≡ Menu

“Mr. Mahaffie comes on from Washington Tues. midnight”

Dorothy Binney Putnam and Charles D. Mahaffie in May 1927

Dorothy Binney Putnam and Charles D. Mahaffie in May 1927

Dorothy Putnam wrote Isabel Cooper on December 20, 1924, inviting her to her Rye, New York home, and announcing that Mr. Mahaffie would be arriving that next Tuesday (December 23rd) at midnight. Mr. Mahaffie was clearly a topic of prior conversation. Isabel’s friend Dorothy, whom she called a “festive lady who loved people, giving parties, and matchmaking,” was determined that Isabel should meet Mr. Mahaffie.

Dorothy was to see Mr. Mahaffie in New York City on Wednesday, Christmas Eve, for lunch and a matinee. She urged Isabel to join them for the lunch and show, or at least join Charles and Dorothy to make the 5:35 pm train to Rye. Everyone was headed, ultimately, for a Christmas Eve party at the Putnams.

Isabel was a fascinating, adventuring young woman in the early 1920s, at the beginning of her thirties. And she was single. Hints in things she wrote later suggest tries at romance, but perhaps her exotic life as a scientific expedition artist, and perhaps also her temperament, left her unattached.

But Dorothy was inspired to match her great friend Isabel with her husband’s friend Charles Mahaffie. It’s hard to imagine why. Perhaps Dorothy fixed on the idea that opposites attract.

DBP to IC re CDM

Dorothy Putnam’s invitation to Isabel Cooper. A Red India ink outline was Isabel’s habitual way to highlight the signficant in old papers

Dorothy Binney Putnam was a daughter of Edwin Binney, who founded and co-owned Binney & Smith, Inc., the maker of Crayola crayons. She was married to George Palmer Putnam, a grandson of the founder of Putnam & Sons, the publishers. A few years later, George would drift to a new interest, Amelia Earhart, who fascinated him as a project–a woman aviator he could use to drive book sales–and as a lover. And Dorothy had her own affairs.

For at least a few years, Isabel and Dorothy were best friends. In 1925, Isabel wrote Charles from the Canal Zone, where she and Dorothy were together, “It is so nice to see her. I can’t get along without her for long, and her intelligence and lovableness and her knack of telling things so your diaphragm aches for hours with laughing.i

She said also, “Dorothy stands as a most excellent example of the sort of equable and valuable person I would like to be.”

Charles was forty, an established bachelor who lived with other unattached men in the University Club in downtown Washington, DC. He was a hard-working, Oklahoma-farm-raised Rhodes Scholar. A gruff government lawyer, working in the Federal Government’s Interstate Commerce Commission on the then-vital matters of railroad regulation.

The Putnams knew Charles from the 1910s in Portland, when George and Charles had both been connected to city politics and business affairs in the 1910s. But the Putnams had moved east for George to work in the family publishing business. They came to know Isabel from New York Society. Isabel and Charles were, separately, recurring visitors at the Putnam’s estate at Rye, New York.

George and Dorothy supposed that this mis-matched pair would take to each other. They arranged a Christmas holiday at Rye and invited Isabel and Charles.

So two people, world’s apart in temperament, background, and experience, got on a train for Rye on Tuesday, December 23, 1924.

Fifty or more years later, Isabel told me how she and Charles met before they were supposed to, on the train to Rye, so perhaps Dorothy didn’t take the same train after all. The two hit it off and realized they were the pair intended to meet at the Putnams. They got a laugh out George and Dorothy when they showed up at Rye, already acquainted. George, Isabel told me, remarked that since they’d already met, there was really no reason to go through with the festivities. But they spent at least a few days together as guests of the Putnams. And Dorothy’s matchmaking proved spot on.

“You do explode some grenades, you know”

ICM and CDM in Oct 1928

Isabel and Charles Mahaffie, 1928

Charles wrote Isabel when their acquaintance was only a few weeks old, “It was nice of you to come by yesterday. I’m glad to have had another chance to see you, even it it was for only a few minutes. You see, I’ve seldom seen anyone half so direct, downright, and stimulating a you, and I’ve liked having you wake me up a bit. You do explode some grenades, you know. Which comes, I suppose, from using an active brain as it was meant to be used. Altogether you are a most delightful person, and while Dorothy did not tie it up with nice Santa seals her introduction on December 24 was the nicest Christmas present I’ve had.ii

Charles and Isabel were married in August 1928. Isabel moved with Charles into an apartment in Washington and began a life very different from what she lived. She became a housewife and mother, though never typical at either. She continued her painting, soon forgoing paid work for doing art that pleased her. Her years of exploring the tropics were over.


i Letter, IC to CDM, from the Canal Zone, March 27, 1925.

ii Letter, CDM to IC, January 8, 1925.

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment

“Dad, can I get a monkey?”

“Dad, can I get a monkey?”
“Why not?”
“Monkeys are awesome!”
“It could be my service animal”

Versions of this echo in homes everywhere. And Dad or Mom keeps saying no.

But in our house, there was a hitch. On our living room wall are watercolor portraits of two monkeys done by Isabel Cooper, my grandmother, both from her visits as a scientific artist to British Guiana. One is a marmoset, named Sadie Volvisch, painted in 1921. The other is a spider Monkey, named Mishkin, painted in 1922. Russia, or maybe immigrant New York City, was the go to place for pet monkey names for the New York Zoological Society’s Department of Tropical Research staff.

