Perdita Macpherson Schaffner (1919-2001)

This obituary was written by Mrs. Schaffner's son, Val Schaffner and is posted here with his kind permission. Information on the memorial follows.
Perdita Macpherson Schaffner died on Dec. 26 at her home in East Hampton, N.Y. She was 82.

Mrs. Schaffner was the author of many published essays as well as unpublished fiction. She was an active philanthropist and served on the boards of cultural institutions such as the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y., Poets and Writers Inc., and the Yale University Library Associates. She cultivated a wide range of friends in the Hamptons, New York City, and Europe. In academic circles she was known as the daughter of the Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle, who wrote under the pen name H.D.

She was born in London on March 31, 1919, and was raised in a highly unusual household there and in Burier, Switzerland, near the town of Montreux. The identity of her father was a subject she long refused to discuss, although she was amused when biographers and dissertation-writers deduced that he must have been the poet Ezra Pound, who at one time was H.D.'s fiance, or the novelist D.H. Lawrence, who was a close friend.

Although Mrs. Schaffner was originally named Frances Perdita Aldington, H.D. being married at the time to the British novelist Richard Aldington, he was not her father either. It was not until 1983, in an essay included with a reissue of her mother's novel Bid Me to Live, that she publicly identified him as the character who in that roman a clef is called Vane, and who in real life was Cecil Gray, a Scottish music critic and minor composer. Like Vane and the novel's protagonist, the musician and poet carried on an affair in the final months of World War One, whereupon he disappeared from her life and that of his daughter, who would meet him on only one occasion, in 1947, by chance, in the entourage of the writer Norman Douglas on Capri.

At the height of the flu epidemic that followed the war, H.D. was alone and ill in an unheated room in a seedy London rooming house, on the verge of labor, when she was rescued by her young friend Winifred Ellerman, who wrote novels under the name Bryher and was heiress to a shipping fortune. In what became a lifelong relationship, Bryher took mother and daughter under her wing. Perdita (the name cones from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale) grew up in a menage that included H.D, Bryher, and the latter's husbands, starting with Robert McAlmon, a novelist who later chronicled those somewhat manic years in a memoir titled Being Geniuses Together.

Bryher's second husband was yet another novelist, a debonair Scotsman named Kenneth Macpherson who, like her, was in love with H.D. The couple formally adopted her child, who took the name Perdita Macpherson, and all four set up house in a towering Bauhaus structure overlooking Lake Geneva, Villa Kenwin, which doubled as a studio for avant-garde films and was also home to an assortment of dogs, cats, and monkeys. They divided their time between Switzerland, London, and Paris, where they were at the center of a group of literary and artistic figures, some of whom, including Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell, Mrs. Schaffner would later recall in a series of vivid, witty essays.

Surrounded by writers, the girl seldom had a chance to meet other children, for she was educated at home according to Bryher's eccentric educational theories. She did, however, become fluent in French, German, and Italian, skills that served in good stead when, as a young servicewoman at the start of World War Two, she was assigned to Bletchley Park, a remote estate in the English countryside where teams of translators pored over scraps of intercepted Nazi messages decoded by the top-secret "Enigma Machine."

After a year her department was transferred to London, where she shared air-raid duty with Graham Greene during the Blitz. She was soon moved to counter-intelligence-from cracking codes to catching spies, as she put it-and was seconded to the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency, working for James Angleton, the poetry-loving spy who later earned notoriety as the CIA's chief mole-hunter.

The Americans she befriended in the OSS encouraged her to visit the US, her mother's native country, and after the war she came and stayed.

In New York she took a job as secretary for John Valentine Schaffner, a literary agent who was starting out in business and could not afford to pay her. They fell in love and were married in 1950, setting up both home and office in a century-old house on East 53rd Street that is one of Manhattan's few remaining wooden structures. They had four children, Valentine, Nicholas, Elizabeth Bryher, and Timothy, all of whom grew up to be writers. Summers and weekends were spent at a rented house in Southampton, on land that is now part of the Conscience Point National Wildlife Refuge, and later at property the family bought in 1967, an 18th-century farmhouse near the end of Fireplace Road, in the East Hampton neighborhood that is known as Springs.

Following Mr. Schaffner's death in 1983 she moved to Springs full-time and developed a wide range of friends and activities here. She began publishing essays in The East Hampton Star, in literary magazines such as Grand Street and American Scholar, and as prefaces or afterwords to editions of her mother's books. One of them is included in the recently-published Pushcart Book of Essays, a selection of work from America's small presses over the past 25 years that received the Pushcart Prize. She was a regular at meetings of a fiction-writing workshop founded by her neighbor Dwight Macdonald, as well as a Shakespeare-reading group. She became active on behalf of the Bay Street Theater and other local causes.

A devotee of the theater, she attended many of the 20th century's memorable performances, both in New York and in London-where, after she became an American citizen, she returned at least once a year. She traveled widely. Although Europe and the Caribbean were her most frequent destinations, she also visited Kenya, the American West and Southwest, the Falkland Islands, Alaska, Turkey, and Korea. In Springs she built up a substantial library, particularly of contemporary novels, literary biographies, and histories of World War Two espionage.

In 1996 she suffered a massive heart failure and spent two weeks in a coma at Southampton Hospital, where the doctors, having almost unanimously pronounced her case hopeless, dubbed her "our miracle girl" when she proved them wrong. Back home she gave up smoking, substituted red wine for Scotch whiskey, and cut down on travel but otherwise kept up her schedule of activities.

Her heart remained frail, however, and following a seizure last month her condition began gradually to decline. She died at home, as was her wish, among her family and her six cats. She is survived by three of her children: Val, an author and former editor and columnist for The East Hampton Star, who lives in Bridgehampton and Manhattan; Elizabeth, also a former Star columnist, who has a home and horse farm in the Northwest area of East Hampton; and Timothy, a poet and publisher who lives in Tucson, Arizona. Nicholas Schaffner, a composer and biographer of rock groups, died in 1991-a victim, as was his father, of AIDS. Also surviving are four grandchildren: Timothy's sons Wyatt Edminster and John Valentine and Val's daughters Kaya Perdita and Lia Athena. A fifth grandchild is expected to be born in January to Val and his wife Min-Myn.

In lieu of flowers, contributions to the Bay Street Theater are suggested.

The Bay Street Theater's mailing address is Main Street, Sag Harbor, NY, 11963.
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