Gray, Maxine Cushing (1909-1987)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 10/09/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11119
Maxine Cushing Gray was a Seattle writer, critic, editor, and arts advocate. Over the course of her long career, she served as an arts critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, covered the arts for the Argus arts weekly, and published and edited the biweekly Northwest Arts. Gray encouraged, supported, and monitored the efforts of Seattle's arts community. She advocated excellence in all things. 

Maxine Abbott Cushing, a descendent of a patrician New England family, was born in 1909 in Brookline, Massachusetts, to Blanche and Melvin Cushing. Melvin Cushing was a broker of cotton yarns in New York. In 1917, Maxine's brother, Richard G. Cushing (1917-2004), was born. Richard Cushing would become an important war correspondent for the Associated Press, and eventually the director of the Voice of America (the United States government's official radio broadcaster, founded in 1942). 

Music under the Stars

When Maxine was 13 years old, her father died. Her mother moved the family to Hollywood, California, in order to be near Maxine's maternal uncle. Although neither of her parents had been particularly interested in music or the arts, Maxine began attending classical music concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, purchasing inexpensive seats far from the stage. This was the future critic's first musical classroom.

During her earliest years of patronage, the Hollywood Bowl was still rustic: audiences perched on log seats set on the open ground in the Bowl's natural amphitheater and musicians played on a simple wooden stage protected by a canvas top. Facilities were continually improved throughout the 1920s, including the 1929 construction of the now-iconic stage shell designed by the engineering firm of Elliott, Bowen and Walz. 

Stanford and San Francisco

After graduating from Hollywood High School in 1926, Maxine Cushing won a faculty scholarship to Stanford University, where she majored in International Science. There she took her first steps as a journalist and arts critic, reporting for The Stanford Daily. At Stanford, Cushing began a lifelong practice of collecting her clippings into scrapbooks. Her first piece of journalism appeared in the October 7, 1926, issue of The Stanford Daily. 

Because her scholarship was insufficient to meet her financial need, Cushing waited tables in her dormitory. "I can still kick a door open, carrying a tray of dishes," she told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer decades later (August 20, 1978). "I also hashed in the summer at Lake Tahoe and had jobs in camps, teaching swimming and horseback riding. I used to type other people's themes in college for 15 cents a page. I used to type all night with the wind-up phonograph going. I got so sick of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony I still can't listen to it with any pleasure." She graduated cum laude from Stanford in 1930. 

After her graduation, Cushing spent a year in the small vibrant arts community of Carmel, California. She worked as a nanny and read constantly. Cushing also became involved with the Theatre of the Golden Bough, a technically sophisticated indoor performance space that opened in 1924, and through that work discovered an interest in theatrical lighting. In November 1931, Cushing moved to San Francisco, determined to become a stage-lighting designer. She spent a year working for the Reginald Travers Theater and taking courses in electricity. She planned to enroll in a technical theater program at Yale University. Instead, her focus shifted toward journalism. By 1932, she was reviewing theater, dance, opera, and music for The Peninsula, a weekly newspaper published in Burlingame, California. 

Soon after, Cushing began contributing music reviews to the San Francisco News and writing about dance for the San Francisco Chronicle. She also worked for San Francisco's leading music presenter, Peter Conley. 

Training to Dance

Cushing had studied dance as a child, and now began to do so again. She was active in the modern-dance community in San Francisco, performing with the Allied Dance Group.

She spent several summers in Vermont, studying dance at Bennington College, one of America's most important hubs of performing arts education. She studied with dance luminaries Doris Humphrey (1895-1958) and Charles Weidman (1901-1975). In Manhattan, she continued her modern dance studies with Martha Graham (1894-1991), and also studied ballet.   

Despite this training, she later told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Those were [perilous] times. I wasn't going to go the route of waiting tables and modeling to become a professional dancer. I wasn't that good" (August 20, 1978). Nevertheless, Gray's physical carriage revealed her dance training for the rest of her life: chin high, shoulders down, back ramrod straight. Maxine Cushing had presence.

Peddling the Ballet Russe

In October 1938, Cushing accepted a press agent position in impresario Sol Hurok's (1888-1974) organization, doing advance press for the celebrated Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo troupe. Hurok was a Russian émigré who became one of the foremost theatrical impresarios in the world, His S. Hurok Presents organization booked tours that sent top-quality performers into cities and towns throughout America. Thanks to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo's wide-ranging and nearly constant touring, the troupe is credited with introducing much of America to classical ballet. "Those were wild years," Gray later told The Seattle Times. "I'd hit 60 cities annually by rail, making all the arrangements for the troupe. ... We took Billings and Bozeman by storm" (November 4, 1981). 

