I’ve heard from various sources in town that Lovecraft’s wife has suddenly put in an appearance and is causing somewhat of a rumpus. Is this true, or is it, as usual, the kind of ill thought out gossip that is prevalent among the inept citizens of the L. A. Fantasy Society?
—Ray Bradbury to August Derleth, 19 Nov 1947
Lovecraft’s wife did turn up; she is now a Mrs. Sonia Davis, the widow of the husband (no. 3) she had after HPL. She wrote a biography called THE PRIVATE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT, and wanted to incorporate a lot of his prejudices as if they were major parts of his life, seen through her Yiddish eyes; she also wanted to include letters of Lovecraft, but we pointed out that the only way she could do that would be with our permission first. We have heard nothing further from her, though I had a talk with her in New York City.
—August Derleth to Ray Bradbury, 21 Nov 1947
Howard Phillips Lovecraft met Sonia Haft Greene at an amateur convention in Boston in 1921; on 3 March 1924 they were married. The union was brief; they cohabited for only about fifteen months in New York City, with Sonia forced to seek work in the Midwest where Howard would not follow, and Howard returned to Providence. In 1929, Sonia petitioned Howard for a divorce; due to the laws in place at the time, this could not be granted without cause, and the pretense was made that Sonia had deserted him. Howard, however, did not sign the final decree. They remained in touch for some years, and Howard even helped her with her travelogue. In 1933 Sonia left for California, and in 1936 she remarried, to Nathaniel Abraham Davis. H. P. Lovecraft died in 1937; Sonia was not made aware of this until 1945, when informed of the fact by their mutual associate Wheeler Dryden. Nathaniel Davis died 6 April 1946.
So it was, in the immediate aftermath of the second World War and the revelations of the Holocaust, that Sonia H. Davis cast back her mind some twenty years to write her memoir of her second husband, H. P. Lovecraft. The resulting document is a valuable account on several fronts: no one was as intimate with H. P. in the way of his wife, and since H. P. was very reluctant to write about his marriage in his letters, Sonia’s account provides the major source for their domestic life, as well as incidental information on their courtship.
Getting published, however, was a bit tricky.
While here Belknap Long put me in touch with Mr. August Derleth, who seems to have full rights to HP’s work; at least so he states.
I read a few pages to him from my scribbled manuscript (it was almost illegible to myself).
At first he told me that he wanted to publish it. Then he shunted me off to one Ben Abramson who, he said would publish it. At first Derleth said he would me $600.00 for it at the end of three years, with possibly a small initial sum against royalties.
I’m not young enough to wait three years. If the work is important to those who are most interested I felt it ought to be paid for outright.
So upon reflection I wrote to Mr. Derleth telling him I would have my own publisher do the work and that I would use my story of the “Invisible Monster” as revised by H.P. of mine first as well as some very personal letters and poems of his revision.
In reply he shot back a spec. del. letter that all HP. material belong to the estate of H.P.L. and that “Arkham House” (ie. he) alone had full legal rights to its use; and that I was likely to find that the could would restrain the sale of the work, would confiscate & destroy it.
I have written him stating that I had already offered the material to you, but that I may have to retract the offer if I am to be punished for using letters that were addressed to me personally.
Perhaps I am quite ignorant of the law but I cannot see how these can belong to the Lovecraft estate, to Mr. Barlow (as he stated) or to himself! Personally I no longer feel an interest in my past. Other interests have developed since then. However, because Mr. D. & you and others clamored for HPL’s private life with me, I thought it might be a source of income, and at the same time tell some truths that would throw more light on his character and perhaps on his psychology.
Since I do not know the law regarding these matters and as I have no money to start any “fights” it might be the better part of valor to drop the matter altogether, since while I do not fear Mr. D’s veiled threats and open intimidation I’m not in a position to fight.
Mr. D’s method of “high pressuring” me into doing what he wants is not to my taste. It would be interesting to contact the county clerk in Providence and make sure my reasons to believe that H.P. died intestate. If so, how does the property belong to Barlow and Derleth?
Had HP. lived and known of D’s aims, I feel sure he would not have countenanced D’s intimidation of me, no matter how much he would have liked to have his words read by his followers.
We will never know exactly what passed between August Derleth and Sonia when they met in New York, but some correspondence survives regarding the meeting and its aftermath. After his death, Lovecraft had provided instructions that R. H. Barlow was to be his literary executor, and whether or not the document was exactly legal his surviving aunt Annie Gamwell respected his wishes. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei were anxious and eager to get Lovecraft into print so that their friend’s work would not be lost; to this end they quickly got to work, and after securing permission from Mrs. Gamwell, began looking for a publisher. Failing to find one, they founded their own small press: Arkham House.
