The Respect for Marriage Act that the House passed on Thursday and that President Biden has said he’ll sign codifies legal recognition of same-sex unions. Legal protection or no, these relationships have existed for a long, long time. Nearly 100 years ago, F.O. Matthiessen, an influential Harvard scholar and organized labor activist, and Russell Cheney, a painter whose work is in the collections of the Smithsonian and the Wadsworth Atheneum museums, among others, embarked on such a union.
Matthiessen and Cheney supported each other in their careers, established a home together, and stood together in the face of ill health. In an early letter to Cheney, Matthiessen even used the word “marriage” to describe their relationship: “Marriage! What a strange word to be applied to two men! Can’t you hear the hell hounds of society bay in full pursuit behind us?”
The couple met in 1924 on the ocean liner Paris crossing the Atlantic. Cheney was at the height of his success, with exhibitions of his work in Boston, New York, and elsewhere around the country. Twenty years Matthiessen’s senior, Cheney was returning to Europe to paint, while Matthiessen was going back to Oxford University for the second year of his Rhodes Scholarship.
Over the next few decades, Matthiessen would establish himself as a leading literary scholar of his generation. His 1941 book, “American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman,” helped raise the stature of American literature.
Matthiessen’s style as a lecturer could be halting as he wrestled with ideas in real time. To polish his skills, he visited a professor of public speaking at Harvard, who told him that his speech was blurred and soft. In response, Matthiessen, seeking solace from his partner, wondered in a letter to Cheney if he was “just like any fairy.”
In 1930, Matthiessen and Cheney bought a house on the coast in Kittery, Maine. Cheney lived there full time, while Matthiessen was at Harvard during the week and would join Cheney on weekends and over holidays. During summers, the pair, together with family and friends, swam in the icy Maine water and played games on the front lawn. After dinner, Matthiessen read aloud to the group from early drafts of his latest book. One of Matthiessen’s graduate students called the Kittery house the scholar’s “only real home.”
Both Matthiessen and Cheney came from wealth, but money and privilege couldn’t shield them from illness. They lived the words “in sickness and in health.” Matthiessen was hospitalized for severe depression in 1938 at McLean Hospital. Cheney, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in his mid-30s, had breathing problems throughout his life and, in his later years, wrestled with alcoholism. To curb his drinking, he submitted in 1941 to shock treatment with Metrazol, a stimulant that affects the central nervous and respiratory systems. The treatment was futile, and Cheney was lucky he didn’t die — this application of Metrazol had a high mortality rate and was not long after discontinued.
Cheney suffered a fatal heart attack in 1945. While those close to him and Matthiessen knew the true nature of their relationship, in public Matthiessen could not grieve in a way befitting the loss of a spouse. To the world, he had just lost his good friend and housemate. Having to hide the depth of his love for Cheney and his grief over his longtime life partner’s death must have played a part in Matthiessen’s deepening depression in the last years of his life. Being tailed by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for his alleged — and later disproven — ties to Communists didn’t help. On the night of April 1, 1950, Matthiessen leapt to his death from a 12th-story hotel window in downtown Boston. He was 48.
The people make the laws, and the laws shape the lives — and deaths — of the people. President Biden’s signature on the Respect for Marriage Act will affirm the lives and unions of all citizens, so that fewer of us will be hidden from history.
Scott Bane is the author of “A Union Like Ours: The Love Story of F.O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney.”