Staying Visible: How a Small-Town Couple Boosted Agnes Pelton’s Star

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The longtime Cathedral City Cove residents Cornelia and Irving Sussman entered my life in the early 1980s, when they contacted me to support my Staying Visible project, a grassroots collaboration that rediscovered underappreciated artists.[1] I welcomed the couple’s correspondence in the next years, and we also met occasionally in person. Just as she had with her longtime friend and neighbor Agnes Pelton (1881-1961) two decades earlier, Cornelia became our encourager. She encouraged in a quiet way.

In newly discovered photos, Wilson Ellis captures small-town Cathedral City during the time when the Sussmans lived there. Here, Matille “Billie” Prigge Seaman paints a smoke tree in the wash. Collection of the Cathedral City Historical Society.

The Sussmans and I shared many of the values incorporated into our 1980s project. The project began with the ambitious 1981 book/exhibition Staying Visible, which renewed interest in archives. This renewed interest along with the Sussmans’ donations of art and archival materials eventually led to the rediscovery of Agnes Pelton.[2] The Sussmans played a major role in Pelton’s rise from obscurity to stardom.

As I reread their correspondence and publications while writing this paper—long after the couple’s deaths—I am again drawn into wide-ranging worlds. Their legacy is a treasure to complement Agnes Pelton’s art and expand its meaning and impact. Their influence continues to this day.

The Sussmans were an unusual couple. Both were born on the East Coast, Irving (1908–1996) in New York, Cornelia (1910–1999) in Pennsylvania. Both had advanced degrees from UC Berkeley, where they married in 1932.[3] In the late 1930s Irving taught at Oakland Technical High School and they lived in Alameda. They moved to Cathedral City in 1945 and lived in the desert for over 20 years during the last years of Pelton’s life, building on national recognition in literary circles while also dedicated to community life.[4] They held gatherings at their home on the corner of Van Fleet and “D” Street (the home is gone now), just two blocks from Pelton’s home on “F” Street.[5] Cornelia wrote novels under the pseudonym Cornelia Jessey. Irving taught English at Palm Springs High School and directed high-school and community theater dramatic productions. They wrote books together. Irving painted. “For many years [we] lived in the desert and had a travelling marionette theatre for which we made all the puppets (stringed marionettes), wrote the shows, made the sets, etc.”[6]

The Sussmans sent this note to Jan Rindfleisch in 1984, with an image of Jack and the Beanstalk from their puppet show.

Cornelia Sussman, aka Cornelia Jessey

Cornelia’s writing challenged the times. Consider 1949’s Teach the Angry Spirit, which the New York Times described as a “moving story of the relationship between the Mexicans living in Los Angeles and their ‘white’ neighbors,” noting the “author’s concern with some of our most difficult problems, this is neither a tract nor an editorial.”[7] Decades later, Cornelia alluded to playwright Luis Valdez when she wrote, “I was informed by a teacher at one of L.A.’s city colleges that the [Valdez] play (“Pachuco”) Zoot Suit[8] had been inspired by an assigned reading of my novel Teach the Angry Spirit, where the Chicano students first learned about the long ago Zoot Suit Riots [1943].”[9] Beyond difficult problems, Cornelia was concerned with hidden or dismissed history. Her anecdote also illustrates the important role and overlooked impact of community colleges in cultural legacies.

Her earlier book The Growing Roots (1947) portrayed a Russian-Jewish immigrant experience in America over two generations, boldly addressing issues of Palestine and a young Leah Greentree’s desire for recognition as an individual.[10] In Cornelia’s The Treasures of Darkness (1953), set partially in the Bay Area, a woman journeys from a dark past to a new day of higher education and independence.[11] With such subject matter, Agnes Pelton’s painting You Both Make the Desert Flower, a 1953 abstract portrait of the Sussmans, takes on extra meaning. Not only did the Sussmans bring ideas and people into the desert environment, they also brought their desire to understand and examine people’s experience in very personal ways.

Agnes Pelton’s You Both Make the Desert Flower, 1953, is an abstract portrait of the Sussmans.