Her years with Sol Hurok's organization not only gave Maxine Cushing a template for professional performing-arts promotion, it introduced her to arts critics for newspapers throughout the United States. As the troupe's advance representative, Cushing was responsible for drumming up interest in advance of the glamorous dancers' arrival, and of whetting the ticket-buying public's appetite. 

Cushing visited Seattle in February 1939, as part of her work for Hurok. As in many of the cities where she ballyhooed the Ballet Russe, Cushing herself was the subject of newspaper articles. Many -- including a Seattle Times story published on February 3, 1939, contrasted her appearance to that of a typical theatrical advance-man, "a cigar-smoking, tough-speaking city-slicker type of man who could scarcely wait to get back to New York. Now it is different. An attractive young woman once headed for a great career as a ballet dancer arrived in Seattle yesterday with a becoming smile and an infectious laugh" ("Enthusiastic Miss Cushing..."). 

Move to Seattle

In September 1940, Maxine Cushing married Stanley Gray (1908-1982) of Thompson Falls, Montana. Thompson Falls is on the Clark Fork of the Columbia River in Northwestern Montana. He was a rancher who had never seen a ballet. She met him, she told The Baltimore Sun, on a cross-country drive from California to Vermont. Gray's family operated a dude ranch, where the couple initially lived. 

The newlyweds moved to Seattle in 1941. Stanley Gray worked at Boeing. Maxine Cushing Gray experienced culture shock, finding the city considerably less artistically developed than San Francisco or New York. She took a job as press agent for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, at the time under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961). At least locally, Beecham is best remembered for his supposed remark deeming Seattle "a cultural dustbin." Maxine Cushing Gray defended her former employer: "I get so tired of reading about Sir Thomas calling Seattle 'a cultural dustbin.' For one thing, he said 'esthetic,' not 'cultural.' And for another, he wasn't making a declarative statement. Beecham said that more progress must be made if Seattle is not to become an esthetic dustbin. I wish people would get that straight" (The Seattle Times, November 4, 1981). 

Mother and Critic

Gray's tenure with the symphony was brief. Deciding that she could be more useful on the home front during World War II, she was trained to rivet B-17 airplanes for the Boeing Company. She felt pride in her work, but was eventually taken off the job when a supervisor noticed that she was visibly pregnant. Son Kerrigan Cushing Gray (b. 1943) was born on May 4, 1943, followed by two more boys, Brian Christopher Gray (b. 1945) and Donovan Michael Gray (b. 1948). After the war, Stanley Gray worked as a machinist for Berger Engineering Company. 

When her sons were very young, Gray did publicity work for the Seattle Mental Health Society, for Seattle dancer Eleanor King (1906-1991), and for others. In 1951, when her youngest son was three, Gray became the music and dance critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She later remembered her early years as a critic as artistically harrowing: "I can remember going to concerts in real fear, hoping that at least a few right notes would be hit," she told The Seattle Times. "There was one art gallery in town; a handful of amateur opera companies; some fine recitals masterminded by the late Cecelia Schultz; and the Ladies Musical Club. And there was no concert activity, absolutely none, from April to October. It was a different world from the Seattle we know today" (November 4, 1981). 

In 1954, Gray was hired to cover the arts for the Argus, then Seattle's preeminent arts weekly. She wrote the "In Review" column covering music, stage, and screen performances, and served as an associate editor. She held this a job for 19 years. During these years, Maxine Cushing Gray cemented her reputation as a fearless advocate of artistic excellence, and as someone who was intolerant of mediocrity. "She insisted, over and over again," her friend and Seattle Post-Intelligencer art and music critic R. M. Campbell later wrote, "that art was central to society not decorative, that artists needed to be paid not merely smiled upon, that effort alone was not sufficient" (Northwest Arts, November 13, 1987). Gray prided herself particularly on what she called "the surveillance of arts commissions which has been one of my preoccupations, in the belief that 'All public bodies need to know they are being watched'" ("A New Arts Newsletter"). 

Northwest Arts 

In late 1974, Gray left the Argus in order to strike out on her own. The first issue of Northwest Arts, a bi-weekly regional arts journal, appeared January 17, 1975. Gray handled every aspect required to produce the publication: writing, editing, bookkeeping, design, and layout. She had a handpicked stable of 50 Northwest contributors, and prided herself on paying them. Northwest Arts' monthly arts schedule was so complete that the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and the Seattle Opera all simply reprinted it in their own programs. 

