Leonie Gilmour and a man in monk's robes practice archery in a sunlit wooded area in Japan. Young...

The Incomplete Chronicle of Léonie Gilmour

By Lisa Yin Zhang

Léonie Gilmour (18731933) wasn’t one for chronicles. When her son, Isamu Noguchi, was a baby, C. W. Stoddard, a friend, wrote to her: “I hope you are keeping one of those kid chronicles in which all the quaint and clever things he says or does are recorded.” Convinced of Isamu’s brilliance, he added: “This Baby Boy is to be like no other Baby Boy in all the world.”1

Léonie dismissed the idea. “I never liked chronicles,” she recalled decades later. “If one could capture the bright winged moment that like a humming bird [sic] flits over the garden and is gone, or net the shy anemones that bloom in the deeps of the heart and cannot be brought to the sun! The real things are so far from speech.” Ironically, she would write this while attempting to do just thatcollate letters and recollections in an incomplete collection she would title “The Kid Chronicle That Was Not Written.” Only her son could persuade her to begin. “Stoddard wasn’t the only one to pester me for chronicles,” she confided. “I evaded them all. And now, the Boy, grown to a man, and not known to fear, commands me to write of our early days in California and Japan, the days before he could remember.”2

Ruminating on the nature of time and recollection, she added:

“Perhaps, my son, you think your mother has the kind of memory that is like a well-ordered storehouse from which one can fetch out things at a moment's notice, or at the very least like an attic, where one can rummage and pull out odds and ends helter skelter. No such thing. My memory is like a treacherous sea, where things are so covered with sand they are completely lost. Sometimes, it’s true, the tide ebbs, and behold clearly revealed are the long lost days, bright and untarnished. I feel sure they are all there—somewhere—oh very safe. Not arranged chronologically. All quite equal in value and without any time sequence whatever. That is because for me time is something I do not understand. Forward and backward is [sic] all the same. The yesterdays play at hide and seek with today and all the tomorrows.3

Late in his own life, Isamu would arrive at a similar idea, unindebted or unbeknownst. “We are no longer so sure that time flows in one direction only,” he wrote, “at least not in art.”In reflection, he added, “I myself seem to go in a circle—a spiral, I hope, moving a bit laterally as well.”Indeed, as time unraveled, Isamu would seem more and more his mother’s son. “I am the product,” he said ultimately, “of my mother’s imagination.”6

  • Isamu Noguchi, Slide Mantra, 1986. Marble.
    Photo: Shigeo Anzai. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 12085. ©INFGM / ARS

“Now I am settling myself to a hard task,” Léonie continued. “Sorting out old letters, and from their dates trying to put the yesterdays in their places. Alas, many of these letters are undated. Your father rarely dated his letters (I have to decipher the postmarks on the envelopes, what if the Japanese mark is the only one left?). You, my son, never do so.”

Léonie got only two letters into the kid chronicle. She was busy: she was a writer, editor, and translator, who was featured in publications like the New York Times, although her name was often misspelled, or omitted from bylines entirely. She was an artisan and entrepreneur, traveling relentlessly for more business, better weather, and lower rent. She was a scholar, delivering lectures on Japanese prints at the Brooklyn Museum, as well as a curator who organized an exhibition on the work of a Japanese printmaker. She was a single mother.

We can fill in her story, partly, with the broad strokes of history: that she was born into a recession; that she married according to a verbal agreement during the precise six-year window that rendered such common-law marriages illegitimate7; that she fled California with her mixed-race child as anti-Japanese sentiment grew febrile; that she died amid the Great Depression. Intimate details we gather as best as we can from a lacuna-ridden archive, out of which she emerges at times robustly—penning a sharp book review, drafting a humorous letter, remembered by a loved one—and at other times faintly: we do not have a single document, for instance, that we can date confidently to the year 1901, or the year 1920, or 1924. Six years of correspondences with her closest friend and most faithful confidant have been lost. Another box of things was irretrievably damaged in a flood.Léonie has been the subject of a semifictionalized biopic9 as well as a biography,10 but thus far no chronicle of her intellectual history, nor a portrait of her based on recently digitized archival sources, including correspondence and unpublished manuscripts, has been completed. And so her “hard task” is before us instead, monumental, and still, alas, incomplete.

The Early Years: “A Story of Poverty and Heroism” (1873–1895)

Léonie was born in New York City on June 17, 1873. Her father, Andrew, was an often unemployed Irish immigrant and anarchist who plotted the overthrow of the government at the same time that he doted upon his daughter.11 Her mother, Albiana, was quiet and regal, daughter of the owner of the Brooklyn Daily Times; she married downward and quarreled ferociously with her husband.

  • Portrait of Andrew Gilmour, 1892.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 05998. ©INFGM / ARS

Independent like Léonie, she went to work in her husband’s place, as a typesetter, nurse, piano teacher, and housekeeper, and later lived without him. (Also like Léonie, she was subject to the petty humiliations of bureaucracy—her name was spelled incorrectly12 on her daughter’s birth certificate, just as Léonie’s would be on Isamu’s13). “They were such an amazingly foolhardy young couple to marry,” Léonie would write, with less admonition than admiration, in “St. Bridget’s Child,” a fictionalized and unpublished account of her own life: “It is a story of poverty and heroism, those grim fairies who presided at my birth, to whom I owe whatever fibre of strength is in my being.” Yet her steely pragmatism was laced with a dreamy romanticism. In the same undated story, she wrote: “yet I love, Oh I love—the velvet-footed romance who steals past me unawares, leaving but a breath, a warmth, a light, the echo of heavenly laughter, to make me dream in happy indolence, forgetting the Poverty.”14

Léonie attended The Workingman’s School in midtown Manhattan (now the Ethical Culture Fieldston School),15 a newly opened progressive school intended for the children of working people. It espoused handicraft, teaching that the properties of things could only be learned by toiling over them, and emphasized modeling in clay and sketching.