Mishkin, by Isabel Cooper

Sadie Volvisch, by Isabel Cooper

My son didn’t just ask for a monkey once, it became a refrain. At some point he started, when he said it, to glance over at the pictures. And in a moment of failed parenting, I mentioned, “your great grandmother had monkeys, those are some of them.”

Sinbad, by Isabel Cooper

Sinbad, by Isabel Cooper

Monkeys entertained Isabel and her colleagues in the jungle camps of the New York Zoological Society’s Department of Tropical Research, and on the ships they sailed on. One, Sinbad (sometimes spelled Sindbad), was especially a star.  He was a black spider monkey, acquired in Panama by the 1923 Harrison Williams Expedition to the Galapagos. William Beebe bought Sinbad in the streets of Panama, where he had found the monkey being mistreated by locals. Sinbad proved to be affectionate, smart, inquisitive, and fun-loving. He was the first monkey that she ever knew that laughed, wrote the expedition historian Ruth Rose.i

William Beebe also bought Chiriqui, a cebus or capuchin monkey–the type used by organ grinders, when the 1925 Arcturus expedition visited Panama on its exploration of the Galapagos.

And it turns out that Isabel kept a monkey, a red spider monkey, possibly Mishkin, pictured above, in her New York City apartment. This was likely when she lived at 136 West 65th Street, now the site of Lincoln Center.

Isabel Cooper with Sinbad

Isabel Cooper with Sinbad

But her spider monkey proved a bad fit as a house pet. Before long, Isabel’s apartment house neighbors complained about the “fog horn” they were hearing. It was the monkey, and it was late at night. She had to evict him to go live at the Bronx Zoo. I like imagining Isabel stepping out on Columbus Avenue and hailing a cab, the monkey at her shoulder.

I’ve tried to be clear on this last point my son, but I don’t think he’s convinced a monkey can’t be a good pet. His great grandmother had monkeys, and besides, monkeys are awesome!


i Ruth Rose, quoting a book by William Beebe, Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society, Vol. 27, No. 1, January 1924.

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment

It pays to go to parties

In the mid-late-1910s, Isabel Cooper was living in Greenwich Village and working at artistic odd jobs, looking for something different.i [For that part of her story, see: “Resisting the homely snout of commercialism“]

Chance led her to find her way to entirely new experiences. And her story carries a lesson: you don’t know whom you’ll meet who might deliver you opportunity, adventure, or love. People Isabel met socially and through her work led her to all of those. It pays, it seems, to go to parties.

IC with Ruth Rose British Guiana about 1922

Isabel Cooper (r) with Ruth Rose in British Guiana about 1922

Isabel Cooper (r) with Ruth Rose in British Guiana, about 1922

Isabel was an artist, raised well-off and well-educated by Victorian aunts on the Upper West Side of New York City. At 21, she set off to make her own way, and worked in different design and art jobs in the city. But by 25 she was living for months at a time in jungle camps, painting reptiles for the naturalist William Beebe’s scientific expeditions.

How did this happen? Isabel recalled “an odd assortment of men and women to be instruments of fate” in her memior she wrote when she was in her 80s. William Beebe is part of that chain of seven who led her to meet her future husband, Charles Mahaffie on Christmas Eve, 1924.

The memoir gives thumbnails about of these drivers of fate, but she does not name them. Here is the sequence. Some we can identify, and their names are here:

  1. “A quaint little painter…who couldn’t paint” — likely Alon Bement, who taught at Columbia and led summer art institutes at Old Lyme, Connecticut. He also taught Georgia O’Keeffe.
  2. “A flighty young woman with one blue and one brown eye,” whom she met in the summer art class.
  3. “A visionary–a philosopher way ahead of her time, incomprehensible, whom I came to appreciate and understand as the years went on.”
  4. A man “notable for one thing,” he introduced her to:
  5. “A debonair character who seemed to have no special occupation or means of support
  6. “A famous biologist, part scientist and park faker…” “Faker” is a strong word, but William Beebe was more adventurer than credentialed scientist.
  7. Dorothy B. Putnam, “a festive lady who loved people, giving parties, and matchmaking.” Dorothy and her husband George P. Putnam introduced Isabel to Charles Mahaffie, who became her husband.
William Beebe

William Beebe in 1925

But first, Isabel had nine years of adventures in the tropics, living a life nearly unique for her times, let alone for young, single woman. Isabel met Beebe just as he was mounting the first his Department of Tropical Research scientific expeditions. Experienced with nature exploration, he knew the value of a gifted artist to his work.

Isabel knew of Beebe’s incredible knowledge of nature and was fascinated with his globe-spanning exploration. And “he was an enthusiast, and he cared nothing about money,”ii  So he could help her move her are clear of excess commercialism.

Isabel had told an American Magazine interviewer, “You must be enthusiastic,” she says; “it’s the enthusiasts who do things.”iii She saw that in Beebe, and surely he saw it in her.

