My other aunt was yet a very young lady when I first began to observe events around me. She was rather a favourite in the younger social set, & brought the principal touch of gayety to a rather conservative household. To the sprightly conversation & repartee of this younger generation, I owe my first lessons in the school of Pope. I could sense the artificiality of the atmosphere, & often strove to ape the airs & affectations of those whom I observed & studied. I extracted not a little celebrity & egotism from my mimicry of various types of callers; particularly one Edward F. Gamwell, who next to my grandfather was my ideal male. I was infinitely delighted when this individual (then a Brown student) decided upon a lasting affiliation with the family. The engagement of my aunt & Mr. Gamwell, & the customary levity of the younger set in their good-natured raillery of the two, imparted to me a curiously worldly cynicism regarding sentimental matters, & forever turned my Muse from the field which you so gracefully adore.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 16 Nov 1916, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 64
Anna Emeline Gamwell was the youngest of the five children of Whipple Van Buren Phillips and Rhoby Alzada (Place) Phillips. She was born 10 July 1866, the year after the American Civil War ended, and a decade after her oldest sister, Lillian Delora Phillips. Her formal education occurred at Miss Abbott’s School for Young Ladies in Providence, graduating in the class of 1885 at 19 years old. It is not clear if she was employed after graduating, but for the next twelve years Annie continued to live with her parents and family.
She was still present in the household when her second-oldest sister Sarah Susan Phillips married Winfield Scott Lovecraft in 1889, and when her nephew Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in the family home in 1890. Winfield was institutionalized for general paresis (late-stage syphilis) in 1893, and so Howard’s earliest memories of his aunt would have been from this period, growing up with her in the family home.
Alone, [Joel Dorman Steele] covered half the major sciences with his “fourteen weeks in Astronomy”, ditto Geology, Chemistry, Physics, Botany, Physiology, Zoölogy….& more, for all I know (these being the ones I have)….& in conjunction with his wife, Esther Baker Steele, he prepared for A. S. Barnes & Co. the series of histories (Ancient, Mediaeval-Modern, Greek, Roman, French, American, &c. &c.) known as Barnes’ Brief Histories. When my younger aunt was in school she had about all of these books, & I seized on them myself—as they reposed on attic shelves—when I was very young, later picking up a few which she had not preserved.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Wilfred Blanch Talman, Dec 1931, Letters to Wilfred B. Talman 190
She was still in the household in the 1890s when the family fortunes began to shift:
[…] the reminder of old events took her back in fancy to that trying period in the earlier 1890’s when the first dam broke. The telegram to my grandfather announcing the bad news came at midnight, & she was the only person in the house who was wakened by the doorbell. She signed for the message & waked my grandfather—& he did not get much sleep during the rest of the night!
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 23 Dec 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 119-120
The Boston Glove, 4 June 1897, 9
On 3 June 1897, Annie married Edward Francis Gamwell, a newspaperman who worked as city editor of the Cambridge Chronicle (1896-1901), then editor and proprietor of the Cambridge Tribune (1901-1912), and editor of the Budget and American Cultivator (1913-1915). She moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband, and gave birth to two children: Phillips Gamwell in 1898, and Marion Roby Gamwell (1900), who died just five days after birth.
Early letters must exist from a young H. P. Lovecraft to his aunt’s household, for Howard was fond of his young cousin despite the eight years that separated them, but these letters are no longer extent. At some point in his teens, however, Phillip Gamwell contracted tuberculosis. In October 1916, Annie took her son to Roswell, Colorado to stay with her in-laws, in hopes that the climate would help arrest his illness. Phillips Gamwell died on 31 December 1916. Annie and her husband separated, and she returned to Providence to stay with her widowed brother Edwin Phillips.