  • Léonie Gilmour in the first graduating class of the Workingman’s School, 1887.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06002. ©INFGM / ARS

Léonie would later follow the same methods in raising her children. “He is begging me every day to teach him to read and write,” she would write of Isamu.16 “I shall put that off as long as possible. He has the best eyes of any boy in his school, and I don’t want to spoil them.” Indeed, Isamu was, or became, skillful with his hands from a young age, later recalling sculpting a much-lauded blue-glazed clay wave as a formative early experience.17 Incredibly, he helped construct their house in Chigasaki at the age of ten. (He did, however, remain forever a terrible speller—he never quite figured out how to spell the word “dilemma.”18)

Isamu Noguchi’s childhood home in Chigasaki, Japan, 1950.
The Noguchi Museum Archives, 08938.3, 06158. ©INFGM / ARS

As Léonie’s graduation date neared, a lucky break presented itself. The founder of Bryn Mawr School, a new feeder school for the also newly founded Bryn Mawr College for women, offered one full scholarship, including room and board. The top two graduates of the school would in turn be offered a full scholarship to the college, granted she passed the rigorous entrance exam. Léonie was put up for the scholarship, admitted to the school, and then excelled there. A few years later, she applied for the scholarship to Bryn Mawr College. Its entrance exam was said to be one of the toughest of its time—harder, even, than Harvard’s—testing algebra, geometry, science, ancient Greek, Latin, and history, on top of a daunting reading list. She passed, one of only six or seven students to do so. She was the first person to receive what would become known as the Bryn Mawr Scholarship. 

  • Bryn Mawr School on Cathedral Street, Baltimore, MD, c. 1900s. Courtesy The Bryn Mawr School Archive

At Bryn Mawr, Léonie would receive one of the best educations available to an American woman at the time. She would major first in chemistry, but, as Marie Stopes, a paleontologist and women’s rights campaigner (and eugenicist) who befriended Léonie in Japan, would later recall, Léonie “found chemistry so easy that it was no mental discipline, so she took history, where dates have no reasons and are therefore hard to remember.”19 She would become fully fluent in French, in possession of a working knowledge of German, and well-versed in the annals of English literature. Though one of the least financially secure students in her class, like her own fictional Bridget, she believed that poverty was not shameful, but ennobling.

It was there that she also met Catharine Bunnell, a wealthy young woman from Connecticut who would become her roommate, faithful pen pal, and closest friend. (In letters to Catharine, Léonie would always spell “Catherine” with an “e” for no reason other than that she liked it better, and would sometimes sign off, “Love, Brigitta.”)20

  • Portrait of Léonie Gilmour, c. 1893. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 05999. ©INFGM / ARS

In her final years at Bryn Mawr, like many of her classmates, Léonie turned her sights abroad. But Paris, while a mere vacation spot for her wealthy classmates, would likely mean draining the rest of her scholarship funds and leaving Bryn Mawr sans diploma. It would be unpragmatic, impulsive, even foolish, to go. At the same time, the prospect excited her.

Tellingly, she chose Paris. In the fall of 1893, Léonie departed for the Sorbonne, staying through the academic year. Though she returned to Bryn Mawr that fall, she withdrew the semester after and returned to her family in New York, one semester shy of a diploma.

New York: Literary and Romantic Beginnings (1895–1904)

Isamu would later marvel at the spiraling nature of time, the way events seemed to both echo the past and anticipate the future. A quarter of a century after Léonie set sail, Isamu would set out for Paris, equally broke: the two of them would never stop moving, continuously crisscrossing the globe. And Léonie herself would seem to presage the future when she wrote, in a college essay on George Meredith,21 the English novelist and poet, on the vulnerability of women at the hands of fickle and flighty men. “Conventions protect the weak,” she observed. “Let it be remembered, woman and child are both utterly dependent upon the caprice of man; and the Mighty Convention of Marriage.” Only a few years later, in 1901, she would answer a fateful advertisement in the New York Herald: “WANTED—A lady teacher to give instructions in English, writing and composition.”22 Thus entered Yonejiro Noguchi. What followed was a volatile tale of a marriage: half-hearted, illegitimate, then dissolved. Without the convention of marriage, Léonie would have to depend on herself.

But beyond paralleling her own eventual experience, Léonie’s essay on George Meredith also evinces a lifelong trait of understated radicalism. She extols Meredith for an unsentimental feminism that does not attempt to raise women up to implausibly lofty heights, nor create female characters so “perfect” as to be unrealistic. “He does not tell woman that she is the cause of most of the progress that has been made in the world, that she has a peculiarly exalted moral nature, that her entrance into public life will introduce a high standard in politics,” she writes. Instead, he crafts female characters with significant flaws who realistically navigate a world tilted against them. “He recognizes woman as weak,” she continues, “as degraded by being prevented the use of her functions, and he bids her arise and throw off her chains. She must fight her own battles, he tells her. Does she wish men to admit her equality with themselves? Let her prove it.”23

Leonie Gilman [sic], “George Meredith—A Study,” National Magazine 23 (December 1905): 272–77. In “Leonie Gilmour notebook,” manuscript, c. 1901–11, 2–6. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_FAM_014_001. ©INFGM / ARS

Reaching beyond Meredith, Léonie displays a keen literary eye. “Thackeray and even more especially Dickens are woefully lacking in good women characters,” she writes, adding, “Charlotte Bronte’s women are quite wonderful—but aren’t they simply lyrical embodiments of her own passionate nature?” And she is unabashedly political: “In politics [Meredith] is with that small but steadily increasing minority who are not satisfied with the present social order and who would take radical measures for its remodeling. If not a socialist, I would say he approaches socialism very sympathetically.” In her own life, rehashing a conversation with her mother, she wrote, in a letter to a friend: “‘Isn’t he somewhat of a socialist?’ queries Mama. ‘So is everybody who is not a pig,’ I retort.”24

Like her mother before her, Léonie worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet. In 1898, three years after leaving Bryn Mawr, she began a teaching job at the Academy of St. Aloysius in Jersey City. She also embarked on a career as a writer, editor, and translator. She translated Victorien Sardou’s 1860 farce, Pattes de Mouche, from the French, for a collection alongside translations by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edward Fitzgerald, and William Archer. She began working an editorial job at DeVinne Press on East 4th St. In her limited free time, Léonie wrote fiction.