Having met him, “one word led to another,” and Beebe hired Isabel to bring her skills along on his 1917 expedition to British Guiana. She ultimately traveled as scientific artist with Beebe on nine expeditions, including seven to British Guiana and two to the Galapagos. The adventures she had colored her interests and her art from then forward.


i John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

ii John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

iii John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment

Isabel Cooper and Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village in New York City was where you went in the 1910s if you were eccentric, gay, radical, or artistic. Pioneering activists, artists, and writers began settling there in the early 1910s. They set a tone for free-thinking and free-living that, along with cheap housing and cheap restaurants, and good light for art studios, seeded the quickening growth of a creative community. And the magnetic pull drew Isabel early in the emergence of America’s Bohemia. She began to work in Washington Square, and live nearby by about 1912.i

The Village offered a counterbalance to the more proper, staid uptown neighborhoods, and its residents thought of it that way, as is clear from John Reed’s poem, “A Day in Bohemia.”

Yet we are free who live in Washington Square,
We dare to think as uptown wouldn’t dare,
Blazing our nights with arguments uproarious;
What care we for a dull old world censorious,
When each is sure he’ll fashion something glorious?
Blessed are thou, Anarchic Liberty
Who asketh nought but joy of such as we!
–Excerpt from “The Day in Bohemia,” 1912, John Reed, journalist, poet, communist

The Village drew mostly unmarried men and women for the chance to live “unencumbered by family obligations.ii” It’s easy to think of Isabel seeking to be so unencumbered; to at once free her self to do the creative work she loved and to find the freedom that only some young women were exercising in the early part of the 20th century.

The people of the Village came to be called “Bohemians.” The word means someone with unconventional social habits and lifestyle. But Isabel used to say that a bohemian is a person with an art studio who doesn’t really do art.

The Benedict Studios, Washington Square, where Isabel Cooper worked in the 1910s

The Benedict Studios, Washington Square, where Isabel Cooper worked in the 1910s

In this rich mix of eccentricity and creativity, she found work in an interior decoration shop in Washington Square, and lived nearby.iii The community brought her plenty of chances to try her hand at art and design. She continued to live and work there into the early 1920s.

Isabel had moved far from the staid Victorian parlor of her aunts’ home to be a part of the raucous scene of Village tea rooms or all-night parties of artists, winding down only as the sun came up. Aunt Mary and Aunt Harriet must have grimaced at the thought of what their niece had become.

Isabel came to know other Greenwich Village artists and writers including the radical journalist John Reed, who was buried in the Kremlin, a reward for his coverage of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Sinclair Lewis, who based at least one character on aspects of Isabel.

Along the way, her social circles led her, by 1916 or 1917, to meet William Beebe, the naturalist-explorer, who liked parties, especially dances, and was well connected in the Village. And he opened a new stage for her adventurous life.


i In her scrapbook, Isabel noted, on a picture, a Washington Square studio she said a Dorothy Randolph “bequeathed” her in 1912.

ii George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, Basic Books, 1995.

iii John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

{ 2 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment

Resisting the homely snout of commercialism

In the 1910s there was no training for scientific illustrators in New York, and Isabel Cooper didn’t know she was destined to do that kind of work. She loved art, and wanted to be an artist. Newly independent, she saw that she needed work that would satisfy her but also pay her a living.

Isabel Cooper at 25

Isabel Cooper at 25

Isabel had done a freshman year, 1909-1910, at Bryn Mawr College. By her account she was a lackadaisical student.i Those who knew her later saw a wide-ranging and powerful mind that could have taken her deep into almost any kind of scholarship. But art drew her most.

After freshman year, she returned to New York. She enrolled in Fine Arts at Columbia Teachers College, and began studies at the Art Students’ League, then and still an independent art school in Manhattan. And she found a mentor, taking summer classes with the painter Alon Bement at Lyme Connecticut.

In her training, she tracked close to the path of Georgia O’Keeffe, who also studied at Columbia, at the Art Students League, and with Alon Bement, all at about the same time.

Isabel gravitated toward design classes, and began to work in interior design, perhaps as a surer way to make a living. Paid and unpaid, she tried: drawing from life, rug and tapestry design, clay sculpture, pottery, metalwork, interior decoration, and stage costuming.ii  It is unfortunate we don’t have any examples of Isabel’s craft or design work from this time. Somewhere rugs she designed may still survive.

Isabel was good at interior design. It’s likely she worked in the early 1910s for Anton Hellmann, who had a interior decoration practice and school at the Benedict Studios on Washington Square.iii

But she found interior decorating too commercially demanding.iv Then she tried costume design. She was good at that too, and creating distinct costumes and stage hangings, each time something unique, satisfied her. But then a theater manager, liking a particular costume she had done, demanded fifty more just like it. As she must have conveyed carefully to her interviewer, “commercialism continued to poke its homely snout into her artwork.v

Something was still not right. She was built for novelty and adventure, not commercial toil. In fact, later in her life, after she was married and didn’t need to support herself, she resisted selling paintings. In gallery shows, she’d price her work high to ward off buyers. Only a few paintings got away from her in shows, and she tried more than once to buy paintings back.

Once launched in her career as a scientific artist in 1917, Isabel looked back at these years as “going bleakly about my various occupations, such as assisting at the legerdemain of interior decorators, or degrading oriental perfections to terms of modern rug factory…vi” She was ready for something more interesting.


i Letter, Isabel Cooper to Charles D. Mahaffie, October 17, 1926.

ii John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

iii The Upholsterer, June 1916, Vol. 55, p. 83.

iv John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

v John Monk Saunders, “Jungle Creatures ‘Sit’ for Her in Their Own Back Yards,” American Magazine, February 1926, Vol. 101, p. 26.

vi “Alumnae Activities,” Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, 1924.

