New podcast reveals lives of queer 19th-century women
"My Dear Alice" explores, through hundreds of letters written to the unheralded artist, the romantic correspondences of Victorian-era women
Alice Austen left her Staten Island farmhouse in a hurry. It was 1945, and the elderly photographer was being evicted from her lifelong home after defaulting on the mortgage. Before being transferred to a poorhouse and separated from Gertrude Tate, Austen arranged for an antiques dealer to buy some furnishings, and for the Staten Island Historical Society to take 3,500 glass plate negatives-around half of her life's work.
Other things were left behind. The second-floor closet was still outfitted as the darkroom where she developed and printed her street photography of women and immigrant communities in New York. A cupboard in the attic held hundreds of letters, neatly folded back into their original envelopes. "My precious" began the ones penned by Austen's mother, while Auntie Min addressed her as "Ping" and friends as "My dear Alice".
The Mandia family soon moved into the house and their children found the letters. They used them to play mailman and doodled on some, but also safeguarded the letters for 40 years, eventually bringing them back when the Dutch colonial farmhouse became the Alice Austen House Museum-a New York City and national landmark, and a national site of LGBTQ history.
"Alice is super under-researched," says Victoria Munro, the director of the Alice Austen House Museum, who worked with scholar Pamela Bannos to explore this correspondence. A podcast called My Dear Alice, released this autumn, is the result of their collaboration and narrates a selection of letters along with newly researched background information.
The podcast focuses on six characters, including a man named Henry Gilman who courted Austen, her childhood friend Julia Martin, and Daisy Elliott-a gymnast and possible love interest who wrote Austen romantic letters while biking across the Swiss Alps.