In 1955, Cornelia employed surrealism, a jump she may have felt necessary to tackle the subject of Black and White race relations and civil rights. Her science fiction short story “Put Out the Light” in Fantastic Worlds Fall 1955[12] incorporates a racial conversion in heaven to imagine possible racial understanding. Over 50 years later, Lisa Yaszek cites her among the activists in her book on women authors in science fiction.[13]

Rev. John M. Oesterreicher, a Catholic priest, visited longtime friends Irving and Cornelia Sussman in Palm Springs in 1957. An Austrian-born Jew forced to flee the Nazis early in WWII, he tried to build a coalition between Jews and Christians,[14] in part as founder (1953) and director of the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies, based at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University. The Sussmans were his “most valued friends” and “regular and enthusiastic contributors” to his book series The Bridge, often commenting upon art, such as “Marc Chagall, Painter of the Crucified” and “The Face of Pasternak.”[15]

Cathedral City resident Cornelia Sussman also wrote under the name Cornelia Jessey.

The Sussmans endeavored to build bridges through the arts in corners of the Southwest, an ongoing endeavor for decades. In the ’30s and ’40s, the Palm Springs area seemed to be a haven for bridge builders, though they still had to operate with some underlying secrecy,[16] due to the simultaneous existence of a climate of exclusion.[17] A sign “No Jews Allowed” once stood in front of The Desert Inn and its art gallery.

Outlying Cathedral City, working class, was vastly different from Palm Springs, just six miles away. Around 1940, Christina Lillian started Sven Ska,[18] a women’s art colony in the Cathedral City Cove neighborhood that was mostly dirt roads at the time. Lillian was a neighbor of Pelton’s, who once painted Lillian’s portrait. A women’s art colony is rare in U.S. art history.

Cathedral City would have looked something like this around the time the Sussmans arrived in 1945. Postcard by Burton Frasher.

Irving “was Jewish, which even affected his teaching job at Palm Springs High School.”[19] He was a popular teacher; almost all students took classes from him.[20] In late 1946 or ’47, some people in the Palm Springs German colony had a hard time adjusting to postwar life. Jewish high-school boys discovered Nazi memorabilia in a school locker belonging to Tony Jupe, a German, and called Irving’s attention to it. After encountering a student reading Der Führer, a best seller about Hitler’s schemes, Tony became very agitated. He screamed that they were all lies. The altercation almost turned physical, but his father was called and asked to take him home. “Soon after” both father, then director of the Palm Springs Art Museum, and son committed suicide.[21]

The small Palm Springs community was again rocked by tensions after World War II, when a diverse population grew by the railroad on land owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The tribe rented to families of color when Palm Springs landlords wouldn’t. In the late 1950s the families in Section 14 were ordered to leave; their homes were burned and bulldozed.[22]

Over the years, the Sussmans employed diverse cultural approaches to counter hateful division and renew hope. In 1961, through Consuela Bright,[23] Cornelia posited a young woman and her Jewish family, the Sonnigs, who escape anti-Semitism in Europe only to find it in different forms as they settle in Arizona, and ultimately find new ways to be.[24]

Agnes Pelton’s Light Center, 1960-61.

The same year that Cornelia published Consuela Bright, her friend Agnes Pelton died–after almost three decades in the desert. Rather than directly addressing our most difficult problems in art, Pelton chose to rise above them to seek solutions in the desert surroundings, in inner and outer landscapes. Her last painting, Light Center, features a bright, pulsating oval in the desert sky. Strategically placed charcoal marks potentially crop out the mountains and worldly features, focusing attention on that illuminated center of spirit.

A never-before-published photo of Agnes Pelton by Wilson Ellis. She is seen visiting the Ellis home in Cathedral City. Note the portrait of Matille Prigge Seaman on the wall. Collection of the Cathedral City Historical Society.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Cornelia Jessey was a featured author at Santa Clara University’s summer Writers’ Institute in 1963 and 1964.[25] Another featured author was John Howard Griffin (1920–1980), who medically changed his skin color to experience and expose discrimination based on skin color, and wrote Black Like Me in 1961.[26] For this experiment he was hung in effigy in his own hometown. The Sussmans and Griffins would be intimate friends with substantial correspondence the rest of Griffin’s life, in part over a mutual interest in photography.[27] Griffin had been blind for a decade due to a war injury, gaining new insights and resourcefulness. He had a strong music and poetry interest, was a Catholic convert in 1951, was friends with monk/activist Thomas Merton and philosopher Jacques Maritain, and kept a detailed journal. Cornelia wrote a chapter about him in Profiles in Hope (1978). Both Sussmans wrote about him after his death.[28]

