The Respect for Marriage Act, passed by the House and Senate and signed into law yesterday by President Biden, is an important law that recognizes same-sex unions and lives that have been with us for a long time. Had a famous Maine couple from 100 years ago benefited from the act, their lives and deaths would likely have turned out much differently.

The French ocean liner S.S. Paris in 1937. F. O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney met as passengers on the ship 13 years earlier. AP

F. O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney met in 1924 on the ocean liner Paris. Cheney, who was on his way to Venice, was a well-known painter of his day with exhibitions in New York, Boston and around the country. Matthiessen was on his way back to Oxford University for the second year of his Rhodes Scholarship. Later based at Harvard, Matthiessen would go on to become one of the leading literary scholars of the first half of the 20th century and help raise the stature of American literature. He wrote the first literary biography of Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett.

Despite their 20-year age difference – Cheney was the elder – the two men embarked on a relationship that Matthiessen in a 1924 letter used the word marriage to describe: “Marriage! What a strange word to be applied to two men! Can’t you hear the hell hounds of society bay in full pursuit behind us?”

In 1930, the two men bought a house in Kittery. Over time, Cheney became especially well-known for capturing the landscapes and people of coastal Maine and New Hampshire in his paintings. The Kittery Press, a local paper, said that Cheney had “taken this vicinity to his heart and has permanently preserved the best of it. His landscapes seem to smell like home. The east wind can be felt and, in some of them, even old Whaleback can be heard” – referring to a lighthouse in Portsmouth Harbor. While Cheney lived at Kittery full-time, Matthiessen was at Harvard during the week and would come to Kittery on weekends and over holidays. For him, Kittery was his “one true home” in the world, as one of his graduate students later wrote.

But the one bright line that Matthiessen and Cheney could not cross was a more public avowal of their love and their relationship. Had the world known the true nature of the men’s relationship, Cheney’s exhibitions in museums and galleries would have disappeared and Matthiessen could have been dismissed from Harvard on moral grounds, tenure notwithstanding.

Perhaps things could have worked out for them had them had they moved into old age and died close in time to each other, despite their age difference. But fate dealt them a different hand.

Cheney died of a heart attack in 1945. In the last five years of Matthiessen’s life, he drifted into a depression punctuated by only a few bright spots. Matthiessen’s friends and colleagues knew and appreciated the depth of his loss, but he had to hide his grief from the broader world, as though the most important relationship of his adult life had never existed. On a March night in 1950, Matthiessen wrote to a friend that “he could no longer bear the loneliness with which I’m faced.” That same night, he checked-in at the Manger Hotel, near North Station, in Boston, and at a little after midnight jumped from a 12th-story hotel window. He was still breathing when a taxi driver found him but died at the hospital later that night.

History can’t be turned back for Matthiessen and Cheney. Thanks to the Respect for Marriage Act, however, things can turn out differently for Mainers and all Americans for many years to come.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.