of Morpheus, but they are not too effectual. One is to count the pipes in the big organ up behind the orchestra. Another is to try to count the bulbs in one of the great chandeliers overhead. Still another is to watch the violins intently with the hope of catching some player in the cardinal sin of bringing his bow down while all the others are going up.”

     On the subject of dentistry he came to a Depression-era decision, “Now and then I read in the papers mention of the dental troubles that beset even such eminent people as President Roosevelt, and this comforts me because I become conscious that my sufferings are shared by the rich and great. The fact that they are may lead to something. Can’t the New Deal, among its other miracles, include a department with appropriate alphabetical designation to promote indestructible teeth?”

Dieting for diabetic Phil brought only displeasure and a poem,

“Starving and skimping, we deplete our powers,

The foods we relish never may be ours.

The doc forbids it, that old gray-beard loon,

With gustatory joys is out of tune.

He wants us all to feast on weeds and flowers.”

     Politics was another one of Marden’s favorite Saturday Chat themes. His sparrings with dyed-in-the-wool Democrats like local party chairman Connie “the Silver Fox” Kiernan became legendary. He described President Harry Truman as “a little man rattling around in a job much too big for him” while declaring it was “going to take time, wisdom and patience to let this country recover from 12 lavish years of FDR.”

     But Marden was no arch-conservative or radical Republican. He believed moderation in politics made the United States what it was. In a column written during the chilly Cold-War temperature of 1955, Phil stated,

      “Once upon a time nobody here cared two straws what happened in Indochina, or in Korea, or in Pakistan, or in Formosa…Nowadays such things are liable to touch off World War III…We are told that we’ve got to stop the spread of Communism, either by force or by arms, or by American billions spent in appeasing charities. But isn’t it most likely of all that the spread of Communism is itself the most certain thing of all to ruin Communism? There are days when I feel that the best policy is to mind our own business and recall Mr. Dulles from all fronts. Communism is its own worst enemy, and the more it spreads the sooner it breaks down of its own weight. Maybe we’re all too afraid of it. If it’s as wrong as we think it is, it never can work – and the sooner most of the world’s nations take the hard way to find that out, the better.”

The Saturday Chatster also had an opinion on the threat of nuclear holocaust,

     “It may be true that the next total war is going to destroy civilization and disintegrate the planet on which we live. But it may not be true that there is going to be another total war!… So I am skeptical of all these plans for evacuating people from our cities, and not too steamed up by these pleas to enlist us all as bird watchers for possible air invaders, and all that sort of stuff. We have already blown our siren alarms so often that nobody heeds them anymore, save as notices that the weather has called off school sessions for the day…I think we shall be happier and shall live just as long if we stop scaring ourselves to death. Simmer down, brother, and have a little faith in your God.”

     The Saturday Chat was Marden’s avenue to use sometimes small events or details to illustrate a larger lesson. The city of Lowell was often the miniature palette from which Marden created his broad brush strokes on matters of worldly importance. And Whistler himself, as both a human reflection and rejection of Lowell, was often employed to tell the moral arguments that Marden believed in,

     “How do you suppose Major George Washington Whistler felt when his little son Jimmy gave tongue to his desire to become a painter? My guess is that the old gentleman didn’t like it at all. He was a practical sort of man, an army engineer, who was building railroads…Even the Major sent his son to West Point, where he didn’t last long…Nor did the lad do much better as a coast and geodetic map-maker; for while he did nice work with the drawing pen, he couldn’t resist the temptation to work in some imaginative pictures in the margin which the government felt didn’t belong there…

     The parent who frets and fumes because his son insists on the vagabond calling of the artist may find himself indebted to the despised artist for the fact that the world ever mentions that parent at all. Who, I ask you, would know much about Major George Washington Whistler today if he hadn’t been the father of a gifted, and highly eccentric son? As for Mother Whistler, she would in all probability be less known still. By this time everybody would have forgotten her. Instead, she is probably better known to the people of the two hemispheres than any other mother who has lived in our time…

      Canvas is a frail thing and paint a feeble means of conveying the ideas of man, but now and then it is more potent than anything seemingly more durable. Mother Whistler is mouldering in her grave; but her portrait is in the Louvre, along with numerous madonnas and saints, for all the admiring world to see. All because a scapegrace son, who refused to do anything really useful in life, persisted in being a painter!… So maybe when your little boy lisps out his determination to be an artist you ought not to be too depressed by it. He may be the reason why a century hence the world is aware you existed.”

     In the Summer of 1963, at the age of 89, time caught up with Philip Marden. His doctor advised him to retire writing altogether and wrap up his Saturday Chat column of almost a half century. Although saying he and his doctor didn’t often agree, Marden did concede and decided to turn in his pen. The last Saturday Chat was published on July 27th of that year and it heralded the end of an era.

Marden wrote,

        “After so long the “Chat” has come to have a place of its own in local newspaperdom and it is not easy to compose its obituary. I have found it possible to continue up to now, despite the pressure of age and infirmity, but the time has come to lay down the burden of its presentation – which I do with real sadness because it has become a very real part of my life…Here ends the last Chat! Good-bye, and God bless us everyone. We have been long together. To me it has been an undiluted happiness.”

        Having written his last column, it was on a Saturday night that same July when Philip Sanford Marden passed away. He had his chance to have a final Chat with the city of his birth and its residents turned out in great numbers to see him off at his funeral. His request to have donations made in his honor to the Art Association was a final challenge for Lowell to continue to make the city a better place. His legacy remains not only in this little building along Worthen Street where a room maintains his name but also in the hearts of the many who he helped foster an awareness of their surroundings and themselves.

        I’d like to thank all of you for coming today for our own Saturday Chat. Although the man who wrote the weekly feature has been gone for nearly four decades we can still carry his memory and his message far into the future. If Philip Marden’s vast columns helped produce something larger to reflect upon in our lives, I would like to hope this short memorial to him today will help us do the same.