In 1904 Whipple Phillips had died, and the family home had been broken up. Howard Lovecraft and his mother Susie lived together in a house on the same street, and were still there when Annie returned to the city. Lovecraft had failed to graduate highschool, or to find employment; but he had emerged into the world of amateur journalism, where his literary ability was quickly making a splash. Edwin Phillips died in 1918, and from this point on Annie appears to have lived in rented quarters in Providence. In 1919, perhaps driven by financial concerns, Susie Lovecraft’s health broke down, and she was confined to Butler Hospital, where Winfield Lovecraft had died in 1898. Annie and her elder sister Lillian began to keep house for their nephew; Annie also worked, the 1920 census records Annie Gamwell working as a public school teacher, and she was also librarian in Col. George Shepley’s private collection of Rhode Islandiana for at least some period.
The first surviving letter from H. P. Lovecraft to his aunt Annie Emeline Phillips Gamwell is dated 19 August 1921—four months after the death of Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft at Butler Hospital. Howard had gone to Boston for the National Amateur Press Association convention, his first trip away from home as an adult. The letters give a deep and in-depth account of the whole convention, though curiously he does not mention meeting Sonia Haft Greene, a divorced Jewish Russian immigrant who had joined amateur journalism.
Those early letters set the tone; when in Providence, Howard and his aunts were in close contact, when he traveled afar, they kept in touch by frequent, often detailed letters, which assumed a diary-like character. The courtship between Howard and Sonia proceeded across rivers of ink and a number of visits between 1921-1924. Lovecraft’s aunts met Sonia during this period, and it appears that Annie and Sonia became particularly close. Why isn’t exactly clear; Lovecraft’s letters contain frequent mentions of Annie’s friends and alludes to many social activities that suggest Annie was the more gregarious and outgoing of the two aunts, and the more able and prone to travel. Annie actually visited Sonia and Howard during a trip to New York, which occasioned Sonia to pen a note to her:
Ten minutes after your special to Howard I am rushing this off to you. Gee! I’m so glad you can come! For the length of time you can stay, can be decided on after you get here.
It doesn’t make any difference about my own lack of time just now—because Howard and Belknap and maybe Morton can take you to places of interest in the daytime and you can rest comfortably in the evenings talking to me, while Howard can go out if he wishes or remain with us.
And on Saturday evening and Sunday the three of us can have a perfectly lovely time[.]
My Dear, I do hope you can stay a long time! Who knows? I’m a regular female Micawber—something unexpected may happen—pleasureable [sic] and beneficial so that you can remain here.
I just can’t wait until you get here.
With eager and pleasureable anticipation
—Sonia H. Greene to Annie E. P. Gamwell, 24 Sep 1922, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.73
For his part, Howard noted:
For friendliness and generosity she sure beats hell—she is so stuck on my younger aunt Mrs. Gamwell, that she’s trying to get her to come to N.Y. and permanently share her abode! And strange to say, my aunt likes her immensely despite a racial and social chasm which she doesn’t often bridge.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 21 Jun 1922, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 102-103
Perhaps they just got along. Or perhaps Sonia was already thinking of Lovecraft as more than just a good friend and wanted to be friends with her potential in-laws. It might have been during this particular trip when Sonia alleges that Annie confided certain things to her about the family:
No doubt some sexual admonitions arose also, for the entire family, according to what Sonia recalls Annie Gamwell telling her, knew of Winfield Lovecraft’s paresis, and the adventures with prostitutes and women on his lengthy travels that gave him his affliction. In fact, Annie told Sonia prior to her marrying HPL that they could not have children—in fact this was a warning that Annie was giving to Sonia, and to me her choice of words was interesting—could not instead of should not.
—R. Alain Everts, Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Sex
How much we can trust Everts’ second- or third-hand information is unclear; Sonia herself does not make this statement in her memoir The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft, nor has it been published elsewhere, nor did Annie make any reference to it after Howard’s death. If Annie did confide this information, it did not stop the sudden engagement and marriage of Howard and Sonia in 1924—nor were Annie and Lillian informed until after the marriage had been completed.