{ 1 comment… add one }

Leave a Comment

A young woman’s declaration of independence in the 1910s

Isabel Cooper a few years before her independence

Isabel Cooper a few years before her independence

In November 1913, Isabel Cooper went before a Kings County New York Commissioner of Deeds and signed a “General Release,” freeing her Aunt Mary Cooper from guardianship and any financial or legal responsibility for her. This was not an act of rebellion, it was the accepted legal move for a ward, reaching majority, when there was money or property involved in a guardianship.

With her signature, Isabel may have gained control of a small inheritance, but much more importantly, she became a free-acting adult. She was just past 21.

Isabel’s first taste of independence was freshman year at Bryn Mawr College. But she had come home after a year. Then she spent several years studying art at Columbia Teacher’s College and in summer courses in Lyme, Connecticut. She was meeting interesting people and ranging further and further from the staid life she led with Aunt Mary and her aunts Harriet and Joanna.

The aunts were Isabel’s father’s sisters. After James Cooper died in the Klondike, when Isabel was five, the three raised Isabel and her younger brothers Jim and Leslie. The aunts were single, Victorian women, and devout Christian Scientists. Isabel’s two hard-to-manage brothers were mostly off at boarding school, leaving her home with the aunts, and attending a nearby day school.

Isabel's childhood home, 40 West 96th St., NYC

Isabel’s childhood home, 40 West 96th St., NYC

Aunt Mary was, Isabel wrote later, a martinet. It was Mary who sent her to Bryn Mawr, and then who decided, for Isabel, where she would attend art school. Mary’s choice replaced the one Isabel had made. Isabel wrote later that she agreed,  but “with rather bad grace.” None of the three aunts was a mother figure. Isabel remembered later that even from her closest Aunt Joanna she got “no embraces or gestures of tenderness”.

In 1911, the family moved from their large row house at 40 West 96th Street, just west of Central Park, to an apartment in Harlem, renting out the house. What had been close quarters with three middle-aged aunts became even closer quarters in just a few rooms for a free-spirited 19-year-old.

Then in July 1913, Aunt Joanna, the only one Isabel was close to, and the one who nutured her artistic interests, died at 53. It was time for independence, and she arranged it about as soon as she could.

Site of Studio House women artist residence, 35 East 62nd

Site of the Studio Club, a residence for single women artists, 35 East 62nd Street, Manhattan

Around the time she signed the General Release, Isabel moved away from her surviving aunts to the Studio Club, a YMCA residence for single women artists, at 35 East 62nd Street. She lived there from from 1913-1915. At the Studio Club, though under the watchful eyes of a house matron, and subject to regular lectures on Christian propriety, Isabel got a further taste of freedom and independence. She was with other young women artists, not older ladies. She could come and go freely (within curfew hours), and she was immersing herself in art. It was the start of a remarkably modern, adventurous life for a woman raised in a Victorian, Christian household by middle-aged aunts.

It’s easy to imagine her folding closed the General Release and putting in her handbag. And she preserved it from then on, and placed it in a glassine sleeve in the scrapbook she made to give highlights of her life and career. Her declaration of independence.

{ 2 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment

Shipboard work for a scientific artist

Isabel Cooper wrote a long article, “Fish Portraits,” on her work illustrating fish, hoping to get it published in Asia Magazine. It was not published. This post offers excerpts of that article, focusing on the work and working conditions, and leaving aside her colorful observations on the different kinds of fish she worked with. The full article manuscript is here: Fish Portraits by Isabel Cooper 1925 in a PDF.

What follow are Isabel’s words.


The ship as a workplace

Our ship was exceedingly sturdy and staunch, and broad-beamed, and well adapted to the requirements of an ocean laboratory.

On the upper deck of the laboratory-proper, neatly wedged between a chart table and the ship’s laboratory, was my ‘studio’. This may sound a bit cramped and crowded; studios are supposed to be reasonably spacious, with plenty of swinging-room for brushes, at least. But I assure you that the more tightly a floating studio is wedged, the [more] beneficial for the work and nerves of the artist! These boundaries fore and aft, together with the wall on the port side, made three directions in which I could not roll.

Isabel Cooper at work on ship_Arcturus Adventure

Image from William Beebe, The Arcturus Adventure. New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1926

Possibly the most remarkable feature of my sea-going studio was the fact that it never remained quietly in one plane of space for longer than an instant….

By which mild and rather negative statement I really mean the gruesome fact that, in open ocean, the studio and its entire contents oscillated violently and almost continually through one, two, or three dimensions. This activity became really astounding at times. When the ship was merely slanting about, objects on my desk would develop the most interesting and intricate sorts of rhythm all their own. So you can see the necessity of keeping things as compact as possible. …

My immediate surroundings on the “Arcturus” were not bad at all, – if unusual. … To the starboard of my work-table was an open space which collected chairs and people, towards evening, and which was nightly rent asunder by the stress of arguments and discussions, – always the breath of life to me. And out of my wide, salt-splashed port there was continually to be seen the sea, – stormy Atlantic, or sparkling Caribbean, or slow, beautiful Pacific, with the comforting level of the horizon to furnish a refuge for my thoughts, at least, on tumultuous, busy days.

I had a great deal of trouble with my paints and inks and other rolling stock on board the ‘Arcturus. All these things would tend, in rough weather, to merge gradually into an indistinguishable mass, right before my eyes, – no matter how many new and fantastic tethering devices and halters and barricades I invented.

