Who’s the Source for ‘Virginia Woolf’?
Every college campus has its share of funny, sometimes sensational rumors — stories about famous professors, quirky students, haunted secret passageways, and the like. At Wagner College, one particularly juicy rumor turns out to be true. Here, we reveal how a Wagner professor and his wife became the models for two of American theater’s most unforgettable — and disturbing — characters.
By Lee Manchester
For decades, it has been rumored that a Wagner College professor and his wife inspired the characters of George and Martha, a fictional history professor and his wife, in Edward Albee’s powerful, emotionally wrenching drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The play opened on Broadway in October 1962 and has been a mainstay of the American theater ever since. It won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1963 and was further popularized by the 1966 movie version with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. In 2013, a 50th-anniversary Broadway production won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play.
“After ‘Virginia Woolf’ opened, countless people emerged from academia claiming to be the models for George and Martha,” wrote Albee’s biographer, New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow. “Often when Albee would speak on a college campus, … he would be approached by someone saying, you must have been writing about so-and-so and his wife. How did you know them so well? …
So, the Wagner rumor does, in fact, have substance: Willard Maas, a member of Wagner College’s English department faculty from 1958 to 1963, and his wife, Marie Menken, were the real-life models for two of the most unforgettable — and disturbing — characters ever produced by the American theater.
How did this come to be?
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Willard Maas was born in 1906 on an orange ranch in California’s Central Valley. He finished high school and started college in San Jose, California, before heading east to New York City around 1934. Maas quickly established himself as a poet, although his two books were met with tepid critical reception.
Maas met and fell in love with Marie Menken, an abstract artist working as a secretary for the Guggenheim Foundation, around 1937. Shortly after the two were married, they faced a pair of traumas: Menken miscarried, and Maas discovered his bisexuality. Though Maas actively and openly engaged in affairs with men for years, he and Menken continued living together as man and wife, at once combative and devoted to one another, for the rest of their lives. In the end, they died within four days of one another.
In the 1940s, Maas and Menken shifted the focus of their creativity when a friend going off to war left them a pawn ticket for his movie camera. For much of that decade and the next, Maas and Menken were two of the best-known figures in the avant-garde film world — and they were known by even more artists and intellectuals for their parties.
“Willard and Marie were the last of the great bohemians,” Andy Warhol remembered. “They wrote and filmed and drank (their friends called them ‘scholarly drunks’) and were involved with all the modern poets. … The Maases were warm and demonstrative and everybody loved to visit them.”
A onetime roommate, filmmaker Kenneth Anger, recalled their frequent, very public fights.
“They would begin drinking on Friday and would continue to drink all weekend, and then on Monday morning, they'd both go back to work and be on time for their jobs. Each weekend was like a lost weekend — well, a found weekend for them, because this was how they could be themselves,” Anger recalled. “Watching their arguments was a little like watching Punch and Judy. If I had been able to film their fights, I would have had quite a film because they did the most extraordinary things. Sometimes when they were both quite drunk, they would get up on this parapet overlooking the skyline of lower Manhattan and the river. … It was scary, but also entertaining.” [Source: Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 5: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (University of California Press, 2006), pp. 39-40]
“He used to come here every time to eat and just sit and sit and listen while Willard and I argued. Then he wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Marie Menken recalled. “That’s supposed to be me and Willard arguing about my miscarriage.”
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Willard Maas joined the English faculty at Wagner College in 1958. In 1961, he began serving as faculty liaison to the New York City Writers Conference, a 10-day workshop that had been held on the Wagner campus each summer since 1956. Maas invited Albee to lead the conference’s playwriting program.
One of Albee’s students that summer was local high school chemistry teacher Paul Zindel ’58 M’59, and he interviewed the playwright about his work, including his work in progress, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. This interview led off the 1962 issue of the Wagner Literary Magazine — the same magazine that first published one of Zindel’s plays, a one-act extract from his first off-Broadway drama, in 1960. (Zindel won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1971.)
Willard Maas had taken over the campus literary magazine shortly after joining the Wagner faculty. George Semsel ’59, a Wagner transfer student from Concordia–New York, recalled how it all began. Semsel had already known Marie Menken from a mutual religious affiliation before her husband appeared on Grymes Hill.
“When the faculty advisor of the college literary magazine, then called Nimbus, went on sabbatical, I was asked to approach Willard to see if he would do the job,” Semsel recalls. “He said yes. One of the first things he did was change the name of the magazine to the Wagner Literary Magazine.
“At the time, the Beats were starting to show up, so he said we should do a whole issue on the Beat Generation. He said, ‘The thing to do is have several articles together — one pro-Beat, one anti-Beat, and one in the middle — and send that to all the great contemporary literary figures,’” Semsel says. “Willard had floated around the New York literary scene enough that he knew a lot of people. He could write a personal note to accompany the so-called ‘Beat Symposium,’ and we would get their responses — and, no matter what they were, if the people were famous, we would publish them.”
The “Beat Symposium,” fueled by the responses submitted by Willard Maas’s many literary acquaintances, kicked off the Wagner Literary Magazine in 1959. Contributors included such prominent figures as poet Marianne Moore, theologian Paul Tillich, critic Lionel Trilling, and novelist Norman Mailer, as well as the biggest Beat poets themselves — Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky.
Terence Diggory, editor of the Encyclopedia of the New York School Poets, says that the WLM was representative of the New York poetry scene. “The people who had really made the first splash on that scene were the Beat poets — and, of course, the Wagner Literary Magazine starts out with a symposium on the Beats. … I think [Willard Maas] brought a lot of notice to the magazine by starting out with the Beat writers, but then through his connections in the New York art world and literary world, he brought in the first-generation New York poets, especially Kenneth Koch, who had connections with students that he was teaching at the New School, and that led to a connection with the New York scene.”
