An Artist or Writer or Both?

For decades Cooper Union had been directed by a Ladies Advisory Council, “whose members drove to the monthly meetings in early American Pierce-Arrows.”* In 1931, these prominent matrons decided to modernize the school. They found a new director, Austin Purves, Jr., who convinced the ladies of the value of coeducation – eventually 40% of the students would be men; he also got the go-ahead to let the male students work in their shirt sleeves. By the time Jane started her classes, students could also draw from nude models.

In her first year, Jane took free hand drawing, modeling (in clay), elementary design, composition and lettering. She loved Cooper in spite of the old building’s poor ventilation and the fact that she caught several nasty colds and pneumonia during the winter months. The school was open to everyone, regardless of race, creed or color, and her fellow students’ personalities and accents were a constant source of fascination. She kept a five-year diary between 1933 and 1937 that reveals how she struggled with teachers who expected a lot from their students. Jane grappled with whether or not she should be an artist or writer or both. When the going got tough, she also thought about being an actress as her Nightingale pals had predicted she would be. And all through these years her aunt and uncle worried about how their niece would support herself unless she married well.

Jane’s Birthday Page from the Five-Year-Diary (It was damaged in a fire in 1957.)

Five-year diaries are organized to encourage reflection. Each page for a day in the year is split into five one year sections with about four lines for a single day. At the end of each month is a memo page. On the January 1933 memo page Jane reminded herself: “When I get to the bottom of this page I certainly ought to be somewhere in art. I’ll be 22 years old.” Throughout the winter and spring of 1933 she was absorbed by working hard for Austin Purves. Clearly a hard taskmaster, he was probably the first male mentor Jane had had since she’d lived in California.

By her second year at Cooper Union, Jane’s social life on the Upper East Side would  become a distraction that did not impress her fellow students. For most of Jane’s Nightingale-Bamford classmates  had become debutantes, participating in an elite ritual that still exists in several major cities today.