Lillian and Annie were apparently in close contact during this period, and Lovecraft’s letters to both of his aunts are nearly interchangeable in picking up the diary where it had left off earlier. The elder sister, Lillian, was living at 598 Angell St., while Annie apparently kept her own separate quarters.
By 1926, Sonia and Howard separated, and he returned to Providence. Sonia in her memoir claims that the aunts made it clear that Sonia could not be seen to support her husband in Providence; it is not clear how to reconcile this with the apparently friendly relationship between Sonia and Annie c.1922-1925—but circumstances can change. Lillian was older, and possibly more conservative; Annie was more tied in to Providence’s social life, and thus perhaps more conscious of social status. We don’t know.
Initially, Howard apparently lived apart from both his aunts, but very soon after his return Lillian took ill and it fell on Howard to assist her until a nurse could be obtained. Why Annie could not fulfill this function is unclear (possibly age, she was 60 years old in 1926). If she was still employed at the time, it might explain why she left the care of her elder sister to her nephew. Soon, Lillian and Howard would combine households at 10 Barnes St., while his younger aunt continued to live in her own quarters.
Annie and Howard were not in any way distant, however. Like her nephew, Annie had the travel bug, and liked to visit places, either on her own or in the company of her nephew. In October 1926 they went on a tour of locations related to the family, including the village of Greene, Rhode Island which Whipple Phillips had renamed, the Ionic Lodge No. 28 he had founded, the house where Lillian was born, and other such sites connected to their family. On her own, Annie Gamwell would travel south to Atlantic City and Florida, and north to Ogunquit, Maine. It is apparent from Lovecraft’s letters that Annie would also write while on her travels, as he himself would do.
Annie was also, like her nephew, very attached to the family home and better days, which might be shown by two incidents, the first reported by Sonia:
Upon one of my trips to Providence before H. P. and I were married, Mrs. Gamwell and he took me to see the old homestead, with its beautiful, spacious grounds and huge stables (this was before it was turned into a modern office building), three sides of which today form a street with many houses. With still a great deal of regret and much pride Mrs. Gamwell showed me the horse-block at the cub, and lovingly ran her hand over it. It was twilight at the time and I was not quite able to see distinctly, but when she turned her head away, I think it was to hide the tears that welled up in her eyes.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 120.
Roughly a decade later, in 1932 the stables were torn down:
my surviving aunt, then a small girl, put a tin box of records into the unfinish’d walls, to be exhum’d & studied by the archaeologists of a fabulous posterity. Alas that she shou’d live to see its destruction & reclaim the records herself! Last summer, when the workmen had it partly razed, she went over & looked in the place where she had put the records 51 years before. They were still there—Harsford’s Baking Powder box rusted but intact, & the contents only slightly touched by the mould of intervening aeons. My aunt’s tintype, & that of a youthful friend (now dead) quite decipherable, & their messages to a future civilisation legible in every part. She still has the box—but alas, we have no hope of erecting another daily castle in which to reincorporate it with a XX century postscript!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 27 Oct 1932, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 272
In another letter, Lovecraft described the contents of the time capsule the 15-year-old Annie had secreted as “her tintype, a newspaper page, and a couple of ‘to whom it may concern’ letters” (LMM 311).
Lillian Delora Phillips Clark died on 3 July 1932. Her illness and the attendant costs had put a crunch on the family finances; Lovecraft brought in little money with his writing and revision work, and the residue of the monies inherited from Whipple Phillips & other estates must have been seriously depleted. Lovecraft wrote:
My aunt has always been the family banker, and now that she is down I have charge of all papers & accounts, & can see in stark plainness the utter desperateness of our financial situation.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 24 Jun 1933, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 292
For reasons of economy, Howard and Annie would need to find some joint residence. Relatively soon, they found one:
My aunt’s friend—a high-school teacher of German—had long wanted her to move in above her if ever the flat should be vacant. On May 1st it did become vacant, & my aunt was duly informed. We looked it over, found it would be ideal for both, & at once clinched the bargain.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 31 May 1933, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei 303
So Annie and Howard moved into 66 College St., which would be Lovecraft’s final home. He was very happy to at last be in a Colonial house, and family furniture was unearthed from storage and the household set up…but not without a snag.
