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In the Archives Think Piece

Mai-mai Sze and Irene Sharaff in Public and in Private

by contributing editor Erin Schreiner

I’ve written about Mai-mai Sze on this blog three times, and in those pieces I have focused on her life as a reader and writer. I am neither a historian nor a biographer by training – I’m a librarian – but I think that I must acknowledge a responsibility to Sze as her amateur biographer because I have written most about her. Up to now I have felt no real urgency to discuss Sze’s life-long partnership with Irene Sharaff. While neither makes mention of their relationship in the work for which they are known, glimpses of their private life together survive in the fragments of correspondence that remain in the archives and the memories of those who knew them. Although we can ignore the fact that Sharaff and Sze had a same-sex relationship when considering their work, exploring how they might have shaped each other’s lives and legacies adds depth and nuance to the story of how they made it.

From the mid-1930s until her death, Mai-mai Sze and the costume designer Irene Sharaff were a devoted couple; every person I’ve interviewed about Sze has used that word to describe the relationship. They lived together in New York in an apartment on 66th Street, and Sze always accompanied Sharaff to filming locations in Hollywood and all over the world. We find evidence of this in Sze’s correspondence, and even in her reading. Many books survive with loose sheets of notes written on stationery from the Beverly Hills Hotel, and her surviving correspondence often describes her travels with Sharaff. Sharaff’s letters make frequent mentions Sze, and they often signed letters to friends together. Jeannette Sanger, the owner of the now-closed Books & Co., described how the couple always appeared together not only at the store but also at literary parties. They were inseparable and their love and admiration for one another was apparent to everyone who knew them. Despite the fact that they were well-known as a couple, however, neither makes any mention of the other in their published work. Both Sze and Sharaff published autobiographies: Sze’s covers her childhood, and Sharaff exclusively writes on her work as a designer. Neither mentions the other anywhere in the texts. In both women, we find an intense separation between the person they presented to the public, and private life they lived together.

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Irene Sharaff, 1910-1993

While we cannot confidently use the word lesbian to describe either the women themselves or their relationship because we just don’t know if either identified as such, I think that the Sharaff-Sze story can be read as lesbian history, and that ways of looking at lesbian life can shed light on both women’s lives as individuals. Sharaff and Sze’s relationship exhibits many of the “subliminal signs that we read as lesbian” described by Frances Doughty in her article, “Lesbian Biography, Biography by Lesbians.” They were “intimate woman companions who … shared housing and daily life;” both were engaged in “a self-defined work that is a central theme in the subject’s life” (Sharaff’s work in film and theater in New York and Hollywood, which have historic connections to LGBT communities, deserves mention here); Sze maintained an “active interest in and struggles on behalf of other oppressed or deviant groups;” and the couple had friendships with gay men, most notably Leo Lerman and Gray Foy. (Doughty, 78) Their relationship also fits Lillian Faderman’s definition of lesbian relationships, as both private records and anecdotes of those who knew them firmly establish that their “strongest emotions and affections [were] directed toward each other.”

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Letter from Sharaff and Sze to Leo Lerman and Gray Foy, January 1, 1990 (author’s photo; Leo Lerman Papers; Box 19; courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library)

Examining their lives within the context of lesbian history, we can begin to understand why Sharaff and Sze’s private selves are so different from their public selves. Both women came of age in the late 1920s and ’30s, times that saw a major shift in the perception of lesbianism in America. While the ’20s were a time of greater sexual freedom across the general population because of the mainstream acceptance of Freudian psychology, it was also the first time that lesbianism was described as a disease. In the 1930s, the idea of homosexuality as an illness was broadly accepted across the medical community and also in some areas of popular culture, like pulp fiction and the theater. Times continued to change, and throughout their lives these women witnessed seismic shifts in perceptions of homosexuality.

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Mai-mai Sze (1909-1992), c. 1940 by George Hoyningen-Huene

Throughout most of their adult lives and particularly at a time when both women were taking a firmer foothold in their careers in the 1950s, any public admission of their private relationship – however they would have defined it – may have had a harmful effect on their success. It seems reasonable to suggest that the McCarthy era witch-hunts for homosexuals in the 1950s would have worried them, particularly because so many of Sharaff’s colleagues were targeted in Hollywood. Whether or not they wanted to live publicly as a loving couple, obscuring the details of their relationship may have been one way of ensuring that they achieved their personal goals.

In their private lives, however, Sharaff and Sze’s relationship facilitated the achievements which defined their public personas. Throughout much of the twentieth century, women chose same-sex relationships for many reasons, one of which was the freedom that their choice allowed them. By rejecting the traditionally female roles of wife and mother, women like Mai-mai Sze and Irene Sharaff gave themselves the time, and the emotional and intellectual support they needed to reach a level of professional success that would have been unthinkable for most straight women of their generation. Sharaff and Sze’s shared life and their devotion to one another gave them the freedom to pursue their self-defined creative, intellectual, and professional goals.

