Reciprocal walks with Robert Frost

Jack W.C. Hagstrom, M.D.

Editor's note: Editor's note: Dr. Hagstrom is Emeritus Professor of Pathology, Columbia University. He is the author of over 100 scientific articles, numerous papers on bibliographic subjects, and the co-author of descriptive bibliographies of the works of Thom Gunn (1979) and Dana Gioia (2003). He lives in Water Mill, NY.


hile a student at Amherst College (1951-55), I had the great good fortune to meet two persons who would irrevocably change my life in different ways. This short essay is about the first, Robert Frost, and some walks we took together. For the record, the second person was the Rt. Hon. The Earl Amherst, M.C., born in 1896 and died in 1993; he was my closest friend, but that's another story.

One of the "selling points" of Amherst College in the 1950s was that Robert Frost spent several weeks at the college in the spring and autumn. (Frost had had a long association with Amherst off and on from 1916 until 1938, when his wife died, and he moved away.) He was recruited back to Amherst in 1948, as the Simpson Lecturer in English, with few responsibilities, by the then President of the college, Charles W. Cole.

At the beginning of my freshman year, in early October 1951, I saw posters on campus announcing Robert Frost's reading in Johnson Chapel on the evening of October 23. A couple of days before the reading, I had a telephone call from the president's secretary, Peggy Boyd, inviting me to a small reception at the President's home after the reading. (I never would know what prompted that invitation, as I did not know the president in any personal way, nor had I ever met Robert Frost before.)

I readily accepted and attended the reception after the reading. There were a few faculty members and their wives, a couple of other students, President and Mrs. Cole, and Robert Frost. It was all very relaxed and as casual as one was in such circumstances in 1951. As the evening was drawing to a close, about 11 p.m., President Cole asked me if I would walk to the Lord Jeffery Inn (some two block away) with Mr. Frost. As we got near the Inn, he asked me if I was tired or would I like to walk some more. And walk we did! As I recall, we walked around Amherst until about 2 a.m.

As I was taking leave from him in the lobby of the inn, he asked me if I'd like to come by and see him in his room in the morning, at about 10:30 a.m. That was the beginning of a close avuncular friendship that would continue to grow and flourish until he died in 1963. When Frost was based in Amherst and had readings in other places in New England, I would often drive him, returning either to Amherst or to Cambridge. One time, on the way to Cambridge from Amherst, he asked me if I had ever seen Walden Pond. I hadn't, and so we made a detour and found the pond; we were disappointed to see it sadly neglected with lots of litter. On these drives, we covered many miles, and any subject was fair game for conversation.

After leaving Amherst, I was admitted to Cornell University Medical College, associated with the New York Hospital in New York City, on York Ave. at 69th St. When Robert (and he told me to call him "Robert" in 1953 because he "hated the inequality that ‘Mister' inferred") was in New York, as he was frequently, he would always stay at the former Westbury Hotel on 69th St. and Madison Ave., five long blocks from my apartment. I would often go to the hotel and pick him up for a scheduled reading. Afterwards, it was a regular thing that he (and I) would be invited to the apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Blumenthal (of Spiral Press fame) on W. 21st St., for a small reception.

When we arrived at Joe and Ann's apartment, Robert would first have an egg along in the kitchen with Ann Blumenthal, a kind of letdown time, and then join the gathered group of friends in the living room. The guests for these receptions at the Blumenthal's were usually quite varied, with a scattering being predictable: e.g., Alfred Edwards, Robert's publisher, the Russell Potters, good friends of the Blumenthals, and many times Larry Thompson, Frost's "designated" biographer. It was a chance to meet some extraordinary people; some would become good friends. Incompletely I recall meeting Mark and Dorothy Van Doren, Oscar Williams, Clara Mayer, Marianne Moore, and often Elsie Sergeant.

At the end of the Blumenthall evenings, Robert and I would take a cab uptown to the Westbury Hotel, and Robert would say, "I think I'll walk you home." We would walk up and down 69th St. between just short of Madison Ave. and just short of 1st Ave. until well into the early morning hours, talking about anything and everything and everybody. It was usually Frost who would walk back to the Westbury alone.

They were wonderfully relaxed times. He was extraordinarily kind to me on many occasions when I needed an ear and some caring advice; he never left me wanting. These walks continued well into 1962. Robert died on January 27, 1963.

Robert Frost at Amherst College in 1953. From the collection of Jack Hagstrom.

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