Imagine a desk which slants in almost any direction, or else revolves with a strange, shuddering corkscrew motion. And a working light which shines indiscriminately from east or west or north or south. And models who are mostly alive and swimming. And you will have a faint picture of my “Arcturus” studio. I am thinking especially of a wild morning in Mid-Atlantic, when I had definitely made up my mind that the elements were not to hinder me from finishing a special portrait. My desk had been long since hooked firmly to the deck. And I had worked out a complicated system of paddocks for microscopes, ink bottles, brushes, etc. My model was a very small and unprepossessing deep-sea fish, whose tiny aquarium was wired to the microscope slide. As far as I can remember my paints were safely sliding about in [a?] drawer. I was sticking to my chair in much the way that a rider sticks to a frisky horse, – a matter of knee pressure. But we struck a wave whose trough just fitted the wide sides of our ship. Which means that you roll as far as possible without actually turning over completely in the water. Whereupon I was projected across the room, several of my tools jumped the traces, a whole section of heavy scientific literature moved forward in a mass, and caught me amidship. A funny moment. I suppose the microscope must have looked like the Campanile in an earthquake, with a strange pale little fish spinning off through space like a lost soul.

I was obliged to study new phases and phenomena of gravitation which had never before troubled me. And not the least of these concerned the control of my subjects. In order to achieve sketches to suit the scientists’ purposes the fish had to pose alive. And they happen to be the most difficult models in the world. You cannot hold them still with any degree of comfort or success. They are nowhere near as easy to manage as my jungle models, the snakes and lizards and frogs of Demerara. Once you had a good firm grip on a snake’s neck the problem was solved. And some of the lizards and frogs would even sit still of their own accord and and look you angrily in the eye for minutes at a time.

Dealing with fish as subjects

There are just three ways to deal with fish. You can let them swim around in a glass tank, and regard them through the glass sides. Or you can have them flopping about in a pan of water. Or you can hold them up by the tail. If they swam, I considered myself lucky if they moved slowly and peaceably, allowing me a glimpse now and then of the pose which I wanted. But they were much more likely to whirl about in a panic, stirring up a terrific surf in the aquarium, and gulping great gulps of fear and dismay. Or they jumped right out of the water, and landed, slime and all, in the middle of my drawing or my face.

Arcturus Adventure IC plate vi yellow tailed surgeon fish

Yellow-tailed surgeon fish by Isabel Cooper. From The Arcturus Adventure

The most becoming pose a fish can take is in profile, – so that you may catch the full, charming contours of his deficient brain-case, the backward sloping forehead, and the definitely receding chin. But this profile view is almost impossible to get. They prefer to gaze at you head on, concentrating all the sadness and distrust of their bulging, jeweled eyes upon you through the glass, and biting feebly at nothingness, with their strange skeleton mouths.

A fish model who is reclining upon his side in a pan of water is far from satisfactory. He either flops appallingly, or else dies, which is just what must be carefully avoided. When you find yourself with a really adaptable and congenial fish you may be sure it is dead! I arrived long ago at the point where I was willing to hold a fish up by the tail, through they are damp, slippery handfuls at best. But it is not often that I have been able to keep a firm hold upon a living fish. They have the most slithering of contours, as well as a violent power in their flat tapering muscles, against which the strength of the most capable human hand would not function.

The element of speed enters into almost all my work from living creatures. There is always some very good reason why the sketches must be completed as soon as possible. This enforced absorption in my work is an excellent thing, particularly at sea, where it serves to keep my mind off some rather pessimistic reflections upon the activity of the ocean itself, and the very comparative pleasure of working on ships.

The pleasure of the scientific artistic work

Parti-colored bumpheads by Isabel Cooper. From The Arcturus Adventure

Parti-colored bumpheads by Isabel Cooper. From The Arcturus Adventure

I wonder whether I will be understood when I remark that the satisfaction of turning out accurate drawings of these diverse and beautiful creatures of the sea was only enhanced by the rather exceptional difficulties involved. This is quite true. There was an extraordinary pleasure in bringing the precision of fine pen and brush work to the many problems presented by silver scales, and transparent fish finds, and weird iridescence of sculptured fish faces. And all this amid wind and rain and tossing salt spray, in a tiny studio that swung and eddied through space, entirely without benefit of gyroscope!

Art for work, art for play

Isabel was ever the artist, so even when she was not doing her work, she drew and painted. She wrote about this to Charles:

“Island of Indefatigable, alias ‘Santa Cruz’.

My procedure in this harbor is to go ashore early and mess around with feeble landscape sketching ’till it gets too hot even for my sun-helmet, then return to the ship and work all day, except when I play hooky and read or talk or just keep cool in a bathing suit.”i

i Letter, IC to CDM, from Indefatigable, April 10, 1925.

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment

Living on the Arcturus

Arcturus diagram

 Arcturus diagram, Popular Science, May 1925 [a click will enlarge image]

This post shares a little about shipboard daily life on the Arcturus. A later post will be about Isabel’s artistic work aboard the ship.

Isabel Cooper got on the Arcturus at Newport News, Virginia, in Mid-February, 1925. The Arcturus sailed first into the mid-Atlantic to investigate the Sargasso Sea. The ship spent about a month in the Atlantic.

Then the expedition passed through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific where William Beebe’s goal was to study the Humboldt Current and return to the Galapagos waters for further study.