Another author at the Santa Clara Writers’ Institutes was John Beecher (1904–1980), a descendant of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. He was also a poet-in-residence there both years. Beecher gave a 1963 Memorial Day speech “Their Blood Cries Out” at a San José rally for victims of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young black girls.[29]

In John Beecher: Tomorrow is a Day,[30] Cornelia Jessey wrote about Beecher, highlighting his work as poet, journalist, and activist in labor and civil rights movements. Beecher taught at San Francisco State University from 1948–1950, when he lost his job for refusing to sign the Levering Act loyalty oath, then was blacklisted from teaching in California.[31] Beecher’s wife, Barbara (Scholz) Beecher (1925–2016), was an artist.[32] Together they started Morning Star Press in 1956 by publishing Land of the Free. Two years later, they moved the press to Arizona and changed its name to Rampart Press,[33] a precursor to Ramparts magazine, becoming an important voice in the civil rights movement.[34] The couple created books of poetry together.[35] Cornelia Sussman correspondence is in their archives.[36] This may be one example of a marital partnership that would inspire the Sussmans’ Spiritual Partners book in 1982.

Wilson Ellis photo of Matille Prigge Seaman and Catherine Ellis out plein air painting. Both women were friends of Pelton, and likely friends of the Sussmans. Collection of Cathedral City Historical Society.

The Sussmans were prolifically involved with religious/spiritually oriented and academic presses that tackled thorny subjects relating to cultural change, social justice and civil rights movements. Examples in addition to the aforementioned Beechers’ presses and The Bridge include Sheed and Ward (founded 1926) and Franciscan Herald Press. Along with Griffin, Merton, the Maritains and others, the Sussmans contributed to the strong art and literary components of ecumenical thought, Vatican II, and civil rights and other political movements. Their involvement continued through the 1980s with their co-authored book Spiritual Partners (Crossroad Publishing, 1982). In 1987 writer Mary Tall Mountain (1918–1994), co-founder of the Tenderloin Women Writers Workshop, reviewed Cornelia’s The Prayer of Cosa: Praying in the Way of Francis of Assisi in the magazine The Way of Saint Francis.[37]

Cornelia and Irving Sussman, Co-Authors

In 1966’s How to Read a Dirty Book; Or, The Way of the Pilgrim Reader, the couple make the case for seeing obscenity in books as part of a full literary experience and of understanding human nature and contemporary culture. Griffin was included in one of the chapters covering his censorship trials for The Devil Rides Outside.[38] The Sussmans’ presentation at Sacramento City College brought the debate to the college’s gym and was supported by English faculty,[39] calling attention to the ongoing cyclical concern when books are passed over, banned, and burned.

The couple’s mixture of social justice and internal growth led to their biography Thomas Merton: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Belltower (1976), published when they lived in Dana Point, California.[40] Merton (1915–1968), a Trappist monk and Zen mystic, integrating approaches of East and West, gained fame as a writer, social critic, and radical peace activist. The biography weaves recurring threads of art, intellectual accomplishment, and spirituality. Merton’s parents were artists. He studied at Columbia. Contemplation came through writing. The book cover features a black-and-white photograph of a contemplative Merton by Griffin.

Appearing next in 1982, their Spiritual Partners: Profiles in Creative Marriage[41] could apply to the Sussmans’ marriage. Cornelia found parallels in the book that revealed the complexity of idea sharing, support, and leadership, initiating historical acknowledgment of the influence of the female partners. Through looking at the Blakes, Bubers, Clemenses, Chestertons, Joyces, Maritains, Mandelstams, Sheeds, and del Vastos, the authors  introduced readers to Nora Barnacle, Catherine Blake, Frances Blogg, Paula Buber, Olivia Langdon Clemens, Raissa Maritain, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Marissa Ward, and Chanterelle del Vasto (Simone Gebelin).[42] While theirs was primarily a Eurocentric, somewhat traditional selection of married spiritual partners, the book displays the Sussmans’ discerning recognition of creative, accomplished women as shapers of the progressive thought of their day. Within the strong spiritual focus of many of their writings, the couple endeavored to be broad-based. Given the times, Spiritual Partners could be seen as a start and motivation for other observers and historians to turn attention to a diverse, worldwide context of women in relationships.