In their public selves, Sharaff and Sze did not enjoy the same level of success, despite the fact both were equally devoted to the work they chose for themselves. Sharaff was a hugely successful costume designer who was nominated for eleven Academy and nine Tony Awards, five of which she won. A feminist reading of this situation would suggest that nature of her public successes allowed Sharaff to embody male values of achievement in her career, and she was rewarded by the male-dominated entertainment business. As I’ve previously written, Mai-mai Sze appears to have been so devastated by James Cahill and Nelson Wu’s rejection of her first published book that she spent the rest of her life trying to rebuild her confidence as a thinker and translator, and never published another word. In contrast to Sharaff, a white woman whose a profession as a costume designer was judged as suitable for her gender,  Sze was thwarted in her scholastic career. It is in her heavily annotated books, however, that we see that she never stopped working. Sze the reader remained dedicated to study and scholarship until her death.

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The Music and Meditation Pavilion at Lucy Cavendish College, built following a donation by Sharaff and Sze. The two never visited Lucy Cavendish, but their ashes rest under two halves of the same rock beside the Pavilion’s entrance.

Irene Sharaff lived for only eleven months after Mai-mai Sze died in 1992, but in that time she saw to the deposit of her partner’s books at the Society Library.  The gift can be read as Sze’s final presentation of her public self, and Sharaff’s part in it beautifully illustrates how she supported Sze’s vision of it. There’s no doubt that we must continue to look carefully at the work these wanted to be remembered for, and in recognizing that work, we can also honor private ways that Sharaff and Sze helped one another to live, doing the work they loved together.


Many thanks to Elizabeth Ott, whose criticism greatly improved this piece.

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Think Piece

Mai-mai Sze and the I Ching

by contributing editor Erin Schreiner

“What is the I Ching?” was the title of Eliot Weinberger’s recent review of two new translations of the I Ching. It’s an excellent question, and in his review he expertly summarizes the history of the text, from its mysterious origins in the seventeenth century BCE through its introduction to European audiences in the eighteenth century, continuing into the height of the book’s popularity in the West in the mid-twentieth century. As he summarizes, the I Ching meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people, particularly in the West. Hegel thought it was a load of nonsense, Leibniz “enthusiastically found the universality of his binary system in the solid and broken lines,” and English sinologists like James Legge, Herbert Giles (both of whom translated the book) and Arthur Waley (who didn’t) were skeptical of its value as a philosophical text. In the 1950s and ’60s, artists, writers, and musicians, from Philip K. Dick to Bob Dylan to Merce Cunningham, found inspiration in the enigmatic poems they read in the Legge and Wilhelm translations. In the ’60s and early ’70s especially, the book appears all over the popular press. A search for “I Ching” or “Book of Changes” in a historical newspaper database turns up a trove of reviews of translations, interviews with artists and cultural figures, and editorials that mention the book in a variety of ways.

One can get lost in references to the I Ching in the popular press (truth be told, my research for this piece was so entertaining that it threatened to derail my writing completely). But I set out to find out what the I Ching meant to Mai-mai Sze. As JHIBlog readers well know, Sze is an enigmatic and fascinating woman whose dogged pursuit of knowledge across a wide range of subjects comes to life in the penciled notes she left in the vast collection that she bequeathed to the New York Society Library. One of very few traces of her scholarly life survives in William McGuire’s archive: a note at the bottom of a letter she sent him in 1979—thanking him for a copy of Iulian Shchutskii’s Researches on the I Ching—identifies her as a Bollingen author and “scholar of the I Ching” (Sze to William McGuire, 27 Sept. 1979. Box 47 Folder 9, William McGuire Papers, Library of Congress).

The index to her Tao of Painting—a translation of the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, or Jieziyuan Huazhuan—lists thirteen references to the I Ching, and one is an extended passage covering several pages. In this section, forming a major part of her introduction to the text, Sze references the Legge translations in her footnotes. This is a bit odd, as the Wilhelm translation was available by 1950, in the midst of her work on the project.

Wilhelm, Richard & Baynes, Cary F. (translator). The I Ching, or Book of Changes. New York: Pantheon Books, 1950. Volume 1. Copy in the New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.
Wilhelm, Richard & Baynes, Cary F. (translator). The I Ching, or Book of Changes. New York: Pantheon Books, 1950. Volume 1. Copy in the New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.