Barlow’s position as literary executor was a complication; especially as Barlow was at university at the time and moved from Kansas City to San Francisco, and then down to Mexico. Donald Wandrei joined the U.S. Army during WWII (Derleth was exempted from the draft for health reasons), leaving Derleth in essential control of Arkham House—and by extension, the Lovecraft estate, having secured Barlow’s essential cooperation for access to Lovecraft’s manuscripts and letters and Gamwell’s permission to print. Derleth took a very proprietary stance with regard to Lovecraft’s fiction, claiming that Arkham House had sole and exclusive rights to all of it, as well as his letters and any other materials—if it was to be published, it would be through Arkham House. In part, this legal bluff was hard-nosed business sense, Arkham House was not exactly a cash cow, with small print runs of relatively expensive books that took a long time to sell, the company basically supported by Derleth’s other writing. But also in part Derleth wished to preserve the memory of H. P. Lovecraft and his image. So Derleth would also threaten legal action against C. Hall Thompson during this period for using the Mythos without permission, and in 1950 would refuse publication of Warren Thomas’ thesis on Lovecraft, which cast an unflattering light.
Meanwhile, did I tell you Sonia Lovecraft Davis turned up with some laughable idea of cashing in on HPL’s “fame” and the desire to publish a “frank” book, entitled THE PRIVATE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT, and quoting generously from his letters. She read me part of the ms. in New York, and in it she has HPL posing as a Jew-baiter (she is Jewish), she says she completely supported HPL for the years 1924 to 1932, and so on, all bare-faced lies. I startled her considerably when I told her we had a detailed account of their life together in HPL’s letters to Mrs. Clark [Lovecraft’s aunt Lillian Clark]. I also forbade her to use any quotations from HPL’s letters without approval from us, acting for the estate. I told her by all means to write her book and I would read it, but it was pathetically funny; she thought you could get rich on the book. She said it would sell easily a million copies! Can you beat it! I tried to point out that a biographical book on HPL by myself, out two years, had not yet sold 1000 copies, and that book combined two well-known literary names. She thought she should have $500 advance on her book as a gift, and royalties besides! I burst into impolite laughter, I fear.
—August Derleth to R. H. Barlow, 23 Oct 1947
Sonia probably didn’t have an idea about the realities of publishing, and she did likely need the money. An agreement was finally reached: Sonia cut all the quotations from Lovecraft’s letters, and the journalist Winfield Townley Scott heavily edited the piece, which was published in the 28 August 1948 edition of the Providence Journal as “Howard Phillips Lovecraft As His Wife Remembers Him.”
In September 1948, Sonia suffered a heart attack.
“Howard Phillips Lovecraft As His Wife Remembers Him” was published in Books at Brown vol. XI, nos. 1-2; Lovecraft’s papers had been placed at the John Hay Library at Brown University in Providence by R. H. Barlow shortly after Lovecraft’s death. Cordial relations between Sonia and August Derleth were re-established. In 1949, Arkham House published Something About Cats and Other Pieces which included “Lovecraft As I Knew Him” (a Derleth-edited version of “Howard Phillips Lovecraft As His Wife Remembers Him”) as well as the stories “The Invisible Monster” and “Four O’Clock.”
Little other material was forthcoming; Sonia broke her hip in 1960 and ceased to work, moving into a rest home. Arkham House eventually published a briefer remembrance “Memories of Lovecraft I” in the Arkham Collector (Winter 1969), and later a letter that Lovecraft had sent her as “Lovecraft in Love” in the Arkham Collector (Winter 1971). A young student named R. Alain Everts, interviewing Lovecraft’s surviving correspondents interviewed her and obtained a copy of Alcestis which he would eventually publish. His final telephone call with her was 22 December 1972; Sonia H. Davis would pass away four days later.
While a few more items would be published after Sonia’s death, her memoir of Lovecraft remains her single largest work. It was eventually published in its original form—sans any quotes from Lovecraft’s letters but before Scott or Derleth edited it, with an appendix on their mutual friend Samuel Loveman—in 1985 from Necronomicon Press under her original title: The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft.
