Her Letters To Lovecraft: Bernice Nette (Leach) Barlow

The present household consists of Barlow & his mother; & of a mother & son named Johnston, from Virginia, who keep house & attend to various duties.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 13 May 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 171

On the second of May 1934, a little after noon, H. P. Lovecraft stepped off the bus into the Florida afternoon sunshine. He was met there by Robert H. Barlow—a young correspondent whose letters had first reached him via Weird Tales three years earlier. Lovecraft was shocked to find his friend, with whom he would be staying for several weeks during his Florida vacation, to be only 16 years old.

No account is given, in letters or memoir, of Lovecraft meeting his teenage friend’s mother, Bernice Barlow. That is rather typical for everyone involved; she was there—cooking meals, driving the car, and no doubt a million other things—but during his two trips to DeLand in 1934 and 1935, Lovecraft’s letters focused on his adventures with Bobby Barlow, and R. H. Barlow’s memoirs of the time focus on Lovecraft. Little interest was given to the woman who quietly held everything together.

She was born Bernice Leach in Leavenworth, Kansas on 12 May 1884. Her father Adoniram (“Nide”) Bostwick Leach was a schoolteacher associated with the Leavenworth Business College; her mother Myrtilla Emlin (Parker) Leach appears to have been a homemaker. Bernice was the third of five children, with her older sisters Mabel (b. 1877) and Minnie (b. 1879), and younger brothers Parker (b. 1888) and Elwood (b. 1889). Absent any biographies, much of her life has to be pieced together with census data and newspaper accounts.

Bernice graduated high school and continued to live with her parents. At about age 20 or 21, she met Lt. Everett Darius Barlow (b. 1881), who was stationed at Fort Leavenworth. Newspaper accounts report on the visits of Everett and his brother Warren with the family. In 1905, it was announced that Everett and Bernice were engaged; on 21 December 1907, after he returned from his first stint in the Philippines, they were married. About ten months later, their son Everett Wayne Barlow was born, on 10 October 1908.

Life for a military wife is hard, and hardly documented. Census data shows that in the ensuing ten years the family moved from one posting to the next. When E. D. Barlow shipped out to France in April 1918, Bernice was heavily pregnant with their second child. She would be with relatives in Kansas when Robert Hayward Barlow was born on 18 May 1918. We can only guess at the unspoken decade between child—miscarriages, stillbirths, long absences from home might have all played their part.

When E. D. Barlow returned from the Great War, he was not the same. Without his medical records it can be difficult to get at the heart of the matter, but there are suggestions that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which made family life difficult. Lovecraft, whose own mother had suffered a breakdown before her death in 1921, was sympathetic:

Glad to hear your father is somewhat improved, & hope he can arrange to make his gains permanent. These nervous breakdowns are no joke; no matter how much they may inconvenience & depress the bystanders, they are a damned sight worse for the victim himself.

H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 19 Mar 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 114-115

In 1934 when Bernice Barlow and H. P. Lovecraft met they had been living pillar-to-post for about twenty-six years. With E. D. Barlow’s retirement at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the family ended up in rural Deland, Florida, far from family and friends. The house they built was named Dunrovin, and when Lovecraft arrived it was not quite finished. E. D. Barlow was up north, seeking medical treatment; Wayne Barlow had joined the army. So Bernice was on her own, with her precocious teenage son, and the Johnstons to help her out around the house. There is only one real anecdote about Lovecraft and Bernice from this period, but it bears repeating:

We had been in the habit of gathering blueberries beyond a shallow creek running between the swamp. Now HPL was no woodsman, as may be seen, and it was always perilous to trust his poor sight and lack of horse-sense. […] A series of recent rains had rendered the land very muddy, and the creek-channel had far overflowed, elaving a widespread thin puddle through which we had no choice but to wade. At the deeper creek had been placed a board to serve as bridge; and this was crossed without mishap. We spent some time gathering berries, but were through long before his dim eyes had attained even a half-basket. So we helped him filled it, and then all started home (Lovecraft, [Johnston], and myself). He lingered for possible other berried, and fearing just such a mishap, I stood uponthe makeshift bridge and called out its location to HPL.

[…] although I missed the scene myself (meeting him upstairs later) mother said he came in, soaking wet, and with most of his berries gone. In the God-awful rig he must have appeared very comical, thought it had also a tragic air about it. Promptly he said to mother, “I really must apologize!” She, amazed by this vision of a thoroughly wet HPL, said in surprise, “What for?”

He went on to explain he had been homeward bound when he came to the creek. Not seeing the board, he was abruptly pitched up to his neck into cold water. The berries were flung up and upset, most of them going on the slight current.

R. H. Barlow, “Memories of Lovecraft (1934)” in O Fortunate Floridian 406-407

The first visit lasted until 21 June 1934, about six weeks. Once in St. Augustine, Lovecraft posted a card to his gracious host:

It surely seems odd, after so many weeks of enjoyment of the Villa Barlovia’s hospitality, to be absent from the familiar table’s west end, & to forego the evening promenades on the moonlit Cassia road! I scarcely need reiterate how keen a delight my protracted visit gave me—& how profoundly I hope that I did not occasion any gortesque extremes of inconvenience with my wild hours & habitual absences from scnes of constructive endeavour.

H. P. Lovecraft to Bernice Barlow, postmarked 21 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 140

This is, as far as survives, the only piece of correspondence directly between Lovecraft and Bernice Barlow. No doubt any important news would have been shared through Lovecraft’s continuing correspondence with her son; there is a note on the envelope of one letter (“No news—Mother” O Fortunate Floridian 351) which may or may not be intended for HPL. Yet for the most part, Lovecraft seems to have quickly and firmly settled in as a family friend. On his 1935 visit, Lovecraft met Everett and Wayne Barlow and got along well with both of them.

Lovecraft did not write about the invisible stresses in the family—between husband and wife, father and son. R. H. Barlow would leave Florida for Kansas and the Kansas City Art Institute; Bernice and Everett would divorce in 1941. Yet Bernice was a survivor…she would continue to rebuild her life, and would eventually outlive her younger son. Perhaps in her waning years, back in Florida, she would remember the strange man who came to stay with them, how he would talk and the incident with the berries…and the card he sent, which she had kept for many years before it was donated with so many other documents of Lovecraft’s life to the John Hay Library.

The full text of Lovecraft’s postcard to Bernice Barlow is published in O Fortunate Floridian.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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