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Sylvia Day: A Woodstock Profile

Sylvia Day (1910-2005) was a major contributor to our knowledge about the art and life of the historic Woodstock art colony. Learning Woodstock Art Colony is honored this month to be publishing the wonderful following account of Sylvia Day's life and prodigious activity by her son Rowan Dordick.


By Rowan Dordick

Sylvia Day, c. 1934

Dordick Family Archives


For many people, Woodstock emerged into national—and even international—consciousness with the concert of 1969. Yet long before that seminal event, Woodstock enjoyed an enviable reputation as the home to some of America’s most creative artists, beginning with the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony founded in 1902. Today, as one walks around Woodstock, signs of that artistic past can be seen in the many homes with large, north-facing windows that let in the shadowless northern light favored by artists for centuries. The names—much less the life stories—of the artists who worked in those studios was for many years memorialized mainly by those who knew them. Indeed, only in the past few years has a fuller, detailed, scholarly history of Woodstock art and artists begun to emerge, especially in the essays and talks of the professional art historian Bruce Weber, who moved full time to Woodstock in 2018.


Weber’s research into Woodstock’s artistic past has drawn on many sources, one of whom, the late Sylvia Day, he has cited in a number of his essays. Sylvia wrote about the artists and other creative individuals that she knew from long acquaintance, having moved to Woodstock from New York City in 1941. It was a choice indirectly influenced by its art scene, because her then husband, Harry Dordick, had lived briefly in the village as a young man in the late 1920s, while his older brother, Bernard, an artist, was studying there.

Farm House on John Joy Road, c. 1941

Dordick Family Archives


When Sylvia bought the old, dilapidated farm house on what is now called John Joy Road, she could not have envisaged her later career as a writer. In the early ‘40s, as in much of rural America, electricity and indoor plumbing was uncommon, only becoming widely available after the Second World War, and Sylvia lived a pioneer existence, growing a garden and raising chickens and 13 piglets, whose ultimate fate as porkers left her disconsolate. Most of the time, she lived alone as Harry was still working in New York City. Her nearest neighbors—indeed, almost the only inhabitants along the one-lane, dirt road then called Rural Route 2, were John Joy and his family, and she learned something about country living from them.

Sylvia Day, “Anton Refregier: A Social Conscience Through Art,” 

The Woodstock Week, July 8, 1965, p. 12


Today, it is difficult to realize how different life was just 80 years ago. During the renovation of the farmhouse, one of the workers, a young man named Lonny, admitted to having been born in a cave along Purdy Hollow Road, which splits off from John Joy not far from the Thorn Preserve. And compared to the heavy traffic on the road today, at that time it was not uncommon to see only the postman and the milkman pass by. There was a telephone, however, although well into the 1950s the line was shared with neighbors, each of the parties being alerted to a call by a distinctive pattern of rings. Sylvia and her family shared a line with the Refregiers who lived on Glasco Turnpike a mile and half away. While not exactly neighbors, they were friends, and the Russian-born Anton Refregier, or “Ref,” as he was called, was a well-known artist, who gave Sylvia’s older son a lithograph when he was ill and in the hospital. Living even closer just off of Glasco Turnpike, next to a water-filled quarry, was the family of Tomas Penning, a noted sculptor who was responsible for the bluestone-sheathed buildings that now house the Woodstock School of Art. Much later, Sylvia published articles about both men.

News Shop, Tinker Street, Woodstock,

c. 1965

Gelatin silver print

Historical Society of Woodstock


Propinquity alone would not have led to Sylvia’s wide acquaintance with Woodstock’s artists and writers, but in 1949 she and Harry bought the News Shop on Tinker Street in the center of town, located in the rightmost part of what is now Jean Turmo. The News Shop was a daily destination for many people, who came not only to buy the newspaper or any of the other sundry merchandise but also to have coffee or lunch at the counter and schmooze. One woman made the daily pilgrimage to buy an ice cream, which she would then dump on the floor, not for herself, but for her collie. And naturally among the regular clientele were the writers and artists, including the Borscht-Belt comedian Henny Youngman, who lived in nearby Shady. However, it was a difficult job for a couple with two young children, because the shop was open from early morning until midnight. During the winters, perhaps because the road was not always plowed promptly, the family rented a house in town.


