Making a Living While Building Two Lives ~ A Memoir of the Gibran Archive

Jean Gibran


I first saw a painting by the poet Kahlil Gibran at the Boston Arts Festival in 1953. At least I thought I did. When my Tufts classmate and I read the artist was born in 1922, something seemed wrong. The Prophet, from which we often quoted, was written by a mysterious figure who died in 1931.

A year later, I was teaching, and on my desk was Gibran’s passage On Children, That spring, the same friend announced that she had met the artist Kahlil Gibran. “He’s related to the poet and wants to go to Cape Cod next Sunday.”

Thus I encountered the 32-year old painter because I had an old Chevy. Though I don’t recall a lot about that March day, I do remember the artist explaining that both his parents were the poet’s cousins. Not only was he namesake and godson of the poet, but also he was related both on his mother’s and father’s side.

“I was born with a caul [a veil] over my face,” he said. “Gibran considered it a charmed birth,” he added. I kept my eye on the road, never knowing that this wizard-like character and I would form a partnership lasting for more than fifty years.

It was an odd partnership. I liked Salinger. Kahlil had designed the Noonday Press colophon for its editor Cecil Hemley. I raved about Beethoven; he mentioned his friend Alan Hovhanness and showed me stringed instruments he had created for that composer. I was a writer, who had studied with the poet John Holmes, but critics already had described Kahlil as a talent from the Boston Expressionist School. Somehow, we clicked.

I soon met the family: his mother Rose, his cabinet-maker father Nicholas; his brothers Horace and Hafiz, sisters Susan and Selma. It was obvious that Kahlil the middle child was considered special.

Growing up, he avoided sports and built objects with his father. His Aunt Mary (Marianna, the poet’s sister) called him “little prince.” When the poet came to town, his father took him to gatherings at Aunt Mary’s and Gibran’s Tyler Street apartment for talking, pinochle, and hearing Gibran’s cousin Maroon and her husband Assaf George sing and play the “nay” [A Middle Eastern reed flute].

“Uncle” Gibran’s death in 1931 was a cataclysmic event. After the funeral, Aunt Mary, Maroon, and Assaf George accompanied the poet’s body to Lebanon. Kahlil described that time as “the year without Christmas or Easter.” Upon returning, Aunt Mary’s responsibilities magnified, and she, who had never learned to read, turned to Nicholas and Rose.

The young Kahlil began to stay with her on weekends and accompany her on vacations. Soon Aunt Mary was entrusting him with her correspondence. As he sorted letters, deciding with her what to save, the boy loved to investigate the poet’s belongings. A tradition began–when he found an intriguing art book or a magazine, Aunt Mary gave it to him. By the time he carried away Gibran’s painting cabinet, it was clear that the child now a teenager was destined to follow in the artistic footsteps of his namesake.

As he pursued his career, first as painter, then as sculptor, Kahlil’s reputation for collecting grew; whether Japanese netsukes or bronze medals, this passion became well known. The first of the poet’s belongings I saw was the nay that Assaf George had played, the instrument that had inspired the words: A’tini Nay – Bring me the Flute. Often, Kahlil would leave his work to play this instrument, coaxing the sounds the poet had called “the secret of eternity.”

During those years, none of Aunt Mary’s gifts were exhibited in his Fayette Street studio. Beyond painting, his life centered on restoring art, building instruments, and inventing.

No doubt this ambivalence triggered Kahlil’s decision to turn to Doctor Clemens Benda, a psychiatrist popular among local artists. Analysis helped him focus on his own persona. It also prompted him to take up sculpture. That led to more public acknowledgment. He began to weld life-sized figures. They attracted attention, along with honors including Boston Arts Festival prizes; National Sculpture Society and the National Institute of Arts and Letters recognition; John Simon Guggenheim Fellowships; and gold medals from Pennsylvania Academy and an International Religious Art Exhibition.

Aunt Mary still needed him. Although her residence was a three-decker house in nearby Jamaica Plain, she often stayed at Maroon’s apartment, not far from Kahlil’s studio. Regularly visiting, she would bring treats for her goddaughter Nicole, our newborn child. I too helped with bills and letters.

