Leonora Speyer 1872-1956

Leonora Speyer was born in Washington DC, the daughter of Count Ferdinand Von Stosch of Mantze and his wife, a writer. She was educated at public schools in Washington and went on to study music in Brussels, Paris and Leipzig. She was a talented violinist, playing professionally with orchestras in France, England, and Germany as well as with The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. She was forced to give up her professional career because of neuritis.

In 1894 she married Louis Meredith Howland, a widower seventeen years her senior. The marriage did not last and in 1902 they got divorced. In the same year she married Edgar Speyer, a prominent London banker of German Jewish descent who had become a naturalised British subject in 1892. Speyer was a great philanthropist and patron of the arts, having rescued the Promenade Concerts from bankruptcy. He also largely financed the construction of the London Underground and raised funds for Captain Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition. He was knighted for his services in 1906 and was made a member of the Privy Council in 1909.

When WWI broke out he was accused of being a German sympathiser and became the subject of anti-German attacks. His treatment by Britain was described by the Morning Post as a minor tragedy of the war. As a consequence he and his wife moved to New York in 1915 where, encouraged by poets Amy Howell and Harriet Monroe, the founder of Poetry Magazine, she started to write poetry herself. Her poems, April on the Battlefields and A Note from the Pipes, were published in 1919 followed by a volume, A Canopic Jar in 1921, Fiddlers’ Farewell in 1926, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Naked Heel in 1931, Sow Wall, poems new and selected in 1939 and Slow Walk, poems together with nor without music in 1946.

Leonora Speyer was President of the Poetry Society of America from 1934 to 1936 and from 1937 onwards taught at Columbia University. She was celebrated for her diverse poetic forms and her vibrant imagery. “The trees are God’s great alphabet” was one of her lines. She died in 1956, aged 83, her husband having predeceased her in 1932. She had seven children, four with her first husband and three with her second. She was a great beauty and her portrait was painted by John Singer Sargeant in 1907.

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