The Seattle Times music critic Melinda Bargreen summed up Gray's ongoing importance to the region's cultural life in a 1981 feature story: "Dubbed 'the Tweed Hornet' because of her capacity to sting in print, Gray delights in the knowledge that her column in Northwest Arts is read with a mixture of avidity, curiosity, and trepidation by virtually everybody who is anybody in the arts. ... She is salty, acerbic, and utterly contemptuous of poseurs and wastrels ... hardened arts administrators quell, however, as she fixes them with a clear-eyed gaze and inquires about their closed-door policy for board meetings, or their use of public funds, or their failure to promote local performers" (November 4, 1981). 

Seattle Art Museum assistant director Betty Bowen (1918-1977) is credited with coining Gray's evocative nickname. Gray called herself a professional cynic, and said that her fierce tenacity was the core aspect of her personality. "I have certain things I believe in, and I cling to them," she told The Seattle Times. "The importance of regionalism in the arts, supporting local artists, public accountability among arts institutions" (November 4, 1981).

In addition to her work on Northwest Arts, Gray contributed a monthly Native Arts column to the Northwest Indian News. She also edited and set type for two volumes of Native American poetry drawn from work that had appeared in Northwest Indian News and in Northwest Arts. During the 1960s, she was the Seattle correspondent for the national publication Dance News. 

A Critic Always

Gray's critical opinions were always insightful and often razor-sharp. This was true whether given formally in a written review or informally, as simple comment. In 1985, for example, when Seattle Center executive director Ewen Dingwall (1913-1996) decided to move "Le Corsair" -- a 750-pound bronze sculpture of a dancer that had been the subject of ridicule and vandalism and that had required expensive repairs to remedy its tendency to sag -- from the prominent Mercer Street entrance to the Opera House to a less busy location, many city officials approved but were reluctant to put their opinions on record. Not Gray, who told The Seattle Times that the sculpture was "just ghastly. It's uncomfortable to look at, it doesn't accurately represent any dance step, and it ought to be well hidden -- perhaps by a fig tree" (November 8, 1985). 

Gray's role as the civic watchdog of Seattle and King County arts commissions and performing arts organizations was unwavering and often thankless. She continually advocated for arts organizations to have open meetings and visible public processes. "She has been thrown out of the Rainier Club after trying to attend a meeting of the old Pacific Northwest Ballet," a 1978 newspaper story reported. "Just recently, she was asked to leave a meeting of the Seattle Art Museum Board of Trustees (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 28, 1978). Gray did not care, and formed an organization of fellow critics she called the I.R.A. (Investigative Reporting for the Arts). The I.R.A.'s mascot, according to Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Jean Godden, was a ferret, and its motto, "Semper Vigilante" (January 28, 1985). 

Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Emmett Watson described several perspectives on Maxine Cushing Gray: "[An] old acquaintance calls her 'a lovely thorn in the flesh of Seattle.' Still others have called her 'the conscience of the arts community,' but more than one adversary who has felt her sting, uses the phrase, 'that woman' ... She is a tall, handsome woman, with a regal posture and a fine athletic stride. Author Murray Morgan recalls how she would show up at openings wearing a bearclaw necklace -- somehow appropriate. Morgan notes that local critics tend to huddle together at intermissions, talking around the performance, feeling each other out, everybody afraid of reaching a consensus. 'But that,' he says, 'is never a problem with Maxine -- she's either furious or exulting" ("The Tweed Hornet"). 

The Art of Criticism

In 1985, Gray marked the 10th anniversary of Northwest Arts by publishing Twenty Articles on the Art of Criticism, a compilation of essays originally printed in the journal. "Since its founding," Gray explained in the foreword, "Northwest Arts ... has emphasized thoughtful, well-written criticism of the various arts. ... It is an added satisfaction that this anthology will be used at several colleges as part of the arts curriculum. This is a tribute to the importance of criticism not only as a form of writing itself, but as part of the historic record" (Twenty Articles..., 1). 

Larded with philosophy and words of truth from 20 arts professionals and critics, the essays were Gray's message to present and future arts critics. Seattle Times music critic Melinda Bargreen: "If there is really such a thing as an art of criticism, it is only possible when critics train the way artists do -- diligently and at length, with the recognition that the writer will be held up to public scrutiny in exactly the same way as the performer" (Twenty Articles..., p. 10). University of Toronto drama professor Ronald Bryden (1927-2004): "The best theater critic for you is the one you usually read. ... Simply by reading him regularly, learning what his taste is, you've learned how to use him, make him work for you" (Twenty Articles..., p. 12). Los Angeles Times drama critic Sylvie Drake: "The critic is not there to dictate taste but to commandeer it. Lead the debate. Stimulate discourse. Stir up excitement. Create controversy when the situation legitimately calls for it" (Twenty Articles..., p. 23). Seattle Opera director Speight Jenkins (b. 1937): "The responsibility of the critic, as I see it, is basically to know everything possible about what is being reviewed, to be aware of whom he is addressing and to live up to the dictates of his conscience in every word written" (Twenty Articles..., p. 43). 

