It was 1959, six years before Congress created national endowments for the arts and humanities to support struggling artists and cultural institutions. For Baldwin, who was straining to finish a novel and pay personal debts, the place to turn for cash was neither the government nor any literary agent but to a relatively obscure foundation official named W. McNeil Lowry.
Mr. Lowry had the last word in deciding which artists, writers and performers would receive grants from the Ford Foundation, the richest private source of cultural largess at the time. That made him the nation’s unofficial mentor in chief during much of the 1950s and ’60s, a cultural figure of remarkable influence who was virtually unknown to most of the public.
This month letters to and from Mr. Lowry as well as thousands of other Ford Foundation records, films, oral histories and unpublished reports were opened to researchers at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., where they will now be housed. At the Ford Foundation, based in Manhattan, most of the archives had been accessible on only a limited basis and were mostly intended for in-house use.
“Ford had run the archive, but they decided they were a foundation, not a research library,” said Jack Meyers, president of the archive center, which houses the Rockefeller family’s materials and records of other institutions. “Ford was the first billion-dollar foundation. It changed the way American philanthropy worked, and Rockefeller and Ford worked on so many projects jointly, it was a natural match.”
The original grant applications and related documents were shredded years ago but were preserved on 12,000 reels of microfilm. They will afford scholars the opportunity to delve into the thinking of Mr. Lowry, a Ford Foundation vice president, and his associates in awarding grants.
“Ford was a major player in the cultural cold war,” said James Allen Smith, vice president and director of research and education at the Rockefeller Archive Center, “and no one was more influential in shaping the arts and humanities in the ’50s and ’60s than McNeil Lowry.”
Ford’s earliest grants were modest but nonetheless vital to the recipients, and the foundation helped showcase a diverse group of American artists when the United States was vying for cultural supremacy. By 1962 Mr. Lowry expanded its arts programs with $6.1 million in grants to nine nonprofit repertory theaters and later with stipends to writers, filmmakers, art schools, music conservatories and dance organizations.
Scholars are just beginning to sift through the newly available archives. But if the Baldwin letters are any indication, the microfilm, papers and reports could yield a harvest of insights on cultural figures who achieved greatness, and some who have been forgotten, who were struggling financially and were compelled to explain their predicament and their output.
In January 1959 Baldwin wrote Mr. Lowry that he was finishing a novel titled “Another Country” inspired by his experiences in New York and Paris.
“It is based on my arbitrary assumption (all novels are based on arbitrary assumptions) that the two most profound realities the American has to deal with are color and sex,” he wrote.
Invoking Henry James, he went on to recap the relationship among the principal characters. “Stated that way, it sounds very bald,” he wrote, “but I have worked very hard to ‘entertain,’ as James says, ‘the reader’ and to tell the truth.”
Baldwin wrote that he had returned to New York to finish the novel and was already contemplating another, which was to take place in a border state on the day that slaves were freed and explore the impact of emancipation on blacks and their former masters.
“It is not an apologia, God knows, for that society,” he explained, “but the novel is naggingly concerned with the questions, What is freedom? and: Who wants it?”
He wrote that his “only real key to an authoritative novel lies in finding out what the slave’s attitude was toward himself,” a task that he said he would pursue by following some more advice of Henry James: “ ‘Strive to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.’ I will keep my eyes open — and my mouth shut.”
A few weeks later the foundation wrote to say that it had awarded Baldwin a $12,000 two-year fellowship “to enable you to concentrate upon your creative work as a writer” and to pay his debts.
The grant enabled him to begin “Another Country” again. In January 1962 he wrote Mr. Lowry that he had been wanting to thank him “but it seemed impossible — it really seemed dishonest — until I could report that the work was done.”
It finally was.
“Had it not been for the Ford Grant, I would either be tearing it up until now, or I would have abandoned it,” Baldwin wrote. “It is dangerous to tear up a novel too long, you lose it, and an abandoned novel can act as an obstruction which will destroy one’s writing life. For a writer the destruction of his writing life is exactly the same thing as the destruction of his life.”
“Another Country” was published in 1962 when Baldwin was 37.
What about the book about emancipation day?
“I looked at synopses of all of Baldwin’s later novels and didn’t find anything matching this description,” Dr. Meyers said. “Not in his short stories, either, as far as I know. He seems to have used the Ford grant to finish and revise ‘Another Country,’ but the other book remained unwritten.”
Mr. Lowry joined the Ford Foundation in 1953 and became the director of its arts and humanities programs in 1957 and vice president in 1964. He retired in 1974. Lincoln Kirstein, a founder of the New York City Ballet, called him “the single most influential patron of the performing arts that the American democratic system has produced.”
He died in 1993, nearly six years after Baldwin.