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Tree, Iris (1897-1968)
by Solomon, Susan

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Iris Tree 1897-1968

Iris Tree’s most distinguishing and enduring characteristic is the bob haircut she wore all of her life. She was a very minor writer at best but had an extraordinary gift with words, was clever with puns, and had an absurdist sense of humor.

She was raised in the midst of London arts and culture. Her father, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852 1917), was a highly regarded actor who managed the Haymarket Theatre (1887-1895) and founded and managed Her Majesty's Theatre (1896), where he was particularly committed to reviving Shakespeare productions. He organized and traveled with a Shakespeare company in the United States and acted in a film version of Macbeth (1915, the Triangle Film Company). Iris’s mother, Helen Maud Holt or Lady Tree (1863-1937), was a stage and film actress. Iris's uncle was the artist Max Beerbohm (1872-1956). Her father, having only adopted the name "Tree" as an adult, had a German emigrant corn merchant for a father. Though Tree was not knighted until 1909, his professional success and his wife’s talent as hostess provided Iris and her two sisters, Viola and Felicity, with access to the social and intellectual elite of the day.

Iris first met the future writer and publisher Nancy Cunard (1896-1965) at the girls’ school they attended during their teens. Both loved reading and writing poetry and encouraged this impulse in one another. In their late teens, when Iris was studying at the Slade School of Art, she and Nancy lived wildly and daringly. They often snuck out of their homes to go to bars and cafés without escorts, drinking, smoking cigarettes, and staying out all night.

While at the Slade School, Iris Tree and Nancy Cunard formed friendships with artists Wyndham Lewis and Augustus John, became members of what they called the Corrupt Coterie with Alvaro "Chile" Guevara, Robert Nichols, Evan Morgan, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, Edward Wyndham Tennant, and Tommy Earp, and were regulars at the avant-garde inspired café, the Eiffel Tower, on Percy Street. Tree secretly rented a studio apartment on Fitzroy Place, where she and Nancy designed costumes, painted, and hosted late-night parties. During this period, she sat for many artists—Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Dora Carrington, Roger Fry, Jacob Epstein, Guevara and Augustus John. When Nancy Cunard's lover Michael Arlen would write Piracy (1922)—one among several popular novels he modeled on their relationship—he would base the character Lois Lamphrey on Iris.

While accompanying her father on a tour to the United States in 1915, Iris became friends with Charlie Chaplin, saw her first poem published in Solita Solano's Boston Herald-Traveler column, and met her first husband, the painter and photographer Edwin Curtis Moffat. They married without her father’s permission in New York in December of 1916. During this period, she maintained correspondences with her friends in London and contributed poems to the Sitwells's Wheels Anthologies 1-4. Poems, a collection of Iris's poetry, was published in 1919 and reprinted in 1920. She is also said to have written poems and articles for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Poetry Review, and The London Magazine (Isherwood 355-56).

Iris and her husband returned to and settled in London after their son Ivan was born in 1918. Ivan Moffat (1918-2002) would later become the screenwriter of Hollywood productions Shane and Giant, among others. Curtis and Iris were in an open relationship in which both partners were free to explore relationships with other people. Iris spent much of her time in Paris, and in 1925 she returned to the United States on tour—this time as an actor herself—in Max Reinhardt's play The Miracle. Her longtime friend Diana Manners also had a part in the production. She continued writing poetry, much of which appeared in The Traveller, and other poems in 1927. During this time, she met Friedrich Ledebur, an impoverished Austrian count pursuing an acting career in the United States. When the tour was over, Iris remained in the states. She had fallen in love, and in 1928 she returned to Europe to privately carry a pregnancy to term, giving birth to Ledebur's son, "Boon" or Christian Dion Ledebur, in London in 1928. In 1932 she obtained a divorce from Moffat and in 1933 married Ledebur. During this time they frequently traveled, together and apart, between California, Austria, England, and Ireland; both children often stayed with Iris's mother, Lady Maud Tree.

In 1936, when the Chekhov Theatre Studio was established at Dartington Hall, Iris enrolled as a playwright and Friedrich as an actor; and when the studio moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1938, they moved with it. Together with Alan Harkness, another student, Iris wrote the children's musical play Sing About It. Afterwards she returned, not with Ledebur but with Harkness, to California where they formed the High Valley Theater. At least one of Tree's plays, Cock-a-doodle-doo, was performed by this group. She also helped to organize the first Ojai Festival of Theater, in which she performed Lady Macbeth opposite Ford Rainey. During this time she renewed her friendships with Aldous and Maria Huxley (whom she had known since her youth in London), Charlie Chaplin, and Greta Garbo. She met and became interested in the ideas of Krishnamurti and befriended the novelist Christopher Isherwood, who would write about her in his diary (volume 1) and model after her the character of Charlotte in A Single Man.

By 1954 Iris had returned to England, and she lived periodically in Rome, Spain, Switzerland, and France. Friedrich Ledebur, who by this time had become a successful film actor, obtained a divorce from her in 1955. Iris's heart was broken; she had very little money and she spent most of what she had feeding her Belgian sheepdog Aguri, who was seen always at her side. She worked on a novel that was never completed, published poems in Botteghe Oscure, and her play, Strangers' Wharf, was performed at the New Lindsey Theatre in London. Iris played herself, but in a humiliating role, in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. She bought herself a car with the money, which enabled her nomadic lifestyle but also allowed her to visit her friends and family more easily. Later many of her unpublished manuscripts, which included articles, poems, an unfinished novel, and a memoir, were lost when her car, which doubled as a file cabinet and wardrobe, was stolen.

Iris's long poem The Marsh Picnic was published in 1966 shortly before her death. She died at age 71 in London. According to her biographer Daphne Fielding, her last words were: “It's here, it's here . . . shining . . . love . . . love . . . love.”

Works Cited or Consulted

  • Betjeman, John. “Introduction” in The Marsh Picnic. Cambridge: Rampant Lions Press, 1966.
  • Fielding, Daphne. The Rainbow Picnic: A Portrait of Iris Tree. London: Eyre Methuen, 1974.
  • “Iris Tree to Make Debut in The Miracle.” New York Times Aug 22, 1925: 6. Proquest Historical Newspapers.
  • Isherwood, Christopher and Katherine Bucknell. Lost Years: A Memoir, 1945-1951. HarperCollins, 2000.
  • Kachur, B. A. “Sir Herbert Beerhohm Tree.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP: 2004.
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