Isabel returned from Balboa, Canal Zone, on the Kroonland, along with Dorothy and David Putnam and a few others, leaving on June 24, 1925, and arriving in New York on July 1st.i The Arcturus continued briefly back into the Atlantic and did some dredging off New York.

Life aboard the Arcturus

Isabel Cooper wrote dozens of letters from the journey to Charles Mahaffie, reporting on her experiences and her colleagues.

She had journeyed by ship six or seven times before, on trips to British Guiana, and once prior to the Galapagos on teh Noma in 1923. But this was to be an extended ship-board expedition, and daily life on the ship was a recurring topic.

Early in the voyage, a stop at Bermuda was possible. Though only six or seven days out, that brought thoughts of luxuries she already missed. In addition to the chance for mail and fresh vegetables, she wrote, “Should like a horseback ride. Also a shampoo, though this, of course, I do not mention. All very well for the womenfolk to be dainty and all that, but the processes by which this pleasant condition is achieved are merely tedious and call forth loud sneers on the part of the gentlemen, who can see no reason why you should waste valuable time in beauty parlors and suchlike.ii

The daily round took up a routine pattern: “I am dreadfully busy: breakfast at 7:30; sketching from 8 to 12; luncheon; more sketching; snatches of reading, etc., when there is not a rush of work; dinner at 5:30, to let the stewards and mess boys get through their pretty hard day as early as possible. Evenings spent in different ways. Sometimes the more learned members give lectures on something–‘jaw bones of eels,’ or something equally stimulating. I mend socks while this is going on… Most evenings, however, I put in at my little flivver of a typewriter. I have an idea of an essay and am working on it.iii

A New Yorker, “Talk of the Town” account reported a shipboard day this way: The staff “will see each other three times a day around the dining table. For the rest of the day each expects to be so busy with his own work that meeting in the evening will be an event. And from the number of gay shawls and scarfs most of these events promise to be gala.”iv

In other letters to Charles, it’s clear Isabel liked to get proper exercise (as she exhorted him to do repeatedly). On the ship, she looked for chances to do that: “We had one beautiful calm day, nothing but big slow swells. So we climbed over the side on a rope ladder and took a swim. Glorious! It is so hard to get enough exercise on a boat. I have found a substitute for parallel bars: the upper rods of two enormous deep-sea dredges which are now stored in the hold. So I am managing to get thoroughly shaken up at least once a day.v

As the journey wore on, she didn’t give up the idea of simple luxuries.

“Economy of a life aboard ship is an extraordinary thing. You forget all about bath salts and pleasantly varied temperatures of fresh water in the gruesome problem of finding some combination of alkalis and fats which will consent to dissolve in cold salt water. Eating, too, loses its complex civilized charm. I haven’t seen a leaf of lettuce for weeks, and that is hardship for me! Also, the oranges and apples are becoming more limp and dejected every day. One of the ice plants has cashed in. Result, much meat overboard, and no cracked ice. But as the food deteriorates, our appetites improve. Ratio keeps about even…vi


Arcturus press photo 1925

The Arcturus, 1925 press photo

An book on Beebe’s work says that Isabel suffered from seasickness (and malaria, which she told me still gave her occasional fevers when she was in old age). “Isabel deserved special credit, as she endured repeated bouts of malaria and never ceased to grow hopelessly seasick whenever there was a swell. The weight and stability of the Arcturus made deep dredging feasible, but the Atlantic was uncooperative. Distant storms produced deep rolling swells that made life miserable enough, but as soon as the captain stopped to make the detailed soundings necessary for dredging, the Arcturus turned across the swells and wallowed miserably, sending Isabel to her cabin with plenty of company.”vii

Isabel didn’t confess to suffering it in her letters to Charles, though she reported sharing her seasickness “dope” with others. She told Charles the “fish sculptor [Dwight Franklin] has been quite consistently green in the face since we left and is afraid to take my dope. Funny thing for a man to be scared of something a mere slip of a girl is able to toss off quite naturally.viii

But to whatever extent she suffered from seasickness, Isabel kept at her work, and completed hundreds of illustrations for the expedition.


i Passenger manifest, familysearch.org

ii Letter, IC to CDM, from aboard the Arcturus, February 17, 1925,

iii Letter, IC to CDM, from aboard the Arcturus, March 1925 (date not given).

iv “Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker, February 21, 1925.

v Letter, IC to CDM, from aboard the Arcturus, March 1925 (date not given).

vi Letter, IC to CDM, from aboard the Arcturus, April 10, 1925.

vii Carol Grand Gould, The Remarkable Life of William Beebe Explorer and Naturalist, Island Press, 2004, p. 244, 247.

viii Letter, IC to CDM, February 18, 1925.

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment

“The diving helmet, a most enormous lark”

Beebe in diving helmet_Arcturus Adventure

Image: The Arcturus Expedition

William Beebe was keen on close observation of nature, an approach he began with the study of birds, and intensified in the jungles of British Guiana, where he’d map out a small patch of jungle so as to examine and catalog everything he found in it. He had the habit of laying on his stomach on the ground or on a rock to see the tiny details of plant, animal, and insect life most people wouldn’t notice or care to understand. Scuba hadn’t been invented, and other than glass-bottomed boats, and crude scopes for peering just below the surface, the diving helmet was the best way to bring that kind of observation under the water.