In January 1900, Léonie and Catharine Bunnell moved in together at 448 West 151st Street. It would be hard to overstate the importance of these women to each other. It is to Catharine that Léonie’s earliest surviving letters are addressed: “Do you know, Catherine, that you’re about the one person of my acquaintance to whom I can quote or read poetry without having them look at me as if I’d gone clean daft,” Léonie wrote in April 1900.25 It is due to Catharine’s correspondence that we know something of the color of Léonie’s everyday life: “We take in about all the good picture exhibits in New York,” wrote Catharine,26 “But most of the time Léonie is working.” (Léonie would suffer a breakdown from eyestrain and overwork.) The two threw dinner parties, where “[o]ne of us always played the role of the cook, the other was hostess, turn and turn about.”27

  • Léonie Gilmour, “Letter to Catherine [Catharine] Bunnell from Léonie Gilmour,” April 25, 1900.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_381_005. ©INFGM / ARS

Through letters to Catharine, we can picture Léonie as she cut an Austen-esque figure across New York: “Today, being as I had a bad cold (the most delicious cough sounding like the bark of a very fierce little dog) I took a stroll through the rain and mud of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, came back with my stockings sopping to the knees, took them off and went barefoot around the house for a couple of hours.”28 Through her, we know how Léonie joked: padding around their humble apartment, one of them would blurt the last line of one of Catharine’s short stories (unpublished), whenever something broke (often), giggling: “The opal seems to have exploded!” We know what she was like when she was mean: “Léonie says I look like a fat lummox tonight,” fumed Catharine to her mother.29 Through Catharine, we know that Léonie was gentle and quiet, that the pen was her preferred form of association. We know that in anger, she resorted to a punitive coldness, rather than an emotional outburst; we know that she baked good bread.

Yone’s advertisement appeared in the Herald on February 1, 1901. He was already a writer of some note, having been published in San Francisco, the first Japanese writer to do so. Two weeks after their first contact, Léonie had already edited her first piece for him. But what started out as a copyediting job quickly ratcheted up to a point where Léonie seemed to be doing Yone’s work for him. “Here are the next three chapters,” Yone wrote to her,30 around the same time that he began addressing her more familiarly as “Léonie” and not “Miss Gilmour.” “Say, listen, can’t you fix them according to your own idea?… Anyhow I wish you will arrange them to your idea.” He was wheedling, needy (“Is the story ready?”31), even as he left the labor of preparing manuscripts, proofreading galleys, and supervising publication to Leonie while he departed for vacation.32 The quality of his English seemed to fluctuate with the amount of work needed to fix his drafts (“This broken English is not refined so well, so you might change as much as please. O please, do it!”33), as well as the amount of personal responsibility he was willing to take. Apologizing for having denigrated one of Léonie’s short stories for including a female character who had the nerve to get remarried, Yone wrote: “Now you will see that a brown Jap cannot be equipped with the very quality to be a gentleman.”34 Explaining himself further, he added: “I firmly believe that any woman or man can’t allowed to be so indulging in matrimony … Many weak people often do it, but I despise them … I will never put such a character in my story.” Ironically, he would become that very character in hers.

Portrait of Yonejiro Noguchi, 1904. Photo: Otto Sarony Co. Portrait of Léonie Gilmour, 1904.
The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06010, 06000. ©INFGM / ARS

It is unknown when exactly their relationship transitioned from professional to romantic. Already in October 1901, Yone was borrowing money from Léonie,35 suggesting that they were close. They began officially dating in 1903, and, at the end of that year, Yone scrawled, on a sheet of loose leaf paper, a marriage declaration of dubious legal validity: “I declare that Leonie Gilmour is my lawful wife. Yone Noguchi. 18th November, 1903.”36 By then he had already returned to his itinerant ways, drifting off to Rochester, Boston—“Then where to go? Perhaps England!!!”37—and Washington, D.C., where he would meet and fall in love with Ethel Armes, a young journalist. The following February, Léonie felt “almost as soon as it happened”38 that she had conceived, but Yone laughed it off, attributing it to emotional strain. Léonie, of course, was right, but Yone was already gone. He had been writing passionate homages to his love for Ethel—“She has more love than Annabel Lee” in Homecoming Diary (Kicho no ki)39; “One touch with thy skin revives memory mine/ Of a thousand tales of kiss and life” in the Japanese journal Shin-shosetsu.40 He proposed to Ethel. Then, with Léonie six months pregnant with Isamu, he departed for Tokyo.

The Wilds of California (1904–1907)

Léonie met Yone’s fickleness with the steady, clear-eyed gentleness, touched with a hint of wistfulness, that was her nature. “I have a fancy, as if he were a bird that flew through my room and is vanished,” she wrote to Catharine.41 “And I console myself—try to—that I am more fortunate than other women who must see their lovers grow old, indifferent, perhaps commonplace, whereas mine will be ever young, and ever poet.”

In August of 1904, she traveled to Los Angeles to join her mother, before the two of them moved to the undeveloped outskirts of the city, then a tent village of ten thousand residents. In November 1904, she gave birth alone, except for a reporter from the Los Angeles Herald who, due to Yone’s rising recognition, had barged her way into the room, seeking to write an article on the birth of his son. Léonie begged the reporter not to write the story; the reporter promised, and wrote it anyway.42 (Years later, en route to a quiet study trip in Japan, where his estranged father told him not to return and certainly not bearing the Noguchi name, Isamu would make the same mistake. He confided to a stranger who turned out to be a Mainichi Shimbun reporter, and docked in Tokyo to enormous fanfare and a forced reconciliation.43)

  • “Yone Noguchi’s Babe Pride of Hospital,” Los Angeles Herald, November 27 1904, 8.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_BIO_001_004. ©INFGM / ARS

In California, in addition to caring for Isamu and tending to her writing career, Léonie began to nurture a lifelong love of gardening. “Nature is the proper study of philosophy, the living plant with sap coursing through it, not the botanical specimen,” she wrote in her essay on George Meredith. In parallel to her philosophy of feminism, which valued defect alongside virtue, she loved nature not just for its beauty but for its tenacity, quoting Meredith: “As she grows in the flesh when discreetly tended, Nature is unimpeachable, flower-like, yet not too decoratively a flower; you must have her with the stem, the thorns, the roots, and the fat bedding of roses.”44 She dreamed about possibilities for her California garden: “I fancy I would like some nasturtiums climbing over the wood shed at the back, and blue iris by the rickety fence to one side, and a bed of thyme close to the door near the drooping peach tree.”45 In an article for National Magazine, Léonie recounts a conversation with her mother, in which the two dream about filling their garden:

“What trees shall we plant?” [my mother asked.] “I want a Norway pine.” “Why not have some fruit trees?” “A fig tree, of course.” “A couple of orange trees? And the blossoms of the lemon are so fragrant.” “Those are all dwarfish trees. I’d like a glorious spreading maple, or an oak.” “Ah, the maple is for back East, where the Autumn frost can get in his fine work coloring the leaves. We have no Autumn glory here,” sighed my mother. “We’ll have a honeysuckle clambering over the back porch.” “We can grow any kind of flowers here all Winter. Strawberries too if we want. We’re above the frost line.”46

Her desire for a garden was so strong that it permeated even her fiction. In a story entitled “A Disappointed Woman,” Léonie wrote: “All around them lay spread fruits of the kitchen garden. Feathery carrot-tops and fragrant curly parsley delicately fluttered be­side the awkward phalanx of seeded onions which looked like professors whose strength had all gone into their heads. The fat, vermillion-complexioned tomatoes sat comfortably in the shade of their own leaves, unmindful of the frantic race for glory of the beans climbing up their slippery poles. Just beyond the beans the crispy cabbages, in beautiful pale green and white leaves folded snugly each over each, easily showed themselves queens of the garden in their serene and ample beauty.”47 Indeed, literature and nature seemed essential to Léonie as aesthetic nourishment. As she wrote to Catharine, “[The Bibelot] and Shakespeare are the chief of my diet at present. Spend much time waiting for my seeds to sprout in the garden. It consoles me for the rain.”48

Isamu Noguchi as a child in California, at his home with his mother Léonie Gilmour and his aunt or grandmother, c. 1905–06. Construction of UNESCO Gardens, Paris, 1956–58. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06024, 12956. ©INFGM / ARS

Isamu, famously, became a lover of gardens as well, having designed, among others, the UNESCO Garden in Paris, the sculpture garden at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and the garden of The Noguchi Museum. “Both my mother and I were so serious about my gardening that I stayed away from school for a term while she taught me botany,” he wrote.49 “At this time she had, I think, the idea that I should become a forester or in any case someone in some way connected with growing things.” For Isamu, too, gardens would become inextricable from his art. “It was in revolt from [tradition],” he wrote, that “led me through the many gardens I subsequently made larger than sculpture, environments—sculpture to walk through, a passage of time.”50

But her garden in California, Léonie told Catharine, was actually “a sunken affair.” Life in California was difficult: Léonie wrote about constructing a tent home in National Magazine, her attempt to eke out a life for herself in the American vernacular of property. But her tent leaked; she shivered through freezing nights with wet blankets. “Things had begun to reach the point of tragedy,” she wrote.51 “I began to laugh. Why? By the same logic that I must cry when my cup of happiness is full. Being a woman I suppose reasons are superfluous.” Writing was hard, too: “Baby objected to my writings. He fretted. He would not rest again. He wanted to be held. I sat up with baby in my arms, rocking back and forth in bed, crooning and cuddling and talking to him.” She tried to support herself, beginning to work at the Chamber of Commerce in 1905, “where I have desk room and take what work I can.”52 And there was still the matter of the constant butchering of her name: “If you will look in the December or February number of the National Magazine you may find my name misprinted as Léonie Gilman (I asked the editor to correct it) over my first ventures into the field of literature,” she wrote to a friend.53

  • Léonie Gilmour, “Founding a Tent-Home in California,” National Magazine 23 (February 1906): 554–57. In “Léonie Gilmour notebook,” manuscript, c. 1906–11, 7; 13–15. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_FAM_014_001. ©INFGM / ARS

Despite the desperation of her situation, Léonie hewed, sometimes astoundingly, to her own values. As she once wrote grimly to Yone: “It is better to be good than happy.”54 For a time, she worked as an editor of a literary magazine called The Raven. (Yone, unimpressed, wrote “What name! I do not quite like such a name for the magazine. Never mind!”55). Then, the owner was arrested for embezzling. “I would not have put him in prison for the $60 he owes me,” fretted Léonie.56 “Some member of the company did it, who is not poor…. I miss the money which I had counted on for my salary—little Yo [as Isamu was then named] will have to go without strawberries for awhile—I am selling the sweet peas out of my garden to make a little money—Those things do not worry me, however—But I dread the thought of going on a witness stand—Poor Mr. L—Even if he is a liar I really hope he will wriggle out.” Indeed, the stories she wrote during this time evidence her boundless empathy: “Like many sentimental people,” she wrote—herself included?—“Mirabel expended most of her energy in emotion.” The same character would “thrust her hand into her pocket and [draw] forth, first a headless doll, then a one-legged doll, then a lot of other cripples, about eight in all, not one whole dolly among them (she clung to these maimed ones and loved them ‘because they were unfortunate’), and not one decent suit of clothes among them neither, I am ashamed to say.”57

As she had all her life, Léonie lived individualistically, refusing to let poverty mark her as lesser. “‘Home’ in one sense is within reach of all,” she wrote.58 “Wherever two loving hearts strive to make a bit of a nest for them­selves apart from the world, there home is. What if the nest be small? What if every gust voice a threat of ruin? Still it may be home.” (Isamu would later insist, “to start a home all that is needed is a room, a tatami and Akari.”59) When Yone wrote, horrified by the way she was living and beseeching her to bring baby Isamu to Japan, she resisted. “Tho we be poor,” Léonie wrote back, “[Baby] does not suffer from it. Maybe our way of living is not quite civilized. We live in a tent, where rains and wind come in at will—Baby has no shoes on his feet. He runs free as a squirrel on the hillside. Does it matter, our way of life? Roses are glowing on his cheeks.”60 She described Isamu’s reaction to her attempting to bring him indoors: “He was like a caged bird eagerly looking to door and windows for a way to escape. He does not like house. Nor shoes. He is growing like a flower under the sky.”61