Maxine Cushing Gray received a Ford Foundation Travel and Study Award for Critics in 1964 and the King County Arts Commission's Service Award in 1974. In 1978, Gray was among the Washington residents honored by Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) with the Governor's Writer Award. In 1980, the United Indians of All Tribes honored her with the Eagle Feather Award. 

A Lifelong Advocate

In December 1985, Maxine Cushing Gray was diagnosed with liver cancer. Despite being in considerable pain, Gray continued to publish Northwest Arts, issuing her final issue only two weeks before entering Swedish Hospital for what turned out to be the final time. She died on October 25, 1987. 

In Gray's Seattle Times obituary, critic Carole Beers called her "champion and gadfly of the arts for many decades. ... Nearly everyone in West Coast arts support, performance, or criticism has felt Gray's influence via direct comment or through her no-nonsense writing. Arts managers and artists both feared and revered the former dancer for her unflinching criticism and support" (October 26, 1987). 

Maxine Cushing Gray was a lifelong advocate of excellence in writing. In 1985, a group of her admirers established the Maxine Cushing Gray Writers' Fellowship Fund, now the Maxine Cushing Gray Endowed Libraries Visiting Writers Fellowship. The award honors a Northwest writer of notable talent and exceptional merit. Winners have included historian Murray Morgan (1916-2000), poet and novelist David Wagoner (b. 1926), and writers Timothy Egan (b. 1954) and David Laskin (b. 1953).


Sources: Melinda Bargreen, "Maxine Cushing Gray: Best Friend of the Arts; Loved, Feared, Respected," The Seattle Times, November 4, 1981, p. F-1; Melinda Bargreen, "A Change of Scene -- 'Le Corsair' Is Moving to Make Way for a New Opera House Entry," Ibid., November 8, 1985, p. E-1; Carole Beers, "Maxine Cushing Gray Dies at Age 78," Ibid., October 26, 1987, p. D-1; "Enthusiastic Miss Cushing Here To Boost Ballet Russe," Ibid., February 2, 1939, p. 11; "Bowl History Highlights," Hollywood Bowl website (http://www.hollywoodbowl.com/philpedia/history-and-architecture) accessed September 9, 2015; The Hollywood Bowl: Tales of Summer Nights, ed. by Michael Buckland and John Henken (Los Angeles: Balcony Press, 1996); Harlow Robinson, The Last Impresario: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Sol Hurok (New York: Viking, 1994); Twenty Articles on The Art of Criticism Reprinted from Northwest Arts, ed. by Maxine Cushing Gray (Seattle: Northwest Arts, 1985); Jane Estes, "Maxine Cushing Gray," Seattle Post-Intelligencer Northwest Magazine, August 20, 1978, p. 4; "Maxine Gray Wins Ford Foundation Grant," Ibid., March 27, 1964, p. 1; "History and Vision," Bennington College website accessed September 19, 2015 (http://www.bennington.edu/About/history.aspx); Mary Ellen Benson, "Writers' Awards Ceremony Here," The Sunday Olympian, October 1, 1987, p. 10; Jill Severn interview with Maxine Cushing Gray, June 15, 1977, Seattle, transcript in vertical file labeled 954 B, Accession Number 2682-3, Maxine Cushing Gray, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; "Maxine Cushing Gray," Northwest Arts, November 13, 1987, p. 1; "Maxine Cushing Gray Endowed Libraries Visiting Writers Fellowship," University of Washington website accessed September 20, 2015 (http://www.lib.washington.edu/support/endowments/gray); "Maxine Cushing Gray scrapbooks, 1919-1961," Folios, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries; "Girl Studies Stage Lights," San Francisco Chronicle, November 7, 1931 (Gray Scrapbook "A"); Sara Wilson, "The Woman's Angle," The Baltimore Sun, February 6, 194 (Gray Scrapbook "A"); "Edward Kuster's Theatre of the Golden Bough," Carmel By The Sea Adventures of a Hometown Tourist Blog, September 24, 2014, accessed September 20, 2015 (http://carmelbytheseaca.blogspot.com/2014/09/edward-kusters-theatre-of-golden-bough.html); Maxine Cushing Gray, "A New Arts Newsletter," Argus, December 6, 1974, p. 10; "Maxine Cushing Gray Receives Award," Ibid., March 17, 1975, p. 2; Emmett Watson, "The Tweed Hornet," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 21, 1971, p. B-1; Jean Godden, "The Arts World Pays its Homage to Maxine Cushing Gray," Ibid., January 28, 1985, p. C-1.

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