May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
People who earn their livings by pen or brush have a knack for discovering places where rents are cheap. With its covered bridges and abandoned mills, its noisy creeks and quiet canal, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, became a haven first for Philadelphia painters and then for writers and song- smiths from New York. (“Beat out a first draft—good, bad, or indifferent,” the humorist S. J. Perelman once advised. He himself would have begun, “One day on a back road near Prosaic, New Jersey. . . .”)
Perelman and the novelist Nathanael West shared a house in Bucks County beginning in 1932; the two of them talked Dorothy Parker into buying a farm four years later. The playwright George S. Kaufman joined them in 1936, and Moss Hart came because Kaufman was here. Oscar Hammerstein II bought a farm in Doylestown in 1940 and wrote “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” sitting on his front porch. Over the next two decades these writers pounded out the essays, novels, musicals, and screenplays ( The Day of the Locust , The Man Who Came to Dinner , Oklahoma! , Carousel , My Pair Lady , South Pacific ) that defined American culture when they were new and that continue to be read, taught, performed, screened, and talked about half a century later.
Except for a headstone or the odd birthplace open Tuesday afternoons, writers tend not to leave much of a mark on the traveler’s landscape. But Bucks County now salutes its writers and artists in a new wing at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, an institution named for the county’s best-selling writer-resident. There an exhibition called “Creative Bucks County: A Celebration of Art and Artists” manages to transform the slow, solitary torment of writing into an experience approaching theater.
“Michener brought us the idea,” explained Brian Peterson, the chief curator. “He probably envisioned a roomful of busts with spotlights on them. But as we began working on it, we thought, if you’re going to create a monument to creativity, the monument had better be creative.”
The resulting tribute to the imagination combines words, objects, pictures, film clips, music, and voices. Twelve Bucks County artists receive special attention: the writers Perelman, Hart, Parker, Hammerstein, Kaufman, Jean Toomer, and Pearl S. Buck; the painters Edward Hicks, Edward Redfield, Daniel Garber, and Charles Sheeler; and finally, the archeologist, collector, and tile maker Henry Chapman Mercer, whose gargantuan and mesmerizing collection of tools and artifacts occupies its own museum right across the street.
Visitors can pick up the receiver of a 1930s telephone and hear Dorothy Parker sounding fierce, or put on headphones and listen to Paul Robeson singing Hammerstein’s lyrics to “Ol’ Man River,” or step up to a mock newsstand and read one of S. J. Perelman’s short, savage comic turns from The New Yorker . There’s a replica of the study where (inspired by a weekend visit from Alexander Woollcott) Kaufman and Hart wrote The Man Who Came to Dinner . In a nearby screening room, film clips from Animal Crackers (based on a play co-written by Kaufman), Around the World in Eighty Days (screenplay co-written by S. J. Perelman), A Star Is Born (screenplay by Dorothy Parker and her husband, Alan Campbell, among others), Gentleman’s Agreement (screenplay by Moss Hart), and thirty-one other movies run nonstop.
Dorothy Parker alarmed the neighbors by decorating her living room in nine shades of red and chopping down some ancient trees that were blocking her light. Moss Hart by contrast, Bronx-born and dirtpoor until his first Broadway hit, spent thirty-three thousand dollars planting trees on his property. Surveying the results, his friend Alexander Woollcott famously remarked, “It just goes to show what God would do if He had money.”
Highland Farms, where Oscar Hammerstein wrote “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow” (and where he coached a local boy, Stephen Sondheim, in the rarefied art of writing for Broadway), is a high-end bed-and-breakfast now. Guest rooms are named after hit musicals, and Hammerstein memorabilia is scattered around the house. When I asked the proprietor if most visitors were fans of the composer, she said, “A lot of people never heard of him. We have ten acres, an in-ground pool, and we serve a four-course breakfast. Most people come here for that.” The day Oklahoma! opened on Broadway, Hammerstein, with several failures to his name, took a walk with his wife on a country road nearby and said, “I don’t know what to do if they don’t like this. I don’t know what to do because this is the only kind of show I can write.” Oklahoma! , of course, ran for five straight years and transformed musical theater.
Travelers wary of a four-course breakfast might prefer the Doylestown Inn, another national landmark built in 1871. Saddled with young children, we chose a motel near New Hope, a village celebrated for its quaint railroad station (serving the New Hope & Ivyland railroad) and its two hundred buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. New Hope and Lambertville, directly across the Delaware, were once a single town called Coryell’s Ferry (after the man who operated the boat). This is where George Washington planned his assault on Trenton in 1776; a little more than a century later, the village of New Hope was a thriving artists’ colony and a popular stopping place for anyone traveling south or west of New York. In fact, New Hope has been charming for so long that it has all but exhausted its supply; the best time to visit is at night, when a fog gathers by the river, obscuring the Meow, Meow Cat Emporium, the psychic phenomena bookstore, and the rival shops offering tattooing, body piercing, and assertive underwear.
Although it is less celebrated than New Hope, Lambertville, New Jersey, with its pleasant riverside setting and its own canal—the Delaware and Raritan—offers everything people come to Bucks County for, including a bookshop overlooking the river and antiques stores tucked away on side streets and alleys. The Lambertville Area Chamber of Commerce publishes a walking tour of twentytwo “Outstanding Buildings,” including the unprepossessing house James Marshall lived in before he went to California and spot- ted the flash of metal that ignited the great gold rush.
North of New Hope, Route 32 winds through quintessential Bucks County scenery, which is surely some of the finest in the East. Handsome eighteenth-century stone houses perch between a steep hill and the river, their gardens bright with dogwood and tulips. Some fall weekend I’d like to stay at the lovely Inn at Phillips Mill, built around 1750, or the Black Bass Hotel, a one-time Tory hangout, where Grover Cleveland used to fish.
If the scenic curves hadn’t made our back-seat passengers queasy, we would have pushed on another fifteen miles to the northern reaches of Bucks, to Upper Black Eddy and an antique hardware store I’d heard about in Kintersville. Instead we crossed over the Delaware and stopped at Frenchtown, a place Perelman unkindly immortalized as “Louisville.” At a quaint little shop on Bridge Street, we paused beside a rough-hewn onepiece student’s desk and chair. “We’re just selling that for our daughter,” the proprietor said casually. “She moved to California and couldn’t take it with her. We won’t make any profit on it. You can have it for eight hundred and fifty dollars.” It was just the sort of brief exchange that Perelman would have transformed into a Homeric battle between urban innocence and rural guile.