On March 25, 1862, Walt Whitman received a letter addressed to him at Pfaff's and signed by "Ellen Eyre." The signature "Ellen Eyre" has long been thought to be the assumed name of an unknown female writer. The note reads as a love letter to the poet from a woman who knows him quite well. During the twentieth century, a number of historians took the letter to be evidence of a romantic tryst between Whitman and one of several candidates from the Bohemian circle and New York theatrical communities. The most commonly suggested identities for the writer of this letter were Ada Clare, Mrs. Beach, Lola Montez, Mrs. Parton, Adah Isaacs Menken, the unidentified woman who inspired a Whitman poem published in October 1861 (Holloway), and Ellen Grey (Miller; Hollis).
In 2009, Ted Genoways discovered the identity of Ellen Eyre to be a con man named William Kinney. “Posing as a woman and calling himself Mrs. Ellen Eyre," Genoways writes, "he would send letters to the prominent men of New York--doctors, judges, attorneys. The men would agree to meet this mystery woman at the time and place appointed by her in the letter. What exactly transpired thereafter is veiled in the niceties of the period, but the letters from several suitors, published later in the Sunday Mercury, are highly suggestive” (156).
Given that the Pfaff's environment had already given Whitman the opportunity to test the boundaries of male-male sexuality with groups such as the Fred Gray Association, Genoways speculates that "the Ellen Eyre incident [might] have served as an unlocking of Whitman's repressed sexuality," or even that, as Whitman recounted the story of "Ellen Eyre" with other men, he used "the anecdote of the incident as a way to test the reactions of potential [sexual] partners" (159). Gay Wilson Allen notes that Whitman mentioned the affair to a stage driver named Frank Sweeney on July 8, 1862, promising to tell him the “whole story” (278-80).
Allen writes that in the spring of 1862, "when Whitman was roaming the Bowery and writing 'feature' articles for the Leader" he may have had an affair with a woman who is identified only as "Ellen Eyre." This name comes from the signature of an apparent love letter Whitman received at Pfaff's on Tuesday, March 25, 1862. Traubel showed this letter to several friends after Whitman's death and copies were made from the original. Allen reprints a version of the letter (whose authenticity he cannot confirm) on p.279. Allen also mentions that whatever did occur between Whitman and this woman had ended by the middle of the summer of 1862. Allen also notes that Whitman's notebooks mention that he confided the affair to a stage driver named Frank Sweeney on July 8, 1862. Allen mentions that what Whitman means when he says he told Sweeney the "whole story" is ambiguous, but mentions that the term "whole story" "implies something that happened in the past, and a history that Walt Whitman himself regarded as in some way remarkable. If he ever told it to anyone besides Frank Sweeney, that person evidently talk as little as Frank did" (278-280).
Allen maintains that the author of the letter is unidentified, and cites others who claimed to have seen copies of the letter. J.H. Johnston mentions having seen a photograph of an actress who was "one of Walt's sweethearts." Allen maintains, however, that there is no evidence that makes it clear that "Ellen Eyre" was an actress, but there is no evidence that she was not (571 n.60).[pages:278-280, 571(n60).]
Glicksberg mentions her as the subject of a conversation.[pages:276]
Drawing upon information found in a Whitman notebook in the Feinberg Collection at the Library of Congress, Hollis presents evidence to suggest that the real name of the mysterious Ellen Eyre, a woman who sent Whitman a love letter at Pfaff's, was Ellen Grey.
Holloway reprints her letter and speculates about the identity of the author. Holloway rules out Ada Clare, Lola Montez, Mrs. Parton, Mrs. Beach, Adah Isaacs Menken, and the woman who inspired a poem published October 1861 as candidates for "Ellen Eyre." Holloway feels that "Ellen Eyre" must be a psuedonym because a real name would have been lost.[pages:113-115]
The name given by author of mysterious letter Whitman received at Pfaff's. Speculating on its author, Holloway raises and defeats Ada Clare, dismisses Mrs. James Parton, and finally suggests further investigation of Whitman admirer Juliette H. Beach.[pages:6-11]
The pen name of a woman who wrote Whitman a love letter that was delivered to Pfaff's on Tuesday, March 25, 1862. Eyre may have been Ellen Grey, an actress who may have known Whitman in Brooklyn before beginning her career in New York. Miller speculates that she met Whitman at Pfaff's at some point after her marriage and the "Ellen Eyre" letter was a playful invitation to visit her at her home.[pages:64-66]
Reynolds interprets a letter sent to Whitman signed with this name to suggest that the sender and Whitman had been intimate the previous night (490).[pages:490]
The Vault at Pfaff's
27 Memorial Drive West, Bethlehem, PA 18015