On a recent visit to the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library, I wandered into the Cambridge Room, where the library collects its archives of the city’s history. Located on the second floor of the light-filled new building, which itself will go down in Cambridge history as the one of this century’s finest municipal buildings, the Cambridge Room is sure to delight anyone with a modicum of curiosity about our city’s rich past.
Archivist Alyssa Pacy greeted me warmly and inquired what I was interested in researching.
“Dogs?” I replied, somewhat off-the-cuff. Truth be told, I was just passing through and hadn’t come prepared to do any serious research.
Only briefly flummoxed by my oddball request, Ms. Pacy opened the index of the Cambridge Historical Society’s Publications, where we were both pleasantly surprised to find several references to dogs among the Society’s Proceedings. (Compiled by the CHS between 1906 and 1998 published in a 45-volume set, the Proceedings are an eclectic series of scholarly essays and personal reminiscences on diverse aspects of Cambridge history.)
By serendipity, I found myself engrossed in Erastus H. Hewitt’s charming account of his friendship with Robert Frost, whom he recalls first meeting on the street when the poet was out walking his dog. Mr. Hewitt was Frost’s Brewster Street neighbor for a little over 20 years, from 1941, when Frost bought the house at 35 Brewster Street until the poet’s death, in 1963. Mr. Hewitt, who lived a few doors down at 23 Brewster, read aloud his reminiscence, “Robert Frost of Brewster Village,” at a CHS meeting on May 25, 1965. (It appears in Volume 40 of the Proceedings on pages 84-93.)
Reading Mr. Hewitt’s essay, I learned that Frost, who lived alone, enjoyed the loyal companionship and abundant intelligence of a black-and-white Border collie named Gillie. Mr. Hewitt recalls that Frost would say, “Gillie, shut the door, will you?” when he wished privacy with a guest, and she would use her nose to carry out her master’s command. Mr. Hewitt describes Gillie as a “one-man dog,” which he discovered when he once was asked to walk her when the poet was sick; Gillie refused to go out until Frost gave his permission, “It’s all right, Gillie. Go with him.”
From a subsequent bit of Googling, I learned that Frost acquired Gillie in the spring of 1940 during a stint at Bread Loaf in Vermont, and that her name is Scottish for the servant of a Highland chief. Gillie arrived two years after Frost lost his beloved wife Elinor to cancer, and the same year their son Carol committed suicide. Four of Frost’s six children had died by then, a greater tragedy than any parent should have to bear. Gillie must have been a lifesaver.
According to Mr. Hewitt, the poet was quite literally “one acquainted with the night.” He did his best work between midnight and dawn, and often walked Gillie in the wee hours. After a night’s work, Frost typically slept until midday, but the pair would emerge in the late afternoon to walk to the little market on the corner of Huron and Concord Avenues. Some evenings Frost, accompanied by Gillie, would stop unannounced at the Hewitts’ house, where quite often he was invited to stay for supper. Mr. Hewitt affectionately describes his distinguished neighbor as “the greatest of conversationalists,” and someone who preferred a quiet evening to the more formal social occasions at which he was a much sought-after guest. Frost divided his time in the 1940s and ’50s between homes in Cambridge, Vermont and Florida, and fall was his usual season here. Gillie passed away in the early 1950s, and it seems unlikely that Frost ever owned another dog, as he was well on in years by that time. He was 88 when he died, in a Boston hospital, in January 1963.
Hewitt writes, “Robert Frost was a man who could walk with kings, but he never lost the common touch. He liked people, and he appealed to all sorts of people.” To me, those qualities are the very essence of a true dog person, and it warms my heart to picture Frost and Gillie out walking in the same neighborhood where I’ve lived for almost two decades.
II. The Span of Life
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
From Robert Frost’s poem “Ten Mills” (Collected in A Further Range, 1936)