On June 14, before the complete settlement of our new abode, my aunt broke her ankle through a slip on the stairs while descending to answer the doorbell during my absence. Doctors….ambulance to R. I. Hospital…..x-ray…..setting under aether…..plaster cast…..room in Ward K…..prospect of being in bed six weeks & on crutches several more…….& a financial strain utterly ruinous to us at the present juncture! Such is life. Of course there is no danger or actual illness, but the restriction to bed is accursedly unpleasant & productive of backaches. After another week my aunt will probably be brought home with a nurse. She reads, writes notes, & eats fairly well—very well, in fact, today. I call at the hospital each afternoon. Naturally the disaster has kept me overwhelmingly busy—with the house in its unsettled state & everything in the air.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 24 Jun 1933, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 289
She evidently mistook 2 steps (an isolated pair, before the staircase turns for the main descent) for one, & landed with a disastrous thud. For a long time she thought the trouble was only a sprain, so that she simply sat still on the staircase talking with her caller & waiting for the ache to subside. At last, however, the pain caused her to summon a physician “just to be on the safe side”–& he, diagnosing the matter at once, imparted the bad news & turned her over to a specialist. I fancy the patient will be walking on her own feet by Chistmas–though twinges & awkwardness will probably persist much longer.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 5 Oct 1933, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 256
Howard was back to nursing an aunt again, with the concomitant disruption of his own writing and no ability to travel—but what else was there to do? They were all the immediate family that either had left. As before, Lovecraft tracked his aunt’s progressive recovery in his letters:
Her plaster cast came off last Thursday, but the doctor wishes her to remain in bed for a while before attempting locomotion or crutches.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 8 Aug 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 72
Now that her cast is off, she has trouble about blood rushing to the injured foot when it is lowered from an horizontal position–hence is not yet about on crutches.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 21 Aug 1933, OFF 76
My aunt gave me a birthday present of a week’s emancipation from nursing responsibilities—by getting others to come in afternoons—& I have hastened to utilise my freedom in snatching at least one real trip from the brief & waning summer!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 Sep 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 437
My aunt is vastly improved—all around the house on a cane, & occasionally gets downstairs & out in the garden. The nurse went Sept. 13, & I am now much less tied down than I was. We’ve installed an electrical device for opening the front door from upstairs—which is very useful when I’m not available for bell-answering. Just now she is about to attempt a motor ride in a friend’s car—her first large-scale glimpse of the outside world since June 14.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, Sep 1933, OFF 79
I am glad to say that my aunt is now vastly better—out everywhere with a single cane, & all around the house with no cane at all. Since she has assumed charge of domestic matters, the house begins to look infinitely more home-like—curtains hung, more old family furniture brought out of storage, & so on.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Arthur Harris, 24 Dec 1933, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 288
Since my aunt is now wholly on her feet again, & able to be alone in the house, the one doubtful element at the end is finances.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 Feb 1934, OFF 106
Annie’s recovered mobility freed Lovecraft to travel, including his extensive trip to Florida in 1934 to stay with the Barlows in DeLand. We have little idea of her personal life, except through Lovecraft’s letters. She read newspapers and clipped articles for him, borrowed books from the library and read them, watched films at the cinema, listened to the radio, and took her meals from the nearby boarding house. When guests traveled to Providence to meet Lovecraft from 1932-1937, she would have met them—including R. H. Barlow, Helen V. Sully, Harry K. Brobst, and Kenneth Sterling. Her travels resumed, including trips to Ogunquit, Maine and Marblehead, Massachusetts.