  • Isamu Noguchi as a child in California, 1905–06.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06023. ©INFGM / ARS
  • Léonie Gilmour and Isamu Noguchi in California, c. 1905.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 143337. ©INFGM / ARS
  • Portrait of Isamu Noguchi as a child in California, 1905–06.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06021. ©INFGM / ARS

In reflecting on Brancusi, his eventual mentor, Isamu would write that the older sculptor brought with him “the memory of childhood, of things observed not taught, of closeness to the earth, of wet stones and grass … hand-hewn logs and tools, stone markers, walls and gravestones. This is the inheritance he was able to call upon when the notion came to him that his art, sculpture, could not go forward to be born without first going back to beginnings.”62 No doubt, Isamu’s early upbringing roaming free in the loam of California would have an indelible impact on him. “Sculptures and egos were beside the point,” he would write. “It was the land that counted. This would be the ultimate sculpture.” Indeed, it was Léonie who dreamed of sculpting an artist out of her son, writing to Yone when Isamu was barely a year old: “I would like to put him to an Art school somewhere, where he will have eye and hand trained to express his idea.”63

In California, Isamu was entirely Léonie’s to shape, down to his name. The nurses at the hospital where Isamu was born nicknamed him “Bobbie,” which Léonie soon adapted to simply “Baby.” Isamu was to have a Japanese name, but “his papa has not condescended to set the seal of his august approval thereon,” Leonie wrote Catharine, dryly.64 In October of 1905, when Isamu was nearly a year old, he was still officially unnamed. Yone wrote, promising “a good name soon,” claiming to be “pondering it,” but continued, wrote a frustrated Léonie, “to allude to his lordship as IT.”65 Léonie began calling Isamu “Yosemité,” perhaps after Yone’s experience in the national park, which inspired his poetry collection The Voice of the Valley,66 and perhaps after her own family lore of Native American ancestry.67 She referred to Isamu as “Yo,” a shortened form of both “Yosemite” and “Yone.” Isamu was only officially given the name “Isamu,” meaning “courageous,” upon his arrival in Japan in 1907, at nearly three years of age.68 Later, he would rename himself as well. As a high school student in Indiana, he went by the nearly unrecognizable name of “Sam Gilmour.” And as a burgeoning artist in New York, he decided to take his father’s last name. “I decided almost involuntarily to change my name,” he wrote. “I could see my mother’s consternation, but she did not object, helping me rather in my travail, away from her, toward Japan, and the way that I had chosen.”69

  • Los Angeles Department of Health record of Isamu Noguchi’s birth certificate, May 14, 1927.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_BIO_001_002. ©INFGM / ARS

To Léonie—whose name was often flagrantly misspelled —names were powerful. Our earliest extant records of her date from after she returned from her year abroad in France, where the accented “e” is common; it is possible she took on the accent in her name on her own. Isamu’s name for some time, “Yosemité,” reflected the same peculiar accent as well. Additionally, we can gauge Léonie’s feelings not only through the content of her letters but also by how she signs them. In a letter to Catharine in which she writes, “I have been offered a position to teach in Tokyo, so that I shall be ‘on my own hook,’ and can make tracks if I don’t like it. The horizon is very hazy to my view, though not without hope. I believe I have had enough of California for awhile, and will enjoy the misty-moist beauty of Japan by way of contrast,” she signs off as “Léonichi Gilmourmiki Noguchi,”70 a kind of imagined Japanese version of her name. Only a month or so later, when she had soured on the idea, she signed a letter to Yone with a flinty “Leonie,” with a period at the end. Some seven years later, when the two had fully separated, she would write to Catharine, “I’ve taken back my own name of Léonie Gilmour.”71

In California, Léonie emphasized her self-sufficiency, musing over Isamu’s education, “I could teach him everything he would learn in school…. There is an education outside of school.”72 (Isamu would remain forever skeptical of formal education himself, dropping out of Columbia University in his sophomore year and telling students at the International University of Art, “I am quite unaware of schools. I did not attend school, I never taught; this is my first experience of a seminar. I did not even know what a seminar was. I still don’t know.”73) Léonie never wavered on one point: “Maybe you think that we, Baby and I, need you,” she told Yone. “We do not.”74 She added to Catharine, years later: “No, I am not anxious to invade Yone’s temple. Glad to have him and his cigarette out of the way. Isamu and I can run this ranch.”75

  • Léonie Gilmour, “Letter to Catherine [Catharine] Bunnell from Léonie Gilmour,” September 23 [no year given].
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_384_004. ©INFGM / ARS

At the same time, we would do Léonie’s definition of a nuanced woman character injustice to deem her perfectly self-sufficient. Significantly, despite Yone’s indisputably poor treatment of her, Léonie freely admitted her feelings for him, and wore that vulnerability not as something to be pitied, but rather a point of pride. “Honestly I do love Yone (I don’t mind telling you now you have promised not to bother him any more),” she wrote to Frank Putnam, a mutual friend.76 “Simply I wish to do what is the very best thing and for once in my life I believe I have decided wisely. It is a relief to have a thing definitely decided anyway. Really I am not good enough for him. Voila! Unnatural modesty? Do you say, I confess the remark springs from an ingrained pride.”77

Beyond that, whatever her true feelings may have been, she was careful to be respectful of Ethel Armes, Yone’s bride-to-be at the time. “I saw the very fine article of Miss Armes in your May National,” she continued in her letter to Frank Putnam. “She is a woman of big brain, undoubtedly. Her journalism must make Yone despair. How could he ever reach it? That is not his field.”78 Ethel, in turn, not having been told by Yone about Léonie’s existence, saw the Los Angeles Herald article about the birth of Yone’s son and sent a friend, Elizabeth Converse, to investigate. Elizabeth confirmed the reports, and wrote back, of Léonie: “In appearance Middle-West as they hang over the back fence. In manner as English [as] a queen.”79 Léonie, it seems, was smitten with the baby Isamu, who had sparkling eyes and a sunny disposition. “[Léonie] is peace and happiness and courage and hope,” she continued. “If she were the Mother of Jesus, she could not be more sure of herself or happier.”80 Having witnessed Ethel’s agony up close and Yone’s misery secondhand, she had “expected to find a third dose” in Léonie. Instead, she wrote, “Her attitude has simply swamped me … Oh! I can’t understand it. She does not want help, or money, or anything; just her baby.” She concluded: “You would like her.”81

