Apropos of Sonia Greene

Interview with Bobby Derie, 48 years after the death of Sonia Haft Greene Lovecraft Davis

We’ve had the great pleasure to interviewed Bobby Derie, a scholar of pulp studies and weird fiction, author of ‘Sex and Cthulhu Mythos’ y ‘Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others’, who kindly answer our questions about Sonia Greene, Lovecraft’s wife. Learn more about a fantastic woman, who on December 26, 1972, abandoned this mortal coil at the age of 89.

Can you tell us about how you became involved in Lovecraft scholarship?

I was finishing up my master’s degree at the University of South Florida, and I wanted to write a book while I still had access to the university library. I had been interested in Lovecraft for years, but nobody had yet attempted an exhaustive look love, sex, and gender in the life and work of H. P. Lovecraft. So that’s where I started my research, which led to the publication of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014, Hippocampus Press), and I’ve continued on from there.

Why do you think Sonia Greene is not very well-known?

In large part because Lovecraft didn’t talk about his marriage very often. It occurred relatively late in life (he was 34, she was 41), but relatively early in terms of his professional career as a writer, so that he very seldom mentioned it to his young fans and new correspondents after 1926, when he moved back to Providence from New York. Sonia also apparently didn’t keep in touch with many of Lovecraft’s friends following their divorce proceedings, so it took some time for news of his death to reach her—1946.

She wrote a memoir of her marriage to Lovecraft fairly quickly, but getting it published proved a little difficult; August Derleth, representing Arkham House, claimed she wanted too much money—which might be true—and objected to some of the facts of the marriage, and Sonia’s emphasis on Lovecraft’s antisemitism. Keep in mind this was right after World War II, when the details of the Holocaust were still vivid; Derleth was playing down that aspect of Lovecraft’s personality at the time. Even allowing for that, the memoir itself isn’t a great piece of writing—the first version apparently had a number of quotes from Lovecraft’s letters, which Derleth forbade her to publish, claiming (falsely) that Arkham House had the rights to Lovecraft’s letters.

So the memoir did get published, sans the letter excerpts—but then Sonia apparently burned the Lovecraft letters she had kept all those years. This is one of the reasons that Sonia is much less well known; because while there has been a push to get Lovecraft’s correspondence published, there will never be a book of Lovecraft’s letters to her published. The letters just don’t exist anymore. She did get a few more pieces published, notably “Memories of Lovecraft I” published in The Arkham Collector Winter 1969, and The Normal Lovecraft (1973) includes several letters from Sonia to Samuel Loveman and other material.

Sonia got a bit more attention from Lovecraft scholars in the 1960s, not all of it positive. R. Alain Everts apparently conducted several interviews with her, in person or by phone, but those interviews have never been made publicly available, just excerpts and references in some of Everts’ publications “Mrs. Howard Phillips Lovecraft” by R. Alain Everts in Nyctalops #8 (1973) and “Howard Lovecraft and Sex” by R. Alain Everts in Nyctalops #9 (1974).

Sonia Greene, c. 1911

“Sonia also apparently didn’t keep in touch with many of Lovecraft’s friends following their divorce proceedings, so it took some time for news of his death to reach her—1946.”

What is known about Sonia’s family and career?

We don’t have a lot of great biographical information on her early life. Sonia Haft Shafirkin (or Shaferkin Haft—the articles are contradictory) was born 16 March 1883 in Konotop, Charigove Province, the Russian Empire—which is today part of the Ukraine. She claimed her family were “White Russians,” and they were Jewish. Her mother was Racille or Rachel, and her father was Simyon, who served as a soldier in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878). One source says that he was killed, another claimed that he abandoned the family and Racille obtained a divorce in absentia. Whatever the case, he was dead or out of the picture; c.1890, Racille and Sonia left Ukraine; Racille and Sonia went to the United Kingdom, where Racille’s brother was living and working, there Sonia attended the Baron de Hirsch school near Liverpool.