By the end 1934, aunt and nephew were ensconced in cozy domesticity:
My aunt & I had an exceptionally pleasant Christmas, & I hope the same is true of yourself. We had a tree for the first time in over a quarter of a century. […] We began the day most auspiciously by listening to the British Empire broadcast—which I hope you did not miss. […] I turned down the dollar bill that was tied on top of one of my gifts […] Later in the day came a turkey feast at the boarding house across the back garden (home of the late Sam Perkins), a general unveiling of gifts, & a session of conversation & contemplation by candlelight & tree-light.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 29 Dec 1934, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 285
1935 went well too. Lovecraft made what would be his final trip to Florida. In the fall & winter, Annie and her nephew would attend a series of public speakers at nearby Brown University on a diverse array of subjects, some of which found their way into his letters. Lovecraft’s letters to his aunt while on his travels continue, but lose a degree of detail; perhaps the diary-entries were more important to Lillian, who was housebound for prolonged periods. Perhaps his correspondence had simply grown too unmanageable; increasingly, letters from 1935-1936 include portions copied between multiple correspondents, showing how Lovecraft was working swiftly.
In 1936 illness hit again.
Following my own attack of grippe my aunt came down with an infinitely severer version of the same curst malady, so that since Feby. 17 I have had no time to be aught save a combined nurse, butler, & errand boy. And no daylight in sight—indeed, complications seem likely to prolong the siege, & perhaps to necessitate my aunt’s sojourn at an hospital for a while…thus repeating the chaos of June-July ‘33.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11 Mar 1936, OFF 320-321
Howard uniformly describes this illness as “grippe,” but Annie Gamwell quickly required hospitalization. Her death certificate notes that her right breast was surgically removed in 1936, suggesting that she was actually suffering from breast cancer and required a mastectomy, and subsequent stay in a convalescent home and nursing. During this time, Lovecraft gained closer contact with some of her aunt’s friends, notably Bertha Rausch, Mayte Sutton, and Marian F. Bonner, who would become correspondents. These women, at least, may have known the truth of Annie’s illness.
My aunt was in excellent spirits, & seemed to be making a fine recovery. She had just had an adequate duck dinner, & was completing the ice cream dessert when I arrived. Of course the whole experience is not a pleasant one—there has been pain (although the etherisation, conducted under modern conditions, was wholly free from unpleasantness & nausea), & there is still discomfort from the constant reclining in a fixed position; but everything is progressing according to schedule, & Dr. Kingman—whom I called up the other day—considers the case very satisfactory.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Marian F. Bonner, 22 Mar 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.1011
Let me say that my aunt is doing very well at the hospital—now taking good meals, & sitting up each day a little. Yesterday morning she was wheeled on the sun porch for a glimpse of the park-like grounds. I call on alternate days, but so far she has received no other visitors. She still has, of course, much discomfort—digestive stress, sleeplessness, & the irritation of reclining in one fixed position. The length of her stay is not yet certain—but she likes this hospital so much better than the one where she was in 1933 that she has not the same nervous anxiety to get away. Her present abode is on the same grounds as the other hospital, but is a wholly different building—only remotely connected with the R. I. Hospital proper. It is a select institution—the best hospital in the state—called the Jane Brown Memorial […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 27 Mar 1936, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 327
I believe you last heard from me in early March, when my aunt was about to go to the hospital. She went on the 17th—as it to celebrate the festival of Hibernia’s saint—& was there for three solid weeks. Meanwhile I had to act as her secretary, messenger, telephone-clerk, & what the hell—so that the confusion which I previously described increased to the utter, ultimate breaking-point. […] Well—my aunt left the hospital April 7, & spent two weeks at a convalescent home—returning to 66 a week ago yesterday. She is much better, & takes walks every pleasant day with my assistance; but it may be some time before her health will let her perform all the chores of 66 without coöperation.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 29 Apr 1936, OFF 327