Irving Sussman

While a student at UC Berkeley in 1931, Irving wrote “Lot’s Wife,” a satirical comedy, put on by the Hillel Foundation dramatic group. Irving played the part of “Shein.” His theater productions continued while teaching English at Oakland Technical High School in the late 1930s and at Palm Springs High School in subsequent decades. Like Cornelia, he wrote for multiple publications, and the couple co-wrote. In 1989 he wrote an essay for an Ohlone College exhibition catalog, Agnes Pelton, produced by Margaret Stainer, a follow-up to the 1981 Staying Visible essay.

Education was forefront. In 1969, Irving ran for trustee in the high school district where he had taught earlier.[43] “I would like to see the board freed from pressure groups of extreme right and extreme left—freed so that it may be left to work with school policy, curriculum, standards of education that gives as good an education to minority children as that received by the college-bound children.” He follows, “I would like to see that a culturally full and relevantly alive program is set up for those who are not ‘honor students’ but who are, nonetheless, ‘our’ children—with as much right to be inspired as those we consider more fortunately endowed.” He wanted to see teachers, who fully know their subject matter, as “artists in teaching,” “in love with their work,” “…who can inspire and love and gain confidence and friendship and respect of their charges.”

Confluence/Convergence: The Sussmans in the 1980s and Beyond

In the 1980s, after the conclusion of the Staying Visible exhibition, the Staying Visible Project continued. Cornelia’s communication with me reflected shared interests and values—including education that expanded beyond academic, institutional, and societal/cultural boundaries; a deep sense of caring, a desire for peace. We both respected education at all levels, be it community college or community gallery, not just the institutions recognized as “elite”.

In an April 1984 correspondence,[44] Irving wrote about his paintings, another avenue for values. Often with Biblical themes, Old and New Testaments are reflected in titles like Noah Tests the Water, Options of Ruth, God’s Tears, The Last Supper, The Fourth Station, Saint Francis in San Francisco, Arabs on Way to Mass, and Nuns on the Beach. Like his writings, the paintings entwine symbolism and emotion with cultural references and questioning. Watercolors, cartoons, pencil drawings, illustrations for children’s books, etc. appeared in various places, papers, and magazines. In a letter sent in the same April 1984 envelope, Cornelia wrote of the art of “listening” and the “pondering” of what she sees. This is her own art form.

In other 1984 letters, Cornelia enumerated what she saw as our shared values: “Vitality of heart and mind and spirit,” “open-ness” as opposed to being “elitist;” a willingness to “take a position and considerable risks;” being “thought-provoking as well as art-provoking;” accepting “none of the hidebound attitudes or limitations,” and working toward “revitalizing the mind and soul of American art.”

The Sussmans’ non-elitist approach to art was exemplified by their Don Quixote Marionette Theater, which traveled up and down the West Coast. This contemporary rendition is by Rici Marionettes.

Her praise felt good in the 1980s, but I have been far more influenced by the couple’s compelling wisdom. The Sussmans saw, thought, and acted beyond boxes and compartments of academia and society. They reflected on and wrote not only about art and culture, spirituality and religion, and the role of the desert experience, but also social justice and civil rights.

Their learning and teaching encompassed divergent fields and disciplines, where they could discern, re-evaluate, and often promote what was hidden or dismissed (such as thrown-away art). They could work outside of the narrow confines of their expected expertise and pull disparate puzzle pieces together with art, writing, theater, puppetry, research, actions, teaching. And they achieved this while accepting and collaborating with people as they are, working with compassion.

While mentors and mentoring are not rare in art, the Sussmans’ life work shows how art and ideas develop and are enriched by bringing in people from outside the art world. They show us how to address difficult issues, problems of humanity, from book banning and censorship to the role of small presses in getting diverse voices heard. Educational philosophy. Justice. Peace.

In a materialistic culture obsessed with status, where geopolitical power is built upon dominance and marginalization, inequities, and severe poverty, they built community and affirmed life. The Sussmans encouraged growing one’s inner and outer life, using intellect alongside heart and spirit in questioning and discovery—sending this encouragement from a dirt road in the desert. In doing so, they did not overlook the snubbed, ignored, or cast away. Their generosity was extended to everyone, from an Okie poet to a Los Angeles gang member to the downcast in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Through challenging and thought-provoking work that did not shy from risk, Cornelia and Irving fostered belief in a better world where hope and love prevailed.