He commissioned several helmets for the 1925 Arcturus Expedition. Beebe wrote at length about his dives. But here we focus on the perspective of expedition artist Isabel Cooper, for her unique artist’s perspective, so below is mainly her reporting.

Isabel Cooper, expedition scientific artist, described for Charles Mahaffie the singular experience of going down in the diving helmet:

“I should like to hear what you would have to say about my latest amusement, I have been down in the diving helmet, a most enormous lark to my way of thinking, though I was pretty scared the first time. It is a nasty feeling, having the heavy contraption put over your head and weighted all around with about 60 lb. of lead. Then you begin to sink, while a trusty friend on the bank above pumps air and the water level rises slowly on the glass facade of the thing. You get an unpleasant thickish feeling in your ears, as if you were going through a bad tunnel. Also, the air keeps bubbling out around your shoulders. You can’t have the thing sealed on, because the most important detail is ducking quickly out when you see a shark and swimming to the surface. Sounds bright, doesn’t it. There doesn’t seem to be much of anything to prevent the sharks from coming around, except that they haven’t yet, and a good safe precedent is being built up.

“You feel as foolish as anything under water. After you’ve been down a bit your feet become very light, and you can’t keep them down. They simply waft about in an aimless way, as do the arms of Greek dancers. Also, everything gets distorted. Rock ten feet away looks as if you could touch it. You make a lunge toward it and find yourself flapping around like a jellyfish with an extremely swelled head.

“I went down first in a beautiful deep rock pool. Very outlandish. It gave me the creeps. Dorothy [Putnam] pumped the air for me. Everything looked spooky. Green and marvelously clear, with droves of fish sliding past. The silence is the most uncanny part. Also [the] fact that you can’t realize wetness. Funny-when your face is dry and you are out of touch with air you don’t seem to be able to feel water. Perhaps this is because the warm tropical water is just body temperature. But it seems merely like some strange dull flowing element, with broken light rays all through it, and a sort of molten silver mirror for its upper surface.

“Second time I went down they were trying to get moving pictures and kept poking me to signal about my next footstep etc. Also they got an idea that if they eased up on the pump there would be fewer distorting bubbles, whereupon the water in the helmet rose over my nose. Rather disturbing for a bit. Made me glad I had the end of the lifeline handy.

“…Dorothy went down. Don’t think she liked the idea at all, but of course she was a sport, as usual, and did it anyway. The pumping is a real job. You begin to realize just what concentration is. If you get absent-minded for a few seconds, the diver chokes.i

IC diving helmet Brooklyn Daily Eagle 101825

Fanciful view of Isabel in a diving suit, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 18, 1925

And in a newspaper profile, Isabel wrote:

“I wonder what a fish would think of us, if he could think, and could be fitted out with an invention that would keep his own beloved element flowing comfortably through his gills, and could manage somehow to flop about among our trees and meadows and hills. I wonder whether he would consider our natural backgrounds artistic, if slightly antique, and our expressions unnecessarily cheerful, and our motions unaccountably jerky and sudden, considering how much less pressure we have to contend with in the space about us. He would probably be most interested in the racket we make. A fish is one of the few creatures in the world who do not feel obliged to express themselves with any kind of noise.ii

William Beebe too reflected, at length, on the fresh, humbling perspective he got using the helmet several times: “If I were asked to prescribe for the worst case of sophisticated world weariness imaginable, I would without hesitation write ‘One diving helmet.'”iii

i Letter, IC to CDM, April 18, 1925.

ii Isabel Cooper, “Artist at Large,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1926, p. 93.

iii “Love, or Life of Adventure?,” Springfield Sunday Union and Republican,” February 21, 1926.

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment

Isabel Cooper’s Arcturus Expedition colleagues

BeebeNaturalist William Beebe assembled a rich mix of talents and personalities for the Arcturus Expedition. His staff showed a focus on the practicalities of a scientific expedition, with skills and scientific knowledge in place to explore and gather for a range of interests from microscopic plankton to deep ocean animals to sea birds. But in the mix too were a few distinctly interesting people who may have been along in part because he knew them as gregarious, fun, and adventurous.

The expedition staff numbered about eighteen. There were scientists, artists, a cinematographer, a historian, and several men brought along because they could build, fix and catch things. Some of the scientists were guest professors from universities, and others were from the New York Zoological Society staff.

Two staff were avid pirate enthusiasts. More on them [here]. Another became the president of the University of Miami. Two others later helped make make King Kong.

Here is the rundown, in places with an insight on their colleagues from William Beebe, expedition artist Isabel Cooper, or 12-year-old David Putnam.

John Tee VanJohn and Helen Tee Van

Beebe’s close assistant was John Tee Van of the New York Zoological Society. John had started working at the New York Zoological Society at age 14. He later became its general director.

Helen Tee Van, married to John, was one of the scientific artists. She was the daughter of Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony. She and John were long friends of Isabel Cooper’s after her scientific work ended. Isabel wrote in 1928, that Helen was one of her dearest friends.i The Tee Vans had also been part of the earlier Department of Tropical Research expeditions with Cooper.