Racille then emigrated to the United States, met and married again, and sent for her daughter, who arrived in New York City in 1892 or 1895. Racille’s second marriage to (the name of her spouse is variously given as Solomon H—, Solomon Moseson, and Samuel Morris) resulted in two half-siblings: Anna (b. 1893) and Sydney (b. 1897). Sonia’s new step-father apparently didn’t like her very much, and had her apprenticed to a milliner at age 13 (c. 1896). Racille Haft (Morris?) would die in 1928, in New York City; it isn’t known if H. P. Lovecraft ever met his mother-in-law.

In 1899, at the tender age of 16, Sonia married Samuel Greene, a Jewish Russian emigre whose original name was apparently Samuel Seckendorff. They had two children: an unnamed son (b. Oct 1900, d. Jan 1901), and a daughter, Florence Carol Greene (b. 19 March 1902). There are very few accounts of this marriage, but apparently he was twenty-five years old and a salesman at the time of the marriage, but she ended up supporting him. The marriage ended in either divorce or with Samuel Greene’s suicide in 1916.

So at that time, c.1916-1920, Sonia was successfully supporting herself and her daughter as a milliner in New York City. Her mother and half-siblings were also in New York, and may have lived with them for a time. Around 1917 she met James F. Morton and became involved with the Sunrise Club and amateur journalism, and went to night school to perfect her English. It was through amateur journalism that she met H. P. Lovecraft in 1921 at a convention in Boston. They began their correspondence and courtship, which culminated in their marriage on 3 March 1924. By that time, Florence Carol Greene had left Sonia’s household and was out on her own. Sonia was naturalized as a U. S. citizen on 5 May 1924, and served a term as president of the United Amateur Press Association in the same year, sharing duties with her new husband.

Sonia’s full business career isn’t entirely clear. She clearly started out as an apprentice in the hat-making business as a teenager and worked her way up as a designer, saleswoman, and workshop manager; at the time of her marriage to Lovecraft she was making nearly $10,000 a year at Ferle Haller’s in Manhattan. Yet her brief marriage to Lovecraft was beset by health issues and financial troubles, including the loss of hre job and at least one or two failed attempts at establishing her own hat shop. Their separation in 1925 was the result of her accepting a job in the midwest…and much of her later career is unclear. In her memoir, she claimed that she had offered to start a hat shop in Providence to support Lovecraft, herself, and Lovecraft’s aunts, but that this was refused for social reasons.

In 1929 Sonia pushed Lovecraft for a divorce, which under the laws of the time required the pretext that she had abandoned the marriage. The papers were drawn up and witnessed, but Lovecraft never signed the final decree. In 1936, Sonia married Nathaniel Abraham Davis. He would die in 1946. She would continue to work until she broke a hip in 1960, and moved into a rest home. Sonia Haft Davis died on 26 December 1972.

Sean Donnelly mentions in his W. Paul Cook biography that it was Cook along with Edith Miniter and Joe Lynch that: “plunked Lovecraft on the sofa with Sonia—the first time they met.” (57), as a “regrettable joke.”  Joshi mentions in I am Providence that “Sonia was taken with him from the start.” (402).  Rheinhart Kleiner states, “It was at a Boston Convention of the National Amateur Press Association in the early 1920’s, on the deck of a harbor boat which was to take us to some neighboring beach, that I introduced Lovecraft to his future wife, Mrs. Sonia Greene.”, in his, “A Memoir of Lovecraft.”  Joshi clarifies it was in 1921.  Can you discuss their first meeting and courtship in more detail?

The 46th annual convention of the National Amateur Press Association was held at the Hotel Brunswick in Boston, Massachusetts from 2-5 July 1921. Lovecraft met up with many friends, including Rheinhart Kleiner, some of whom he only knew through letters such as Anne Tillery Renshaw. Unfortunately, neither Lovecraft or Greene have provided a first-hand account of their meeting; Howard gave a detailed account of the trip to his aunt Lillian, but doesn’t mention Sonia, while Sonia’s mention of it doesn’t include any details of the circumstances of their meeting (Ave Atque Vale 132).

