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Inside Yaddo: An Interview with Elaina Richardson and Lesley Leduc

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Interview with Elaina Richardson and Lesley Leduc of Yaddo

Katrina Trask, Yaddo Co-founderSince its inception at the turn of the century, the artist’s community Yaddo has hosted generations of America’s greatest writers, composers and artists of all forms. The names of these artists and the number of accolades they have received only further materialize Katrina Trask’s vision of using Yaddo’s grounds as an artistic haven to “create, create, create.”

John Cheever once wrote that the “forty or so acres on which the principal buildings of Yaddo stand have seen more distinguished activity in the arts than any other piece of ground in the English-speaking community and perhaps the world.”

Collectively Yaddo’s artists have received 66 Pulitzer Prizes, 27 MacArthur Fellowships, 61 National Book Awards, 24 National Book Critics Circle Awards, 108 Rome Prizes, 49 Whiting Writers’ Awards, and one Nobel Prize (Saul Bellow for Literature in 1976).

Philip Roth at YaddoHere are just a few of the 6,000+ artists that have resided at Yaddo over the years: Saul Bellow, Sylvia Plath, Philip Roth, Milton Avery, Alfred Kazin, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Mario Puzo, Katherine Ann Porter, Bernard Malamud, Aaron Copland, Langston Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, William Carlos Williams, Virgil Thomson, Robert Lowell, Louise Erdrich, Rick Moody and David Sedaris.

As Yaddo enters its second century, it does so at the forefront of the arts world, fostering the Coplands, Roths and Gustons of today.

I recently spoke with two integral members of the Yaddo community: Lesley Leduc, Yaddo’s Public Affairs Coordinator, and President Elaina Richardson, an award-winning writer and editor. Richardson served as the Editor-in-Chief of Elle Magazine for four years) and has been Yaddo’s president since 2000.

TFG: While Yaddo is not the only artist’s community on the East coast (the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH is considered the first planned American art colony), what is it about Yaddo that separates it from MacDowell and other artist communities?

Elaina Richardson, YaddoElaina Richardson: Well, both Yaddo and MacDowell were established legally in the early 1900s. We both have roots in the same movement and came out of the Gilded Age; but I think the late novelist/Columbia professor/Yaddo board director Robert Towers said it best – “MacDowell is Henry David Thoreau and Yaddo is Henry James.”  This captures it in that MacDowell is individual-based, set in nature and in a much more rural setting, whereas Yaddo stands as the Gilded-Age mansion.

On the grounds of Yaddo, Aaron Copland composed part of his Piano Variations; Leonard Bernstein worked on Trouble in Tahiti; William Carlos Williams completed a section of Paterson; Sylvia Plath finished poems in Colossus; Mario Puzo generated episodes of The Godfather; Saul Bellow worked on Henderson The Rain King, Patricia Highsmith revised and finished Strangers On a Train; Bernard Malamud wrote A New Life and Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy (of Portnoy’s Complaint) was conceived.

TFG: I think it’s safe to assume that Katrina Trask’s vision has not only materialized, but through her vision the creative world has been greatly affected. Do you think she could have ever imagined how much an impact her Yaddo would have on the world of art?

ER: Well actually, I think she did. She was very savvy on the idea of the pressure individual artists had to create. And still today we see more and more support being withdrawn from the arts and the industry is sort of in a turmoil period. She was definitely ahead of her time in thinking of the bottom line–that the support begins with the individual’s working process. The idea of a retreat is something we’ve cycled away from and Yaddo has not only come back to but maintained the idea of why retreat is necessary. Whether you’re an artist or not–just taking a moment or period to relax and catch your breath is so necessary.

Truman Capote at YaddoTFG: Aside from the brilliant names that have resided here and the great works that have come out of their time spent–in regards to artists, what do you think keeps bringing them back/applying for residencies each year?

Lesley Leduc: Individual artists often struggle to continue their work with little recognition and few rewards. Yaddo was founded to serve individual artists, challenging them to reach new heights of creativity in a uniquely supportive and productive community environment. Those who come to Yaddo generally have a positive experience and report that they get an extraordinary amount of work done during a relatively short amount of time, which naturally encourages artists to seek to repeat the experience.

I would also add that friendships established among artists in residence often lead to collaborations and connections beyond Yaddo…and even a few marriages!

TFG: Regardless if you believe in ghosts or not, the grounds have to be infused with some sort of energy– whether it be creative of artists passed or the spirits of the Trasks. Any residents’ ghost stories you can share? Or like Katrina’s own vision; any accounts of epiphanies?

LL: Poet Stanley Kunitz, by his own account, was quite happy at Yaddo until the bed on which he slept in at the Yaddo Mansion lowered as if one human leg bearing an adult’s weight stepped through the wall and then bounded off the bed, lifting it nine inches (so Kunitz reported to his fellow guests). Some versions of the story claim he was gone by breakfast, but I’ve also heard he slept in the mansion’s Great Hall for a couple of nights after his experience with what he thought was a ghost. However, Kuntiz was at Yaddo from June 2 to July 4, 1928….so he has a good long stay in spite of the ghost!

YaddoTFG: Are there any upcoming events we can look forward to?

LL: Yes, there is an upcoming Yaddo event that may interest many of your readers/viewers. For only the fifth time in its history, and the first time since 2003, the Yaddo Mansion and some of the other buildings on the private portion of the Yaddo estate will be open to the public on Sunday, September 18. Proceeds from the tour will support Yaddo’s artist residency program and ongoing restoration of the Yaddo Gardens. Admission is by advance ticket sales only–no tickets will be available the day of the tour. Tickets will be $40 per person and will be available only on our website ( beginning late July or early August. Persons interested may visit our website and sign up for our mailing list–the start of ticket sales will be announced to our mailing list first.

TFG: For those who want to support Yaddo, what’s the best way to go about doing so?

LL: The most obvious way to support Yaddo is to attend our annual summer benefit – usually in June and held at the Yaddo Mansion – and donate when possible to support the artistic program. Donations may be made online . Interested persons also may also sign up online for our enewsletter.

For more information on Yaddo, visit

–Aubree Cutkomp is an Assistant Editor for The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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