Wilson Ellis photo of Little’s Art Gallery in Cathedral City, with Agnes Pelton (white blouse) in the doorway. The small town captured in Ellis’ photographs  nurtured both Pelton and the Sussmans. Collection of the Cathedral City Historical Society.

The Sussmans’ values led to their art of mentoring artists and writers and, when needed, of promoting an insufficiently publicized author and book they found worthy. A good example of this is Cornelia’s 1965 letter to the editor enticing readership for author Josephine Morse True’s early Cathedral City history Painted Rocks.[45] The couple collected art, preserved papers, and built context for artists’ work. Cornelia’s supportive role could be seen with Wilma Elizabeth McDaniels (1918–2007), the California Central Valley’s “Okie Poet” and subject of an upcoming biography by Betty Blanks, with whom Cornelia carried on a 20-year correspondence. The Sussmans’ focus on collecting and then donating art was not for monetary gain or fame, rather for extending the life of a person, an artwork, an idea, or a story that they realized could speak to us on many levels for decades to come.

The Sussmans maintained connections with their former Cathedral City neighbors and introduced them to me in the 1980s. Trusting the Sussmans’ good instincts and judgment, Mary Wolseth donated Pelton art that became part of the Sussman Staying Visible Collection. Wolseth had started the Desert Art Center Gallery in 1950, able to do so after Pelton donated one of her artworks for auction. At the time, the gallery was a major step for the working-class town, so different from Palm Springs just six miles away. Similarly, Virginia Smith also donated Pelton art in the 1980s to the Sussman Staying Visible Collection.

It is my hope that this article will inspire additional research and expanded, in-depth examination of the work of Pelton and the Sussmans—their relationships, as well as the art they cherished, including the Sussman Staying Visible Collection—to better understand and appreciate their legacies. It is an invitation to reconsider the role of California’s desert and Silicon Valley; the political climate, then and now; and the ongoing making of history and cultural change at the grassroots level—in Cornelia’s words, an invitation to a deeper understanding drawn from the art of “listening” and “pondering.” ©Jan Rindfleisch 2022

 

Jan Rindfleisch has focused on community building as an artist, educator, curator and author. From 1978 to 1985, she taught art and art history at De Anza College, and in 1979 began a 32-year journey as executive director/curator of Euphrat Museum of Art. She is the author of Roots and Offshoots: Silicon Valley’s Arts Community. Her new book, Creative Power: The Art and Activism of Ruth Tunstall Grant, was published by Ginger Press. http://www.gingerpressbooks.com/ Her 1981 book Staying Visible, about Agnes Pelton and other intriguing artists, is available from Bolerium books: https://www.bolerium.com/pages/books/241348/jan-rindfleisch-ed/staying-visible-the-importance-of-archives-art-and-saved-stuff-of-eleven-20th-century-california

Notes:

[1] Rindfleisch, Jan, et al. Staying Visible: The Importance of Archives. Euphrat Museum of Art, Foothill–De Anza Community College District, 1981. Includes Margaret Stainer’s first Agnes Pelton research. The project’s philosophy contrasted with the biases of a narrow-minded art world and the unfortunate, dismissive removal of Pelton paintings from a major Southern California art museum.

[2] Some basics of the story are told in 2019 California Desert Art articles and in the overview description of the Sussman Staying Visible Collection:

Rindfleisch, Jan. “Awakenings: An Untold Backstory of the Agnes Pelton Renaissance.” California Desert Art, 2019.

Rindfleisch, Jan. “Making the Desert Flower: An Alternative Look at Rarely Seen Agnes Pelton Paintings.” California Desert Art, 2019.

Rindfleisch, Jan. “The Sussman Staying Visible Collection.” 2022.

[3] Cornelia was born Cornelia Corinne Silver. Irving briefly served in the U.S. Army during WWII.

[4] “Fame of Sussman Spreads Far Beyond Cathedral City.” The Desert Sun [Palm Springs, CA], 7 Oct. 1949, p. 6.