The first issue of the Wagner Literary Magazine was notable enough to be reviewed in Newsweek — and the magazine only got stronger after Maas began working with the Writers Conference, which became the subject of an extensive feature article written for Time magazine.
Again and again, Maas was able to capitalize on his connections in the arts world in ways that benefited the college and its students. For instance, a Main Hall auditorium event Maas organized in early 1961 became one of the most talked-about episodes in recent New York literary history.
“One of [Maas’s] biggest coups was putting together this poetry reading for the College’s Winter Arts Festival,” recalls Gerard Malanga ’64. “He got Robert Lowell to read for a pittance and paired him with Frank O’Hara — amazing, as these were the polar opposites of the New York poetry scene at the time. Not only that, he included Robert Harson [’63] and me, Wagner undergraduates, to participate as well. This event was the jewel in the crown for Willard, and for me as well.”
Brad Gooch describes the evening in his biography of O’Hara: “It was a snowy night on the Staten Island ferry as O’Hara traveled in the wintry dark to the reading. He fought his discomfort by writing ‘Poem’ (“Lana Turner has collapsed!”), inspired by a story in the tabloids that day about the actress’s collapse at a party. His reading of the occasional poem a few hours later was a predictable hit with his amused audience.”
Robert Lowell, however, was not so amused — in fact, he seems to have taken offense at O’Hara’s spontaneous approach to poetry.
“When Lowell began his set, he prefaced his poems by apologizing somewhat disingenuously for not having written a poem on the spot,” Gooch writes. “His implication was that writing poems was not such a casual affair for him.”
Events like this, and many others, contributed to Maas’s reputation on campus — but it was his presence as a teacher that really inspired some of his students.
“My memories come from a single graduate class I took from Willard Maas in the summer of 1959,” recalls Jeff Safford ’56 M’60. “The course was British literature, focusing on poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest, and Stephen Spender, the Marxist. I can still recite from memory select lines from the poetry of both. Maas never revealed an affinity for either the Marxist or the religious emphases of Spender and Hopkins, but he convincingly conveyed his awe of their use of language. … Willard Maas [was] unquestionably the most scholarly, erudite professor I’d ever encountered up to that point in my collegiate education.”
Bradley Sherman ’65 was particularly entranced by Maas’s classroom presence.
“He spoke in such a way and was of such a nature that I couldn’t imagine where he came from. Certainly not from this planet. Olympus? How he managed to show up at Wagner … was a mystery,” Sherman says. “I opened my notebook to take notes in his class, listened intently to write down something he was saying, thinking it would be on a test — and when the class was over, the page would be empty. I asked my brother Lloyd [Sherman ’62] about it, years later. He said, ‘Willard never lectured. That was the whole deal. There were far more important things to talk about.’”
George Semsel, himself a university professor later in life, recalls more about Willard Maas’s classroom methodology.
“His classroom manner was casual, yet he always spoke with authority. Often enough, he not only presented the critical issues surrounding a writer but made personal observations and comments along the way — often, based in personal experiences with the person under question. His knowledge was extensive,” Semsel says. “I don’t recall him reading out of notes or outlines. Instead, he would come into the class — often from the Hawk’s Nest, where we had already started a casual conversation about literature — and ask, ‘What (or who) are we talking about today?’ Given a response (he did supply a syllabus), he would launch into his views, often with great joy or, although seldom, with a sharp criticism of the writer in question.”
This was the presence that led the editorial staff to dedicate the 1962 issue of Kallista, the College yearbook, to Willard Maas.
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But by the following summer, the fabric of Maas’s Wagner experience had started unraveling. Perhaps it was a personality conflict with the new English Department chairman and College president — Maas had been vigorously supported by their predecessors. Perhaps it was the unchecked progression of his alcoholism, exacerbated by the bipolar disorder that went untreated until the last year of his life. Whatever the constellation of reasons, the 1963 Writers Conference marked the end of Willard Maas’s sojourn on Grymes Hill.
Tony Towle, one of the New York City School poets enrolled in that year’s conference, remembers a disquieting conversation he had with a visitor.
“At one of the evening events I asked a guy whether he was in the playwriting or fiction classes — because I knew he wasn’t in poetry,” Towle recalls, “and he said, ‘I’m not at the conference, I go to the College; I’m just here to see what Professor Maas is going to do this time.’”
Maas’s misbehavior at that conference made it impossible for President Arthur Davidson to resist the demands from several key administrators for the professor’s ouster. Several rounds of correspondence passed back and forth across the Atlantic between Davidson and Maas, who was exhibiting his films in Europe that summer — but the inevitable outcome was the resignation Maas submitted that fall, while he was officially on leave to work on a new book.
For the next seven years, Maas continued teaching, with short placements at Seton Hall, Ricker College (Maine), and Drake College (Florida). He also continued making films, several of them in collaboration with his wife and their friend, Andy Warhol, with whom Gerry Malanga began working in 1963.
Finally, in early January 1971, Village Voice film critic Jonas Mekas had the unhappy duty of writing an obituary for his old friends.
“A telephone message told me, Marie Menken died. She died on December 29. Two days later, an early morning, we stood in a small Brooklyn Heights church, a few friends, and we looked at a coffin, and Marie Menken lay in that coffin. There stood Willard Maas, and he was bent and beaten by grief, and few words were said. We knew how closely these two human beings have been together, both in the struggle of life and in their art. A few days later, another telephone message said: Willard Maas died on January 2. Gerard Malanga passed the message, late at night at Max’s, and we didn’t want to believe it yet, though we both admitted that when we stood there, that morning, in the church, we both had a feeling Marie and Willard were going out together.”
And thus passed Wagner College’s own George and Martha.
May they rest in peace.
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