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Wood, Thelma Ellen (1901-1970)  

Thelma Wood might have remained an obscure artist practicing the obscure craft of silverpoint drawing if Djuna Barnes had not fictionalized their intense, eight-year affair into the classic lesbian novel Nightwood.

The second of four children, Thelma Wood was born in Kansas on July 3, 1901 and grew up in St. Louis. Wood loved animals, was a good cook, and drank rum and cola. She was almost six feet tall, boyish-looking, and sexually magnetic.

Around 1921, she moved from St. Louis to Paris in order to study sculpture. She had a brief affair with the bisexual poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) and visited Berlin, a party city for those with foreign money.

In the fall of 1921, Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) became her lover for a brief time. Abbott--who later gained fame as a photographer--remained a friend for life. She introduced Wood to Djuna Barnes and later photographed them.

Barnes and Wood began a passionate relationship that lasted from 1921 to 1929. Fueled by sex, alcohol, and sometimes marijuana--and marred at times by infidelities, jealousy, and violence--the relationship was the "great love" of each of their lives. Although Barnes wanted their relationship to be monogamous (and for many years thought it was), Wood sought out casual sexual partners of both genders.

Barnes encouraged Wood to take up silverpoint, in which fine line images are created on paper from the residue of silver from a stylus. Wood crafted erotically charged drawings of animals, exotic plants, and fetishistic objects such as shoes.

Although very little of her work survives, Wood's drawings were exhibited at least once, at Milch Galleries in New York City in 1931, where they were favorably reviewed.

Wood's sketchbook from a trip to Berlin is in the Barnes papers at the University of Maryland-College Park.

In 1928--before the end of her relationship with Barnes--Wood began an affair with Henriette McCrea Metcalf (1888-1981). A small, loquacious bisexual who loved to rescue people and animals, Metcalf was born into a wealthy Chicago family, but spent much of her childhood in Paris.

When Wood moved to Greenwich Village in New York City in 1928, Metcalf followed. Wood continued to write and visit Barnes, to whom she still professed her love.

In 1932, Metcalf supported Wood's art studies in Florence. In 1934, they moved to Sandy Hook, Connecticut. In Westport, Connecticut, Wood tried (with Metcalf's financial assistance) to run a gourmet catering business that failed. Complicating their relationship, Wood continued to seek out drinking and sexual companions.

When Nightwood, Barnes' brilliant, vindictive novel, was published in 1936, Wood--called "Robin Vote" in the book--was outraged and stopped speaking to the novelist. Wood felt misrepresented and claimed that the publication of the book ruined her life.

Around 1942 or 1943, Metcalf offered Wood money to move out of their shared house and end their sixteen-year relationship. Once the separation was complete, Metcalf never spoke to Wood again, even when Wood, dying, requested to see her.

Around 1943, perhaps precipitating the break with Metcalf, Wood became involved with Margaret Behrens (1908-1986)--a realtor and antique dealer--and moved into Behrens' home in Monroe, Connecticut. She did odd jobs for Behrens in a relationship that lasted until Wood's death twenty-seven years later.

In the late 1960s, Wood developed breast cancer, which spread to her spine and lungs. She died on December 10, 1970, in Danbury Hospital. Her ashes were interred in the Behrens's plot in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Tee A. Corinne


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arts >> Overview:  American Art: Lesbian, 1900-1969

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American photographer Berenice Abbott made memorable images of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men in Paris in the 1920s and in New York from the 1930s through 1965.

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Poet and playwright Edna Saint Vincent Millay expressed her bisexuality in both her life and her work.


Broe, Mary Lynn, ed. Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Cooper, Emmanuel. The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

Field, Andrew. Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1983.

Herring, Phillip. Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes. New York: Viking, 1995.

_____. "Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood: The Vengeance of Nightwood." Journal of Modern Literature 18.1 (1992): 5-18.


    Citation Information
    Author: Corinne, Tee A.  
    Entry Title: Wood, Thelma Ellen  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 12, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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