[5] Denise Cross, historian for the Cathedral City Historical Society: “They had wonderful gatherings at their home on the corner of Van Fleet and D St [Cathedral City] (reduced to little ‘cottages’ as I recall them in the early ’80s). [This was two blocks from the Pelton cottage on F Street.] They also had a home in Pine Cove where they would hole up for summers and write.” Cross, Denise. Personal interview. 19 April 2022.

[6] Sussman, Cornelia. 26 April 1984 letter. The envelope included a photograph of “Jack Climbing up the Beanstalk” from their Don Quixote Marionettes. Performances included for the Palm Springs Girl Scouts, December 1949. The Desert Sun, 29 Nov. 1949, p. 3. Sussmans’ neighbor Jeff Palmer, recalls admiring their complex marionettes as a child—“a horse and ballerina” that took both of them to bring to life. Palmer, Jeff. Personal interview. 14 March 2022.

[7] Jessey, Cornelia. Teach the Angry Spirit. New York, Crown Publishers, 1949. Original from U. of California.

Traister, Aaron. “Mexican and ‘Anglo.’” Review of Teach the Angry Spirit by Cornelia Jessey. New York Times, 2 Oct. 1949, section BR, p. 6.

[8] Valdez, Luis (1940—   ). Zoot Suit. Los Angeles, 1978; first/second Chicano play on Broadway, 1979, revival 2017; film version, 1981

[9] Sussman, Cornelia. 26 April 1984 letter.

[10] Jessey, Cornelia. The Growing Roots. New York, Crown Publishers, 1947.

Rothman, Nathan L. Review of The Growing Roots by Cornelia Jessey. Saturday Review, 21 June 1947, p.44.

Clowes, Belly Lou. “Villager’s Novel a ‘Must.’” The Desert Sun, 14 Oct. 1947, p. 2.

[11] Jessey, Cornelia. The Treasures of Darkness. New York, Noonday Press, 1953; Collins, 1955.

[12] Jessey, Cornelia. “Put Out the Light.” Fantastic Worlds, Fall 1955, pp. 18–24.

[13] Yaszek, Lisa. Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction. Ohio State University, 2008.

[14] Ance, An Le. “Jewish-Born Catholic Priest Seeks ‘Better Understanding.’” The Desert Sun, 18 April 1957, p. 1.

[15] The Bridge: A Yearbook of Judaeo-Christian Studies began in 1955. Sussman, Cornelia, and Irving Sussman. “Marc Chagall, Painter of the Crucified.” The Bridge: A Yearbook of Judaeo-Christian Studies, vol. 1, edited by John M. Oesterreicher and Barry Ulanov, Pantheon Books, 1955, pp. 96-117.

Sussman, Cornelia, and Irving Sussman. “The Face of Pasternak.” The Bridge: A Yearbook of Judaeo-Christian Studies, vol. 4, edited by John M. Oesterreicher and Barry Ulanov. Pantheon Books, 1962, pp. 310-321.

[16] Denise Cross recalls an apparent haven in Cathedral City/Palm Springs, how she “got the notion of so many of the 30’s/40’s ‘locals with means’ being a most likely underground Jewish-sympathizing gathering of painters, writers, poets, composers and all doing what they do, in a rather secret manner and surviving it all quite well.” Japenga, Ann. Letter to the author. 12 July 2021.

[17] With respect to racial covenants embedded in real estate and property deeds, California led the way, with Chicago, where the National Association of Real Estate Boards was headquartered, centralizing and disseminating ideas about the practice. They were common, not unusual. An article for follow-up: Thompson, Cheryl W. “Racial covenants, a relic of the past, are still on the books across the country.” NPR 17 November 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/11/17/1049052531/racial-covenants-housing-discrimination.

[18] Japenga, Ann. “The Lost Colony of Sven-Ska: Christina Lillian and the Cathedral City Artists,” California Desert Art, 2016.

[19] Japenga, Ann. Letter to the author. 5 March 2022.

[20] Despite high-school, community and national [acclaim], there is no mention of the Sussmans in former mayor Bob Hillery’s 2015 book about early Cathedral City. Denise Cross: “I don’t think Bob states anything about the Sussmans anywhere, ever.” Japenga, Ann. 5 March 2022 letter.

[21] Copy of 23 Jan. 2004 letter from “John” to Bob Hillery. In this letter, John describes incident of almost being personally attacked and learning of the subsequent suicide from Irving Sussman. (Japenga, Ann. 5 March 2022 letter.