There were other challenges, as well. When Sylvia and Harry hired a black counterman from Kingston, some patrons stayed away. One incident almost cost them their lives. An attractive young woman, who supplied mouth-watering lemon meringue tarts, caught the eye of a friend of theirs, a New York City architect named Fred Gross, and an illicit romance blossomed—for the young woman was married. Eventually, the husband learned of the affair, and, unable to exact vengeance on his rival, turned his fury on Harry and Sylvia, showing up at their house with a rifle. As he proceeded menacingly down the driveway, Sylvia instructed her young sons to hide under the kitchen table, while Harry bravely went out to face the man’s wrath. Fortunately, he was able to change his mind, possibly pointing out that he and Sylvia were not at fault, and so the “John Joy Road massacre,” as it later might have come to be known, was averted.

Gurdon S. Howe (1903-1984)

Catskill Book and Record Shop with Original Bow Windows, 1952

Photograph courtesy of Tinker Twine

Milton M. H. Wagenfohr (1896-1981)

Interior of Catskill Book

and Record Shop, 1960

Photograph courtesy of Tinker Twine


Eventually, the News Shop proved too much, and Sylvia conceived the idea of opening an art gallery before deciding that Woodstock did not need another gallery. Instead, she and Harry, a long-time bookseller, settled on a bookstore, but not just a bookstore. Called the Catskill Book and Record Shop and located in the former rectory of the Lutheran Church diagonally across Mill Hill Road, the entire front portion was devoted to art supplies. The renovation of the first floor of the building (now the home of Casa Ziki) was designed by Fred Gross. Sylvia, however, was responsible for the double bow windows in front, since replaced, of the kind she imagined that might grace an English country bookshop. Richard (Dick) Burlingame, who operated a small store of the same name located on Tinker Street beneath and behind the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, joined the business as a partner, and he and Harry worked on the construction, as well.

Dick Burlingame, Romeo V. Tabuena and Harry Dordick in the Catskill

Book and Record Shop

The News Leader September 11, 1952, p. 26


The store, which opened on May 17, 1952, proved a great success, and of course as the sole source of art supplies in town—from stretchers and canvas to oil paints and pastels—it was a magnet for local artists. The upstairs and back room was rented to a ceramicist, who built a huge kiln that, seemingly in defiance of the laws of physics, managed not to crash through the floor. Two beautiful ceramic bears that she made for Sylvia’s sons are still in their possession. A noteworthy event was the hosting of an exhibit of the works of Romeo V. Tabuena, a young Filipino artist who later moved to Mexico. Of the 40 works on display, all but five were sold, and those remaining were given to Harry and Sylvia. They range from hauntingly beautiful Filipino landscapes to scenes of farmers and water buffaloes, whose spare depictions are vaguely reminiscent of cave paintings. Another exhibit—and there were probably others, as well—featured the ceramics of Anton Refregier.



Alas, all was not well, and in 1955 Sylvia made the momentous decision—perhaps somewhat ill-conceived—to sell, not just the business (though retaining ownership of the building), but also the stone house on John Joy Road. Interestingly, two of its subsequent owners—the writer Kurt Marek (aka C. W. Ceram) and his wife, Hannelore, a scene designer, and, later, the artist Edward Chavez—were the subjects of essays in Sylvia’s 1966 book, Creative Woodstock, Series I.


In the most general sense, it would be fair to say that Sylvia’s decision was the outcome of a midlife crisis, brought on by several factors, not least of which was her marriage. Her discontent had been simmering for years, and it was only by virtue of the insight she achieved through a short period of analysis that she came to the realization that something had to change. One might call it an attempt at an escape. Indeed, her adult life had begun as an escape from the world of her childhood, growing up in an orthodox Jewish household on the south side of Chicago in which Yiddish was spoken.


