Manhattan financier Spencer Trask was one of Thomas Edison’s principal backers, and provided money that supported development of the light bulb, telephone, phonograph, trolley car, electric grid, and motor car. He also gave a propulsive shove to America’s twentieth-century artistic and literary output by establishing one of the country’s most productive artistic retreats.
In 1881, Trask and his wife—poet, novelist, and playwright Katrina Nichols Trask—bought an estate in the resort town of Saratoga Springs, New York, which their youngest daughter nicknamed “Yaddo.” A series of tragedies struck the Trasks, and by 1900 all four of their children had died at young ages, two taken by diphtheria, two by other early maladies. The heartbroken, heirless Trasks decided to turn Yaddo into an artist colony, following a vision by the bereft Katrina of “generations of talented men and women yet unborn walking the lawns of Yaddo, ‘creating, creating, creating.’”
With the additional support of the Trasks’ friend and business partner George Foster Peabody, the first artists took up residence at Yaddo in 1926. Since then, more than 5,500 artists have nurtured their creativity there, including 67 Pulitzer Prize winners, 61 National Book Award winners, 108 Rome Prize winners, and one Nobel laureate (Saul Bellow). Yaddo’s additional luminaries include John Cheever, Aaron Copland, Jonathan Franzen, James MacPherson, Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, Philip Roth, Alice Walker, Eudora Welty, Leonard Bernstein, and William Carlos Williams.
Today, Yaddo continues to rely on private philanthropic support. One third of its funding comes from gifts from its alumni artists, reflecting their views of the institution’s efficacy and importance. The “permanent home” that Spencer Trask sought to create for “authors, painters, sculptors, musicians, and other artists” to do “good and earnest work” has lived long. The procreativity denied to him and his wife resulted instead in a bloom of creativity benefiting all Americans.