[22] Brown, Renee. “Section 14 held bittersweet Palm Springs history.” The Desert Sun, 12 Dec. 2015, updated 23 Dec. 2015. Murphy, Rosalie. “‘It was beautiful for the white people:’ 1960s still cast a shadow of distrust over Palm Springs.” The Desert Sun, 22 Sept. 2016, updated 19 Sept. 2019.

[23] Jessey, Cornelia. Consuela Bright. Sheed and Ward, 1961.

[24] Another book of this time: Jessey, Cornelia. The Plough and the Harrow. Harvill, 1961. Collins, 1961.

[25] The Santa Clara, 9 April 1964, p.3.

[26] Catholic Research Resources Alliance. “Cornelia Jessey, an author at writers’ conference. Santa Clara University Writers Institute, summer session.” The Monitor, vol. 105, no. 12, 12 June 1963, p. 11.

The Santa Clara, “White-Negro Griffin Speaks at Institute.” 9 April 1964, p. 3.

The Santa Clara, “Poet Keynotes Rally, From Birmingham to Santa Clara,” 26 Sept. 1963, p.1.

[27] Between 1963 and 1980, the year Griffin died, over 240 letters. John Howard Griffin Papers. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/eresources/archives/rbml/Griffin/.

[28] Jessey, Cornelia. Profiles in Hope, Dublin, IE. Veritas Publications, 1978. Harper Collins, 1985.

Sussman, Cornelia, and Irving Sussman. Dedicated issue of The Way of Saint Francis. 1981.

[29] The Santa Clara, 26 Sept. 1963, p. 1.

Beecher, John. “Their Blood Cries Out,” 1963. Bernie Robinson Papers, 1920-1989. Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston. https://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:94941

[30] Jessey, Cornelia. John Beecher: Tomorrow is a Day. Franciscan Friars of California, 1981.

[31] John and Barbara Beecher: An Inventory of Their Papers at the Harry Ransom Center, Biographical Sketch. The John and Barbara Beecher Papers (Manuscript Collection MS-05027), Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. https://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/fasearch/findingAid.cfm?eadid=01446

Abstract. https://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/fasearch/findingAid.cfm?eadid=01360

[32] Beecher, ITPHRC.

[33] Beecher, ITPHRC.

[34] In 1958, changed name to Rampart Press. In 1962, the Ramparts magazine began with related intent (“forum for mature American Catholics,” including writing by Beecher, Thomas Merton, and John Howard Griffin) in Menlo Park, then moved to San Francisco, where it became increasingly activist and its circulation increased.

[35] Books of John’s poetry and Barbara’s art: Beecher, John. In Egypt Land. Rampart Press, 1960. Beecher, John. Phantom City. Rampart Press, 1961.

[36] John and Barbara Beecher, n. 33.

[37] Tall Mountain, Mary. Review of The Prayer of Cosa: Praying in the Way of Francis of Assisi, by Cornelia Jessey. The Way of Saint Francis, vol. 43, no. 1, 1987.

[38] John Howard Griffin Papers, n. 29.

[39] Sussman, Cornelia, and Irving Sussman. How to Read a Dirty Book; Or, The Way of the Pilgrim Reader. Franciscan Herald Press, 1966.

[40] Sussman, Cornelia, and Irving Sussman. Thomas Merton, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Belltower. MacMillan, 1976. Thomas Merton, revised ed. Doubleday, 1980.

[41] Jessey, Cornelia, and Irving Sussman. Spiritual Partners, Profiles in Creative Marriage. Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982.

[42] Samuel Clemens [Mark Twain] and Olivia Langdon Clemens; James Joyce and Nora Barnacle; Martin Buber and Paula Buber; William Blake and Catherine Blake; Nadezhda and Osip Mandelstam; Jacques Maritain and Raissa Maritain; Gilbert K. Chesterton and Frances Blogg; Maisie Ward and Frank Sheed; Chanterelle del Vasto [Simone Gébelin] and Lanza del Vasto [Shantidas].

[43] Heinemann, Stuart. “Ex-Teacher Says He Runs ‘By Request.’” The Desert Sun, 11 April 1969, p. 4.

[44] Sussman, Cornelia, and Irving Sussman. Letter to the author. Apr. 1984.