We do know Lovecraft met Kleiner at the convention, and it is evident in the post-convention letters that Kleiner knew Greene, so it seems likely that he might have introduced them. Entertainments for the convention include “a visit to the principal points of Boston Harbor” and “a visit to Revere Beach,” so Kleiner’s anecdote seems probable (Boston Post, 26 June 1921, 35). Of course, in a hectic convention lasting several days, it is entirely possible some sofa-plunking also happened at some point.

Correspondence between Howard and Sonia developed quickly. In a letter dated 30 July 1921, Lovecraft reported to Kleiner that she had joined the United Amateur Press Association, and read “Nyarlathotep” and “Polaris” (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 183); a week later he wrote to Winifred Virginia Jackson that Sonia had subscribed $50 to the UAPA (ibid. 331-332) R. Alain Everts and George T. Wetzel in Winifred Virginia Jackson Lovecraft’s Lost Romance claim Sonia told them “I stole HPL away from Winifred Jackson.” and it does appear that the Lovecraft/Jackson correspondence peters out at the end of 1921, while references to Sonia in Howard’s letters increase.

By the end of August, Sonia and Howard had conceived of her issuing her own amateur journal, The Rainbow, and she had gifted Howard a copy of George Bernard Shaw’s play Back to Methusalah. (LRKO 186-187) In early September Sonia traveled to Providence, arrived on the 4th, met Howard at the Crown Hotel, and he took her on a brief tour. He brought her home to 598 Angell Street, where Sonia met Lovecraft’s aunt Lillian Clark. They reviewed the proofs for The Rainbow, and then Sonia invited Howard and Lillian to dinner at her hotel; Lillian declined, and Lovecraft had a cup of coffee and chocolate ice-cream, but together the two of them toured more of Providence, including the Brown University campus, and after dinner they took in a band concert at Roger Williams Park (LRKO 189-191). That was their first date. Part of it was probably recalled in Sonia’s memoir The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft, when she spoke about seeing his old family home at 454 Angell St. (AAV 120-121).

Howard and Lillian met Sonia again on the afternoon of the 5th for a meal, and visited the museum of the Rhode Island School of Design and Pendleton House. They had to rush to get Sonia back in time to make her train for New York, and she floated the idea of Howard & his friend Samuel Loveman coming to visit her in New York—which visit actually happened 6-12 April 1922 (LRKO 191-192).

That was the start of their courtship. They continued to write to one another. The first issue of The Rainbow was published October 1921. Lovecraft did go down and stayed in her apartment with Samuel Loveman in April 1922 (Letters to Maurice W. More and Others 84-104). The second and final issue of The Rainbow came out in May 1922. From 26 Jun-5 Jul 1922 Sonia visited Magnolia, Massachusetts and Lovecraft went up to visit her; the trip would result in their first kiss, and to the stories “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” and “Four O’Clock” (AAV 137, 139). In September-October 1922 Howard was in New York again, visiting Sonia and his friends, and induced his other aunt, Anne E. P. Gamwell, to come down and join them (Letters to Family & Friends 87-94, AAV 135). It was at this point Sonia wrote:

After his return home I was not ashamed to tell him that I missed him very much. His appreciation of this confession on my part, I believe, led us both on to more serious and perhaps dangerous ground (AAV 136).

Sonia went up to visit Howard on his summer travels in 1923, and saw him again in Massachusetts, where Sonia insisted on treating the Lovecraft family for Thanksgiving dinner (LFF 97-98); Sonia mentions some of these visits in her memoir (AAV 129, 130-131, 147).

That was their courtship: a meeting, letters, an invitation extended and accepted…and then more letters, more meetings. Sonia wrote in her memoir that it was nearly two years of daily correspondence, which implies that the letters increased with frequency over time; and he would send her stories and essays he wrote to read, and their correspondence became more intimate (AAV 136, 137, 139). In hindsight it is probably easier to see that Howard and Sonia were growing closer, because at the time they were both busy with their own lives and so much else. Of those last few months for Howard went off to New York, with the intention but without his aunts’ knowledge or blessing, to marry Sonia we know relatively little, although in a few letters to friends he hints that he might move to New York permanently.

All the details of the affair, however, were in Howard’s letters to Sonia—and those she burned.

