Tag Archives: Dorothy Woodruff

Scandalous Dancing in the Woods

I’ve been writing lately about the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.  The school celebrated 100 years since its founding this past summer.  When I attended the open house, I found an enchanting cabin, restored to reflect history.


Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood, the adventurous young women featured in my last post, visited the camp shortly after its founding. They were Smith College graduates, teaching for a year in the area.  They were eager to see the venture started by two other intrepid young women who had also graduated from Smith:  Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield.  Charlotte’s brother Bob was one of Rosamund’s suitors; his father owned the local coal mine, and he was very much an eligible bachelor.  He and Ferry Carpenter competed for the attentions of Rosamond.

Charlotte and Portia had worked in Chicago for two years to earn the money to buy the land for the camp.  Then they worked side by side with a small crew loaned by Charlotte’s father to build rustic tents and renovate the abandoned homesite on the property. They were sophisticated city girls; they had trouble providing meals their working crew would eat.  Afraid the crew would abandon them, they took the advice of Charlotte’s brother:  “…soak the potatoes in grease, over-cook the meat, boil the coffee, and serve them soggy pie.”  The formula worked like a charm.

Portia and Charlotte soon had students and teachers, all enjoying a very high quality of instruction in art and music, which continues to this day.  The atmosphere was one of complete artistic freedom, too.  Over the coming decades, Perry-Mansfield was a haven of the avante-garde, including the great dancer Merce Cunningham and his composing partner, John Cage.


Local ranchers were suspicious of the place; rumors flew of young women dancing in the woods in diaphanous gowns.  The rumors were true. Dorothy and Rosamond watched actual outdoor rehearsals. Local wives and daughters were forbidden to go near the place; milk and butter were delivered to the creek nearby, to be picked up when the ranchers’ women were safely home again.

In her book Nothing Daunted, Dorothy Wickenden tells the story of the overnight visit Dorothy and Rosamond paid to the camp.  They loved the place.  Ferry Carpenter guided them along a two-mile forest path to get there.  When they were ready to leave the next day, his romantic rival, Bob Perry, one-upped Ferry by maneuvering his little Dodge in and out of the remote area so they didn’t have to walk back.  Rosamund described the living room, which doubled as a music room, as “one of the loveliest and most artistic rooms I have ever seen.”  I think the living room is long gone, but I found the restored cabin enchanting.  I’d cheerfully move right in.


Present-day students live in modernized cabins which were not part of the open house.  These cabins are now winterized.  They are a popular lodging option for skiers and other visitors to Steamboat Springs during the long, snowy winters when there are no students. The website is at http://perry-mansfield.org/.

To read more about the colorful history of the Steamboat Springs area, have a look at Dorothy Wickenden’s best-selling book about the adventures of her fearless grandmother and the best friend who accompanied her on the adventure of a lifetime!


From the Grand Tour to the American West

In my last post, I mentioned the delightful book Nothing Daunted by Dorothy Wickenden.  The subtitle is “The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West.”


Dorothy Wickenden, the executive editor of The New Yorker, found a treasure trove of letters written by her grandmother, Dorothy Woodruff, who with her best friend, Rosamund Underwood, answered an ad for teachers in a one-room schoolhouse in remote northwestern Colorado.  The young women had graduated together from Smith College.  They were twenty-three and had no intention of settling in right away to their expected life of marriage, charity work, and society events.  So in the summer of 1916, off they went on the grand adventure of their lives.

Photo by Lawrence M. Sawyer/Corbin, from NYT review cited below

Photo by Lawrence M. Sawyer/Corbin, from NYT review cited below

The schoolhouse was in an area so remote they had to live with a homesteading family and ride horseback to work every day, rain or shine.  Their students had to do the same; in winter some students had to ski to school on makeshift skis made of barrel staves.  Not surprisingly, the young women found themselves courted enthusiastically by local cowboys and also by educated men–including the one who had placed the ad, Ferry Carpenter.  He was a Harvard-educated lawyer who had gone west to make his fortune.

The young women had lived lives of privilege; after college, they had been lucky enough to take the Grand Tour.  They spent a year in Europe, studying French and seeing as much as they possibly could.  They went out of their way to see art and experience theater and dance. They judged the women in Rubens’ paintings “beefy,” but loved most of what they saw.  In Paris, they saw an exhibit by Matisse and Picasso.  They were not impressed, especially after having spent a lot of time with the masterpieces in the Louvre. Dorothy thought Matisse’s work was “like that of a little child.” Many years later, she regretted passing up the chance to buy some of those paintings for a song.

They saw Nijinsky, then twenty years old, dance in Scheherazade, the most famous ballet produced by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. They saw Isadora Duncan in her premiere performance of Orpheus.

Dorothy and Rosamund toured France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland. All along the way, they wrote long letters home.  They also collected postcards.  Later, when they went off to teach in the one-room Colorado schoolhouse, they brought their postcard collection.  Their students (and the parents of the students) eagerly studied the postcards as clues to the wider world.  I’d like to think that many of them eventually went on adventures of their own, following the lead of these two remarkable young women.

There’s a review by Maria Russo in The New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/books/review/book-review-nothing-daunted-by-dorothy-wickenden.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.