[45] Sussman, Cornelia. “‘Painted Rocks’ Tells True Tale of Desert.” The Desert Sun, 21 May 1965, p. 18. Cornelia shines a light on True’s book Painted Rocks, a vivid historical account of the Palm Spring/Cathedral City area in the “old days,” written in the ’30s but previously overlooked or discounted. True, an “old-timer” of Cathedral City, brings to life desert living when the city was undeveloped and an artists’ “hideout.” True was a neighbor of Agnes Pelton and took painting classes from her. In Painted Rocks, True writes of the funeral of “Chan,” a World War I nurse and a longtime companion to early artist “Billie” Seaman; she alludes to openness to Chinese culture, though it seems little is known of Chan’s background. See Japenga, Ann. “Funeral in the Rocks: A Tale of Cathedral City’s Early Artists.” California Desert Art, 2016.

8 comments for “Staying Visible: How a Small-Town Couple Boosted Agnes Pelton’s Star

  1. This is fascinating. I knew nothing about the Susmanns. Their passion for education, equality, and social justice are so relevant to the problems we face today. We need many more Sussmans to tackle today’s social and economic ills. Thank you for this most interesting and insightful exploration of their important contributions.

  2. Thank you for great research and keeping valuable desert history alive for us all.

  3. Where have u been all my life? That’s the question I kept asking while reading this article. Never heard of Cornelia Jessey (Sussman) or her husband. How could this be? Look at the titles of her books. Look at her life and work at exposing some of the greatest ills of her time and culture that are still with us. Excited I want to read her work, know more about her and the people she knew. This is the power of a small article-a new world for me to get to know. Thank u Ann and Jan Rindfleisch.

  4. Thank you for the excellent biographies of the Sussmans who are unsung heroes in the evolution of Agnes Pelton’s rediscovery, and were talented and influential individuals in their own right.

    The new photos of Agnes and Matille “Billie” Seaman are a revelation, and Agnes looks stylish and distinguished in her crepe (or maybe taffeta) dress and beads.

    Regarding Matille/Billie’s companion “Chan”: Her full name was Mabel Chance Moore (b. circa 1889 – d. 29 March 1934), aka “Chance” and “Chan.” Her association with Matille/Billie is documented as early as 29 October 1925 as per a blurb published in the Pasadena Post, which states “Mrs. James V. Seaman and Mrs. Chance Moore returned Monday from a twelve days vacation at Goff Island.”

    Mabel/Chan’s obituary was not published until nearly two months after her passing, on 21 May 1934, in the Oroville Mercury Register (Northern California). The obituary reads:

    “NIECE OF MRS. BRADEN PASSES: The many Butte county friends of Mabel Chance Moore, niece of Mrs. Harriet Braden, will be grieved to learn of her recent death at Cathedral City, near Palm Springs, where she had lived for the past seven years in a vain effort to regain health impaired during her work as overseas nurse to France and later to Germany. The funeral service, held at Cathedral City, was followed by cremation. In accordance with a wish, the ashes were scattered to the desert winds. The service was largely attended by friends, the Red Cross, and patriotic and overseas organizations. Flowers telegraphed from Red Cross headquarters at Washington, D. C., added to the profusion of floral offerings. Other than Mrs. Braden, a brother, Willard Hale, survives.”

    Agnes Pelton’s relative Nyna Dolby informed me of an entry in one of Agnes’s notebooks (1931-1935, Agnes Pelton Papers, Smithsonian Archives of American Art) that states “After visit to Billie and Chan, A.M. January 16 [1934?]” and is accompanied by a pencil sketch for a related abstraction with the annotation “Chan – (Mabel) Chance Moore” and the chief compositional directive “violet star very luminous.”

    Agnes’s visit with “Chan” in her final days inspired an abstraction that was realized at least in sketch form. The related annotations and Nyna Dolby’s recognition of their significance helped solve the mystery of Chan’s identity.

  5. We so need people of the quality(s) of Cornelia and Irving Sussman! Thank you! for sharing these writings with us, dear Ann!

  6. Thank you to Ann and all who helped with this article. New photographs add new dimensions. Your comments are inspiring and helpful. The project is a labor of love for many of us. We share information and look forward to more legacy discoveries and better understanding of how creative communities thrive and inspire.

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