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Remarkable story of the independence, dedication of Isamu Noguchi’s mother

by David Burleigh

Like many people, I like soft light and use lampshades of Japanese paper from the successful Akari series designed by the American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), certainly the artist’s greatest influence on individual lives, especially at home. Some of his own upbringing is described in this book, which tells the story of his mother.

LEONIE GILMOUR: When East Weds West, by Edward Marx. Botchan Books, 2013, 440 pp., $18.95 (paperback)

Leonie Gilmour was a remarkable woman, not merely because her chance encounter with the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi (1875-1947) in New York produced a gifted artist, but because of the free-thinking and independence that made it possible. Born in 1873 in New York to a hardworking American mother and an idealistic immigrant father from the north of Ireland, she was raised in straitened economic circumstances, and attended a Workingman’s School for poorer children.

The way that Leonie raised her sculptor son, and the influence that she exerted on both her children, surely owes much to the early education she received. The Workingman’s School, run by enlightened German-Jewish immigrants under the Society for Ethical Culture, offered an education designed to mold the entire person, inculcating moral attitudes as well as knowledge, and included practical skills (“hand culture”), similar to what we might now call “creative work” though not quite the same.

The ethical focus of this school, as well as the struggles of her parents, undoubtedly provided the moral bearings and self-sufficiency that guided Leonie throughout her life. Good fortune, and her own talents, won her a place at the prestigious Bryn Mawr School, and College, where she received the education that she needed. Though she studied in France for a year, she never actually completed her college degree. Nevertheless, her attainments were sufficient to gain employment.

One of the most impressive moments in this biography comes quite early on. Having undertaken work in proofreading, translation and other tasks related to publication, Leonie encountered Yone Noguchi, then an aspiring poet and author, who needed help with manuscripts in English. Leonie wrote well herself, as we can see from her many letters in this book, and had long been interested in poetry. By the time Noguchi left her to pursue another romantic interest, she was already pregnant.

Leonie went to California, and lived frugally with her mother, until the baby was born, by which time Noguchi had already gone back to Japan. What is astonishing is the absence of any ill feeling or resentment toward either him, or the other woman he had proposed to marry and take with him to Japan. Satisfied to have the infant safely delivered, despite the ambiguity about her status, even as Noguchi’s common-law wife, Leonie’s only concern seems to have been about the child.

“Logical and practical”, as Edward Marx describes her, Leonie Gilmour was evidently never daunted by the difficulties that beset her, including the uncertainty about her “marriage” (based only on a letter signed by Yone Noguchi), or later about her citizenship when she had moved to Japan. Though much of this is told through letters, the book takes its title from an incomplete essay that expressed Leonie’s views on interracial union. Her intelligence and literary gifts show clearly through all her writing, both prose and correspondence.

The central mystery of Leonie’s life lies in the birth of a second child in Japan, after she had moved there and separated from the poet. Not even disclosing the fact of her pregnancy to her oldest friend, she gave birth to a daughter, Ailes Gilmour (1912-1993), whose father was also Japanese. Ailes later became an artist, like her brother, performing with the Martha Graham dance school once the family had returned to America, but her mother never revealed who her father was.

There is an Irish thread running through this story, too, not only in the occasional reference to “praties” (potatoes) or the poet W.B. Yeats, but also that the name “Ailes” was taken from a dialect poem from the north of Ireland. While Leonie continued to help her erstwhile partner with his English writings, she built a separate house from him in Kanagawa. Even when she took the children back to the United States, she continued to assist the poet with his books, though by then something of a vagabond herself. She died in New York, once more in straitened circumstances, in 1933.

Leonie Gilmour’s remarkable story, of independence and dedication to her children, was made the subject of a film, “Leonie,” directed by Hisako Matsui. A long version was released in Japan in 2009, and a shorter one in America in 2012. Edward Marx addresses all this, and the other lives its living subject touched particularly through her children, filling out the background thoroughly in this absorbing and well-researched volume, which he plans to follow with a biography of Yone Noguchi.

There are intimate glimpses here of Isamu Noguchi in childhood. I could not help wondering whether the boy who would not go to sleep until he had seen the moon, or had been met from school at the railway station with a lantern, retained these impressions into manhood, when he designed the paper lampshades still in wide use today.

David Burleigh comes from the north of Ireland, teaches and writes, and has lived in Tokyo for more than 30 years.

  • Hiroaki Tanaka

    Her life is so interesting.I’ll read this book.