Portrait of Yonejiro Noguchi. Portrait of Isamu Noguchi, 1935. Photo: Edward Weston.
The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06012, 04323. ©INFGM / ARS

It seemed everybody did. Of his own father, Isamu would say: “I disliked my father intensely because of the way he treated [my mother].”82 When Isamu returned to Japan to pursue his studies, Yone’s brother, Totaro Takagi, “showered me with kindness,” wrote Isamu, “as did other relatives who gave me to understand they favored my mother.”83 After Yone wrote a derogatory article about Americans, Japan Times ran a highly critical piece on him with the title: “American Men Mere Rustics—Women Sentimental, Says Poet: Yone Noguchi flays the country which helped him get his start as ‘undeveloped’ and ‘woman-ridden.’”84 The body of the article continued: “The author was the recipient of many kindnesses in America, where he married an American girl. His moral conduct and treatment of his wife led to a separation.”85 Léonie, finally convinced to join Yone in Tokyo, found—already partially resigned to the probability—that he had married a Japanese woman,86 and intended to start a family with her.87 Japan was where Léonie would spend the next seventeen years of her life; would spell the end of her romantic relationship with Yone; generate a childhood world that would remain deeply influential on both her own and her children’s art; and see Léonie transition into being fully “on [her] own hook,” for better or for worse. 

Japan: “On One’s Own Hook” (1907–1920)

When Léonie arrived in 1907, Japanese newspapers seized on the arrival of the famous poet’s American “wife”: “English Poet’s Love Tale: American Woman Arrives, Yearning, Bringing Child,” printed the Yorozu Chōhō in March 1907.88 “Journey of Passion: Pining for Poet, American Woman Comes to Japan,” read the Yomiuri Shimbun’s headline.89 “English Poet’s Luck with the Ladies,” was the Tokyo Nichi-Nichi Shimbun’s.90 Léonie and Isamu first lived with Yone in a quiet neighborhood, which Isamu remembered later being “rather lonesome” for Léonie, but for the “green things growing everywhere.”91 Despite some effort—“learn the Irish language while I am learning the Japanese and we’ll exchange inspirations,” she wrote to Catharine92—she never did learn Japanese, which complicated her ability to assimilate. Yone began to spend an increasing amount of time away from home, often staying in a Buddhist temple, writing. It wasn’t long before Léonie and Isamu were living alone. 

  • Isamu Noguchi as a child in Japan, with his mother Léonie Gilmour and her pupils, November 1910.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06036. ©INFGM / ARS

In 1910, Léonie became a part-time teacher at the Kanagawa Prefecture Girls’ Higher School in Yokohama. Here, many of her stories would be set, such as her “Christmas Story of Yokohama,”93 and her “Discoveries in America: A Letter to Yokohama.”94 But making time to write even letters wasn’t easy. “I have had only one week’s vacation from teaching since I came here,” she wrote to Catharine.95 “That was last summer.” Two years later, she wrote: “Today is the birthday of ‘everybody’s papa’ as Isamu calls the Majesty Emperor of Japan. So I will celebrate by writing to you.”96 Only on a holiday, it seems, could Léonie scrape together the time to write, and even then, her leisure was laced with labor. A year later to the day, she wrote: “Today being the birthday of Tennō Sama (the emperor), all people are enjoying a holiday. Began it by going out to sit in the sun, spreading a straw mat on the dew spangled grass, and crocheting Isamu’s winter sweater until I got sufficiently warmed up to come in and write to you.”97 Only one dated document exists between the two holidays. And on January 27, 1912, Ailes, Isamu’s half-sister—named for the Moira O’ Neill poem “Beauty’s a Flower”: “Youth’s for an hour, an’ the taste o’ life is sweet,/Ailes was a girl that stepped on two bare feet”—was born.98 “My dear Catherine,” read a letter dating from shortly before Ailes’s second birthday, “The baby has fallen asleep, the maid has gone to the station to fetch Isamu home with a lantern, and here’s a quiet house and a good half hour to write you.”99 And in another: “Well, you see, it’s been two weeks of holidays to today, and every blessed time I thought I had a moment of leisure to take my pen in hand, a voice at my elbow would pipe up ‘Now read some more Robin Hood?’”100

Léonie and Ailes Gilmour. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06003, 06005. ©INFGM / ARS

Yet one senses that Léonie didn’t think of her domesticity—even her poverty—as ancillary to her writing, but rather part of one and the same project. Her stories are replete with mothers (usually single), babies, and tragedy: “They had called the doctor at midnight, and he said the baby was cold,” she wrote in one. “The mother was cold too.”101 In “The Sparrow,” she rewrites a classic Japanese folktale in which a sparrow becomes the surrogate son of a poor older couple, bringing them grains of rice one by one before he is tragically crushed by a neighborhood cat.102 In an untitled screenplay, Sonia, a strong female lead “who wanted to be greater than any other woman,” becomes pregnant. But she insists: “Don’t think it was only weakness. I know perfectly well what I was doing. And, you know, I despise conventions.”103 (In her early essay on George Meredith, Léonie had deemed marriage a convention.)