Sylvia’s parents came from Motol (or Motele), a shtetl in Russia, now Belarus, near Pinsk. Her maternal grandfather, besides being a shochet (or ritual butcher), was the shtetl’s chazan (or cantor) and teacher; one of his students was Chaim Weizmann—the noted chemist and first president of Israel—who was also a childhood friend of Sylvia’s mother and aunt. Improbable as it now seems, Sylvia’s mother left home at the tender age of 18 for New York City, where she worked in the garment district, ostensibly under the watchful eye of an aunt, but young women cannot always be watched, and she managed to fall in love with a poet, or so the story goes. When her father found out, he ordered her to return immediately, and as a dutiful daughter she complied. She was soon married, and in 1909, she and her five children joined her husband in Chicago, where Sylvia was born on May 18, 1910, to Morris and Sarah Gofseyoff Reznick.(1)

Letter from Russell Baker to Sylvia Day, November 23, 2004

Dordick Family Archives


Despite her lack of further formal education beyond high school, Sylvia never stopped learning. From the time she was a small girl she read omnivorously, devouring the stacks of books she lugged home from the library, and she continued to read widely throughout her life, often engaging with writers she admired. Later, letter-writing to authors, educators, journalists, politicians and multivarious newspapers and periodicals became part of her daily existence.


Inevitably, exposed to the secular life of the city outside the orthodox Jewish enclave in which she grew up, Sylvia drifted away from Judaism, at least in its ritualistic aspects. Her older brothers, too, despite their father’s admonishments and even beatings, failed to adhere to Jewish custom. As a young girl, Sylvia passionately loved God, but there came a point, perhaps as early as age 10, when she began to experience doubts about him and eventually lost her faith entirely, and the drift away from the religion of her parents entailed a concomitant separation from them. Her mother died of throat cancer when Sylvia was not quite 30 years old, and her relations with her father soured even further when she failed to have her sons properly circumcised by a rabbi in a bris, or circumcision ceremony performed on the eighth day after birth.

Sylvia, Rowan, Harry, and Webb Dordick, aboard S.S. United States, March 1955


Sylvia’s midlife crisis ultimately led to the decision to go abroad, and on March 8, 1955, the family embarked on the S.S. United States and sailed to Europe. Some preparations had been made. In 1951, on the site of what is now Woodstock Day School, Johtje and Aart Vos had founded a camp called Peter Pan Farm, which Sylvia’s sons attended when it first opened. The couple, who came from the Netherlands, were later “recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for risking their lives to save Jews during the war.”(2) Johtje gave Sylvia the name of a family in Zurich that she thought could be of help in finding a boarding school for the boys.(3)


After five days of rough March seas, they docked at Le Havre and continued on to Paris and then Zurich, where they met the Vos’s friends, and then onto Montreux, where the boys were enrolled in a boarding school, located high on the hills overlooking Lake Leman, with distant views of Mont Blanc. Sylvia and Harry continued on to Taormina, Sicily. But then, just as their expat life was getting underway, disaster struck: the lawyer whom they had entrusted with handling their affairs embezzled all their money. Three months after having arrived, reduced to near penury, the family headed to London, stopping en route in Paris again and making another visit to the Louvre.


In London, Harry found a job at Foyles, a famous bookstore, while Sylvia went to work at the Lipton Tea Company as a secretary.(4) Finally, after four months, Sylvia and her sons boarded the Queen Mary and headed home. Harry stayed on for several more months, but when he returned, their marriage was over, although they did not divorce for another four years. In 1959, Sylvia married Howard Kondolf, who later changed his name to that of his biological father, Day.

The Former Woodstock Inn, 3-5 Rock City Road, Woodstock


From a comfortable existence less than a year earlier, Sylvia faced the daunting task of finding a place to live and a source of income. In short, she had to entirely reinvent her life, and reinvent she did during the remaining 50 years of her life. After two nights at the Twin Gables on Tinker Street, the family moved to a small apartment in the Woodstock Inn on Rock City Road, where they lived until the space above the Catskill Book and Record Shop (also known informally as Twine’s Book, Record and Art Supplies) became available when the tenants’ lease expired. The new owners, Donald and Elise Twine, who purchased the business in 1955, ran it, with Dick Burlingame as a partner until 1958, for over 20 years.