As an historical document, Sonia’s memoir is both extremely valuable and not without its flaws. On the one hand, it is a first-person account, even if some of the events being written about are twenty years in the past. Many of the basic facts that can be checked against other sources do check out; there are a few claims that probably deserved caveats—S. T. Joshi in his introduction to the text notes:
The extent to which Sonia harps upon money matters in her memoir may in part be justified—she was clearly trying to set the record straight and correct the inadequacies of previous treatments, especially by W. Paul Cook—but also underscores another point of tension which Lovecraft was perhaps reluctant to mention to his correspondents. For a full two years—from 1924 to 1926—Lovecraft was essentially supported financially by his wife. he had virtually no independent income, and his bootless efforts to find employment in New York are poignantly chronicled in his letters of the period. (5-6)
Some claims have to be measured against what else we know. Sonia’s assertion that:
He admired Hitler, and read Mein Kampf almost as soon as it was released and translated into English. I believe he was much influenced by that book. It may have had much to do in influencing further his hate, not only for Jews, but for all minorities, which he made little effort to conceal. (28)
This claim is on the last page of the book, in an addendum of afterthoughts that are predominantly about Lovecraft’s racial views. Keeping in mind that Sonia was writing this after World War II, when antisemitism was more prominent, and that she had very limited contact with Lovecraft after 1932 when Hitler came to power—which she and Lovecraft chronicled a small part of in their European Glimpses. The first English edition of Mein Kampf was the Dugdale abridged version published in 1933; it is possible Lovecraft read this, although there is no mention of it in his correspondence, and excerpts were published in the Times. So the claim is a bit iffy on the face: it’s not clear how Sonia would know this, the timing is a bit suspect, and there is no clear corroborating evidence from Lovecraft’s letters that he read Mein Kampf. But it cannot be completely discounted; they may well have continued corresponding in the mid-30s, and Lovecraft may have read the excerpts in the Times and mentioned them.
Similar consideration has to be given to every claim in the book. Her insistence on the importance of The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft to Howard does not seem borne out by a study of Lovecraft’s letters, but many other little details are. In some cases, such as the writing of “The Horror at Martin’s Beach,” Sonia is essentially the sole source we have to go on. Her manuscript sans Scott and Derleth’s writing is often disordered, written down as she remembers it, or to counteract specific points in previous memoirs about Lovecraft that had been written at that point (1946).
Also telling at the things that Sonia does not talk about. She makes almost no mention of her previous marriage or family; barely mentioning her mother (Lovecraft’s mother-in-law), who was alive and in New York at the time of their marriage, or her adult daughter Carol Weld (they had become estranged sometime in the 1920s), and no mention of her half-siblings in the Midwest. Juicy details on the Lovecrafts’ sex life were also not forthcoming, although Everts would provide what few we have from his interviews with Sonia, and Derleth noted after meeting Sonia in Los Angeles in 1953:
A propos your piece on Lovecraft, the question of HPL and sex had been bothering me for some time […] so in 1953 when I was in Los Angeles, I asked Sonia Davis—the ex-Mrs. Lovecraft—rather bluntly about HPL’s sexual adequacy. She assured me that he had been entirely adequate sexually, and since she impressed me as a well-sexed woman, not easily satisfied, I concluded that HPL’s “Aversion” was very probably nothing more than a kind of puritanism—that is, it was something “gentlemen” didn’t discuss.
—August Derleth, Haunted (1968) vol. 1, no 3, 114
Much of the actual domestic life and some of their later visits after their separation are not included in Sonia’s memoir. We know from Lovecraft’s letters to his aunts that he spent an extensive amount of time out of the household, visiting friends and the Kalem Club; we know that they enjoyed going out to dinner and to the theater; that when she was ill he would visit her in the hospital for hours; that they struggled with finances after Sonia lost her job and ended up selling some of her furniture.
It is an important memoir; perhaps one of the most important memoirs of Lovecraft that we have. Nearly forty years were required to get Sonia’s unedited words to the public, and she did not live to see that happen. The few errors in it or the critical assessment of some claims do not detract from its importance; it is the nature of historical research to question sources, to view them critically, to weigh the evidence against other accounts. To ask ourselves why Sonia was writing this, and to whom. There she was, alone once more, writing about a husband that had died nearly a decade before, and whom she had first met over twenty years before—and there are moments in her recollections that may be a bit rose-tinted, and others where Sonia was clearly trying to answer to claims about Lovecraft’s prejudices, or refute the inaccuracies of early biographers. Yet she wrote what only she could—and we are the richer for it.
“The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” has been most recently published in Ave Atque Vale (2018) from Necronomicon Press, alongside other memoirs of Lovecraft.