  • Léonie Gilmour in Japan practicing archery with an instructor as Isamu and Ailes watch, 1916.
    The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06001. ©INFGM / ARS

Despite the challenges of raising two children on her own while working to support her household, she sustained a keen—even cutting—literary mind. “The writer of this article, who now follows the ignoble calling of ‘literary critic,’” wrote Léonie in a book review, “had the honor of being housed under the same college room with [the author] some years ago…. The fervor of her tone revealed latent temperamental possibilities which I fail to discover in her homely stories of virtue rewarded.”104 In another, savaging writers and readers alike, she wrote: “A slight love story lends a touch of sentiment to the rather superficial cleverness and the book will doubtless find a place on the summer fiction stands and help lighten the ennui of hammock existence.”105 When it came to Yone, with whom she continued to work long after they severed their romantic relationship, she was an evenhanded and critical editor: “I realize very well that his political essays are not what you might call the impartial judgement of the historian,” she wrote Frank Putnam.106 “He looks for the picturesque, and the effect. Also his style lacks the crispness, the terseness, the array of facts to set off his theories, which are considered proper to such journalistic work.”107 What she once said of Percy Bysshe Shelley can be applied to her: “[S]he is a passionate, therefore a militant thinker.”108

  • Léonie Gilmour, Reviews of Edith Wyatt, Every One His Own Way (New York: McClure, Philips & Co, 1901) and Ethel Watts Mumford, Dupes (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1901), c. 1901. In “Leonie Gilmour notebook,” manuscript, c. 1901–11, 22. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_FAM_014_001. ©INFGM / ARS

As such, Léonie was not one to play the part of victim. To those Japanese newspapers who were sympathetic to her and harsh to Yone, she penned a sharp rebuttal. “Though I was not happy as Mr Noguchi’s wife,” she wrote candidly, “I did not consider myself to be ill-used. On the contrary, he used such courtesy to me as I should expect from one of my own countrymen.”109 In response to the claim that she was now forced to teach in order to support herself, Léonie bristled at the implication that Yone should be expected to support her in the first place. “That I am making my living by teaching is hardly a matter of commiseration,” she wrote. “Teaching was my chosen profession for many years before I met Mr. Noguchi.”110 When an editor at Liberty magazine suggested that Léonie write on the subject of interracial marriage, her first attempt was a series of lighthearted vignettes, which was rejected as lacking in “conclusions.”111 In response, Léonie launched into the most scathing and well-articulated essay of her extant literary career.

Léonie excoriated the editor for suggesting that there existed something of an American and Japanese “type.” “The literary ‘type,’” she wrote, “is largely a vogue…depending largely on the brilliancy, or popularity, of his originator.”112 Whatever Japanese type existed was caricatured, incomplete, and wholly inaccurate, she argued, because so few had taken pains to study Japanese culture through the medium of its own language and literature. Decades before Edward Said’s Orientalism, the definitive critique of the Western construction of the other, Léonie was deriding the widely held stereotype of the East as static and the West as dynamic. She wrote: “‘The fundamental differences between the East and the West’ is one of those stock phrases that, once accepted and adjusted to one’s vision like a pair of imperfect magnifying glasses, discover, exaggerate, and distort all the minutest differences on which they are focused.”113 Moreover, paraphrasing the British writer Norman Douglas, she questioned the assumption that dynamism—and with it, “progress” and capitalism—was in the first place fundamentally good. In dynamic societies, she wrote, we find progress, but not civilization: “Progress is a centripetal movement, obliterating man in the mess. Civilization is centrifugal: it permits, it postulates…. Progress subordinates. Civilization coordinates.”114

The editor of Liberty might have expected Léonie, a supposedly bitter white woman, divorced from an unfaithful and unreliable Japanese man, to write about anti-miscegenation at a time when public sentiment toward mixed-race couples was at its nadir. Léonie instead penned a carefully reasoned but fierce response that undermined not only the idea of the degeneracy of interracial marriage but also the society that gave rise to it and the readership who would believe it. “All such generalizations, containing a modicum of truth, become false when turned to universal application,” she concluded presciently. “[T]he truth of today is the falsehood of tomorrow.”115

Unfortunately, Léonie’s reply to Liberty’s editor—brilliant, furious, prescient—was probably never sent; certainly, it was never published. 

Return to the United States: “The Tide Ebbs” (1920–1933)

Here, we must bridge the largest lacuna in Léonie’s story: six years of correspondence with Catharine are lost. We piece together what we can from the recollection of others. In 1918, when Isamu was thirteen and still living in Yokohama, Léonie sent him from Japan off to Interlaken, a boys’ boarding school in Indiana.

  • Interlaken School, Rolling Prairie Indiana. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06053. ©INFGM / ARS

Two years later, Léonie and Ailes would follow him back to the United States, first to San Francisco, where Léonie opened an import-export business for Japanese goods.116 In 1922, Isamu began premedical studies at Columbia University in New York. The following year, Léonie came back to New York, and Isamu chose to leave his upscale housing on Riverside Drive, where he was staying with Dr. Edward Rumely, a mentor, to move in with her at her dilapidated 39 East 10th Street building: “I want to be with my mother,” he explained.117

Léonie became instrumental in his decision to pursue an artistic career. She “turned up one day at Dr. Rumely’s office and hotly denounced him for turning a boy of artistic temperament toward a career for which he was entirely unsuited.”118 In 1924, Léonie encouraged a skeptical Isamu to begin taking evening sculpture classes at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in lower Manhattan: “I saw an art school on Avenue A. Why don’t you go there?”119 Later, Martha Graham, the famed modernist dancer and choreographer, would recall in her autobiography that she was introduced to Isamu through Léonie: “I met Isamu when I had a studio in Carnegie Hall, and his mother, who was Irish, was doing costumes for me.”120

In the summer of 1924, Léonie traveled to Cape Cod and Cape Ann in Massachusetts for business, launching her itinerant lifestyle. In the following years, she would live in Miami Beach, Florida; Dark Harbor, Maine; the Allegheny Mountains, in West Virginia; then back to New York City, Princeton, New Jersey, and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. 

In 1926, she appeared in the New York Times, where she corrected a column describing Isamu as “a naturalized Japanese of Los Angeles, at present residing in New York.” “He is in fact an American by birth,” she wrote.121 “He is the son of the distinguished Japanese poet Yone Noguchi (who writes, by the way, in English), and myself, an American college woman.”122 (Her name is listed as Leonie Glenour.)