Finding work was another matter. Many of Sylvia’s jobs, while of brief duration and relatively minor significance, reveal the scope of her efforts. Over the years they included stints as chef at Dick Stillwell’s famous Sea Horse, now the home of Good Night; manager of motels in both Saugerties and Kingston; and dorm mother at a home for wayward girls—until one threatened to brain her with a hammer. More consequential jobs included continuity director for the TV station in Kingston; and, when it went defunct, she took charge of radio continuity, including a Saturday morning children’s show, which she wrote and produced, called “Story Time with Sylvia.” She had a very distinctive voice, and one day, exiting the station, she said something to a small girl who exclaimed, “I know you, you’re Sylvia!”


In the fall of 1956, Sylvia took a position as “girl Friday” at the Sabin Advertising Agency in Hurley, eventually becoming production manager. Two and a half years later, owing to the owner’s personal problems, the agency closed its doors, but the experience and contacts provided Sylvia a springboard from which to start up her own freelance agency. It left her sufficient time, however, that in April 1963 she accepted the editorship of the Record Press, a local newspaper, and soon nearly doubled its circulation. The owner, however, rather than relying on her expertise, hired an advertising manager whose poor decisions led to the paper’s demise.

Sylvia Day, “Henry Mattson...A Brief Study in Excellence,” 

The Woodstock Week, April 1, 1965, p. 8

Sylvia Day, “Julio de Diego: A Renaissance Man,” 

The Woodstock Week, June 24, 1965, p. 4


Then, once again, in May 1964, she put her newly gained experience to work and started up her own newspaper, The Woodstock Week, for which she did most of the reporting and writing, as well as handling production details. Regular columnists included David Ballantine, Alf Evers, Becky Feinstein and Jerry Wapner. Successful though it was, she sold it after 18 months, concerned that her need to attend to family matters would prevent her from giving the paper the attention it deserved. However, over half the profiles in her book, Creative Woodstock, first appeared in her newspaper.


Sylvia’s jobs hardly exhausted her energies, which seemed boundless, nor defined the range of her interests. Throughout her life, she was fearless in her outspokenness on political and social issues. Her positions, such as her opposition to the Vietnam War, were based on a reading of history, as well as contemporary reporting, and she wrote numerous letters to newspapers and politicians—many of which were personally answered—and also organized demonstrations in her capacity as chairman of the Ulster County Peace Committee.(5)


In 1969, Sylvia was hired by the Mid-Hudson Heart Association, where she worked in the areas of publicity and fund raising, and her efforts were highly regarded by the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Association. But, when she applied for the open position of the Executive Secretary of the Heart Association, she was passed over because of a newly hired board member’s opposition based on her letters to the editor against the war.(6)


At about that same time, however—perhaps owing to the good offices of her guardian angel—Sylvia and her siblings, including the children of the ones no longer living, were informed by a man that he had located oil-well assets in the name of the oldest brother, Julius, who had been a lawyer in Chicago. Sylvia ended up with a windfall of $25,000, some of which she spent on travel, including a return to Europe, and then to Israel, which affected her deeply. On her travels, she also stopped off in Aix-en-Provence, where her younger son was living. Aix, of course, had been the home of Cézanne, and one day, when they stopped for lunch at a simple bistro-bar in the countryside, a group of men sitting around a table immediately reminded her of Cézanne’s Card Players.(7)


The last decades of Sylvia’s life, roughly from the early 1970s to 2005, were extraordinarily productive ones, and seemingly effortless profiles, essays, commentary and endless letters poured from her typewriter—and later computer. Much of her writing appeared in local newspapers. She had a column in the Ulster County Gazette devoted to interviews and profiles, as well as an opinion piece called “Overlook Nothing,” in which she wrote about a wide range of social issues, despite some readers’ complaints that she should stick to local matters. She also contributed similar articles to the Ulster County Townsman and the Saugerties-based Lifestyle magazine. In 1980, she also had a weekly radio program, called Commentary, in which she expressed her opinions on issues ranging from politics and the environment to religion and education.

