Joseph P. Eckhardt, author of Living Large and retired Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, PA, recently sat down with OutWord Today and discussed his love of writing, retirement from teaching, and how he arrives at his subject matter selections.
Where did you grow up?
I spent the first seventeen years of my life in the town of Beaver Falls, in western Pennsylvania. After I graduated from high school, my family moved to Bridgeport in Montgomery County. I’ve lived in the Philadelphia suburbs ever since.
Favorite childhood memory?
My Italian grandfather ran a small restaurant in my hometown, and I spent a lot of time hanging out there with my cousins, and my aunts who helped run the place. There was a courtyard in the back shaded by a huge pergola festooned with grape vines.
In the summer, when he wasn’t cooking, my grandfather sat back there drinking homemade wine and playing pinochle. That image, and the smells and sounds that went with it, still looms large in my memory.
What do/did you do professionally?
I taught history and art history at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, PA, for forty years. In addition to teaching, I established the Betzwood Silent Film Archive and Film Festival at the college as a way of preserving the history of a once-famous silent movie studio that flourished in Montgomery County in the early 20th Century.
The film festival, which has now come to an end after twenty-seven years, not only showcased silent films made in the Philadelphia region, but also recreated the experience of going to the movies one hundred years ago.
Why did you get into your profession?
In a way, I was programmed to choose my profession early on. I was a precocious little kid who liked to read and tell everyone about what I had just read. My grandfather, who had a nickname for everyone, started calling me “the little professor.”
In addition, the very first books my parents bought me, were a series of biographies of famous Americans. Neither my career choice, nor the fact that I now write biographies, was an accident!
Tell us about your book.
My recently published book, Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason, is a dual biography of two free-spirited gay women who spent fifty-nine years together in an adventurous relationship that took them from the black and white world of silent movies to the raucous multi-colored world of bohemian artists in Woodstock, New York.
At six foot three and six foot respectively, Wilna and Nan were a “high profile” couple whose friends referred to them as “the Big Girls.” Their talents were just as large as they were and over six decades they explored acting, writing, painting, farming, landscape design, photography, enameling, silk screening, fund raising, dog breeding and jewelry crafting. They were also legendary party hostesses whose wild August “Full Moon” soirees are considered one of several antecedents to the famous Woodstock Music Festival of 1969.
What is your favorite part of the book?
The adventures of Wilna and Nan traveling in Europe have been my favorite stories since I first read about them in a series of letters they wrote to Nan’s father during their trip in 1926. Wilna nearly sinking a gondola in Venice, and punching out a young man who was mocking her in front of St. Mark’s Basilica, come across like scenes from her silent movies, but they were real events in her life!
Do you have other books?
My first book was The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer, Siegmund Lubin, published in 1997. Lubin was an immigrant optician, and a commercial genius who helped get the American movie industry started in 1897. His success in the early movies made him America’s first movie mogul and the role model for men like Louis B. Mayer, Sam Goldwyn, and the Warner Brothers.
More recently, I wrote a book about a nineteenth century American artist, William Trego. Trego was a severely handicapped painter who had contracted polio as a child. Yet, despite crippled hands and withered arms he had a successful career as an artist, and became famous for his military history paintings of the American Revolution and the Civil War.
My study of his career, So Bravely and So Well: The Life and Art of William T. Trego, was published by the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown in conjunction with a major exhibition of Trego’s artwork, which I curated for them in 2011.
How do you choose your subject matter?
I am drawn to people who were once famous but who have faded into obscurity. Of course, to write about famous and forgotten people I have to be able to find sufficient biographical material to make sense of their lives.
So my choice of subjects is partly determined by whether or not enough documentary evidence survives. For each of my three books, I have been very fortunate to locate large collections of personal materials—letters, scrapbooks, photographs, art work, film footage, memoirs, etc.—that allowed me to venture into their lost worlds and explore their stories.
I am currently trying to piece together the life story of a 1920s Hollywood character actor, Dan Mason, a multi-talented entertainer who was also a dialect comedian, writer, composer, song and dance man, and director.
Mason’s career in showbiz spanned the emergence of the American entertainment industry, from traveling minstrel shows through burlesque, vaudeville, and musical theater, to the earliest movies and finally Hollywood. He was the father of the artist, Nan Mason, one of the two women featured in Living Large.
So this project is a spinoff of my research for that book and allows me to go back explore some interesting areas of research that I had to pass by while writing Living Large.
Hobbies outside of writing?
I have a long-standing interest in genealogy and have traced my family’s ancestry back over three hundred years to remote villages in Ireland, England, Wales, France, and Italy. I also enjoy cooking, and feeding people, something I attribute to growing up in my grandfather’s restaurant.
Favorite place you’ve traveled and why?
I’ve been to England, France, Germany, Greece, and Egypt, but Italy is my favorite travel destination, in particular the City of Rome. The layers of history—nearly every building has some chunk of an ancient structure in the basement or built into the walls—and the abundance of artwork everywhere, are a source of endless fascination for me. And then there’s all that food and wine….
Tell us a little about your family.
My immediate family consists of my partner of many years, Brent, and our much-indulged cat, “Madam Sophie.” Beyond that I have two sisters and a brother, who are so far flung these days that we don’t see each other as often as we’d like to. I have a number of bright and beautiful nieces, as well as grandnieces and grandnephews, whose adventures I keep track of on Facebook.
Where and when did you meet your spouse?
Brent and I met socially many years ago. We have known each other for more than thirty-seven years and have been a committed couple for thirty-two of those years.
To order a copy of Living Large by Joseph Eckhardt, click here.
To visit Joseph Eckhardt’s online Betzwood Film Archive, click here.