  • Isamu Noguchi with Undine (Nadja), 1926. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 04320. ©INFGM / ARS

Léonie proudly attended Isamu’s sculpture exhibitions in New York in 1927 as he prepared to depart for Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship. “I still think Undine is so far your masterpiece, if one may make such discriminations which I don’t believe in, as each one is a masterpiece considered by itself,” she wrote to him shortly after he departed.123 In words that could just as easily apply to herself, she wrote: “There is an audacity, a sort of defiant impudence about Undine—you know she is defying life and is going to suffer for it.”124 She made great efforts to track down Nadia, the model who posed for Undine, who had disappeared before she could be paid. To Catharine, she wrote: “Told him about Nadia, who must be recompensed.”125 To Isamu, she wrote, “If you know Nadia’s address please send it to me. If not, send me her former address and I will write her, hoping that she may have left a forwarding address. I feel myself an interest in her, first because she helped you greatly, and second because she can tell interesting stories and perhaps live them.”126

Her finances still weren’t stable: that summer, Isamu sent her a check, a cut of his Guggenheim stipend. “Thanks awfully,” she wrote to him.127 “Wish I didn’t need to take [it].” She operated a small seasonal store in Bar Harbor, and another in the Paradise Alley enclave of New York’s East Village, a neighborhood Allen Ginsberg famously described in Howl.

Léonie Gilmour, “Letter to IN from Leonie Gilmour,” July 28, 1927. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_408_006. ©INFGM / ARS

She delivered a lecture128 at the Brooklyn Museum in March 1927, and mounted an exhibition129 at the Bar Harbor library on the work of the Japanese printmaker Hashiguchi Goyo in 1930. Even when she was in New York, her address changed frequently: 141 Washington Place, 141 East 17th Street, 149 East 36th Street. Though she and Ailes lived together for a time, she and Isamu would never be in the same place at the same time for long again. “I am putting my thoughts on you, and some day I will glide on a dark river right into your room,” she wrote to Isamu dreamily.130 “Sometimes I feel myself gliding that way to some other place. So I don’t worry if you are rather far away.”131

Isamu Noguchi as a child in Japan with his sister, Ailes, at their home in Chigasaki, 1912.
Portrait of Ailes Gilmour. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06038, 06007. ©INFGM / ARS

One of the last known letters Léonie wrote was to console a heartbroken Ailes. It is simultaneously fragmented and frank, drawing on her own experience to offer empathy if not solace:

“One of the strangest phenomena of life is a sudden violent love affair…. No one is to blame—they come and go…. If either person is doing creative work—or has some interesting outlet for emotion—the burden is much gentler—but the one certain thing is—that people never get over it…. When disappointment & disillusion come, life is too terrible—one hardly has the strength to go on. I know only too well. What an ecstasy of joy—being in love brings—but it is as unstable and evanescent as the froth of champagne…. I wish I could help you—but no one can—you have to work it out for yourself. Well, remember that whatever you do—or do not do—you will also have a devoted and loving friend in your Mother.”132

In late 1933, Leonie was hospitalized for pneumonia. On the final day of 1933, at age sixty, she suffered a heart attack, and passed away. On her death certificate, her first name was recorded without the accent mark.133 Her marital status—the official options being single, married, widowed, or divorced—was listed as “separated.” The amount of time spent in the United States: “life.” Her occupation: “housework.” Nearly three decades later, Ikuko Atsumi, a graduate student writing a paper on Yone, visited Isamu in Long Island City, where he showed her a box of Léonie’s things. “Taking out letters and photos one by one, Mr. Noguchi seemed to get his heart touched as he himself was looking at them well for the first time,” Atsumi said.134 She met Ailes, now married, as well: “Mrs. Spinden invited me to her house and showed me a big wooden tea box full of Gilmour’s belongings which had been left on the garret for forty years,” she said, with Ailes “having no courage to confront them.”135

The records that survive Léonie chronicle only a part of her story—not only because they are incomplete. Just as nature, in Léonie’s view, should be judged properly as the “living plant with sap coursing through it, not the botanical specimen,”136 so might her life be understood not solely through the records that remain but also in what they suggest: moments of pleasure, unrecorded; things dreamed but never made; her impact on her children.

  • Isamu Noguchi, Leonie Gilmour (Mother), c. 1932. Terra-cotta. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 12628. ©INFGM / ARS

Devastated by Léonie’s death, Isamu wrote: “My mother’s death… filled me with guilt and remorse. I came to feel… [a]rt must have some humanly touching and memorable quality. It must recall something that moves a person—a recognition of one’s loneliness, or whatever is at the root of being.”137 In a dynamic world governed by progress, by production, Léonie’s was a remarkable, even radical, approach. To love, even foolheartedly, and even if that love was unrequited, was not foolish to Léonie. To squander a scholarship on a trip to Paris; to follow a man to Japan, and to stay for seventeen years; to have written and not published; to have written and lost; to not have written at all—none of it was wasted. “My memory is like a treacherous sea,” she had written in that unfinished chronicle of Isamu’s early years. “Sometimes, it’s true, the tide ebbs, and behold [the memories] are all there—somewhere—oh very safe. All quite equal in value.” Léonie—author, artisan, businesswoman, mother—was remarkable for what she wrote, created, and inspired. But she was also remarkable for something difficult to describe: the ephemeral beauty of a life fully lived. The real things, as she wrote, are far from speech. 

Lisa Yin Zhang is an artist, art historian, and writer from Queens, New York. A graduate of Williams College, Lisa was a curatorial intern at the Noguchi Museum from January to April 2020, and has held positions at the Museum of Chinese in America, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum.

Produced by Alex Miller

Transcripts of archival materials are available by request to accessibility@noguchi.org.

For a sense of the texture and variety of Léonie Gilmour’s writing, included here are an annotated selection of texts: letters to some of the most important people in her life, including her children, her friends, and Yone Noguchi; and examples of literary criticism, fiction, screenplays, and personal essays.

C.W. Stoddard, “Letter to Léonie Gilmour,” September 12, 1906. Reproduced in Léonie Gilmour, “Draft of ‘The Kid Chronicle That Was Not Written,’” manuscript, c. 1932–33. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_FAM_015_001.

Léonie Gilmour, “Draft of ‘The Kid Chronicle That Was Not Written,’” manuscript, c. 1932–33. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_FAM_015_001.

3 Ibid.

4 Isamu Noguchi, “Minami Gallery exhibition IN catalog text,” manuscript, February 20, 1973. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_EXH_124_003.

5 Isamu Noguchi, “IN letter to Oliver Andrews, January 20, 1975. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_219_030.


The Incomplete Chronicle of Léonie Gilmour has been made possible through major support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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