Claude Washburn

Claude Washburn. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

The Washburns were an important family in Duluth’s history, and author and Duluth-native Claude Washburn—although he lived much of his life in Europe—never lost his connection to the city. He used Duluthians he knew as models for his characters and used the Zenith City as a backdrop for some of his novels.

Claude Carlos Washburn was born on October 3, 1883, in Mankato, Minnesota. He was the first child of Jed L. and Alma J. (Pattee) Washburn. Jed was born in Indiana in 1857 and moved to Mankato with his family when he was six months old. Mostly self-educated, Jed studied law under the instruction of Judge Martin J. Severance of Mankato and was admitted to the bar in Minnesota in 1880. Jed and Alma were married in 1882 and they moved to Duluth in 1890, recognizing that the growing metropolis offered many more opportunities for success than did Mankato.

And Jed found great success in Duluth, both from his law practice (the firm of Washburn, Bailey & Mitchell) and his investments—he served as president of Northern National Bank of Duluth and on many local boards. He was also an active volunteer in the community—he served on the Duluth School Board and as a resident director of the Duluth State Teachers College; he took an active part in the development of Jay Cooke State Park; and he donated land for the construction of Washburn Elementary School in Hunters Park. Alma was also involved in the community, being very active in educational and charitable work and she was a founder of the Duluth Women’s Club. In addition to Claude, the Washburns were parents to Julia Genevieve, Abbott McConnell, Mildred, Hope, and John Lawrence.

Claude was about six years old when the family moved to Duluth in early 1890, living first in Chester Terrace at 1212 E. 1st Street. In about 1894 the family built a large Queen Anne mansion at 101 Oxford Street in Hunters Park. Claude lived in that house for just a few years before heading off to Rollins College Academy in Winter Park, Florida, at the age of thirteen. The Academy was a highly respected and expensive prep school for boys who hoped to continue their education in the Ivy League. Claude, a brilliant student, did well at Rollins, and in addition to his academic classes studied piano and violin.

He left Rollins in 1900 to spend a year at another exclusive prep school—the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts—possibly to increase his chances of being accepted at Harvard, where he enrolled in September 1901. He was an excellent student at Harvard, graduating magna cum laude with an A.B. degree in 1905. While there he wrote poetry and had two poems—“In the Meadow” and “Death”—published by The Advocate, the school’s literary magazine. He became an editor of The Advocate in his senior year.

Following college, Claude traveled to Italy, settling for a time in Florence. McClure’s magazine published one of his poems, “A Morning in May,” in the May 1905 issue. Then in 1906 he learned that McClure’s planned to publish his short story “Caroline and Her Note-Book,” a humorous tale about a high-school girl who loses a notebook containing some embarrassing notes. The story was published in the November 1908 issue of McClure’s.

Claude returned to Duluth in early 1907 because his father was ill, and he spent much of that year either in Duluth or at the Washburns’ winter home in Tryon, North Carolina. At the time he was working on a play and planning for a career as a teacher. But he returned to Europe early in 1908, settling in Paris for the remainder of the year. There he worked on plays, completing three comedies about the upper middle-classes. He also wrote essays which would eventually result in the publication of his first book, Pages from the Book of Paris, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1910 and containing etchings by the artist Lester G. Hornby. A New York Times review of December 4, 1910, said Washburn’s book “is so good because he is a poet as well as an artist in delicate, flexible, atmospheric prose.” About the same time, Harper’s Bazaar magazine accepted Claude’s story, “The Little Girl Who Didn’t Know How To Play,” and published it in the May 1911 issue.

(Interestingly, Claude was the great-uncle of Mary Bly who, under the pseudonym Eloisa James, published in 2012 the book Paris in Love, a memoir of a year living in Paris with her husband and two children. Bly, an academic and author of romance novels, is the daughter of writers Robert and Carol Bly; Carol was born Carolyn McLean in Duluth in 1930 to C. Russell and Mildred (Washburn) McLean; Mildred was Claude’s sister.)