Sonia Greene & H. P. Lovecraft, c. 1921

Her daughter is said to not have liked H. P. Lovecraft very much. What happened to her?

Lovecraft described her as a “flapper” when he visited Sonia in 1921; she was 18-19 at the time and apparently very independent; by 1924 when Howard married Sonia, Florence was already out of the picture. We don’t have a lot of information about the split between mother and daughter; most of what we do know or suspect was published in a very obscure series of articles titled “Lovecraft’s Daughter I, II, & III” by R. Alain Everts in the 1983 mailings of the Esoteric Order of Dagon APA, which is dedicated to the study of H. P. Lovecraft.

Florence apparently started to work as a journalist. In 1927 she married John Weld, and was known thereafter as Carol Weld. The marriage ended in divorce in 1933. She moved to Paris as a foreign correspondent, famously writing about the future Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson, and was a founding member of the Overseas Press Club. She had a long career as a journalist, including a collaboration with big game-hunter Frank Buck, and during World War II worked for the British-American Ambulance Corps. Eventually she moved to Florida, where she died 31 March 1937.

I honestly wish we knew more about her relationship with her mother; her status as H. P. Lovecraft’s step-daughter appears to have been pretty nominal.

What was Sonia Greene’s relationship with amateur press?

We don’t have a full list of Sonia’s contributions. She apparently was introduced to amateur journalism around 1917 by James F. Morton, especially the Blue Pencil Club and the National Amateur Press Association. Her association with H. P. Lovecraft led her to supplying funds and producing two issues of her own amateur journal, The Rainbow in 1922. In 1924, she was elected president of the United Amateur Press Association, with Lovecraft no doubt helping out with the duties. Her later career in amateur journalism is unclear, although there are suggestions that she kept writing, her involvement appears to have declined after she moved away from New York in 1926.

“Her association with H. P. Lovecraft led her to supplying funds and producing two issues of her own amateur journal, The Rainbow in 1922.”

What are Sonia Greene’s contributions to weird literature?

In 1922 during their period of correspondence/courtship, Sonia went up to Magnolia, Massachusetts for business, and persuaded Lovecraft to visit her there. They walked along a beach and she was struck with an idea for a story; Lovecraft encouraged her to write it, and he then revised the work. It was titled “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” and was apparently first read to the Blue Pencil Club, but she later sent it to Weird Tales, where it was published as “The Invisible Monster” (Nov 1923), her first professional sale. This apparently was only one of three weird tales that Sonia wrote after that 1922 visit in Magnolia, but the only other one known to survive is “Four O’Clock,” which might have been touched up by Lovecraft; it was published in Something About Cats and Other Pieces (1949, Arkham House).

The third tale became Alcestis: A Play—completed, apparently with Lovecraft’s help, sometime in the 1930s; it survives in a holograph manuscript and a typescript, but was only published in 1985 by R. Alain Everts’ imprint The Strange Company. The typescript can be viewed online for free: https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/collections/id_680/?search_field=&q=alcestis

There is also an indication in one letter that Lovecraft may have revised some of Sonia’s poetry, but which works and where (or if) they are published, I don’t know.

Alcestis, Brown University, Providence, R.I.

After she “divorced” H. P. Lovecraft she married a doctor, but unfortunately he died not too long into their marriage. Can you discuss Sonia’s final years?

Dr. Nathaniel A. Davis was a philanthropist living in California. We don’t have much information about this part of Sonia’s life at all; she was apparently largely out-of-touch with her East Coast friends, although she made the acquaintance of one of Lovecraft’s former revision clients, Adolphe de Castro, who had also moved to California. The Davises appear to have been active in promoting racial harmony and world piece, to which end he had founded the Planetaryan society in 1922. Nathaniel Davis died 6 April 1946.

At some point after this, Sonia H. Davis learned of the death of her former husband H. P. Lovecraft. I don’t know a lot about her life during this period, except that she was concerned about money, and reconnecting with former friends in the Lovecraft circle, including Muriel E. Eddy, Frank Belknap Long, Jr., and Samuel Loveman. She met August Derleth in New York in 1947, where he initially rebuffed her offer to publish her memoir; they were on the outs and reconciled, met again in Los Angeles in 1953, and by the end of her life appear to have been on very good terms.