On Tuesday, April 7, at 4 p.m., the patient left the gas-house district by motor to complete here convalescence at Dorcus Convalescent Home, 32, Blackstone Blvd. (cor Irving Ave.) (Tel. PL 3485), an extremely prepossessing private retreat whose domestic atmosphere & favourable situation ought to aid greatly in promoting rapid recovery. After a trial of a ground-floor room (which proved too noisy), the patient is now settled in a really delightful second-floor room at the front of the house, with a door leading out upon a screened porch which commands a fine view of the boulevard. The edifice is a relique of the 189’s, but makes up in comfort what it lacks in taste. The patient, though missing the detailed & instantaneous service provided by the hospital, is getting to like it better & better—& indeed finds the cuisine even superior to Aunt Jane Brown’s. When I called yesterday afternoon she seemed in fine shape indeed, & ate her dinner at a table while seated on the edge of the bed. She continues to welcome callers–the best hour being in the morning at any time after 10, & the second-best being in the afternoon betwixt 3 & 4. The mid-day period is devoted to a siesta—a habit she ought to continue after her return to the Garden House.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maran F. Bonner, 9 Apr 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.1019
My aunt continues to improve, but I am about ‘all in’—on the verge of some sort of nervous collapse, & with the worst digestive trouble since the autumn of 1934.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 24 Jun 1936, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei 351
Once again, Lovecraft’s letters track his aunt’s recovery…but he had no real ability to travel, and his own health continued to worsen. Due to the fact that they were seeing each other practically every day, there are very few letters for 1936-1937, though he kept up a diary for his aunt for the period of her hospitalization. They had a Christmas tree again for 1936, and one mutual friend wrote:
At Christmas time, I would get his help to “smuggle in” my present to his aunt. I can clearly remember the three of us sitting around their tiny Christmas Tree.
—Marion F. Bonner, “Miscellaneous Impressions of H. P. L.” (1945) in Ave Atque Vale 433
His illness worsened in 1937, which he described to his friends as “the grippe,” though in truth it was cancer in its terminal stages. In his 1937 letters, Lovecraft continues to refer to his aunt:
My aunt has also suffered from a touch of grippe.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Adolphe de Castro, 17 Feb 1937, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 398
About 79 letters, notes, and postcards from H. P. Lovecraft to his aunt Annie Gamwell survive at the John Hay Library and in the Arkham House Transcripts. Only three of these letters were published, in abridged form, in the Selected Letters (Arkham House), a few in Letters from New York (Night Shade Books). 364 letters between Lovecraft and his aunts, all that are known to survive, are published in the two volumes of Letters to Family & Family Friends (2020, Hippocampus Press).
Two letters from Annie to Lovecraft survive: 12 June 1935 and 21 July 1935; in addition to this, Annie has signed a number of joint notes and letters. Two letters is not much by which to judge her side of the correspondence, but the letters seem to reflect a similar attitude toward letter writing as Lovecraft himself expressed in his letters to her: full of details of daily life, interesting encounters, homely minutiae.
I’ll shut up now.
All love & best wishes—
—Annie Gamwell to H. P. Lovecraft, 21 July 1935
More of Annie’s correspondence survives from after her nephew’s death. As the heir to his estate, she became the focus of interest from August Derleth & Donald Wandrei (who would found Arkham House to publish Lovecraft’s work), R. H. Barlow (who would be his literary executor), and Lovecrat’s myriad correspondents. The positions of aunt and nephew were now reversed, with Annie now having to handle Lovecraft’s correspondence, as he had done for her during her hospitalizations in 1933 and 1936.
I know how much store Mrs. Gamwell set by him, and how much she missed him after his death.
—Marion F. Bonner, “Miscellaneous Impressions of H. P. L.” (1945)
With the death of her own children and now her nephew, the branch of the family descended from Whipple Phillips and Rhoby Place was coming to its end. Annie’s heirs would be cousins, the bits and pieces of family property distributed among them. Annie Emeline Phillips Gamwell died 29 January 1941. She was buried in the family plot at Swan Point Cemetery, with the remains of her children.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).