In December 1910, Claude informed his parents of his plans to marry Ive Sinclair Gowen, the daughter of Morris Gowen, an American living in Europe. Years earlier Gowen had squandered his fortune and abandoned his children to be raised by their grandmother. Ive was 19 when Claude met her. They were married on November 11, 1911, in Florence.

Claude and Ive were living in France while he was working on his first novel. Gerald Northrop was published in 1914 to not-so-glowing reviews. The New York Times review said the main character isn’t deserving of 500 pages. The Nation of December 24, 1914, said the book “is an excellent example of a type of current fiction which possesses a number of good qualities, and which we might very well do without.” The book tells the story of a young man who, after spending years in Europe, returns to his hometown of Valencia, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan, a town that has striking similarities to Duluth.

The Washburns had returned to Florence in 1915 and were there when World War I broke out. They left Italy for Duluth, arriving in September of 1915 and staying in the United States until September of 1916, either in Duluth or at the North Carolina winter home. Claude was working on his second novel, and Ive, among other activities, played tennis, competing in the 1916 Duluth city championships in August at Longview.

They returned to Italy in the fall of 1916, renting a villa in Florence. In April 1917, when the U.S. entered the war, Claude joined the staff of the American Embassy in Rome as chief translator for the Military Attache. The Washburns’ son, John Larry, was born in Rome on July 3, 1918. Claude left the embassy position in March of 1919 and the family again returned to Duluth. Claude had finished his second novel, Order, a story of life in a small Midwestern city, and it was published by Duffield & Company in April 1920. Also in that year, Jed, who had now become a millionaire, transferred enough investments over to Claude to provide him with a comfortable annual income, so he could write without worrying about earning a living. By November 1920, the Washburns had once again returned to Italy.

Claude’s third novel, The Lonely Warrior, was published in early 1922. It’s the story of a soldier, cynical and embittered, returning to his hometown after the war. During 1922 and early 1923, Claude, Ive, and John were living in Italy and he was working on his next novel, The Prince and the Princess, about Americans living in Italy. During the summer of 1923 they visited Duluth, and Claude wrote an interesting description of the city which was published in Freeman, a weekly journal of politics and modern history. In this piece he describes the people he knows, members of the upper class, as easy-going, charming, and comfortable with themselves. But he says he was uncomfortable staying in Duluth for very long because it is so conservative and conventional, both morally and mentally.

The Prince and the Princess was published in 1925 the same year Claude’s fourth novel, The Green Arch, was published. The novel, which tells the story of a disillusioned veteran who moves to a small North Carolina town to escape his demons, received very positive reviews… The New York Times reviewer wrote “the book has an unusual charm, of the kind it is almost impossible to analyze or to describe.”

In September of 1925 Ive left Claude for another man. Claude’s sisters Hope and Genevieve traveled to Italy in January of 1926 to help him with John, and in May of that year they all boarded a ship for the United States. Arriving in New York in late May, Claude sent John on to Duluth while Claude visited friends in Boston, arriving in Duluth himself in early June. Claude spent much of that summer at his parents’ home on Oxford Street writing articles and essays, while John spent time at Burnethfeld, a camp on a lake outside of Duluth owned jointly by the Washburns and their neighbors, the Denfelds.

Claude became ill in early August and died in Duluth on August 10, 1926, at the age of 43. The Duluth News Tribune reported that he died from a streptococcic infection. A funeral service was held in the family home on August 12 with a pastor from the First Unitarian Church officiating, and the body was sent to Minneapolis for burial. A book of his essays, Opinions, was published posthumously in 1926.

The Washburns didn’t immediately inform Ive of their son’s death and initiated a lawsuit to try to get custody of John, claiming Ive was an unfit parent. But Ive learned of Claude’s death and in September came to Duluth to retrieve John, taking him to France. She eventually settled in Maryland and died there in May of 1971.

Story by David Ouse. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by David Ouse.