Age and stress apparently took their toll; in September 1948 Sonia suffered a severe heart attack, and other illnesses. In 1960 she broke a hip, forcing her into a rest home, and in 1965 was transferred to Diana Lynn Lodge in Sunland, California, where she lived the rest of her life. R. Alain Everts interviewed her in 1967, and apparently during their association he obtained the holograph manuscript of Alcestis as well as a photograph of Sonia that adorns The Strange House publication. It was around this time that Sonia donated her papers and those of her late husband Nathan A. Davis to the John Hay Library, where they remain today.

At some point—it is not clear exactly when, but evidence in the letters I’ve read suggests 1970—someone, possibly Derleth, informed her that Lovecraft never signed the divorce decree in 1929, making her third marriage in 1936 legally bigamous. However, at that point she was elderly, in poor health, and he advised her against taking action. R. Alain Everts conducted a telephone interview with her on 22 December 1972, only four days before her death. So she never lived to see the publication of The Normal Lovecraft (1973), the reprint of The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985), Alcestis: A Play (1985), or European Glimpses (1988—her 1930s European travelogue, revised by Lovecraft). She is buried at Home of Peace Memorial Park in Los Angeles. You can see her grave here: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/206048442/sonia-davis

Sonia & Nathaniel Davis, c. 1936

Are there any studies about Sonia Greene and are you considering working on one?

I am not aware of any biographical efforts in the work, nor am I working on one right now. I am hip-deep in another Lovecraft project, a sort of spiritual sequel to Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, and don’t have the time or resources to dedicate to a full biography of Sonia…and I don’t know if I’m even the right person to do the job. However, I do think there are materials available to have a go at such a project. I don’t know if anyone has tried to put all the pieces of her life together. Unfortunately, I think there is very limited interest in Sonia for her own sake, with most of the attention focusing on her marriage to Lovecraft. It would be really interesting to get a volume of her letters with the Lovecraft circle together—Derleth, Loveman, de Castro, and Winfield Townley Scott at least—but that would be very much an item of marginal interest to most Lovecraft fans, which makes it a dicey proposition for publishers.

What sources would you recommend to get to know her better?

Sonia’s memoir of Lovecraft is her best account of her own life in her own words ever published; it was most recently reprinted in Ave Atque Vale by Necronomicon Press. Her only correspondence that has been published has been in The Normal Lovecraft, most of the biographical information is relegated to very obscure amateur zines. The travelogue “European Glimpses” was reprinted in volume 4 of Lovecraft’s Collected Essays from Hippocampus Press, but you don’t really see as much of Sonia shine through—though the account of a 1933 speech given by Adolf Hitler makes interesting reading.

Scholars should be aware of her papers at the John Hay Library at Brown University, some letters with Adolphe de Castro among his papers at the American Jewish Archives, and her correspondence with August Derleth at the Wisconsin Historical Archive. I believe that the New York Public Library holds a file of the Esoteric Order of Dagon mailings which contain some of the more obscure biographical materials published by R. Alain Everts like “Lovecraft’s Daughter.

The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985), Necronomicon Press

Are there any further topics on her you would like to mention?

We tend to focus on Sonia for her relationship with Lovecraft—but she was a full-fledged person before they met, and who continued on living long after they separated. I think it is very easy to lose sight of her as a person when we think of her only as Lovecraft’s wife, the one great romance of his life. By the same extension, it’s easy to lose sight of familial connections and what they mean—we never hear about Lovecraft’s mother-in-law, brother-in-law, or sister-in-law. We don’t know if he ever met them or heard from them, and he certainly doesn’t appear to have established any sort of relationship with them. Yet Lovecraft touched their lives, even if only very peripherally. The human bonds we make during this life have effects that last so much longer than we tend to think.

We greatly appreciate Bobby’s kindness and generosity and invite you to visit his blog and/or read his books published by Hippocampus Press.