In 1964, Kahlil and I moved to our own home in Boston’s South End. One day we had driven Aunt Mary back to her Jamaica Plain apartment. She and I were talking, while Kahlil explored a bureau on the unheated porch. Suddenly he emerged with a battered box. “Aunt Mary, did you know you had these?” He showed her a brown composition book, and opened to a page with block printed letters: THE PROPHET. Underneath, in Gibran’s hand, was “And then an old priest said, Speak to us of religion…”

Explaining the importance of the treasure that Mary Haskell long ago had sent Aunt Mary, Kahlil listed the hazards of storing paper in severe conditions of moisture, heat, and freezing cold. “Take them,” she said. Realizing the seriousness of her gesture, Kahlil began his role as curator, meticulously caring for manuscripts, galley proofs, and sketchbooks, and eventually storing them in bank vaults.

Gradually, we began dialogues with Savannah Georgia’s Telfair Museum of Art where Mary Haskell had bequeathed Gibran’s art works; read her correspondence and journals at the University of North Carolina; interviewed Gibran’s colleagues.

In 1972, Aunt Mary died in a nursing home. Kahlil was appointed Executor of her estate and Director of the Gibran Kahlil Gibran Scholarship Fund.

By the seventies, New York Graphic Society editor, Donald Ackland had examined the archive and recognized the need for an accurate biography of the poet. He proposed that we introduce an item from the materials. Lazarus and His Beloved, an unpublished play, appeared in 1973.

Soon after, our biography Kahlil Gibran His Life and World (New York Graphic Society 1974), revealed exactly how the author of The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran, became a household word not only in the United States and Lebanon, but also throughout the world.

Supported by our own material and several other sources including those at the Norwood Historical Society, Harvard’s Houghton Library, the Boston Athenaeum, and The Royal Photographic Society, we traced Gibran’s precocious entrance into Boston’s art world. As we researched, opportunities arose to acquire Gibran works.

With each purchase, Kahlil turned to Morton “Bob” Bradley (1912-2004) for advice. Known for his groundbreaking color theories and geometric sculptures, Bob was a respected conservator. We began to display restored Gibran paintings in our home. Along with The Ages of Woman, dedicated to Mary Haskell, we hung Centaurs a newly acquired painting, and Gibran’s Self Portrait that had been shown at the National Portrait Gallery. Alison Peabody Marks gave us first editions and photographs of her mother and Gibran’s first love, Josephine Preston Peabody. Stuart Denenberg, our longtime friend and agent, located material, including letters by pianist Gertrude Barrie. Gertrude Stern, close to Gibran in his final years, entrusted us with correspondence from the author Mikhail Namy. Chorbishop Joseph Lahoud, pastor of Boston’s Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon Maronite Parish, discovered a sketchbook of early watercolors. All this was described in our second, revised edition of Kahlil Gibran His Life and World, published by Interlink in 1991.

For years Kahlil had dreamed of a cultural center for Gibran’s work along with art by Arab-Americans. His plan offered opportunities for creators and scholars to share and explore the nature of Arabic culture. It did not happen.

Regrouping, Kahlil began to photograph and catalog each page and image in the archive. Helping and always supporting him were Stuart and Beverly Denenberg.

Beverly, former chief curator at the California Historical Society, and Stuart, scholar of 19th and 20th century art, and poet in his own right, collaborated with us. When real interest to acquire the archive was expressed by curators at Carlos Slim’s wonderful Museo Soumaya in Mexico City, Kahlil had questions. Would the most professional methods be used to care for the material? How would international scholars access the files? Would space and security measures allow an exhibit area for the art? With every positive response, it seemed his dream could come true. Suddenly, Kahlil relaxed. He truly believed that the Soumaya Museum was the right place for the collection he had nurtured so long.

In the fall of 2007, the archive traveled to the Soumaya Museum. This coincided with an exhibit of Kahlil’s own work at Boston’s St. Botolph Club. The retrospective show documented sixty creative years. Kahlil enjoyed every moment of the opening event, a memorable tribute to a multi-talented artist.

Life can be cruel. On April 13, 2008, six months after he supervised the archive’s journey to Mexico City, Kahlil died, almost exactly 77 years after his cousin’s death in April 10, 1931. Fulfilling his favorite Gibran quote, “Work is love made visible,” Kahlil had succeeded in building his own amazing career, and in realizing his mission to ensure Gibran’s legacy. A major international museum would forever treasure his cousin’s work. His dream had come true.