Harvey Fite (1903-1976)

Figure, c. 1960s

Wood

Collection of Rowan and Webb Dordick


Much of her writing was in the form of essays that have yet to be published, on such topics as men and women, feminism, celibacy and the demonization of women, poverty, statesmanship, Arab-Israeli relations and abstract art, which was the subject of a lecture she delivered at the Woodstock School of Art. She also contributed essays on Oscar Wilde’s life, poetry and fairy tales to the Wild About Wilde Newsletter, and during those years she wrote 17 more profiles intended for a revised and expanded edition of Creative Woodstock, including, among others, such well-known artists such as Lucille Blanch, Harvey Fite, Grace and Marion Greenwood, Doris Lee, Walter Plate, Andrée Ruellan, Amy Small, Bernard Steffen and Arthur Zaidenberg and his wife Tommy Beere.

John McClellan (1919-1986)

Wise and Foolish Virgins, 1937

Lithograph on paper

Collection of Rowan and Webb Dordick


Over the years, Sylvia acquired a fair number of works of art by Woodstock artists, many pieces given to her by those she had written about. But she also bought or was given artwork by artists she knew—some being very good friends—but, for one reason or another, never got around to writing about. Notable examples include Jane Axel, Allen Dean Cochran, Richard Crist, Carolyn Haeberlin, Lillian Lent, Barbara Neustadt, Karen O’Neil, Lyn Ott, Danny Revzan and Louise Caldwell Roome, all of whom deserve a place in a complete account of Woodstock artists. 

Julio de Diego (1900-1979)

A Revolutionary Affair, c. 1968

Collection of Rowan and Webb Dordick

 

Two of Sylvia’s acquisitions were practically saved from the trash. One, by Julio de Diego, which he created for an anti-Vietnam War demonstration, is a painting covering a spread of The New York Times, showing two fierce-looking creatures engaged in an obviously erotic activity and titled “A Revolutionary Affair.” The other, by Rosemarie Beck (aka Rosemary Beck Phelps), is a large drawing of two women musicians on brown paper that is reminiscent of a cartoon—a full-scale preparatory drawing commonly used by Renaissance artists. However, in this case it was part of the decorations for a Christmas event.

Sylvia Day, “My Ostrich” Lifestyle, July 22, 1984, p. 11


One of Sylvia’s more unusual essays, published in the July 22, 1984, edition of Lifestyles, was headlined “My Ostrich.” Sylvia did not actually own an ostrich, but one “blustery April afternoon,” as she explained, such a creature did appear in her driveway. Of course, it was not the sort of weather in which one expects to see an ostrich, much less in upstate New York, some seven thousand miles from where ostriches are normally found, and convincing her friends and acquaintances that she had seen one, as opposed to hallucinated about one, proved well-nigh impossible. Eventually, she gave up trying until one day she related the story to a young man she had hired to help move some things. “Oh,” he replied, “so that’s where the emu went,” and explained that one had gone missing from a man who kept them but returned after a couple of days. Naturally, Sylvia could be forgiven for mistaking an emu for an ostrich, but, in any case, she was vindicated.


As she grew older, Sylvia found winters increasingly unpleasant and began to spend at least 4 to 6 weeks in warmer climes, first on the west coast of Florida and, later, in Mexico, especially at Sayulita before the small beach town became well-known, where she made friends with many American and Canadian expats. One particularly good friend, whom she wrote an essay about, was a Santa Fe artist named Evelyne Boren, whose own life was rather remarkable - including working as underwater stunt double in two James Bond movies—and Sylvia became the proud owner of several of her works.

Maurice Hinchey


Sylvia not only wrote to and about many politicians, but she was very much engaged in the work of the Saugerties Democratic Committee. One person she greatly admired and supported in every way she could was the Hudson Valley Congressman Maurice Hinchey, who visited her at her home shortly before she died. Sylvia‘s involvement in politics was of a piece with her concern for her fellow man. With the resources available to her, she sought to make the world a better place. Primarily, she did this through her writing but also through charitable contributions, and in any given year she donated a sizable fraction of her income to dozens of organizations. It can fairly be said that in her life she demonstrated by example the meaning of responsible citizenship.

Sylvia Day, Sayulita, Mexico, c. 1990


Her activities as a writer, however, were not enough to support her, and for many years Sylvia worked at Herzog’s in the Kingston Plaza, handling publicity and advertising. Even as late as October 30, 2001, she was working two days a week in the office. On that day, however, shortly before her planned retirement, she tripped in the parking lot and severely injured her shoulder. The orthopedic surgeon who saw her at Benedictine hospital, after taking an x-ray, merely suggested a sling and recommended physical therapy. Only several months later did he refer her to a shoulder specialist in his practice. By that time, however, her shoulder dislocation had fused in a subluxed position and corrective surgery was ruled out as too dangerous by two leading New York City shoulder specialists. As a result, she was never again to have use of that arm or live pain free. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor in October of 2004 and died five months later, two and a half months shy of her 95th birthday.


(1) While Sylvia looked back with pleasure on some memories of her childhood, such as the preparations leading up to the Sabbath dinner and the wonderful dishes her mother prepared, other memories, such as having to go around and collect money owed her father, were painful. Because she did not have, nor could afford to buy, a suitable dress, Sylvia had to decline an invitation to the senior prom. And almost immediately after she graduated from high school she had to seek work.

(3) Sylvia, greatly overestimating the sartorial demands of such a school, led the family on a shopping trip to Gimbels and Macy’s in New York City, where the children were outfitted with suits, ties, overcoats and hats, along with endless quantities of white shirts and enough underwear to last for years. It was Sylvia’s first taste of Europe. In Paris, the family spent a week or more exploring the Left Bank and visiting, among other places, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower—although Sylvia’s excessive caution kept them from going up—and, of course, the Louvre. Sylvia’s love of art had not been nurtured by anything she had seen in her childhood. It was only in her late teens that a more cosmopolitan girlfriend had taken her to the Art Institute of Chicago, and she returned again and again.

(4) In many ways it was an exciting life. The family spent a holiday at Folkestone on the North Sea, where pill boxes along the beach were a reminder of the dangers England had faced a mere ten years before. The boys went off to camp for two weeks, and a number of weekends were spent in the countryside of Kent with a brother of a friend from New York. Returning from one such weekend, Harry and Sylvia caught sight of an advertisement for Moby Dick. which turned out to be a play produced by and starring Orson Welles as Ahab. Then one day, out of the blue, for reasons that are not altogether clear, although financial desperation was not foremost among them, Sylvia conceived the fantastic notion that the family should seek work as hop pickers. The attempt proved futile, however, for no self-respecting farmer wanted to hire such an inexperienced crew.

(5) Those activities not only enlarged her already lengthy FBI file but had personal repercussions, as well. Indeed, she only learned of the FBI’s interest in her when a friend told her of his difficulties in obtaining membership in an organization because he had an FBI record. When she asked what that had to do with her, he replied it was because he was a friend of Sylvia Day. The FBI, she later learned, had begun investigating her as early as 1952, during the McCarthy era, because, when an FBI agent exhorted his audience at a PTA meeting to report their neighbors for any perceived subversive or un-American activities, Sylvia asked whether informing on one’s neighbors was not itself un-American. That led some to brand her a communist, although she was not then nor had she ever been one. The FBI, nevertheless, targeted her in a wide-ranging surveillance campaign, including tapping her phone and spying on her—even in Europe—using paid informants.

(6) This is clearly stated in correspondence from the chairman, whose term, unfortunately, expired just as this issue developed.

(7) The next day, Sylvia treated her son and his girlfriend to lunch at L’Oustau de Baumanière— then one of only about a dozen Michelin three-star restaurants in all of France—located in Les Baux-de-Provence, once home to a medieval court of love. The food was outstanding, and— making the visit even more memorable—Picasso was dining with a friend (or his wife) at a table less than a dozen feet away.

 

 

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