Although she does include an in-depth discussion of the I Ching and its relationship to Chinese painting in the introduction to the Tao of Painting (Bollingen, 1956), Sze seems to have turned to the I Ching in earnest quite late. A note on the title page of her copy of the two-volume set of the Baynes-Wilhelm I Ching directed me to her copy of the one-volume edition (which wasn’t published until 1968) for “notes + Chin. text.” Over a decade after the publication of the Tao of Painting, Sze studied the I Ching as closely as she studied other classics of Chinese philosophy (such as Laoze, the Confucian Analects, and the works of Mencius). I’m sad to report that her copy of the one volume Baynes-Wilhelm translation is now lost, leaving a gaping hole in the record of her interaction with this book. However, she did leave notes in the other translations that she owned, as well as in her copies of secondary sources on the I Ching in English. They reveal a bit about what she was up to.

Sze’s most heavily annotated copy of the I Ching is one of only a few English translations with the text printed alongside the original Chinese. (She also owned an edited and annotated beginner’s edition entirely in Chinese, but this contains none of her characteristic penciled notes.) The Text of the Yi king (and its appendixes) Chinese original with English translation by Z.D. Sung, published in 1935 in Shanghai, contains typical Sze marginalia and inserts. Some characters are circled, and in the English text below she makes notes in English for alternate translations. On the inserted sheet of paper, she’s drawn out characters in question and jotted down a Wade-Giles pronunciation guide, with some further explorations of a possible English translation below.

Annotations and inserts in Mai-mai Sze’s copy of the Z.D. Sung translation of the I Ching. New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.
Annotations and inserts in Mai-mai Sze’s copy of the Z.D. Sung translation of the I Ching. New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.

As David Hinton points out in the introduction to his new translation, the “texture of open possibility suffuses every dimension of the I Ching” because of the “wide-open grammar” of classical Chinese. The meanings of the characters are never precise. Verbs don’t indicate time with tense, and no punctuation was used, making it extremely difficult to extract a convincingly accurate English phrase from a cryptic string of graphs. To show how this works in practice, Hinton’s illustration looks much like one of Mai-mai’s annotations:

Hinton, David. I Ching: The Book of Change. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015, xvi.
Hinton, David. I Ching: The Book of Change. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015, xvi.

The original Chinese appears above English words whose meanings aren’t always closely related. This suggests that Sze was aware not only of the many possibilities for an English translation of a Chinese word, but also of the vast open territory to be covered by the translator in rendering the English into the Chinese. Her inclusion of phonetic transcriptions of the Chinese characters also indicates that she was clued into the importance of the sound of the original, which often rhymed.

The Sung translation of the text was described in the excellent 2002 annotated bibliography of the I Ching as a “convenient arrangement of the Legge translation,” as opposed to a totally new interpretation of the text in English. Sze referenced the Legge translation throughout the Tao of Painting, and kept up with new translations and secondary sources about the I Ching as they came out. Her collection includes copies of the Blofeld translation (Allen & Unwin, 1965), the previously mentioned two-volume Baynes-Wilhelm translation, and three studies of the book published by the Bollingen foundation by Richard Wilhelm, Hellmut Wilhelm, and the Russian scholar Iulian Shchutskii. All of them show the telltale signs of Sze’s intense engagement: TLS reviews are taped to the front covers, and the texts contain annotations in English and Chinese, with cross-references from one book to another.

Based on the surviving record, it seems clear that Sze’s most intense scholarly engagement with the text took place during the 1960s and 1970s; this period and the interaction were defined primarily by her engagement with the text in the original Chinese, as well as in English translations and studies published by the Bollingen Foundation. While the Bollingen angle is certainly worth investigating (particularly from a Jungian point of view), I’d rather close this piece by turning again to Hinton’s introduction and especially his discussion of how to read the I Ching. “As a poetic/philosophical text,” he writes, “it can be read like any other text, from beginning to end. However, even in this conventional reading, the book frustrates expectations of coherence. It is made up of fragmentary utterances, mysterious enough in and of themselves. And these fragments often feel quite disparate in nature: poetry alternates with philosophy, bare image with storytelling, social and political with private and spiritual, plainspoken and earnest with satire and humor” (xvii). As I’ve written previously on this blog, Mai-mai Sze’s interests were as wide ranging and complex as the I Ching that Hinton describes. Her library reveals her explorations of poetry and philosophy, visual art and literature, politics and social life, and spirituality, and I believe she saw all of these things at work in the I Ching.

With so many ellipses in the story of Sze’s life, it’s almost certain that there’s a more to this story than what I’ve been able to describe here. Like the I Ching, there’s always room for new interpretations when it comes to Mai-mai Sze. I hope these posts will inspire a new investigation.