William Merriam

William Merriam is variously described on Beebe’s expeditions as “Chief Hunter” and “Field Technician.” In Galapagos: World’s End, about the earlier expedition to the Galapagos, Beebe calls him “Our hunter in chief…the most enthusiastic and ingenious worker who ever outwitted fish, flesh or fowl…ii

David Putnam, the teenager who traveled on part of the journey, wrote that “In the forward part of the ship there are two rooms fitted out as shops, one belonging to Bill Merriam, the general handy man, who always mends the nets, shapes a new dredge, puts another seat in one of the rowboats, makes a lobster pot, or fixes the motor boats.iii

Dwight FranklinDwight Franklin

Dwight Franklin, a trained artist, is noted as “Assistant in Fish Preparation,” modeling plaster casts of some of the specimens, and painting them in their natural colors. Dwight Franklin was a sculptor and model maker. David Putnam summed up Franklin’s Arcturus work: “Dwight makes wax moulds and plaster casts of fishes and preserves them, as well as making drawings and paintings.vi” [Image: Dwight Franklinv]

Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth Trotter, “Assistant in Fish Problems,” was also an expedition artist. She was from a wealthy Philadelphia family and Beebe acknowledged William Trotter, her father, as an expedition benefactor. Isabel wrote Charles about Elizabeth from Newport News before she got on the ship, “I have been very bright and have arranged to room with the nicest girl in the outfit, the Philadelphia ‘horse-woman,’ as the papers say, who has a nice look-neat, intelligent, and all that sort of thing.iv

dickermanrevDon Dickerman

Don Dickerman was an artist, entrepreneur and a noted personality in the Greenwich Village community of the late 1910s and 1920s. Dickerman continued a long career after the journey as an entrepreneur, with pirate themed clubs in multiple U.S. cities.


Otis_Skinner_&_Ruth_Rose_in_PietroRuth Rose

Ruth Rose was a former stage actress. She served multiple roles for William Beebe, but chiefly was an recorder, historian and wrote about the journey for Beebe, authoring several chapters in his books. [Image: Ruth Rose with Otis Skinner in Pietro, Criterion Theater, 1920]


Ernest SchoedsackErnest Schoedsack

Ernest Schoedsack upgraded the Department of Tropical Research’s film capability to a full documentarian’s level, serving as cinematographer. The year after the journey, Ruth Rose and Schoedsack married, and she joined him in filmmaking, working as a screenwriter. He was an established documentarian, but went on to make King Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young (1949), and other films. [Image: Ernest Schoedsackvii]



Jay Pearson 1925Jay F. W. Pearson

Jay F. W. Pearson was a 23-year-old ichthyologist who later was the second president of the University of Miami (1952-62). His expedition title was “Assistant in Microplankton”.

William K. Gregory

Dr. William K. Gregory was noted as “Associate in Vertebrates”. He was with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and also taught at Columbia.

Gregory BatesonGregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson was British, a 20-year-old, freshly degreed in biology from Cambridge, who later was noted for his work in Anthropology, and studied by most undergraduate anthropology majors. [Image: Gregory Batesonviii]

Serge Chetyrkin

Serge Chetyrkin was an immigrant from Russia, who joined as the taxidermist and “preparateur”. Isabel wrote: “The old Russian…Eats no meat, eggs, milk or butter. Used to act like that last year in South America, but we thought it was just his little way of avoiding monkey stew.” The real reason, she noted, was that the expedition’s perishables were in an increasingly unreliable chiller.

Lillian Segal

Dr. Lillian Segal was a biological chemist. She was on the trip “for the specific purpose of studying the methods by which the light [of deep sea fish] was produced…”x. Her expedition job title was “Assistant in Special Problems.” [Image: Dr. Lillian Segal (L) with Mrs. C. J. Fish, inspect the fruits of a dredgingix]

Marie Poland Fish

On the staff list for the Arcturus expedition, Marie Poland Fish is listed as “Assistant in Larval Fish,” though her husband C. J. Fish was on the ship, she was a marine scientist in her own right.

C. J. Fish

Dr. Fish was “Associate in Diatoms and Crustacea,” on loan from the United States Bureau of Fisheries.

D. W. Cady

Cady was the expedition’s doctor, but participated also in the exploring and collecting. Isabel Cooper wrote that he let her help with some of the ministering to cuts and scrapes the staff got during their work.

DBPutnam St Lucie Co Hist SocDorothy Putnam

Dorothy B. Putnam, the wife of Beebe’s publicist George Palmer Putnam, and her 12-year-old son David, joined the expedition in Panama for its exploration of the Galapagos Islands, Cocos, and the Humboldt Current in the Pacific. They were noted as among a small number of “Guests of Honor” who joined for part of the journey. [Image: Dorothy Putnam]



David B. Putnam

David Putnam, was the son of Dorothy and George Palmer Putnam. His publisher father sent him on the journey in part so he could publish a children’s account by David, which was published soon after the trip as David Goes Voyaging. [Image: David B. Putnam from David Goes Voyaging]


i Letter IC to CDM, February 18, 1928.

ii William Beebe, Galapagos: World’s End, 1924.

iii David Binney Putnam, David Goes Voyaging, New York, G. P. Putman and Sons, 1925, p. 7.

iv Letter, IC to CDM, February 13, 1925.

v Image from askart.com

vi David Binney Putnam, David Goes Voyaging, New York, G. P. Putman and Sons, 1925, p. 7.

vii Image: Findagrave.com

viii Image: http://www.genmedhist.info/reports/bateson_album/3200.jpg/view 

ix Wild Things, Blog of the World Conservation Society, www.wcsarchivesblog.org

x The Literary Digest, Vol. 86, 1925


{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment