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Hamlet in New Hampshire was a haven for artists

Sunday, February 21, 2010

With a population of fewer than 2,000, Cornish, N.H, is a vintage New England town, founded in 1763 and in many ways still untouched by modern times.

There are no strip malls, movie theaters or discount outlets. The town clerk is in the office just four days a week, for three hours a day, plus the last Saturday of the month. The tax collector only comes in Thursdays.

Cell-phone service can depend on which side of a building you’re standing.

Cornish is still “horse country,” some people like to say, with curving main roads bounded by corn fields and dairy farms, and narrow side paths more often dirt than asphalt.

A sign might advise that horses must be walked across a bridge tunnel to avoid a $2 fine, or warn of “frost heaves” — elevations in the road caused by freezing.

The town’s attraction to artists began in the 1880s when Saint-Gaudens visited and found Cornish so relaxing that he encouraged others to join him.

For decades, Cornish was a prime destination, with visitors including dancer Isadora Duncan, actresses Ethel Barrymore and Marie Dressler, and literary editor Maxwell Perkins. President Woodrow Wilson used Cornish as a summer White House.

Among those who built homes in Cornish were Maxfield Parrish and his father, painter Stephen Parrish; painters Henry O. Walker and Kenyon Cox; and architect Charles Platt, great-grandfather of the actor Oliver Platt.

“What was most important — and perhaps keys into the story of J.D. Salinger the best — was that those artists found in Cornish a place where they could be to themselves,” says John Dryfhout, former curator of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

The town itself became a setting for the colonists’ work, whether the gardens of Stephen Parrish and fellow painter Thomas Dewing, or the villas designed by Platt that were inspired by the architecture in the Tuscany region of Italy.

Dryfhout says that Churchill used Cornish and the immediate area for his novel “Coniston.”

Reproductions of Maxfield Parrish’s landscape paintings can still be found hanging in Cornish homes.

“They all had studios near their homes,” Dryfhout says.

It was a memorable era that had ended — but for a few aging survivors — when Jerry Salinger, in his mid-30s, moved up from Manhattan around 1953, just as “Catcher” was changing him from a gifted story writer for The New Yorker to an object of fascination on a terrifying scale.

Salinger had a distant tie to the old arts colony, through Saint-Gaudens’ granddaughter, Carlotta.

“It was Carlotta who sold Salinger her house in Cornish,” Dryfhout says. It was the house in which Salinger originally lived with second wife, Claire Douglas.